A betting scandal rocked Iowa sports. Then the case went sideways.

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One day last spring, Isaiah Lee, a defensive lineman for Iowa State University, got a visit from a state police investigator who wanted to talk about something on a lot of fans’ minds: sports betting.

Like many young Americans, Lee had begun wagering on games lately. He was old enough to legally gamble in Iowa, but the NCAA bars athletes from sports betting, with strict penalties for violations that range from mandatory training (for any bet at all) to an outright ban (for wagering on their own team).

Mark Ludwick, the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations agent, told Lee he was working on a case focused “solely on gaming operators” such as DraftKings and FanDuel, according to a motion filed by defense attorneys summarizing Ludwick’s deposition for the case. He even “reassured” Lee he faced “no adverse or criminal consequences.” So Lee opened up. He had created a FanDuel account in his girlfriend’s name, he admitted, and wagered $885 on a variety of events — including 12 Iowa State football games.

When Ludwick reported the interview to his supervisor, the agent quickly realized his assurances to Lee were hollow, according to the summary. His boss “congratulated” him for “obtaining a confession.” Ludwick said he then “advised his superiors that he would no longer participate in the investigation, and requested reassignment,” according to court records.

The investigation pushed forward, and three months later prosecutors charged Lee and nearly two dozen other athletes from Iowa State and the University of Iowa with crimes related to their gambling activity, spanning from misdemeanor underage betting to felony identity theft for using an account registered under someone else. The NCAA acted, too, suspending all of the players.

Some of the most decorated athletes in the state were implicated. Paniro Johnson, a champion wrestler, wagered $45,640 across 1,283 bets, including roughly two dozen on Iowa State sporting events, according to a criminal complaint. Iowa State starting quarterback Hunter Dekkers, authorities said, wagered “more than $2,799” across 366 bets, including a 2021 Iowa State football game in which he served as a backup. He was one of at least nine athletes accused of breaking a long-standing sports taboo: gambling on their own games.

The unprecedented crackdown illuminated how deeply the expansion of legal online gambling has infiltrated some college locker rooms, spurring calls for reform that include proposals to ban prop bets in college sports and to curtail harassment by fans.

But records and interviews with people involved in the case also demonstrate how disjointed the efforts are to hold sportsbooks, schools and athletes accountable, spotlighting the tensions emerging between the growing popularity of online sports betting and a regulatory system erected on the fly to contain it.

While the NCAA maintains strict rules against betting, gambling operators have advertised on university campuses and targeted young adults as potential customers. Law enforcement units designed to root out bookies and organized crime rings find themselves toiling to unearth infractions in an industry no longer hiding in the shadows.

“This case was investigated like a major, sprawling criminal conspiracy,” said Mark Weinhardt, a defense attorney representing eight of the athletes. “It yielded some guilty pleas to the equivalent of traffic tickets.”

The only crimes the athletes in Iowa were accused of were gambling before turning 21 or using an account that didn’t belong to them. The only convictions resulted in a $645 fine. Meanwhile, some of the case’s investigators have raised questions about the roots of their own probe. In the deposition summarized in court records, Ludwick alleged that DCI obtained its evidence through illegal searches of a gambling database.

“Numerous other Special Agents,” he said in his deposition, “share the same belief and have refused to participate in this investigation.”

None of the agents involved responded to messages seeking comment. The Iowa Department of Public Safety, which oversees DCI, declined to answer questions but issued a statement defending the probe, saying “agents conferred with legal experts” throughout.

The athletes in the cases, which have all concluded with plea deals or dismissals, declined to comment or didn’t respond to interview requests. Their sports careers were all derailed or ended, their families and attorneys said. Some have transferred, seeking a fresh start. Others didn’t have that option. Lee’s violation of NCAA policy meant he lost his senior season.

“They’re being punished for a lifetime by adults who didn’t follow rules,” said Van Plumb, a lawyer representing Lee and several other players. “This will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

In the years since the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports gambling, the sports betting industry has boomed, with 38 states now allowing online wagers that before 2018 could be made only at casinos or through bookies.

Iowa was an early adopter. It legalized sports betting in 2019, with 18 operators rushing into the market. Last year, bettors in the state placed more than $2 billion worth of wagers, generating $186 million in corporate profits and $13 million in taxes.

In 2021, Iowa’s Department of Criminal Investigations started a unit focused on sports betting. That year, a member of the unit, Special Agent Brian Sanger, wrote a memo urging the state’s gambling regulator, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, to license tracking software from a company called GeoComply, according to emails obtained by the Des Moines Register.

