BOILING SPRINGS, S.C. (AP) — Johnny Duncan knew how to work a room. Outgoing with a wide smile and a Southern drawl, he'd drape his arm around a stranger and ask for their backstory.
So it was no surprise that during a visit to Florida two decades ago, the former pool hustler from South Carolina walked into a bingo hall and started chatting with the owner.
Although the owner was nearly 25 years older, they quickly discovered they had a lot in common. Both served in the military and wanted to help veterans. Eventually, they became part of Allied Veterans of the World, a Florida-based charity investigators said was a front for a $300 million gambling operation.
Duncan was among 50 people arrested in a handful of states last week, and authorities said he was a leader in the organization accused of running nearly 50 gambling parlors offering computer slot machine-style games.
The group's executives gave precious little to veterans and lavished millions on themselves, spending it on boats, real estate and Maseratis, Ferraris and Porsches, investigators said.
The scandal led to the resignation of Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a Republican who once co-owned a public relations firm that worked for Allied Veterans. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Duncan, 65, was in jail Sunday. His attorney, Kelly Mathis, has been identified by authorities as the ringleader, but Duncan also played a crucial role, authorities said, and he had a history of running a similar scheme. Duncan pleaded no contest more than 20 years ago to creating a fake charity to sponsor bingo games.
His latest arrest shocked his family, who insisted he was innocent.
"He helped a lot of veterans," said his brother Donnie Duncan.
Family members blamed Mathis for Duncan's legal problems.
"His lawyer told him it was legal. If your lawyer tells you something is legal, you believe him," Donnie Duncan said.
Mathis, through his attorney, has also insisted that Mathis did nothing wrong and the games were legal sweepstakes, much like contests sponsored by fast-food restaurants or retailers.
Duncan's family was worried about his health. He had a liver transplant in 2011 and his family said he needed his medicine.
"Right now, I'm terrified that he's not going to get the care he needs," said Duncan's daughter-in-law, Dana Duncan.
Spartanburg County sheriff's office spokesman Lt. Tony Ivey said Duncan, who is being held without bond, was being given his medicine.
In interviews with The Associated Press, friends and family members described Duncan as a man who grew up in a working class family in Boiling Springs, a rural area at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
They said he was outgoing, generous and fiercely loyal to his family — he bought them homes and helped support them financially for years.
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