A high stakes poker game in Fairfax County, Virginia was raided by a heavily armed SWAT team, leaving players terrified and shocked.
The incident occurred in November. Ten men gathered in a private home in Great Falls for a game of poker for which the minimum buy-in was $20,000. All was going well until they got an unexpected visitor.
“I saw these helmets bobbing up and down,” A regular told the Washington Post, as he recalled looking out the French doors of the basement. The men in helmets identified themselves as Fairfax County police and said they had a search warrant. They then bursted through the door and marched in.
“They were all yelling, ‘Does anybody have a weapon?’ and ‘please don’t move,'” the regular added. “One pointed his assault rifle at me and said, ‘Hands up.’ And I can’t believe this is happening.”
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The regular, who wished to remain anonymous, said that there were no guns on the table and that “They could have sent a retired detective with a clipboard and gotten the same result.”
The players complied with the team of SWAT officers as they seized the money. At least $150,000 was taken from the game’s host, according to reports. Eight of the ten players were charged with the Class 3 misdemeanor of illegal gambling, a crime that is punishable by a maximum fine of $500.
With the buy-in twice the cost to enter the World Series of Poker’s main event in Las Vegas, it’s safe to say that this was not an ordinary game of poker amongst neighbors. Two established poker pros were in attendance, according to reports, one of whom was hosting the game.
The host took about a 1.5 percent cut from the buy-ins to pay for two dealers and two assistants. According to Fairfax police, “taking a cut” is what can turn an innocent game of poker into a criminal enterprise.
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Interestingly enough, the host was not charged and the search warrant used to raid the home remains sealed declined to comment, according to the Washington Post.
The regular said they noticed something fishy when a new player joined the game a week before the raid. The new player left after only playing for two hours and the regular said it was clear that “he didn’t know what he was doing” while playing Omaha.
The new player returned the following week on the night of the raid and was the first person taken out for questioning by detectives. He was also not charged.
The regular recalled detectives asking him if he knew that the game was illegal. He responded, “to me, it’s a bunch of consenting adults playing cards in somebody’s basement.”
He added that the police said they were there because Asian gangs were targeting high stakes poker games. The regular wanted to respond, “So you robbed us first,” but bit his tongue.
A deal was reached where the eight players charged would have the case dismissed if they stayed clean of gambling charges for six months. The police would return 60 percent of the money seized and keep the rest. The regular said one player had more than $20,000.
The police use of civil forfeiture is currently under revision by federal court but in Virginia state courts, police may keep 100 percent of whatever they seize. The Fairfax police would not say what they use the seizure proceeds for.
“It’s crazy,” the regular said, recalling the night of the raid. “They had this ‘shock and awe’ with all of these guys, with their rifles up and wearing ski masks.” He also pointed to the fact that seizure laws have remained the same despite reports by the Washington Post of police abusing the seizure process all around the country.
Fairfax police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said that, “detectives have seen that some of the organized card games, even in private homes, may involve hundred of thousands of dollars. At times, we’ve seen illegal activity involved in these games. Additionally, at times, illegal weapons are present. With these large amounts of cash involved, the risks are high. We’ve worked cases where there have been armed robberies."
A 2006 raid in Great falls to arrest a single suspect who was betting on football games called for a change in policies after Officer Deval Bullock shot and killed optometrist Salvator Culosi Jr. Afterwards, Fairfax police said they would use the their tactical teams when “waranted” and “reasonably based.”