Carnival Racketeering and Organized Crime

Jun 26, 2015 - by Richard Margittay

Carnival racketeering is endemic throughout the United State and has been for years. Carnivals have close ties to not only organized crime but to local law enforcement. Carnival midways are the only venues in the United States where local police departments allow carnival lots to be free crime zones for illegal gambling, larceny, and fraud. Gaffed and chance-based games travel to thousands of carnival lots and fairs each year, raking in billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains with virtual impunity.

by Richard Margittay

Have you ever played a carnival game and felt cheated?

A poll conducted by Carnival Biz, an Internet link to carnival business, reveals that over 70 percent of participants feel they are cheated on a carnival midway. Carnival game players lose “95 percent of the time” says a carnival game enforcement specialist, Corporal Glenn Hester of the Glynn County Police Department of Brunswick, Georgia.

Authorities on enforcement of carnival games estimate that 25 percent of all carnival games nationwide are fraudulent. Another 25 percent are illegal since they are gambling games. Carnival midways are the only venues in the United States where local police departments allow carnival lots to be free crime zones for illegal gambling, larceny, and fraud.

play football scam game
Pictured is a classic “Play Football” 8-marble Razzle Dazzle scam in progress and performed by a camera-shy carnival agent in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Responding police initially refused to take a basic report or take the names of the two ripped-off victims and game operator.

As a career police officer with the Dearborn Police Department (Michigan) and trained in enforcement of carnival games, I became concerned about this unique brand of plain view criminal activity. I read every article, book, and case law I could find relating to these games.

As a retired police officer, I continued to expose and help curb what I found to be a free-wheeling crime anomaly, by publishing several investigative accounts, including two books: Carnival Games: The Perfect Crimes (2010) and Carnival Games: $10,000,000,000 Hoodwink Racket (2012).

Skilled by chance

The only games legally authorized on carnival midways in the United States are skill-based (unrigged) games otherwise known as “games of skill.” If skill is not the dominating element influencing the outcome of a game, that game would be considered chance-based or a “game of chance.” All chance-based games are considered gambling games and are illegal when operated on privately owned carnival midways; for example, a game which is set up in a way, which only “luck” can win a prize, is illegal gambling.

Carnival owners, workers, and agents, known as “carnies,” who own, manage, or operate these chance-based games and share in the take, are conspiring to promote gambling.

All states will allow honest games of chance at “not-for-profit” fundraisers, such as raffles or “millionaire parties” for charitable organizations and churches. This is lawful gambling provided that the event is licensed and monitored by the state. A “wheel of fortune,” seen at a nonprofit fundraiser is an example of a legal form of gambling. A “wheel of fortune” in progress on a “for-profit” carnival midway would be a case of illegal gambling.

Every carnival game designed has the potential to be rigged. Rigging a game by the use of bait-and-switch, sleight of hand, magic, or physics, to trick someone out of money is considered a form of larceny or fraud. In the carnival business, the slang synonymous with rig or trick is “gaff;” i.e., “The game is gaffed.” Most operators of gaffed games combine gambling with the gaff in order to pinch as much money as possible from the unwitting customer.

Gaffed and chance-based games from the same carnival companies travel to thousands of carnival lots and fairs each year. On display are these same games at the same locations overseen by the same police personnel and civic leaders annually. Friendly associations are formed by acquainted individuals over several years. All embrace lucrative interests while striving for a trouble-free show, which can and does lead to tolerable criminal pursuits.

A continuing criminal enterprise is an example of organized crime. To address the puzzling doggedness of plain-sight crooked carnival games, one has to first take a look at the history, criminalities, winks and nods of police, and the behind-the-scenes components enabling and perpetuating this century-old system of corruption.

Backed by benevolence

Festival carnivals are usually sponsored by charitable service organizations such as Kiwanis, Jaycees, Shriners, or neighborhood churches, which lend legitimacy to the for-profit midway games. As part of a self-serving marketing ploy, some carnival owners publicize their plans to make donations to local charities, in an attempt to present themselves as compassionate people in order to gain respect and support of citizens they plan to flimflam. To top it all, the presence of uniformed police foot patrols on the midway creates imagined credibility and an erroneous impression of a safe and secure ambiance; a thriving situation and safeguard for migrating “grifters” (carnival jargon for swindlers).

