Story by Brad Willis
Yesterday, when we left Part 1 of Brad Willis’ four-part story about underground poker in South Carolina, the grandfather of Greenville’s poker rooms and a sheriff’s deputy were bleeding from gunshot wounds. Today, Brad Willis finishes their story and explores the factors that led to one of the South’s bloodiest poker nights.
When everybody knew each other, finding a game was as easy as calling a name. You’d go to Ronnie’s, Kevin’s or Teddy’s. When rooms got bigger and the guest lists grew, the early games took their names from their waypoints: Fountain Inn, White Horse, Fox Run, Holly Tree or the fireworks place.
Anyone who had seen “Rounders” knew a good poker room needed a good name. In the movie, the guys played at the Chesterfield. In Greenville, the players who still clung to poker’s inherent cinematic romance gave code names to their favorite games: The Spring Hotel, The Black Stallion, The Gaelic Game.
Enterprising hosts took note of the marketing power. Up sprung The Depot, The G-Spot and The Peanut Shop. Out came silk-screened table felts and custom ceramic poker chips. A building that looked like an abandoned garage had a door that locked with magnets, flat-screen TVs on the walls, a kitchen, a custom-made bar, foosball, video games, table tennis and exotic dancers moonlighting as cocktail waitresses.
In the years before Tim Watts ended up hiding under the table at Awtry’s house, he had been a card dealer all over town, making as much as $65 an hour pitching cards to Greenville’s poker-playing elite. He’d start at 7 p.m. and deal all night. He’d see dozens of new faces every hour.
“The rake was enormous, but people didn’t care. There was all the food and drinks you wanted,” he said. “It was like a poker party every night of the week. It was like a little mini-Vegas.”
At the scene’s peak, the bigger tournaments had vodka company hostesses and T-shirt sponsors. It wasn’t uncommon to find a moneyed restaurateur, a retired NFL player or a beefy sports agent among the dozens of people sitting in a poker room. Breitling watches went up as collateral. Other games went off for big five-figure sums on nothing but a player’s word and his online Bank of America statement. The games ran in a private room of an upscale Asian restaurant, a gated community starter castle, country club meeting rooms, an office park on the busiest street in town and a basement bar in Greenville’s tony downtown business district.
They were games that flourished in spite of the law because a majority of the players were otherwise law-abiding citizens. For every guy named “Snake” in a black leather vest, there were six or seven teachers, engineers or retirees. Awtry’s poker rooms weren’t fancy, but they filled a void. He and the other underground entrepreneurs were capitalizing on the gray space between South Carolina’s 200-year-old law and the primetime ESPN Las Vegas dream. It was the dream that Moneymaker had made real for every home game player and the dream that would douse Jonathan Duhamel in champagne just days after Awtry and May got shot.
In the time the Greenville poker scene was exploding, the number of gambling busts in South Carolina skyrocketed. In the six years between the Moneymaker Boom and the shooting on Pine Knoll, gambling arrests around the state more than doubled.
Nevertheless, even when the cops showed up and took down a room, another popped up across town. Over the years, there had been more than a couple of robberies and law enforcement raids, but the night on Pine Knoll was the first time anyone had been seriously injured.
A Southern man could be forgiven for believing he had no place in that heady world of high stakes poker. The law said it was illegal. The preachers said it was immoral. For many years, finding a legal poker room in the South was almost impossible. Today, you can drive every square mile in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama and not find a single legal place to play.
Yet, the South produced poker legend Billy Baxter from the Augusta pool halls. The University of Georgia turned out David “The Gunslinger” Bach, a man who bested one of the world’s toughest poker tournaments for $1.2 million. Josh Arieh. Mark Newhouse. Carter King. Jeff Williams. Mike Gracz. All of them are household names in poker families, and all of them are from the South. To rise to the level of those legends, Southern players had two choices: go underground or leave home.
Some of the best, those put off by the high cost or potential danger, left. One of the most successful was Phil Collins of Aiken, S.C. Once a tough online poker player at the University of South Carolina who didn’t miss a home football game in five years, Collins said goodbye to South Carolina and its gambling prohibitions in 2009. He’s earned more than $5 million playing a game the law didn’t allow him to play at home.
“It is flat out embarrassing to me that my home state has been a source of so much anti-poker propaganda,” Collins said. “South Carolina is eliminating a viable tax revenue source and creating a black market of dangerous underground poker games.”
While there are success stories of those who left, a majority of South Carolina’s players chose to stay home in the South and risk the danger of raids and robberies just so they could keep playing.
