SALEM — It was the large volume of car and foot traffic last fall at the Witch City VFW Post that first caught neighbors’ attention. It was particularly heavy on football weekends.
The traffic got so brisk, in fact, that calls were made to the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission which, in turn, contacted Salem police to notify them that there might be illegal gambling taking place at the veterans club on Derby Street.
On Sunday, Dec. 22 — right before kickoff for National Football League games — a senior inspector from the ABCC entered the club undercover. It was quite a sight: tables with charts and stacks of football cards, and one man putting money into envelopes and then stuffing them into a backpack.
The inspector, Caroline Guarino-Wilichoski, said she watched as people entered the club with football cards and headed right for a man sitting at a table.
After watching the activity for a few minutes, the inspector went back outside and sent police into the club. They confiscated football betting cards and several thousand dollars in cash, among other items.
Last night, after a brief hearing at which the club offered no defense, the Licensing Board handed out a three-day suspension of the club’s liquor license for allowing an illegal activity on a licensed premise. Two days will be served this month, and one day will be held in abeyance and enforced only if a problem arises in the future.
“It’s very black and white,” post Cmdr. Kim Emerling said. “We were definitely in the wrong and want to get this thing resolved as quickly as possible.” Emerling is also director of veterans services in Salem.
Police said there was no indication that club officers were involved.
The illegal gambling operation was run by an associate member of the club who is not a veteran, police said. Police said they did not have enough evidence to bring criminal charges.
Licensing board members said they appreciate the good work of the VFW post and know how hard it is for small veterans organizations to survive. But they said they had to act due to the seriousness and extent of the illegal gambling.
What went on at the club was “way out of control,” said commissioner Rick Lee, a veteran. “I’m just disappointed in the decision-making process down there ...
“It just troubles me as a veteran,” Lee said, looking across the table at three club officials. “I know it troubles you guys.”
Licensing Board Chairman Robert St. Pierre, who voted for the suspension, said he contacted Mayor Kim Driscoll before the meeting to notify her that he is a member of the Witch City post and was filing a disclosure form because of the appearance of a conflict of interest. St. Pierre said he was confident he could rule on the case without prejudice.
The case was investigated by Detective James Page, who said he was first contacted by the ABCC in September and a second time in December. On the second call, the ABCC investigator told Page that a caller said Salem police were not going to investigate because they were going to “protect the manager of the VFW.”
“That is absolutely not true,” Page said emphatically last night.
While admitting he is a personal friend of the post commander, Page said Salem police investigate all cases with the same fairness and impartiality.
Page said the club was “100 percent cooperative.”
White citing the important role clubs like the VFW play, especially for servicemen and women returning today from the Middle East, Page said it is important to “send a message” to all social and veterans clubs in the city that illegal gambling will not be allowed.
“We don’t make the laws,” Page said. “We just have to enforce them.”