I am well aware of the acceptability of these games by the general public and the misplaced attitude of “What’s the big deal? It’s only nickel and dime!” I hope this article will be an epiphany to naysayers, that this blind uninformed acceptability, enabled by politics and the absence of enforcement, will one day be a big deal.

The itinerant carnival owner pays the festival sponsor a fee or percentage of the “take” for the privilege of servicing the town’s carnival-goers. A local sponsor’s cut is often around one-quarter of the carnival’s total gross receipts.

At large expositions, such as a state fair, the money is massive and the split is different. A 9-day North Carolina State Fair has grossed $9 million for the state. At that state fair, the contracted carnival, Powers Great American Midways, could gross from $4 to $6 million, as published in Business North Carolina. Along with other costs, in most cases, a contracted carnival owner pays the contract fee, (around $1million), in advance of a long-running state fair.

Falsified by “cooked” books

“Dishonest carnival operators generally keep two sets of books, reporting only that sum of money as necessary, with the remainder unreported,” states the Michigan Attorney General’s “Carnival Games Manual.”This 1987 publication is an important tool for law enforcement officers and prosecuting attorneys. “By maintaining two sets of books, the carnival can cheat the charity out of a large amount of revenue for their purposes.”

Sponsors, and especially church festival committees, likely make the mistake of trusting carny-managers under the ill-judged impression that they (sponsors) share game profits. They don’t! Furthermore, sponsors have no way of knowing the total game profits. With a greater number of gambling and crooked games, the carnival owner will increase his undivided claim to the unshared game loot.

With the likelihood that carnival business books are being “cooked,” the Internal Revenue Service’s expertise would be invaluable in uncovering money trails. If a person cheats customers, it is likely that same person will cheat the government.

According to law enforcement sources, the outdoor amusement industry is at least a $10 billion-per-year business in North America, mostly a cash-based trade. William A. Riedthaler, renowned games enforcement expert, informed me that the total figure might be as high as $40 billion. “No one has an accurate figure because much of the cash is unreported industry-wide,” said Riedthaler, also a retired Cleveland Police Department detective.

“It is quite common for illegal carnival operators to pay off police and public officials in order to operate,” says Riedthaler in the “Corruption of Officials” section of his police training seminar called “Carnival Games Gambling and Frauds.”

Carnival-related bribes and illegal transactions pave the way for the crooked migratory hustlers to trailer into your neighborhood for a weekend each year, never having a need to worry about arrest. It is not uncommon for sheriffs or police chiefs to lend themselves to sizable remunerations to ensure that these affable outlaws operate on trouble-free turf. A prime example is the Chief Willie Lovett case.

Willie Lovett was the longtime chief of police of the Savannah Chatham, Georgia, Metro Police Department. At a recent federal corruption trial, federal investigators testified that Lovett took bribes from a carnival owner during a nine-year period of carnival events from 2004 to 2013 to protect illegal carnival games including a classic old carnival game known as “Razzle Dazzle.” It is estimated that Lovett, while chief, took bribe installments which amounted to $75,000.

On February 6, 2015, Willie Lovett was sentenced to 7.5 years in federal prison for “Conspiracy to obstruct enforcement of criminal laws” and related gambling crimes. Furthermore, Lovett was convicted on two charges of extortion and two more charges of making false statements to the FBI. As reported in the Savannah Morning News, the government contended Lovett and Randall Roach (Magic Midway carnival owner) schemed from 2004 until September 27, 2013, when Lovett retired. Testimony was that Roach paid Lovett for protection from police while Roach cheated customers through such games as Razzle Dazzle also known as “Razzle,” which gave players no chance to win.” Lovett was also fined $50,000.

Dazzled by the razzle

“Step right up” to the king of all carnival rip-offs, Razzle Dazzle, which searches for and destroys its prey. The objective of the Razzle agent is to confuse the mark, build him up repetitively and let him believe he is close to the big win.

Today, carnival-goers lose thousands of dollars in this 100-year-old con game played all over the world. This particular con links fraud and gambling together with a smooth-talking con artist (agent) who bedazzles his mark, and wins every time.

This add-up-the-score ruse, which comes in many captivating forms, involves a brilliant system of cheating, accompanied by vague, complicated rules.

