Bank robbery spotlights role of gambling in crime David Gutman, Staff Writer August 7, 2016
It is, admittedly, kind of a funny story.
A guy goes into a casino at 10 in the morning and starts playing blackjack. Maybe he hits a losing streak. A few hours later, he saves his seat at the table, leaves the casino, robs a bank, returns to the casino, regains his seat and starts gambling again with the stolen money.
That’s what Charleston police allege 52-year-old Kerry Johnson did last Tuesday, charging him with leaving the Mardi Gras Casino in Nitro to rob a bank in the South Hills neighborhood of Charleston.
The Kanawha County magistrate who arraigned Johnson after he was arrested, Ward Harshbarger, chuckled throughout the process, calling it one of the craziest cases he’d seen in 30-plus years on the bench.
But it’s not funny for Johnson, who told prosecutors he has a gambling problem, but said he did not rob the bank and has no recollection of the events they described. He faces 10 to 20 years in prison if convicted.
And, if the charges against him are true, he’s far from alone in resorting to crime to satisfy a gambling problem or addiction.
About 25 percent of the callers to the Problem Gamblers Help Network of West Virginia admit to having committed a crime in connection with their gambling, said Sheila Moran, the network’s communications director.
The most common crimes are stealing, embezzlement and writing bad checks, she said.
“When people have a gambling problem and they take money, most of the time they genuinely do not see it as stealing,” Moran said. “Their thinking is as soon as they get that next win, ‘I’m going to take it back.’”
Johnson’s alleged crime is certainly more extreme than most, but it’s far from the worst fallout from gambling addiction.
Scott Stevens was a regular patron of the Mountaineer Casino Racetrack near Wheeling. From 2007 to 2012, according to court records, Stevens regularly played slot machines at the casino, developing a gambling addiction.
To feed his addiction, court filings say, he embezzled more than $7 million from his employer before he was fired. He then spent his family’s savings, his retirement account and his children’s college funds at the casino, according to court records.
On Aug. 13, 2012, out of money and seemingly out of hope, Stevens sat down in a local park, called the police and shot himself.
His family sued the casino and the slot machine manufacturer, alleging that the features and algorithms of its slot machines are designed to cause a physiological change in the brain, fueling addiction.
The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled against Stevens’ family in June, finding the casino and manufacturer were not liable, largely because the state’s five casinos are so heavily regulated by the state that there is no duty under state law for them to protect gamblers from addiction.
“The state has plainly weighed the societal costs of the machines — specifically including their contribution to compulsive gambling and the potential consequences thereof — against their economic benefits,” Justice Brent Benjamin wrote for a unanimous court. “And it has nonetheless elected to make them available to the public.”
Gambling in West Virginia has brought in billions of dollars for the state, funding education, senior programs and state parks. It also funds the Problem Gamblers Help Network.
But the state’s five casinos, 1,500 locations to buy lottery tickets and more than 7,000 video lottery machines also have wrecked lives.
Moran recalls the first call she took when she joined the Problem Gamblers Help Network in 2003. It was from a woman who had embezzled $250,000 from the law firm she worked at so she could play bingo.
“The funny thing is, it’s people you would never think,” Moran said of the 12,000 people who have called for help with a gambling problem since the hotline opened in 2000.
About half the hotline’s callers are female, according to its annual report, and nearly 40 percent have more than $25,000 in gambling debt.
Moran talked about people who had bought their kids Christmas presents, then, desperate for gambling money, pawned the presents and re-wrapped the empty boxes.
While being arraigned, Johnson told the court that he owned his own business, made around $10,000 a month, but had no money to his name.
Charleston police said that when they arrived at Johnson’s house, following an anonymous tip, his girlfriend told them that he was sleeping inside and that the car in the driveway belonged to him.
“Usually the spouse has no idea,” Moran said. “It’s not uncommon for us to get a call from a husband or wife saying, ‘I just found out we are $50,000 in debt.’ It’s a vicious cycle.”
The Problem Gambler Help Network of West Virginia, which is free and confidential, can be reached at 1-800-gambler.