Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a four-part series looking at the impact the Valley Forge Casino Resort has had on Upper Merion Township as it marks its second anniversary.
UPPER MERION — Crime is always a concern when a casino comes to town, but in the case of the Valley Forge Casino Resort, which opened in Upper Merion in March 2012, a concerted effort by the Pennsylvania State Police, casino security and local authorities has largely stifled criminal activity and mitigated the effects of casino-related crime on the surrounding community.
Upper Merion Police Department Capt. John Hellebush said that in terms of local law enforcement, “the overall impact has been minimal.”
“There have been no kids left in cars,” he said, alluding to some of the highly publicized cases where gamblers have neglected their children and returned to the gaming floor.
State police Lt. Michael C. Witmer, the Eastern Section commander for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Gaming Enforcement, agrees with Hellebush’s assessment.
Witmer, who has an office on the casino grounds and oversees state police operations at six of the commonwealth’s casinos, stated that crime rates at Valley Forge are low, with most arrests stemming from minor thefts, cheating and disorderly conduct.
Statistics from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System bear this out.
According to PUCRS records, there were 33 arrests by state troopers at Valley Forge in 2013 with more than half, 17, coming from minor offenses. Four arrests were for theft, five for disorderly conduct, two each for drunkenness and simple assault and one each for forgery or counterfeiting, drug, and liquor violations.
Of those minor offences, which aren’t specified in PUCRS documentation, the overwhelming majority of them are for trespassing, according to Witmer.
“Most (trespassers) are cited for one of two reasons,” he said. “Number one, they were previously expelled from the premises and tried to return.
“And number two, they are people who voluntarily put themselves on the (self-exclusion) list and tried to enter the casino anyway.”
The self exclusion list is a voluntary program run by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, in which problem gamblers can effectively ban themselves from casinos.
Although the favorable statistics reinforce the impression that crime generated by the casino is marginal, a certain type of casino-related crime won’t show up on any gaming enforcement spreadsheet — the crimes committed by gambling addicts who find themselves in a financial tailspin.
Raghunandan Yandamuri, who allegedly killed 10-month-old Saanvi Venna and her grandmother, Sathyavathi Venna, in a botched kidnapping attempt, intended to generate ransom money to pay off debt incurred from compulsive gambling. Once he was established as the target of the investigation that drew international headlines, police caught up to him at the Valley Forge Casino.
According to a January 2014 article in The Times Herald — a sister paper of The Mercury — prosecutors in the case against Yandamuri contended that he had a gambling habit that was exacerbated upon his return to the U.S. and his relocation to King of Prussia with his new bride a month later.
Yandamuri began to frequent the Valley Forge Casino Resort soon after his arrival and reportedly lost more than $30,000 between April and October while visiting on a virtually daily basis. According to court documents, Yandamuri lost $34,800 while gambling at the casino in the three days prior to the murders, a hole he saw no way of rising from.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board acknowledges the seriousness of gambling addiction, and its website, gamingcontrolboard.pa.gov, includes links to the National Council on Problem Gambling and Gamblers Anonymous. There is also a downloadable form that problem gamblers can fill out, requesting to be placed on the self exclusion list.
While it’s impossible to accurately quantify the crimes related to problem gambling, and the collateral damage they cause, the fact remains that on the ground, the crime rate at Valley Forge Casino remains low, a trend that can be attributed partially to well-trained security personnel, which includes a well-funded and fully staffed state police contingent.
There are 11 state troopers assigned to every casino in the commonwealth, including Valley Forge, and their salary is directly apportioned by the Bureau of Gaming Enforcement budget as laid out in the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act, which sanctioned state-run gambling operations in 2004.
Hellebush said that improved security and the type of clientele the casino attracts, have lessened the demand for a local police presence.
According to Hellebush, the bulk of casino-related calls to Upper Merion police have been for public drunkenness and did not represent a significant increase in such calls for the area around the casino before it opened.
“There were 33 incidents of public drunkenness in 2013, which amounts to about one call every week and half,” Hellebush stated.
In fact, Hellebush said, arrests for public drunkenness and DUI have decreased from the days when nightclubs occupied the space, because despite the “comped” drinks, gamblers are primarily there to gamble, and hotel guests who have had one too many can sleep it off in their rooms.
Favorable statistics notwithstanding, Witmer maintains that vigilance is needed to keep crime statistics low.
“Anytime you open up a new establishment of any kind, you can expect all sorts of (criminal) activity to increase,” he said. “But we are prepared to address situations as soon as they are brought to our attention.”
There have been 12 arrests at Valley Forge Casino Resort so far in 2014.