SEBASTIAN — For more than a year, four game rooms have remained open amid the slowly turning wheels of justice.
In this tiny rural community dubbed “Little Las Vegas,” the case’s legal wrangling has left many residents flustered and confused.
Since August 2018, a judge’s order granting temporary restraining orders has allowed the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost to remain open after Willacy County’s tough, new law shut them down months earlier.
Earlier this year, state District Judge Adolfo Cordova set an Aug. 19 trial to decide whether the county unfairly denied the eight-liner arcades permits to operate.
But before the case went to trial, the game rooms appealed Cordova’s latest order to the 13th Court of Appeals.
Now, the eight-liner arcades remain open, apparently pending their appeal.
“The legal system is letting us down because they keep stalling,” resident Joe Salinas said Friday. “It’s a tactic. They’ve been pushing it back and pushing it back, one thing after another. People are wondering if the case has fallen by the wayside. What’s going to happen to this little town?”
At the sheriff’s department, Maj. Andres Maldonado said he’s keeping an eye on the game rooms to make sure they don’t pay winners illegal cash prizes.
“We’ll continue to monitor them and conduct periodic inspections on them,” Maldonado said.
Attorney Robert Flores, who is representing the game rooms, did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Annette Hinojosa, who serves as county attorney, declined comment because the case remained in court.
Ricardo Morado, the attorney contracted to represent the county in the case, did not respond to a message requesting comment.
On Thursday, Flores requested the court grant him an extension to file his explanation for the game rooms’ appeal of Cordova’s June 26 order.
The case’s appeal stems from Cordova’s order granting the county’s request to dismiss the game rooms’ demands for “business disparagement and exemplary damages,” arguing the court lacks authority to rule on those claims.
Now, Cordova has set a Jan. 9 hearing in the case.
“We’re just waiting for the courts to finally resolve the issue,” Stanley Gonzales, who is working with Salinas to drive the game rooms out of town. “It has to run its course.”
But like many residents, Salinas believes attorneys have dragged out the case to allow the game rooms to remain open.
“We’ve lost faith in the legal system,” Salinas said. “We’re going on our fourth year with the game room problem.”
‘Little Las Vegas’
More than three years ago, about 10 game rooms opened along this farming community’s narrow streets, turning this town into a destination for players across the region.
Like Salinas, many residents expressed concern the game rooms would lure organized crime into town.
Meanwhile, residents like Cheto Garcia argue the game rooms are a nuisance.
Across the street from Garcia’s home, the Silver Outpost set up shop in what’s apparently a converted brick house next to a Family Dollar store near Interstate 69.
At night, glaring headlights splash into Garcia’s bedroom as cars pull into the game room just off Interstate 69.
The new ordinance
For years, Sheriff Larry Spence helped push county commissioners to approve an ordinance regulating game rooms in the county’s unincorporated areas.
After the game rooms opened here, Garcia, Salinas and Gonzales joined the drive for a local law.
Then in February 2018, county commissioners approved the new ordinance to regulate game rooms in the vast unincorporated areas.
Soon, the ordinance, which required code inspections, led the game rooms to shut down.
Under the ordinance, game rooms are required to operate at least 300 feet from homes, schools and churches — and 2,500 feet from other eight-liner arcades.
It also hits game room owners in the pocketbook, setting fines of $10,000 a day for violations.
Meanwhile, the game rooms were required to re-apply for permits to operate their businesses.
How we got here
After the sheriff’s department reviewed applications, the county granted permits to three game rooms.
In response, the Silver Star Game Room, Silver Express Game Room, La Victoria Game Room and the Silver Outpost argued the county unfairly rejected their applications, denying them their due process rights.
In August 2018, Judge Migdalia Lopez granted the four game rooms their requests for temporary restraining orders, allowing them to re-open until they make their case in court.
Last February, Cordova denied the game rooms’ requests to remain open under temporary injunctions, setting the Aug. 19 trial.
After the February hearing, Flores said he would recommend the owners close until they get their day in court.
But the next day, the four game rooms re-opened.