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Game On 

Gamblers can still get their fix.

Sources in the gambling community say the operator who has flourished most recently is Jimmy Ferris, a Lebanese immigrant known for his Cadillac and flashy jewelry. His games were popular, but he faded away after operators from the Akron-Canton area flooded the market. Ferris has since surfaced on Cleveland's West Side, where Moneypenny had been a force.

Richard Voytek, a close associate of Ferris's, operated a Las Vegas Night at the Knights of Columbus Hall on West 130th Street in mid-January. That venue had been Moneypenny's fattest cash cow. (Ferris did not respond to interview requests; Voytek could not be reached for comment.) West Boulevard Neighborhood Association was the charitable beneficiary of that Vegas Night weekend; it claims to have received nearly $20,000. Police estimate that Moneypenny generated at least four times that amount at the same location.

Richard "Butch" Merrill of Akron runs casinos on the weekends that Moneypenny does not, according to police. A January Vegas Night, run by Merrill, was the target of an armed robbery. (The person who answered the phone at Merrill's residence hung up after a reporter identified himself.)

Scene could find no evidence that Ferris, Voytek, or Merrill had been accused by police of operating illegally.

Sandy Schroeder had been an operator until last April, when Cleveland Police raided her venue, confiscating her money and that of her players. Cleveland Police refused to comment on that raid, saying that it was part of an ongoing investigation. Law-enforcement sources say that Schroeder is now a dealer at Clyde Dockery's games.

John Copic, who operates charity casinos on the far East Side, claims to have one of the few Vegas Nights in the region that's legal. Police have no reason to suspect otherwise. Copic says that he puts someone from the charity at the cashier's stand and that he documents the cash and pays taxes on it.

Also, Copic says that most of his business comes from corporate events in which gamblers compete not for money, but for raffle tickets, which win them prizes. Those are bigger money-makers than his Vegas Nights, and he would be foolish to jeopardize that business in order to skim funds off charities.

"I live upstairs from a double in Collinwood," says Copic. "It's not like I'm getting rich off this."

Of course, Moneypenny and others like him have proved that operators can get rich off charity gambling -- and police admit that it's hard to stop them.

Several cities, including Euclid, Parma, and Berea, have passed ordinances requiring charities to apply for gambling permits 14 days before events. That gives police time to check the charity's status and remind its officers that the dealers must be volunteers and the operators can be paid for equipment rental, but nothing else.

Lately, Cleveland Police have copied the driver's licenses of dealers and snapped their photographs, presumably to demonstrate that the same dealers are present at every event. At the very least, police have tried to show a steady interest in the fund-raisers, which they hope will be a deterrent against corruption.

"The best thing to do is to just be a presence," says Lieutenant Gary Black of Berea Police Department. "Step in there. Check it out. Let them know you're watching."

More by Thomas Francis

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