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Online Gambling Has Taken Place of Local Bookies

6/4/09 - Orlando Sentinel - View Source

By Henry Pierson Curtis

There's little chance of getting busted in Orlando for betting on the Orlando Magic — or the Los Angeles Lakers — in the NBA Finals.

But you may have a problem finding a bookie.

Cops in Orange and Osceola counties uncovered only enough evidence to make two bookmaking cases over the past 15 years.

And prosecutors are still deciding if one of the cases warrants prosecution. In the other, the judge withheld adjudication after the bookies pleaded no contest and served probation.

That's no surprise to Orlando attorney Dennis L. Salvagio, who handled some of Orlando's biggest bookmaking cases in the 1980s.

"You don't see them anymore. It's too much effort with wiretapping and everything," Salvagio said, noting gambling cases rarely justify the time and effort police spend investigating them. "They're just not going with these cases. It's not a priority for law enforcement."

Known as "The Fat Man" and one of the Orlando Magic's most recognized fans, Salvagio said Internet gambling largely has replaced neighborhood bookies. And attitudes have changed as states adopted lotteries to fund government projects, similar to what advocates say decriminalizing and taxing marijuana will do for state coffers, he said.

Others say bookies still rule local sports betting.

"You can literally bet on credit. That's an incentive to bet with a bookie because you can't do that in Las Vegas or online," said Pat Fowler of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, which estimates that 750,000 adult Floridians struggle with gambling problems. "To find a bookie all you have to do is got to a bar near a local university."

It's not quite that simple.

Orlando Sentinel reporters were not able to find a working bookie in the days before the Finals began.

"They're there but I don't know any," said one former bookie and "degenerate gambler" in Orlando who says he bets now just for fun. "Everybody who bets is pretty much a loser. ... I don't think sports betting is very big in Orlando."

Still, losing $400 in a friendly wager on a one-point game in the Orlando-Cleveland series almost killed him, he said. It's that rush from having money riding on a close game that keeps gamblers checking on the next day's betting line as soon as the current game is over, he said.

"If Cleveland had won, there'd be three times as much action because everybody wanted to see Kobe go up against LeBron," he said of Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Cavaliers star LeBron James. "Everybody wanted an LA-Cleveland series."

By state law, bookmakers who handle bets face at most five years in prison for a first offense.

The best tips to law enforcement about bookmakers comes from "in-over-their-heads" gamblers, according to police.

"It all depends on the information that comes in," said Bill Lutz, who recently retired as serving for 20 years as the head of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, a vice task force in Orange and Osceola counties. "There were only several times we had good information on gambling operations."

Assistant State Attorney Joe Cocchiarella, who previously served as MBI director, remains as Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar's liason to the MBI.

"We know that it has existed and there's very little question that it's around," he said of bookmaking.

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