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This image was taken at a suspected online gambling location off Coachman Plaza Drive in Clearwater. The site, which allegedly paid cash to winners of electronic games of chance, was shut down by the Clearwater Code Enforcement Board.

CLEARWATER — The sign on the building advertised “Children’s Theater of Tampa” but Clearwater code enforcement officer Shelby Brown found something else entirely behind the door.

As she investigated the three storefronts at 2620 Coachman Plaza Drive in September 2018 and again in April, Brown discovered the children’s theater was actually a computer gambling site and a second unit, under a sign reading “Breuer’s Arcade and Skill Games,” also offered allegedly illegal electronic games of chance. According to Brown’s notes, a third, unassociated business on the property, “Oriental Massage Spa,” did not have a business license. In fact, none of the three operations had proper business tax receipts, which are required by the city, Brown told the Beacon.

According to Brown, the casinos were clearly betting parlors: They had signs listing payouts for each game of chance and displayed signs asking gamblers to refer friends and family. Brown also took photographs of senior citizens making bets at computer terminals.

The massage business subsequently obtained the proper permission and business tax receipts to operate and is doing so legally, Brown said. It operates under the name Oriental Massage Spa YL.

Call the police first

When Brown discovered the first internet gambling site, she did what other code enforcement officers do when they suspect a crime: She called the Clearwater Police Department.

According to police records, police sent an undercover agent to the property on Jan. 24 after “receiving a tip.” In his notes, the vice and narcotics agent described for his supervisors what he saw: “I observed approximately 20 computer monitors on long tables with chairs in front of them. There was an area set up for a clerk/cashier with a white male standing behind it. I told him it was my first time in the establishment. The male explained that you have to use cash to set up an account with him.”

After he handed the employee cash, the man assigned him a computer and monitor to pull up a variety of games of chance. An automated teller machine in the room was available for players to withdraw cash from their personal bank accounts. The employee behind the counter told the agent that the casino was open from noon to 6 p.m., the undercover agent’s notes state.

Yet the agent also wrote in his notes on Jan. 24 that “code enforcement is handling this, because the business has no license.”

Keeping a gambling house

Florida Statute § 849.16 explicitly prohibits skill-based slots that pay out cash “or other things of value.”  

Not only that, but city ordinances prohibit the “keeping a gambling house” and considers it a felony. Rob Shaw, spokesman for the Clearwater Police Department told the Beacon Sept. 2 that no arrests have been made in connection to the casinos and that the case remains open.

Brown partly settled the issue through her job as code enforcement officer. In the days after discovering the first gambling parlor, she searched business records to determine the building’s owner was KTE LLC of Milton, Massachusetts.

After failing to get a call back from the building’s owner, which the Florida Division of Corporations lists as Tino Kapaniris of New Port Richey, Brown sent him registered letters stating he was responsible for any code violations, i.e., alleged illegal activity, on his property. Brown finally heard from Kapaniris just weeks before a July 24 Clearwater Municipal Code Enforcement Board hearing to address the Coachman Road-area gambling sites.

Though Kapaniris is not listed as owner of the gambling or massage businesses, as the building’s owner he is responsible for what happens on his property, Brown told the code enforcement board. Brown said Kapaniris agreed to order his tenant to halt the internet operations.

Building owner responded

“We did hear from him and his representative finally in mid-June,” Brown told the board, nine months after she first discovered the electronic gambling site. “They were responsive, they know now they want to run things right in the future. They had a good tenant paying rent. They just need to get this sorted out and they’re working in that direction.”

Nevertheless, Brown still wanted teeth to ensure the building owner closed down the parlors completely.

At Brown’s request, the board gave Kapaniris until July 31 to cease “any and all unapproved businesses at the property.” The board also ordered him to remove all signs pertaining to the gambling operation and to allow Brown onto the property to verify he’d followed the board’s orders.

To add incisors to their order, the code board threatened Kapaniris with $500 a day fines and a lien should he fail to pay those fines. If he failed to pay the lien, the city could collect the lien by foreclosing on his property, the board said.

None of this will happen because Kapaniris has already complied, Brown said.

“They had in fact removed the signage that had been there for a while,” Brown told the Beacon. “Operations of the casinos appear to have ceased by Aug. 4, shortly after the code enforcement board meeting,” she said.

Why code enforcement gets the job done

Why didn’t the police simply shut down the first gambling site in September, or the second gambling site on the same property when Brown discovered it in April? It’s because code enforcement is the fastest, least expensive method of combating senior gambling sites, which pop up occasionally in the city’s warehouses and crumbling strip shopping centers, Brown said.

“Code Compliance can get the job done more cost-effective, because we take it down to the lowest common denominator: It’s not an approved business.”

Breuer Miller, who Brown said owned one of the gambling sites at Coachman Plaza Drive, operated another electronic gambling operation in Clearwater, she said. She ordered that site, at 25008 U.S. Highway 19, closed in 2017.

“These senior gambling sites hide behind storefronts with blacked-out windows,” Brown said. “We usually call the police first, ‘We’re getting this report of gambling at this address, do you want to go and look at it first?’”

Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said the agencies cooperate to battle pop-up internet gambling sites.

“There are some obstacles to being successful in the criminal violation space on (internet cafes), so we regularly partner with Code Enforcement for a variety of issues and take the most reasonable route to resolve an issue or violation,” Slaughter told the Beacon. “The city, specifically Code Enforcement, has been more successful in addressing these concerns through code violations and violations associated with not having business tax receipts.”