Slot machines inside the Casino Queen draw people to East St. Louis, where gamblers hope to strike it rich with the pull of a handle.
Cards slide across the table in a rapid-fire blur.
Straights and flushes. Pairs and three-of-a-kinds.
Losers. All losers.
On days like this aboard the Alton Belle casino, when his luck ran cold as an icy river, the man in the finely tailored Canali sports coat would say nothing, do nothing.
Seated behind his dwindling stacks of chips, he'd just point to the dealer and cock his head.
Deal another hand.#
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.
But other days, it would be a different story.
Then his poker face would dissolve in despair.
"He would say, 'I'm sick. I can't believe I did that,'" casino manager Brian Watts would testify later in federal court.
Roberts loved the high life. He loved the expensive things that symbolized it. Cartier rings and Rolex watches. More than 300 Italian sport coats. European and Japanese luxury cars, enough to fill a small parking lot.
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.
They are men and women, young and old, black, white and Asian. They are unemployed, housewives, professionals with degrees from fine universities.
Between one-third and one-half of casino profits come from problem gamblers -- the majority of whom are hooked on slot and video poker machines, experts say.
Problem gambling is defined as the inability to resist the impulse to gamble, despite negative consequences, such as increasing debt and family stress. The American Psychiatric Association classified it as a definitive diagnosis in 1980, including it among impulse-control disorders.
Its symptoms include a fixation on gambling and returning to casinos to "chase losses."
Before 1991, the year the first Illinois riverboat casino opened, only 14 Gamblers Anonymous groups met statewide. Today, nearly 80 meet regularly.
No one can say how many problem gamblers have committed crimes to support their habits since the Alton Belle opened in September 1991 and the Casino Queen opened in East St. Louis in June 1993.
Problem gambling is the most-secretive of all addictions. Problem gamblers do not exhibit physical symptoms. Their compulsion is not detected by breath or blood tests. Police and courts in Illinois rarely flag gambling crimes because they're not mandated to do so as they are with drug and alcohol problems.
But national surveys indicate problem gamblers make up between 1 percent and 3 percent of the 363,068 adults that U.S. Census data show live in St. Clair and Madison counties, which means somewhere between 3,600 and nearly 11,000 men and women in both counties are in trouble because of gambling. And the number easily could be twice that, according to survey results reported by the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.
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.
Craig Travers, general manager of the Casino Queen in East St. Louis, defended the state's gaming industry. Casinos want to help problem gamblers, he said, but casinos shouldn't be responsible for deciding who may or may not gamble, said Travers, president of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.
Travers said he can't know whether his casino's patrons are betting over their heads because "I don't have access to their family information, to their financial information."
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. At home, unknown to her husband, were stacks of unpaid bills and a foreclosure notice on the couple's Collinsville home.
Kathy Bumpus led a double life.
On the surface, she was a well-liked substitute teacher at Lutheran grade schools in Collinsville. But after school and on her days off, Bumpus was a regular at "the boats." Little by little, she gambled away the couple's mortgage money.
Eight years after his wife's death, Steven Bumpus is unmoved by talk of benefits that more gambling could bring to Illinois.
"I don't see any good in any of it," he said. "People work hard for their money. They'd be better off just to walk outside and toss it into the wind. At least they could see it blow away."
A review of court records shows that metro-east problem gamblers who were caught stealing to support their habits are people who obeyed the law, paid their taxes and worked to earn a living.
Until they discovered casinos.
Just in the past few months:
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.
"I believe a lot more people are addicted to it than they realize," said Vidmar, who got hooked on machines at area taverns and the Casino Queen.
When Stangle ran out of money, he did something his wife could not imagine him ever considering -- he robbed a bank. But then, Gena Stangle had no clue her husband was a problem gambler.
"There was nothing. It was an out-of-the-blue type of thing," she said. "He was a loving father. He was totally not the man I married."
U.S. District Chief Judge G. Patrick Murphy, who sentenced Brandt to two years in prison, said too many people have the wrong idea about casinos -- that they are about "Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra" and "beautiful women.... In reality, it's people who in many instances can't pay the rent."
In May 1999, Paul William Surber was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Benton to 15 years in prison for six bank robberies he committed to support his gambling habit.
"This is where the problem begins," Surber wrote in a letter to the Belleville News-Democrat from a federal prison in West Virginia. "The gaming industry now caters to the average 'Joe,' you and me.... They treat you like you are very special.
"And yet I never realized that the only way they could ever stay in business is to profit from your losses, so there has to be millions of losers to be able to furnish such an establishment."
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. Criminals who deal in large sums of cash, such as drug dealers, are drawn to casinos because they may open accounts under their names there discretely, and it's perfectly legal.
Money deposited in these accounts can be used to pay down gambling debts, obtain credit for future gambling sessions or make withdrawals, while the account holder receives the same red-carpet treatment given to high rollers.
"Casinos can play a significant role in money laundering," said Miriam Miquelon, the U.S. attorney for Southern Illinois, who successfully prosecuted Belleville businessman Thomas Venezia and other defendants who operated an illegal gambling ring in the metro-east.
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 month's numbers."
Casino staff were assigned to keep a close eye on Roberts, whose erratic behavior became harder to ignore.
"He would say, 'I lost because you put this dealer here.' Or, 'I lost because you sent this dealer to break too soon,'" Watts said.
Roberts' arrest by federal agents in April 2000 put a dent in the Alton Belle's bottom line.
"So Ron was no longer playing on our property," Watts said. "We did not have a good month" that month.
U.S. District Judge Richard Webber sentenced Roberts to nearly 10 years in prison and ordered him to pay more than $14 million in restitution. He also ordered Roberts to receive treatment for his gambling problem.
Roberts, now an inmate at the federal penitentiary in Marion, refused repeated interview requests.
In late November 2002, Roberts wrote to Webber pleading for permission to visit his dying mother. His request was denied.
In the letter, Roberts expressed remorse for his crimes, explaining: "We made some huge mistakes with other people's money. I got so heavily involved with gambling because I tried so hard to pay a lot of the investors' money back.