The poker players in the house on Pine Knoll did as they were told. One by one, they walked out with their hands up, took off their shirts and put their hands behind their backs. The deputies had rounded up as many cars as they could and filled up the back seats with the half-naked card players. Eventually each one would end up at the Law Enforcement Center where they would give written statements, let investigators swab them for gunshot residue and collect their $100 tickets. After that, deputies would escort them, still shirtless, outside into the cold, spitting November rain, and lock the doors behind them.
Awtry was the last one left in the house.
“I’m freezing,” he said as his friend Chuck Meager prepared to take off his shirt and surrender. Meager left Awtry his jacket and his phone. The sweatshirt wasn’t doing any good.
The operator on the other end of the line checked in. “You’re still cold?” she said. “The jacket’s not helping any?”
Awtry’s voice turned into a croak. He said, “I lost a lot of blood.”
He lay alone for two minutes before the window above him shattered. The deputy outside raked his hooligan tool through the glass as another deputy leveled a Colt M4 .223 rifle on Awtry.
“Let me see your other hand!” the deputy screamed.
Awtry tried but failed.
“I can’t move it!” he yelled toward the window. “It’s shot in two!”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Well, I’ve been laying here ever since you’ve been here,” Awtry said. “I’m freezing.”
Within seconds, Awtry heard shouts, and the chaos began to get to him. He moaned and muttered, “Ohhhhh, man.”
It had been 36 minutes since Matt May’s ram had first hit the door. Now, eight deputies with guns were over Awtry.
“Where you shot at?”
“This arm,” Awtry said.
They began to investigate, and somebody muttered, “We got blood.”
The SWAT medic shoved a gauze pad over his wound and called for a backboard to haul Awtry out of the house. Medics carried him over his players’ wadded up shirts, stray $100 bills in the yard and a litter of shell casings spilled from the deputies’ return fire.
Off to the side, Deputy Sam Manley watched the EMTs put his stepfather into the back of the ambulance.
There is an unwritten protocol when a deputy goes down that fills the emergency waiting room with badges. Cops don’t check their texts and hope. They don’t talk back and forth on the radio. They go to the man they consider a brother. That night, no fewer than 80 deputies and city police officers packed Greenville Memorial Hospital waiting to hear if May was going to be OK.
He was just inside sitting on a gurney, pumped full of morphine, registering the fact that he had two through-and-through gunshot wounds in his arms. He looked at the trauma bay beside him. It was where his father had died of a heart attack. Seven years earlier, his dad had collapsed while playing tennis. May performed CPR, but there was nothing more he could do. Now, May was lying in the same place where his mother became a widow, and she was on her way to see her son bleeding just feet away from where her husband had died.
Remembering it later, May paused for a moment before saying, “That was rough.”
But also unwritten in cop protocol is a sort of drug the doctors can’t prescribe, a certain gallows humor — dark jokes that pervade the conversations of cops, soldiers, doctors, journalists and anyone else who lives with tragedy every day.
“We’re cops, and we’re kind of twisted mentally,” May said.
It had started almost the moment his fellow deputies called for an ambulance and continued all the way to the ER. In the back of the ambulance, a rookie paramedic had busied himself hooking May to up a heart monitor.
“Dude, heart’s tickin’, and bones hurt,” May said. “We could do that later. Let’s start pumping some morphine.”
May’s buddy, Jason Owens, had taken the duty of calling May’s wife, doing what he could to make sure she didn’t panic.
“Matt’s been shot,” he said. “He’s OK. He’s going to the hospital.”
May’s wife walked into the ER expecting to see her husband grazed across the arm. She saw something much different. May’s clothes had been cut off of him. There were tubes, bloody gauze, and an oxygen mask. That’s when a different kind of pain really hit him. He hurt for her.
“You would do anything to protect her or save her,” he said. “You would give your life for hers. Just to see her face…”
Meanwhile, the man who shot him was just down the hall bleeding onto a gurney’s white sheet. Six electrodes taped to his naked chest, Awtry lay with his eyes closed and his gold chain still around his neck as crime scene investigators snapped pictures of him. Just a few inches below the bullet hole, a tattoo of his wife’s name, Gypsy, sat on his forearm.
May and Awtry would share the same doctors and nurses that night. The crime-scene techs would see them both. May would get dozens of visitors. Awtry would get a few. Deputy Sam Manley, law enforcement brother to one and stepson to the other, walked into the hospital. He wanted to see both of them.
Sgt. Silver stayed with Manley through the visits. He thought Manley was on the verge of breaking down. According to Silver, Manley said, “In this room is a guy I would take a bullet for, and over there is a guy that has raised me since I was eight and provided for my family that is responsible. Part of me feels like breaking down crying and another part feels like punching a wall."
