By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Nov. 23, 2005
When Baltimore City Police Sgt. Craig Gentile’s vice enforcement unit arrested 95 people for illegal gambling at the Owls Nest poker club in South Baltimore near M&T Bank Stadium on the evening of Nov. 2, it opened up a can of worms. Gentile, a veteran vice cop who routinely busts strip joints and nightspots, wouldn’t discuss the raid or the ongoing investigation of the Owls Nest for this article. But the public record, law-enforcement sources who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity, and interviews with people close to the action at the Owls Nest and in the local poker world show that it is more than just a refurbished warehouse hosting charity gambling.
At its core, the Owls Nest is an illegal poker den with political, criminal, and law-enforcement ties.
The situation at the Owls Nest revolves first and foremost around the relationship between its principals—Joseph Anthony Cary, 50, and Gerald Curtis Dickens, 65—and Frank Darby Moran Sr., 76, a man dubbed by some as “the king of Arbutus.”
Cary and Dickens worked for Moran’s Arbutus-based charity gambling outfit, the Orioles Nest, before they split from him about a year ago and started the competing Owls Nest. Both private clubs are chapters of national fraternal organizations, similar to Elks or Moose lodges; the Owls have been around since 1904. Both the Owls and Orioles (nothing to do with the baseball team) have seen a renaissance in recent years. Chapters open their doors and people become members, often in order to gamble, ostensibly to raise money for charitable causes.
Despite Cary and Dickens’ split from Moran, ties remain. Cary’s Statewide Amusement vending company’s web site (www.statewideamusements.com) lists its address as 5404 East Drive in downtown Arbutus—a commercial property owned by Moran. It’s also the address of record for the Orioles Nest, which has operated at several locations since at least 2003.
Right around front, in the same strip of small businesses that houses the Orioles Nest, are the 12th Legislative District office of state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, Del. Steven Deboy, and Del. James Malone, all Democrats.
Deboy is a retired Baltimore County cop who now works as a warrant investigator for the Howard County Police Department, while Malone is a lieutenant in the Baltimore County Fire Department.
Next door to the district office is Sport Cuts, a barbershop and clothing store owned by Andre Fozard, a federally convicted ecstasy dealer, former bail bondsman, and former strip-club co-owner on the Block in downtown Baltimore.
Delegates Malone and Deboy both say they do not know Fozard, but admit they were aware that the Orioles Nest was based out of the same small commercial building where their district office is located. Deboy denies being a member of the Orioles Nest.
“This is actually bizarre,” he says of the contention, made by City Paper’s sources, that he belonged to the private club, and suggests that anyone who says that he was a member may be engaging in “politics of destruction.” Malone, however, says “to be very, very honest, I don’t know whether I’m a member or not,” adding that he’d been to one Orioles Nest event, years ago. “I’d be very surprised if I was a member,” he says, adding, “I don’t gamble, period.”
Baltimore County Councilman Sam Moxley (D-1st District) was also named by City Paper’s sources as being an Orioles Nest member.
“No, not that I know of,” he responds. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been at any of their events, though I talked to [Frank] Moran about the situation [with the club]. He wanted to know about the gambling laws in the county.”
According to a law-enforcement source who has seen the Orioles Nest membership list, Fozard was a member of the organization. Several sources say Thomas Wayne Damron, a drug convict with a violent record, was too. So was Naylor Harrison, a convicted drug dealer who reportedly runs an asphalt paving business, according to Orioles Nest manager William Sachse and a law-enforcement source, though they say he was suspended for misbehaving in the club.
Fozard, Damron, and Harrison, law-enforcement sources say, have also been frequent habitués of the Owls Nest, which hired retired and off-duty cops from local jurisdictions as security for its tournaments. According to the police report of the Owls Nest raid, Barry Lee Boone, a retired Howard County cop, was armed and working for the tournament’s organizers that night, taking money from players.
Attempts to contact Fozard and Damron for comment were unsuccessful, but Harrison was reached. He denied ever being a member of either the Orioles or Owls, adding, “I stopped going to those places a long time ago.”
