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CLEARED SUSPECTS TAKE NOVEL APPROACH FOR REVENGE BARTHELMES THROW THE BOOK AT PROSECUTION

(Re-printed with permission from The Sun Herald)

Sunday, May 28, 2000

Section: LOCAL-FRONT

Page: A1

BY BRAD BRANAN / THE SUN HERALD

Illustration: Photo

 

Caption: STEVE LEHMAN/THE ESTATE OF DONALD BARTHELME SR.

 

Hattiesburg authors Frederick Barthelme, left, and his brother Steven were subjected

to a three-year criminal investigation after being accused of cheating at Grand Casino

Gulfport. The charges were dismissed after prosecutors learned that the state

Gaming Commission botched the investigation. The brothers had the final word,

though: They've written a well-received book about their problems.

 

Infobox - About the book

 

Hattiesburg authors Frederick Barthelme and his brother Steven were subjected to a

three-year criminal investigation after being accused of cheating at Grand Casino

Gulfport.

 

The charges were dismissed after prosecutors learned that the state Gaming

Commission botched the investigation.

 

The brothers had the final word, though: They've written a book about their problems.

 

What: "Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss," by Frederick and Steven

Barthelme.

 

Cost: Hardcover copies, $24.

 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company

 

 

GULFPORT --- Two Hattiesburg authors found themselves in the national news two

years ago when they were indicted on charges of cheating at Grand Casino Gulfport.

Now that charges have been dropped, it turns out the real story is how poorly the

state Gaming Commission handled the case.

 

Investigators missed crucial evidence on surveillance tapes from the Grand ---

footage that exonerated Frederick and Steven Barthelme, brothers who teach English

at the University of Southern Mississippi. After he learned about the flaws, District

Attorney Cono Caranna recommended that the charges be dismissed last year.

 

Despite Caranna's decision, the Barthelmes attack the District Attorney's Office in

their recently published book, "Double Down,'' which examines the case and the

brothers' gambling addictions. The book has been praised in newspapers and

magazines across the country. Noting that the felony charges were dropped, book

reviewers have tended to parrot the brothers' line that prosecutors botched the case.

 

But others involved in the case, including the Barthelmes' attorneys, say blame

belongs with the Gaming Commission.

 

Attorneys for the brothers say the case illustrates larger problems with the

commission. They think the commission favors casinos, a complaint once raised by a

legislative review committee. The committee also found that investigators didn't get

enough time or training to handle casino crime.

 

"They start off with the assumption that a guy is guilty,'' said Gulfport attorney Boyce

Holleman, a former district attorney and state legislator who represented the

Barthelmes. "I think the casinos have the whole Gaming Commission at their

disposal.''

 

But Chuck Patton, the commission's executive director, says his investigators are

knowledgeable and fair. He also points out that the intelligence division has improved

since the Barthelmes were investigated. It has added investigators and increased

training.

 

Still, Patton said, the mistakes on the Barthelme case were the worst his investigators

have ever made.

 

"It's problematic,'' he said. "They didn't go far enough. We should have put more

man-hours into the case.''

 

Surreal justice

 

The Barthelmes' ordeal started early one morning in November 1996. After losing

$10,000 at the Grand, they were accused of cheating at a blackjack table. The

Barthelmes lost over a quarter of a million dollars in four years.

 

The brothers were at the table when a guard and a security man told them to pick up

their chips. The employees "marched us through the casino, making what seemed to

us a humiliating and embarrassing scene.''

 

They were told they had received signals from a blackjack dealer and given signals

back. It was all on videotape.

 

"Somebody's crazy, we thought,'' the Barthelmes write. "How much did we lose?

They're busting us for losing? We didn't lose enough?''

 

The accusations shook the brothers, who had lived quiet and isolated lives teaching at

the university for about 20 years. The indictment shocked them, and their frustrations

were furthered when stories about the charges ran on the front page of The New

York Times and in many other publications. The story intrigued journalists because

Frederick had recently written a novel, "Bob the Gambler,'' about a compulsive

gambler who brings himself to the brink of ruin. The Barthelmes, weary these days

from the publicity, would not speak to The Sun Herald for this article.

