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Somebody Threw a Screwball

The Southwest Denver Little League should have made money with its bingo fundraisers. So why is $250,000 missing?

Earlier this year, Detective John Incampo quit the Lakewood Police Department after a quarter-century of working as a cop--the last half of it as a detective--to begin a new career in corporate security. As his last day approached, he wrapped up his loose ends, handing over pending cases to his sergeant before finally cleaning out his desk. But one of the files he left behind still nags at him. It hangs there, unresolved, like a bad smell.

"I really wanted to work this case," recalls Incampo. "Yeah. Oh, yeah. I wanted to work it bad. There was definitely something fishy going on there."

It appeared to be another white-collar crime, although when the detective first heard about it back in the summer of 1997, it wasn't quite ripe yet. So when one of the company's officers told him, "Wait just a little longer; we want to see how much money is involved," Incampo waited. A year later, the company officer returned.

The detective recalls the conversation: "He calls me. He says, 'We've done the audit.' I say, 'Fine; so how much is missing?' And he says, $250,000. And I say--I remember saying this to him--'Oh, shit.' I mean, these figures are jumping out at me; we're not talking chump change. We're talking big money.

"Especially for Little League."
Financial crimes can be complicated. Numbers can be manipulated, and there are no bodies to autopsy for clues. Yet as Incampo stared at the audit, the figures drew more sharply into focus and he became convinced that the crime had, in fact, occurred. He'd seen it before with bingo.

"Bingo is a cash business," he explains, "and when you get that much money floating around, people's brains just start to click off." In short, he says, "I wasn't about to close this case. I wanted it."

But this spring, Incampo did reluctantly close the case, and not with a bang, but with a whimper. No one was prosecuted, no one was jailed. No money was ever recovered. He was not the only one who walked away disappointed.

"It's kind of like a sellout," says Cary Romero, who until last year, had volunteered his time as a boardmember of Southwest Denver Little League for nine years, including two--1997 and 1998--as president. In fact, he says, part of the reason he quit last year after nearly a decade of service was over the unbalanced books. "I just didn't know if I could look the kids in the eye again," he says.

There aren't many businesses in this world where, given the same set of books, people can convincingly argue over whether piles of money might or might not exist. Colorado bingo, however, is one of them. This is the story of how $250,000 seems to have simply vanished.

Bingo used to be played in church basements to raise money for new hymnals, and Little League baseball was simply groups of kids showing up to field grounders in vacant parks. Now bingo is a $250 million yearly business in Colorado alone, and Little League spreads across the country like Wal-Mart and needs as much money to run as the major leagues.

Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole remembers simpler times. He was corralled to head Southwest Denver Little League in its early days. It was 1967, the second year of the league's existence. "It was the worst year of my life," Amole recalls.

"They told me, 'We just want you for your name; people recognize you. You won't have to do anything.' But right away I was out there building snack shacks and dealing with parents in a way I'd never thought I'd have to--mostly defending myself. Once, another father and I had to escort an umpire off the field. They were going to lynch him. It was a painful experience at the time."

Despite all the headaches, Amole recalls things getting done. He convinced the principal of Mullen High School to let the league use a big empty field on school property for $1 a year; the Army Corps of Engineers leveled the space into five baseball diamonds for free. When players who lived on the other side of Bear Creek needed a way to get to the fields, a bridge was donated. During games, the league raised money for uniforms and equipment by selling food at the snack shack.

Some elements of Little League baseball never change, no matter what year the calender says it is. Today parents still get into fights while their boys play ball. But the league itself has grown up.

It all begins in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home to Little League, Incorporated, the ultimate authority for the estimated 10,000 sanctioned Little League baseball games that are played on any given summer day. Headquarters oversees eight "regions" that span the globe. The United States is home to four of these regions, which roughly divide the country into quarters. Colorado is part of the western region, a thirteen-state jurisdiction run out of San Bernardino, California. Within each region are districts, of which Colorado currently has four, dividing the state into east, west, north and south. Each district is made up of leagues--generally about ten to fifteen of them per district. Finally, within the leagues are actual teams.

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