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Suicide spotlights dark side of casinos Big jump seen in embezzlement cases; bankruptcy filings are also on the rise

Almost overnight, Michael Pellegrino became the face for everything that's wrong with gambling.

The truth is he's not alone. He's not the first or last gambler to commit suicide.

There are other faces to the dark side of gambling, the side of the business where desperation, despair and dishonesty reign.

While some take their own lives, others end up stealing. And many more declare bankruptcy.

People like Kenneth A. Mangione, the trusted and beloved Hopevale school administrator who stole $192,000 in school funds to feed his casino addiction.

And James M. Wright, the local construction executive sentenced to 18 months in jail because of thefts linked to his gambling.

Pellegrino, the local funeral home director who fatally shot himself at a Seneca Niagara Casino blackjack table April 5, took the most desperate of choices. A casino source said Seneca Niagara computers listed Pellegrino's losses at about $250,000 at the time of his death. And that was just at the Niagara Falls casino.

"Most of my clients have thought about or tried suicide," said Katye Conroy, a certified gambling treatment counselor in Williamsville. "Right now, a lot of them are scared for themselves because they see someone who lost control."

>Link to crime is clear

More than most people, Conroy sees the human face of problem gambling. She knows impulsive, self-destructive acts are the norm among people desperate for cash, desperate for a way out.

So does District Attorney Frank Clark, a self-described convert when it comes to the relationship between gambling and crime.

More than ever before, Clark said he is seeing a marked increase in embezzlement cases and he says the single, biggest reason is gambling.

"More so now than ever," he said. "If I were to list the reasons, gambling would be number one."

The evidence, the prosecutor says, is in the increase -- four times as many now as in the past -- in embezzlement cases of more than $100,000. He says his office now handles about 12 to 15 a year, and gambling is the reason.

"These are big numbers," Clark said. "We never saw numbers like this in the past."

Of those, a few have been high-profile cases, most notably Mangione, the longtime chief financial officer of the Hopevale school for troubled children in Hamburg.

In the end, Mangione, a 35-year employee of the school, was sentenced to six months in jail and was ordered to pay $50,000 in restitution.

"I just got caught up in this mess," he said at his sentencing last month.

And he's not alone.

Danny Harris Sr. of Grand Island, an airport skycap, pleaded guilty last year to embezzling $97,000 from an investment fund started by his fellow skycaps.

Prosecutors said Harris, who was sentenced to five years' probation, managed the fund and regularly raided its bank account for money he gambled away at casinos.

David R. Wendt, a former Lockport attorney and part-time city judge, was sentenced to two years in Niagara County Jail for stealing money from clients. Court papers put the amount at more than $219,000.

"Booze and gambling," said defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels when asked about Wendt's misdeeds. "Thousands and thousands of dollars went through his pockets at the crap tables or the poker tables or betting on games of chance."

And it's not just men whose gambling woes land them in court.

Judith Ann Scheitheir, a bookkeeper from the City of Tonawanda, pleaded guilty in January to stealing $350,000 from her employer by writing checks to herself.

She told police she was trying to cover credit card debt and gambling losses at Seneca Niagara and other casinos in Niagara Falls, Ont.

Even more common than crime, experts say, is the link between problem gambling and bankruptcy.

"Gambling is an important factor in a significant number of the cases we see," said Carl Bucki, one of two U.S. Bankruptcy Court judges in Western New York.

Bucki is convinced casinos are a big part of the reason why bankruptcy filings are trending higher this year than last year. There were 1,342 filings in the first three months of this year, up from 808 for the same time last year.

The problem, he concedes, is that most people, because of shame and embarrassment, don't acknowledge their addiction.

Bankruptcy filers are required to fill out a "Statement of Financial Affairs" that asks if gambling is one of the reasons they're in debt. But most people answer "no" even when gambling is a factor, Bucki says.

More often than not, he said, the gambler lists his debt as credit card abuse. What he won't tell you is that his paycheck went to the casino and that's when he ran up his credit cards.

"When you have a gambling problem," Bucki said, "the problem is often camouflaged."

>Other side of story

Casino advocates argue that the overwhelming percentage of their visitors are problem-free gamblers.

They point to the 12 to 15 people convicted of gambling-related embezzlement crimes each year and how that number pales in comparison to the 1.2 million people who belong to the Seneca Players Club, an organization of casino regulars.

They also note that the nation's academic and research communities have been divided on the social consequences of gambling, leading the National Academy of Science to conclude in 1998 that "much of the available research on all aspects of pathological gambling is of limited scientific value."

A year later, the National Gambling Impact Study commissioned by Congress referred to that dispute in calling for a moratorium on casino development.

The study estimated the number of problem and pathological gamblers in the United States had reached 3 million, with 15 million more people at risk. It also put the cost to society at about $5 billion a year. And that was nine years ago.

For Renee Wert, the proof of gambling's social ills is in the human tragedies we hear and read about and she sees firsthand.

As head of the gambling treatment program at Jewish Family Services of Buffalo & Erie County, the premier counseling program in the area, Wert spends her days with people in desperate need of help.

And more often than she cares to admit, she hears her clients talk of the ultimate impulse -- suicide.

"It's very common," Wert said. "Suicide is a way out. These people don't know what to do. This is a way out of their pain. A way out for their family."

Wert said she was counseling a client two weeks ago when he suddenly revealed a desire to kill himself.

"He just felt there was no alternative," she said. "I once had a man who talked about how he could do it and still make it seem like an accident so his family could get the insurance money."

And yet, she holds out hope that problem gamblers will learn from Pellegrino's tragic death. She also hopes politicians will take notice of the social ills connected to gambling.

>Canada more progressive

One of the answers may be increased funding for treatment. Addiction and counseling experts say New York State has been slow to adequately fund gambling-addiction programs, despite the role model sitting across the border.

In Canada, government has been much more aggressive in combating problem gambling. The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission went so far as to install kiosks with treatment counselors on the floor of the Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls, Ont.

One thing is certain. When Pellegrino, a regular high-stakes player, shot himself on the floor of the Seneca Niagara casino 10 days ago, he cast a spotlight on problem and pathological gambling.

Early on, the casino suggested his suicide was the result of a troubled relationship with one of its blackjack dealers. But it also became clear that Pellegrino was a heavy gambler, and loser, at the casino's blackjack tables.

A Seneca Niagara employee with access to casino computers said Pellegrino's losses were listed at about $250,000 at the time of his death.

For Wert and Conroy, that's important. The revelation that Pellegrino was a big-time gambler may serve as a message, a warning of sorts, they hope.

"As sad as it is for his family," Conroy said, "he can provide a lot of help for everyone else."


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