Three hours earlier, it was any other night for May and Awtry, any other search warrant, any other poker game. If such a normal night could go so sideways, there was no telling what would happen in the days to come.
If you’re looking for a Southern lawyer, you could do worse than finding a guy with a soft drawl, pipe in hand, and dogs named Atticus and Scout running around his office in Travelers Rest, S.C. If you’re looking for a poker lawyer, you could do worse than finding the guy with a vanity plate that reads HOLDEM. Jeff Phillips is both of those things.
Phillips, once an insurance fraud prosecutor with the South Carolina Attorney General’s office, has likely spent more time battling players at the table and poker prosecutors in court than any other attorney in South Carolina. He made a final table at a World Series of Poker event, and he took a poker case all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
When Phillips wasn’t in court, with his family, or in church, he usually played cards. Like most players around town, he knew Awtry. He’d even been at one of Awtry’s games during a previous bust, and he knew the old guy wasn’t a cowboy.
“He’s an old man, hard of hearing,” Phillips said. “The police knew or should’ve known, every time they busted Aaron’s game, there was no resistance. He invited them in.”
Phillips couldn’t wrap his head around it. As the Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors began laying out their case, Phillips visited Awtry at the hospital. Awtry told him he’d only meant to fire a warning shot and that he had no idea it was the cops. Video captured by Awtry’s cameras showed the armed entry team creep up to the door.
“Some of them have beards. They have stocking caps on,” Phillips said. “Unless you’re watching intently, you don’t know that it’s the police.”
That claim didn’t wash with prosecutors. The vice squad guys wore bulletproof vests that labeled them as law enforcement. They all said they shouted “Sheriff’s Office! Search Warrant!” after the ram first hit the door. Many of them said a deputy in a marked car turned on his blue lights at the very same time. The video confirms how the deputies were dressed, but there is no audio to confirm when the deputies first started to announce themselves. As for the blue lights, that matter was in dispute. While the entry team claimed in their reports that the blue lights had been flashing, the deputy in the car insisted he didn’t turn them on until after the bullets started flying. Regardless, prosecutors charged Awtry with attempted murder. A conviction on that alone could’ve put him in prison for the rest of his life.
Phillips felt sure he could defend against that charge. He knew Awtry, he knew how Awtry had dealt with the Sheriff’s Office before, and he knew Awtry only meant to scare away who he thought were robbers. He didn’t see any intent.
But there were problems. While that charge might have been defensible, others were not. There was the matter of the poker game. It carried a list of charges based on the 200-year-old gambling law. There were also two operational and illegal video poker machines in a back room. There was no denying any of that.
The biggest problem, however, was the gun. It didn’t matter that South Carolina had a Stand Your Ground law. It didn’t matter that no-knock warrants were a controversial matter. Awtry’s 1988 drug arrest and subsequent conviction meant he couldn’t own a weapon. While no one ever claimed the 9mm Glock used that night belonged to Awtry, no one was denying he picked it up and fired it. If a jury said guilty, the conviction would send Awtry to prison.
Over the next year, it came down to negotiation and a plea deal that made neither Awtry nor the Sheriff’s Office happy. After extended talks, Awtry pleaded guilty to the whole list of charges, including attempted murder. The Sheriff’s Office had hoped for a long sentence. Phillips had hoped for three years. Instead, for his October 2011 guilty plea, Awtry got five years in state prison.
“There was no way out for Aaron,” Phillips said. “He got the sentence because a cop got shot. Bottom line. If you shoot a cop, you’re going to get maxed out.”
Awtry’s wife Gypsy, battling a third bout with cancer, was in her final days. Phillips begged prosecutors to hold off on the plea or sentencing until after the holidays. On that, there was no room for negotiation.
“They took him away the day he pled, and Gypsy died four days after Christmas,” Phillips said.
As Awtry stood before the judge, May and his fellow officers lined up on the edge of the courtroom. May stared at Awtry, looking for anything that resembled contrition. He knew the gunshots weren’t personal. He knew Awtry hadn’t targeted him, just as he hadn’t targeted Awtry or the money in the house.
“We weren’t there because it was him. We were there because the people who lived around him kept complaining about all the traffic, all the people coming in and out,” May said. “Let’s take that establishment and put it across the street from your house. If it does get robbed and he starts shooting rounds off, where are those rounds going?”
Professionally, the court case was open and shut for May. Personally, he thought he and Awtry had business to finish.
For months after the shooting, May’s arms were in casts up to the elbows. Even the most routine or personal tasks fell to his wife.