Though Moran, Cary, and Dickens could not be reached to interview them for this article, Orioles Nest manager William Sachse could. In a telephone interview, he explains that Cary and Moran go way back, through Cary’s vending-machine business, Statewide Amusements, which other associates of Cary, including John Leroy Long Jr., confirm.
“Joe Cary was pretty much raised and taken care of by Frank Moran,” Sachse says. “He taught Joe everything he needed to know in the vending business.”
The two also worked together running Moran’s club, the Orioles Nest, in a business park on Vero Road in Arbutus, a stone’s throw from the city line. Once inside the innocuous business-suite door, patrons paid a nominal fee—sometimes $20, sometimes $50, sometimes more, depending on the night’s event—to gamble, with the proceeds ostensibly going to various charities. But in late 2004, the club’s management experienced a falling out.
Sachse says Moran suspected that Orioles Nest money was being “misappropriated” by Cary and Dickens, and a “very ugly breakup” ensued. Sachse says Moran brought in Kimberly Acton, Sachse’s fiancé, late last year to clean up the Orioles Nest operations. After a couple of months, Sachse continues, Acton “got tired of the drama” of running the place, and he took over for her about eight months ago.
After the split, Sachse says, the “drama” continued, but he didn’t elaborate. A law-enforcement source familiar with the situation did. When Cary and Dickens left the Orioles Nest, the source says, they took a lot of the club’s assets with them.
“That night in November , when the establishment closed, Joe Cary backed a truck up and cleaned the place out,” the source alleges. “He took TVs, poker chips, poker tables, food, soap dispensers, cigarette machines—everything except the pool table.” Cary and Dickens, the source continues, didn’t go far to start their own charity-gambling club—they set up in the next suite over.
Cary and Dickens “hung a cardboard sign up with the owls nest on it,” the source continues, adding that Moran purchased new amenities and kept his club open. “They were running side by side, wide open. [Cary and Dickens] were there through Christmas, maybe into January, while they were refurbishing the Worscester Street warehouse”—the location that was raided by Gentile and his squad on Nov. 2.
Meanwhile, the source says, Moran tried to roust Cary and Dickens from their location next door to his by starting his own Owls Nest chapter.
“There’s something with these fraternal organizations that two with the same name have to be at least six or eight miles apart,” the law-enforcement source says. “[Moran] was hell-bent on getting his own Owls Club established, because then [Cary and Dickens’] club couldn’t stay.”
While state records do not show Moran incorporating another Owls Club, a sign on a rear door to his East Drive property in Arbutus read, as of press time: “Owls Nest 4535—Private Club. The awning of Cary and Dickens’ establishment in South Baltimore announces it as, “Owls Club 4525.” (The door reads, “Owls Nest 4525.”)
After Moran’s falling out with Cary and Dickens, the source says, Baltimore County police paid a visit to the Orioles Nest: “The police said the Orioles Nest had all the proper paperwork and everything, but [that] it cannot play Texas hold-’em. They told Sachse and Kim [Acton], ‘This is it. It’s over.’”
Sachse confirmed the police visit to City Paper. Baltimore County Police Department spokesman Bill Toohey couldn’t confirm the visit but explains the county police practice involving charity poker events: “The gambling unit goes there, proactively, and reminds the operators of the county law—you can only hold [poker tournaments and other charitable gambling events] once a year, you can’t give cash as prizes—only merchandise of less than $1,000 in value—and everybody who plays has to be a [club] member.”
Shortly after the county police laid down the law to the Orioles Nest, both clubs’ promotional materials show that they relocated to Baltimore City.
According to a flier obtained by City Paper, Owls Nest 4525—Cary and Dickens’ outfit—opened in Baltimore City on Jan. 22, 2005, at 1800 Worscester St., sandwiched between the Russell Street overpass and the railroad tracks near M&T Bank Stadium.
“During the time I was with the Orioles Club, I had the pleasure of meeting many of you and invite you to come visit our new facility,” reads the flier, which bore a signature line for “Jerry,” secretary/treasurer of the Owls Nest. It politely adds that “we encourage you to continue to support the Orioles Club, as it is a fine organization.”
