A Florida woman's gambling addiction was so severe that she pumped $14 million into the slots and is accused of stealing her in-laws' life savings to fuel her habit, police said.
Jennifer Dennison, 42, was arrested after Hernando County Sheriff's detectives wrapped up a five-month investigation. "Theoretically she could spend the next couple decades in prison," Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said. She was charged with 16 counts including exploitation of the elderly, forgery of checks, and organized scheme to defraud.
Dennison's in-laws, 88-year-old Laverne Robert Dennison and 73-year-old Janet A. Dennison, bounced a check in August of last year, launching the investigation that led to the woman's arrest.
Dennison hit the slots at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, winning a total of nearly $13 million. But she pumped every penny of that back in, plus at least $700,000 more, police say.
The thrill of the buzzing slot machines led her to fleece her in-laws of their retirement money, drain their bank accounts and cash in their insurance policies, police said. "Ms. Dennison was the one who had basically wiped out their accounts to the tune of over $500,000," Nienhuis said.
Jennifer Dennison's husband, Scott, holds a power of attorney for his parents, but Jennifer Dennison made all of the financial decisions for the family. The elderly couple never saw it coming.
"I mean I never thought...she'd do that...She just had this one bad habit," Laverne Dennison said.
The gambling industry is increasingly targeting women online with so called sexy slot machines and offering prizes like a Manhattan shopping spree. There are even "Sex and the City" themed slot machines that let you gamble with Carrie Bradshaw.
"Their [Women's] disposable income has moved up and they've said this is how we're going to get them," said Brad Lamm, author of "How to Help the One You Love."
Almost half of problem gamers are now women, Lamm said.
"When typically she was the one serving the drinks.. now she's being invited to sit down and play… there's been a turn and that's why we're seeing a spike with gambling and addiction problems with women in the US," Lamm said.
It's a bad habit that Donna Zaharevitz knows well and has fought hard to beat.
"I never, never would have thought I could have won this kind of money," Zaharevitz said.
The mother of four says that just one big win of $27,000 was like a drug.
"We were the typical family, the Beaver Cleaver family...then all of the sudden I was going to the casino more and more. You just chase after the losses," she said.
Zaharevitz lost thousands of dollars and started stealing checks from a friend to cover her debt. The former sales executive was sinking into her addiction.
Life wasn't worth living anymore," she said. "I was tired of the lies. I was tired of being deceitful. It was a pretty tough place to be."
Zaharevitz, who has now recovered from her addiction, counsels other gambling addicts.