San Diego Paul Del Vacchio remembers the first time he gambled. "I was 12 years old," he says. "It was a $2 bet to show on a horse at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania. I remember this weird feeling came over me when I was placing that bet at the window, and when I was watching the race, and when the horse actually crossed the finish line first and it won."
The feeling lay dormant inside Del Vacchio as he grew up in Carteret, New Jersey. It resurfaced when he was 16. "I was working in a grocery store," he recalls, "and the store manager, who was betting with a bookie, told me about a way to bet on NBA games. I bet $25 each on five games and lost them all. I think that was a Thursday, and then on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I won enough to actually be ahead for the week."
Those first four days of betting, losing, and chasing -- a gambler's term for trying to recoup losses with more gambling -- turned out to be the pattern for the next 24 years of Del Vacchio's life. Only instead of ending up ahead, he ended up nearly a half-million down and on his way to prison for embezzling money from his employer, Pechanga Indian casino in Temecula.
Back at the grocery store in New Jersey, Del Vacchio and a friend teamed up and laid bets with his manager-cum-bookie every day. "After a while my manager owed us $500, but he wound up stiffing us. He owed a lot of people money, and he stiffed everybody. Eventually he got fired for absenteeism."
Instead of seeing his manager as an example of how gambling can destroy lives, Del Vacchio and his gambling partner found another bookie. "He was a bar bookie in the same town. He owned the bar, and he ran a decent-sized bookie operation out of it. Over the course of the next year or so, we ratcheted the bets up to $500 or $1000 a game. Then, in the summer between high school and college, we lost $13,400 in one week."
Unlike legal sports books, which require a deposit in advance to cover bets, the bar bookie was taking bets on credit. And neither Del Vacchio nor his partner had anything like the cash they needed to pay their losses. "So I went to my dad," Del Vacchio says, "and confessed the whole thing. My dad talked to the bookie and told him, 'You are not going to be paid by these two kids. You should not be taking this kind of action from these two kids.' The bookie made a couple of approaches to me, asked me for a payment plan. I said, 'No, I don't want to do that.' He said, 'Are you sure?' and I knew he was trying to intimidate me. In the end, I didn't have to pay, and no knees or legs were broken, which is fortunate, because those bookies back East are usually connected to organized crime. I think what saved me from any bodily harm was that shortly thereafter he got busted by the police."
Alarmed by the amount of money their son had lost, Del Vacchio's parents sent him to see a psychologist. "I went once, and we talked about everything but gambling," he recalls.
His father also arranged for someone from Gamblers Anonymous to call Del Vacchio. "He sounded like a Tony Soprano-type character," Del Vacchio remembers, "which I found pretty intimidating. He told me that I needed to get to a meeting and I needed to practice the principles in the Gamblers Anonymous program. He told me that I could never gamble again and that my addiction, my compulsive gambling, would never get better unless I addressed it. 'It will only get worse. You will end up in prison, insane, or dead if you don't address it.' "
When Del Vacchio thinks back on those words today, he labels them "prophecy." And they, combined with the scare of the $13,400 loss, were enough to keep him away from gambling for his four years of college at the University of Southern California and the University of Maryland. "In college," he says, "there were odd bets here and there -- no bookies, just guy-to-guy."
But after graduating from Maryland in 1987, "Some friends and I took a drive up to Atlantic City. I won $2000 playing blackjack, and it sparked something in my head and in my stomach. It was that same euphoric rush. It is a physical thing that I can feel. I am a runner, and it is akin to the runner's high, when those endorphins kick in."
Del Vacchio parlayed his accounting degree into a job in New York City. "Shortly after moving to New York," he recalls, "I hooked up with my old gambling buddy from Carteret, and he was connected to a new bookie in South Jersey. We figured out we could control the gambling by using our credit cards to bet. That way, the bookie would always be paid, and we wouldn't end up in the situation we were in as teenagers."
But access to credit only allowed Del Vacchio to get into deeper financial trouble. He got married in 1992 -- without disclosing his mounting gambling debts to his wife. In 1994, when the couple decided to move to Las Vegas and buy a house, Del Vacchio told his wife he owed $80,000 in gambling debt to credit card companies. He declared bankruptcy.
Ironically, Del Vacchio's moving to Las Vegas to work in the auditing department of a casino was the beginning of a four-year lull in his gambling. "I thought that if I worked for the casinos I could get that rush without actually having to gamble."
