- Paula Lavigne
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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. -- Nine youth football coaches or associates in South Florida are facing felony charges in connection with a system of rampant, elaborate and high-dollar gambling on little league football.
The charges are the result of an almost 18-month investigation by the Broward Sheriff's Office into gambling on youth football, an investigation called "Operation Dirty Play" prompted by "Outside the Lines" reporting that exposed flagrant betting during games in the South Florida Youth Football League.
Those arrested on felony bookmaking charges were: Brandon Bivins, Darren Brown, Vincent Gray, Brandon Lewis, Brad Parker, La Taurus Fort, Willie Tindal, Darron Bostic and Dave Small.
Six of the nine facing charges -- men who coached boys ages 5 to 15 -- are ex-convicts with a history of felony drug, assault and theft charges. If found guilty of felony bookmaking -- essentially organized gambling -- each could face up to five years in prison.
Though the games featured little boys, the gamblers made big bets, said Det. Solomon Barnes, whose confidential informant, along with undercover deputies, placed bets on youth football during the police investigation. Barnes said $20,000 was bet in a rivalry game between the Northwest Broward Raiders and the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes a few weeks ago. And up to $100,000 would be bet on the youth leagues' championship games of the season, he said.
"They take all innocence away from the game when they involve themselves in these criminal acts," the detective said. "And it's just mind-blowing what we discovered in this investigation."
The initial "Outside the Lines" story in May 2011 showed people exchanging money in the stands and along the sidelines in plain view of fans, children and even law enforcement. One coach swapped cash with other men at a playoff game. When "Outside the Lines" returned in December 2011 -- after league officials said they would work to deter gambling -- the flagrant betting seemed to be gone. But as detectives would later learn, the publicity only pushed the illegal wagering further underground.
Not only was the gambling in full force, Barnes said, but the coaches were the ones promoting and organizing the bets and setting point spreads on the games. The gambling involved multiple youth football leagues.
The detective said he and others witnessed two coaches taking bets on the sidelines of a game involving their own teams, another having collected a wad of cash that he waved in front of the players indicating how much was riding on them. Dozens of men crowded into a backroom gambling parlor where a special window serves those wanting to bet on youth games.
Bivins was coach and president of the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes, one of the most successful youth football teams in South Florida. An affidavit describes Bivins as the owner of a barbershop that served as the front for the gambling parlor frequented by several other coaches.
"At the end, maybe close to about practice time, he would leave there and drive straight to Mills Pond Park, grab his whistle and start coaching the kids," Barnes said. Bivins also has a long rap sheet, with eight felony convictions in Florida alone, including aggravated armed assault, cocaine possession and grand theft. Barnes said the conflict is troubling.
"You're really taking the integrity out of the game. I mean, these are innocent kids at this point and that's all they know ... They're going to take pride in their team, not knowing that the president, the head of your team, is involved in all kinds of illegal activity," he said.
Police surveillance video shows a line of a couple dozen men waiting outside Bivins' barbershop in Fort Lauderdale on a recent Sunday morning. Barnes said he once counted about 50 men walk through the shop, past empty barber chairs, to what looks like a closet door in the back. The door led to a long hallway that ends in a room with three windows where people could place bets on everything from NFL and college football games and Major League Baseball to little league -- all illegal.
Sheriff Al Lamberti said deputies discovered a floor safe in the barbershop that had $37,000 in cash in it. He said that $20,000 in cash -- along with firearms -- were found in Bivins' house.
These are "coaches who are nothing more than criminals," Lamberti said. "It's about kids being exploited."
"Bivins wasn't in it for the kids, he was in it for the money."
Barnes said bettors at the barbershop got a computer-generated printout with a list of competitions, betting options and point spreads. Bettors chose a window based upon how much they wanted to wager -- $25 to $50, $50 to $100 and more than $100. When the light above a window -- which was tinted -- turned green, the next bettor stepped up.
"The person on the side of a window will grab it, enter it in the computer, take the money, hit enter, print you out a betting receipt," Barnes said. "On the receipt it'll have your wager, ID number, so they can identify which bet it was. It'll be the type of bet you have, date and time, your selections and the payout amount."
Since the "Outside the Lines" report aired, however, information about youth football games wasn't showing up on printouts, Barnes said, but the bets were still being placed at the "third window" -- the one for big wagers.
"It's all about who you know with these guys, and they have a real close circle," he said.
