The murder of his son seven years ago has turned Robert McGuigan into an activist against compulsive gambling. As he puts it, "If I can save just one family from having to go through what I've been through, my work will be worth it."
Jason McGuigan was 28 when he was murdered by Meng-Ju "Mark" Wu over a gambling debt. Two innocent men, Dustin J. Wilson, 17, and Daniel R. Swanson, 25, were also killed in the Verona home they shared in the early morning of June 26, 2003.
"I was feeling the pain of the other kids losing their life over the actions of my son," says McGuigan, who lives on Madison's north side. He remembers Jason as "a great kid" who enjoyed camping and fishing and was well liked in school.
McGuigan, 59, has worked as a customer service consultant throughout his professional career. Jason was his only child, from a marriage that ended in divorce.
In 2006, McGuigan partnered with Rose Gruber, executive director of the Green Bay-based Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling. Today the pair travel to correctional facilities and high schools throughout the state to talk about the growing problem of compulsive gambling. McGuigan has been interviewed on ESPN360.com, the online counterpart of the cable sports channel.
Gruber says 65% of compulsive gamblers commit crimes like forging checks, stealing credit cards, fencing stolen goods, evading taxes and robbing their employers. The council reports that gambling-related embezzlement in Wisconsin is on the rise.
In fact, the high crime rate among compulsive gamblers is one reason Gruber and McGuigan visit prison inmates. The message they impart to the inmates is that gambling is a form of addiction. They discuss the destruction that gambling can bring, with McGuigan's story serving as a worst-case scenario.
According to the council, approximately 332,000 Wisconsin residents have a gambling problem to some extent. Calls to the 24-hour gambling hotline (1-800-426-2535) have increased 325% since 1996. Gruber says 14,604 calls were received in 2009, and the hotline is on-target to receive 16,000 calls this year.
Gruber, who has been with the council for 13 years, notes that it's easier than ever to find opportunities to gamble in Wisconsin, thanks to the state lottery, casinos and Internet gambling. "When you increase accessibility to gambling, the risk is there for people to abuse it."
The sluggish economy has also exacerbated the problem. "Many people," explains Gruber, "were compulsive gamblers before the recession. Now they think they need just one more win to be able to erase their debt. What actually happens is that they go deeper into debt."
McGuigan agrees. "When I was growing up, the options for gambling were board, card or dice games," he says. "If you wanted to play bingo, you had to go to a local church. If you wanted to bet on a college or pro sports game, you had to go to Las Vegas. Today, you can just turn on your TV, computer or cell phone, walk into a gas station, grocery or convenience store or drive to a nearby casino to access some form of gambling."
The Capital Times recently reported on an Internet-based company called Ultrinsic, which offers students at 36 campuses, including the UW-Madison, a chance to bet on whether or not they'll earn a certain grade in a given class. Bets are capped at $25-$50 per class.
Yet compulsive gambling, as McGuigan describes it, is a hidden addiction: "You can't see or smell it; you can't see tracks in someone's arms. It doesn't discriminate between the genders, age, educational background or ethnicity."
Gruber notes that gambling "used to be more oriented toward men, with horse track betting and poker games being popular." In 1997, 80% of the callers using the hotline were male. Now, because of accessibility, the numbers reflect a 55% female and 45% male ratio.
The council connects callers with long-term resources, such as counseling, financial programs and social services.
McGuigan blames himself for introducing Jason to gambling and for not recognizing he had a problem. "I remember playing dice and games such as Monopoly and Yahtzee when Jason was growing up," he recalls. "I close my eyes and can visualize Jason and his friends playing dice and the intensity in his eyes."
Jason McGuigan met his killer playing blackjack at Ho-Chunk Casino near the Dells six weeks before his death. Nineteen-year-old Wu, a UW student from Taiwan, befriended Jason, who was considered a high-stakes roller at Ho-Chunk. Jason taught Wu about college and professional sports teams and helped Wu set up an offshore account in the Bahamas.
Jason would often place bets for Wu and himself. One of the bets was on a pro baseball game for approximately $8,000, which Jason was supposed to place. The bet would have garnered $17,000 for each of them, but Jason apparently failed to place it.
"He must have gotten cold feet," says McGuigan. Wu apparently came to Jason's Verona home seeking revenge.
Although three people were killed that June day, the actual carnage is greater than that. The brother of Dustin Wilson committed suicide one year after the triple homicide. And on the morning his trial was to begin, in January 2005, Wu hung himself in his jail cell.
Young people are especially susceptible to the lure and dangers of gambling. The vast majority of children have gambled before their 18th birthday, and studies show that adolescents are more likely than adults to be addicted to gambling.
That's why McGuigan brings his message to middle and high schools, where he tells kids that they are among the most susceptible group and the fastest-growing age range of gamblers. As he puts it, "We have failed these kids miserably because we have not taught them about the downfall of gambling."
McGuigan says one student thanked him after his talk at a Madison student leadership forum, saying he realized during the speech that he was addicted to gambling. "He changed my life," the student wrote in a recap to the presenters.
McGuigan hopes to start a foundation in the memory of his son and the other murdered men. The foundation would also help fund a scholarship for a student of police science, provide education about compulsive gambling and help parents of murdered children.
"I have a dream to make this a reality," he says.
Gambling hotline by the numbers
$36,000: average debt of helpline callers
263%: Increase in female gamblers calling the helpline since 1996
Between 6% and 20% of adolescents will develop gambling problems
Suicide rates are 20 times higher among pathological gamblers compared to non-gamblers
Source: Wisconsin Council on Problem Gambling