LADSON — When Tim Wagner walked into the LT Cafe on Tuesday, he was looking for a brief respite from everyday life.
A woman offered him a soft drink and a cup of coffee. If he wished, employees could fetch him a small plate of Asian-style chicken wings and rice from the buffet across the parking lot.
The cafe in the Ladson Square commercial complex advertises “instance win prizes” on its 30 slot-style machines.
Wagner, 56, swiped the phone card he had charged with $40 and played “Bugs to Riches,” one of 15 computer games he had to choose from.
After trying to align columns of various insects, the Moncks Corner resident racked up $80 worth of credits on his card, a $40 profit. Wagner redeemed those credits for cash and called it a good day.
“It’s nothing but Internet gambling, just like you would play at home,” Wagner said. “But you can’t get cash at home.”
But that cash, according to authorities, is the problem. Hours after Wagner beat the odds at the storefront casino at 9581 U.S. Highway 78, deputies raided the cafe, confiscated the machines and recovered a stash of money.
In a move that thrusts the Charleston area deeper into the debate on simulated gaming, local officials said they are cracking down on Internet cafe setups after conferring with the state Attorney General’s Office and the State Law Enforcement Division.
Once there was a firm message from the state that these sites are illegal, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said Wednesday, his office had “an obligation to address them.”
The raid illustrates local authorities’ growing dilemma of how to handle simulated-gaming stores that are now operating in dozens of locations statewide.
As is now done, players can sit at an assortment of computers and buy Internet access. Most of the screens are hooked directly to games similar to the state’s long-defunct video poker games.
Some counts indicate 1,000 such computers exist statewide, with the number growing. The spurt has been fueled partially by legislators’ failure this year to pass a stricter law.
Some jurisdictions, such as North Charleston, have not taken a stand on the topic; the city has 40 licensed Internet cafes. Goose Creek has banned them.
Charleston passed a moratorium on new locations, but the city is studying whether existing ones should be allowed to expand.
In Ladson, the namesake and owner of the LT Cafe, 60-year-old Lisa Tang, was arrested Tuesday evening after deputies searched the building for evidence, as well as the nearby Golden Dragon buffet and a 4,424-square-foot house in Goose Creek that Tang’s family owns.
She faces three counts of unlawful keeping of gaming machines and a single charge of unlawful games and betting. Each is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year imprisonment.
During a bond hearing Wednesday, Tang said little, except to express concern about when her next court date would be. Two people in the courtroom who identified themselves as friends said they “didn’t know what was going on,” and Tang’s son said he doesn’t get along with his mother and would not comment.
Tang posted $40,000 in bail and was released from the county’s jail.
Officials wouldn’t discuss who or what tipped them off about the Ladson cafe.
Affidavits stated that a confidential informant working with the sheriff’s vice unit went to the cafe Monday and played Keno, a type of bingo game offered at many casinos.
Deputies obtained search warrants for the property, for the family’s Asian and American food buffet, and for the $300,000 house on Deerfield Drive that the Tangs bought in 1993.
During the raid Tuesday, deputies also ticketed four customers for unlawful betting. Sheriff’s Maj. Jim Brady said people should be aware that getting cash for playing the games is illegal, and that operations offering other prizes, such as gift cards, are not “above-board” either.
The bust was the second of its kind this year for the Sheriff’s Office, and Cannon said it shows that industry supporters are going to “great lengths” to find ways or programs to circumvent the state’s anti-gambling laws.
While conservative lawmakers said they will try to pass legislation again this year to ban them statewide, at least one local lawmaker said that’s a losing cause.
State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, said everyone has access to the Internet’s offerings.
The gambling programs that opponents find objectionable, he said, are going to be updated, so once a law banning them is written, supporters will find a way around it.
“You can’t outrun the Internet,” said Ford, who supports taxing the devices.
On Wednesday, would-be customers rang the doorbell at the LT Cafe, where a plastic banner was emblazoned with “sweepstakes” and green dollar signs. No workers emerged from behind the darkly tinted, reflective windows.
Wagner, who played before the raid Tuesday, said he wouldn’t be the only disappointed customer. The place was typically half full during the day, he said, but bustling on weekends and evenings. It stayed open until 2 a.m.
He considers himself a casual gamer who occasionally boards gambling boats near Savannah and Myrtle Beach, and travels yearly to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in North Carolina. He visited Tang’s cafe about four times in the six months it had been in business, he said.
“They’re all over town,” Wagner said. “They’re all over the place. They’re not hard to find, and they’re not hiding.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.