What is illegal gambling?
A former Kansas Highway Patrol trooper convicted of lying to the FBI in its years-long investigation of illegal gambling around Wichita was sentenced Monday to a year of federal probation.
The case against the retired trooper opened the widest window so far into the gambling investigation, which involves a prominent Wichita business family.
The sentence imposed on Michael Frederiksen by U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren was less than what prosecutors had recommended. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mona Furst recommended five years of probation, with some of it being supervised and with the requirement that the retired state trooper not take part in any form of gambling — whether it was legal or not. Also, Furst asked for a $1,000 fine.
The judge — who referred to Frederiksen as a “highly unique defendant” — said putting the ex-trooper behind bars would be inappropriate. Melgren also said there was no evidence that gambling was a problem for Frederiksen, so the judge wasn’t going to impose a special condition for gambling. Also, there was no fine.
Frederiksen plans to appeal his conviction, according to his attorney, Melanie Morgan. She told Melgren that there is a “real disagreement” about what occurred in Frederiksen’s interview with the FBI in February 2017. “What we know about this gentleman is that for his whole life, he’s tried to do things right.”
Morgan noted that Frederiksen had been in law enforcement for decades. She said he has “involved himself in countless activities,” including the Rotary, food drives, church and sports. He has officiated wrestling at the high school and college level. Morgan said he had been a “role model for young men.”
According to testimony at the ex-trooper’s trial last spring, he took part in illegal gambling games operated in part by Johnny Steven, a member of a prominent Wichita business family. Johnny Steven’s older brothers — Brandon and Rodney Steven — were wiretapped as part of the wider investigation. None of the Steven brothers has been charged.
In a statement after the verdict last May, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said that during the FBI interview in 2017, “Frederiksen made false statements, downplaying his involvement in illegal poker and his relationship with the operator of the poker game.” He was a state trooper at the time of the games, including one in Old Town in 2014.
Frederiksen, 53, had faced up to five years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000, the office had said.
Although the federal trial last spring focused on the question of whether Frederiksen was guilty, the testimony gave the most detailed look so far into the gambing investigation. At the time of the trial, the probe had spanned several years and was continuing. The case involving the retired trooper is the first to go to trial.
Much of the trial testimony dealt with Johnny Steven’s alleged role as a partner in an illegal gambling business.
At the trial, Frederiksen described Johnny Steven as his insurance agent and as the person who invited him to the private poker games.
At Frederiksen’s trial, when his defense attorney asked an FBI agent why Johnny Steven had not been charged with a crime, the agent testified, “Our investigation is ongoing.”
The jury found Frederiksen guilty of one count of lying to the FBI. Melgren, the judge, ruled that there was not enough evidence to support one of the two charges of lying. That charge involved the question of whether Frederiksen lied about the extent of texts and phone calls between him and Johnny Steven.
Johnny Steven’s attorney, Kurt Kerns, told The Eagle hours after the verdict: “The only count my client was accused of being involved in was thrown out by the judge.” Kerns also noted that his client hasn’t been charged.
One of the witnesses at Frederiksen’s trial was Daven Flax. Flax, who operated smoke shops, was known as “Smoke.” Flax testified that he had an illegal gambling business that held games in the Wichita for a number of years.
“I was known as a bookie,” he testified. Flax has pleaded guilty to operating an illegal gambling operation. He testified against Frederiksen as part of his plea agreement.
Flax testified that his partnership with Johnny Steven in the illegal enterprise began probably four to five years earlier, first with a poker game in a Hutchinson hotel. The game then moved to a hotel by the Waterwalk on Kellogg near downtown Wichita. Then to a loft with a big kitchen and a room for two poker tables upstairs on Douglas near Washington, in the Old Town entertainment district. Then — after an undercover officer showed up as part of the investigation in February 2014 – it moved again to a room behind a bar in a small strip center in the 5200 block of East Kellogg.
In all four locations, Flax said, he was in partnership with Johnny Steven. They split profits and expenses 50/50, texted or called players to let them know about games and provided snacks, food, alcohol, dealers and waitresses, according to the testimony.
A $1,500 profit would be a “decent game,” $700 a “bad night” and $2,000 a “good night,” Flax testified.
Flax said he knew Frederiksen, who was a state highway patrol trooper at the time of the games, as “Freddy,” who played at the various locations.
Flax recalled one night in which Frederiksen was at one of the two poker tables after paying $100 to buy in, Flax said.
The undercover scare caused the operation to move, he said.
Some of the security officers at the games were former cops. Flax said the person they suspected of being an undercover cop — it was an undercover Wichita police detective, according to testimony — caused him to call a friend “who was WPD.” Flax described to the friend what had happened and hoped “he’d tell me something.”
A second witness, FBI agent Ryan Ross, described the gambling investigation as “broad in scope” and also testified that Johnny Steven was Flax’s partner in the illegal poker business.
The investigation became known publicly around Feb. 8, 2017, when four to six search warrants were executed at homes and other locations.
The investigation had also involved wiretaps in 2015. The FBI targeted five individuals whose electronic communications were intercepted.
“It was a concern of ours that we had a known law enforcement officer participating,” in the games, Ross testified. It amounted to public corruption because officers are supposed to be enforcing the law, he testified.
The investigation included electronic records of 20 to 50 people. It involved phone calls and texts.
Ross and another investigator went to Frederiksen’s home on Feb. 23, 2017, about two weeks after the search warrants. When they asked him if he knew why they were contacting him, Frederiksen said he thought it was because of his “contacts with the Steven family,” Ross said.
Johnny Steven was Frederiksen’s Allstate insurance agent. He said Johnny Steven invited him to poker games, Ross recalled. Frederiksen said he couldn’t afford to be in games where players spent thousands of dollars.
The federal probe has focused on what Ross termed an illegal gambling business, where there are multiple players, money is exchanged and staff hired. Because the investigators thought Johnny Steven was one of the game organizers, they wanted to know the highway trooper’s contacts with him, Ross said.
Frederiksen made investigators do more work by not being honest with them, Ross said.
Marcos Montemayor, the former trooper’s defense attorney at the time of the trial, argued to the jury that his client didn’t lie about his involvement in the games. That, if anything, Frederiksen couldn’t remember details that had happened three years before the FBI questioned him about them.
Frederiksen’s attorney brought out witnesses to tell the jury that he he was an honorable retired master trooper with 26 years of service who didn’t lie.
After Frederiksen retired from the Highway Patrol, he became a security officer in the same federal courthouse where his trial was held.
When he testified, Frederiksen described gambling at the Waterwalk location, where the players included businessmen and doctors. While others played higher stakes poker, he limited his play to $100 or $200, he said.
He said he admitted to investigators that he played in games after being invited by Johnny Steven. He said he told the truth to the FBI agent interviewing him.
As a trooper over the years, he said, “I’ve testified hundreds of times in court” and was never accused of lying.