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Losers. All losers.
Ron Roberts, 43, stood apart from the Alton Belle regulars, a Great White shark swimming among guppies -- retirees who shuffled aboard to spend hours hunched in front of the nickel and quarter slots.
By contrast, Roberts could lose $45,000 on a single hand of five-card stud and act as though it were play money.
His favorite was a classic 1957 300 SL Mercedes-Benz with "gullwing" doors worth more than $100,000. Alton Belle executives gave it to him in 1999. It was their way of saying thanks.
The Alton Belle could afford to bestow such a lavish gift. In five years, Roberts lost nearly $5 million at the boat's blackjack and poker tables.
The trouble was, none of it was his to lose.
Roberts later would be sentenced to federal prison for masterminding a $14 million swindle. He ripped off 85 investors in a bogus land sale near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Roberts is one of dozens of patrons of metro-east casinos who, hooked on gambling, have stolen tens of millions of dollars to feed their habits.
These problem gamblers have robbed banks and burned down houses to collect insurance. They have defrauded clients, embezzled from employers and cheated the elderly across the Midwest, federal and state court records show.
Between one-third and one-half of casino profits come from problem gamblers
Its symptoms include a fixation on gambling and returning to casinos to "chase losses."
At least one-half to two-thirds of these problem gamblers steal -- from family members, employers, even strangers. And the problem is only going to grow worse if Illinois lawmakers expand the availability of gambling, gambling foes predict.
"The more you expand gambling, the more people will fall over the edge," said Wayne Burdick, executive director of the Outreach Foundation in Chicago.
casinos shouldn't be responsible for deciding who may or may not gamble, said Travers, president of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.
Access to gambling is a critical issue for problem gamblers who commit crimes, said Henry Lesieur, the former chairman of the criminal justice department at Illinois State University in Normal.
"I'm 100 percent convinced, based on the people I've seen and talked to, that they would not have engaged in those crimes if the gambling were not legal," Lesieur said.
'Not the man I married'
Steven Bumpus knows about the seductive power of gambling.
In February 1995, Bumpus' wife, Kathy, pulled her car into the parking lot of St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights, took out a gun and shot herself in the head
Norma Brandt, 55, a former vice president of the Bank of Waterloo, was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling $241,000 from depositors. Brandt now is an inmate at the federal prison camp in Greenville.
John Robert Stangle, 42, of Mascoutah pleaded guilty to robbing and attempting to rob Belleville banks after losing his paycheck at the Casino Queen.
Margaret Ann Allen, 56, former assistant to the East St. Louis police chief, pleaded guilty to stealing $23,450 from police department bank accounts.
Lisa Vidmar, 38, a former bookkeeper at the Marka Nursing Home in Mascoutah, pleaded guilty to stealing $23,400 from the checking, savings and trust accounts of nursing home residents.
Vidmar, who faces more than one year in prison, said she turned to slot machines to numb herself from depression and alcoholism.
The explosive growth of casinos, especially in the Midwest, has provided drug traffickers and other criminals with a ready list of places to launder their cash.
Money laundering is the conversion of money derived from criminal activity to hide its illegal origin.
"Casinos can play a significant role in money laundering," said Miriam Miquelon, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois
Illinois riverboat casinos are especially vulnerable because they have no loss limits, which means drug traffickers gamble away tens of thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes against their casino accounts.
In contrast, gamblers on Missouri boats may lose a maximum of $500 every two hours.
The absence of loss limits is a major reason St. Louis-area drug dealers flock to the Alton Belle and Casino Queen, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Holtshouser, who works out of the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis.
"When you're in St. Louis and you've got a choice between Missouri and Illinois, if you're trying to launder money, you might choose Illinois," Holtshouser said.
Keep 'em coming back
Casinos court their best customers with an escalating system of freebies, or "comps," such as free hotel rooms and limousines.
The pinnacle, the vintage Mercedes-Benz the Alton Belle gave to Roberts in 1999, was a way of sealing his loyalty, keeping his business there.
But the Alton Belle was helpful in other ways.
As Roberts' land scam began building steam, he used the Alton casino as his private bank between 1998 and 2000, his court file shows.
Roberts moved hundreds of thousands of dollars entrusted to him by his investors in and out of an account at the casino under his name, according to FBI documents.
Roberts deposited checks from investors into an account at a St. Louis bank. Then he would have the bank issue cashiers' checks in smaller amounts, according to the FBI affidavit filed by special agent Howard Marshall.
"Many of these checks are then taken to the Alton Belle Casino, where they are deposited and used by Roberts, either to pay down his marker (his gambling debt) or for gambling activity," Marshall wrote.
He later would withdraw as much as $100,000 at a time from the casino account, bankrolling his tastes in jewelry, watches, cars and Italian-made suits, court records show.
Brian Watts, the Alton Belle casino manager, testified during Roberts' April 2001 sentencing hearing that Roberts' losses mattered greatly to the casino's bottom line.
"Oh, yeah, I've seen him lose $80,000 in 10 minutes," Watts said. "If Ron had a good month or a bad month, his play was so large that it would swing whether or not we beat last
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