ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — She was an ambitious lawyer and TV commentator who starting going to Atlantic City casinos to relax and soon was getting high-roller treatment that included limousines whisking her to the resort.
Arelia Margarita Taveras said she was even allowed to bring her dog, Sasha, to the blackjack tables, sitting in her purse.
But her gambling spun out of control: She said she would go days at a time at the tables, not eating or sleeping, brushing her teeth with disposable wipes so she didn't have to leave.
She said her losses totaled nearly $1 million.
Now she's chasing the longest of long shots: a $20 million racketeering lawsuit in federal court against six Atlantic City casinos and one in Las Vegas, claiming they had a duty to notice her compulsive gambling problem and cut her off.
"They knew I was going for days without eating or sleeping," Taveras said. "I would pass out at the tables. They had a duty of care to me. Nobody in their right mind would gamble for four or five straight days without sleeping."
Experts said her case will be difficult to prove, but it provides an unusually detailed window into the life of a problem gambler.
"It's like crack, only gambling is worse than crack because it's mental," said Taveras, 37, a New Yorker who now lives in Minnesota. "It creeps up on you, the impulse. It's a sickness."
She lost her law practice, her apartment and her parents' home, and she owes the IRS $58,000. She said she even considered swerving into oncoming traffic to kill herself.
In interviews with The Associated Press, Taveras admitted she dipped into her clients' escrow accounts to finance her gambling habit. She was disbarred last June and faces criminal charges stemming from those actions, but is trying to work out restitution agreements in order to avoid a prison term.
Her lawsuit names Resorts Atlantic City, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, the Tropicana Casino Resort, the Showboat Casino Hotel, Bally's Atlantic City, as well as the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The casinos denied any wrongdoing, maintaining in court papers that Taveras brought her problems on herself. Casino representatives either declined to comment for this report or did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Last month, a judge dismissed the Trump casinos, the Tropicana, Showboat and Bally's from the lawsuit on technical grounds, but allowed Taveras to refile the suit against them by April. The suit remains in effect against Resorts and MGM because its allegations against them were more specific.
Imposing a voluntary ban
Joe Corbo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said casino workers undergo extensive training on spotting problem gamblers and referring them to help, including a self-exclusion list the state maintains. Gamblers can voluntarily bar themselves from casinos, either for a few years or for life. While they're on the list, casinos cannot solicit them.
Dan Heneghan, a spokesman for the state Casino Control Commission, said 663 people are on the list.
"This can be a delicate situation, and it comes down to an individual's personal responsibility," Corbo said. "We can only suggest that they receive assistance and provide information how they can obtain help, but it is up to them to commit to seek it."
Paul O'Gara, an attorney specializing in Atlantic City gambling issues, said it will be difficult for Taveras to prove that the casinos knew she had a problem but ignored it.
"How are you supposed to know whether this was a woman who was just having a good time, or had money and was just lonely, as opposed to someone who couldn't control themselves?" he said.
Arnie Wexler, the former head of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, estimates there are 5 million problem gamblers in the United States, with 15 million at risk of becoming compulsive.
"Hers is not a rare case, believe me," said Wexler, who says he had a gambling problem. "This is the most powerful addiction you can have without putting something into your body. You remember your first big win, and you think `Hey, I can do this again; I can get it all back.'"
As a young lawyer, Taveras made a name for herself representing the families of victims of American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in New York City's borough of Queens in November 2001, killing 265 people.
Her practice had 400 clients and earned her $500,000 a year. She appeared on TV and radio to discuss legal issues, wrote a guidebook for women dealing with deadbeat dads in the court system, titled "The Gangsta Girls' Guide To Child Support," and was a regular contributor to Hispanic culture Web sites. In 2000, the New York Daily News named her one of "21 New Yorkers to Watch in the 21st Century."
'Now you want it back'
As an escape from the seven-day-a-week pressures of her law practice, she started going to Atlantic City to unwind in September 2003.
During one five-day gambling jag at Resorts in June 2005, Taveras said, she existed on nothing but orange juice and Snickers bars that the staff gave her. On the fifth day, she said, a dealer told her to go home because she appeared exhausted and unable to keep track of her cards.
Taveras spent nearly a year in clinics to treat her gambling addiction. She filed her lawsuit last September, representing herself, and is now working at a telephone call center in Minnesota.
"Everybody says 'You gambled and you enjoyed yourself, then lost your money and now you want it back,'" Taveras said. "They think gambling is fun. It isn't, believe me. Not when you get like I did."
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