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Gambler bets on leniency

Times Staff Writer

FOR the man in the pinstriped suit, staring at the judge, staring at the clock, the next 106 minutes will determine the next four years.

He is thin, a marathoner, with a short bowl haircut and a long nose. This morning, he said goodbye to his two children, bear-hugging them, just in case.

Paul Theodore Del Vacchio, now 41, is a gambler. In Riverside County Superior Court, a psychologist testifies that Del Vacchio fed his impulse-control disorder with online wagering, not caring about the win or loss, just the high of the bet.

This is why he stole half a million dollars from his employer, an Indian casino, Del Vacchio tells the judge. It was a compulsion. He needed to cover his losses.

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His wife, Monica, 39, adds her own plea: “He has earned my love and my trust and my support.”

Judge James T. Warren considers whether the defendant before him is an honorable man whose addiction made him stumble, or a schemer and crook. The judge’s face reveals nothing.

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It started with $125.

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Del Vacchio blew it betting on five pro basketball games and quickly won it back. He was 16, working the cash register for $6.50 an hour at a grocery store in Carteret, N.J., a suburb of New York City. His first bookie was a store manager.

At 18, he and a buddy were placing bets over the phone using code names such as Oscar or Dino. His mother wasn’t suspicious; Paul was an unassuming kid, preoccupied with sports, and so polite that his eighth-grade class named him most courteous.

But the boys were losing -- big. When they tore through $13,400 in a week, their bookie -- a short, robust man who changed the oil in Del Vacchio’s mother’s car -- demanded they pay up.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong with you, taking money from a kid?’ ” recalled Del Vacchio’s dad, a retired fire captain who shares the name and used to bet on football games and at casinos in Atlantic City, N.J. He helped his son wriggle out of paying.

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Del Vacchio’s parents, who have since divorced, steered him to Gamblers Anonymous. A member called, and the conversation with the gruff-sounding man terrified Del Vacchio. “He told me to never gamble again; he told me I’d only get worse,” said Del Vacchio, who quit betting for four years.

Meanwhile, he was courting Monica, his blue-eyed high school sweetheart, whom he met on a blind date at a pizza joint and escorted to her junior prom. Del Vacchio wooed her with handwritten letters while he attended USC and later the University of Maryland; he fell just shy of a degree in accounting before moving to New Jersey in 1987.

In time, he linked up with an old betting pal and got a job at a headhunting agency. His bosses there gambled with big-time bookies. Del Vacchio jumped back into betting, maxing out credit card after credit card.

Monica’s sole hint of his financial problems was the interrogation the newlyweds got from a real estate agent when they tried to buy a small town house in their hometown. The inability to buy prompted them in 1994 to head to Las Vegas, which promised cheap housing and lucrative jobs at towering Harrah’s Casino. He worked in auditing, she in hotel sales.

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Del Vacchio’s losses soon ate up their bank account. In 12 months’ time, he wagered away $72,000. The couple filed for bankruptcy, which wiped out most of their debt. Del Vacchio promised his wife he could fix things and tried going to a counselor, which lasted just three sessions.

“I didn’t realize,” he said in an interview this spring. “I didn’t realize how bad I was.”

Del Vacchio fell back into gambling in bursts and in secret, almost always on sporting events. He began wagering online, even after the Del Vacchios moved to California in 2001, when he was hired as the controller at Pechanga Resort & Casino.

At the tribal venture in Temecula, whose giant gambling floor clangs with slot machines, Del Vacchio supervised daily financial operations and some auditing. He told his dad that, someday, he wanted to run a sports book, where people bet on games.

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The couple and their two children -- Lauren, now 8, and Jonathan, 5 -- settled into a 2,700-square-foot stucco home, humbly furnished and tucked into a Murrieta subdivision whose streets are named after pines and palmetto trees.

“They had two blond kids, girl and boy, house that should have had a white picket fence -- their life was like a TV commercial,” said Monica’s younger sister, Jennifer Dolan, a social worker in Brick, N.J.