Razzle, which combines the magic of sleight of hand with “bait and switch,” and psychology, is difficult to explain without physically demonstrating it. The Razzle agent, known as a “flatty,” carnival jargon for the operator of a crooked big-dollar table game called a “flat joint” or “flat store,” is a professional con man with an enticing appeal.

Once this amiable operative talks the mark into using the “free pass,” it is already the beginning of the end.

This trickery employs a miscall or miscount known as carnival “fairbanking,” which is a duplicitous scheme, i.e., the flatty misguides the mark through alluring favoritism as an inducement to draw his prey further into the costly illusion of winning a luxurious prize and enormous cash. Exclusive to Razzle is its signature “conversion chart.”

In the “Play Football” eight-marble version of Razzle, the mark agrees to use a free pass, then spills eight marbles on a board containing 143 numbered holes with values from one through six assigned to each hole.

The total is then added up. Certain totals correspond to successful yardage gains printed on the perplexing conversion chart. The mark must accumulate 100 yards (or over) to win that X-Box or HD TV.

The big con: With very close examination, it is revealed that the marble board is 3s- and 4s- heavy, making 29 the eight marble average tally. The game is designed to be impossible to spill eight marbles into holes for totals corresponding to any successful yardage gains on the conversion chart. Any accurate count of the marbles will correspond to “no yards” on the chart.)

So, the grifter swiftly adds up the total with sleight of hand (two hands at a time), and announces a false (fairbank) number, “44,” which corresponds to 50 yards on the puzzling conversion chart.

The happy mark, already halfway to the prize, then pays only $2 to buy another spill of the marbles. The flatty again uses two hands to slyly pick up the marbles and announces another false fairbank number “11,” which corresponds to 30 more yards on the chart. With 80 yards and only having to spend $2, the mark, psyched because of such good luck, is eager to buy more spills.

Now, the mark plays for another $2 and the carny adds up the marbles in a slow accurate manner which will always translate to either “no yards” or 29 which is the doubling-up number on the chart and often hit because of the defeating number arrangement on the marble board. With 80 yards most marks are usually willing to buy more plays; however, the marble total often adds to 29, the dreaded “doubling number.” Each time 29 is played, the agent doubles the prize and the mark must double his wager. The cost of play builds exponentially. The mark will pay $4 for the next play, than $8, then $16, then $32, and so, every time 29 is tallied.

In reach of the big payoff at 95 yards but broke, the mark is encouraged by the slick talking flatty to go to the automatic teller machine (ATM) and return with more money stating: “You need just a few more yards to win a thousand dollars for each hundred you invested. I pay 10-to-1!”

The mark will often return and become heavily invested, as the doubling effect will drain his bank account before reaching the goal line. The flatty totally controls this game.

Here is the typical scenario of a Razzle casualty: Feeling duped and dazed, the bewildered Razzle mark walks away a big loser and realize he’s been somehow ripped off. He begins to search for a sympathetic police officer for help. Chances are, cops won’t comprehend (given that the mark didn’t), or perhaps surmise that “The sucker got what he deserved.”

In 2012, a financial advisor from New York City, who read about Razzle in one of my books, wrote to inform me that he was swindled for a total of $11,000 as a result of playing Razzle at a Manhattan street fair. The flatty allowed this gentleman to leave and return with money retrieved from an ATM several times. In 2014, a Razzle victim wrote to me about being fleeced for $7,000 at a festival in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. In April of 2015, another Razzle player stated that he lost $2,500 at a shopping-mall carnival in Tallahassee. The last two victims also withdrew money from the ATM. In all three cases, the police refused to write a basic incident report upon complaints and requests for assistance.

In New York City, the Colombo and Genovese crime families were involved with profits from street and church fair carnival games; their specialty being the game of Razzle. Federal indictments involving four members of La Cosa Nostra in the carnival rackets resulted in convictions in 2013.

With the astronomical amounts of cash the Razzle sharks are capable of taking, one never should rule out the possibility of protection by dirty cops, often in the vicinity of a Razzle set-up. In 2004, four off-duty cops in New Orleans were implicated, with one of them federally indicted, for a charge related to conspiracy to protect and profit from a Razzle business during the carnival season.

Gifted by grift-graft

Here is the story of Edgar Allen Gregory Jr., who in 1993, was captured on film during a “Dateline NBC” hidden camera investigation for operating a “racket-show” while displaying several big-dollar-fraudulent gambling games on his mobile carnival midway at the North Tennessee State Fair. Playing ignorant to his many crooked games including Razzle, Gregory, with feigned dismay and with an award-winning performance on camera, stated his intent to fire his swindlers.

