Dec. 8, 2009 -- A Nebraska businessman who lost nearly $127 million in a yearlong, Las Vegas gambling binge has accused two Las Vegas casinos of plying him with generous amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs to keep the cash flowing.
Terrance Watanabe said he bet more than $825 million and lost nearly $127 million of it in Caesars Palace and the Rio casinos in 2007, believed to be the biggest losing streak in Vegas history.
"It's a tragedy, Mr. Watanabe's a tragedy," his lawyer, Pierce O'Donnell, told "Good Morning America" today. "He was so addicted and so out of it, he didn't really realize what was going on."
Watanabe has since been charged with four felony counts for refusing to pay the final $14 million and faces 28 years in prison if convicted.
The well-known businessman and philanthropist is credited with providing Harrah's Entertainment Inc., the parent company of both casinos, about 5.6 percent of its total Las Vegas gambling revenue that year.
Now, Harrah's and Watanabe are engaged in a complicated legal battle after Watanabe filed a civil suit in Clark County District Court last month claiming the casino was partly responsible for fueling his stunning streak by providing him free drinks and painkillers and allowing him to gamble when he was clearly intoxicated.
Watanabe was drinking "two to three bottles of vodka a day," all supplied by Harrah's employees, O'Donnell said.
"And they gave him highly addictive pills, eight or 10 a day," O'Donnell said. "Sometimes in a candy box."
Watanabe, the former owner of popular mail-order retailer Oriental Trading Co., also contacted the Nevada Gaming Commission, after which the agency opened its own investigation into the matter to determine whether Harrah's violated gambling regulations, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
"He's standing up not just for himself but for other people who have a problem gambling," O'Donnell said.
Watanabe's suit and letter to the commission were part of a legal strategy to get Harrah's to drop its charges against him, a spokesman for Harrah's said.
Watanabe is "a criminal defendant who faces imprisonment for theft and writing bad checks," Harrah's Entertainment said in a statement to ABC News. "All of his statements [and his criminal attorney's statements] should be evaluated in that light."
O'Donnell said his client paid the bulk of his gambling losses while he was still struggling with addiction. His sister eventually intervened and Watanabe went to rehab, O'Donnell said.
"It was outrageous. And at the end of the day, he takes responsibility of his drinking and gambling problem," O'Donnell said, adding that Harrah's needs to take responsibility for encouraging Watanabe's addictions.
"We'll let the good people of Las Vegas decide whether he has a criminal intent to defraud," O'Donnell said. "He did not."
Star Treatment for Casino 'Whales'
Watanabe said he was provided a three-room suite at a Harrah's property and a $17 million gambling limit. Three personal concierge attendants served at his beckon call.
Special vodka was imported from Russia by the case and served only to him, he said.
Watanabe said he would gamble 24 hours a day, playing three $50,000 hands of Blackjack at a time and losing as much as $5 million in a single day.
It's no secret that Las Vegas offers generous VIP treatment to court what many in the industry refer to as "whales" -- extremely wealthy, high-roller patrons.
"In the gambling world, 'whales' are the biggest of the big gamblers," Anthony Curtis, of LasVegasAdvisor.com, told "Good Morning America."
"There's a lot of competition to bring those guys in."
And although Watanabe was as big a whale as they come, not all casinos wanted his business. Prior to his stints at Caesars and the Rio, Watanabe said, he was banned from the Wynn casino by Steve Wynn himself when he was found gambling intoxicated there in 2006.