Under California law, bingo is supposed to be a nonprofit enterprise that raises money for charity. The amount of money generated can be significant. At the Gilman Street Bingo Hall in Berkeley, gross revenues exceeded $5.6 million in 2009. However, almost none of that money ever went to charitable causes. Most of it —$4.9 million — ended up in players' pockets in the form of cash prizes. Nearly all of the rest went to so-called "overhead" costs that may have been nothing more than profit-taking.
Last year, the City of Berkeley cracked down on the Gilman Street enterprise after a year-long investigation, and then forced the hall to close for good. The investigation revealed that the bingo hall was operated by Youth Actors Company, a group that said on its tax returns that it assisted "at risk youth by providing healthy alternatives through a year-round acting program that teaches leadership and life skills."
But during the time the group operated bingo from the Gilman hall, the Youth Actors Company never held a class or performance. The address listed for the nonprofit was a single-family residence in Pinole. And city officials said there was no evidence the money the group raised from bingo ever went to charitable activities. "What they were doing there was straight up shady," said Gregory Daniel, the Berkeley code enforcement official who led the investigation.
Daniel alleged that the Youth Actors Company was a front for its operator to make money, and that the hall was nothing more than a low-dollar gambling operation. Neighbors of the hall testified that the place drew crime to the area. In July, the city revoked the bingo permits for the two nonprofits operating at the hall. On November 16, the Berkeley City Council voted to revoke the hall's use permit, essentially shutting down Berkeley's only large-scale bingo parlor.
As a result of the investigation, Daniel and his department also helped the council revise Berkeley's bingo ordinance. Tight restrictions in the new ordinance will likely prevent large-scale bingo halls like Gilman Street from cropping up in the city any time soon.
Ulysses Cooperwood, head of Youth Actors Company, took the majority of the heat for Gilman Street's downfall. William Carpenter, another bingo operator who was running games out of the hall two days per week at the time of the investigation, also endured plenty of criticism. City officials implicated both in allegedly running the games for their own personal gain.
But Cooperwood and Carpenter don't appear to have been the real moneymakers at the bingo hall. Cooperwood said that in 2009 -- the year the hall raked in $5.6 million -- he received no more than $11,000.
Instead, interviews suggest that the true bingo profiteer may have been Robert "Bob" Casteel, an experienced operator who has a reputation in some circles for being something of a Bingo Kingpin. Casteel has had his fingers in bingo halls in Oakland and Vallejo for years, and has been accused of muscling out competitors who try to run legit games. The stakes are substantial. Bingo games can attract 400 players a night who descend on the East Bay from throughout the West Coast. Evidence suggests that Casteel may have pocketed nearly a half-million a year from the Gilman Street hall alone. Indeed, after he got his cut, there reportedly was almost nothing left over — certainly not much for charity.
Neither Casteel nor an attorney who has said he represents Casteel returned numerous phone calls seeking comment for this story. But in court documents and public testimony, Casteel has adamantly maintained that he has done nothing wrong.
Either way, his role in the Gilman Street hall seems to have gone unnoticed by the City of Berkeley, even though it may have been the first city in the East Bay to take a bite out of his bingo profits.
Records suggest that problems at the Gilman Street hall began around 2000. By that time, the McDermott Family Limited Partnership, headed by George F. McDermott, had held a permit to run bingo games at 1284 San Pablo Avenue since 1986. From then until 2007, roughly 35 different nonprofits operated bingo games out of the space. Daniel said that by the time he began investigating the hall in October 2009, it already had a thick file of complaints and citations.
Jimmy and Carolyn Carter, who run the Meal Ticket restaurant across the way from the hall, spoke at a November 2010 public hearing about their experience living and working next to the bingo hall since 2001. "Since we have been there, there has been basically nothing but problems within the last ten years out of the bingo hall," Jimmy Carter said. "At one point, there was rampant drug dealing going on. At other points, other times, there's been brawls in the parking lot, and also overloading in the parking lot."
"The police have been called ... I can't even count the number of times," Carolyn Carter added. "There have been near riots at the property over the years."
The city began issuing citations for minor offenses. In 2005, an ATM was installed inside the hall without a zoning permit. In 2006 and 2008, code enforcement received complaints that bingo games were running as late as 1 a.m. — well past the mandated 10:30 p.m. closing time.
Then one day in late 2009, Daniel got a call from a woman who said she won a $1,000 prize at the hall but that a manager made her give back the money because he told her she had the "wrong numbers." The manager was not supposed to be awarding prizes in excess of $250, according to city code. Daniel also learned that on the same night, a gun had allegedly fallen out of Cooperwood's pocket while he was working at the hall. "After that," Daniel said, "we got more aggressive about it."