When interviewed by reporters, carnival owners and managers never will admit to personal misdeeds and will fabricate a tale about being unaware of any criminal activity on the midway. They will always refer to any bad guys as “independent contractors” and not employees of the carnival even when they are paying the carnival owner for the privilege of occupying cheating space.

Gregory’s little moon-walk act looks good on the six-o-clock news; however, everyone in the industry knows that carnival owners and managers are never in the dark about the corrupt features of every dirty game on their midways. The truth is that some of the illegal games are property of the carnival owner, and not some fictitious ace-in-the-hole “independent contractor.” Most flat-joints are operated by errant freelancers. These drifting grifters pay the head carny for the front footage of their flat-store; as much as $100-a-foot per day, reliant on the game’s ability to steal money.

From 1995 to 2002, Gregory and his wife, Vonna Jo Gregory, contributed heavily to politicians in national elections.

Convicted of bank loan schemes in 1986 and never spending a day in prison, the Gregorys befriended Tony Rodham, brother of President Bill Clinton’s wife, and now presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and were awarded the contracts to operate his carnival, United Shows of America Inc., for President Clinton’s “White House Press Picnic” in 1998 and 2000.

In 2000, just prior to leaving office, President Clinton pardoned the Gregorys.

In 2001, the U.S. Justice Department investigated the Gregorys and determined that from 1998-2001, Tony Rodham received a total of $323,769 in salary and loans from the Gregorys. Countless other Democrat politicians split another $100,000 from the Gregorys.

A central question was whether Rodham was paid by the Gregorys to gain White House access and help to obtain pardons or whether Rodham was paid for legitimate business services. A report by the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform concluded that United Shows of America, Inc. paid Rodham $240,000 for “undocumented” consulting services.

Protected by strange bedfellows

Basketball game-operator, Kenneth Argo, and author (with basketball), at 2012 Arab International Arab Festival in Dearborn, Michigan.

To create insurance-like policies, carnival magnates often contribute to political campaigns of U.S. congressmen, senators, governors, and local politicians for a couple of reasons: in case they are interested in a state fair, county, or municipal contract and wish to develop clout; and in case carny-owners need friends in government to bail them out of trouble after a dishonest carny runs into a police officer who just wants to do his or her job.

For example, according to campaign contribution records, Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows owner, his wife Melissa, and son Garrington, contributed a combined total of $11,500 to the Michigan Democratic Central Committee on September 5, 2002, one month before Democrat Jennifer Granholm was elected governor of Michigan. One month later, on October 1, 2002, Frank contributed $10,000 to the Republican Party of Florida Federal Campaign Account as Jeb Bush was running for reelection to governor of Florida. Frank had been granted state fair contracts in Michigan and Florida over the previous 25 years.

On November 29, 2002, Frank peeled off $5,000 in the same Florida account only days after Jeb Bush was reelected to governor. In 2003, Frank popped for another $5,000 for the campaign of New Mexico Democrat governor-elect, Bill Richardson. Frank has carnival contracts there as well.

In 2008, campaign finance records show that Frank contributed to the following U.S. Congressional candidates: Joe Baca, Brian Bilbray, Gerry Connolly, Jim Costa, Randy Forbes, Zoe Lofgren, Mike Pence, Dennis Rehberg, andNydia Velázquez.

Fixed by the “patch”

In my early years as a police officer of the Dearborn Police Department and working the information desk, a man named Steve Nowosielski walked in to complain that carnival employees were stealing from the patrons with Razzle at the city carnival only 100 yards from the police station. I completed a “larceny” report for Steve, who told about the carnival “patch” and offered to lend me the book by John Scarne entitled Scarne’s New Complete Guide to Gambling.Scarne writes that the “patch” is “a carnival front man who squares complaints with players and police.” The patch, who is sometimes a lawyer (in carnival terms the “mender” or “fixer”), collects patch money from crooked game agents who pay him to bribe police or to patch up any problems with wiped out “sore losers.” The patch may arrive in advance of the carnival to make friends and deals.

