It's a Wednesday night, and a decent-size crowd has gathered in a smoky warehouse-like social club to play bingo. Some are playing traditional bingo with their cards laid out in front of them. Others are playing Fast Action Bingo on computers.

Some are holding charms; others have set up good-luck pieces around themselves as they play several bingo cards or electronic video cards at once. They all seem to be enjoying themselves. Some of the patrons are senior citizens, others middle-age couples.

The winners of the games yell "Bingo!" and accumulate "credits." At the end of the evening, they trade in their credits for cash.

This recent scenario observed by a reporter may sound like something out of West Wendover, Nev., or Las Vegas. But in this case the money was being handed out in Salt Lake County.

Bingo halls are nothing new in Utah. Some have been around for decades. But a new court case in West Valley City recently reopened the question of whether they are centers for harmless fun or hubs for illegal gambling.

"Anytime you risk something of value to win something of value, it's gambling," said Salt Lake District Attorney David Yocom. "In my view of the law, it is in fact gambling."

West Valley police served a search warrant at Annie's Dinner & Bingo Club, 3572 S. 1950 West, on March 4 after conducting an undercover investigation for several months, posing as bingo players. More than 20 gaming machines and other records were seized. Three people were charged with 28 counts each of gambling, gambling promotion and possessing a gambling device. All charges were either class A or B misdemeanors.

Attorney Greg Skordas, who represents Annie's, called the case "a joke."

"It's a ridiculous case. This is one of the silliest cases I've ever seen," he said.

The typical operation at a bingo club works like this: patrons have the option of playing a single bingo card for free, something that is not well-advertised. But to obtain additional bingo cards, they have to purchase a dinner that costs about $25. Most patrons buy the dinner even if they are playing only a single card. Others buy three or four "dinners" and leave the food untouched.

Some prosecutors say the dinner is a scam.

"Obviously you're paying the extra money for the chance to win," Yocom said.

One bingo hall offered a "very simple Mexican dinner on a Styrofoam plate" and told an undercover officer he could win up to $1,200 playing bingo, according to charges filed in West Valley's 3rd District Court.

Lori Randall, who used to play bingo regularly, said the meals were good when she first started going to a bingo hall in Riverdale. "Then it got to the point where it was chicken strips that were not real great," she said.

Sometimes only popcorn and soda are offered for a lesser price. Sometimes the patron doesn't receive any food at all.

An undercover officer investigating Annie's paid $20 to play Fast Action Bingo on at least two occasions, according to court documents. The officer's receipt indicated he paid for popcorn, although he was not offered any, court documents state. Once, the officer won $155 after paying his $20.

"The reality is you're playing this game of chance for the hope of winning money," said West Valley City prosecutor Ryan Robinson, who called Annie's a clear case of gambling.

But Frank Diana, who owns two bingo clubs in Salt Lake County and Riverdale, said his businesses are legal. While chance and opportunity may be part of the game, Diana said the bingo cards are free. "As long as the cards are free, we feel like we aren't doing anything wrong," he said.

Diana compared bingo playing to contests at fast-food restaurants. Game pieces are free at the restaurants, but for a person to get more game pieces per visit, he needs to "super-size" his order.

Those who wish to play only their one free bingo card still have as much of an opportunity to win as the person who purchases five dinners, Diana said, because it only takes one card to win.

Skordas said the bingo cards at Annie's were also free. He said he has 40 sworn statements from club patrons that the cost of dinner was separate from the free bingo. "You don't have to pay to play," he said.

Bingo-hall crackdowns aren't exclusive to Utah. Several Wyoming counties closed a number of parlors this month.

In Platte County, Wyo., 21 Fast Action Bingo video machines were seized.

"Based on the law as it is now, it's very clear that this is not bingo. The reality is they're trying to make a slot machine look like bingo and say, 'Oh, this is now legal because it's bingo,' " Platte County Attorney Eric Alden told The Associated Press.

In Utah, the legality of bingo first came to question in 1979. The Salt Lake County Attorney's Office and the Utah attorney general said Albertsons Inc. could not hand out bingo cards to its customers as a promotion. The grocery-store chain challenged the decision, and the Utah Supreme Court ruled 3-2 for Albertsons, saying that as long as the bingo cards were given away for free to customers, it wasn't gambling.

The same idea has applied to bingo halls ever since.

Yocom said most of the bingo operations believe if patrons receive something of value, such as a dinner, then it's not gambling. But, he said, something of comparable value needs to be given in exchange for a patron's purchase.

Diana said the meals at his clubs are priced according to market value. He argued that it's similar to choosing between La Caille vs. Sizzler. The meals are basically the same, one just costs a lot more, he said.

West Valley's case has caught the attention of other Utah cities. Robinson confirmed other police agencies and prosecutors have contacted him to find out more about his case.

There are at least three bingo halls in operation in Utah: Southgate Social Center, 3725 S. 900 East; Jackpot Bingo, 3485 S. State; and Riverdale Dinner and Bingo, 4510 S. 900 West in Riverdale. The bingo parlors are all private clubs but do not serve alcohol. Diana owns the Southgate and Riverdale clubs.

Last Friday, two Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies went to Southgate for an inspection. The deputies were reportedly looking specifically at the Fast Track Bingo machines. The video bingo machines have received the most attention since the bust at Annie's.

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But if the bingo clubs really are offering gambling, how can they go on for years in a state that has frowned on gambling since the days of the pioneers?

One problem is gathering evidence. Many police departments don't have the time or money to conduct an extensive undercover operation.

And even if they could, there is no guarantee there would be any evidence to collect. Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Rosie Rivera said so far there is no evidence of illegal gambling at Southgate.

"Just because it's bingo, it's not illegal," she said.

And some officials acknowledge that busting a bingo hall could be a public-relations nightmare because no one seems to mind them.


Contributing: Jill Atwood, KSL-TV; E-mail: preavy@desnews.com