But in 1998, the year the first of his two children was born, Del Vacchio took a job at a new casino in the soon-to-be-opened Summerlin resort, northwest of Las Vegas. "It was a great opportunity for me," he says. "The problem was, they didn't have much for me to do because the opening kept getting delayed, and all my work was predicated on the opening. So I needed to find something to do during the day, and I discovered that I could bet sports on the Internet. I found a place where I could put my credit card in. 'This is in total control,' I thought, because it wasn't like a bookie, where you would bet on credit. You would have to send the money there. If I send $1000, I can't exceed the $1000. I could only lose $1000. Oh, how naïve I was. I found this one site, and I started playing, and I actually won $3000. But they wouldn't pay me. Come to find out that it was actually some kind of scam site. They were just taking credit card numbers. So I took it as a personal mission to hunt these people down and get my money. I found the guy; he was in Fort Lauderdale. I basically harassed him, and he gave me 50 cents on the dollar -- he gave me $1500. So from that point forward, I thought, 'Okay, I have to do this right. I have to go to sites that are going to pay me. Because I know how to control my gambling now, and I know how to win. So I can augment my income by doing this.' "
Soon, Del Vacchio says, the gambling "became something I had to do. This is the hardest thing to explain to people, but if four o'clock went by without me having a bet -- because most of the games started at four o'clock -- I would have this weird feeling in my stomach, my palms would sweat, and my heart would beat faster. It was like I needed to get my drug for that day."
In July 2001, Del Vacchio was about $50,000 in the hole when he took a job at Pechanga Casino and moved his family to a house in Murrieta. "It was a great job," he says. "I was going in as assistant controller at one of the most profitable casinos in the world, let alone the United States. It was a big pay raise. I went up to, like, $80,000. We loved the area, a great family area. We bought a house in Murrieta. Life was looking good, but I was still betting."
Del Vacchio covered his gambling losses with the equity in his house, which, at that time, was multiplying almost as fast as he could bet it away. Then in 2003, he discovered something in the Pechanga accounting system. "I wasn't looking for it," he insists, "but I found out that I could transfer money from Pechanga's reserve account into my personal bank account, and no one would know because there were no controls in place and nobody else was capable of understanding how it worked. The first time, it happened by mistake, and it was for $52.84. It was part of my job that I was supposed to clean up these accounts, and I inadvertently put in the wrong code, and that $52.84 got deposited into my account. But instead of saying, 'We have a problem here,' I waited three weeks to see if anybody would notice."
Nobody did. So Del Vacchio thought, "Maybe I could take a little and maybe put some back after I win. I could pay them back, and no one is going to know about this stuff."
In a year, he'd taken $100,000. "And I knew I could never pay that back. But I couldn't stop. So another year went by and I was still doing it, still getting that high, that euphoric feeling, and now my stakes went from $1500 doubled to, like, $3000, and the $100,000 in the first year went up to $300,000-plus in the second year. I was just chasing and chasing and chasing, and I needed more of a rush, more of that feeling."
It wasn't that Del Vacchio never won. "Oh, God, no," he says. "There was one weekend where I won $76,000. But that $76,000 lasted me probably ten days. Then I made another deposit and another deposit."
In the end, it wasn't Pechanga that discovered what Del Vacchio was doing. "They were making so much money," he explains, "that they didn't even notice that it was gone. It is hard to fathom nobody noticed that almost a half a million dollars was missing. But when you have $60 million a month going through the place, a half a million is kind of a blip on the screen to them, especially when it goes out in $1000 increments.
"Fast-forward to February 27, 2005. My wife called me and said, 'What is going on? The bank put a freeze on our account.' I had contacts at Wells Fargo, and I called them, and I knew what they were going to tell me, that there was suspicious activity going on in my account and it was suspended pending further investigation. But I figured I could talk my way through this. I concocted a crazy story about how another person at Pechanga, who they knew was a kind of shady character, had made me do it so he could fund his gambling activities. I was talking to the senior vice president at Wells Fargo. He told me, 'Paul, we can't do anything, we can't do anything for you. I would get an attorney if I were you.' Right then and there, I knew it was over. My last bet was February 28, 2005. I had run out of money in my offshore sports book."
On March 2, 2005, Del Vacchio was led out of the casino in handcuffs but was later released pending further investigation. That afternoon, he told his wife, who thought he'd quit gambling 11 years earlier, the whole story. She was crushed. "But she found some strength inside her, and she's standing by me, which is an enormous blessing."
Two weeks later, Del Vacchio was arrested at his home and charged with 26 counts, including embezzlement, grand theft, and illegal computer access. He spent five nights at the Southwest Detention Center, in Riverside County, before being bailed out by friends and family. He and his attorney have worked out a plea deal directly with the judge for a maximum four-year sentence. In the meantime, he's sold his house and driven his wife and kids back to New Jersey, where they will live with her mother. With time off for good behavior, he expects to spend two years in prison. "I am going to miss two years out of my kids' lives and my wife's life," Del Vacchio laments. "But that is not a life sentence. Whereas had I continued doing what I was doing, that was a life sentence. That would have ended up in death."