News Articles

Gambling’s toll on Kathy’s family: prison, bankruptcy, suicide

TOPEKA, Kan. (BP)–In a time frame of less than five months in 2003, Kathy Bassett sat in a courtroom and watched her son handcuffed and led off to prison; she stood by as her 73-year-old mother declared bankruptcy; and she dealt with the devastating news that her only brother had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Just a few weeks ago, her daughter-in-law was sentenced to one to five years in prison, leaving two young boys without their parents.

What could have happened to an upstanding family in a central Kansas town that brought such misery to its members?

“One word explains it all,” Bassett said.


Bassett said she knew her mother, her son and her brother gambled. For her mother, who didn’t have much of a social life, she thought it was just entertainment. For her son, who was a night supervisor/pit boss at Harrah’s Casino in Reno, Nev., it was a job. And for her brother, David, she knew gambling had been a problem but she thought it was over years ago.

The first jolt to Bassett’s life came in May when her 29-year-old son, Jason, was arrested for embezzlement. Jason worked for Harrah’s for six years, starting his career in a casino about 20 miles north of Topeka where the family lives. He met Michelle, who also worked at the casino, after his marriage failed, and the two of them moved to Reno and got married. Jason and four others, including his brother-in-law, Steve, came up with an elaborate scheme to take money from Harrah’s to cover their gambling debts.

“I knew Jason had a lot of money,” Bassett said. “He was very generous with it, giving some to his grandmother and his uncle, his dad and a friend in Topeka who is having a hard time financially. But I guess I buried my head in the sand and didn’t want to know where he got it.”

Bassett and her husband were returning from a vacation in British Columbia when she learned of Jason’s arrest.

“Of course, he was fired, and the casino pressed a lot of charges against him,” Bassett said. “He was out on bail, but couldn’t find a job, because the story had been in all the local papers.”

Michelle left Reno with the couple’s baby, leaving Jason alone with a rented house and no means of income. In July, Jason got a job with a construction company, and Michelle returned to Reno. She only stayed two months, but long enough to get pregnant with their second child, then went back to Kansas.

By Thanksgiving, Jason’s mental outlook was so low that he called his Uncle David, who talked him out of committing suicide and urged him to return to his family because there were no travel restrictions from his arrest.

“Jason moved back to Kansas in December, which was a Godsend,” Bassett said. “He was here for Christmas with his kids, here for David’s last Christmas and here when David died.”

A year after his arrest, Jason was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison.

“The judge gave Jason the maximum sentence,” Bassett said. “He has no record, it was a nonviolent crime, he presented a stack of character references and employment records, but none of that meant anything to the judge.

“Nevada is a casino state. They wanted Jason to do time. They went after him with a vengeance. Jason embarrassed them. He’s really smart, and he figured out a very simple way to take money from them.”

The sentence could have been worse. Jason’s attorney got all the charges except one dropped on a plea bargain. Bassett said Jason, who is in a medium security facility just outside Las Vegas, will probably serve one year there, two years in work camp and one year under house arrest, which means he will spend four years in Nevada.

Michelle, who was turned in by her brother as knowing about the embezzlement, also is serving her time in Nevada, but because they are both inmates, she and Jason can have no contact with each other. Their two sons are being raised by Michelle’s mother in Topeka.

In the meantime, Bassett’s mother found it necessary to declare bankruptcy as a result of her involvement in gambling. In her 70s, she has no choice but to continue working.

But even in these two tragedies, there is good news, Bassett said. “My mother and Jason are alive. Jason will come home, and even though he has a felony conviction and there are some jobs he can’t have, he’ll be fine.”

That is not the case for her brother, David.

“David was 10 years younger than I, but I was in awe of him my whole life,” Bassett said. “I’m the one who made all the mistakes. He always tried so hard to do everything right. He and I were really close.”

Bassett said David and his wife, Kelli, were very private people and had made a pact when they married that they would work out any problems between them.

“That worked fine until his gambling got out of control,” Bassett said. “He needed help.”

Bassett said her brother told her a few years ago he had a problem with gambling but had gone to Gamblers Anonymous and turned the checkbooks over to his wife.

“That was the end of it as far as I knew,” Bassett said.

But, unbeknownst to Bassett, her brother was doing things typical gamblers do, such as draining all his savings accounts, borrowing money, maxing out his credit cards.

“Casinos here will extend you credit interest-free just to get you to come in,” Bassett said. “They have all these nasty little tricks to get people to come in and gamble. They don’t care what happens to you.”