After my shift that day, I saw that city carnival for myself and was just as shocked. I quickly learned that the carnival in question donated $1,000 to the police department and some officers didn’t want to upset the carnival workers and chance losing that gift. I had alienated some ranking officers because I thought my job in law enforcement was to protect festivalgoers and to crack down on the crooks. That’s exactly what I did. The two Razzle games, managed by an up and coming Frank Zaitshik, were shut down.

Prior to that episode, Frank was arrested, convicted and fined in Waterford, Michigan (1974), for running an illegal carnival game. He has since risen to the pinnacle of the carnival world with his rigged games, his cash, his protectors, and his friends in high places.

Prohibited by federal law

Cops who protect illegal games would be in violation (federally) of the anti-corruption legislation under 18 U.S. Code, Part 1, Chapter 73, section 1511 of RICO Act: “Obstruction of State and local law enforcement.”

The owner, manager, or patch of a carnival who pays police “security,” either directly or indirectly through a third party, with the expectation of having police-protected illegal games, would be in violation of the federal RICO Act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) U.S. Code, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 11, section 201, “Bribery of public officials.” Gifts and gratuities handed out for the same purpose also amount to bribery. Cops taking the bribes are also in violation of RICO and similar state statutes.

The same “carny-cops” (police officers patrolling the midway), and the same returning interstate carny-outlaws appear to be working in concert for income at annual extravaganzas.This, combined with the hoodwink nods from corrupt public servants, seems to be the big American secret at fairs and festivals. It is evident that the police officer’s oath of office is not upheld and easily forgotten by some.

The law dictates that police officers are required to take enforcement action when criminal activity is observed or reported. There are no exemptions for carnival zones. When cheating for money occurs, it is no longer a game, but a crime.

Cops are discouraged from arresting the dishonest carny for two obvious reasons: money and politics. Any reported unfavorable incident during the annual festival would create bad press and taint sponsors as well as all involved, in addition to a loss of future revenue and visitors.

With the corrupt fail-safe protection system in place, carny-owners don’t have to worry about their lawbreakers ever having to face criminal charges.

Ripped-off by a façade

Police officials in Wayne County and the City of Dearborn have been allowing known rigged games at their carnivals for the last decade while patrons were under the impression they were being protected by cops seen patrolling the midway.

According to information from a Dearborn police officer, in confidence, the police department security hired to patrol Dearborn’s Arab International Festival is annually awarded a $10,000 contract by festival sponsor, American Arab Chamber of Commerce, to pay overtime for the services of off-duty police officers who patrol the four-day event.

Although there have been several complaints about gambling and rigged games at the Arab festivals, they have never been investigated by police. In 2011, I personally complained to Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Chief Dennis Richardson, commander on site, about 12 in-progress rigged basketball games called “One in Wins.” The basketball rims were actually elliptical and had deceivingly small openings. From the foul line, the rims appeared to be regulation and served to attract and dupe naive victims out of $2 a shot.

I requested (verbally and in writing) that Richardson or his deputies investigate the fraud and gambling nature of the 12 deceptive (optical illusion) rims, where winning was nearly impossible, even for high school varsity players. Richardson was aware that I had been police trained and experienced in enforcement of carnival games.

In 2012, I was contacted by NBC’s “Today” show producer Sandra Thomas, who wanted to consult with me regarding a story about carnival games.

Assisting the NBC’s “Today” show (and reimbursed for expenses) as their police carnival games expert, I was assigned by Thomas to investigate Michigan carnivals and especially the games at the 2012 Arab Festival, which draws about 300,000 patrons.

Carnival Hoops
A typical gaffed basketball game concession seen at most carnivals.

As part of my research for the “Today” feature, each morning before the 2012 Arab Festival carnival opened, I measured the basketball rims and found, pretty much, what I had expected. All 12 rims on the North American Midway Entertainment (“NAME”) carnival midway measured 10.5-by-17 inches on elliptical axes. (Regulation rims are 18 inches in diameter). The carnival balls were regulation 9.5 inches but also gaffed by over inflation to cause intensified rebounding off the gaffed rims.

