'Sweepstakes' alleged gambling operation resurfaces, shut down in Hardeeville

gmartin@islandpacket.comOctober 26, 2011 

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Hardeeville police raided what law enforcement officers called a gambling establishment Friday, part of the same operation that had been shut down three times in Beaufort County since June.

HEST Sweepstakes near Exit 5 off Interstate 95 offered computerized gambling stations that claimed to benefit a charity for autistic children, police said.

The computers used at all of the establishments are produced by HEST Technologies, based in Haltom City, Texas. Their use to generate proceeds violates state law, according to Hardeeville Police Chief Richard Nagy.

"Customers would pay cash and receive tokens to play games of chance," said Nagy, noting that each computer featured 13 different games.

Twenty-four computers were confiscated from the Hardeeville establishment, the same number that was seized during a raid in Bluffton in September.

One man was detained during the Hardeeville raid, but will not be charged. No customers were in the building during the raid, Nagy said.

Nagy said his officers had monitored the building for some time before the raid, and that it bore one sign reading "HEST Technologies" and another that said it was not a gambling establishment.

According to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report, customers ostensibly make charitable donations to a sweepstakes benefiting Skyeward Bound Ranch at these establishments. The amount is then entered as gambling credits on the machines.

Patrons play the games and either lose credits or earn more. If they make gains, patrons may either donate their winnings or cash out.

The Bluffton raid occurred Sept. 27 in Kitties' Crossing on Fording Island Road. Similar raids were conducted in June in Beaufort and in July in Port Royal.

Skyeward Bound Ranch is registered with the S.C. Secretary of State as a nonprofit organization. It has used proceeds from HEST Technologies to benefit disabled children, according to a HEST spokeswoman.

"SBR has already accepted 20 families from South Carolina ... and those families will be participating in an Autism on the Seas Cruise in April, leaving from Charleston," wrote HEST spokeswoman Shannon Canard.

While HEST maintains that its operations are legal, Canard wrote that she "cannot, at this time because of pending cases, disclose information regarding our other locations in South Carolina."

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office has turned over the investigation of its HEST cases to the State Law Enforcement Division, according to Sgt. Robin McIntosh.

A SLED official was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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