Pennsylvania Skill Games Caused Store Clerk Murder, Victim Family Claims

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Pennsylvania Skill Games Caused Store Clerk Murder, Victim Family Claims

On the night of December 12, 2020, in Hazelton Pennsylvania, a known local drug dealer, Jafet Rodriguez, entered Craig’s Food Mart, according to Luzerne County prosecutors.

Jafet Rodriguez
Jafet Rodriguez
Jafet Rodriguez, left, was captured on security video just before he allegedly shot Ashokkumar Patel in cold blood. He escaped in a dark Jeep Grand Cherokee, right. (Image: Luzerne County DA)

Dressed in a red sweatshirt, black gloves, and a black face mask with white skull teeth, Rodriguez shoved the clerk, Ashokkumar Patel, 50, into a closet and allegedly shot him in cold blood.

He proceeded to rob the store of more than $14,000, prosecutors claim, before fleeing into the night. Patel, a father of three, had been in the job for just one week. He managed to crawl to the phone to call 911 but died before was connected.

Now, Patel’s family are suing the store’s owners and the company that supplied them with controversial skill-gaming machines, Georgia-based Pace-O-Matic.

They claim the presence of these “illegal” machines turned Craig’s Food Mart, a gas station convenience store, into an “unsafe mini casino.” Albeit one that operated without the security measures that are expected of legal gaming operations.

‘Killing Machines’

Rodriguez, who was arrested in January 2021, was a regular player of the store’s gaming machines, according to the lawsuit. That’s how he knew there would be a large amount of cash on the premises, kept for instant cash payouts, and virtually no security, the lawsuit states.

There was no onsite private security, or even a bullet-proof shield or enclosure separating the employee from customers. Patel was mopping the floor when Rodriguez arrived, and totally vulnerable, according to his attorneys.

“Without the safety procedures and regulations, such as those at a licensed, regulated, taxed casino, violent criminals have identified these locations as soft targets with large amounts of cash,” said the family’s attorney Larry Bendesky in a statement.

“These illegal gambling devices have a long and nefarious history in our Commonwealth’s criminal justice history as magnets for violent criminals looking for an easy score,” he added. “As a result, the combative, controversial industry that refers to these devices as ‘skill games,’ and their partners at gas stations and other small businesses unequipped to handle these operations, needs to be held accountable for what in this case was clearly a killing machine.”

The Patels’ lawsuit includes claims of gross negligence and strict product liability that resulted from Patel’s death. It seeks compensatory damages, punitive or exemplary damages, interest and costs.

Are Skill Games Illegal?

The lawsuit also argues Pace-O-Matic’s gaming machines are illegal, which is currently a moot point in Pennsylvania and the subject of ongoing litigation.

Pace-O-Matic and other suppliers argue their games can’t be defined as slots or illegal gambling games because the element of skill involved outweighs the element of luck. That’s because the machines employ skill-based features, such as bonus games that require players to memorize intricate patterns.

In 2019, Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough ruled Pace-O-Matic’s games fitted the definition of slots as described in Pennsylvania’s Gaming Act. But she also determined the company was not in violation of the Act because it was not applicable to unlicensed slot machines, just the licensed and regulated variety.

Somewhat unhelpfully, she declined to be drawn out on whether the machines constituted “illegal gambling devices.”

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