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Gambling addiction can be deadly

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Gambling addicts
Robert McGuigan talks to a group of inmates about gambling addition Monday at Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility in Chippewa Falls.

Robert McGuigan had only one child. Jason liked playing board games, throwing dice and betting on cards.

But it was those activities that led to the early end of his life. Jason McGuigan was murdered at the age of 28 because of his addiction to gambling.

Problem and compulsive gambling are serious issues across Wisconsin and the rest of the nation. About 330,000 state residents have a gambling habit that is affecting their lives, according to the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling.

“It’s not about the money, like any other addict, it’s about the high,” council executive director Rose Gruber said.

Gambling addiction

Gruber and Robert McGuigan were at the Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility in Chippewa Falls this week to teach inmates about the consequences of gambling addictions. The two travel across the state to schools, prisons and other facilities to talk about the issue.

It was a message some inmates were happy to learn, especially Curt Floyd of Beloit.

“I grew up with gambling in my family and had it become a problem with my father,” he said.

Floyd hoped the presentation opened the eyes of his fellow inmates about this lesser-known compulsion.

“For me it’s understanding how there’s underlying issues with addiction,” said inmate Jason Thompson of La Crosse. “I think battling one, you can battle others and vice versa.”

Thompson, Floyd and about 50 other inmates learned that those who have other additions are at higher risk of becoming problem gamblers as well.

And anyone can become over-engrossed.

“It can be absolutely anyone, male or female, any age, race or religion,” Gruber said.

Even children are affected. Six to 26 percent of adolescents develop gambling issues, mostly because they’re given access online and taught through poker tournaments on TV, according to the WCPG.

Even McGuigan has seen the addiction in children. One 8-year-old girl he met told him, “Oh, I play Texas Hold ‘em all the time, but I don’t gamble, I just play with chips.”

Jason’s story

Gambling at a young age is what got Robert McGuigan, his brother and his son addicted, he told the inmates.

McGuigan and his brother started playing poker and dice at a young age. They became addicted even as children.

“I skipped two-thirds of my high school years — and I’m talking freshmen through senior years — playing cards,” McGuigan said.

The two kept gambling as they became adults. McGuigan played cribbage and Euchre until slowing down when his wife became pregnant. His brother went on to become the biggest bookie in Madison at the time.

Later, McGuigan and his son started gambling together. Jason started playing games at Chuck E. Cheese’s and arcades before moving on to winning dart tournaments. As a teen, he got into computer card games, and his addiction grew.

“Looking back I can now see the intensity in his eyes, and the adrenaline that was pumping through him, but I didn’t know at that time that gambling was an addiction, and it’s obvious now that he was addicted,” McGuigan said.

Jason began placing sports bets with his bookie uncle. At age 18 began gambling at the Ho-Chunk casino, where he met the man who would murder him in 2003.

By the time Jason was in his late 20s, he had borrowed $250,000 from his great aunt. His uncle drew away from the family, so Jason was forced to use other bookies in Madison. They all cut him off for non-payment.

Eventually Jason began making sports bets using off-shore accounts. That scheme led to his death.

Jason was making bets with University of Wisconsin student Meng-Ju “Mark” Wu. After Wu was $72,000 in debt, his parents planned a trip to Wisconsin to take the 19-year-old back home to Taiwan.

But Wu wanted to make one more bet. He told Jason to put $8,000 down  on a professional basketball game. The two would have each won $17,000, but Jason never placed the bet.

Just six weeks after the two met, Wu went to Jason’s home in Verona and shot and killed Jason and two other men.

Wu was arrested just 12 hours before he fled to Taiwan, but he hanged himself in his jail cell the morning the murder trial was set to start.

“I have to admit, too, that I put that bullet in that gun that killed my son because I taught him how to gamble,” McGuigan admitted.

Getting help

Though Jason McGuigan’s case is extreme, it shows what can happen to someone with an addiction that spirals out of control.

“With a compulsive gambler, the next big win is right around the corner,” Gruber said, explaining the mindset that goes along with addiction.

The Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling started a 24-hour helpline in 1996, and on average, the people calling are $36,000 in debt.

Problem gamblers are those who borrow a lot of money, have family issues and work issues because of their addiction, but they’re still somewhat in control of their lives. When they become compulsive they may lose their job, borrow money from everyone they know and often resort to stealing to feed their habit.

“That is someone who is completely out of control,” Gruber said.

But there is help for those who want it. Callers into the helpline will get assistance through their immediate crisis and then the council helps the addict connect with long-term resources, such as counseling, financial programs, social services and others.

“Like any addiction, you didn’t get hooked in 20 minutes, you’re not going to get cured in 20 minutes. You’re not going to get cured at all,” Gruber said.

McGuigan said he wishes he would’ve known there was such a thing as gambling addiction and a council that could help before his son lost his life.

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— If you or someone you know is has a gambling problem, call the Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling’s hotline at 1-800-GAMBLE-5 or 1-800-426-2535.

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