1720 23rd Avenue | Boyce Holleman Blvd. | Gulfport, MS 39501

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.

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