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The Oregonian, (Portland, OR)
July 28, 1995
Author: KATE TAYLOR – of the Oregonian Staff
Summary: The parents of a compulsive gambler say the Oregon lottery stole their son, caused his suicide. The machines he haunted still blink up hearts, clubs, diamonds. Their glow still lures thousands of Oregonians every day.
But Robert Lewis Hafemann, a compulsive gambler, has played his last game of video poker. After slipping his life savings and countless loans into gambling machines, and at the end of a desperate search for help against his addiction, 28-year-old Hafemann shot himself in his Milwaukie home July 20.
When he was buried this week, he left behind a grieving family as well as questions about the state’s most popular gambling game and the declining help for people who can’t stop playing.
“My Bobby was a winner,” said his father, Harvey Hafemann, clutching his wife’s hand at his Milwaukie home. “He could’ve won at a lot of different things. But he couldn’t win that game. The Oregon lottery stole our son from us.” His father doesn’t know how it happened.
Before 1991, when the Legislature invited video poker into the state, his family considered Robert Hafemann’s gambling playful and benign. He thrilled at his first scratch-ticket jackpot of $600 at the age of 18. The following years he won everything from cowboy hats to couches to television sets. He lost money, too, but his $45,000-a-year job as a steel fabricator easily made up the loss. He always had extra to give.
“He had the biggest heart you’d ever meet,” said his sister, Ronda Hatefi. “He made more money than any of us, so he wanted to share.” Then came video poker and the 1,500 taverns, restaurants and bowling alleys that put in 7,200 machines.
The machines, which bring in $1 million a day, drew Robert Hafemann like a siren song. He became one of the estimated 61,000 pathological or problem gamblers in Oregon. He stopped coming home after work. Instead, he sought out machines.
“He talked about the (video machines) all the time,” his father said. “He said he was going to get out of this. He would win a million dollars, and we’d all be living on easy street.” In his last few months, Hafemann spent every hour of spare time and every cent of his paycheck gambling. On the rare occasions his family saw him, he’d borrow money, say he was going to the store for a soda, and return the next morning. He stopped picking up his mail and checking his answering machine because he couldn’t face creditors.
Hafemann’s family saw less and less of the son and brother they remembered. “He told me he felt like a ghost, standing alone,” said his mother, Diana Hafemann. “That’s what he looked like. We told him we’re here for you, but he said he just couldn’t stop.”
At work, he was efficient and industrious as always and continued to ask for extra shifts. But he stopped telling jokes and stopped asking his co-workers if they had heard any new ones. Instead, he asked to borrow money.
“I’d lend him small amounts and he always paid me back,” said Alan Christen, a fellow machine operator. “You could tell his esteem of himself had gone way down.” Then in May, he finally told his mother he was considering suicide and needed help. “It was the best Mother’s Day present,” said Diana Hafemann. “I told him he was a winner, because it takes a big man to admit he’s got a problem.”
Searching for help
Hafemann’s despair is tragically common, said Bob Denton, a treatment counselor at Portland’s Diversion Associates, a group that treats addicts. Almost half of the people he treats are contemplating suicide, and about 90 percent say their worst problem is video poker.
When Robert Hafemann and his mother went to Kaiser’s East Interstate Medical Office for help, Diana Hafemann said a doctor prescribed her son Prozac and soon referred him to a general practitioner. Kaiser declined to comment.
When compulsive gamblers seek help, they often meet with the wrong treatment, said Steven Henry, a psychologist with the Clackamas County Mental Health Department’s gambling treatment program. “Pathological gambling doesn’t present itself with alcohol on the breath, needle-marks on the arm or roaches in the ashtray,” Henry said. “It presents itself with empty bank accounts and the life blood drained out of families.”
Diana Hafemann said there were very few resources that could help her son. Many health care providers agree. Oregon lawmakers this year approved $4 million for gambling addiction treatment over the next two years, $800,000 less than the previous two years. Oregon lottery spokesman David Hooper said many of the county-run programs failed to spend all of the larger amount allocated. He defended the growth of video poker, saying most of the players are healthy.
“It’s a very unfortunate, tragic circumstance,” Hooper said of Hafemann’s death. “But it’s like any other product, there’s going to be individuals who are unable to handle it. You cannot run society based on the exceptions.” But those who work with gambling addicts say video poker, which is permitted only in six states, is the most virulent, addictive form of gambling. “The hypnotic effect of screen and the speed of play engages peoples’ interest and allows them to escape from their problems in a way that no other form of gambling does,” he said. “The cost is also easy for people to rationalize — just $5 or $20 for a game, but then suddenly they’ve gone through $100 and the remorse can be overwhelming.”
That remorse was overwhelming for Robert Hafemann early July 20 as he sat drinking beer, going through his phone book and thinking about what he’d lost. He called one friend five times, despairing over his finances. She tried to calm him, and thought she talked him out of suicide. He called the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department for a gambling hotline number. But Hafemann inverted two of the numbers as he wrote it on his notepad and thought the number had been disconnected. In his last words to his mother and father, he told them he loved them but said he had to take care of something he couldn’t stop any other way. He directed them to sell his belongings and pay off his creditors.
When his father and two nephews visited him Saturday, they discovered him slumped over a living room table with a six-pack of beer at his feet.
“I hate to say this, but I feel that this suicide was another job that he felt had to be done,” his father said. “He did every job the best he could, that’s the way Bob was.”
Kate Taylor covers community issues of Clackamas County for the MetroSouth bureau of The Oregonian. She can be reached by telephone at 294-5916, by fax at 656-2417 or by mail at P.O. Box 5029, Oregon City 97045.
Record Number: 9507280353