After Cary and Dickens split from Moran’s Orioles and started the Owls Nest, “we didn’t want our organization to be associated in any way with the Owls,” Sachse says, citing Moran’s bitterness over Cary’s disloyalty and the Owls’ indiscretion in holding widely publicized games on a regular basis.
“I mean,” Sachse adds incredulously, “they were advertising in the Sunpapers!”
The police report of the Owls Nest raid mentions an Oct. 18 advertisement in The Sun, which revealed that the Owls Nest was holding a nine-night tournament, and that winners would get seats at the World Poker Challenge tables on Nov. 13 at a Foxwoods, Conn., casino, airfare included.
Which is not to say the Orioles Nest didn’t continue hosting games of chance, ostensibly for charity. In April, Moran’s Orioles Nest distributed a flier, also obtained by City Paper: “We are proud to announce our grand re-opening at our new location . . . less than a mile from our old location.” The event’s date was April 14, and the address—where the club is still operating—was 2930 Washington Boulevard, Suite A, in Southwest Baltimore “next to the Warehouse bar and grill.”
The flier offered a “re-union promotion,” thanking members “for their patience and loyalty” by “giving away $50 in free chips with your first $100 buy-in to be used in any of our games. To the first sixty members to come to the window.”
The flier doesn’t mention any charities, though Sachse makes a point of saying that it would be “unethical if we don’t have a specific beneficiary” for the club’s fundraisers. “You need to deem one charity for that event, so to speak,” he explains, adding that “you don’t tell the charity what kind of event it was. Just give checks.”
By the time the Orioles Nest reopened in Morrell Park in April, the Owls Nest had a calendar of events reflecting twice-a-week poker tournaments. For April 29, the club’s calendar announced “A Special Tournament for Pi Kappa Phi,” a fraternity at UMBC.
According to a flier for the tournament, the event’s beneficiary was Push America, an organization “to serve persons with disabilities.” The cost to participants, the flier reads, was $55, plus $10 for “re-buys”—more chips if players run out. It adds: “All are invited.”
The charitable result of the fraternity tournament was $150, as reflected by a copy of an April 29 check made out by the Owls Nest to Pi Kappa Phi obtained by City Paper. If only three people paid to play, the $150 donation would have been recouped by the event.
In an effort to determine how many people paid to play, City Paper contacted the fraternity’s treasurer at the time, Chris Manger, and its vice “archon,” Greg Quigley. Both asked if they could call back. Neither did, and neither returned repeated subsequent messages.
Since the Baltimore Police Department busted the Owls Nest Nov. 2, the Orioles Nest has continued to host fundraising events. Baltimore City Councilman Edward Reisinger (D-10th District) tells City Paper that he’s not happy about it.
“After the Owls Nest gets busted, this Orioles Nest is still in operation!” Reisinger exclaims. “I called the police on that.” \
Sachse, though, tells City Paper that the Orioles Nest has stopped holding poker tournaments. Furthermore, he contends, the Orioles Nest has been run well and properly on the charity front since Cary and Dickens left.
“I’ll show you exactly where the money goes,” he says, offering to show City Paper the organization’s checkbook. “At the end of each quarter, monies are given out.” When asked if he would demonstrate how the Orioles Nest’s charitable giving has changed from when Cary and Dickens ran the show, Sachse balks: “I mean, if we get audited, that would be a skeleton in [our] closet. I’ll ask Frank [Moran] and get back to you.” He never did, and subsequent calls went unanswered as of press time.
There are other skeletons in the Orioles Nest’s closet, though. Sachse, the man who was brought in to bring order and propriety back to the Orioles Nest, was jailed in the early 1990s for a Howard County drug-distribution conviction, court records show.
Joseph Cary’s skeletons have been coming out of the closet in recent days, as well. First, the Owls Nest got busted Nov. 2, and Gentile says he expects to file criminal charges against Cary soon. Then on Nov. 14, the Comptroller of Maryland’s office announced that it has filed a $953,515.58 tax lien in the Anne Arundel County courts against Statewide Amusements, Cary, and his wife, Deborah Cary (the couple being the officers of Statewide).
