Rossville seeks removal of former bridal shop, remnant of a rogue's colorful career

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/20/17. Motorists pass the former LaDean Shop in Rossville on Thursday April 20, 2017, which has been vacant for some time and is now listed as for sale.
photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/20/17. Motorists pass the former LaDean Shop in Rossville on Thursday April 20, 2017, which has been vacant for some time and is now listed as for sale.

ROSSVILLE - In bold capital letters, Joseph Mohwish argued to a judge that his trial for running underground North Georgia casinos should never see a courtroom.

The search warrant was "bogus." The officers investigating him? "Corrupt cops."

"Please judge," he wrote in a pro-se motion in January 2012. "I need help."

A month later, he tried again: "There comes a time when enough is enough."

The judge did not rule in his favor, but Mohwish never stood trial. He died in February 2013, his racketeering charges still pending. Members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Walker County Sheriff's Office, Dade County Sheriff's Office and Rossville police had hunted Mohwish and his associates for years, trying to stop a small empire built on video poker machines in the backs of unassuming businesses.

Mohwish portrayed himself in public documents and media interviews as a pillar of the community. He ran bingo nights for charities and offered helpful tips to police, explaining how they were misinterpreting the law - at least when it came to his arrests.

His death marked the end of his run as Rossville's feisty neighbor.

And yet ...

Four years after he died, Mohwish's presence marks the city as boldly as ever. At 303 Chickamauga Ave., the building that once was the center of Mohwish's former network remains standing, beaten down but defiant.

In March 2016, the roof caved in during a rainstorm, splintering wood and breaking glass. Mayor Teddy Harris said he tried to reach Mohwish's wife, Kathy, who lives in Norcross, Ga. But city officials couldn't make contact for months.

Finally, in February, an attorney for the city filed a complaint against Kathy Mohwish, demanding she fix the building or tear it down. He said it was a nuisance, unhealthy, unsafe. Attorneys for both sides are negotiating.

"I am hoping to have some new information about the property next week," Harris wrote in an email Friday. "I have my fingers crossed."

If Harris is lucky, thus ends Rossville's long, strange relationship with Joseph Mohwish.

***

He arrived here around the early 2000s, already experienced as a down-low businessman. A federal jury in Kentucky convicted him of running a criminal enterprise with cocaine, marijuana and money laundering in the 1980s.

It's unclear how big his enterprise was back then. But in 1987, his wife put $214,000 in a trust for their son. And according to a 1991 U.S. Appeals Court filing, Mohwish bought a $170,000 condo in Florida around that time, paying mostly in cash.

In 2003, he opened a couple of businesses in Rossville: Jumbo Games and Exciting News. The former looked a lot like a video poker parlor - but it wasn't, he explained. He told the Times Free Press a decade ago that these were "skill games," in which players could win tickets that they could exchange for prizes. He described the operation as a Chuck E. Cheese for adults.

Exciting News was an adult bookstore until 2004, when Mohwish and a business partner were arrested for selling sex toys and pornography within 1,000 feet of a church.

"The merchandise that is being sold at that outlet is beyond the norm of the average human sexuality," Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said at the time. "There is stuff going on there that curls my hair."

A year later, investigators served a search warrant at Jumbo Games, seizing 63 video poker machines and more than $100,000 out of a Rossville bank account, court filings show. Mohwish's son pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a one-year suspended sentence on the condition he get rid of the video poker machines and exit the business.

***

For Mohwish, the dam broke in 2008.

Based on a tip, Wilson told deputies that September to check out a small business that sold prepaid cellphone cards and debit cards on Happy Valley Road in Rossville. Inside, they found several people playing video poker.

An employee, Susan Bowlin, explained she worked for Mohwish. She thought the operation was legal because nobody received direct cash. Instead, they won money on cards. As people finished playing, Bowlin would report their losses or earnings back to the main office at 303 Chickamauga Ave.

The historic La Dean Bridal Shop building has stood there since 1940, according to Walker County property records. In 2004, Mohwish bought it for $350,000, outfitting the first floor as a bingo hall that raised money for a charity - a barber school in Michigan. He hired Bowlin in 2006.

At first she served nachos and hamburgers to the bingo players. But eventually, she branched out to the prepaid cards shop, which hosted the video poker. Consistently, Bowlin said, the same couples would arrive every night.

"I don't know how they did it," she said. "I don't know how they played every night. It wasn't cheap."

Mohwish would yell and curse at customers, Bowlin said. Though they didn't know the details, employees understood he had been to prison. But he betrayed his brashness with compliments for his employees. Behind the scenes, he actually seemed sweet, Bowlin said. And smart, speaking with confidence about law enforcement's legal limits.

Most days, he remained stationed at the bingo hall, where information from the video poker operations flowed.

"He practically lived there," said Bowlin, who quit soon after the police showed up.

In November 2008, the Dade County Sheriff's Office and GBI began investigating Mohwish, too. A woman called police to complain her husband lost hundreds of dollars gambling at a prepaid card store in Wildwood. An undercover investigator showed up and played games such as Lucky 7 and Luck of the Irish.

Weeks later, law enforcement served search warrants on the Wildwood business and, after that, the bingo hall. They said they found evidence of Mohwish running other video poker operations in Dalton, Sand Mountain, Rising Fawn, Mission Ridge, Ringgold, Rossville and Trenton.

Jimmy Rogers, who rented the Wildwood building to Mohwish for a year or two, said he was suspicious of his tenant. Someone had mentioned Mohwish's criminal history. And Mohwish told him he was selling these prepaid cards. But Rogers didn't think anyone could run a business on just that single product.

Plus, Mohwish kept the place supplied with snacks and sodas. And he tinted the windows. But he always paid his rent and gave Rogers no trouble.

"He was kind of a shady character," Rogers said. "But he was nice enough to me."

Staring at racketeering charges, Mohwish wrote to a member of the local drug task force, gently explaining the investigations into his businesses were fruitless. He wasn't breaking the law because he had a raffle license for some of his activities, and the video poker machines weren't paying out any cash.

What's more, Mohwish had tried to be helpful to the police, explaining that a local truck stop was running its own gambling operation. But for some reason, he wrote, investigators were not interested.

He said he asked GBI Special Agent James Harris to set up a public forum on local cable access channel UCTV to discuss gambling laws. He envisioned a roundtable discussion with himself, Harris, GBI Director Vernon Keenan, District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, then- Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers and "icon and North Georgia mega media star Judy O'Neil."

"Strangely," Mohwish wrote, "he still said, No! I was disappointed, dismayed and bewildered. Obviously, the fix is in!"

The case weaved for five years through the court system without a trial. Mohwish had two attorneys at different times. And he filed his own motions, arguing the investigation and search warrants violated his constitutional rights.

In 2011, Mohwish attempted to sue the city of Rossville because the Walker County Sheriff's Office rejected his raffle license application. Judge Jon "Bo" Wood dismissed the lawsuit, but a year later Mohwish appealed the case to the Georgia Supreme Court. Before the justices in Atlanta, he unsuccessfully argued the raffle rejection was racist.

Mohwish was white, but the owners of the Michigan barber school for whom he raised money were black. The school's director told the Times Free Press he wanted nothing to do with Mohwish.

Around that time, Bowlin said, Mohwish suffered a stroke. He slowed down, began walking with a cane. Then one day, she said, he walked outside the bingo hall to retrieve the mail and slipped.

She didn't hear from him again. She didn't hear of him again, either, until earlier this year.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.