The phone call came at 11:15 a.m.
“You need to come home,” the police officer told Steve, who was at work at the oil refinery.
It had to be one of two things. Either his wife, Kate, had been in a car accident - he’d warned her about that blind spot in the driveway - or some “dope head” had broken into his house again.
When he rounded the corner in his quiet neighborhood that Wednesday morning, he saw a moving van in front of his ranch-style house. Its ramp was down. Squad cars waited in the driveway.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” a detective friend said, “your wife is dead. But you better call a lawyer. Now. Not tomorrow. Not in an hour. Right this minute.”
The detective told Steve two things: His mortgage was 17 months behind. And the sheriff, there to evict him, had found Kate’s suicide note.
Nobody said a word about the casino boats. But they had their suspicions.
Steve thought he knew his wife of 16 years. She was a devoted mother of two - a girl, 9, a boy, 11. She tatted lace, knitted winter scarves, collected pig figurines. She was a volunteer at the Lutheran church.
What he didn’t know was that she was a compulsive gambler who secretly spent the family savings and mortgage money.
“I had no idea what was going on,” said Steve, who, to protect his children, asked that the couple’s last name not be used. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. First my wife is gone - then my house.”
Steve immediately started to go through his family’s financial records, which Kate had always handled.
Instead of $8,000 in the savings account, he found $830. The $5,000 tax refund was gone. Then he found the check stubs.
Cash withdrawals in amounts of $150 and $200, one after the other. Savings account withdrawals for $1,200.
Steve found his first clue to Kate’s troubles in a W-2 tax form. Taxes his wife paid on a $1,200 win at the casino boat. He found more papers and brochures from a nearby riverboat casino. The Alton Belle and River Queen were less than 15 minutes from their home.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She was the master of deceit.”
The only time he went to a casino with Kate was in October, for her 40th birthday. Kate insisted. They agreed to spend $40 each.
Others who knew Kate were shocked, too.
“I knew she went to the boats,” said one of her friends, who did not want to be identified. “But not to this extent. This was not in sync with who she really was. She was a mother, helping at school and Cub Scouts.
“I’ve really struggled with this. My first response was, `The woman I knew didn’t do this.”’
But a police officer at the scene said the combination of suicide and heavy debt suggested to him that gambling was probably behind this tragedy.
Steve found a paper trail that read like a diary of Kate’s hidden life aboard the gambling boats. She pawned her wedding rings. His ring. And all she had to show for it was debt.”It was the kitchen match that caught the forest on fire,” Steve said. “It starts with one tree and before you know it the whole forest is on fire. And she couldn’t put the fire out.”
Kate, a University of Missouri graduate, started gambling with the mortgage money more than a year ago.
Court records show a bank process server tried to reach her husband 10 times. Ten times Kate - who years ago worked at a finance company finding people with bad credit - held them at bay.
She was notified that on Feb. 1, the court-ordered process server and officers from the Madison County Sheriff’s Office would move the family out of the house.
That morning, she drove her children to school. At home, she took a Smith and Wesson .357-caliber Magnum from a basement desk drawer. She wrote a note “To Whom it May Concern.” In it, Kate said her husband knew nothing of the house repossession and told how to contact him at work. She taped the letter to the front door and left.
Kate drove to a nearby mall parking lot. She crawled into the back seat of her 1988 Oldsmobile. She aimed the gun behind her right ear and fired.
“The shame and embarrassment was too much for her,” Steve said. “She couldn’t face me or our minister - or anybody about it.”
What happened to Steve’s family could happen to “anybody, any time,” he said. “And it will happen to thousands more. You watch.”
A family farther down the Mississippi River, outside Memphis - where other riverboat casinos have mushroomed - has a similar story.
There, a 42-year-old father of two shot himself in the chest and died just before Christmas, after gambling away $100,000. His ex-wife sued Splash Casino in Tunica, Miss., for $50 million, saying casinos shouldn’t serve compulsive gamblers, just as bartenders aren’t supposed to serve people who drink too much.
“There is a fever out there in those casinos,” said Kate’s friend. “This stuff grabs you.
“You’re stuck out there” cruising on the river. “After you lost your money, do you really want to sit on deck? There are cash machines everywhere. You hear the bells and think someone hit. You’re thinking, `I might hit.’ So you go back in. You’re trapped.”
A spokesman for Argosy Riverside Casino in Riverside, which also owns the Alton Belle Casino in Alton, Ill., said the company posted signs advertising Gamblers Anonymous. He said it would be impossible to keep track of every gambler.
Steve wants no part of a lawsuit. He has enough worries. At night, his son is inconsolable. His daughter still hasn’t cried.
Any minute his attorney, John Rekowski of Collinsville, could call.
Rekowski has been negotiating with the bank to let Steve and his children keep the house.
Steve is sure he can make back payments with his salary as a boiler maker. His co-workers passed a hat and raised $2,000. And Rekowski set up a fund to help recover the estimated $9,000 to $12,000 needed in back mortgage payments and bank repossession fees.
“All I want is my house so my kids have a home,” Steve said. “I’m worried we won’t have a place to live tomorrow.”
It is a quiet home, in a quiet neighborhood about five miles from the bright lights and bells of the Casino Queen. The kitchen is a cozy mix of antiques and baskets and curio cabinets full of pigs.
Slung over the back of a chair hangs Kate’s black leather handbag. The day the coroner handed it over, Steve felt a little sneaky. He opened it almost thinking Kate might come flying around the corner.
“She always said, `That’s mine! Stay out,”’ he said.
Inside, he found her wallet, a brush, hairpins, some makeup and the checkbook. Many checks were made out to cash. Perhaps an indication that Kate tried furiously to win back the $6,000 to keep her house.
On Jan. 24, the last check was written, for $200.
A week later, Kate died with $2.58 in her wallet.
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