“Sticker shock,” is how state comptroller spokesman Kevin Kane characterizes the amount. “There is no appealing this,” he adds.
Comprising the total are $412,507.58 in unpaid taxes, $180,530.55 in interest, and $360,477.45 in penalties. Kane says it is “a case of intentional fraud” in which Statewide underrepresented its gross sales, uncovered by an audit that started in February of this year and examined the period between February 1999, when the company was formed, and November 2004.
Cary is no stranger to financial stress, though. In 2001, he sought and received Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection from creditors including the state of Maryland, a California company that makes monitors for vending machines, the city of Baltimore, Anne Arundel County, and the University of Maryland Medical System.
He’s also no stranger to the criminal courts. Court records show Cary has had criminal charges filed against him at least once in nearly every year since 1978.
Many of the charges have involved alleged violent disputes with his wife (she sometimes, but not always, refused to testify against him during the trials), and he also has faced charges of, among other things, arson, assault, malicious destruction of property, battery, escape from confinement, breaking and entering, resisting arrest, drug possession, and gambling.
He often avoided convictions when prosecutors declined to bring cases to trial, but there are a few guilty findings—for battery, assault, resisting arrest, malicious destruction of property, and failure to appear at court, for instance. Cary also took probation before judgment in many cases, including an arson charge.
Criminal charges against Dickens are not reflected in a court-record search, but he, too, filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He gained protection from the Internal Revenue Service, the state of Maryland, Prince George’s County, various banks, and an accountant.
Based on their records, Cary and Dickens aren’t exactly the model proprietors of a charitable enterprise that specializes in raising funds through gambling events. Cary, however, manages his money well enough to own a 2003 Hummer H2, a 2001 Chevy Corvette convertible, a large RV, and a 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, among other vehicles, all registered in his, his business’, or his family’s names. It’s an impressive automotive fleet for someone who recently emerged from bankruptcy.
Nonetheless, the charitable company Cary and Dickens started—Fraternal Order of Owls 4525 Inc., incorporated two weeks before it was busted, according to the Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation—appears to be a proper charity. That is, if the documentation provided to the Baltimore City Zoning Board in April, when the Owls Nest applied for a variance to put its club in a manufacturing district, is reliable.
(The Owls Nest was given its variance in July, though, according to city housing department records, it received no permits for the $50,000 in renovations stated in the zoning application.)
A signed letter purporting to be from Diane Meader, the supreme secretary of the Home Nest, Order of Owls, located in the “Owl Building, Hartford, Conn.,” includes an undated enclosure to the IRS “to certify that Nest #4525 a duly constituted body of the Fraternal Order Of Owls operating under the lodge system.”
The Home Nest, Order of Owls letterhead in the zoning file gives no street address or phone number for the organization, and the Hartford Public Library couldn’t unearth any information about the “Owl Building” or the “Home Nest, Order of Owls” in Hartford or Connecticut. City Paper could not locate a Diane Meader in Connecticut. According to GuideStar.org, a nonprofit information service, there is no charitable enterprise operating in Connecticut using that name. Nor does GuideStar turn up Cary and Dickens’ Fraternal Order of Owls 4525—although it does show Moran’s Orioles Nest.
The Owls Nest in Baltimore does make charitable donations, though. The zoning file includes copies of numerous checks cut to various entities for charitable purposes, including Pi Kappa Phi ($150), the Church of the Redemption in Locust Point ($150), the Linda Whelan Fund ($150), Toni Aguilar ($500), Seniors Helping Seniors ($250), the American Breast Cancer Foundation ($150), the Boys Home Society of Baltimore ($150), Carol Reyes ($100), Maryland Food Bank ($150), the Baltimore City Fire Fighters Widows and Orphans Fund ($200), the Baltimore Child Abuse Center ($200), and the Associated Black Charities ($200).
