Hundreds of state police were stymied Friday in attempts to raid two multimillion-dollar bingo operations in Alabama as lawyers scrambled to block the seizure of thousands of electronic bingo machines.
Both the VictoryLand complex at Shorter and the Country Crossing development in Dothan shut down before dawn as state troopers and other law officers converged with blue lights flashing.
However, a judge issued an order at 5:30 a.m. Friday blocking any raid at VictoryLand in Macon County until a hearing can be held next week. The bingo center, with more than 6,400 machines, reopened as the caravan of troopers drove off, along with nine moving vans brought to haul away machines.
At Country Crossing near Dothan, some 140 troopers and law officers gathered at the entrance for a raid at the new country-themed entertainment complex, which has about 1,700 electronic bingo machines. The number of officers dwindled to about 15 as lawyers for the casino argued that no raid could be conducted without a warrant or legal authorization.
"We've told them they are trespassing. We've told them to leave," said Country Crossing spokesman Jay Walker.
The head of the governor's antigambling task force, Mobile District Attorney John Tyson Jr., went to Montgomery to ask the Alabama Supreme Court to lift the order blocking the raid at VictoryLand and to appoint a new judge to approve a search warrant to raid Country Crossing.
It was not immediately clear when the Supreme Court might act.
Tyson said Conecuh County District Judge Jeff Brock declined to grant a search warrant for Country Crossing until he heard from a gambling expert. The judge later said no proceeding with the expert would take place before Monday, prompting Tyson to ask the high court for another judge.
The casinos have been operating under constitutional amendments that allow bingo in those counties. But Gov. Bob Riley contends those amendments — and 15 others that allow bingo halls to operate in other counties — allow only traditional paper bingo, not electronic machines that resemble slots. Slot machines are illegal in Alabama.
Tyson warned electronic bingo operators across the state: "Obey the law. Shut down these machines."
Fred Gray, an attorney for VictoryLand, said the Macon County operation has been investigated by a federal grand jury and two county grand juries, with no charges ever filed.
He said there was no legal justification to seize property.
"They had no warrant, they had no court order, and presented nothing to the owners," Gray said.
Macon County Sheriff David Warren said the task force tried to stage the 4 a.m. raid by arguing an undercover officer witnessed illegal gambling inside. Warren disagreed, however.
"As far as I'm concerned they are legal machines," he said.
At a news conference in Montgomery, Tyson said no search warrant was needed because an undercover officer inside VictoryLand witnessed an illegal gambling device, a misdemeanor, that would allow a raid and seizure of the machines.
VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor cut the ribbon in December on a 300-room luxury hotel at the complex in Shorter, about 20 miles east of Montgomery on Interstate 85. The hotel and additions are a $100 million investment in a gambling complex that began with a dog track 25 years ago.
VictoryLand now holds more of the bingo machines than the number of slot machines in any single casino in Nevada, New Jersey or Mississippi, according to Casino City's North American Gaming Almanac. It employs about 2,000 people in a historically poor county.
Country Crossing in the southeast corner of the state opened its $87 million first phase on Dec. 1, with more attractions this year pushing the total investment to more than $200 million.
The governor's task force attempted to raid Country Crossing in pre-dawn hours Jan. 6, but a judge's order blocked that. The Alabama Supreme Court later shelved that order, and another judge took the case this week.
The task force previously had been unable to get a search warrant to raid VictoryLand in Macon County.
Last year it conducted a raid at the White Hall casino in Lowndes County, seizing about 100 of the 900 machines and more than $500,000 in cash. The case is in court, and the casino has been operating with new equipment.
In Macon County, former state Sen. George Clay of Tuskegee said VictoryLand is the county's largest employer and taxpayer and is vital to the county's operation. He said the attempted raid was reminiscent of a former governor's attempt to preserve racial segregation in the mostly black county.
"Fifty years ago, George Wallace sent state troopers to prevent the desegregation of our schools," he said. "Now Bob Riley has sent state troopers to shut down our economic engine."