Story by Brad Willis
Twelve years ago, an amateur poker player from Tennessee won the main event at the World Series of Poker, and suddenly, the entire world wanted to play Texas Hold ’em. The craze spawned countless underground poker rooms. Greenville, S.C., was one of the South’s hottest underground poker towns — until the whole thing went sideways in a hail of gunfire. This week, as the 2015 WSOP draws to a close, The Bitter Southerner will tell you a week-long story about that night in Greenville — and the South’s twisted relationship with legal poker.
This wasn’t going to be like the last time.
Aaron Awtry wasn’t going to take the beating. It wouldn’t be like the night the man in the ski mask put a chrome snub-nosed revolver in his face and told him to get down. Awtry wouldn’t fight his arthritic 72-year-old body as he tried to crouch onto the floor. He wouldn’t look up to the pistol coming down on his head. He wouldn’t feel the blood running off his white-haired scalp while the robber took all the money and ran out the door. That’s how it had been last time.
This time, Awtry relaxed alone in a back room with a game of solitaire on the table in front of him. He had the TV remote at his right hand and a half-bottle of water at his left. His hearing aids were out of his ears, and the dozen poker players in the 588-square foot house were just white noise. This time, Awtry was ready. There were two-by-fours bracketed over the doors. There were black curtains in the windows. And there was the gun.
The crash that hit the front door shook the tiny mid-century house on its foundation. Even through his time-muffled old ears, Awtry thought he heard a car driving through the front of 502 Pine Knoll Drive in Greenville, S.C..
A warning shot could scare the robbers away. He’d seen it work before. So as he ran from the back room through the short galley kitchen, Awtry raised the Glock 9mm. Whatever was trying to come through the front door wasn’t having much luck. There were splinters flying, and the crashing was relentless. Some people would say Awtry tripped as he started to fire the first warning shot, but that excuse would never matter to the people on the other side of the door.
Two rounds came out of the Glock. One went through the door, the other through the light switch on the right.
The little house was on the outskirts of Greenville, a city honored in national Top Ten lists for everything from best downtown, to best restaurants, to best vacation spots. Magazine writers struggled to find enough superlatives to describe the city’s modern New South vibe.
What was about to happen was not the kind of thing the Convention and Visitors Bureau puts in its brochures. The county of nearly half a million people was about to see a violent story unfold, a story both 200 years in the making and unlike anything in its modern history.
It wasn’t going to be like last time.
This time it was going to be worse than Awtry in all of his 72 years could’ve imagined it would be.
For Matt May, if it went like the last time he saw the old man, it would make for a good night. The last time, the door was no trouble. Nobody fought back. There was the matter of the guy who hid from them in the rafters, but even that had ended well.
There was no reason to believe this time wouldn’t be just as easy. The door looked flimsy, the old man was another year older, and they had been casing the place for two months.
Just after 9 p.m., May’s driver rolled the van onto Pine Knoll and stopped about 30 yards short of the house. The van’s headlights went dark.
May wasn’t even supposed to be on the battering ram that night. He’d given up the duty of knocking down doors to somebody else.
There are a lot of roles on the vice squad. One guy holds the hooligan, a combination axe/pick/crowbar multitool used to break into houses and cars. Another guy serves as the scribe, the one who writes down everything the deputies collect on a raid. There are guys with assault weapons, others with sidearms and others who guard the perimeter. At 31 years old, May wanted a new experience. The ram, in his words, “had gotten old.”
But that night, his sergeant pulled him aside and told May he needed to take the ram on this one. He had more experience than the new guy, and there was a chance the house they were hitting would be fortified.
“It was a last-minute thing,” May said. “He asked me to do it, and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’”
May was first in line as the 10-deputy entry team crept out of the shadows and into the light in front of the little house. They’d just watched a man step inside. Now, it was May’s job to break down the door.
Everything had been routine, even casual up to that point. The raid team had assembled in the parking lot of the Hejaz Shrine Temple less than a mile away, directly across the street from a one-time poker club called The Depot.
