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LAPD busts downtown shell game ring

December 9, 2009 | 10:10 am

It's that time of the year again. There's a chill in the air. Holiday shopping goes into overdrive. And Los Angeles police warn residents that con artists are out in force, eager to separate unsuspecting victims from their money.

A case in point: LAPD officers arrested eight people between the ages of 27 and 67 over the weekend downtown on suspicion of conspiracy to commit gaming in connection with a shell game operation. The suspects set up shop in the 500 block of Los Angeles Street, said LAPD Lt. Paul Vernon.

They are believed responsible for dozens of grand thefts and robberies valued in the thousands of dollars.

"Any shopper who thinks they can parlay gift money into a big wad of cash is going to be sadly disappointed," Vernon said. "No one ever wins in a shell game and what's worse, much of the money lost goes right into the pockets of gang members, who tax gambling rings."

The shell game involves "a tosser" or "dealer" who quickly moves a small, round object beneath one of three shells or bottle caps mounted on a table or cardboard box. To make the game more enticing, a shill is employed to give the appearance that the game is winnable.

By the time the victim chooses a shell, the dealer's sleight of hand already has removed the object. The shell game rings that have been operating downtown also tend to attract gang members, Vernon said.

As in past cases, the latest scheme drew local gang members who began robbing unsuspecting players, sometimes assaulting them or knocking them to the ground. Those arrested included the alleged ringleader, identified as 42-year-old Juan Arroyo.

The "tossers" who manipulated the shells included Santana Valencia, 67, and Adrian Sanchez, 42, Vernon said. All those arrested were Mexican nationals.

The last big arrests involving street gambling was in January, when at least 10 people were arrested in connection with a ring that operated on Los Angeles Street between 4th and 6th streets.

Shell games and three-card monte, a similar scam that uses cards instead of shells, have long been a problem on Broadway, which draws thousands of shoppers a day. More recently, police have seen such activity migrate east toward Los Angeles Street.

The difficulty with such street gambling is that police have to catch suspects in the act. Those involved can break down their games and be gone in seconds, and they often use lookouts who alert them when police are around.

These activities often go unreported because some business owners accepted kickbacks or rent from gamers to set up near their establishments, Vernon said.

-- Andrew Blankstein