One of the more interesting gambling stories to come out of Texas in years happened late last month in Houston. Texas does not allow casino gambling at all, and only allows selected charity gambling, such as bingo tournaments. However, in the heart of Houston, police officers were called to a church fire. When police and firefighters arrived, they did not find a fire. Instead, they found gambling machines hidden in the back of a room in the church building. The dispute over who leases the space, whom the machines belonged to, or what they were for is ongoing.
The Initial Report
Late on a Friday night after Thanksgiving, a 911 call was placed about a fire at the World of Life Church. The caller said they thought it was an electrical fire. The church is located in the 400 block of Turney Drive, which places it in the Northern Houston area. When police and fire department personnel reached the church, they did not find a fire. While the caller said there was a fire, and people were trapped in the back of the building, there were no people in the back room. However, there were 100 gambling machines located in the room. The machines were video slot and video poker machines, which are illegal in Texas if they pay money to winners.
Texas and Gambling
While Texas does allow some gambling at horse and dog races, nearly every other form of gambling is illegal in the state. In fact, Texas is one of the most restrictive states in the nation with regard to gambling. Texas does allow lottery games, and participates in state and multistate lotteries. The state also has scratch-off tickets that the lottery overseas. There is no casino gambling in the state, and sports betting is also not allowed.
There has been some pressure by Texas legislators to pass gambling legislation. Many legislators believe that gambling would bring more tourism into the state. In addition, large cities, such as Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio have illegal gambling operations, which police and state agencies are constantly trying to tamp down. In Houston, there are large immigrant populations who are used to being able to gamble. For example, Asian populations in Houston come from countries where gambling is legal, and do not understand why they cannot gather in clubs to gamble. This is commonplace.
The Aftermath of the Fire
At the time of the raid, no one was sure whom the gambling machines belonged to. The pastor of the World of Life Church said that the building is shared by the church and another tenant. The church does not own the building, but rents it instead from a property owner. The pastor did not know who the owner was, saying the church paid rent to a PO Box. The pastor also said he had no idea who the other tenant was, or what the back room was being used for. Interestingly, property records state that there are two different churches on the same property. While one is called World of Life, the other is called Pine Oak Baptist Church.
Investigators with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office are still investigating the machines. The gambling machines have been impounded so that agents can determine whether or not winners were paid in prize vouchers or in cash. While initially, police detained everyone who was in the gambling room at the time of the fire, they have been released. Only one person still remains in custody on unrelated charges. The identity of the caller and whether or not they were even in the building at the time of the call remains a mystery.
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