May was just as casual. This wasn’t a big-time drug raid. It was an old man’s poker house.
“I’ve been nervous on search warrants before, but those were ones we knew that there were evil men on the other side of the door,” he said.
The vice team knew Awtry and knew he’d been robbed in the past. Many of the men on the lawn that night, including May, had raided one of Awtry’s poker rooms before and found a shotgun and pistol. Nobody had ever pointed a gun at them, but the guns had been there nonetheless. For that reason, the vice team had applied for and received a so-called “no-knock warrant.” The only knocking would be the sounds of Deputy May’s ram.
Less than 30 seconds after the door closed and locked again, May stood to the left of the short flight of concrete steps that led to the front entry. There was a locked storm door, so he and Deputy Bradley Griffin popped it open with the hooligan. May then reared back and slammed the ram into the door.
Tools like May’s ram are meant to carry thousands of pounds of force and knock a door clean open on the first hit. When May swung, Deputy Chad Ayers, clutching a Colt M4 .223 rifle, was ready to be the first inside. He’d already started lunging that direction when May’s ram bounced off the door and fell toward the ground.
May, Ayers, and the other deputies looked at the ram for half a second as if to say, “That’s not supposed to happen.”
May put a foot on the concrete steps and hit the door again four more times. The door splintered but didn’t budge.
May and the vice squad knew that some of the poker rooms around town had started using magnetic door locks, and they knew that those doors needed to be hit at a different angle. Looking annoyed, May climbed up on a little stoop that held up the steps on their left side. It had better footing and gave him another angle to attack the door.
He hit the door again. And again. And again.
As he swung for the 11th time — the same moment a couple of the guys heard a pop — May realized his arm was hurting. He was used to that. He routinely cut up his forearms when he broke down doors, and he’d neglected to wear his protective sleeves. But something else was wrong. He tried to re-grip the ram, and his hands wouldn’t work.
That’s when everybody heard a second pop. Deputy Ayers ducked his head to the right as May jumped off the stoop. Everyone else in the front yard looked startled just long enough to blink.
That’s when everything went to hell.
Within the time it took Awtry to draw another breath, the front wall of the house became some sort of nightmarish Gatling gun, spraying bullets and drywall from every direction. Bullets lodged in the refrigerator, in the walls, and in the back closet. One of them found its mark.
Awtry stumbled back, grabbed his arm, and looked at the mangled flesh. He dropped to his knees and collapsed in a puddle of his own blood.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was the cops?” he asked the other men on the floor. They’d just wrapped up a $60 poker tournament and started a small-stakes cash game.
“We got a guy shot!”
Chuck Meager had a phone in his hand, and he was screaming into it. “We’re all laying on the floor. It’s a poker game!”
A woman on the other end of the line, a 911 operator, was calm and professional. She asked Meager, 62, where he was, but Meager didn’t know. Someone yelled the address across the room.
“They’re shooting through the door!” he screamed. “We thought we were getting robbed! We’re all laying on the floor!”
The woman on the phone asked Meager to hold on, but he couldn’t wait. Awtry was soaking the carpet beneath them.
“We got a guy here bleeding really bad!” Meager said.
Awtry, frail, a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, moaned loudly enough for the 911 dispatcher to hear it.
“Come on. Stop them before they hurt us,” Meager begged.
More than a dozen bullets had cut through the front of the house. One had clipped Awtry’s left hand and tore apart his bicep.
“I thought it was somebody breaking in,” Awtry said from his spot on the floor. “I shot, and they shot me and broke my arm.”
The operator told them to hold on so she could call the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office deputies for them. When she keyed the button and spoke into the mic, her voice came out of the radios of the vice cops, the same cops who were now hiding on the other side of a wall full of bullet holes.
No matter what Awtry thought when he picked up the gun, no matter what all the poker players thought as they dove for cover, robbers weren’t shooting through the front of house.
It was no robbery. It was a raid.
Five minutes earlier, it had just been a few guys playing cards, nothing to write home about, and certainly nothing that would end up in the news for months to come.