 

If they had been convicted of cheating, they would have faced up to two years in

prison and the possibility of losing their jobs at USM.

 

A grand jury based its indictment on the testimony of a Gaming Commission agent,

who investigated the case at the Grand's request. In his case report, agent Douglas

Sawyer said Cynthia Wojciechowski didn't follow proper procedure when she was

dealing to the Barthelmes.

 

When a dealer has an ace showing, he's supposed to ask the players if they want to

make an insurance bet before he checks to see if he has a blackjack, which beats all

other hands. Wojciechowski asked the Barthelmes if they wanted insurance after she

had already checked her hand, the gaming agent found, giving them an unfair

advantage. The agent didn't specify how the practice gave them an advantage.

 

Sawyer said he based his conclusion on videotapes of Wojciechowski dealing to the

brothers and tapes of her dealing to other players. He said Wojciechowski followed

procedure with everyone but the Barthelmes.

 

Actually, the tapes of other players show her repeatedly checking her hand before

asking for insurance bets. Sawyer's report also doesn't mention that the Barthelmes

often moved their chips to make insurance bets before the dealer checked her hand.

 

The Barthelmes' attorneys pointed out these discrepancies to District Attorney

Caranna, then Caranna had an expert from Las Vegas review the tapes. The expert

concluded the Barthelmes had done nothing wrong and charges were dropped.

 

Charges are still pending against Wojciechowski, though. She can't work in a casino

anymore because the Gaming Commission stripped her license.

 

"She's getting a bad deal,'' said Tim Holleman, who represented the Barthelmes

along with his father. "It's tedious and boring to deal blackjack. I think she checked

her cards out of boredom.''

 

Differing assessments

 

Holleman says the Gaming Commission and the Grand recklessly pursued his clients

and the dealer. Las Vegas casinos would have told her to stop breaking from

procedure before having her arrested, he said, but the Grand didn't. Grand officials

will not talk about the case.

 

He says the Gaming Commission is responsible for mishandling the case: "They had

their minds made up that they were guilty.''

 

"Credit the district attorney. As soon as they realized what happened, they did the

right thing,'' Holleman adds. "They don't have 16 hours to look at all the tapes. They

rely on the investigators. I don't think the investigators looked at the tapes.''

 

Prosecutor Annette Forster, who handled the case, said prosecutors have to rely

more on Gaming Commission investigators than they do on other criminal

investigators. That's because the crimes they investigate are relatively new and often

complex.

 

The Barthelmes, who are far less charitable than their attorneys about prosecutors,

don't take these factors into account. They accuse prosecutors of legal maneuvering

and recklessly ignoring the facts.

 

"As far as the prosecutor was concerned,'' they write, "the less the jury knew about

the fine points the better.''

 

The book doesn't mention the biggest hole in the case --- the Gaming Commission's

failure to note that the dealer didn't follow procedure with players other than the

Barthelmes. Perhaps that's because they finished writing the book before the case

was dropped in August, almost two years after their indictment.

 

Commission critics

 

In September 1996, two months before the Barthelmes were accused of cheating, a

state legislative review committee issued a highly critical report about the Gaming

Commission. The report found that the Gaming Commission was more concerned

with promoting casinos than regulating them.

 

Investigators didn't receive enough training to help them detect cheating, the report

said. Casinos often provided the instruction commission investigators did receive,

which could compromise their ability to be fair.

 

The report raised other problems that might have hurt the Barthelmes. For instance,

the commission's agents needed to keep track of the number of winners and losers at

each table --- if they had, they might not have charged two men who lost $10,000 in

one night.

 

In 1998, Executive Director Patton was expected to improve the commission's

regulatory efforts when he replaced Paul Harvey, who was accused of being a

spokesman for the casino industry and was recently a finalist for a job as the state

casino association's top lobbyist.

 

Patton has taken several steps, including having agents keep records on how often

the house wins at each game. He's also increased the number of investigators from

five in 1996 to eight and increased training budgets.

 

He disagrees with the commission's critics but still sees the need for improvement.