The system, installed in Iowa by September 2022, compiles geolocation data on every account created and every bet placed on many of the country’s biggest online sports betting platforms, including DraftKings and FanDuel. Through the company’s analytics tool, Kibana, which flags clusters of heavy activity, clients can home in on a location deemed suspicious, such as a prison or a high school, and view every device that opens a betting app there to look into potential violations of gambling laws.

But the state licensed the sophisticated software without establishing clear policies on how exactly the database can be used in criminal investigations.

Under state law, “customer records,” “surveillance records” and other information gambling companies provide to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission are “confidential, unless otherwise ordered by a court, by the lawful custodian of the records, or by another person duly authorized to release such information.” How GeoComply, a third-party contractor holding those records, fits into that clause remains up for interpretation — Iowa courts have yet to rule on the issue.

Under its terms of service, GeoComply placed that determination in the hands of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, the regulator licensing the software. In an August 2022 email, viewed by The Washington Post, the commission’s administrator, Brian Ohorilko, explained to GeoComply that his agency would authorize DCI to use the system only under certain circumstances, citing the Iowa legal code containing the confidentially clause. But his language listing those conditions was vague and brief, including that criminal investigators could “review abnormal wagering activity or patterns that may indicate a concern about the integrity” of a sporting event. He did not address who was supposed to decide what counted as “abnormal” or a “pattern” or whether investigators needed to present any evidence before launching such a review. With those loose guidelines in place, GeoComply granted DCI agents login access to Kibana.

Ohorilko, who is no longer with the commission, didn’t respond to an interview request. In response to questions seeking more information about the Kibana approval process, Tina Eick, the administrator who replaced Ohorilko, laid the responsibly for legal compliance on DCI: “IRGC has no role in how DCI conducts their investigations,” she said.

Sanger seemed to have a more straight forward understanding of what the law allowed. In his 2021 memo, he said he believed GeoComply could “share all their data” with “state investigators,” according to the Register.

In December 2022, Sanger began investigating gambling at Iowa universities, according to his deposition, which is summarized in court records filed by defense attorneys. After examining activity across the campus, he narrowed his focus, setting up a “digital fence” around the University of Iowa’s athletic facilities. According to the deposition summary, Sanger said he “cannot remember” what sparked the inquiry “but that he was concerned about things such as people infiltrating Iowa’s sports team to gain insider information or match fixing.” He soon expanded the probe to include Iowa State’s sports facilities.

“Individuals with access to these facilities would possess insider information, could impact outcomes, and tended to be underage,” DPS commissioner Stephan Bayens said in a statement. “Sportsbooks must seek to prohibit sports wagering by coaches, athletic trainers and players.”

Sanger did not apply for a warrant before setting up the digital fence and probing GeoComply’s database, court records show, and attorneys representing the athletes argue he had no probable cause to inspect the athletic facilities. “This was done without a warrant, tips, complaints or evidence that illegal activity was occurring,” Plumb wrote in a motion.

Investigators zeroed in on 22 accounts, issuing subpoenas to FanDuel, DraftKings and GeoComply seeking records that would identify who the accounts were registered to. Many of the accounts belonged to relatives or other associates of athletes, “suggesting fraudulent activity or identity theft,” Bayens said in his statement. Some of those athletes were younger than 21, the state’s legal betting age.

Among the athletes in the probe was Eyioma Uwazurike, who played football at Iowa State before getting drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2022. Under an account registered to his fiancée, Uwazurike placed roughly 800 bets from February 2021 to August 2023, records show, including on two Iowa State games he played in and five Broncos games while he was on the team. (The NFL later suspended him indefinitely.)

Other bets resembled the one he placed on an NBA game, cited in court records: $10 on a parlay for Mikal Bridges, then of the Phoenix Suns, and Terance Mann of the Los Angeles Clippers to each hit three or more three-pointers in a game.

Across 2½ years of gambling, he wagered roughly $20,000.

On May 3, 2023, DCI agent Heather Duenow and a local Colorado officer showed up at Uwazurike’s home in Arapahoe County, Colo., with a search warrant for his and his fiancée’s phones. Duenow gave the impression the investigation targeted the gaming companies in addition to the people placing the bets, according to a recording of the interaction.