The bloody scene was a violent twist in a story that was already more than 200 years old. Awtry drew a bit part in it, one that left him bloodied and broken. Understanding how he got there requires leaving the South and traveling more than 2,100 miles to the west where the people waiting outside don’t want you in handcuffs. They want your autograph.
Less than a week after Awtry took a bullet, 23-year-old Quebecer Jonathan Duhamel stood in the most exclusive suite in the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and danced in a puddle of expensive champagne. His friends, screaming, chanting and decked out in Montreal Canadiens sweaters, held the bottles over his face. Duhamel shook his head like a happy dog under a garden hose. The college dropout had just won $9 million in the world’s biggest poker tournament, all of it playing out in primetime on ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Over the poker tournament’s 40 years of history, its champions have been guests on the late-night talk-show circuit, fast-food spokesmen and the subject of feature films. They all won life-changing money. Many of them became famous. One of them changed the game forever.
In 2003, Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker parlayed less than $50 in an online satellite tournament into a $2.5 million win in the WSOP Main Event. Moneymaker wasn’t the grizzled, leather-assed Texas outlaw with a cigar shoved in his mouth. He was young, smiling and an amateur, one who had just proven that anyone could play poker with the biggest names in the game. In 2003, it would’ve been the rough equivalent of a Saturday duffer winning the Masters and accepting the green jacket while Tiger Woods watched from the gallery.
Players all over the world began to memorize the 1998 cult poker movie “Rounders” and pore over the details of Jim McManus’ book, “Positively Fifth Street,” a true-crime/WSOP mashup. Henry Orenstein had just invented the lipstick hole-card camera that opened up poker player’s secrets to a television audience. Online poker companies were popping up all over the world.
The year that Moneymaker won the WSOP, 839 people had entered the event. By 2006, that number was 8,773. Some people called it a perfect storm, but most people in the industry called it what it was: The Moneymaker Boom.
Every deputy’s radio crackled with the same ominous declaration.
“Greenville … shots fired.”
The deputies had scrambled in an arc, some jumping behind the poker players’ cars, others behind trees, everyone behind any hard cover they could find.
Four deputies, crack shots who had passed their shooting exams within the last year, pulled their triggers as they scrambled backward. They fired approximately 15 bullets through the front of the house. The wood on the door splintered. The storm door’s glass exploded.
One deputy heard May scream, “It stings.” Others heard him say, “It’s burning.”
May only recalls running as fast as he had in his life. He then had the simplest, most atavistic urge.
“I wanted to kill the guy,” he said.
The raid plan hadn’t worked. The ram hadn’t worked. Now May’s arms didn’t work. He looked at the 9mm in his leg holster. He wanted it in his hand, but he couldn’t grip it. He turned to Deputy Jason Owens.
“Get it out and put it in my hands,” May said.
The radio crackled again.
“One of ours has been hit. We’ve got one man hit in the arm.”
It wasn’t just one arm. One of Awtry’s 9mm bullets had bored through the front of the house and then through both of May’s forearms. While he knew he was hurt, he could still hear gunfire. He was afraid for his teammates’ lives, and he looked for a safe place where he would have a line on the house. Owens stopped him, held him back and pinned him to the oak tree.
“They were still returning fire,” May said. “It sounded like Beirut. I wanted to get back in it. I was mad.”
After the first volley of shots, Deputy Ayers looked up and saw they were all lit by the security lights above.
“I’m taking the light out,” he said.
He hit the light with a .223 round on the first shot. On the other side of the house, two deputies took aim at the other light.
Across town, the dispatchers were trying to make sense of what was happening. They had a man down in the house. They had a deputy hit, too. Neighbors were calling from up and down the street. No fewer than three people had called 911 from inside the house.
“Holy shit, I’m shaking,” one dispatcher said as she got the EMS crew on the line.
The ambulance crew moved fast and wanted to know if they could immediately come in and get May.
“Negative,” one of the deputies called out. “We need to shut down this entire street.”