The amount donated totals $2,350 and was given between February and July of this year. By way of comparison, on the night of the Nov. 2 raid, a Wednesday, more than $25,000 was seized from the Owls Nest tournament then in progress, including more than $6,600 from Cary’s pants pocket.
These numbers make another letter in the zoning file that much more interesting. It’s from Edward Reisinger, and it states that the city councilman supports the zoning variance for the Owls Nest, pointing out that “all money raised is donated to local charities.”
Reisinger says he supported the zoning change for the Owls Nest and wrote the letter based on the word of the building’s owner, Gilda Johnson, “who’s a respected member of the community,” he says. “I wish I could take that [letter] back, but it’s too late now.”
Johnson says she was convinced the Owls Nest was a charitable enterprise: “There was nothing that would have allowed me to think otherwise. It was done strictly by the books.”
The Nov. 2 vice-squad raid on the Owl’s Nest was historic. According to The Sun, it was the largest gambling bust since the Prohibition era, although prosecutors dropped their charges against nearly everyone arrested Nov. 10 (charges are still pending against 15 accused event organizers).
The prosecutors said the wrong law was used in citing them, and that if so many cases were brought to court they would unnecessarily clog up the docket. While especially large, however, the Owls Nest bust was not unique—even in the past year.
On Feb. 25, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood Restaurant on Holabird Avenue in Southeast Baltimore was busted for a Texas hold-’em tournament (“Game Sharks,” City Paper, March 9), and Peter’s Pour House on Mercer Street near Camden Yards was raided this past spring. Eugene Lovito of Fund Raisers Unlimited was charged with gambling in the Peter’s case, but the charges were shelved by the prosecutor.
Nor was the Owls Nest raid the most recent gambling bust. A week later, on Nov. 10, Gentile’s vice squad nabbed another game, at the Aces High Club on the second floor above the B.J. Mattheiss Insurance Agency at 6716 Harford Road. (Bruce Mattheiss, the building’s owner, did not respond to a call for comment.)
Arrested there on gambling charges, according to court documents, were Baltimore City police officer Vicki Mengel, allegedly hired to provide security, and Brad Lukens, who also was cited at the Owls Nest raid. (Charges against Lukens relating to the Owls Nest were dropped; Mengel and Lukens are scheduled to be tried on charges relating to the Aces High in January 2006.)
Law-enforcement sources say another Owls Nest player from the night of the Nov. 2 raid tipped Gentile off to the Aces High game, setting it up for the bust.
In April, Anne Arundel County got into the poker-raid action. Police there hit a place called Tykie’s Lodge, a Texas hold-’em hot spot housed in an emergency-services contractor’s building right next to the Maryland State Police post in Glen Burnie.
Among those arrested was an 18-year Howard County Police Department veteran, Michael Thorn, who’s accused by Anne Arundel County authorities of helping to organize the game. According to Thorn’s attorney, Clarke Ahlers, the game wasn’t for money, but was an instructional event intended to teach people how to play and deal poker. The case is set for trial next March.
In Baltimore City, even nonprofits are barred from holding poker tournaments for charity. (Laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in Baltimore County, for example, charities are permitted to hold one gambling event a year, including card games.) As Nathan Irby, executive secretary of the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, wrote in a Nov. 5, 2004, letter to liquor licensees, “although specific types of organizations may conduct gambling after obtaining a permit from the Baltimore City Police Department, there are no permits issued for a poker tournament.”
Copies of Irby’s letter were found at the Owls Nest when it was raided, according to law-enforcement sources. Brian Clark, the owner of online poker forum MD-Poker.com, says simply that “poker is illegal in Maryland.”
Clark says he has become an expert on poker laws and thinks charity poker tournaments are giving his game a bad name. “These places that are getting busted, they were asking for it,” he says. “I don’t allow them to advertise on my site. They may give a small portion to charity, but they’re holding games multiple times a week. They’re not doing anything to help our cause, only hurt it. Most of my members were warned beforehand—watch out for places like this.”