Undercover investigators met the coaches in the end zone before the game. The coaches sent a representative from their staffs to talk to the investigators posing as bettors, and both parties agreed on a point spread, Barnes said. Money was exchanged and given to someone who held the wagers during the game.
"If you're in the stands looking at it, it just looks like a group of coaches having a conversation, maybe just discussing the game plan or maybe friends, but there's actual wagers going down," Barnes said.
Small is the brother of Osbert Small, a coach who was suspended by the league after he was shown in the initial "Outside the Lines" report exchanging money in the stands during a game. He said he was just "holding money" for an individual. Both men also are bail bondsmen in Broward County.
Dave Small and Bostic were two of the three men arrested who did not have prior felony records. The others have a history of multiple crimes, and some were still on probation for those convictions.
Dave Small denied involvement to "Outside the Lines"; Bivins declined to comment after being arrested during a traffic stop on the Florida Turnpike.
Bostic, who also denied involvement, said he was aware of gambling on youth football in the region, but that only small $5 and $10 bets were being made. Parker adamantly denied gambling on youth football and pro or college sports and also denied coaching the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes, insisting that he had not coached a team for seven years, when his son had last played in the league.
Aside from being a crime, Barnes said, the gambling is fueling -- and being fueled by -- other criminal activity. Monday's arrests are just the beginning, he said, adding that the gambling investigation has spawned several other investigations into narcotics and other organized crime operations in South Florida.
In the wake of the arrests are the children on whose backs these coaches have made thousands of dollars, Barnes said.
"They're pretty much taking the illegal gained money through their criminal enterprise or criminal activity ... and they're placing these large sums of monies on youth football," Barnes said. "We've seen violence escalate at these games, we've seen shootings, we've seen fights, arguments between coaches and it's just so unfortunate for the kids that are involved because many of them have no idea. They just want to be a part of something that's positive."
Barnes said it's likely that the gambling was such a force in youth football that it actually led to the creation of a new league. After the ESPN "Outside the Lines" report, South Florida Youth Football League president Mike Spivey vowed to stem the gambling, even going so far as to have coaches watch the ESPN report before they could get recertified. He also hired more off-duty officers to police the games.
Barnes said that the crackdown appears to have prompted some team leaders, including Bivins, to leave before the current season and form a new league called the Florida Youth Football League. The FYFL gained quite a bit of media attention when it was formed because it receives backing from rap artists Flo Rida and Luther Campbell.
Florida Youth Football League president Martin Maultsby said that he was unaware of the arrests on Monday night and that no one had contacted him.
"What I plan on doing is contacting who's next in line to administer that program," he said. "First and foremost we're dealing with these kids, and that's where my concerns is. I'll be contacting who is next in line."
Barnes said the arrests should not taint all of South Florida youth football.
"Do we have good coaches? Are there good coaching going on in the league? Absolutely. Absolutely. Is everyone involved in gambling on youth sports? Absolutely not," the detective said. "But, the key guys that we've investigated? Yes, they will put whatever resources they have behind the teams that they consider their 'money teams' and they will go all the way to the Super Bowl. And they will ride these kids financially, to gain more capital."
Lt. Frank Ballante addressed about 75 law enforcement officers Monday at the Broward Sheriff's Office Deerfield Beach station before they headed out on the arrests.
"They don't involve themselves in this football because they care about kids or they want to be role models or mentors," he said. "They do it for one reason and one reason only. They do it to line their pockets."
Barnes said investigators believe there are "many more" coaches and others involved in the gambling, and he hopes Monday's arrests send them a message that their crimes won't go unnoticed. Lamberti said the city of Deerfield Beach is now requiring extensive background checks for any coaches of any teams that use a city facility. He hopes other jurisdictions follow along.
In the meantime, Barnes has a message for the dozens of young players who will show up for practice this week, trying to make sense of what's happened with the coaches in whom they placed their trust.
"Continue playing a game that you love, trust your teammates, all the disciplinary things that are taught in football, but don't go on the other side of the law," he said. "Stay on the course. Follow your heart, follow your mind. Kids know right from wrong, and this is a great example of what wrong will get you."
Greg Amante, Don Van Natta Jr. and Dwayne Bray of ESPN's Enterprise Unit contributed to this report.
Nine youth football coaches in South Florida face felony charges in connection with a system of rampant, elaborate and high-dollar gambling on little league football.