MACON, Ga. — Coin-Operated Amusement Machines--they're not illegal, but law enforcement says they're often used for illegal gambling when stores provide cash prizes.
The machines have become the center of a lawsuit, as a homicide victim's family has filed against an east Macon convenience store.
The lawyer who's representing them? David Cooke. As district attorney, he raided and prosecuted several convenience stores and other businesses accused of those machines for illegal gambling.
When he was district attorney, Cooke said legislators should outlaw these gambling machines.
He argued they're addictive, and that often, store owners bribe law enforcement and politicians to turn away as they illegally collect money. That failed.
But now, after losing the election in 2020, he says he's continuing his fight to hold the coin-operated gaming industry accountable.
April 2021, 27-year-old Greg Watkins Jr. was standing inside the Quick Serve convenience store on Emery Highway when he was gunned down.
"Just normal common duty of care, security measures that any store would normally make, the difference is because they were essentially running a criminal enterprise, they didn't want off-duty sheriffs here to ensure the safety of their patrons," Cooke said.
With that, Watkins family last week filed a wrongful death suit against the store owners, saying illegal gambling, a lack of security and negligence caused Watkins' death.
The suit also details a string of crime at the store owners ignored.
Just since Watkins was murdered in April 2021, there's been at least one armed robbery, aggravated assault, and then a double homicide this past February.
"And of course, it's had issues with machines in the past as well," Cooke said, about a topic he knows well. He prosecuted the former owner of the store and the man listed in the suit Krunal Patel.
Patel pleaded guilty to commercial gambling after authorities raided the Quick Serve back in 2014.
"There's no doubt in my mind that until these companies are held accountable, something like this will happen again," Cooke said.
Cooke says this is an example of why stores like these should be illegal. They recruit crime. They're addictive. Operators target poor neighborhoods, he says.
"They're already down to their last hope, their last dollar. The last thing they need is to put another form of addiction in their neighborhood," Cooke said.
According to the county's list last updated in August 2021, there's a total of 1,057 COAM machines across 166 locations in Bibb County. Most concentrated in some of Macon's poorest neighborhoods--Houston Avenue, Mercer University Drive, Shurling Drive, Pio Nono Avenue, and Bloomfield--just to name a few.
According to DA Anita Howard, they do not believe game machines at the store had anything to do with Watkins' death. Prosecutors say it was an alleged revenge shooting stemming from a previous, unreported robbery of the accused murderer at a different location.
We reached out to store owners several times and spoke to a clerk Wednesday.