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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From the Front : In Lethal Game of Roulette, the Revolver Wins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russian roulette is a game you cannot win, yet dozens of people each year die trying.

The Los Angeles Police Department does not keeps statistics that separate bona fide accidental shootings from games of Russian roulette gone awry, but investigators can usually tell which is which.

“We get two or three cases a year from people playing Russian roulette,” said Detective Rick Swanston, who heads the homicide unit of the LAPD’s West Valley division.

“For some reason, it’s usually teen-aged boys. We had a kid last year who actually played the game with an automatic pistol. So he lost.”

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On Monday night, Jason Farley, a 20-year-old Van Nuys man, shot himself in the head while showing a friend a handgun.

Farley and his friend had been drinking when he pulled out the handgun and displayed it, police said. Some time later, while his friend was using the phone just a few feet away, Farley showed him the gun again.

He emptied all but one of the bullets from the chamber and began waving the gun near his own head, police said. Then it went off, killing Farley.

“It wasn’t a game and it was not a depression thing,” said LAPD Detective Dan O’Hanian, who added that police haven’t determined whether Farley really intended to test his luck or if the gun fired accidentally. “It just was a stupid accident.”

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Investigators believed the shooting was accidental, and determined that Farley was neither suicidal nor depressed. An hour before the 5:30 p.m. shooting, he had a cheery conversation with his fiancee, police said.

It’s not depression or despair that attracts young men to the game, but a combination of an adventurous nature and the societal expectations placed on men, researchers say.

“It’s the highest form of risk-taking behavior, and it is the most exciting,” said Dr. Carol Falender, chief psychologist at St. Johns Child Study Center in Santa Monica.

“It’s arousal seeking, a way of getting a high or proving that they are man, that they are kind of macho, brave, fearless. There is also a sense of invulnerability that makes them believe there is no way in the world they could be hurt or killed,” Falender added.

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And, Falender said, often when people feel helpless, they do something that makes them feel powerful.

Falender said the some of these risk takers go on to take jobs that reflect their need for adventure.

But even then there is no guarantee that the thrill seeking will stop.

Mark Raymond Keller, a North Hollywood night club worker, was 34 years old when he decided to impress a friend by playing Russian roulette with a .357 revolver nearly three years ago.

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Keller was working in a back office at Hollywood-A-Go-Go when he emptied all but one of the bullets from the powerful handgun, put the gun to his head and then pulled the trigger. When it did not fire, he pulled the trigger again. It fired, killing him.

Even people well-schooled in weapons and the dangers they present fall prey to poor judgment or just bad decision-making.

Lance Cpl. David M. Strevel, of Algonac, Mich., shot himself in the head while playing Russian roulette at a shooting range in San Bernadino County in February, 1992, authorities said.

Strevel called to three friends as they were about to leave the range at Lytle Creek near Fontana, held up the open cylinder of a .357 magnum, and showed them one bullet. He then clicked the cylinder shut, friends told police, and fired once, shooting himself in the head.

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In an interview after his death, Strevel’s mother said she could not believe he would do such a thing, but his friends described Strevel, who was 21 at the time of his death, as the kind of person that Falender described.

Strevel was a risk taker who was always “pushing himself to the edge,” Alex Reyes, a spokesman for the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Department, said at the time of the incident.

Six months later, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Tracey Newmon, 22, shot himself while sitting with a couple of old high school friends at a security office in an Eagle Rock department store.

With one bullet in the revolver, Newmon put the barrel to his head and shot himself.

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Sheriff’s deputies later said that Newmon “apparently miscalculated the position of the one bullet. It appears he could have been playing Russian roulette.”


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