The parents answered their door one night last December and found themselves playing a scene from a gangster movie. There were two men standing on the doorstep of their home in an upper-middle-class suburb. The men told the parents that their son, a sophomore in high school, owed $800 in gambling debts. I he men, both in their 20's, demanded payment in cash. The parents paid them a week later.
While college is a breeding ground for many young gamblers, who develop the habit when they are suddenly freed from parental constraints, high school is where it often begins. The incident mentioned above occurred in Nutley, N.J., leading to an investigation by local authorities and, on March 1, the arrest of three Nutley High students who were allegedly helping run a $6,500-a-week sports betting operation.
According to Fred Franco, assistant prosecutor director for Essex County, at least 25 Nutley students were placing bets ranging from $25 to $1,000 per wager. "Many of the kids were members of the football team," says Franco. "We had students betting [$1,000] on a New York Giants game."
The arrested students, 19-year-old Herbert Hoffman (above) and two 17-year-old juveniles, were recruited by adults to solicit bets from fellow students. They kept accurate records of bets and bettors," Franco says of the student runners. "That's because they were responsible for settling up with people we know were located in New York City." Those people, prosecutors suspect, may be part of a larger network of criminal activity.
The operation was similar to those in which nonstudent bookmakers in college towns or nearby cities recruit students to service college dorms and fraternity houses. However, unlike the college-variety runners, this trio of teenagers also muscled the kids who didn't pay up. On Feb. 12 a 14-year-old Nutley freshman who owed $565 was abducted from a recreational basketball game by the two juvenile perpetrators, driven to a housing project in Newark and left on the street. "He started running and ran right into a police car," says Franco. "Otherwise, he was in a lot of trouble where he was."
In addition to the charge of conspiracy to violate state gambling laws, the three students were charged with kidnapping, theft by extortion and making terroristic threats. Three adults from the Nutley area (the aforementioned two collectors not among them)—Gerard Cimolo, 24; Michael Luzzi, 19; and Thomas Stigliano, 25—were later arrested, all on charges of conspiracy to violate state gambling laws.
Nutley was the fourth high school in four years at which Essex County prosecutors found organized gambling operations run by students. And 12 days after the Nutley bust, officials in the tony New York suburbs of Westchester County arrested four men for running a sports-betting and loan-sharking operation, whose clients included at least 50 students at Byram Hills High in Armonk. The connection between the book and the high school was, again, that one or more students placed bets for the other students.
Preventing illegal gambling at high schools is as difficult as it is at colleges. "Teenage gambling is incredibly extensive," says Franco. "But the problem in investigating any case is that parents tend to have one of three reactions: 1) They're afraid to say anything because they think organized crime is involved; 2) they think they can handle it themselves at home; 3) and this is the most common response—they say, 'Thank god it's not drugs." They just don't think it's a serious problem, but it is."