ABC7 Exclusive: Santa Ana Police cracks down on illegal 'slap houses' across city

The number of illegal gambling dens exploded during the pandemic, according to officials.
SANTA ANA, Calif. (KABC) -- Before dawn on Wednesday, Santa Ana police officers geared up to ensure their safety before being deployed to execute search warrants at alleged illegal gambling locations in the city.

These establishments, known as "slap houses," operate inside homes or businesses. By daybreak, police targeted a home on Hazard Street.

"Our goal is to try to eradicate as much as we can, this problem of 'slap houses' in our city," said Sgt. Maria Lopez, the public information officer for SAPD.

She said five people were arrested at the alleged illegal casino. They also busted the EZ Boba Café in the 600 block of Euclid Street, according to Lopez.

She said this type of police response is needed because it's hard to know what type of activity is taking place.

"They just see different people coming in and out of these homes or businesses and don't really understand what's going on inside, but what they do see is, at times, an uptick in crime," Lopez said.

She said these type of places often lead to or create other problems.

"We start seeing a lot of narcotics, controlled substances in the area," Lopez said. "Potential for weapons or violent crimes that tend to occur from these locations."

She said Wednesday's early morning operations were part of several alleged "slap houses" raided by local, state and federal agencies.

"The number of illegal gambling dens has exploded during the pandemic, dramatically impacting the quality of life in many Orange County neighborhoods," said U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison. "These illicit businesses are a breeding ground for drug trafficking, violence and even police corruption. We will continue to work with our local and federal law enforcement partners to eradicate this blight in our communities."

An investigation by the Orange County Asian Organized Crime Task Force resulted in the arrest of seven out of nine defendants charged in three indictments that allege an array of criminal conduct, including drug trafficking, the attempted extortion and subsequent robbery of a small business, bribery of a police officer and operating illegal casinos.

One of three federal indictments unsealed on Wednesday morning alleged a string of illegal casinos in Santa Ana and cites a shooting at one of the gambling dens in which an employee was struck in the neck.

"[Wednesday's] operation is the result of a joint effort among partners at the federal, state and local level in Santa Ana to dismantle an illegal gambling network that generated a variety of criminal activity causing great harm to the communities in which they operated," said Kristi Johnson, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office. "The defendants flouted the law and used enforcers with rival gangs to get victims to comply through the use of intimidation and violence in order to further their illicit network and generate profits."

Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin said, "illegal gambling locations create an increase in violent crime, adversely impact the quality of life of our communities, and cause disruption to our neighborhoods and our law-abiding business partners."

"This is something our agency will not tolerate," said Valentine. "[Wednesday's] collaborative efforts, following a years-long extensive investigation with our local, state and federal partners, leverage our police department's strong enforcement strategy - coined 'Operation Community First' - that was launched in February 2021 to target illegal gambling, narcotics and gun trafficking."

Lopez said Santa Ana Police seized 14 illegal gambling machines from the two locations they raided.

"In essence, it does clean up the neighborhood and obviously, that's our goal and that's why we are here," Lopez said.

Santa Ana Police is urging residents to always be on the lookout for any red flags or things that may look suspicious either at businesses or in your neighborhood and report them immediately.

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