With the overhead lights out, people screaming from inside the house, and sirens blaring from every direction around Pine Knoll, Deputy Owens started looking for a way to get May to an ambulance.
Long before he stood under that oak tree, May had built up the idea in his head that getting shot would hurt a lot worse. At first it felt, of all things, like a bee sting.
Around him, deputies yelled into their radios, trying to figure out where the ambulance was. In the chaos of gunfire and 911 calls, the medics had been left believing they should hold back until things were safe.
May held both hands over his head in the hope the blood wouldn’t flow to his arms and make the nerve endings fire. If he moved, his arms moved. When his arms moved, the broken bones inside moved. He could feel the bones’ ends rubbing and grinding against each other on the inside.
“We call for EMS, you get ’em in here!” one deputy screamed into his radio.
Chuck Meager stayed at Awtry’s side, remembering there had been a time in the not too distant past that Awtry had his back, although in the smallest, simplest of ways.
Meager had found his pocket $4 short of the $20 he needed to get back into a poker tournament. Awtry had handed it to him and said, “Now don’t take me out.”
Meager had laughed and tried his best. When it was done, Awtry had finished first, and Meager finished second.
Looking back on it, Meager said, “That was what convinced me I was good enough to play with the big boys.”
Now Meager was watching his one-time benefactor shiver in pain on the floor at Pine Knoll. Meager begged the deputies to come in and told the dispatcher the cops had nothing to fear.
“Just stay on the floor,” the dispatcher said. “I need you to stay on the floor.”
Meager didn’t understand. It was a poker game. It was a mistake.
“Get them in here and get this guy taken care of!” he yelled.
A few feet away, hiding under a poker table, crouched Tim Watts, a longtime poker dealer in Greenville’s underground rooms. That night, he was playing on money Awtry had given him on the condition Watts split any winnings. It was a common arrangement around town, just as common as Awtry lending money to whomever needed it.
“He would ask me all the time if I needed anything. Did I need money? Was I doing all right?” Watts remembered. “If I did need money because of just being a slacker and being broke or whatever, he would always lend me money.”
Awtry was the grandfather of Greenville poker. At 72 years old, he had white hair with comb lines in it, a crooked smile and a Carolina drawl. He wore his shirts open at the throat and a gold chain around his neck. Once a blue-collar guy at the Greenville newspaper, he’d spent the better part of the past quarter-century earning money from rental properties he owned. He’d been drawing Social Security since he turned 65. Too arthritic for golf, he’d bought some books and taken up poker during the Moneymaker Boom. Before long, he was hosting his own games and taking a percentage of each pot, what poker players call “the rake.” A few people knew he had a drug conviction from the late ’80s, but no one paid that any mind. In a world full of hustlers out to pocket whatever money they could find, Watts considered Awtry to be one of the most honest men he knew.
Someone else in the room looked at Awtry’s arm and said, “You’re bleeding bad.”
“I can’t move it,” Awtry said and then went quiet.
Meager lowered his voice and begged into the phone.
“This guy is covered with blood,” he said. “We need to hurry on this, OK?”
The dispatcher was comforting, trying to explain the deputies had to wait and make sure everything was safe. She told Meager to try to wrap Awtry’s arm.
Meager, a disabled veteran, said, “OK. Don’t let them shoot me.”
He scooted closer to Awtry, took a sweatshirt, and put it under his friend’s head. The old man needed to rest. Nobody was coming for him anytime soon.
The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office patrols 795 square miles, and deputies were racing from all four corners to the little house near the railroad tracks. They brought bulletproof vests, an armored SWAT vehicle, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and two K-9 units that had been training 10 miles away. Despite the fact everyone inside was hiding on the floor, the deputies didn’t know when someone might start shooting again. They weren’t taking a chance at getting another deputy shot.
Meager continued to plead into his cell phone.
“I give you my word,” he said.
The dispatcher asked about the gun.
