The Odessa City Council and Ector County commissioners are both in the process of amending their game room ordinances, but Ector County’s top cops and the district attorney all say most game rooms are not any more of a law enforcement problem than many other businesses.

Council members and commissioners have expressed their dismay about the explosion of game rooms over the last couple of years, saying they bring an unwanted element into neighborhoods and take money from the poor and elderly. They’ve also suggested many of them are engaged in illegal gambling.

Records obtained from the city and the county through the Texas Public Information Act show there are currently 26 game rooms operating within city limits and 35 within unincorporated Ector County.

To give an idea of the explosion, eight game room permits were granted by Ector County authorities in 2020 and 30 were granted last year. In the city, 25 were granted last year compared to 19 the year prior.

Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis and Odessa Police Department Chief Mike Gerke are convinced a certain number of the game room operators are certainly engaged in illegal gambling. In fact, Ector County District Attorney Dusty Gallivan has filed several civil forfeiture cases based on OPD undercover operations, seizing tens of thousands of dollars from individual game rooms.

However, in terms of calls for service, Griffis and Gerke agree game rooms are not causing an increase in priority calls — calls that require a rapid response due to their violent nature.

As a result, neither agency considers game rooms at the top of their priority list.

“Our patrol deputies knows which ones are the frequent flyers, but we don’t see a lot of traffic at a majority of them,” Griffis said. “Most people can go to a game room and spend the day there in peace.”

The Green Gameroom is seen pictured Friday, April 22, 2022 on Andrews Highway. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

Game rooms aren’t even in the top third on OPD’s priority list, Gerke said.

“It’s not the top 50%. When you look at what we do, we concentrate on violent crimes and things that cause that violent crime…and when you look at homicides and aggravated assaults and that sort of thing in Odessa, you really have two causes. One is narcotics, money and you know, crimes of passion and that’s not really something that we’re seeing from game rooms,” Gerke said.

From April 11, 2020 to April 11, 2022, OPD has responded to roughly 440 calls to game rooms and the ECSO has responded to about 120 calls. Reports were only required in roughly 30% of the calls.

The calls that required reports included robberies, burglaries, drugs and stolen vehicles. The calls not requiring reports included alarms being set off, traffic stops and officers checking out people and vehicles reported as suspicious.

Traditionally, Gerke said bars have been a “much bigger issue” for OPD than game rooms, but also noted it all depends on who is operating the bar or the game room.

Gerke and Griffis said some games rooms account for an inordinately high percentage of the calls, but many aren’t problematic at all.

Of the 61 game rooms, five did not summon the police at all during the two-year period studied and several had fewer than 20 calls in that 24-month period.

On the other hand, the Palace Game Room on East Highway 80 accounted for 16% of OPD’s game room calls over that time period. OPD officers responded to the game room 72 times and took 22 reports. In a couple of instances, the reports involved people with guns, other times reports were filed after traffic stops were performed and suspicious people were detained.

Owner Hai Nyguyen referred a reporter to his son for an interview. The son’s cell phone did not accept calls and he did not respond to repeated texts.


While Gerke, Griffis and Ector County District Attorney Dusty Gallivan are not alarmed by game room-related crime rates, they do harbor suspicions that some could be engaged in illegal gambling.

They have some reason to believe so.

In December 2019, March 2021 and May 2021, undercover OPD officers were provided cash instead of credits while playing at a handful of game rooms. As a result, OPD seized more than $125,000 with former District Attorney Bobby Bland and Gallivan arguing the currency was contraband being used in the commission of a felony and subject to seizure and forfeiture.

Currently, there are four defendants awaiting trial in Ector County District Court on criminal charges of engaging in organized criminal activity in connection with those undercover operations. One defendant, Nelson Keith Fleming, was sentenced to two concurrent federal prison sentences of 120 months and three years’ probation last September.

There is no doubt some of the game rooms are engaged in illegal gambling, the men said.

