"My wife and I would lie in bed at night and just look up at the ceiling, wondering what had happened and what we were going to do," Forte says. "We'd wind up crying."
In early April 1990, Forte went to the federal public defender's office in Newark. His case was assigned to Larry Lustberg, a graduate of Harvard Law and a sports fan who knew Forte only by his work. On April 15, Lustberg tried to reach Forte, only to discover that his house in Saddle River had just been sold at a sheriff's auction for $908,000.
Lustberg contacted the federal prosecutors, who told him that the grand jury had been considering evidence and was prepared to return an indictment of more than 20 counts against his client in less than two weeks. Forte had had his chance to cooperate, they said, and hadn't taken it. Now the walls were closing in on him. Lustberg was able to bargain the prosecutors down to nine counts, enough to bring an 11-year prison term.
By this time Forte was in Midlothian, Va., living with his wife, daughter and mother in a rented house. "Chet was a wreck," says Lustberg, who is now in private practice but continues to represent Forte. "He didn't understand what had happened to him. The only thing he could think about was that he was going to jail."
Forte appeared in federal court in Newark on April 27, 1990, and pleaded not guilty to the nine charges. He was released on a $500,000 bail bond that was cosigned by a cousin in Florida. All of his old swagger was gone. The taut face had gone jowly, and the once fierce dark eyes looked numb and frightened. "Gambling," Forte told reporters, "is why I am in this trouble. Gambling ruined my life."
Lustberg then began working with his client and the prosecutors. "I didn't know anything about compulsive gambling before this case," Lustberg says. "Now I'm on the board of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling." He arranged for Forte to meet the council's director, Arnold Wexler, who took Forte into his home for a weekend. "I listened to Chefs stories," Wexler says, "and not one of them surprised me. I'm a guy who bet hockey for two years before I knew it was played on ice."
Wexler persuaded Forte to attend a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and listen to calls that came in on the council's toll-free hot line. "One guy called in and he owed a million dollars," says Wexler. "Another was a woman with a 29-year-old son in jail. By the third or fourth call Chet had tears in his eyes."
Forte began attending weekly GA meetings back in Midlothian. He and Wexler still talk by phone twice a week. "He's a beautiful guy," Wexler says. "He had this great job, traveling all over, doing something he loved, making big money and hanging around with stars. But he has this sickness. A gambler needs action, and he'll do anything to get it. There is never enough."
While Forte went to GA meetings and tried to put his life back together, living off the generosity of friends and family and the income his wife earned from a job supervising clerical workers, Lustberg negotiated with the prosecutors. In September, Forte pleaded guilty to three counts—two of fraud and one of failing to file a tax return. The other six counts were dropped. The possibility of a jail sentence, though significantly reduced, remained real.
He cooperated with the federal authorities in their continuing investigation of Starkives. He took long walks. He read. He also tried to become a husband and father. "I'd never done that before," he says. "I'd been on the road all the time, and when I was at home, I'd sit in a room and watch the television to follow my bets. I never even knew my wife and daughter. I've gotten very close to them, but I'll never be able to pay them back. My wife...how she stood it and why she stayed, I'll never know."