Losing Everything to Gambling Addiction

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More older Americans are problem gamblers, but are they betting against their health, too?

by Peter Jaret and Bill Hogan, AARP Bulletin, January/February 2014

"It was like electronic heroin," Maureen O'Connor said of the machine she thought she could beat. "You know, the more you did, the more you needed — and the more it wasn't satisfied."

But in the end it was the machine that beat O'Connor, leaving the former San Diego mayor and heiress to a $50 million fortune all but destitute. At 67, she now lives with her twin sister instead of in the beachfront estate in La Jolla that she and her late husband, the founder of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain, once called home.

O'Connor's addiction to video poker ("that machine," she called it) was all-consuming. In nine years she placed more than $1 billion in bets at casinos in San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. O'Connor, in fact, was such a high roller — a "whale," to use the industry's not-so-flattering term — that Vegas casinos would send a private jet to pick her up in San Diego. She didn't disappoint. "I could lose more than a hundred thousand in a day," she told an interviewer last February. (O'Connor, through her attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

As her losses mounted — eventually reaching something like $13 million, according to her lawyers — O'Connor did what eventually landed her in a federal courtroom, charged with the felony crime of money laundering: She took $2,088,000 from a charitable foundation set up by her husband in 1966, depleting its assets and leaving it insolvent.

What caused O'Connor — a onetime champion swimmer, San Diego's hard-charging "Mayor Mo" from 1986 to 1992 — to fall into such an abyss? She herself blamed an addiction to gambling made worse by a brain tumor, diagnosed in 2011. Her lawyers noted in court filings that she turned to gambling in a big way sometime around 2001, as she continued to struggle with pain and loneliness following the death of her husband. "The pattern," her lawyers wrote, "fits the syndrome known as grief gambling."

Under a deferred-prosecution agreement, O'Connor promised to undergo treatment for gambling addiction, repay the money she took from the foundation and cover the tax liability associated with her misappropriation of funds........

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