Game rooms are seen pictured Friday, April 22, 2022 along Andrews Highway. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

“Most of them are,” Gallivan said. “Just thinking from a patron standpoint, why would I go to one who was following the rules and get a $5 trinket when I go to the one next door and get 25 bucks cash or whatever it is they’re paying out.”

But they also agree they have other priorities and too few sworn personnel to conduct additional undercover operations.

“It just depends on resources, that’s the big thing,” Gerke said. “It’s resources and availability of personnel. We look at the social harm that crime causes and we concentrate on those things that cause the most social harm. We look at homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries. Those are the things that are most important to us.”

Gallivan agreed.

”Bottom line, in my opinion, is there a game room problem? Yes. However, we also have a violent crime issue we’re dealing with and with limited resources, we tend to focus on the violent crimes.” Gallivan said. “We have basically one or two murders every month in trial until the end of the year. In between those we have aggravated sexual assaults. We have sexual assaults of children, child molestation. I am much more interested in getting a pedophile off the street than I am some little old lady who is spending her security check in the game rooms.”


Sonia Portillo and Armida Acosta said they have been working in the game room industry for years. Most recently, Portillo has been managing the Diamond Game Room and Acosta has been working as a part-time employee at the Golden Star Game Room.

They insist their game rooms are operated above board and the vast majority of their clients are bored senior citizens. They both feel as though the City of Odessa is unfairly targeting game rooms lately, considering how much money the city takes in via sales tax revenues and permitting fees.

They also claim that over the last two weeks, OPD officers have been issuing citations for ordinance violations that they never considered a problem before.

Acosta said the Golden Star was inspected on April 16 without a single citation being written, but she received 70 citations the very next day because the serial numbers on each of the businesses’ 70 machines were on the side of the machine, not the upper right corner on the front.

Each ticket comes with a $280 fine.

The owner of the Golden Star shut down that day to rectify the issue and the game room remains shut down, Acosta said.

Portillo shut the Diamond Game Room down for three days once she heard about the serial number issue so she could take care of her machines and then shut down again four days later after hearing some game rooms were receiving citations for not having log books detailing each machines’ maintenance schedule.

“Some game rooms are feeling intimidated. I know of one game room that was visited six times in one week,” Portillo said.

Two other game room owners, Scott Le and Cuong Vo, acknowledged they’ve shut down their game rooms to address the serial number issues, but declined to comment further.

Attempts to reach 23 game room owners were unsuccessful. Someone responding to a text sent to Lai Nguyen, owner of Lai Game Room, responded “U are crazy. U want this city become dead? No entertainment,” but didn’t respond to further texts.

The Green Gameroom is seen pictured Friday, April 22, 2022 on Andrews Highway. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

Gerke acknowledged some people might believe OPD officers aren’t conducting inspections despite being shorthanded because of the city council’s current discussions about game rooms.

However, he insisted OPD officers routinely perform inspections on game rooms. He also denied they were issuing citations they’ve never issued before.

“There was no directive from the city council other than it was mentioned during city council meetings that we have issues with these businesses,” Gerke said. “A sergeant who works in the chief’s office took it upon himself to do this. He knows the issues that are happening, but again it’s not an irregularity to do this, to be seen in these businesses.”

It’s no different than officers doing extra patrols in a specific neighborhood because of an increase in burglaries or because of a fatal crash attributed to a speeding motorist, Gerke said.

As for the manpower issue, Gerke said they’ve got enough officers to do the inspections, but not enough to do the type of undercover operations that would be required to investigate illegal gambling.


Gallivan, Gerke and Griffis also agree on another thing. They all want the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Legislature to decide if game rooms are illegal and unconstitutional.

The 2nd Court of Appeals recently decided the 8-liner machines favored by most game rooms are a lottery and thereby unconstitutional under Texas law, but that decision is expected to be appealed.

”The laws are not very clear. It’s somewhat difficult to enforce. And the legislature needs to make up their mind to either make them legal or illegal. None of this in the middle stuff,” Gallivan said.