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The Bingo Kingpin

When Berkeley concluded that its only major bingo hall was a scam, it apparently didn't realize who was pocketing the proceeds.



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Cooperwood had started managing bingo at the Gilman hall in February 2008 under a permit for a nonprofit named the Phyliss Elena Parker Foundation. Tax forms indicate that money from the Georgia-based foundation went to scholarships for kids. Then in July 2009, Cooperwood brought in the Youth Actors Company.

It was an idea he had from his own experience with acting classes, Cooperwood said in an interview. The city's accusation that the group was merely a front for his personal gain "simply isn't true," he said. When the city revoked his permit in July 2010, the Youth Actors Company was still struggling to get off the ground, he added. He claimed he had been scouting places to rent for classes and to put on performances. "We were definitely working toward that goal," he said.

Cooperwood also said that he donated $10,000 of the $11,000 net profit from 2009 to the nonprofit Inter-city Services, a Berkeley-based workforce training group. Rent and other overhead ate up the rest, he said.

Cooperwood said his intent was never to run bingo seven days per week on behalf of Youth Actors Company. In January 2010, Carpenter and his nonprofit, East Bay Charities, entered the Gilman Street scene to operate bingo two days per week. When Carpenter applied for a permit at the hall, he was simultaneously running a game in Hayward for the same nonprofit.

Daniel said he fielded complaints about both operators handing out prizes that exceeded the city's $250 limit. Code enforcement sent Carpenter and Cooperwood letters informing them that they were violating city code. Cooperwood replied with letters of his own, quoting state law that sets prize limits at $500, and said that offering anything less could drive the hall out of business.

Competition for bingo players in the East Bay is fierce, and pricing is key. "You must be able to get a base" of customers, Cooperwood explained. He conceded to offering prizes over the city's limit, but said that without offering those prizes, Gilman Street would have no competitive edge over bingo halls at Foothill Square and Durant Square in Oakland. Nearly everyone was handing out $1,000 door prizes, he said. "We weren't doing anything so unusual, so out there, so outrageous," he said. "The only thing I was looking for was an even playing field."

Cooperwood said that if anything is outrageous, it's the accusations that have been tossed around about guns and drugs at the hall. He also said the hall brought much-needed business to local business owners. Even Carolyn Carter acknowledged in an interview that the now empty storefront of the Gilman hall isn't great for their business.

The Gilman Street hall built a loyal following of regular bingo patrons that were treated like family, Cooperwood said. In an effort to keep the hall open, Cooperwood presented Daniel with a petition from these players, including names, addresses, and phone numbers.

But Daniel used the information to dig deeper into his investigation. "We just started calling people," he said. The players quickly revealed what Daniel already suspected: the hall's zoning violations were plentiful. And now he had proof. "They were just spilling beans left and right," he said.

The further Daniel got into his investigation, the more he began to understand the stakes. On any given evening of the week, the Gilman Street hall was packed with between 300 and 400 gamers, he said. "We had no idea how huge the bingo subculture is," Daniel said. "There were people coming here from Reno to play bingo."

There was big money to be made from that kind of following. But Cooperwood said he didn't see very much of it, adding that that this was one important fact that the City of Berkeley failed to recognize. "Bingo is such a strange creature," he said. "Most city officials don't know anything about it."

After payouts to players, he said, most of the money went to rent for the facility and the "card minding" machines — electronic machines that allow patrons to play hundreds of bingo cards at once. The monthly rent for the facility and the machines totaled $52,000, which Cooperwood said all went to local bingo mogul Bob Casteel. In other words, by the end of 2009, bingo games at the Gilman hall, according to Cooperwood, raised $11,000 for charity and grossed $624,000 for Casteel.

In 2007, the McDermott family informed the City of Berkeley in a letter that Casteel would be acting on behalf of the McDermott Family Limited Partnership relating to anything "bingo" at the Gilman hall. David Koski, a self-proclaimed representative for the McDermott family, said at a November 2010 public hearing that the McDermotts brought in Casteel because they had been having some trouble at the hall. And Casteel, Koski said, had ten years of experience operating bingo halls around the East Bay.

Casteel is the bingo operator — essentially the landlord — for both the Foothill Square Bingo Hall in East Oakland and 777 Bingo, a large hall in Vallejo. "We wanted somebody who had verifiable credentials that had run bingo in other areas of the Bay Area that knew what they were doing," Koski said. "The only thing that the McDermott Family Limited Partnership was doing was collecting rent from Mr. Casteel."

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