Except that Del Vacchio was $100,000 in the hole.

DEL Vacchio discovered a dodge.

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In March 2003, he was adjusting a customer’s account for a refund, and the computer asked him for a credit card number. He punched in his own, which transferred money from the casino’s reserve funds to his personal account instead of the customer’s.

During the next two years, he pocketed between $6,000 and $24,000 a month, spreading the deposits among several credit cards. The total: $499,740.88.

He was as regimented in gambling as he was in training for a marathon. He’d arrive in his windowless, boxy office on Pechanga’s second floor about 8:15 a.m. and scan websites that tracked opening lines on sports events. Between 2 and 3 p.m., he’d wager on his office computer -- at least six games, though that could shoot to 25 during basketball season.

At home, Del Vacchio balanced the checkbook and paid the bills. Monica tossed out without much thought the junk mail that advertised online betting sites.

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His last illicit deposit -- the 494th -- was Feb. 25, 2005. The next day, the dry cleaner rejected Monica’s ATM card.

Wells Fargo Bank had red-flagged Del Vacchio’s account after the fraud department noticed that Pechanga funds had been transferred into it. Something smells, a bank official told casino managers, passing on the dates and amounts of questionable transactions.

Casino officials compared the list with their records and -- finding card numbers and transaction amounts changed in customer files -- fired Del Vacchio.

He scribbled a four-page statement steeped in regret: “I am not sure if I will be able to look my family in the eyes. I have a disease and I need help.” He hadn’t placed a bet in days, but only because his bank cards were frozen.

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He trudged home to something much thornier: telling Monica. He took her to lunch at a TGI Friday’s in Temecula. Monica’s brother-in-law had often teased Del Vacchio that he must be embezzling money to afford their nice things, so Del Vacchio blurted out, “You know that joke?”

The pair shooed away the waitress.

“Why are you telling me this here?” Monica asked.

“So you won’t kill me,” he said.

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On March 16, Del Vacchio returned home from the gym to find deputies rummaging through his bank statements, checkbooks and credit cards. His computer was seized. He was arrested on suspicion of grand theft and spent the weekend in jail.

What Del Vacchio recalls most clearly is the deputy in the patrol car who said, “You seem like a really nice guy.”

ROBERT Harton, a Riverside County prosecutor, skimmed investigators’ reports and saw a schemer: a 140-pound man with charm to spare who stole and stole and wasn’t going to stop.

“It wasn’t one instance where he suddenly panicked and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got this gambling debt,’ and he executed one keystroke and stole the money,” Harton said at Del Vacchio’s sentencing hearing.

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Del Vacchio had pleaded guilty to 26 felony charges, including grand theft and filing false tax returns. Harton was pushing for a four-year prison sentence, the maximum Judge Warren would allow.

The funds Del Vacchio stole were funneled into his family’s main account and he wired some of it to bookies, the prosecutor said. But Del Vacchio also plunked down more than $20,000 to begin installing a pool and had withdrawn at least $15,500 in cash. He fudged his state tax returns, costing the government almost $72,000.

Del Vacchio was “a trusted person [who] just totally violated that position of trust over and over and over,” Harton said at the sentencing hearing.

At Pechanga, people had struggled to reconcile their image of an amiable, even-keeled co-worker with the man who was arrested. Some employees, feeling betrayed, cried at the news. Others refused to take the boxes of Girl Scout cookies they had ordered from his daughter.

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Ryan Robinson, the casino’s chief financial officer and Del Vacchio’s boss, was placed on administrative leave and investigated for nearly two months. “The real issue is emotional,” Robinson later told a probation officer, “for all the employees who were affected by the abuse of trust and respect.” Del Vacchio needed to stew in prison, said Robinson, who was cleared. “You can’t just buy your way out of this type of theft by paying back restitution.”

