Beaufort News

Sheriff's Office raids Bluffton 'sweepstakes' operation

Twenty-four computers were seized and one employee arrested Tuesday in a raid of a Bluffton business that investigators say was breaking state gambling laws.

Beaufort County sheriff's deputies had been investigating Hest Sweepstakes at 1008 Fording Island Road, Suite D, since getting a tip from a resident Sept. 19, according to incident reports.

At about 1 p.m. Tuesday, deputies searched the business and confiscated 24 computer hard drives, 21 monitors, more than $1,700 in cash and documents detailing the operation, according to a Sheriff's Office news release.

One Hest employee, a 36-year-old Ridgeland woman, was charged with possession of unlawful gaming devices, a misdemeanor.

The manager of the store, Sandra Christine Houck, told deputies last week that customers make charitable donations to a sweepstakes that benefits Skyeward Bound Ranch, a Texas-based nonprofit organization. The donations are entered as gaming credits on one of the machines. Patrons play the games and either lose credits or earn more. If they make gains, patrons can donate their winnings or cash out, according to a Sheriff's Office report.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said no other arrest warrants have been filed in connection with the case.

"Right now, we're letting the investigation conclude before determining if there's other charges," he said. "There were two employees present at the store, but the employee who was charged had a direct connection to the case and was charged appropriately."

This is the third such seizure in Beaufort County since June.

On June 29, deputies seized machines from a Beaufort convenience store and charged its owner with possessing unlawful gambling devices. On July 1, deputies confiscated sweepstakes machines from a building on Parris Island Gateway near Port Royal and charged one person with operating unlawful games and betting.

No customers were in the store during Tuesday's raid, said Sgt. Robin McIntosh, Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. The sheriff's forensic computer department will examine the machines, she added.

The store is owned by B&L Business Centers of South Carolina, which is based in North Carolina, the report said.

B&L Business is one of Hest's customers. A business license for the Bluffton sweepstakes store granted by Beaufort County on Sept. 15 lists Thomas LaSerre of Garner, N.C., as the principal owner.

Attempts Tuesday to reach LaSerre and Houck, the store's manager, for comment were unsuccessful.

Tanner said deputies will check with the S.C. Secretary of State to make sure Skyeward Bound Ranch is properly registered as a nonprofit organization.

The charity was listed Tuesday on the agency's website; however, it had a Cedar Hill, Texas, address. No financial data were available.

On Tuesday, the Hest employee was awaiting a bond hearing at the county detention center, according to the jail log. If convicted, she faces up to one year in prison and up to a $500 fine, according to the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office.

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