 

"Gambling is still relatively new from a law enforcement perspective," said Patton,

who previously worked as Iowa's first director of riverboat gambling. "That's part of

the problem. When you come into a new jurisdiction, you get new agents who aren't

familiar with the cheating and the scams.''

 

***Brad Branan can be reached at 896-2340 or at btbranan@sunherald.com

 

 

 

All content © 2000 TSH and may not be republished without permission.

 

 

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TSH

 

TWO WRITERS CLEARED IN CASINO CASE

TESTIMONY BACKS UP BARTHELMES

 

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Section: LOCAL-FRONT

Page: A2

FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

 

GULFPORT --- Two author brothers whose fondness for high-stakes blackjack

landed them in a stranger-than-fiction criminal case have a happy conclusion to their

two-year ordeal.

 

A judge has thrown out cheating charges against Frederick and Steven Barthelme,

writers who admit they may have been compulsive gamblers but never cheated

casinos.

 

Prosecutors now say the blackjack dealer charged with trying to signal the

Barthelmes during their gambling sprees in 1996 also apparently was flashing signs

randomly at other patrons at the Grand Casino in Gulfport.

 

Frederick, 55, said Monday that he and his brother lost $10,000 on the night they

were accused of cheating and were shocked when rousted the next morning at the

casino and ordered to leave. He said the experience had been ''remarkable and a

little bit terrifying.''

 

''This is really quite silly if you sit back and look at the whole thing,'' he said.

 

The case attracted national media attention, including stories in The New York Times

Magazine, The New Yorker and People.

 

The Barthelmes, who were cleared of criminal charges last week but may have to

testify against the dealer, have written a book about their gambling and the

prosecution. ''Double Down'' is expected to be released by Houghton Mifflin in

November.

 

''It's been an education --- a scary education,'' said Steven, 52, who like his brother

teaches English at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

 

Their much-publicized arrest in 1997 came not long after the release of Frederick

Barthelme's novel, ''Bob the Gambler,'' about an architect with a gambling problem.

 

Tim Holleman, the attorney for the two, said their only mistake was sitting for a long

time at a high-stakes table where the dealer was behaving erratically. ''They were at

the wrong place at the wrong time,'' he said.

 

The dealer, Cynthia Wajciecowski, is accused of violating standard dealing procedure

by peeking at her down card and then tipping off the Barthelmes before asking if

they wanted to buy insurance to protect themselves against a potential loss. Grand

employees said she violated the procedure 26 times with the Barthelmes, but with no

other players, according to a case report filed by the state Gaming Commission.

 

Doug Sawyer, an agent for the commission, said he observed the same conspiracy

another 25 times during a one-week period. No other players were tipped off by

Wajciecowski, Sawyer said.

 

But a Nevada gambling expert hired by the state looked at casino surveillance tapes

and found that she was signaling other players, District Attorney Cono Caranna said

Monday.

 

"The expert's testimony still questions the dealer's actions but doesn't support that the

Barthelmes were involved,'' said Caranna, who declined to identify the expert.

''There's simply no reason to believe, with the opinion of the expert now, that there

was impropriety on the Barthelmes' part.''

 

Officials with the Gaming Commission weren't available Monday to comment on the

discrepancy between their findings and those reached by the Nevada gambling

expert.

 

Holleman said after authorities were asked to look at several days of casino

surveillance tapes, the evidence ''kicked them in the rear-end.''

 

At the request of Caranna, Circuit Court Judge Robert Walker dismissed the charges

last week. The two had faced up to two years in prison if convicted.

 

They admit losing more than a quarter of a million dollars over two years at the

casinos. Frederick said their heavy gambling, with inherited money, began after the

deaths of their parents in 1995 and 1996.

 

''We just started gambling like crazy, stupidly, but we did it,'' he said. ''The book

covers the whole thing, including the deaths of our parents and the gambling --- sort

of a thoughtful inquiry in the sort of problems of gambling and the loss of money, the

loss of family,'' he said.

 

 

 

All content © 1999 TSH and may not be republished without permission.

 

 

All archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream Inc., a

Knight-Ridder Inc. company.