An illegal car-racing gambling Web site that authorities say a Spokane Valley man ran from his home may have operated undetected for as long as a decade.
But the black flag dropped on the NASCAR gambling site Thursday when state officials arrested David B. Watkins, 54, on suspicion of felony professional gambling after an early-morning raid.
Watkins is accused of operating FantasyThunder.com, a Web site that collected bets on professional car races placed by people around the world.
Gamblers paid $90 for a team of eight NASCAR drivers; authorities say Watkins kept about half and used the rest to pay winners. But when players complained that they hadn’t been paid, gambling officials began investigating a Web site they say violates state gambling laws. Authorities don’t plan to pursue gambling charges against the participants.
“We’d rather have them be witnesses,” said Gary Drumheller, the agent in charge at the state Gambling Commission’s Spokane office. “We’re more after the person who was putting this all together, and that would be Mr. Watkins.”
Watkins, a former resident of Bayview, Idaho, had a Post Office box in Greenacres where participants sent checks, according to court documents. Others would call in bets and give Watkins their credit card information.
Players told investigators the fantasy league had been operating anywhere from three or four years to 10 years, Drumheller said. Payouts were in the thousands, but players told investigators that Watkins stopped paying winners “for the second half of the 2009 NASCAR season,” according to a search warrant.
Player James Marks of Scranton, S.C., estimated the unpaid earnings to be at least $50,000.
“He fell off the face of the Earth,” Marks said of Watkins. “We were willing to work with him; we understand times are hard ... but when you run off and don’t say any damn thing, that’s just like stealing.”
Marks gambled through Fantasy Thunder for about three or four years, he said. He said he never realized the operation was illegal.
“There’s a thousand online gambling Web sites,” Marks said. “I don’t know the legalities; I’m not a lawyer.”
Watkins faces a charge of second-degree professional gambling, which is defined in state statute as accepting wagers that exceed $2,000 “during any thirty-day period on future contingent events.” The charge is a class C felony that carries up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Watkins does not have a criminal record, Drumheller said. Watkins and his wife, Cally Watkins, were “very cooperative” when gambling agents arrived about 7 a.m. at their home at 3805 S. Ridgeview Ave., Drumheller said.
Court documents said Watkins works in the professional cleaning industry.
Watkins was booked into Spokane County Jail. He’s expected to appear in Superior Court on Friday.