Hart speaks out

December 12, 2004|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Vice squeezed Ben Hart like a vise.

He got hooked on "reel" slot machines - he didn't like video screen slots - at Charles Town Races & Slots in early 2000.

Winning thousands of dollars of real money catapulted him into addiction, he said.

For Hart - who was the executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau for six years - misery followed: He stole more than $15,000 from the bureau in 2003, a few hundred dollars at a time; he was forced to resign; he went to jail.

Slot machines and the pleasurable high of easy money yanked him in, he said, and his will couldn't shake him loose.


"I can remember going down to Charles Town," Hart said during an interview last week. "There's a back road to go through Shepherdstown. It's 232 or something like that (W.Va. 230). It's real windy and that stuff. That's the shortcut. OK?

"The speed limit along there's 50, in some places 25. I'd be going 65 and 70 miles an hour down that road. And I would get there and I would find the first parking spot I could find and literally run, from my car to the front door, and if people were in my way, I didn't care ...

"And if you think of a guy hooked on drugs, that's exactly what they're doing to get their next hit ...

"And what it was is you put 20 bucks in a machine and everything is gone. It's just, like, you know, the heroin's right in your vein ... You're in your element. And whether you won or lost didn't matter at all."

Early win

Hart, 55, said he won $2,000 from a slot machine around February 2000, "the defining moment" in his collapse.

"You hit big early and you think you're invincible," he said.

He said he won often for six to eight months - sometimes $1,000 or more in an hour.

His biggest windfall was $6,000 on a $1 bet. Other times, he'd walk away from a gambling session with $4,000 or $4,500.

Over time, though, the slot machines gobbled his money and gave nothing back.

When his luck reversed, Hart said, he lost as much as $2,000 in a day. He found himself scrambling for money to keep playing.

His Charles Town trips steadily increased, from three or four a month to as many as three a day.

"You had some very short good stretches and then you had some very, very, very long bad stretches," Hart said. "I remember one Christmas, and I couldn't tell you which one. We were on incentive-based bonuses at the bureau, like for meeting goals and that kind of stuff. And I took my bonus ... I got it on a Friday and in less than 12 hours, it was gone.

"Three trips I made down there (Charles Town Races & Slots). I went and cashed my bonus check, got cash for it. I gotta say it was somewhere around 17 or 18 hundred dollars.

"I had $500 I took down there - left the other 12 (hundred) or whatever the amount was in my desk drawer at work. I lost 500, drove back, got another 500, drove back, lost that, drove back to get the other, the rest of the cash in my drawer, and by the end of the night, I lost my entire Christmas bonus."

Hart allowed his gas and electricity to be shut off a few times.

Once, in the winter, he boiled water on the stove to bathe and shave, he said. He had enough money to pay for heat, but he reserved it for playing slot machines.

He said months of lying, borrowing money from friends and relatives, cashing in his retirement account and stealing from the bureau crashed on Oct. 16, 2003.

"You mean the day they saved my life?" Hart said.

"It was really bittersweet," he continued. "I was so thankful that I got caught. Because finally - you know, living with this, living with the addiction, and living with the consequences, and knowing what you've done to your friends and your relatives and your co-workers and the people that trust you. It's an unbearable feeling and there's lots of thoughts of suicide, self-destruction, mutilation."

Hart said he had a gut feeling that something was brewing on Wednesday, the day before, when the bureau's accountant called to set up a meeting.

Still, that night, he cashed another check and gambled at Charles Town Races & Slots.

Jail time

Hart was forced to resign on Oct. 27, 2003. Six weeks later, he was charged with one count of theft/scheme over $500, a felony.

But even the turning wheels of justice couldn't keep him away from Charles Town's spinning wheels of chance.

On March 21, three days before his criminal case was to be settled, he went back and gambled some more, he said.

In court, Hart pleaded guilty to the felony charge and was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but six months suspended.

His lawyer, D. Bruce Poole, said at the time that Hart amassed $100,000 in debt through his gambling since 2000.

Because of good time credit and a jail job, Hart served about 31/2 months. As an inmate, he said, he worked seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day, washing cars, emptying trash, cleaning toilets and doing other maintenance tasks.

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