Theft just one sign of gambling addiction

The lure of a jackpot is said to be behind a growing number of arrests here

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For an increasing number of local residents, the desire to hit the slot machines or the blackjack tables or even scratch-off lotto tickets is an urge they would do almost anything to satisfy.

That insatiable need -- akin to an addiction to drugs or alcohol -- has driven several so-called compulsive gamblers in southwestern Pennsylvania to commit crimes against loved ones, neighbors or employers to fund their addiction. In the most recent incident, a former mid-level manager with West Penn Allegheny Health System was arrested and charged Monday with stealing more than $713,000 that authorities say he gambled away.

Ira Johnson, 52, of Penn Hills is charged with 10 counts, including theft, receiving stolen property, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds, unlawful use of a computer, dealing in proceeds of illegal activity and misapplication of government funds.

Also on Monday, two Charleroi Area School District cafeteria workers were ordered to stand trial on charges stemming from the theft of $94,000 from the cafeteria they used to gamble on slot machines at the Meadows Racetrack and Casino.

For people with a gambling problem, embezzling often is a sign of desperation and extreme addiction, said Norm B., a member of Gamblers Anonymous who has stayed clean for 30 years.

"They may have exhausted friends and family as a source of funds, or maybe they didn't even go there because they're embarrassed, and they tell themselves, 'I'll take the money and when I win, I'll put it back,' " he said. "Sometimes they do, but then there's the point when they can't, and that's when it starts to mushroom."

Gamblers Anonymous does not allow its members to reveal their last names in interviews with the media.

Norm B. and other compulsive gambling experts described an addiction that often starts small but progresses steadily, with more frequent and more expensive trips to casinos and racetracks, until gambling is a daily habit for many addicts. In Pennsylvania, the majority of compulsive gamblers are middle-aged white men, although gambling counselors are seeing an increasing number of women and senior citizens, according to the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Even if compulsive gamblers don't go so far as to steal money -- or worse, commit bank robberies and even murder in some cases -- the fallout still can be traumatic for everyone involved, experts say. In addition to losing extravagant sums, compulsive gamblers often neglect their health, stop maintaining their cars and homes, and miss important family events such as birthdays and school appointments.

And when compulsive gamblers do steal to support their addiction, it's not just to pay off past debts, said Jim Pappas, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania.

"It's mostly just to stay in the action," Mr. Pappas said.

In the past two years, several criminal cases have resulted from local residents' gambling addiction.

• In July 2011, David A. McClelland and his son, David J. McClelland, a Washington Township police officer, were arrested and charged with stealing from and killing Evelyn Stepko, 92, at her Coal Center home. David A. McClelland pleaded guilty in October to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole. His son's case is still pending and is scheduled for trial April 1. Prosecutors say the two men used some of the stolen money at The Meadows.

• In March 2012, a Washington County couple was charged with three counts of endangering the welfare of a child and leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle after they left a 10-month-old girl, 3-year-old boy and 10-year-old boy in a parked car outside the Rivers Casino for nearly an hour. The next day, a Garfield woman was charged with child endangerment after she left her lightly dressed 8-year-old daughter outside in the cold while she played blackjack inside the casino.

• In September, a Beaver County woman, previously charged with 410 counts of theft, pleaded guilty to four additional counts after investigators said she stole $119,000 from her elderly mother-in-law, whose finances she was managing. Lori Anne Purnell, 51, of Industry was accused of taking money from the woman, who lived in an assisted care home in Brighton, and spending it at Mountaineer Casino in Chester, W.Va.

• In November, the former bookkeeper for a Monroeville veterinary hospital pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to 11 1/2 to 23 months incarceration to be followed by several years probation. Jennifer Schneiders, 35, of New Kensington was charged with stealing almost $400,000 from AVets on Northern Pike, where she worked for 15 years as the account administrator. According to records of the Rivers Casino Players Club card transactions, the woman's "coin in" amount was $692,221.36, while her "coin out" amount" was $610,289.82, meaning she lost a total of $81,931.54.

• On Monday, the lunch ladies from Charleroi, 50-year-old Stacy Lee Shipley and 49-year-old Sheila Ann Cook, waived their preliminary hearings and will stand trial. Ms. Shipley is charged with theft by failure to make required disposition of funds and forgery, while Ms. Cook is charged with conspiracy and receiving stolen property.

"In this case, it was pretty clear that the funds were taken and gambled away," said Ms. Shipley's attorney, Raymond P. Amatangelo.

According to the criminal complaint, Ms. Shipley would tell Ms. Cook that she had "extra money" with the understanding that it was stolen. The pair promised each other they would split all winnings.

Ms. Cook told police she "just got caught up in the thrill of it all," according to the complaint.

Several months ago, district administrators realized their cafeteria fund was short, prompting an audit.

• An audit also uncovered suspicious financial activity at West Penn, where Ira Johnson worked from 2006 until he was fired on Nov. 8, 2011, investigators said. He served as the manager of patient financial services and also at one point as the manager of revenue/cash receipts.

According to an affidavit of probable cause, in his position, Mr. Johnson had access to receipts that were supposed to be deposited into WPAHS accounts. Instead, investigators say that Mr. Johnson deposited 260 checks -- ranging in value from $11.12 to nearly $27,000 -- from the health system into a checking account in his name, doing business as "Allegheny Medical Practice Network," opened in July 2007.

In just a six-month period in 2011, investigators said Mr. Johnson made 110 ATM withdrawals at or near casinos, totaling $83,329.

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