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Feds fold San Bruno card club in loan-sharking investigation

 | Published on 3/2/2011


SAN BRUNO -- Artichoke Joe's Casino is closed indefinitely after federal agents raided the cardroom Wednesday morning over allegations that loansharks advanced money to broke players at exorbitant rates and then threatened them with violence to get repayment.

The Oaks Card Club in Emeryville was also shut down as part of an operation by state and federal law enforcement agents. Officials believe drugs were distributed on the floor of at least one of the casinos, but it was not immediately clear which one.

According to a source close to the investigation, players who ran out of money but wanted to keep gambling at Artichoke Joe's were approached by loansharks, who may have been connected to the club.

The loans were granted at high interest rates, however. When the gamblers wouldn't or couldn't pay, they were threatened. It's not clear if anyone was harmed when they failed to pay up, the source said.

Both cardrooms are subject to an emergency closure. State agents have two days to file a formal complaint, and Artichoke Joe's is entitled to a hearing before the California Gambling Control Commission in 10 days. The commission could decide to extend the closure or allow the cardroom to reopen.

Alan Titus, an attorney for the owners of Artichoke Joe's, did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

On Wednesday morning, San Mateo County deputies and San Bruno police guarded the front door of Artichoke Joe's as agents wearing jackets marked "FBI" walked in and out. An FBI spokeswoman on scene said the club had been raided as part of a Bay Area-wide criminal investigation that included the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the IRS and the California Department of Justice's Bureau of Gaming Control.

Lucky Chances cardroom in Colma, the only other such gambling establishment in San Mateo County, was not part of the raids.

Patrons of Artichoke Joe's, who were turned away from the closed cardroom Wednesday, as well as several employees, said they had no idea the raid was coming and didn't notice anything amiss before it happened. Two men who said they worked as security guards at the casino sat near one of the entrances but said they had not heard anything from the owners.

"The casino is closed, so I have to go home," said John Jeon. of San Jose, who had come to gamble. "It's raining today, so I came to spend some money -- I mean some time."

Artichoke Joe's has been operating in San Bruno since 1916 and remains under the control of the Sammut family, according to the cardroom's website. The 20,000-square-foot casino had claimed to be open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

It draws its name from a quote of its founder, Joseph Sammut. According to the website, he was asked, in his early days of operation, how he would pay if he lost a big bet. "In artichoke leaves," Sammut said.