Seven of the nine people charged last year with commercial gambling after a raid of a horse racing track near Gillsville pleaded guilty to reduced charges Wednesday.
The owner of the track off Three Bridges Road, 51-year-old Vincente Escandon, remains the only defendant pending trial in the case, which at its height involved 11 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
On Wednesday, Juan Guttierez-Cruz, 41, Rupereo Cruz-Guiterrez, 39, Jose Rafael Sargoza-Miranda, 32, Anicito Paunco-Garcia, 45, Rigoberto Salcido, 39, Jose Luis Panuco, 43, and Jose Panuco, 37, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in a negotiated plea that requires them to testify against Escandon at trial.
At the recommendation of Assistant District Attorney Greg Radics, they were sentenced by Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal to 12 months of probation, fined $1,000 and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.
A jockey initially charged with commercial gambling, 19-year-old Daniel Perez-Angulo, had the charged dismissed earlier by a magistrate court judge.
Law enforcement officials heralded the April 30, 2006, raid of Escandon’s farm as a bust on a major gambling operation, where more than 200 people were on hand to watch horses race along a straight, quarter-mile dirt track as a public address system blared.
Authorities said the track was a major illegal gambling operation, noting that some $60,000 in cash was seized.
Escandon’s attorney, Arturo Corso, on Wednesday refuted the charges against his client. Corso was in court to watch Escandon’s co-defendants enter guilty pleas.
"I think this deal reflects the strength of the state’s case," Corso said outside court.
Corso noted that several of the co-defendants denied any personal knowledge of widespread gambling at the track when they testified in court as a condition of their plea Wednesday.
"These guys have told the
exact same story from the day they were arrested to the day they testified in court," Corso said. "None of these guys took a bet or placed a bet."
Corso said his client’s property was more like a "Mule Camp Festival," with races, food and beverages being sold.
"The state’s trying to make it like it was this organized gambling operation, like the Kentucky Derby, and that’s just not the case," Corso said. "Was there some gambling going on between individuals? Probably so. But was it some kind of organized gambling venture? Absolutely not."
Corso contends his client, who he says is a legal permanent resident of the United States, is being targeted because authorities want to seize the 30 acres he owns through forfeiture proceedings.
Escandon is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 5.
Deal ordered the defendants who pleaded guilty Wednesday not to attend any horse races in Georgia during their probation.