On Christmas day, Bassett’s family, with the exception of her mother who wasn’t able to come, was at her house.

“To me, David looked fine,” Bassett recalled. “I know now he was fighting depression and fear, and all this was coming to a head for him. The last words I heard from my brother were ‘I love you, Kate.’”

The Saturday after Christmas, David had his wife drive him to Harrah’s where he had himself banned for life. The casino fingerprinted him and took his mug shot.

“Kelli has told me since that was really traumatic for him,” Bassett said. “It’s like withdrawing from any addiction cold turkey. He cried hard on the way home.”

David and Kelli were supposed to visit Kelli’s mother in Wichita the next day to celebrate a late Christmas and spend the night. However, David said he didn’t feel like going because of what he was going through.

“Kelli went anyway,” Bassett recounted. “She didn’t realize how vulnerable David was. She probably had no reason to understand he was now in danger from himself and that this was not a good time for him to be alone.”

Instead of staying home, David drove to Golden Eagle Casino, which is farther out than Harrah’s. He gambled and lost, according to receipts Kelli found later.

“I know David was profoundly disappointed in himself,” Bassett said. “Here he had had himself banned from Harrah’s, and already he was going to another casino. He thought there was no way out.”

David drove home, got a picture of him and his dad standing in a wheat field and his shotgun. He drove four hours to St. John, where he and Kathy grew up and where their father is buried. He wrote a suicide note asking to be buried as close to his dad as possible. He also wrote that he wanted Kelli to find somebody free of addiction.

“If you knew the panic, despair and shame I wake up with every day, you would not want me to live like this,” he wrote. “I know it seems cowardly. I’m sorry. If there were another way to disappear, I would. Believe me, there is nothing any of you could have done to stop it.”

Then he sat on the grave, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 37 years old.

“The first 24 hours after my brother died were my idea of what hell must be like,” Bassett said. “I had no idea a heart could hurt that badly and survive.”

Ironically, Bassett said, if anyone knew the resources available to help him, David did. He had a master’s degree in social work and had been counseling people for eight years in suicide prevention, addiction and all forms of mental illness.

“He even manned a gambling and suicide hotline,” Bassett said. “When he was going to school at the University of Kansas, he volunteered with a suicide hotline. For years, this was his job. But gambling is so powerful; he was embarrassed and afraid he would lose his job. I would not have cared if my brother was a window washer the rest of his life, but that’s not the way he looked at it.”

Bassett said since her brother’s death, she has gone to three different counselors to get different perspectives.

“They all tell me gambling is at an epidemic now,” she said. “It’s huge, but people involved are so ashamed, they don’t talk about it.”

She added she has done a lot of research on the subject and has learned it takes about five years for crime, drug abuse, spousal abuse, bankruptcy, broken marriages, attempted suicides and suicides to hit an area when gambling comes in.

“The gambling industry will also run other businesses out of business because people only have so much disposable income,” she noted.

She said every time she looks at a picture of Jason or David, she realizes what has happened is so wrong.

“I feel I am one little, bitty person, and I saw when I was sitting in that courtroom in Nevada how powerful those casinos are,” she said.

Bassett volunteered her counsel for families with someone involved in gambling: “Run as fast as you can to help. Get support from family, friends, a minister, somebody.”

She said not only is this not over for her family, it will never be over.

“David and I made a big deal of our birthdays, which are two days apart at the end of October,” Bassett said. “I’m going out to the grave because that’s the only way I can handle David’s birthday. And then we have to get through the holidays and the suicide day.”

She said her nightmares went on for months after David died and Jason was sentenced, and they were so bad sometimes she couldn’t tell if it was David or Jason she was having the nightmare about.

“And my mother is sickened by casinos, which at one time were such a big part of her life,” Bassett said. “She has led an unbelievably hard life, and at 73, her only son has committed suicide. She would be suicidal herself because she is so heartbroken, but she has seen how painful suicide is to families.”

Bassett emphasized that if people want real pain in their lives or want to cause pain for their families, get into gambling.

“It is endless,” she said. “It will last the rest of your lives.”

She said when Jason was caught for embezzlement, she thought he should have to pay restitution.

“Now, I hope he doesn’t have to pay a dime,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, the day David died, that turned into blood money because that casino killed my brother as surely as if they had pulled the trigger themselves.”

    About the Author

  • Dana Williamson