The last year had been punishment enough, countered John Pozza, Del Vacchio’s attorney. Del Vacchio dabbled in real estate appraising. Monica worked as a baby-sitter. The court eventually sold their home for more than $500,000.

Del Vacchio’s father, who lives in Ocala, Fla., couldn’t understand how his son had done something so foolish. The father had long budgeted cash for betting -- up to $3,000 a year -- and stopped cold when he blew through it.

Their relationship soured. “You love your family so much -- why put them in jeopardy like this?” Del Vacchio’s father said.

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At last, Del Vacchio went to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

“The second I looked at Paul I knew he was really hurting; he looked like a shell of a man,” said Ken Smith, a management trainer who became Del Vacchio’s sponsor. Del Vacchio so devoted himself to the program’s 12 steps that Smith testified to his repentance at the sentencing hearing.

“Monica didn’t say, ‘I hate you for what you’ve done,’ ” said Del Vacchio’s mother, Phyllis McCarthy, a sixth-grade teacher who lives in Jackson, N.J. “The worst thing she said was ‘How could you do this?’ ”

Del Vacchio’s probation officer appeared to teeter in a report he filed in January, writing that he had leaned toward restitution alone but would recommend prison: Del Vacchio had ignored and concealed his gambling addiction for far too long.

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Del Vacchio poured his thoughts into a blog, which he named Compulsive Gambler in Recovery. He interviewed for a job at a gambling help center in Las Vegas. If he was offered it, he wondered, could he take it? It would depend whether he was behind bars.

The kids noticed Dad wasn’t going to work, but they didn’t know he was headed to court. He’d drive them to school in sweats and dash home to don a suit before hearings. A month before his spring sentencing hearing, he struggled to tell them what would happen. He didn’t know.

“My son was disinterested from the start; he is five years old and if it doesn’t have to do with superheroes or trucks he wants no part of it,” Del Vacchio wrote on his blog. “My daughter on the other hand was very different.”

She asked questions: Do you get a bunk bed in prison? Do you get a roommate? Is it like a college dorm? Lauren wanted to know whether her dad would still take her trick-or-treating on Halloween. He was supposed to dress as Willy Wonka.

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AT the sentencing hearing, it takes four benches to seat Del Vacchio’s supporters.

The psychologist, from a San Diego gambling-addiction center, asserts that Del Vacchio would not get the counseling he needs in prison. Her comments are stricken from the record at the prosecutor’s request. Smith, his sponsor, asks the judge for lenience, as do Del Vacchio’s mother and Monica.

Harton reiterates: “It’s a closely watched case. Everybody is going to find out what the sentence was, and it should send a message: If you run amok in a high-level position and steal half a million dollars, even if you try to fit into some mental category, you’re ... going to state prison.”

Del Vacchio tells the judge in an even tone that he is so, so sorry. Monica’s mother drapes her left arm around her daughter, whose ears have reddened and who covers her mouth in a near-gasp.

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The clock creeps forward 90 minutes. Del Vacchio, wedged between Pozza and the prosecutor, folds his hands. Only the air conditioner’s hum interrupts the silence -- until Judge Warren speaks, foreshadowing the sentence he will hand down months later.

“There are a lot of people addicted to gambling who don’t steal anything. They get themselves in debt, sure. They may lose everything. They may lose their family. They may lose their house. They may lose their cars, but they don’t steal....

“We can’t let everybody who comes in here and wants to use an addiction, whether it be compulsive gambling, whether it be compulsive drinking, whether it be drug addiction, we can’t as a society let them utilize that as a method of getting out of their wrong acts. You know, it’s like my saying I’m addicted to beautiful women and fast cars, so I get to steal from the court’s trust account....

“He’s here because he’s a thief. He’s a thief. That’s the bottom line. He’s a thief. And he needs to acknowledge that, not use the gambling as a crutch. He let down his family. He let down his friends. He let down his employer. He let himself down. But the bottom line is he’s a thief, and he needs to be punished for being a thief.”

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Four years.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com


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