Gambling Addictions - Sickness or Choice?

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Behind bars for the past four years, Rodney Landingham has been mourning the charmed life he once had playing football for the Nevada Wolf Pack.

Like those in a number of recent high profile criminal cases in Reno, he says he lost everything because of his love affair with the euphoria he felt winning blackjack and craps games that led him to commit an armed robbery spree to pay off his gambling debts.

"Gambling central was only a few blocks away from school," Landingham said. "It was a lifestyle I never experienced. It was a fantasy, like Disneyland. And I was right up the street from it.

"I was at the top, and now, I'm at the bottom," he said in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. "It's hard to accept. I'm in a prison cell locked up wondering what the hell happened. It was gambling."

Landingham is serving a four-year minimum sentence for two Reno convenience store armed robberies. Next year, he likely will be transferred to federal prison to begin serving a 14-year term for two bank robberies.

All occurred in August 2004, about one year from his first gambling experience. He said he committed the crimes to cover $8,000 in gambling debts.

Several Washoe County residents convicted in recent months have blamed their crimes on what they described was their gripping, uncontrollable addictions to playing slot machines and card games.

They include an attorney who bilked $3.1 million from the Sparks casino he represented, medical clinic administrators, a television personality, a county engineer who recently pleaded guilty to stealing at least $2.2 million from his office and maybe more than $6 million, and a casino cage manager who worked her way up from cashier.

While counselors say gambling can become an addiction and mental disorder that could lead desperate players into a criminal career, legal experts say it's simply an excuse that holds little weight in the justice arena.

"They would be better served if they were candid and admitted it was a choice they made," said John Helzer, Washoe County Assistant District Attorney.

"I think everyone has experienced a moment of extreme excitement like when they watched their child score a goal, catch a fish or they won a jackpot, but I don't see any soccer moms out there committing crimes saying their rise in endorphins made them do it," he said.

Carol O'Hare executive director for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling and a recovered gambling addict, said pathological (compulsive) gamblers who don't seek treatment have the potential to commit crimes to support their habits or to pay back what they've stolen.

She said gambling can be an addiction and mental disorder, not a moral decision, that needs the same treatment and consideration as drug or alcohol addictions. Some also can become suicidal.

O'Hare and other gambling experts said they want a specialty court dedicated to treating gambling addicts, similar to the ones for substance abusers and the mentally ill.

They said its advocates likely will lobby the Legislature during the next session. Prosecutors oppose such an initiative. Some criminal defense attorneys support it.

Nevada gambling advocates convinced the Legislature in 2005 to set aside about $3 million through 2009 to be used for gambling treatment, education and work force development. The funding comes from yearly slot machine fees.

"These are people who were crime-free prior to their gambling addiction, where on a scale of crime went from zero to 360," O'Hare said. "They tend to be people in positions of trust, where they took advantage of opportunities when they were desperate and totally irrational."

According to state data, about 6 percent of Nevadans have a severe problem with gambling, compared to 1 percent to 2 percent in states across the country. Most casinos provide pamphlets in their businesses addressing problem gambling.

"The gaming industry has recognized its responsibility to educate the public concerning problem gambling," Peppermill Resort Casino spokeswoman Michelle Hackman said. "At the Peppermill, we encourage our guests to play responsibly and have information regarding problem gambling on our property for any player who feels they might have a problem."

Denise Quirk, who heads the Reno Problem Gambling Center, said 250 people have sought help since the center opened in late 2004.

"These are people with a sickness who got involved in criminal behavior and got caught," she said. "They are like a train running out of control until someone stops them. It's impossible to quit. It's a sick cycle."

Kenneth Lyon is a defense lawyer for Judy Sorensen, who was sentenced earlier this month to up to 10 years in prison for embezzling at least $485,000 during seven years from the medical clinic she worked at as an administrator. He said her gambling addiction led to her crime.

"Why would a 54-year-old married woman with a family and good employee all of a sudden revert to what she did?" he said. "It was behavior prompted by something. Until she was caught and it came to light, she didn't realize the extent of what she was doing. She never consciously knew how long it had gone on and how much money she took."

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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