“I couldn’t do a lot of things that one finds humility in when somebody else has to do it for you,” he said. “She had to babysit me. I was hurt. She had to do things for me that you would never expect your wife to do in your 30s.”
For May, what happened on Pine Knoll wasn’t personal, but the months he spent afterward were.
May heard Phillips apologize for Awtry. He heard other people apologize, too. He waited for Awtry to turn to him in court.
“If I wronged you … I would go to you and say, ‘I made a huge mistake and I apologize.’ He never did that,” May said. “He never looked me in the eye and said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’”
Aaron Awtry was in a cell when he learned Gypsy died. Her family buried her five days later on windy, cold January day.
Chuck Meager, four years removed from hiding on a bloody floor beside his friend, still sleeps with a gun under his pillow and flinches when somebody knocks too hard on the door. He sometimes wishes he were the one who went away.
“I wish I could give Aaron back the five years,” Meager said.
Since 2011, Awtry has lived in that cell in Kershaw Correctional Institution. Now 77 years old, he’s been a model prisoner with no disciplinary actions on his record. In that time, he’s left the prison only to go to the doctor. The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn’t allow journalists to interview inmates in person or the phone. A letter addressed to Awtry at the prison’s address on Goldmine Highway went unanswered.
“He is in pain if he writes a letter,” Meager said. “He sent me a Christmas card and apologized for not writing.”
Awtry is supposed to get out at the end of December. A few months later, his stepson, the one-time deputy who stood in shock at the hospital that night, will run for election against his former boss, the sitting Greenville County sheriff. Manley is running on a platform of change under the slogan “Less Politics | More Sheriff.”
Gambling changed the Sheriff’s Office in more ways than one since that night in 2010. In the years that followed, two Greenville County deputies, one who was third in command at the time, were fired and arrested. They stand accused of taking money and gifts in exchange for tipping off a gambling operator who was running a big money video poker, lottery and sports betting operation.
Today, Matt May looks strong and imposing. His bulletproof vest is hidden behind a dark blue uniform. His body is fit and trim. Awtry didn’t break him, but if May lifts up his hands, anyone can see the marks left behind that night on Pine Knoll. They are scars that prove he’s human. He doesn’t talk much in public about the marks his fellow deputies don’t see.
“I tried to go right back to where I was,” he said. “I stumbled a little bit.”
In need of a professional reset, he returned to Uniform Patrol where he has since been promoted twice. Last summer, a man came at him with a knife. May shot and wounded him in what was ruled a justified shooting.
Though May says he is fine — “solid” is his word — the second night of gunfire was an unwelcome reminder for the woman who cared for him after the night on Pine Knoll.
“She told me later on that the last one really set off a lot of emotions that she never really dealt with on the first one,” May said.
Now a sergeant, May helps counsel other officers around the state who have been involved in traumatic events.
“We all think we’re John Wayne and nothing can happen to us. I tell people that I’m unfortunately fortunate. I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me, but it’s allowed me to meet some amazing people,” he said. “I realized that if I’m ever having a bad day, there’s somebody having a whole lot worse.”
Both Awtry and May were born and raised in South Carolina, and neither has left. It’s unlikely either ever will.
If Awtry survives another two months in prison, what’s left of his family — now aged five years — is waiting to welcome him home.
Sergeant May knows the exact date Awtry will get sprung, and he’ll be patrolling the roads when the man who shot him gets home.
“I just want people to come to this town, be safe, and have a good quality of life, because I’m from here,” May said. “I have a lot of pride.”
Pride comes in many forms. For every cop sworn to protect a community he loves, there are scores of people who love the South but hate its reluctance to evolve.
“It’s just kind of the same as everything in South Carolina. We’re 20 years behind everybody else,” Awtry’s buddy Meager said. “We don’t think we should be killed over a card game. It’s just that simple.”
In May, the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas hosted the biggest live poker tournament in history. Dubbed “The Colossus,” it drew 22,374 entrants. Over the course of summer, the WSOP put on nearly 70 individual tournaments, including the $10,000-buy-in Main Event that crowns poker’s world champion. Thousands of people, professionals and amateurs, traveled from all over the world to be part of the spectacle and take their shot at poker’s biggest prize. Last year’s winner pocketed $10 million.
In South Carolina, anyone 18 or older can buy a $2 Powerball ticket. The lottery earned the state more than $300 million last year. Anyone who bets $2 on a hand of poker is still subject to arrest.
On Greenville’s northwest side, someone bought a new door and hung it on the front of 502 Pine Knoll Drive, but after four years, no one has filled the bullet holes in the faded tan siding. In South Carolina, there are a lot of scars to prove that patching up mistakes can take a long time.