WILKES-BARRE — Seduced by the bright lights and allure of the new casino in town, Mark Heltzel gave in to temptation, first snubbing his wife and daughters before turning his disregard to the law, court documents filed Monday said.
The former skilled financial planner gambled away his home life and ultimately agreed to participate in a criminal scheme that defrauded Mohegan Sun Pocono out of more than $420,000, according to a memorandum filed ahead of Heltzel’s sentencing Friday in federal court.
Heltzel, who pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy in December, is seeking to serve one year and one day in federal prison followed by two years of probation, the memorandum said. His co-defendant, ex-casino executive Robert Pellegrini, was sentenced last month to 32 months in federal prison. A third player in the scheme, former cocktail waitress Rochelle Poszeluznyj, is awaiting sentencing.
In the memorandum, which included several letters from family and friends asking a judge to show mercy, attorney Demetrius Fannick argued Heltzel is “not your ‘typical defendant.’”
“Truly, the event which brings him before the court was out of character,” Fannick wrote.
After earning a degree in finance, Heltzel thrived in the field as a financial planner for companies like MetLife and Prudential before becoming self-employed, according to Fannick. He was no stranger to handling large sums of money, and as his career blossomed, he gained his clients’ trust and loyalty, Fannick wrote.
Just as successful was Heltzel’s personal life, the attorney noted.
Heltzel, 52, of Dallas, has been married for 27 years and has two daughters, Alexandra, 23, and Emily, 18, who each penned character letters praising their father. Many friends authored similar letters.
In one of the perhaps more revealing missives, Heltzel’s wife, Karen Heltzel, a teacher in the Dallas School District, wrote she “saw a change” in her husband when Mohegan Sun Pocono opened in 2006.
The new casino, she wrote, was full of “endless invitations, enticing offers too good to be true, and lots of late nights. It was shiny, and exciting, and it was a place with lots of recognition.”
Fannick cited a pre-sentence report that said Heltzel’s alcohol abuse and “self-described gambling addiction” escalated as he began making daily trips to the casino to play blackjack.
As Heltzel spent more time at the casino, he was no longer the devoted family man who would sooth Emily’s cold with Chinese noodles, or help Alex recover on the couch with the help of a “Lizzie McGuire” marathon, his wife wrote.
“Soon, Mark found a new purpose,” she wrote. “Slowly, as he grew in popularity in this flashy establishment, he waned in popularity at home. Relationships began crumbling around him. Finally, one cold day in January 2016, our lives, already cracked at the seams, simply shattered (when Heltzel was charged).”
After Heltzel complained to management when he overheard casino employees talking about his personal finances, he was introduced to Pellegrini, then the vice president of player development, who dealt with Heltzel’s complaints by awarding him $10,000 in free play at $1,000 weekly increments. The award led Heltzel to become “somewhat of a fixture” at the Plains Township casino, and a friendship developed between he and Pellegrini, Fannick wrote.
Heltzel was approached about the scheme, Fannick wrote, and “succumbed to temptation.”
‘Chance at redemption’
Heltzel, Pellegrini and Poszeluznyj were charged last year in the scheme that ran from May 2014 to April 2015 and involved the theft of personal information numbers from gamblers.
Poszeluznyj took PINs from gamblers, then gave them to Pellegrini, who used the numbers to create duplicate rewards cards with $478,000 in free play credits, prosecutors said. Heltzel gambled with the cards, mostly at video poker machines, and split the winnings with Pellegrini and Poszeluznyj.
Prosecutors said the pair turned $478,000 in free play credits into about $420,147 in winnings.
Heltzel has been remorseful for his actions and open with investigators, and has dealt with feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness in the aftermath of his indictment, the attorney added. He has sought counseling for stress and depression and is taking medication.
Heltzel’s crimes, Fannick said, have bred “catastrophic circumstances,” including the loss of licenses necessary to work in his field that will make it difficult for him to find another job.
Alexandra Heltzel, acknowledging her father’s mistakes, doesn’t believe prison is the answer.
“Although I do not feel that what my dad did was right, I do feel that everyone deserves a chance at redemption,” she wrote.