GBI investigated raided gas station for roughly two years

More details emerge from Bartow gambling bust

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A Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) official told The Daily Tribune News that a gas station raided Tuesday for gambling violations was the subject of a State investigation for approximately two years.

“If you remember a year or two ago, we did some search warrants in the area, and this was the last of those involved in that investigation,” said Ron Braxley, a supervisor for the GBI’s commercial gambling unit. “For some reasons I can’t go into at this time, we didn’t do a search warrant at this store at that time. It required additional investigation.”

The Marathon-branded gas station near the Cartersville/White border at 2320 Highway 411 NE remained closed as of Wednesday morning. Although the doors were locked, the lights remained on at the convenience store; a hand-written sign reading “sorry closed today” was posted near the front entrance.

According to GBI officials, the gas station gave cash payouts to customers who played the store’s coin-operated amusement machines (COAMs). Under Georgia Lottery Corp. regulations, credits “won” on video slot machines and other electronic gambling simulators can only be redeemed for lottery tickets or store merchandise.

Three individuals were arrested as part of Tuesday’s bust, which was conducted with assistance from the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force. 

Two of the arrestees — 41-year-old Qasem Othman Awad and 65-year-old Othman Qusem Awad — are listed by the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office as residents of Marietta, while the BCSO lists 38-year-old arrestee Ali Nael Shawakha as a resident of Woodstock.

All three men were charged with felony “commercial gambling/card operating.” Subsequently, all three posted bond — set at $5,000 — to be released from pre-trial detention at the Bartow County Jail Wenesday.

Under Georgia law, individuals found guilty of the defendants’ alleged offenses can face up to five years in prison and/or fines up to $20,000.

At this time, Braxley said he’s not aware of any additional charges stemming from the investigation.

“It just depends on where the evidence takes us,” he said. “We don’t know at this point if there will be additional arrests.”

No machines were seized as part of the investigation, Braxley added, noting that the devices are the property of a third party. While cash was seized from the gas station, he did not specify the exact monetary amount. 

“It was difficult to identify who the owners were, or who was controlling the business,” he said. “And also over that timeframe, it took us a number of occasions to conduct undercover operations.”

Braxley, however, confirmed that one of the three men arrested Tuesday was the owner of the gas station. 

In addition to the felony commercial gambling charge, he said the owner also faces revocation of his Georgia Lottery licenses.

No other active commercial gambling investigations are underway in Bartow at the moment, he said.

While some may contend that commercial gambling operations of the like are “victimless crimes,” Braxley said that such illegal activity has major economic repercussions on communities. 

“The money is taken out of the local area and taken somewhere either out of state or sometimes out of country,” he said. “Additionally, these suspects don’t pay sales tax on the money they make, so it’s a loss of sales tax revenue and then a loss of just money from the economy … they don’t recirculate the money like a normal business would do.”

He also asserts that commercial gambling does indeed have “victims.” 

“Studies have shown the people who can least afford to gamble and lose money,” he said, “are the ones who do it.”