HANCOCK COUNTY — An illegal gambling operation based in New Palestine was so extensive that its operator retained lieutenants to help collect debts and make payouts with bettors in numerous counties, state investigators say.
One of those “agents” who allegedly assisted the enterprise was a former Indiana University basketball player whose interactions with the leader of the operation were observed multiple times by investigators, according to an affidavit.
The former player, Joe Hillman, who was a member of the 1987 IU team that won the NCAA championship, has not been charged. But the affidavit filed in support of charges against Bret Wells, the New Palestine businessman who allegedly ran the gambling operation, prominently mentions the ex-basketball star.
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According to the affidavit, Hillman was identified by Wells’s former business partner as an agent for the operation. The former business partner, whose information features prominently in the affidavit, told investigators with the Indiana Gaming Commission that Wells had seven agents who collected money for him. Once gaming commission investigators began trailing Wells, they watched him meet with Hillman on four occasions starting in November 2018. Each time, they met outside Hillman’s office on the north side of Indianapolis, the affidavit states.
On Nov. 6, 2018, Wells was seen pulling in front of Hillman’s office, in the 900 block of East 96th Street in Indianapolis. According to the affidavit, investigators watched Hillman come out of the business and hand Wells a white envelope.
A week later, on Nov. 13, Wells was seen meeting with someone in a car registered to Hillman in the parking lot outside Hillman’s workplace, the affidavit said. Wells was also seen at Hillman’s office on Nov. 27. According the affidavit, Hillman came out of his office and handed Wells a white envelope, and Wells left immediately.
On May 1, an investigator was standing close enough to Hillman outside his office to see a large sum of cash in Hillman’s hand as Wells approached for an exchange.
Three of the four meetings took place on Tuesdays, which the former business partner, who was not identified in the charging papers, told investigators was typically a “settle-up day.”
The Daily Reporter reached Hillman by phone at his office this week. He said he had no comment and didn’t know anything about the Wells situation.
Jenny Reske, deputy director of the Indiana Gaming Commission, said an operation of this size — Wells’s former business partner said the enterprise took in more than $17 million in a three-year period — frequently uses other people who assist the bookmaker by taking wagers, settling wagers, and doing other types of transactions as necessary to support the bookmaker.
The former business partner told investigators the agents received 20% of the proceeds for their work.
Reske said the investigation is continuing. It’s possible more charges will be filed. Evidence gathered by the gaming commission investigators and that provided by the former business partner identified an extensive network of bettors who illegally wagered on sporting events through Wells. Investigators poring over his text messages and computer after seizing them have uncovered a trove of leads.
Reske would not comment specifically on the pending investigation, but she noted many of the gaming commission’s cases generate new leads, which investigators can then pursue.
It’s common for gaming commission agents to pursue several related cases at the same time that are at different points in each investigation.
“Just because charges are filed in a case, doesn’t mean the commission isn’t following other related leads,” Reske said.
Reske described the Wells case as “the largest bookmaking bust the gaming commission has conducted on its own.”
The Hancock County prosecutor’s office moved forward with charges against Wells. He faces multiple felony counts and is free on bond after his arrest in late August. Prosecutor Brent Eaton said that so far, no one else in Hancock County is in legal jeopardy. However, the investigation is ongoing, and he wouldn’t rule out more charges in the future.
Chief deputy prosecutor Marie Castetter is handling the case. She said it is a noteworthy one. “The affidavit presented to our office from the Indiana Gaming Commission investigators refers to an organized pattern of behavior which led to the decision to file,” Castetter said.
According to the affidavit, Wells used two sports gambling websites to run the operation: lockandloadsports.com; and, after that site shut down, bigdogsportswagering.com. Hillman was identified as client No. C969 on lockandloadsports.com, the affidavit said.
According to information provided by the former business partner, Wells’s operation since January 2016 had taken in 176,124 bets totaling $17,127,590, the affidavit said. Wells’s profit from that activity was $1,826,862, investigators said. Bettors wagered on everything from the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight in August 2017 to New Palestine High School’s football playoff games in 2018, according to text messages investigators saw.
Bookmaking and betting through bookmakers is illegal. The multiple felony charges against Wells came just prior to the state allowing legal bets to be placed on professional and NCAA Division I college sporting events in Indiana at 13 casinos and off-track betting sites. That legal wagering at retail sites began Sept. 1.
Reske noted the timing of the charges against Wells was coincidental with the opening of legal sports betting. She said the gaming commission’s role is to regulate consumer protection.
“The change in law would not have impacted the legality of the activities Wells was undertaking,” Reske said.
“We assure that there are extensive protections in place for patrons and that they are offered a fair game,” Reske said.