Aesthetically and from a gaming perspective, a skilled gaming business is somewhere between an arcade and a casino.
Skilled gaming businesses have been sprouting up in and around Grand Junction in recent years, sparking questions about what goes on inside.
Troy Romero, a former oilfield worker, and his wife Denise, who has experience working at other skilled gaming establishments, operate Raptors, a skilled gaming parlor on Main Street in Grand Junction. Raptors, which has been in business for about two years, joined the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce last month.
Inside, different games light up and make noise as music plays.
“It really is not all chance, it’s a skill,” Troy Romero said.
One game operates similar to a slot machine, but users must choose “up” or “down” in order to get the desired figures to line up, and pay out.
“You have to align the winning aces, or whatever it may be,” Romero said. “It could be the whistles or it could be the jacks. If you don’t do that right, you miss out.”
Another is a fishing game, in which participants shoot fish or other objects on a video game screen (think Big Buck Hunter or Galaga) in order to get points, and money.
“That’s what’s confusing to people, because who’s ever seen a fish table or heard of a fish table?” Romero said.
Romero said he has a varied clientele, with a lot of blue collar workers and people on their lunch or dinner breaks.
“I think it’s great entertainment for those who just want something to do,” Denise Romero said. “There’s not a lot to do in Grand Junction if you don’t want to drink.”
Law enforcement organizations in Mesa County, however, say skilled gaming businesses attract criminal activity. In October, one person was shot outside the Fishing Hole, which has since moved, on North Avenue. Several other skilled gaming businesses were searched by the FBI in March.
“A lot of us get a really bad rap because there’s these other guys that don’t take care of business,” Romero said. “If you want to be in this, you’ve got to be taking care of business, throwing out the bad people. We wouldn’t be on Main Street if we allow a bunch of stuff to happen.”
Travis Christensen, a sergeant with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Crime Reduction Unit, said wherever these businesses pop up, the amount of crime in the area increases.
“The majority of the people that go there seem to be the criminal element type of people. Lots of drug distribution, drug use, burglaries, thefts, things like that,” Christensen said. ”We’ve had some where we’ve had multiple drive-by shootings at the gaming establishment, we’ve had stabbings and shootings at these kinds of establishments.”
The Crime Reduction Unit focuses on specific locations that have higher than normal amounts of criminal activity. Christensen said the unit has been looking into skilled gaming businesses for about six months, and is targeting about four to five places for criminal activity.
“One of the ones that we’re looking at, since Dec. 1 we’ve had 22 calls for law enforcement to deal with, so that’s more than one a day,” Christensen said on Dec. 15. “So far they’ve made 14 arrests out of that particular establishment since Dec. 1.”
The Grand Junction Police Department has had issues with skilled gaming businesses as well.
“We have had a fair bit of criminal activity at some of those places,” Interim Police Chief Matt Smith said. “Not all of them, but certainly at some of them we’ve had criminal activity that we’ve been addressing.”
”Certainly we’re concerned about the criminal activity, especially when it’s something of a violent nature,” Smith said. “We’ve had shootings and stabbings and robberies, those sorts of things are highly concerning and we address those immediately.”
Smith was careful to note not all skilled gaming businesses have proven to be an issue for his department, but patrol officers are aware that these kinds of businesses can attract criminals, and monitor those places.
”We’re not all the same, not at all,” Romero said.
“We sort of keep tabs on these places the best we can and we put that information out to our patrol officers so they’re aware of the locations, and when they have an opportunity to work those locations, they are, and same thing with our investigations division,” Smith said.
Romero said skilled gaming businesses are just like any other business, with good actors and bad actors.
“There’s bars that you would not dare go to and there’s bars that everyone goes to,” Romero said.
“If we’re not seeing crime in that area, I’m not sure it’s our place to address a private business,” Smith said.
Christensen said he suspects many of the property crimes in Mesa County are related to people needing money for drugs and gaming.
“The core people that are engaged in criminal activity, they all know that these places are common ground where they all meet up, so you’ll see them go from one to the next and just circle around and go to each one multiple times for whatever reason,” Nick Bouton, a Sheriff’s Deputy with the Crime Reduction Unit, said.
Christensen and Bouton said people are drawn to skilled gaming businesses for the gambling and the cash aspect, and other people are then drawn by those people.
For example, Christensen said, if your drug dealer hangs out at a skilled gaming business, then that’s where you have to go to buy drugs.
“Every type of criminal we seem to have is frequenting these locations for one reason or another,” Christensen said.
Romero says this description doesn’t apply to every skilled gaming business.
“Everyone in town just hears the bad, but we’re not all bad,” he said.
Christensen also said many skilled gaming businesses are open all night, which is when they’re seeing more violent crimes occurring at skilled gaming businesses. It’s also hard to keep track of the businesses themselves.
“They move around quite a bit. They’ll move within the city, and then they’ll move into the county, and then they’ll move back into the city,” Smith said. “They sort of bounce around, it seems. It’s challenging at times to know who the owners of these places are.”
“They’re like speakeasies,” Christensen said.
Rumors abound about activity that might be happening inside the businesses, Christensen said, including unconfirmed reports of drug distribution inside the businesses themselves. He said he suspects people who operate skilled gaming businesses themselves have lengthy criminal histories.
“We’ve heard about some of them using, instead of U.S. currency, giving out silver, pure silver, for winning,” Christensen said.
Christensen said it’s possible the Sheriff’s Office could start invoking public nuisance statues to shut down skilled gaming businesses that become problematic for the community.
Smith said he favors a holistic approach to the businesses, addressing the behaviors from an enforcement standpoint and also from a policy standpoint. There are some broader policy things that need to be talked about that are beyond law enforcement, he said.
“They sort of fall through the cracks with the way that the law is written, so it’s hard to do anything with that,” Smith said.
Grand Junction City Council has a workshop scheduled Jan. 9 to discuss the topic.
Both Smith and Christensen noted this issue is something most agencies in Colorado are dealing with to some degree.
“There’s very few cities that are immune to this, that haven’t had some issues or challenges, so we’re really looking for the state to step in and do something as well,” Smith said.
The state of Colorado’s gaming division has regulatory authority over skilled gaming businesses, Smith said, and has said the issue will be addressed.
While the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office is mostly looking at skilled gaming businesses for criminal activity, Christensen said he’s of the opinion what’s happening is illegal gambling.
Romero disagrees, saying, “everything is skill-based. If you jump on one of these without any skill, you’re gonna lose your butt.”
A spokesperson from the state Gaming Division said in an email the division does consider skilled gaming businesses illegal.
“The expertise in investigating these cases really lies with (the state), but thus far they have not really ventured outside of the gaming towns,” Smith said.
“It’s difficult for a law enforcement agency to go out and handle these when it’s not clear the foundation that they’re standing on,” Jeremiah Boies, GJPD’s attorney, said.
Romero said a little bit more clarity would probably be better for everybody, and give his industry a better reputation.
“We want everyone to feel safe down here,” Romero said. “It affects our business when bullcrap happens.