[dropcap]The [/dropcap]interior of an alleged Mission Street gambling den looks, to an unsettling degree, just like what you’d think it would.
The place seems to have been crafted by Hollywood’s least-creative set designer. The windows here at the former Jhec of All Trades variety store at 4182 Mission St., however, are inelegantly blocked so as to prevent passers-by from casually observing this. Step inside — during the irregular hours when the Day-Glo orange chain isn’t wrapped around the doors — and you discover a dark and spartan interior, largely illuminated by digital spinning fruit on computer monitors.
The folks spending their morning in here appear, similarly, to have been rounded up by Hollywood’s least-creative casting director. Nearly everyone is surly and prodigiously tatted up; both men and women wear white undershirts and knit caps in this stuffy, cave-like series of rooms. It’s stifling and unpleasant here. A number of large, industrial-strength fans circulate the air, but their constant droning drowns out conversations.
The man behind the plexiglass cashier’s window in the back is wearing a V-neck white undershirt and what appear to be boxer shorts and no pants. It’s around 10 a.m., he’s groggy, and I may have awoken him. (Neighboring merchants suspect people are sleeping here, as “transients” are often observed at odd hours and in varying states of undress smoking or hanging out on the sidewalk outside). Half-asleep or not, the man behind the window knows better than to blab about gambling or money changing hands with the out-of-place visitor asking potentially incriminating questions. Others don’t.
On my way out the door, the only friendly person in the joint offers a big smile and tells me what he surely thinks I want to hear: “You’re going to win — BIG!”
[dropcap]Ten [/dropcap] months prior to this interlude, a group of even more out-of-place and unwelcome visitors dropped by: the San Francisco Police Department. At a shade before midnight on Nov. 29 of last year, cops kicked in the doors, leading to nine men and women being cited or arrested. Suspected meth, drug paraphernalia and gaming machines were hauled off, as was thousands of dollars in cash. The alleged manager of the operation admitted the money was derived from the gaming machines; the cops alleged this was a den of gambling and dope-dealing. The district attorney, however, deigned to dismiss all charges pending further investigation. The cops were pissed — but these were seen as minor allegations targeting small fry.
So the site, like many others on Mission’s Excelsior corridor, remained derelict for months. But, as it always has, the accused gambling parlor reopened after a self-imposed period of dormancy.
As you would imagine, this has not been pleasurable for the establishment’s neighbors. Nearby businessmen told me that crowds of off-putting people will “antagonize” anyone who parks in front of the place, implying they would be well-advised to move their car. Discarded 40-ounce and liquor bottles litter the sticky, detritus-filled pavement. Area residents say there’s yelling and carrying on at two or three in the morning, as men and women shout, drink and fight on the streets. In a perfect microcosm of San Francisco life circa right now, a neighborhood pot club has purportedly griped to city officials about the unseemliness of having a gambling den just down the street.
Asked if he’s complained to the cops or city government, another neighboring business owner laughed. “Oh, they know,” he said. “The undercover police come in here quite often. They’ll say there’s a stolen car out front and ask if anyone saw who parked it.”
In short, everyone knows there’s gambling going on in the casino. City politicians know. Cops know. And criminals know, too. “Gambling shacks,” as San Francisco officials call them, are plentiful in the Mission, the Excelsior, Bayview and Chinatown. This is just one of several on Ingleside Station Captain Joseph McFadden’s radar; another a hop, skip and a jump up the road was recently held up during what the captain describes as a “mah jongg tournament.”
Busting a gambling shack, it turns out, is a bit like stomping on a puddle. In the end, all you do is move the water around.
[dropcap]For [/dropcap] months, a steaming cup of coffee was stenciled on the Jhec of All Trades’ exterior windows. The place was ostensibly repurposing from a thrift shop to a cafe — like many alleged gambling shacks, this is a licensed business. But what the police and others allege is going on within isn’t what it has the license for (and city records reveal the Jhec has no health-related licenses befitting a cafe). Neighbors noticed the stencil and even noticed coffee machines within the storefront. But they never noticed any coffee being sold. The money, as the man purportedly said, came from the gaming machines.
The Jhec, like a slasher-movie villain, keeps coming back. The city, however, has put the stake through the heart of other, even more brazen establishments. In the 4400 block of Mission, a speakeasy that McFadden alleges was Norteño-controlled and housed within a so-called boutique called “The Pink Spot” was shut down. “We used ABC on that,” says McFadden, referring to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “You have a bigger hammer when you have a state-run agency.”
You also have undercover agents that gambling shack purveyors won’t recognize from infiltrating other establishments around this city that they allegedly control. Not even the SFPD knows who’ll be their undercover person until they meet him or her the night of a raid. This is important: at The Pink Spot, sophisticated security cameras spotted approaching police cruisers, inducing management to lock the doors and cut the music.
These are complicated operations — and shutting them down is a complicated operation. Arbitrarily hassling gambling shack workers and patrons, McFadden says, would merely result in one establishment decamping and reopening elsewhere.
“I tell people from the neighborhood that complain: I could go in right now and raid the place,” he says of the Jhec of All Trades. “But that would only shut them down a couple of months.” You have to catch places in the act. You have to spend aeons of time surveilling. You have to send in undercover operatives. And, even after that, a suboptimal case will be tossed or result in the same folks simply opening up shop nearby (or even in the same site).”
“I want to get a good signed felony warrant, get some felonies, and have the judge sign stay-away orders and all the other ramifications that come with that,” McFadden continues. “I want to hit it and hit it right. I want to knock it out permanently.”
To do so requires harmony between the SFPD and DA’s office — which, as the aforementioned dismissed case indicates, is hard to come by. It also requires heavy lifting from the city attorney’s office and, often, the FBI, ATF, ABC, DBI and, perhaps, other amalgamations of letters and power we’re neglecting to mention.
Former Excelsior Supervisor John Avalos complains that all of this had to be undertaken with minimal oversight from Mayor Ed Lee. “I went to the mayor and said, ‘look, we have a real serious problem here. It’s going to take coordination from your office,’” he recalls. But the mayor, Avalos continues, was “slumped in his chair — a few times. This was a pattern. He couldn’t be bothered.”
Authorities suspect that gambling dens across multiple neighborhoods are operated by the same individuals or syndicates. It makes little sense for a single district supervisor to be thrust into a coordinating role, as Avalos claims he was. Maybe, he continues, his successor, Ahsha Safaí, “has had more success with the mayor.”
Yes and no. Safaí confirms that he’s never had a discussion with Lee about the spate of gambling shacks littering his district. He has, however, talked to the mayor about how to “aggressively go forward in making the commercial corridor more family serving.”
Well, that’s not nothing: In the end, it may not be the heavy hand of the law that kills gambling shacks but the invisible hand of the market. If empty storefronts fill up with desirable businesses, the conditions in which illicit drinking, doping, prostitution and gambling thrive will dissipate. Safaí points out that the former Pink Spot will soon reopen as a cafe; the proprietress lives three blocks away and her husband is a public school teacher.
In the meantime, McFadden says he’s asked the DA to “resurrect” the earlier case against the Jhec. Neighboring merchants say the denizens of the gambling shack “are always looking out, looking out for undercover cops. They know they’re under surveillance.”
Time will tell if the Jhec is raided again. Time will tell if the cops crap out. Or win — BIG.