The 9mm was 4,110 days old and came out of Glock’s Smyrna, Ga., headquarters. In August of 1999, a man in Easley, S.C., bought it. In 2008, that man died in a car wreck and left no official record of what he did with the pistol before he died. Though no one has ever said exactly how the gun got to Pine Knoll, it ended up on the floor of the poker house that night, right next to the fridge.
Meager volunteered to get the pistol and throw it out the front door, but the deputies wanted none of that. Meager, desperate to surrender so EMS could tend to his friend, made another offer.
“Can you throw in some handcuffs? I’ll handcuff everybody if that’s what you want,” he said. “Get somebody here so he doesn’t bleed to death.”
Awtry heard Meager’s pleas and raised his voice.
“That thing still bleeding like it was?” he asked.
Awtry knew what it was liked to be robbed. It had happened to him time and again. Robbers fired guns into ceilings. Robbers stole everything, including his players’ pants. Once, the worst time, the man in the mask had pistol-whipped him and cut open his scalp. Awtry was old-guy tough, the kind of man who builds his strength with the weight of living. The bullet was a new kind of pain.
The county dispatcher patched an EMS operator into the call, but little came of the conversation. There wasn’t much anyone in the room could do to help Awtry while he lay bleeding. Twelve minutes had passed since Meager’s call to 911. The dozen other players in the house tried to figure out how they could surrender.
“Stay still!” Meager yelled. “You go near that door, you’re going to be shot.”
He turned his attention back to Awtry and put the phone back up to his ear.
“He’s covered with blood. There’s blood on the floor,” Meager said. “He’s 72 years old. Tell them to hurry.”
“OK. Hold on,” the operator told him.
Meager looked at the playing cards scattered on the floor.
“It’s only a stupid card game,” he said.
In the days and weeks to follow, there were many people in Greenville who couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a police shootout at, of all places, a poker game. Awtry’s poker room sat in one of the nation’s most conservative strongholds. The house where he held his game was less than two miles from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University and a few blocks from Tea Party hero Jim DeMint’s alma mater, Wade Hampton High School. A quick study of history, however, made it clear that what happened on Pine Knoll that night was a faceoff 200 years in the making.
As early as 1798, South Carolinians were petitioning lawmakers to do something to curb gambling in the Palmetto State. Local grand juries would send lists of grievances to the state capital, complaints that often included their outrage over gambling alongside their worries about too many black people assembling in one place for too long.
“We present as grievance the number of billiard tables and other gambling houses housed in the city tending to corrupt the morals of the people,” read one Charleston County Grand Jury grievance. “Also to the billiard tables kept on Sullivan’s Island and played openly on Sundays to the destruction of all morality and decency.”
By 1802, the General Assembly acted and put together a gambling law that has stood for more than 200 years. It was action, but not enough for the people of South Carolina, who by 1838 were asking for tougher punishments. The Lexington County Jury petitioned the General Assembly to “punish every person who shall be convicted of being a professional gamester with whipping.”
Over the years that followed, the law only grew stricter, and by the time the vice squad showed up on Pine Knoll in November of 2010, it was literally illegal to play Monopoly on your kitchen table on Sunday afternoon. It was a gambling law so old that it outlawed games that didn’t even exist anymore, and it was one Awtry and everybody else in the house was breaking that night.
Historically, however, police enforcement of gambling laws was hit-and-miss. As Archie Vernon Huff noted in his book “Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont,” the city was a summer resort town known for its after-hours fun. In the early 1800s, genteel and moneyed people from the South Carolina coast, driven north by humidity, mosquitoes and malaria, tended to party and gamble at a Main Street dive known as the Fun Bank, much to the consternation of the locals. One local resort owner complained in his memoirs, “Drinking, eating, gambling and whoring is the summit of their ambition.”
As the years passed, however, gamblers didn’t always get a pass. In the early 1900s, the sheriff would write down the name of the offenders he rounded up on a given night, notate a “W” for white or “C” for colored, charge the gamblers a fine, and send them on their way.
