URBANA — Two men have been charged with misdemeanors for allegedly running a poker game raided by Champaign police in west Champaign about a month ago.
Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz said she elected not to charge another 11 men and women who were present that night, most of them as patrons.
"We felt it was appropriate to address those running the illegal operation as opposed to those who may have been playing but were not aware what they were doing was illegal," Rietz said Thursday, the same day most of the poker players appeared in court only to be told they were free to go.
Her office did file charges of keeping a gambling place and running a game of chance against Brian Swinford, 41, of Hoopeston, and Scott Pettigrew, 35, of Danville, alleging they were the operators of the pay-to-play poker game. If convicted, they face a fine of up to $2,500 and a maximum 364 days in the county jail. Both are due back in court March 16.
The charges stemmed from a Jan. 11 raid on a building at 2714 Clark Road, C, that resulted from a citizen complaint.
There were 13 people present, ranging in age from 27 to 73, when police came in the unlocked door with guns drawn, an action that one of the patrons called "out of proportion" to what was going on inside.
"Here's 11 hard-working, peaceful citizens and in they come with their guns pointed at us," said Thomas Schrepfer, 64, of Urbana. "What are they doing raiding a $30 poker game with guns drawn and putting people in handcuffs, including a very nice lady who comes and cooks us a nice dinner? They cuffed her in such a way as to leave bruises and marks on her wrists. That's what got me upset."
"This is the equivalent of a speeding ticket. Do you respond to every driver who's going 75 with guns drawn," asked Schrepfer, a medical doctor who said he's played in people's garages and similar rented settings for several years.
But Champaign police Lt. Michael Paulus, who directed the raid, said police went in that way because "we don't know what's on the other side of the door."
Police had information that there might be as many as 25 people present that night, he said.
"We've been in gambling raids where there have been weapons and narcotics. Because officers are looking to be safe, we go in, secure the situation, we contain everybody where they are so we don't have anybody moving around. History has been that it's better for us to err on the side of caution," said Paulus, adding that police took a similar approach in a gambling raid two years ago in southwest Champaign.
After the room was secured, Paulus said, police went about their business in "an orderly fashion" without any yelling or screaming.
"We had a process we had to go through. We got identifiers on people, we filled out documentation, and secured property consistent with state law. People were allowed to leave. We didn't take anybody to jail," he said.
Police seized about $3,000 cash, gaming tables, cards, poker chips, ledgers and two televisions, which the state will seek to have forfeited, Rietz said.
Paulus and Rietz noted that police also found a loaded weapon in the building. And Rietz said that Swinford has a pending armed violence charge.
But Schrepfer, a medical doctor who just likes to play poker and doesn't have the room in his home to host large tournaments, said he took exception to having a gun pointed at him and cash taken from his wallet. He said he was lucky that he had only $18 on him.
"Someone on the city council needs to know that people's lives were put at risk with guns drawn. How many more times do you pay million-dollar settlements when guns go off when they're not supposed to?" Schrepfer said, referring to the October 2009 accidental shooting of Kiwane Carrington, 15, of Champaign, by a police officer.
Rietz said Schrepfer and the others in attendance need to take their complaints to the Legislature, not the police or her office.
"There are legitimate reasons for that law, not the least of which is that the people running these operations aren't paying taxes or complying with a wide variety of local ordinances. And certainly, the worst case scenarios for these situations could involve significant risk to those who participate," she said.
"That thought has crossed my mind," said Schrepfer, "but the people who pointed the loaded guns at me weren't crackheads."
Schrepfer said it is hypocritical of the state of Illinois to sponsor some forms of gambling while outlawing others.
"Putting your money down for a one in a million shot at the Lotto is gambling. Sitting across the table in an intellectual and psychological contest with your friends and neighbors — that's poker," he said.