April 29, 2004 at 8:58 PM EST - Updated September 26 at 6:42 PM
Video poker machines. Fun for some, but a royal pain for law enforcement agencies. And, increasingly, the machines are hidden behind dark glass.
At Orange Walk Designs, the doors are locked, but the sign says "Open."
There's no hint from the outside what businesses like this sell. To find out, you have to talk your way in, or visit the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office.
Both Orange Walk Designs and B&W Sales have video poker machines registered there. But the doors are locked, and the blinds are drawn. Only after knocking on the door and ringing the bell, does someone crack the door.
Owning the machines is perfectly legal, but only if stores have them in plain view, have no more than three machines, and don't give cash pay outs.
So why do businesses go to such great lengths to hide what they're doing?
Brunswick County Sheriff Ron Hewett says it's because many shops allow customers to gamble behind the dark glass.
"They know their clientele, and they don't allow folks they don't know to come in," Hewett said. "And in the past that's how we busted them."
Brunswick County has gone undercover in the past, confiscating several of the machines.
Attempts to abolish the machines in North Carolina never go anywhere.
The legislature regularly considers a ban, but the bill stalls in the House of Representatives.
"Campaign contributions that have gone into pockets of those who are in position to make a decision on what bills get to the floor," Hewett said.
New Hanover County Republican Danny McComas won't talk about that, but does say he'd vote to ban video poker, just like lawmakers did in South Carolina in 2000.
"We all understand that these machines came from South Carolina without having a home," McComas said "And they found a nice home in North Carolina. And if South Carolina bans it, then maybe we need to look into the reasons South Carolina did away with them."
But the video poker industry is fighting to keep the machines legal in North Carolina.
"Video poker is a legitimate business," said Theresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Amusement Machine Association. "There are 1,200 registered machines in the state, and that's earning money for people to feed their families and put their kids through school."
But the outlets are, at the least, mysterious.
Kostrzewa says it's a harmless mystery.
"The people who are in the communities doing this business -- they are no more tied to the 'Sopranos' than you and I are," Kostrzewa said.
"Those who believe that the video poker industry is paying off in stuffed bunnies, also believe in the good Tooth Fairy and Easter bunny."