NAME and Co CEO, Danny R. Huston, can gross $200,000 over the weekend and pay the sponsor one-quarter of the gross or about $50,000 for the privilege of “servicing” unprotected patrons.

gaffed rim
This is the appearance of the gaffed elliptical rim (10.5- by-17 inches on axes) from the customer’s perspective at the foul line. It appears to look regulation (normal)

Thomas also requested that I play the games. So, I singled out a known scam artist operating one of the basketball games, Kenneth David Argo, a 12-year game agent for Huston. Argo was arrested on May 5, 2001 in the City of Taylor, Michigan, for operating fraudulent gambling machines. Huston, vice president of Operations at Pugh Shows at the time, was present when Argo was arrested.

I paid Argo $9 and missed all five shots. I typed out my detailed fraud/gambling complaint for Richardson and provided him with a copy of the Michigan Carnival Games Manual. This complaint and the 2011 complaint to Richardson vanished and both verbal and written statements were never filed in police records.

Duped by a fouled up hoop

scam hoop
Both basketball rims (gaffed and regulation) together with regulation ball.

During my 30-40 minute survey for Thomas, I counted 166 attempts by hoodwinked teens at $2 a shot. Not one ball went through any of the 12 stingy rims. I estimated that the 12 innocent-looking basketball games alone accounted for $25,000 in 2012, based on the numbers of neighborhood kids trying their luck endlessly for four days.

Richardson, aware of the so-called “games” for two years, not only failed to command appropriate investigative action, he also failed to properly document the complaints in the county police files This way, a nosy reporter, going through police files, will not encounter any crime complaints to write about. (“If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”)

A police officer refusing to properly address or document a crime-in-progress complaint is tantamount to constructively playing into the hands of organized crime. In my view, what Deputy Chief Dennis Richardson did isn’t much different from what disgraced former Chief Willie Lovett did for nine years: “Conspiracy to obstruct enforcement of criminal laws.” (Lovett probably tossed every Razzle and hoop complaint at all his cheating carnivals.)

Exposed by the “Today” show

A week after Dearborn’s Arab festival, Sandra Thomas took her “Today” show hidden camera investigation crew to NAME’s midways in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Indianapolis, Indiana, to see if the NAME carnivals at those locations displayed crooked games.

After a fruitful investigation, Thomas phoned to say that many of the games appeared to be rigged, based on results. She said that in Indianapolis, her college varsity basketball 3-point-shooting star, Carly Thibault, missed all 13 attempts at the basketball toss. Thomas’s U.S. Army Special Forces sniper, who could take out the enemy at 200 yards with one shot, was unable to “Shoot out the Star” from the distance of 12 feet with 100 shots.

Thomas did not get the opportunity to measure the elliptical rims as hoped. I informed her that the gaffed carnival basketball rims are not bent by the carnies, but manufactured for the carnies, and for the designed purpose of creating a false impression of size and shape. She was clearly astonished and interested in securing this elliptical type of rim for a demonstration during her “Today” feature. I pointed Thomas in the direction of a carnival supply company where she could purchase the rim, which she acquired in time for the feature.

The various suspect games on NAME’s midway, vividly depicted in Biloxi and Indianapolis, are featured in Jeff Rossen’s and Sandra Thomas’s 2012 exposé. “Rossen Reports: Are carnival games cheating you-and your kids?" NBC News; NBC News.com “Today” show 7/13/2012 (and also aired on “Dateline” 8/19/12).

Contracted by cops and robbers

Slick carnival entrepreneurs are business-savvy. Police officers patrolling midways are evidently being paid in whole or in part with carnival money in the form of contracts from the carnival company or carnival sponsor.

This contract arrangement locks the carny-cops in as quasi-employees of the carnival or carnival sponsor and shares carnival profits in the form of pay. This is an ideal way for owners to feel they bought and own the loyalty of cops on their midways.

Ranking police officers and elected politicians have always cooperated with carnival owners, as in a partnership. Because of the mixture of carnival-related contract money and politics, the unwritten rule in Dearborn and other towns figures to be: “No enforcement of midway games!”

NAME also had a contract to pay off-duty Joliet, Illinois, police officers an hourly rate of “$49.92” to work security at a weekend shopping mall carnival. NAME actually had company shirts available for their carny-cops, stating “SECURITY.”

While working the security detail on that NAME midway, are the Joliet cops supposed to protect and serve carnival-goers, or just the carnies? Are the officers who wear NAME shirts really policing officers or just bouncers with the job of protecting games and ridding the midway of “sore losers?”

I conservatively estimate NAME to be a $150 million-per-year corporation based on its stated “15-million fairgoers annually” and on an average of only $10 per capita.

