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Shell-game ring busted downtown

January 23, 2009 |  9:42 am

Los Angeles police have busted a shell-game ring that victimized dozens of downtown shoppers during the holidays, LAPD officials said.

At least 10 people were arrested Jan. 7 and charged with felony conspiracy to commit gaming in connection with the ring that operated on Los Angeles Street between 4th and 6th streets. The suspects are all Mexican nationals who reside across the city, police said.

The shell game is one of the oldest cons in the book. It involves quickly moving a small, round object beneath one of three shells or bottle caps mounted on a table or cardboard box. Operators flash a wad of cash to entice passersby and employ shills to make the game look winnable. By the time the victim chooses a shell, the object has already vanished, thanks to a sleight of hand.

"Some people look at this as fun and games, part of the street scene," said Lt. Paul Vernon of the Los Angeles Police Department. "But in reality it takes people's money and poses a great danger to their safety by attracting a more violent criminal element."

Vernon said the ring attracted local gang members, who began robbing unsuspecting players, sometimes assaulting them or knocking them to the ground. Police also are investigating whether a stabbing was related to the shell game ring.

Those arrested included Jesus Torivio, 77, the alleged "tosser" who manipulated the shells, and Javier Franco, 32, believed to be the group's enforcer, Vernon said. Police said they seized a butcher knife with a 4-inch-long blade from Franco. The suspects were arrested outside an electronics store at the corner of 5th and Los Angeles streets.

Shell games and three-card monte, a similar scam that uses cards instead of shells, have long been a problem on Broadway, where thousands of people go every day to shop. More recently, police have seen such activity migrate south toward Los Angeles Street.

Cracking down on gaming scofflaws is difficult for several reasons, Vernon said. For one, police have to catch suspects in the act. Those involved can break down their games and be gone in seconds, and they use lookouts who alert them when police are around. Vernon said such activities often go unreported "because some business owners accepted kickbacks or rent from gamers to set up near their establishments."

"While that may sound appealing to some, it's really bad business because it's attracting a criminal element and people are taking money out their own customers' hands," he said.

-- Andrew Blankstein