Clark’s cause is to legalize poker in Maryland, but “in small baby steps,” he explains. “People should be allowed to have their own friendly poker games with no raking,” he says, referring to the practice of game organizers taking money off the top from players. Ultimately, he’d like to see Maryland copy the Golden State. “In California, where there are legal poker halls, the state reaps a ton of revenue from them, and the state recognizes it for what it is—a game of skill, not a game of chance, like slots or roulette.”
Clark says he is “trying to start a lobbying group” to influence lawmakers in Annapolis on the subject. “We’ve been in the planning stages for about a year now.”
On Nov. 4, immediately after The Sun first covered the Owls Nest raid, Clark posted on MD-Poker.com’s home page a statement to his members: “To put it simple the Owl’s Club got busted because they are idiots.” He added that the club’s organizers “were running a near full time poker room” and “keeping the profits” for themselves. “They advertised and promoted an already illegal game, they rented a business facility to hold the game, they served alcohol without a license. . . . It is their own fault they got busted and this should not scare the average member who enjoys a good low stakes game with 10 or so friends.”
Not all local players agree with Clark that the Owls Nest was a disreputable place.
“I don’t see why they’re outlawing it,” says Joseph Cary associate John Leroy Long Jr., who says he’s been friends with the Owls Nest principal “for many years.”
While law-enforcement sources say Long has been Cary’s driver and has worked for him in other ways over the years, Long, a 56-year-old Southwest Baltimore resident, is adamant: “I never worked for him. I never drove for him.” But he sure enjoyed the Owls Nest. “I played there every day that I could. It’s a shame they closed it down. It was a nice, clean, respectable place, and they weren’t hurting nobody, and they’re honest.”
(Long was sentenced to 34 months in federal prison in 1994 for a cocaine-distribution conviction.)
Toni Aguilar, who received a $500 donation from the Owls Nest to help with her medical expenses while she cared for her terminally ill son earlier this year, says she’s known Owls principal Gerald Dickens since she used to play in and work at poker games in Prince George’s County firehouses, until they were outlawed in 1997. She says Baltimore and Maryland are hurting themselves by keeping poker illegal. Aguilar was among those cited during the Nov. 2 raid (charges against her were dropped).
“The time is ripe to take the lead in regulating it, so it’s legal,” she says. “It’s so hypocritical. The state has keno, the lottery—all games of chance, not skill like poker—and they take money from people who can least afford it. With poker, I know some very prominent lawyers and people in politics who play the games. Any night of the week, you can find a house game, so why not make it legal?”
As for the Owls Nest, Aguilar says that “they set it up very nice. It was a nice atmosphere, and they went out of their way to decorate it with lamps hanging over the tables, neon signs, pictures of poker chips from casinos around the world hanging on the wall, a pool table, a dart board, chess games, video machines with word puzzles and challenge games on them. There were video slot machines in the back, but it was rare to see somebody back there.”
Aguilar’s comments echo those of Sun columnists Dan Rodricks and Michael Olesker, who both wrote about the Owls Nest raid. “With problems as serious as . . . addiction and violence,” Rodricks contended in a Nov. 6 piece, “maybe we could tolerate a little poker and keep the cops on the important stuff.” Olesker chimed in Nov. 11: “Beautiful. The crack dealers stand on nearby street corners, and the cops bust up a poker game. The homicide count climbs, and we turn card players into criminals. Could we have a little perspective please?”
What Aguilar, Rodricks, and Olesker may not appreciate, however, is that clubs like the Owls and Orioles nests, where cops and criminals and perhaps even politicians appear to flock together, are among the reasons why anti-gambling laws are on the books—to prohibit potential corrupting influences on public officials and law enforcement.
The alternative, perhaps, is the Owls motto, found on the mysterious letterhead from the Home Nest in Connecticut: “There’s so much bad in the best of us, and so much good in the worst of us, it hardly behooves any of us, to speak ill of the rest of us.” In other words, leave well enough alone.
Gentile, the city vice cop, appears unwilling to do so. And that’s his job. Given what he’s tapped into with the recent raids, his job’s not over yet.