First Alert 4 Investigates: Gaming machines outside casinos in Missouri

Published: Oct. 20, 2023 at 5:46 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) -- The bright lights and bells of gaming machines have been making appearances in local convenience stores.

Gambling is illegal in Missouri, except within the confines of licensed casinos. Nevertheless, a legal loophole has allowed these machines to operate unchecked, and a recent judicial decision has added further complexity to the issue.

If they’re legal in Missouri, it all depends on who you ask.

Ronald Foreman, who once had $150,000 in cash in September, found himself financially depleted by December due to his gambling addiction.

“It’s no different than any other addiction; it’s like a drug for him,” said his long-time girlfriend, Vikki Young. Young became suspicious of Foreman’s changing behavior, prompting her to track his movements through GPS, revealing frequent visits to gas stations for gaming.

Foreman’s gambling addiction, which he had kicked in 2004, returned in full force as he encountered these gaming machines at gas stations near their home in Bonne Terre. In a matter of months, Foreman funneled their entire savings into these machines, leaving both distraught. But what astounds them is why they are allowed to exist at all.

“It’s gambling, man, it’s horrible,” Foreman said.

However, the legality of these machines is a subject of debate in Missouri, where many await decisions from the courts or the legislature. Gaming machines in neighboring Illinois are legal, but their status across the river in Missouri is a matter of contention.

Marc Ellinger, an attorney for the Missouri Gaming Association, emphasizes that only 13 casinos are legally allowed to operate “games of chance” in Missouri, with these casinos subject to rigorous regulation and taxation. He adds that 20% of casino revenue directly supports education, while $2 from every casino visit contributes to local cities and veterans.

“I think the reason that you’re seeing them everywhere is because there’s so much money, they’re able to make off of these, they’re willing to take the chance to do something that’s clearly illegal because the payoff is so much money in the short term,” he said.

Violators of Missouri’s gambling laws face fines and potential imprisonment, but gaming machines resembling slot machines have appeared across the state without oversight. Lawsuits against machine operators even include pictures of children playing these games.

Gregg Keller, a representative from Torch Electronics, a major operator of these machines, argues that their devices aren’t gambling machines. According to Keller, a component of these machines allows players to determine the outcome of the next play.

“The casinos have decided that our machines are cutting into their margins. And so, they’ve gone ahead, and they’ve got politicians in Jeff City to start a whole bunch of bills. They’re taking us to court, they’re trying to get our completely legal games off the market,” said Keller.

The Highway Patrol has investigated numerous complaints related to these machines, with a significant number of cases referred to prosecutors for potential charges. But only one known case has been prosecuted, in Platte County, leading to the machines’ destruction.

Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecutor, suggests that prosecutions are challenging, and it falls upon the legislature or the courts to provide clarity on the machines’ legal status. The lack of clarity is due to the machines’ classification as “amusement devices,” a categorization contested by casino interests.

A recent lawsuit against the Highway Patrol, filed by Torch Electronics, was dismissed by a judge in Cole County. Many people now say this ruling failed to definitively determine the nature of these machines, leaving their existence in a legal gray area.

Despite the ongoing legal battle, Ronald Foreman and Vikki Young continue to struggle, with Foreman’s addiction losing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. As the legal battle drags on, the state’s ability to protect its citizens remains uncertain.

The proliferation of gaming machines outside of casinos is not unique to Missouri, as a report by the American Gaming Association estimates that 40% of the nation’s gaming machines outside casinos are illegal, resulting in a loss of nearly $13 billion in tax revenue. The future of these machines in Missouri remains uncertain, and further developments will be tracked closely.