Rolling the Dice with Other People's Lives

Pathological gambling and murder.

Posted Jun 19, 2019

The penalty phase is currently underway in the McStay murder trial and Charles Merritt is facing the death penalty. When the McStay family disappeared on February 4, 2010, it rocked our San Diego community. I remember seeing the missing-person fliers posted everywhere, especially the faces of 4-year old Giovanni and 3-year old Johnny Jr. I was heartbroken when their bodies were finally found buried in two shallow graves in Victorville, California, three years later. On June 10, Joseph McStay’s business partner, Charles “Chase” Merritt, was found guilty of murdering the family because, according to prosecutors, he owed Mr. McStay over $40,000, had a huge gambling problem, and was being forced out of their partnership because of poor performance.   

May 24, 2019: Fifty-seven-year-old Lois Riess is indicted on first and second-degree murder charges after shooting her husband and, after going on the run, killing a woman in Florida in an attempt to steal her identity. Reis, who was nicknamed “Losing Streak Lois” because of her gambling addiction and her bad luck, had been on the run for over a year when she committed her second murder. Police believe that, at the time of her April 2018 arrest, she had been planning a third murder in Texas; she had quickly befriended a woman, bought her dinner, and made plans to get together the following night (similar to her behavior before she killed her Florida victim). Police also found two handguns, bullets, a holster, duct tape, and rubber gloves in her hotel room.

April 5, 2017: Ming Jiang allegedly killed and dismembered his own friend, a fellow Chinese national and gambler, before stuffing the body into a suitcase and going on a $225,000 gambling spree just weeks after the crime. Prosecutors claimed that he killed his wealthier friend so that he could assume his identity and seize his money and possessions so he could pay off his debts and continue his life as a high-roller. He will serve at least 33 years behind bars.

What do these stories mean? There has long been an anecdotal link between gambling and crime: Is it real? When is gambling a hobby and when it is more? Is excessive gambling a problem behavior or a mental illness?

Let’s look at what we know.

The Odds of Losing Control

I live just up the road from a racetrack. Every year, thousands of people come in the summer to place their bets on the horse that – by picking a favorite name, eyeing the horse during the warm-up, or following some tip sheet or statistical formula — they believe is likely to win. For most, it’s a social activity enjoyed with friends and family that lasts for a short period of time, and involves an acceptable, predetermined amount of money that the gambler can afford to lose. Once it’s gone, the party’s over. 

But for 2.5 million Americans, what starts out as a recreational activity morphs into a relentless urge to gamble despite repeatedly negative consequences or a desire to stop. It’s all they think about, they feel restless or irritable when they can’t do it, they “chase” losses when they can’t afford it, and they lose jobs, houses, and relationships over it. And even though they’ve tried to stop many times, it gets worse over time. 

Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. At first, many pathological gamblers win. They fall in love with the excitement of winning as well as the payoff. This initial success leads to fantasies of more money, more excitement, more prestige. It also leads to the first lie they tell themselves: “I know how to beat the system.” 

Inevitably, the pathological gambler starts losing. Rather than cut his losses, however, he becomes more preoccupied with gambling. He begins to gamble alone, borrow money, skip work, and lie to family and friends “just until I get even.” Thus, a vicious cycle begins: Chasing loses lead to more gambling and additional loses. He uses up his savings. He borrows money. He tells himself all he needs is just one big win. If this cycle sounds similar to a drug or alcohol addiction, it is: Forensic studies have shown that certain thrill-seeking chemicals in the brain demonstrated for alcohol and substance abusers are also existent in individuals who become addicted to gambling.

At this point, no one is having fun. During the desperation phase, pathological gamblers feel ashamed and guilty after gambling, but can’t stop. They literally feel like they can’t live without it. Some pathological gamblers hit rock bottom; they abuse drugs or alcohol to mentally escape.  About 80 percent of pathological gamblers seriously consider suicide, and 20 to 30 percent actually attempt or succeed in killing themselves. Not only is this the time the pathological gambler is a danger to himself; it is also the time he is most dangerous to others.

Pathological Gambling and Crime

There is an ongoing debate about how direct and how strong a link there is between gambling and crime. A 2014 study looking at the link between legal gambling and crime in Alberta, Canada found that gambling-related crimes tended to be non-violent property crimes and made up a very small percentage of all crime committed in the province.

On the other hand, a 2019 review of the research concluded that gambling-related crime typically consists of non-violent, income-generating crimes. However, it also revealed that problem gamblers may commit violent crimes at a higher than expected rate. A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Justice demonstrated that 30 percent of pathological gamblers arrested in Las Vegas had committed a robbery within the past year; 13 percent had assaulted another individual. The motive was simply to obtain money to pay for gambling or gambling debts. Studies by Gamblers Anonymous members are even more troubling: 67 percent admitted to committing crimes or civil fraud to finance their gambling or to pay gambling-related debts, and 47 percent admitted to having engaged in some form of insurance fraud, embezzlement or arson.

The Bottom Line

Like any other addiction, pathological gambling is a treatable disease that is responsive to cognitive and behavioral therapy, 12 step-based programs (Gamblers Anonymous), self-help, and peer support. Also, like other addictions, pathological gamblers are often not motivated to seek help unless their backs are up against the wall, they are court-ordered into treatment, or they are about to lose someone or something that is unbearable to part with.

For people who have a relationship with a pathological gambler, don’t judge, encourage them to get help, be honest about the impact their behavior has on you, don’t bail them out, and protect yourself financially, emotionally and physically. It is extremely rare for pathological gambling to lead to murder. But we should never underestimate the power of desperation to influence someone’s behavior. As security researcher Rafay Baloch once said, “There is nothing more dangerous than a desperate man who has nothing to lose.”


If you are interested in forensic psychology, check out Dr. Johnston's forensic radio show and true crime youtube channel.