COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - It all started as a burglary call.
Around 9:00 p.m. Sunday night, patrol officers were called to the Vista Park Shopping Center next to the Walmart on Buena Vista Road for an alarm going off at one of the businesses.
"They discovered what could be described as a back room gambling establishment. There was actually no burglary in progress. The officers were out there investigating the alarm call and as they always do, they were doing a thorough examination of the entire shopping center, just not the business that had the alarm call. While doing this, they discovered this operation in the back of the shopping center," explained Captain Gil Slouchick, who oversees the Columbus Police Department's Special Operations Unit.
Officers found people using illegal video gambling machines in an unmarked room that's not visible from the road- one many would never pay much attention to.
In all, police seized 11 machines and $2000 cash from inside the units.
The man allegedly running the operation, 61-year-old Ronnie Lockhart, was arrested and charged with commercial gambling, serving alcohol without a license and operating without a business license.
"I am shocked. I've been here for five years and I've never heard of anything going on back there or near here. That's just ridiculous. I would think after being here so long that I would have at least heard something but no. I'm really surprised," said Renee Smith, an employee at the shopping center.
Lockhart is being held in the Muscogee County Jail and is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing in Columbus Recorder's Court Tuesday at 2:00 p.m.
Police believe Lockhart was operating at night to stay under the radar of neighboring businesses.
Officials tell WTVM they do not know how long the gambling has been going on at the location but say the other businesses at the shopping center had nothing to do with it.
The machines and cash have been logged into the department's property and evidence collection.
Members of the Special Operations Unit say the machines are considered gambling devices and are therefore illegal under Georgia law. Also, officers say they were told by patrons using the machines that they were being paid in cash for their winnings- also illegal in Georgia, according to police.