(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 26--NEWPORT NEWS -- A Newport News couple charged with running an illegal gambling operation said Thursday they did nothing of the kind -- contending they simply had friends over to play some poker.
Jennifer J. Schlain, 35, a Newport News lawyer, and her husband, Adam Schlain, 30, term themselves "poker enthusiasts." They met at a poker table six years ago and have continued their passion for the game.
"We were hosting a poker party for our friends," Jennifer Schlain said of the gathering on July 8. "We are as clean as they come, and we are good people. ... We're not the criminal masterminds they're painting us to be."
A gambling investigation began when police responded to an armed robbery at an after-hours poker session at a Main Street office building that houses Schlain's law practice and the couple's Internet-based party supply business, HardToFindPartySupplies.com.
Police later searched the couple's businesses and Denbigh home.
Now, the Schlains each face one felony count of "conducting an illegal gambling enterprise or operation," and misdemeanor counts of possessing a gambling device and "aiding in the operation of a gambling enterprise."
Court documents don't spell out what the "gambling device" was, though it can include essentially any item used to operate an illegal gambling operation.
In a prepared statement Thursday, the couple said, "Yes, we were playing poker in a commercial building -- but that is just because we wanted to be courteous to our neighbors at night. To avoid argument, we posted rules. To be convenient, we provided food and drinks. Hear anything criminal yet?"
Moreover, the Schlains assert that they "did not make a single dollar in profit hosting these games."
Unlike casinos or most house operations, they said, they didn't charge an entry fee or take a cut. "It was quite the opposite," they wrote. "We did all the work to organize the poker party for everyone's convenience, and spent our own personal money to cover the evening's expenses."
The Newport News commonwealth's attorney's office declined to address the Schlains' contentions. "We can't comment on an open case," Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Chad Perkins said after a hearing Friday in which the Schlains were provided a court-appointed lawyer, Michael P. Jones.
Under Virginia law, "illegal gambling" is defined as bets of "money or things of value ... in exchange for a chance to win a prize, stake or other consideration or thing of value," that's dependent on a game of chance.
The Schlains assert that poker doesn't meet that definition because it's "a game of skill" -- based on "statistics, game theory and psychology" -- rather than chance.
How many people, they asked, wager in sports office pools, or play poker at their kitchen table with friends? During the police search, they asserted, a detective even "volunteered that he does a cash football pool at the precinct."
Officer Holly McPherson, a Newport News police spokeswoman, declined Friday to address the Schlains' assertion about the football pool.
One Hampton Roads prosecutor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Friday that office pools or games involving small wagers might technically be illegal, but aren't typically prosecuted. "We're interested in those who have an ongoing enterprise and are profiting from the illegal practices," he said.
According to court documents, the investigation began at 12:09 a.m. on July 8, when police responded to an armed robbery at the building at 809 Main Street. Three men -- two of them with bandannas over their faces -- robbed the gamers at gunpoint, interrupting a game of Texas Hold 'em, Jennifer Schlain said.
She said she walked downstairs during the robbery and spotted the gunmen. She raced back upstairs, tripping on a stair, found a hiding spot, and called police. "We didn't hesitate to call the cops when we were robbed," the couple's statement said. "We simply didn't believe we were doing anything to be prosecuted for."
The robbers made off with about $11,000 in cash, Schlain said. But nearly all that money, she asserted, came from the 13 players' personal cash -- not what was being wagered at the table. No one has yet been arrested in the robbery.
In a search warrant affidavit, Master Police Detective James Huling said police discovered four poker tables, gambling rules on the wall, and hot food available for gamers. Huling also wrote that the Schlains told him they have hosted 12 such sessions after being unhappy with house rules elsewhere.
The Schlains, for their part, contend that only one table was used for poker. Another was set up with food, they said, while two were leaning sideways against a wall.
The Schlains also assert that officers initially misled the group by telling them they were only "interested" in investigating the robbery, not the gambling.
At one point, Huling wrote in the affidavit, Jennifer Schlain "identified herself to everyone in the room as a licensed attorney," offering to be their counsel and telling them that "no one had to speak to the police without her being present."
The Schlains operate the Main Street office building, the Internet party supply business and the law firm. Her practice, which she operates under her former name "Jennifer Sherwood," focuses largely on consumer protection cases, such as those victimized by scams.
She said the cases stem largely from referrals from government agencies, including the Virgnia attorney general's office.
"We have created and sustained over 10 jobs in a downward economy," she said, with most of those from the party supply business. But it's been difficult to operate, she said, without computers, phones and credit cards seized by police.
The couple assert that police ran roughshod over them during two searches on July 10, at their home and office building.
Schlain said a team of a dozen officers, wearing bullet-resistant "raid vests" and carrying sidearms, showed up to search the office space, keeping nine employees in the waiting room for nearly four hours while the search took place. "It was very intimidating," she said.
Early on, she said, Huling told her that if the couple did not turn over the key to the couple's home, he "had a master key" -- referring to a battering ram. Adam Schlain provided him with the key, followed by another group of officers searching the home on Elder Road in Denbigh.
Frank McLean, 60, working on his brother's home across the street, said a tall police van and other vehicles pulled up in the early afternoon. He said about "six to eight" officers in raid vests circled the perimeter before going in.
"They were ready, and real serious," McLean said. "It seemed like overkill."
Police spokesman Lou Thurston said Thursday that the warrants were executed by the department's organized crime division.
Search warrants, he said, are handled with various levels of force and officer protection depending on the perceived threat involved. "You try to protect yourself at least half a step in front of what you might be walking into," Thurston said.
On Friday, McPherson declined to say how many officers were involved, and would not describe the gear and guns used by officers at the house.
Neighbors said police were at the home for several hours.
"They trashed it," Jennifer Schlain said of the home, saying police broke two drawers, dumped clothes from closets onto the floor, and cleared out a book shelf of everything "except a Bible."
From the office building, police seized, among other things, two computers, an iPad, three cellphones, an external hard drive, poker chips, an "attendance list at scene of robbery," a glass smoking device, marijuana, and various business and financial records, according to court records. They also confiscated "attorney-client privileged documents to be returned to owner."
From the home, court records show, police confiscated two cellphones, an iPad, three laptops, a router, data storage devices, a black .38-caliber revolver, packages of poker chips, $5,123 in cash, a "blue poker chip marijuana grinder with marijuana residue," a gambling advertisement, "books on gambling," financial and residential documents, among other items.
Jennifer Schlain said that some seized items -- including bullets and credit cards -- never made it to the list of seized items. Also not documented, she said, was a TV that police seized on the night of the robbery. She said a detective told her it could be seized without a warrant.
McPherson declined on Friday to respond to the Schlains' assertions about the way police handled the searches and the case.
Schlain said she's of two minds on how to deal with the allegations. On the one hand, she said, the couple is committed to the community, and wouldn't mind pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and ending it there.
On the other, she said, the couple feels like fighting the charges, because they believe they've been "humiliated" simply for "playing poker." "There's no justification for what they've done," she said.
Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749757-247-4749.
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