Big gambling case hits a hurdle

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GREENFIELD — The case against a New Palestine man accused of running an illegal bookmaking business that took in more than $17 million in sports bets during a three-year period has hit a snag.

Prosecutors say a motion to suppress evidence in their case against Bret A. Wells could affect their efforts.

Wells, 48, 7000 block of Old Colony Drive, is facing six charges, including a Level 5 felony count for corrupt business influence relating to the enterprise, which netted Wells more than $1.8 million, according to an affidavit filed by investigators from the Indiana Gaming Commission in 2019.

Wells’ attorney, James H. Voyles, is seeking to throw out evidence investigators obtained from Wells’ cellphone because, Voyles argues, it was not part of a search warrant obtained by gaming commission investigators.

When officials searched Wells’ pickup truck and located the phone, the pickup was not at the specific address mentioned in the search warrant, Voyles argued in his motion to suppress the evidence. The warrant was for 20 North Depot Street, New Palestine, which is the location of Wells’ business. Wells was stopped about eight miles away on the day of the search, May, 29, 2019, the document states.

“The search of Wells’ truck and subsequent cellular phone were unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment…” the motion states.

The motion says that while investigators presumably had probable cause to obtain a search warrant on Wells’ residence, business and safety deposit boxes, they did not obtain a separate search warrant for his truck, suggesting seizure of the phone was off limits.

Chief deputy prosecutor Aimee Herring has taken over the case for the county, which is in Hancock County Circuit Court. Herring is prepared to argue that the search was proper because the truck is mentioned in the warrant for Wells’ shop.

“In general, when a court grants the defendant’s motion to suppress, it will limit the ability to present particular evidence,” Herring said. “Obviously, that would make a difference on what we could or cannot proceed on.”

Depending on the court’s decision, the outcome might force the prosecutor’s office to reconsider or amend charges against Wells, Herring said.

The gaming commission began investigating Wells in July 2018 for alleged gambling-related offenses.

Investigators describe an operation that in total made more than 176,000 betting transactions starting in January 2016. Based on information from a former business partner and surveillance by gaming commission investigators, Wells ran an operation that included seven agents who handled collections throughout eight counties in central Indiana.

The former business partner, who was not identified in court documents, saw Wells counting large sums of cash earned from his gambling operation, an affidavit said. The former business partner also said he went with Wells to pick up money and that Wells handled the gambling via two websites. Text messages obtained from Wells’ phone showed he directed bettors to those sites and provided passwords so they could access them, according to the affidavit. The text messages also detailed the network of bettors he worked with.

Investigators also conducted surveillance on Wells in 2018 and observed him going to bars in Indianapolis, which the business partner said Wells used as rendezvous points to collect money, according to the affidavit.

Investigators later began following him, and the surveillance revealed Wells met with numerous people for short amounts of time and exchanged packages, investigators said.

The investigation led to search warrants for the Wells home, his shop and safety deposit boxes. While there was no separate search warrant for the truck, the vehicle is referenced within the search warrant for the shop, according to records.

In addition to arguing that investigators illegally obtained evidence from what amounted to a warrantless search, Voyles’ motion also accuses law enforcement of an “unreasonable” search when police visited Wells’ business.

Wells gave law enforcement officers the keys to the business for them to gain entry and informed them that no one was inside, the motion says. But police used a battering ram, flash-bang grenades and other “excessive methods” to execute the search warrant on the shop, the defense argues.

Voyles is asking the court to suppress all evidence gathered from the search of Wells’ vehicle, his cellphone and his business.

Herring believes the county does have a good case against Wells. The investigation gathered large quantities of credible evidence, she said.

“This was an accumulation of quite a large tactical investigation,” Herring said. “It’s not just one piece of evidence that formed the basis for the probable cause.”

The timing of the case was interesting, because the Wells case came to light right before sports gambling changed in the state. Indiana lawmakers approved a wide-ranging gambling bill in April 2019 that was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in May 2019. The new law legalized sports wagering after six other states moved quickly following a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing it nationwide.

The new law not only had the effect of legalizing both land-based and online sportsbooks, but also put the Indiana Gaming Commission in charge of its regulation.

Indiana gambling history was made Sept. 1, 2019 when the first legal sportsbooks in the state began accepting wagers. History was made again when online sports betting in Indiana launched in October 2019.

Calls to the gaming commission to discuss the Wells case more were not returned.

A spokeswoman for the gaming commission said at the time that the Wells case was “the largest bookmaking bust the gaming commission has conducted on its own.” The spokeswoman said the timing of the charges against Wells was coincidental with the opening of legal sports betting and said the gaming commission’s role is to regulate consumer protection in a sector ripe for illegal activity.

In addition to the Level 5 felony count of corrupt business influence, Wells is facing a Level 6 felony charge of professional gambling and knowingly engaging in bookmaking; two Level 6 felony charges of promoting professional gambling; and two Level 6 felony charges of theft.

A hearing on the motion to suppress the evidence is slated for 9:30 a.m. Monday, May 10, in Circuit Court where Judge Scott Sirk will hear arguments from both sides. As of now, a jury trial is set for June 15.