JEFFERSON CITY — In what could be the first sign of a looming crackdown, the Missouri Highway Patrol is investigating 73 complaints of alleged illegal gambling machines in gas stations, truck stops and fraternal organizations across the state.
Highway Patrol Capt. John Hotz told the Post-Dispatch that investigators will launch eight more cases “in the near future.”
The multipronged probe comes as thousands of potentially illegal gaming machines have flooded the state this year, sparking concern from state regulators and the Missouri Lottery.
The investigations were spurred by citizen complaints to the Missouri Gaming Commission, which has concluded that the machines are illegal. Those complaints were turned over to the highway patrol, which assigned the cases to investigators.
“In general, once the patrol receives a complaint, an investigator visits the store and notes the machines in question. The patrol often works with the city or county when conducting the investigation,” Hotz said.
But, he added, an investigation doesn’t automatically mean a case will be brought to court.
“In cases of this nature, prosecutorial discretion is a factor. Upon completion, the investigative reports are turned over to the local prosecutor for consideration,” Hotz said.
Despite the presence of as many as 14,000 questionable machines, there is only one known case in which a distributor of the gambling terminals is facing court action.
Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd brought a case against a Kansas-based supplier of gambling devices in October 2018. It has not yet gone to trial.
In that case, Parkville police seized five video pokerlike machines from two convenience stores. The owner of each store said the machines had been placed in their establishments by Integrity Gaming LLC.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt has not publicly weighed in on the legality of the machines. His office declined a formal request for an opinion from Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, because of the pending litigation in Platte County.
The machines work like slot machines. A player inserts money, selects a game and decides how much to wager. Players who win money can cash out and get paid by the store cashier.
The complaints target gas stations throughout Missouri, including locations in St. Peters, O’Fallon, St. Charles and Hazelwood.
Anna Marie Fisk, who complained about terminals in two locations in Poplar Bluff, said she doesn't understand why officials aren't taking action to stop illegal gambling.
"These public officials are not doing their job," Fisk said. "It's a dereliction of duty."
Company officials say their terminals are not gambling devices because the outcome of each game is predetermined.
In July, however, the lead attorney for the Missouri Gaming Commission ruled that the terminals contain functions that make them “gambling devices,” which are prohibited outside of licensed casinos.
Missouri Lottery officials and casino operators say the spread of the unregulated machines is taking a bite out of their profits as players spend their money on the new terminals rather than on the state-sanctioned games.
Lottery officials say legalizing the machines and putting them under the control of the lottery could result in $170 million more for education once the program is fully running after four years.
The cut in revenue has drawn the attention of state lawmakers, who are holding hearings on the machines. On Oct. 10, the panel is expected to hear from the owners of the companies that distribute the games.
Among those who may testify is Steve Miltenberger, owner of Torch Electronics.
A company spokesman earlier said Miltenberger believes the terminals that Torch has placed in gas stations are not illegal.
The Wildwood-based company has hired the lobbying services of former Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley and Republican Party consultant Gregg Keller and has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a political action committee formed to support Gov. Mike Parson’s 2020 election effort.
The company also has retained Scott Dieckhaus as a lobbyist. He served in the Missouri House from 2009 to 2013 representing a Washington-area district and works for some GOP candidates.