From heart attacks to suicides, deaths a part of casino life

Erica Jacobson

The 38-year-old used metal salesman had just won $4,000 during a mid-week visit to Foxwoods Resort Casino.

It was May 12, 1993, and Connecticut’s first casino had celebrated its first birthday just a few months before. The newness of American Indian gaming in the state already had led to a long list of firsts — first rush of players to the tables,  first big hit, first bust.

And Robert Tom, who had survived two previous heart attacks, was about to become another first.

According to records from the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a third, lethal heart attack struck the Medford, Mass., man just moments after he had won big. He became, as determined by a Norwich Bulletin review of medical examiner records, the first patron to die at one of Connecticut’s casinos.

In the years since, Tom has been joined by nearly 150 people who have died while visiting or working at Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun. They include a disc jockey, machinist and professor, among others. Most have died from natural causes — almost always heart attacks. For almost two dozen others, the casinos have been a place to intentionally end their lives, take fatal doses of illicit drugs or work a last shift.

Both casinos, which welcome 25 million visitors per year, say they’ve worked to create a safe environment, keeping medical staff and equipment on-site.

“We have a lot of equipment on property,” Sandra Rios, a Foxwoods spokeswoman, said. “If anything does go wrong, we can respond very fast.”

But some situations either are unavoidable or unknowable, especially when it comes to suicides and drug overdoses.

“We don’t really know what people are bringing with them,” Mitchell Etess, president and chief executive officer of Mohegan Sun, said. “There’s nothing we can do. We try to create a very safe environment.”

25 million visitors

With more than 25 million people pouring through Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun each year, the odds are against the casinos that all of their guests will leave alive.

“It’s a tremendous volume of people in there,” Dr. Robert Sidman, chief of emergency services at The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich, said, “far greater than at Costco or Sears.”

Between 1993 and 2007, 85 people died at Foxwoods, 34 at Mohegan Sun and 28 at a location described simply as “casino” by the medical examiner’s office. The average age of the 147 patrons who died was 63, and they hailed mostly from New England states as well as Florida, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Of the 147 patrons who died during that period, 124 — about 84 percent — died from natural, health-related causes. Ten people committed suicide, six patrons overdosed and seven casino workers died, including one construction worker who fell 17 floors from a construction hoist while building the Mohegan Sun hotel tower. Although 19 people died at the casinos in 2006 — the most ever — most previous years had an average of 10 deaths.

Many elderly

Sidman said casino deaths are infrequent but not unexpected, especially among older visitors.

“There is an older population at the casinos, certainly during the daytime, than you would normally see around anywhere else in the Norwich area,” he said, adding he couldn’t say for certain what might trigger such an event as a heart attack. “It may be that you have a whole lot of excitement for a customer that they normally don’t have. There’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of food, there’s a lot of lights.”

Chuck Bunnell, Mohegan tribal spokesman, said Mohegan Sun has had paramedics on site around the clock since the casino opened in 1996 and has added automated external defibrillators throughout the facility.

“The entire property is being watched by someone,” Bunnell said. “Of all places where it could happen, you’re probably safer here than you are at home in your own living room.”


Other deaths are harder to prevent.

Foxwoods had a string of three suicides in the summer of 2006 with bodies found in and around parking garages and one in a hotel room. In April 2004, a Wethersfield man packed bricks in his suitcase, checked into a room at the Mohegan Sun hotel and smashed out a window to fling himself more than 20 stories to his death.

“That was a horrible situation,” Etess said. “There’s really not much you can do when someone is so determined to kill themselves.”

Those who commit suicide in a public place usually have two motives, according to the executive director of the Washington-based American Association of Suicidology — rage against society and magical thinking.

“Their desire for that public awareness of the suicide in part drives the suicide,” he said, adding that theoretical interpretations have filled in where data has been elusive. “Sometimes, it is nothing more than the issue of accessibility and availability.”

Norwich Bulletin