Ron Turner may be the very embodiment of the intersection of old west and new west.
He sports a thick white beard, a cowboy hat, a fringed jacket and turquoise jewelry. When people walk into his establishment, he greets them with “howdy pardner.”
But he’s not running a saloon. He and his wife, Eila, own the Cowboy Cabin, an antique store that specializes in the old west, featuring Colt and Winchester rifles, buffalo-skin jackets and old gambling equipment. The couple moved to Whitefish from San Juan Capistrano this winter, opening their business at the end of December.
On Jan. 31, the Turners found that the old and new west don’t always coexist comfortably.
In 1907, the Montana Legislature banned gambling, and the devices used to facilitate it, never suspecting that 100 years later, antique gambling devices might be sought after decorations for the vacation homes of new westerners.
But the law remained on the books, and on Jan. 31 investigators with the Gambling Control Division of the Montana Department of Justice paid a visit to the Cowboy Cabin.
The story the Turners told to local papers afterward brought out another carryover from the old west, a dislike of government and meddling bureaucracy.
When the investigators came to his store, Ron says they homed in on 10 pieces of antique gambling equipment, including two roulette wheels, one of which dates to the 1880s and was used as a prop in “Gunsmoke.” He estimates the value of the 10 items at $77,000.
Some of the items were on consignment, others were owned by the Turners. They were, Ron says, some of the most valuable and attractive items in his collection.
Investigators told him the items were also illegal.
According to Turner, the investigators said he could be charged with felonies for having transported each of the 10 items across state lines, and, he says he was told, “it was as bad as if I had brought cocaine over the border.”
The officers also told him they would have to confiscate the equipment, and then began to do so.
“We were in a state of shock,” Eila says.
Ron says he asked one of the investigators to be careful with the roulette wheel and was told, in reply, “You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter if we’re careful or not, because you’re never going to see this stuff again.”
He says he tried persuade the investigators not to take his antiques, telling them he’d bought and sold similar equipment in his California antique store for years, and that many antique dealers around the country buy and sell historical gambling devices.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” he says he told them. “I have stacks of catalogues that sell the same things.”
“Welcome to Montana,” is the response he claims to have gotten.
After three hours, the investigators had confiscated most of the equipment, and made Turner wrap the rest in plastic.
At that moment, things looked bleak for the Turners.
“It would be pretty hard for us if we didn’t get those back,” Ron says.
The Turner’s version of what happened at their store was printed in several Montana newspapers, and provoked a quick reaction. People began calling, e-mailing, and driving to his store just to let him know that they thought the Gambling Control Division had gone too far.
“It’s been incredible,” Ron says. “The people of Montana have been terrific.”
Letters to the editor began pouring into local papers from across the country as people read the story online.
On Feb. 10, Ron says, he got a call from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who, he says, told him, “Ron, I just found out about this, and I’m going to look into it.”
He also got a call from Montana Sen. Verdell Jackson, who’s now sponsoring SB 540, a bill that would retroactively allow antique dealers licensed with the Gambling Control Division to sell antique gambling devices.
Jackson says that when he and fellow Republican Sen. Joe Balyeat heard what happened to the Turners, “We said we wished we could do something about it, and then we decided we could.”
The bill, which was drafted Feb. 16, passed the Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee Feb. 22.
The senate passed the bill 47-3 Feb. 27.
According to Gene Hunting-ton, who heads the Gambling Control Division, an internal investigation into the raid at Turner’s store is also underway.
“The statements about who said what and when seem to be in dispute,” he told the Independent.
Huntington declined to discuss details of the still-incomplete investigation.
But whatever the circumstances, Huntington says he supports Jackson’s bill, and Jackson credits Huntington with helping write it.
“It’s a good way to resolve this,” Huntington says.
He also says the Turners will not be charged with felonies. He says the Turners could be charged with misdemeanors for possession of illegal gambling devices, but that the Gambling Control Division usually tries to work out agreements rather than press charges.
The situation, he says, arose because “We really just haven’t had much experience with someone running a business like this.”
He notes that every two years, his department holds public hearings around the state to see if Montana’s gambling laws need to be altered, and that it has never been suggested that an exception be made for antiques.
Ron worries that the Legislature could just be posturing until public sentiment about his situation dies down, and that ultimately the law won’t be changed.
In the end, he says, “All we want is our stuff back and to be left alone.”