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Card Dealer to Stand Trial in Slaying of Fellow Worker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 30-year-old card dealer, described as having a hot temper and a pile of gambling debts, will stand trial for fatally shooting a fellow employee five times in the head at the Ventura club where they worked, a judge ordered Monday.

Michael Gawlik, a dealer at Ventura’s Ash Street Card Club, will face murder and robbery charges.

It has not yet been decided, however, whether the Camarillo resident will face the death penalty if convicted of murder during the commission of a robbery.

“That will be determined before his Superior Court arraignment,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. James Ellison.

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Gawlik is accused of killing Craig Gronenthal, 36, on the night of April 15 after several failed attempts to withdraw money from an automated teller machine to pay a $264 debt.

The manager of the card club testified in Gawlik’s preliminary hearing Monday that $480 was missing when he counted the cash hours after the shooting.

But the prosecution’s case is unclear as to whether Gawlik shot Gronenthal to steal the money or whether he killed him, panicked, and then grabbed some cash.

“He tried to take money from the ATM,” Ellison said. “And there is the fact that there were five $20 bills on the floor next to the victim.”

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Twenty-dollar bills are dispensed from ATMs, and bank records show that Gawlik withdrew $100 from a cash machine that night. Gronenthal made a call to his boss before closing that night, saying Gawlik had gone to the bank to get money to pay off his debt and would be back shortly, Ellison said.

“This is not a straightforward case of a guy putting on a mask and taking money,” Ellison said.

Gawlik turned himself in to border guards in Nogales, Ariz., three days after the shooting, then led officials to the spot where he had disposed a 9-millimeter semiautomatic gun--which authorities say was used in the killing--in a patch of bushes off Highway 19 in Arizona.

According to witness testimony in Monday’s hearing, Gawlik sat in on some poker games the night of the slaying to help fill up tables.

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Floor managers were encouraged to do so when tables were not full and were compensated for their losses.

Dealers such as Gawlik also sometimes sat in on tables during their half-hour breaks. Although floor managers were compensated for their losses in such situations, dealers were not.

Gawlik lost money. But he went to get cash to pay his debt.

According to records obtained from Bank of America, he went to the ATM at California and Main streets at 10:34 p.m. and apparently tried to fool the machine by pretending to deposit $350 in an empty envelope.

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One minute later he tried to withdraw $300. His transaction was refused. He then successfully withdrew $100. He returned to the card club and tried unsuccessfully to withdraw $200 from the ATM there.

About 11:40 p.m., Sharlet Richards, who was a bartender at the Elks Club that operated above the card club, was locking up the building for the night when she found Gronenthal.

“She looked into the cashier’s cage and saw a man lying on the ground,” testified Det. Patrick Stevens. “There was blood, and money.”

Two days after Gawlik fled, he called his fiancee in Bakersfield and broke down.

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“The first words he said were, ‘Help me,’ ” testified Lonelle Olson. “He sounded horrible. He was crying. It took me a while to calm him down so I could understand him.”

Olson testified that Gawlik told her he had accidentally killed Gronenthal. She said he told her he had the gun because he needed to sell it to a man named John.

“But John never showed up,” Olson testified.

Gawlik turned himself in the next day.

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Gawlik appeared dejected in court. His hair was drawn back in a ponytail. When his former boss testified, he hung his head low and slumped his shoulders forward.

The courtroom Monday was full of card club players and friends of the deceased. One woman wore a white T-shirt with a rainbow and doves on the back that read: “In Memory of Craig.”

“I hope he pleads guilty and ends his family’s grief,” said Gronenthal’s friend John Thayer. “It’s like the loss of a Kennedy. You should have seen the funeral. It was standing room only.”

Gawlik will be arraigned in Ventura County Superior Court on Aug. 31.

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