MANATEE -- The space in an East Manatee strip mall that contains The Palms Internet Cafe was once a karate school and a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office substation.
But now the spot on the north side of State Road 64 about an eighth of a mile from Interstate 75 is home to a business primarily frequented by elderly patrons hoping to win some money by playing video sweepstakes games on fancy computer monitors.
Perhaps since the police and black belts are gone, three gunmen decided to rob the establishment Thursday and came away with an undisclosed amount of money from a cash register and money from the patrons, according to a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office report.
Armed with long guns, possibly shotguns, the men entered the business in the 6500 block of S.R. 64 just before 7 p.m. and ordered all of the patrons to the floor, according to the report.
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One of the suspects walked the floor and ordered patrons to empty their pockets.
Three of the people inside gave them all they could; another person was hiding in a corner and the suspects never approached her, according to the report.
After taking the money, the suspects fired a warning shot in the air and fled in an unknown direction, the report states.
The manager was treated on scene for a bump to the back of the head, the report concludes.
On Friday, a different manager than the one on duty Thursday did not want to talk about the robbery or spread word of it among the patrons for fear of making them nervous.
A call to the business owner for a comment about the robbery was refused.
No arrests have been made, said sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow.
“Their security cameras were down, which is unfortunate,” he said.
What is The Palms?
Florida allows gambling on its Lotto games, Indian casinos, dog and horse tracks and off-shore casino cruises.
Patrons who come into The Palms purchase prepaid long distance phone time and can partake of interactive video sweepstakes promotion as a result, according to a form that all patrons must fill out before they can play.
The form says there is no purchase necessary to enter the game promotion.
But, somehow, money is won and lost here.
A colorful TV screen showed that a $1,729.31 jackpot had been paid out recently and $796.24 was in the new jackpot.
Is it legal?
“Yes, but it also depends on who you ask,” Bristow said. “They are gambling but the way they are getting around it is selling phone time.”
Businesses offering this type of gambling have sprung up all around Sarasota and Manatee counties and the state is looking at it, said Sandi Copes, spokesman with the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
“It is our understanding there is currently legislation pending to address these issues,” Cope said.
The Palms Internet Cafe name is not licensed with the state, Cope said. But attempts to ask the owner if the business is registered under a different licensed name were unsuccessful.
The patrons in the establishment Friday said they love The Palms and are thankful that it opened Jan. 11, 2010.
“I love it,” said Gloria James, 64. “It gets retired people out of the house and gives them something to do. It’s relaxing.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.