When Billy Ray Meacham moved into the attractive, baby-blue house on Rowell Avenue in Manhattan Beach around April 1, the neighbors thought he was a nice, friendly guy.
He told some of them that he and the other men who would be living in the leased house were constructing ramps for the Century Freeway and wanted to be close to the job.
"We hoped they'd be nice people," said one neighbor, who asked for anonymity.
But when 24 officers from three police agencies raided the house at 3 a.m. last Saturday, they didn't find slumbering workmen. Instead, police say, they walked into a home-style gambling casino offering poker, blackjack, craps and pool to a thirtyish, working-class crowd. Drinks reportedly were sold from a fully stocked bar.
Manhattan Beach Police Sgt. Dale Reissig, one of the first officers to enter the spacious house, said the raid shocked the 38 people inside who were gambling, drinking and nibbling sandwiches against a subdued background of stereo music. "There were no happy campers in the bunch" after police arrived, he said.
Police arrested four people who were allegedly conducting the operation on gambling charges. A fifth person was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession but was not charged, authorities said. The customers were interviewed, photographed and released.
The discovery also startled residents of the hilly neighborhood of expensive, well-landscaped homes--including those who had wondered about the parked cars and late-night foot traffic to and from the house.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed misdemeanor gambling charges Tuesday against Meacham, 52, of San Juan Capistrano; William Moritz, 53, of Los Angeles, the other purported operator of the games; Nanci Nowicki, 29, of Torrance, an alleged dealer, and Roxane Elliott, 28, of Hawthorne, who was allegedly tending bar. Meacham and Moritz were also charged with permitting gambling in the house.
According to the clerk of the South Bay Municipal Court in Torrance, Meacham, Moritz and Nowicki are free on their own recognizance and will be arraigned June 7. Elliott is in custody awaiting a bail hearing, and arraignment has not been set.
Reissig said the raid by Manhattan Beach and Torrance police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department climaxed a monthlong investigation that began with citizen complaints and anonymous tips and included sending undercover officers into the house. He said it was the first home casino broken up in the city in "eight or nine years."
Reissig said the alleged gaming operation, which went undetected for three weeks before the complaints began, tried to appear like "just another party in the neighborhood."
Gambling was allegedly conducted Friday and Saturday nights between midnight and dawn, becoming busiest after bars closed at 2 a.m. Crowds typically ranged from 20 to 35 people.
Customers were solicited by word of mouth in Lennox and Torrance bars, Reissig said, and the casino even had a business card advertising unspecified after-hours games and entertainment.
Reissig said there was "no evidence of heavy betting," judging by the $1, $5 and $10 chips and the confiscation of only $1,000 in cash at the time of the raid. "This was a bar crowd, regular folks, working people," he said.
Most of the gaming equipment was homemade, police said. The house--which included a converted garage, a swimming pool and a pool house--was decorated with liquor ads, a framed exotic car poster and pictures of women in bikinis. Police seized the gaming equipment and a semiautomatic pistol.
Reissig said police were called after neighbors became suspicious when the "party" went on weekend after weekend. One resident, who requested anonymity, said the local Neighborhood Watch leader lives next door to the alleged casino and was angered because noise from the house kept her awake.
The resident said some neighbors thought prostitution was being conducted in the house. On Mother's Day, starting at 3 a.m., she said, she counted 35 to 50 people going to and from the house over a 3 1/2-hour period, including a man and a woman who "stood on the walk making out." Parking spilled over into a four-block area, she said.
"They were idiots to do this," she said of the purported gamblers. "People in Manhattan Beach are not low-class bimbos. We are aware."
Reissig said the property owner was not involved in the alleged gambling operation.
Nahid Bani-Hashemi, a Long Beach resident who with her husband owns the Rowell Avenue house, said a reporter's call was the first knowledge she had of the alleged gambling operation. She said that on March 26, she leased the house for a year at $2,250 a month to Meacham and another man whose name she could not recall. "They said they were freeway construction people," she said.
If some people in the neighborhood were suspicious of goings-on at the house, many others were not. Les Dergan, who lives around the corner, said his wife made a $500,000 offer to buy the Rowell Avenue house before it was rented in March. "I assumed musicians lived there," he said.