COLUMBIA — Three men pleaded guilty on Wednesday to running a Columbia gambling ring that authorities say is connected to a double murder suspect.
Lanny Ray Gunter II, Harry B. Benenhaley and Ronald Dale Spence all admitted in federal court that they ran a gambling operation since at least 2006, taking in thousands of dollars on any given day.
Gunter, 42, ran the operation, which consisted of several dozen regular clients placing bets on sporting events via phone calls, text messages or a website, federal prosecutors said. Clients would leave envelopes of cash at a Columbia-area bar called Tony's Party Shop, where Benenhaley, 66, would pick them up and later deposit any winnings.
Spence, 61, ran a betting operation of his own before partnering up with Gunter, Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday said. Gunter owns several bars in the Columbia area, but prosecutors wouldn't say if they thought betting was also taking place there.
All three men said little in court Wednesday, only answering basic questions from the judge. Each faces up to five years in prison when sentenced in January. But Holliday said the men likely will not serve prison time because of their agreements to help the government with ongoing cases.
The three were charged as a result of an investigation of another alleged sports bookie, Brett Parker. Authorities say Parker needed money and shot his wife, Tammy, and Bryan Capnerhurst – another alleged bookie – in the couple's home in April to make it look like the shooting was self-defense.
Richland County deputies have said Capnerhurst was coming over to collect a $20,000 payment. Sheriff Leon Lott said Parker told investigators the day of the shooting that Capnerhurst was trying to rob him and killed his wife, so he shot him four times.
But authorities say forensic testing, cellphone records, surveillance video and other evidence don't back up Parker's story.
Parker is still awaiting trial. In court Wednesday, prosecutors said Gunter had loaned him $5,000 to start his own betting operation after Parker stopped running bets with his own father in 2006, and that Parker repaid the initial investment. But authorities say Parker owed $175,000 to Gunter when his wife and Capnerhurst were shot.
Gunter had allowed Parker to keep placing bets because he routinely made payments toward his overall debt, Holliday said.
As part of their plea deals, Gunter, Benenhaley and Spence are cooperating with the government on other investigations, including the Parker case.
“These are cooperative plea agreements, and those wheels are already in motion,” the prosecutor said.