While planning for a San Antonio, Texas, state fair, Wade Shows carnival owner Frank Zaitshik stated that it costs him “$100,000 to hire off-duty police officers.” Some of the cash generated from Frank’s games should easily cover the overtime pay for carny-cops and perhaps some gratuity items such as free corn-dogs and “Winnie the Pooh” bears.

Teen-themed by the scheme

The carnival marketing target demographic currently ischildren, thereby creating a predictable and dependable source of income, as opposed to the time-tested art of cleaning out the occasional high-dollar Razzle-type mark by which there is always the chance of generating trouble via player beefs.

Young teens are the now the focus at carnival festivals. Most carnival game agents, these days, would rather design and display attractive child-luring games that would serve to mark thousands of young teens for their allowance or grass-cutting money. Volume rip-offs against vulnerable teens are an almost complaint-free luxury.

step right up
Wade Shows’ “Crazy Ball” at Fowlerville, Michigan, as a junior gambler tosses a ball in a bin of 96 possible chances.

Pre-teens are allowed to play a classic gambling game called “Crazy Ball” at most festivals and fairs. All players lay a bet down on a color and only one of the players throws a rubbery ball in a bin of 96 colored holes. The ball “crazily” bounces and rolls until it comes to rest on one of the 96 holes. If you were one of the players lucky enough to have your money on that color at 32-to-1 odds against, you would win a stuffed animal. “Crazy Ball” and similar varieties obviously lack the requisite skill component of the players according to state laws. Aside from being an illegal chance-based game, it teaches kids how much fun it is to wager bets several years before they can gamble legally.

Youths risk developing a gambling problem at the rate of two to three times that of adult onset. About 40 percent of adults with gambling problems started gambling before age 17. (Source: National Council on Problem Gambling NCPG)

Snubbed by a cheating tub

In 2014, Maple Leaf Amusement was running a church carnival on the grounds of St. Anselm’s in Dearborn Heights where a 13-year-old was playing the infamous “Tubs of Fun” hoax and was quickly cheated out of $16 after repeated losing attempts to win a new bicycle.

Tubs of Fun, known as a “bucket games,” consist of plastic tubs which replace the old bushel baskets, where the agent is able to execute an unnoticeable stealthy trick only when demonstrating “how easy it is to win.”

I had observed the tub agent cheating the youngster with a deep-rooted bait-and-switch, shenanigan, called the “deadening-ball trick,” a slick maneuver to covertly conceal a gaff ball at the bottom of the angled tub prior to his demonstration. At that point, when the agent tossed the demo balls in, the secret “deadening ball” absorbed the energy of the demo balls. This impeded rebound, giving the impression of an easy win as the grifter’s demo balls never bounce out.

Then, just after the child paid, I observed the grifter evasively remove the deadening ball (gaff ball) at the same time he removed the demo balls. I watched as all the child’s attempts were without the aid of the cagily removed energy-absorbing gaff ball. For the youthful victim, rebound energy forced her ball out of the empty tub each time because the angle of the tub is always set up to cause failure in this scam.

This game is not only fraudulent, (deception for money), it is much worse when adults steal from young kids. To view the full story in Dearborn Patch, search the Net for “St Anselm’s festival carnival contained scammers victimizing children at the games.”

David Malhalab, also with me at the time, phoned in a request for service to the Dearborn Heights police, asking them to respond to investigate this larceny with the 13-year-old victim waiting and with the perpetrator still operating the game in question. The police supervisor, having a policy of non-enforcement on carnival midways, refused to dispatch a unit to talk to the victim and witnesses to the larceny by trick.

The festival officials did not like my presence (which is normal), so they called police about me. Several scout-cars responded and one bully-type sergeant threatened to arrest me.

Knowing I was on firm ground, and having experienced a pattern of these intimidation tactics, arrest threats, and failed defamation suits on other occasions, I was wondering if these irritated cops wouldn’t chance trumping up an arrest with creative writing. That would surely subject them to a false arrest claim and a possible headline about their “rip-off (the kids) church festival.

With no interest to investigate the “game” in question, the four responding officers allowed the swindlers to continue to rip-off children while backing off on their threats against me.

