MILWAUKEE — The City of Milwaukee is pulling the plug on video slot machines at a local gas station. At least, temporarily.
The state says the machines are against the law, but one customer was playing them so often, it's like he practically lived there.
Nate Garski is a convicted felon, a former drug addict, and a self-described alcoholic who showed up to meet FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn with a Styrofoam cup full of beer in his hand.
"A guy like me, who is going to listen to me?" Garski said.
He claims to have gambled away more than $8,000 on video slot machines at the Stadium Citgo at the corner of Miller Park Way and Greenfield. The owner of the station, Mohsin Bukhar, said he eventually kicked Garski out because he'd become a nuisance.
"He was an annoying guy," Bukhar said. "He drinks booze over there, but our cashier tried to stop him and then he started fighting with them. We called the cops once or twice."
Bukhar said his most persistent customer would literally spend all day playing the machines.
"He comes from morning and sits 'til night," Buhkar said.
Almost like he had nowhere else to be! Turns out, he didn't. You see, Nate Garski is homeless.
"Where are you getting that kind of money to put in these machines?" FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn asked.
"I pretty much spend everything I get a month on these things," Garski said.
Lorri Pickens said that's not a surprise.
"It preys definitely on a very disadvantaged population," Pickens said.
She's a spokesperson for Citizens Against Expanded Gambling and has expressed concern about these so-called Pow'r Up machines that have been showing up in gas stations all over Wisconsin.
The man behind the machines is Jeremy Hahn, a West Bend entrepreneur who markets the devices as cell phone charging stations.
"You know the state has declared them to be illegal video gambling machines, right?" Polcyn asked.
"No comment. I'm sorry. I can't. That's per my attorney. I apologize," Hahn replied.
Hahn's "Pow'r Up" machines will juice up your phone for $1.00 per minute. That's $60 per hour.
As an incentive to get you to try the chargers, Hahn says, he has included a promotional game you can play while you wait. For every dollar you spend charging your phone, the machines gives you 100 "entries" in a video game that plays like a video slot machine, with real cash "prizes."
Hahn calls it creative marketing. The Wisconsin Department of Justice calls it illegal gambling.
"He thinks he's found a loophole," Pickens said.
Wisconsin law allows bars and restaurants to have up to five video gambling machines without risking police enforcement, but video gambling in gas stations remains a crime, so when the Stadium Citgo kicked Garski out, he decided to return the favor.
"'You want to go tit-for-tat? You guys ain't a bar. You can't even have machines,'" Garski recalled saying to the gas station clerk. "You know what they said to me? 'Oh what are you going to do about it?'"
He called the FOX6 Investigators.
"Do you feel like they are taking advantage of people like you with those machines?" Polcyn asked.
"Absolutely," Garski said.
You may or may not find a homeless, alcoholic gambler to be a sympathetic figure, but Pickens is hardly surprised. She said games like these tend to exploit those who can least afford to play.
"They view that as their only opportunity to change their economic condition," Pickens said.
It's safe to say that Nate Garski never went to Stadium Citgo to charge his cell phone. Especially considering, he doesn't have one. Turns out, you don't even need a cell phone to make the so-called "phone charging" station work.
This particular Citgo gas station is in Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan's district. He declined an interview about the machines, opting instead to wait for an opinion from the courts on the legality of the machines.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice declared the machines illegal. Now, Hahn is suing the attorney general in hopes of having that opinion overturned.
In the meantime, the City of Milwaukee has ordered Stadium Citgo to unplug the machines, because the gas station had not obtained the required entertainment license. Donovan says he will oppose any application for a new license until the court makes a ruling.