“Part of this is also shedding light on the industry and what they’re supposed to do in regards to protecting and abiding by state laws in Iowa,” Duenow said. “I’m not here to get a bunch of people that went to where I just graduated from in trouble.”

Similar meetings took place in Iowa’s Johnson and Story counties.

Brad Hanika did not hear any panic in his son’s voice when 23-year-old DeShawn Hanika called to inform him that investigators had shown up to campus to seize his cellphone and that of several of his teammates.

“He wasn’t worried,” Brad said. “He had no idea it was over what it was over.”

Authorities have made no claims of match-fixing, which is against the law. Investigators, though, seized on smaller alleged crimes of the student bettors and went to prosecutors with the case.

Johnson County Attorney Rachel Zimmermann Smith, whose district includes Iowa’s campus, only charged student-athletes who were underage when they gambled, an infraction that carries a $645 fine. Zimmermann Smith tacked on counts for tampering with records for using someone else’s account, an aggravated misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of two years behind bars.

Story County Attorney Timothy Meals, whose district includes Iowa State’s campus, charged every athlete who used another person’s account, applying felony identity theft counts against Lee, Johnson, Uwazurike and others.

Zimmermann Smith and Meals did not respond to requests for comment.

By exposing their gambling activity, investigators also delivered the athletes to the NCAA’s wrath. The nine athletes whose wagers involved their own teams face a permanent loss of eligibility. The others were suspended for all or part of their seasons. In total, roughly 40 college athletes, including more than a dozen who didn’t face criminal charges, received NCAA sanctions based on evidence of their gambling activity that surfaced during the state investigation.

The case laid out a cautionary tale that probably will echo through college locker rooms across the country as coaches and athletic directors warn players about the perils of gambling. But it also left a trail of critics wondering just how these athletes ended up under a police spotlight that doesn’t seem to be shining anywhere else.

“Why those two universities only were targeted?” Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said to reporters. “There are college students at all kinds of universities. Sounds like it’s only athletes.”

“Why are Iowa and Iowa State athletes the only ones in this?” Iowa State wrestling coach Kevin Dresser said to the Des Moines Register. “It just seems to be very confusing to me as to why this even happened.”

‘Philosophical differences’

To better understand the case against his son, Brad Hanika, a fire investigator in Kansas, made a series of calls to Ohorilko, the administrator at the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, and recorded the calls, court records show. Those calls gave defense lawyers their first indication the investigation had raised concerns among state officials.

Hanika asked whether the commission, which has unrestricted access to the GeoComply database, had tipped off the DCI about gambling activity among student-athletes.

Ohorilko said the commission wasn’t involved in the investigation, but he declined to give more information. “I don’t want to get myself in criminal trouble,” Ohorilko said in one call, according to a transcript.

“I have strong feelings but it just wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tell you,” Ohorilko said. “I do think there’s maybe some philosophical differences in how things took place.”

On a call in September, Ohorilko added: “A lot of people don’t agree with how things have been handled.”

After prosecutors missed a filing deadline in Hanika’s case, they dropped the charges. Hanika transferred to play football at Kansas.

Eleven other athletes pleaded guilty to underage gambling in exchange for the tampering charges getting dropped. Those who weren’t charged with underage gambling, including Isaiah Lee and Eyioma Uwazurike, had no comparable lesser charge to plead down to. So rather than negotiate a plea deal, Lee and Uwazurike, along with Paniro Johnson and Iowa State football player Jirehl Brock, decided to fight their identity theft charges and demand more information about the investigation’s origins. That choice pulled the thread that ultimately unraveled the case.

In January, their lawyers questioned Sanger and Ludwick in depositions, revealing that investigators did not obtain a warrant before searching the geolocation database and that DCI’s own agents were divided on the merits of the case.

In February, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission handed over email exchanges with GeoComply from the weeks and months after the charges were filed. In one email, a GeoComply official informs the commission the company was cutting off DCI agents’ access to the software, saying investigators “may have exceeded the intended and outlined scope of its Kibana access-and-use privileges.”

Defense lawyers filed a motion arguing state authorities had withheld critical evidence in the case by not disclosing that GeoComply had cut off DCI access following the college athlete investigation. In response to the revelation, Story County prosecutors retreated, asking the judge to dismiss the charges against Lee, Johnson, Brock and Uwazurike. By early March, the criminal case was over.

Another case is just starting. According to Plumb, at least 37 of the college athletes who faced NCAA penalties because of the criminal investigation are planning to sue the state, claiming authorities violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

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