That was by and large how it went for many years to come. In 1986, video poker (a slot-machine-style game that bears only passing resemblance to the actual card game) became a legal business in the state. That legality lasted only until 2000. For years to come, thousands of machines left over from the bygone era continued to be law enforcement targets.
Meanwhile, in the decade that led up to the Pine Knoll raid, most poker players had grown used to the idea that if the law showed up, the cost would be a $100 misdemeanor ticket. It wasn’t a deterrent for most people who loved the game, and it never before ended in more than 20 bullets flying through a house in a residential neighborhood.
Put another way, poker just wasn’t that big of a deal to most members of law enforcement. Prosecutors routinely dealt with illegal lotteries known in the business as “ball tickets,” but even some of South Carolina’s most experienced prosecutors didn’t think much about poker.
“In my entire career, I have never had a case come across my desk regarding a poker game,” said Warren Mowry, a longtime South Carolina prosecutor and criminal justice professor. “They are, quite frankly, a very low priority for law enforcement. There are enough immediate, acute problems — homicides, assaults, rapes, robberies, burglaries, even drunks driving cars — to fill their days. One high ranking deputy I talked to put it this way: ‘I rate it about the same level as speeding’ on the importance meter.”
All of which was, at the time, completely irrelevant to the two men cut open by bullets that night on Pine Knoll.
A cell phone rang inside the house, and this time Awtry picked it up himself.
“I thought they were robbing me,” he said into the phone. “They beat it down, but they’re scared to come back.”
It was Gypsy on the other line. Awtry had married her in 1985. They each brought kids with them to the marriage, and then had more together. Gypsy wasn’t but a couple of blocks away, terminal cancer eating away at her insides. She had one of her sons beside her. They asked Awtry to surrender. Outside, the deputies were doing the same thing through a bullhorn. Meager relayed through the 911 operator that Awtry couldn’t move.
“He’s going to have to get up and come to us if he’s only hit in the arm,” one deputy said. “He needs to walk out this door and raise his hands the best he can.”
It wasn’t happening. Awtry was stuck to the floor in pain, unaware of everything that was happening in the front yard.
Awtry didn’t know how many people were outside. Awtry didn’t know Deputy May had holes through both arms. Awtry didn’t know that a man he’d raised as his own son, a sworn deputy with a badge, was sitting in the front seat of a Sheriff’s Office car outside.
Less than an hour earlier, Sgt. Dale Silver had picked up Deputy Sam Manley from the back parking lot of the Greenville County Law Enforcement Center. Silver told Manley, Gypsy’s son from a previous marriage, something no deputy wants to hear. Vice was on its way to bust his stepfather’s poker house. After that, deputies were going to serve a search warrant on Manley’s mom’s house down the street. Silver, sitting next to Manley in his car, said Manley looked surprised and said, “Really?”
They drove, the radio crackling and hissing as they went. They hadn’t gone far when a dispatcher’s voice cut through, said a deputy was down, and called for SWAT. Silver turned on his blue lights and looked at the man next to him. Silver said Manley looked confused and said, “Is that for us?”
They were among the first deputies to make it to the house. Manley sat in the car as Silver went about blocking traffic and helping the other deputies secure the house. He went back and found Manley sitting with a dazed look on his face. Silver asked if he was OK. Manley simply nodded his head and asked which deputy had been shot. Silver didn’t know, but he told Manley his stepfather was inside bleeding.
Later, someone in the Sheriff’s Office would say Manley knew what his stepfather had been up to, a claim Manley would deny. The Internal Affairs unit of the Sheriff’s Office later cleared him of any wrongdoing. The investigator said Manley had told him he knew his stepfather “liked the cards,” and he knew about a previous search warrant served on the Awtry home, but that Manley was always “very cautious to not discuss such matters with Awtry.”
Manley chose not to comment for this story, but he was not unlike a great many people in those years who had a father, a daughter, a boss, or a business partner who “liked the cards” and played in Greenville’s underground poker rooms.
The open secret was that anyone who wanted to play poker could find a game seven nights a week in a place some took to calling “G-Vegas.”