Three Finger Charlie’s, the bar and grill at 109 South State Street in Bunnell, just south of the intersection with State Road 100, was incorporated in July 2017 under one name, then again under that of Marnel Whitlock last September, though its Facebook page suggests it’s been around since 2014. It appeals to bikers, specialized in seafood and burgers, karaoke and Whitlock’s home-cooked meals.
On Tuesday, Whitlock, 57, was arrested and charged with running a “house of gambling,” as Florida law puts it–a felony–and with possession of gambling machines. She posted bail on $6,500 bond and was released. Her arrest is a reminder that state agents continue to scour the state, secretly examining businesses for unauthorized slot machines.
But it is only the latest legal problem for Whitlock and Three Finger Charlie’s, whose landlord, Hong Bennett of Flagler Beach, filed suit for eviction six days ago (on Dec. 19). The suit was filed in circuit court before the warrant for Whitlock’s arrest was issued. It cites $2,354 in past-due rent and a breach of the lease. (Monthly rent was $1,600.) Whitlock has been the subject of at least three small claims suits since 2015, according to court records. One of those judgments in September resulted in an order of garnishment of wages.
Undercover agents of the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages & Tobacco began investigating alleged illegal gambling activities at Three Finger Charlie’s in late July when agents saw three “illegal electronic casino style slot gambling machines” in the small business. They started playing. Whitlock told them to alert her if they won any money so she could verify the amount.
One machine was on top of the bar, displaying the familiar row of three video images that spin at each turn, with a slot to insert cash in denominations of $1, $5, $10 and $20. A dollar netted 20 credits. The machine took no coins. It had various buttons to push. The player was to decide how many credits to wager at each turn, hitting the “play/credit” button. The player then hits the “start” button. The column spin, “which is synonymous of slot machine games,” the arrest report states. If it’s a winning spin, the player has the option of rolling the take into more credits. The player could also “double up,” switching to a card game. The player gets to wager if the player’s hand is bigger or smaller than the machine’s. Correct guesses double the credit. A loss is a loss of all credits rolled up during the card game, but not necessarily the total, original credits tallied in the slot portion.
The player can keep playing either until losing all credits or until deciding to cash out, at which point Whitlock must be told so she can pay.
The two other machines had similarities, with the odd disclaimer, “for amusement only,” on the machines–a disclaimer that used to appear on machines during the internet-cafe gambling craze half a decade ago, until the Legislature banned that sort of gambling. The player is instructed to place a bet (“MIN BET PRESS PLAY”) and the spinning begins. The machines also have the option of playing the card game.
Cashing out, Whitlock “will write the player’s name, amount of credits earned and the amount of money won on the back of a Bank of America envelope. Each player is notified that no money is paid out on the day won, but the player must return on another day to receive payouts,” the arrest report states. Whitlock would instruct all winners to say they have “mail” when picking up winnings–code for “money.”
The undercover agents won $24 on July 24. Three days later they returned to Three Finger Charlie’s and got the money, played again, and won $20, returning on Aug. 3 to get their “mail.” The routine was repeated several times, with the agents winning a further of $124 on four more occasions over the next many weeks, and returning each time several days later to collect. Their last pick-up was on Nov. 29.
“On each occasion the Agents won more money than they spent playing the gambling machines,” the report states. “Each instance, [Whitlock] used a Bank of America currency envelope to write the Agent’s undercover name, amount of credits earned and the amount of money won on the back of the currency envelope. The envelopes were kept next to the cash register behind the bar. When returning to pick up the money won, the Agents had to tell the defendant they had returned to pick up the ‘mail.’”
Whitlock in conversations with an agent denied making monetary payouts and stated that the gambling machines were for amusement only.