NBC producer Sandra Thomas’s “Today” show and “Dateline” features used several hidden cameras at “NAME’s” carnivals in June, 2012, and were able to capture on film and describe the agent’s cheating deadening ball maneuver during both NBC 2012 exposés narrated by NBC’s national correspondent Jeff Rossen, entitled “Rossen Reports: Are carnival games cheating you - and your kids?"

There are several national stories in 2013 depicting how one tubs agent had depleted a victim’s back account.

It took the media to address the tubs crimes and not police in the three tub cases cited. These sneaky tub-type games are displayed on over 90 percent of carnival midways which I had checked in Michigan, with tub-agents using the age-old deadening-ball trick on the mark. I will usually see three to eight tubs on every midway of Wade Shows and North American Midway Entertainment.

With the recent publicity on the ills of Tubs of Fun, chances are that the carnies will re-package the scam with a different look until the heat dies down; perhaps bring back the old wooden bushel-baskets instead of plastic laundry tubs and eliminate the deadening ball for one year.

 “Marked” by a midway minefield

Also zeroed in as targets, are members of the U.S. military. CBS News exposed a carnival company which was cheating soldiers and their families out of money at the 2011 Fourth of July Freedom Fest at Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the country.

In this CBS News Online, July 12, 2011, video exposé, “U.S. Troops Cheated out of Money at Carnival,”Armen Keteyian investigated a Texas-based company called Century 21 Shows at Fort Hood for allegedly defrauding its special guests: American soldiers returning from the Mid-east war or deploying to war. “There was no chance they would win at some of the games,” said Keteyian.

In an attempt to skirt responsibility for the crooks in question, playing their crooked games, Century 21 Shows manager Jeremy Bendsons acted innocent when questioned by the reporter while playing the customary “independent contractor” card.

For a carnival owner or manager to deny responsibility is like saying “I didn’t run you over, my car did!” When it comes to interviews, carnival owners and managers will act outraged while feigning ignorance about the rigged game and its perpetrator.

Enforced by counteroffensive                                

In my research spanning the last 17 years, I estimate that about 75 percent of carnival games on today’s traveling midways are gambling, frauds, or a combination of both; up from law enforcement’s earlier estimate of 50 percent.

The carnival industry’s sleazy image is in dire need of a facelift. A loud bell should sound when it is known that itinerant serial criminals are targeting members of the U.S. military and children with impunity.

It is only through undercover surveillance, search warrants, raids, arrests, Freedom of Information Act requests, and prosecutions by trained law enforcement agents that carnival owners and their representatives will get the message to start following local, state, and federal laws.

Police departments must take appropriate action to guarantee that all midway games are skill-based, checked, and rechecked by valid security, thus reducing the chances of illegally obtained cash laundered via middlemen (sponsors), to pay the contract for midway security. Moreover, the practice of carnival owners paying police departments direct is risky and, if unchecked, sets up a dubious relationship which tends to defeat the mission of law enforcement.

There must be collaboration among governmental agencies regarding the identification, tracking, and documenting of these interstate “businessmen” along with recognizing the moral and social ills associated with the intentions of most to take criminal financial advantage of children.

It should be standard procedure throughout the U.S. for all police departments to require officers to complete written reports on all midway game complaints, with case numbers issued to complainants and victims. (This practice, one would presume, should already be standard police procedure and routine.)

Training and enforcement at local, state, and national levels are the ways to address these free crime zones and thwart the commission of brazen wholesale, worry-free criminal acts. The FBI and game enforcement experts are available to present seminars to police departments.

This system of carnival-related racketeering and conspiracy to obstruct law enforcement can only be investigated and prosecuted at the federal level. Federal law enforcement needs to pay attention to the probability of tax evasion, likely involving many millions of dollars annually, as well as checking for gambling equipment-trailers rolling across state lines in violation of the Johnson Act (Interstate transportation of gambling equipment).

Asked and answered

Now, let’s go back to the first question: Have you ever played a carnival game and felt cheated? I hope I have answered it for you.

Not only were you most likely cheated, but your police department was likely not interested in protecting you from professional lawbreakers.

It would be a winning proposition to bet that changes in carnival status won’t come overnight. Law enforcement must first recognize this systemic national illness and how it capitalizes on unprotected Americans.

I’m not a betting man, but I am willing to lay heavy odds that federal law enforcement will make carnival racketeering a higher priority once they acknowledge all the components. Ignoring it, won’t make it go away.

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