Still open Internet cafes perplex neighbors

Still open Internet cafes perplex neighbors

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — The Kern County District Attorney's office has cracked down on so-called Internet cafes, saying the sweepstakes games they offer are really gambling.

So, neighbors have asked Eyewitness News why some facilities are still open, and they complained about more trouble at these locations.

"There's a lot of traffic, a lot of trash, a lot of loud noise," a woman complained near Bernard Street and Inyo. She said it's bad in the late night hours. And she didn't want to be identified, worried about a bad element at the café.

"I don't understand it at all," the neighbor told Eyewitness News on Friday. "I just hope that the D.A. will do their job and get our neighborhood back."

The Keeping it Reel Internet café was open. Only one man was inside, and he said his mother owns the facility. He said the café is open from 10 a.m. until 4 a.m. The small business was lined with a number of computers, and signs for "sweepstakes." A sign in front said, "win cash."

On Oak Street, other neighbors had complained to Eyewitness News about parking problems at the Hot Spot Internet café. Signs on the front door told customers more parking was available in back, and urged parking courtesy. Nine customers were inside on Friday morning. A woman behind a desk said no managers were available to comment.

In August, the Kern County District Attorney's office announced a judge had ordered nine other Internet cafes to stop their sweepstakes activities. At that time, several of those businesses told Eyewitness News the sweepstakes services were marketing promotions and not illegal. The D.A. had disagreed.

"What they're offering in exchange for  the money is actually the opportunity to win more money," Deputy D.A. Greg Pulskamp had told Eyewitness News. The true product is the gambling device."

The cafes say they're selling things like Internet minutes, prepaid phone cards, or other products and services.

One of the locations ordered to stop their sweepstakes was the Oz Café on F Street. On Friday it was still open.

"As of Aug. 7 we suspended the sweepstakes portion of our business," owner Phillip Walker said. His facility sells services like fax, copy and document-preparation. Walker says those are his products, which they still offer even after the sweepstakes games are gone.

"The difference being, is the products that we have here aren't moving as fast," Walker said. "Because people are not in here two, to three, to four hours."

Walker said his company is appealing the judge's order to stop the sweepstakes, and they're waiting for a ruling from an appeals
court. He insists the sweepstakes games he offered are like promotions at many fast food restaurants and grocery stores, but admits there are problems at some Internet cafes

"They're in it basically just for the sweepstakes, and that's when it's wrong," Walker said.

Deputy D.A. Greg Pulskamp told Eyewitness News on Friday his office is aware of the cafes that are open, and his office is "very concerned." Pulskamp said vice squad officers are investigating cases, and that takes a while.

He added that two of the nine cafes previously ordered to stop the sweepstakes will be back in court next week, and at that time the D.A's office will try to get preliminary injunctions ordered where the judge had approved temporary restraining orders.

Pulskamp said with the places they've investigated, officers got a lot of complaints.

"There was a dramatic increase in the number of vandalism incidents, drug use, and even allegations of prostitution," he'd told Eyewitness News in July. Pulskamp added that Kern County seems to be a hot spot for big companies providing game software, trying to bring the sweepstakes in.

Eyewitness News made calls to both the cafes in Bakersfield we found that are open. No calls were returned.

The neighbor in east Bakersfield is glad to hear the heat is still on the Internet cafes. She's not sure the sweepstakes are the root of the problems, but she worries about the customers they see.

"I want the D.A. To come in, investigate," the neighbor said. "And make sure that everything's on the up and up."