High court reverses plea in casino chips case - Monday 28th of January 2008

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that defrauding a casino with its own gambling chips is no crime if the defendant doesnt place a bet.

Buying chips then exchanging them for an amount higher than face value does not violate the state law against attempting to commit a prohibited act on a gambling boat, the court ruled in Jefferson City.

The 4-3 decision reversed Eric Winfreys guilty plea in St. Charles County Court.

Winfrey, 38, of St. Charles, continues to face unrelated but much more serious allegations. He is jailed on first-degree murder and robbery charges in the shooting June 2, 2004, of Christopher Hanneken, 27, of Maryland Heights, at a storage facility on Highway 94.

In the gambling case, Winfrey admitted that in July 2004 he bought $180 in chips at Ameristar Casino then exchanged them with another cashier, his girlfriend, for $595 in cash. She was charged with stealing and violating riverboat gambling law.

Ameristar spokesman Mike Knopfel said Tuesday he knew of the case but was unaware of the state Supreme Court ruling. A representative of the attorney generals office, which opposed Winfreys appeal, could not be reached.

The Supreme Court determined Winfreys chip purchase and subsequent exchange did not violate state law, which requires the taking of something of value from gambling.

Judge Mary Rhodes Russell dissented, contending Winfrey is guilty because the chips only purpose is for use in casino games.

"The plain meaning of the statutes words encompasses Winfreys actions because, although he did not actually engage in a gambling game, the casino chips he used are intended solely for use in gambling games and, therefore, are directly connected to gambling," Russell found.

Winfrey pleaded guilty in St. Charles County Circuit Court of attempting to commit a prohibited act on a gambling boat and later filed an appeal. Circuit Judge Ted House sentenced Winfrey to seven years in prison on that charge.

But the Supreme Court ruled narrowly that Winfrey didnt violate the state law.

"The statute plainly requires proof that a person took money or something of value in or from the gambling games, which (state law) defines as games of skill or chance in a casino, not the casino itself," the court ruled. "As such, the plain language of the statute does not cover conduct that has no connection to any actual gambling game."

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