Barely Noticed by Cops, Non-Tribal Poker Rooms Thrive in Phoenix

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Lee had a lifelong interest in poker and came up with an idea in 2005 to form a card players' association that would issue charters and business plans for off-reservation poker rooms. He convinced others that his plan was legal, and several poker rooms were launched by various owners under his tutelage. Lee claimed three years ago that he collected up to 15 percent of profits from the rooms' owners (something he now denies).

Lee ran a Sierra Vista card room that was investigated by officials who determined it was illegal and recommended felony charges against him, but then-Attorney General Terry Goddard declined to prosecute based on a "lack of resources."

The former JP took that as a green light to expand his operations, causing Goddard to revisit the issue.

State gaming agents raided a poker room affiliated with Lee's International Card and Game Player's Association, the Club Royale in Tucson, in December 2008, a few months after it opened. Undercover Department of Gaming agents spent many hours and hundreds of dollars at the club playing Texas Hold'em, and they later reported that the place sometimes brought in thousands of dollars a day.

The raid was preceded by a lawsuit against the club by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, which runs its own casino and accused Lee of stealing the tribe's business. He's convinced that the tribe, directed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, worked with the state to target him — though he admits he's got no proof of that. The club closed, and its two co-owners, Johnny Ray and Donna Rogers, later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor gambling violations.

Under state gaming director Brnovich, a lengthy investigation took place into another club linked to Lee, the Ace High Card Room and Social Club in Surprise. This time, Goddard charged Lee and two co-defendants with three felonies: conspiracy, illegal conduct of an enterprise, and giving advice or assistance to a gambling operation.

His partners, Ronald Curcio and Michael Orlando, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Lee at his trial. Orlando — a former New Jersey resident convicted of felonies in the 1980s, including illegal gambling, fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion — described in his plea agreement how fees collected from players at the club were used to pay him, Curcio, and Lee.

As the eight-day trial began, Lee hoped to put to use his research about the "evil" BIA and his theories of why poker, even when played for money, isn't really gambling. His court-appointed attorney advised against the tactic, but it didn't matter: The prosecution moved to prevent Lee from using these concepts as a defense, and the judge agreed.

"I couldn't even mention the Bureau of Indian Affairs!" Lee fumes. "I'm being attacked by a criminal organization!"

In early February, Lee was convicted of on all three felony counts. Not a single reporter showed up to Lee's March 7 sentencing hearing, which embitters the former "rock 'n' roll judge." In a recent interview with him and Schnaubelt, Lee grumbled that perhaps the "gambling cartel" somehow influenced the news media to keep his story quiet.

Thanks to the Internet, he doesn't have to rely on anyone to get his message out. A couple of weeks after he was sentenced, Lee bought two new domain names and launched the websites www.convictatlarge.me and www.convictatlarge.com. Both help promote a book he's writing called, Out of Bounds: The Untold Story of the Arizona Poker War — Professional Poker Players vs. BIA Gambling Syndicate. He also muses on two other sites: www.icgpa.org and www.pokerplayerarmy.com.

In Out of Bounds, Lee expounds on his notion that the gambling status quo hurts Native Americans. He takes on Andrew Jackson, a "real douchebag" who gets the blame for Native American genocide. And more important to Lee's cause, he calls Jackson the founding father of the BIA gambling cartel. Abolishing the reservation system and handing Indian land to the Indians, without BIA involvement, has been a theme of Lee's since before his indictment. The book sample also calls out gaming chief Brnovich as the culprit who "personally led the effort to railroad" him and his association.

Another focus on www.convictatlarge.me is his renewed 2005 petition to the U.S. government, which he updated and posted online on November 23. In a long essay, he links his criminal case to the history of Jackson and what happened to the Indians:

"I now consider the case to be [an] opening salvo in a revival of the so-called Indian Wars fought against the indigenous tribes later enslaved by agents from the [BIA]."

Lee, who moved from Tombstone to a Tempe apartment in 2010, is appealing his conviction and insists that his goal of having the BIA abolished has a chance, if his conviction is overturned.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.