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Anonymity of Las Vegas Is a Magnet for Suicidal Tourists

More than once a month, a visitor kills himself in this gambling mecca. Why they choose this spot is unclear, as is what to do about it.

February 15, 2004|Adam Goldman | Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS — Lawrence Orbe didn't come to the Las Vegas Strip looking to win big. He didn't come for the strippers or over-the-top shows.

He came to die.

Orbe, 64, checked into the exclusive Four Seasons Hotel on March 11 after driving his silver Jaguar from his condominium in Montecito, Calif.

Five days later, a maid found the businessman in his room, slumped in a chair with a gunshot wound to the head and a suicide note in his leather briefcase.

"Las Vegas was one of his very favorite places," said his former wife, Loni Chiarella. "They always treated him like a king. He loved Las Vegas."

Every year, desperate men and women make the pilgrimage to the gambling capital to kill themselves. More than once a month, a visitor commits suicide here, according to Clark County Coroner records dating to October 1998.

By comparison, in Atlantic City, N.J., about one-third as many nonresidents took their lives during that period.

"They pick Las Vegas and kill themselves," former Clark County Coroner Ron Flud said. "It's a fact."

But saying exactly why is not so straightforward.

Experts and family members have their thoughts -- from the city's culture of anonymity to despair, in some cases, over gambling losses. But each case is different.

As one suicide note said, "Here there are no answers."

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Orbe married Chiarella in Las Vegas three years ago and found the city luxurious.

"They always showered him with the attention he felt he deserved," she said.

The two had separated and planned to divorce. Chiarella said Orbe was also despondent over recent financial setbacks. But what he was thinking will always be unclear.

"Lawrence remained a mystery to those close to him," she said.

On July 19, 2003 -- four months after Orbe's suicide -- Gloreah Hendricks, 30, jumped from the ninth floor of the Aladdin hotel-casino parking garage.

Her family thought that Hendricks was on vacation in Las Vegas, which she considered beautiful, said her mother, Rosemary Pitts of Montgomery, Ala.

In her car, police found a note that said: "One stop and away I go."

Matthew Naylor didn't leave a note before killing himself on June 21, 2002, at the Plaza hotel-casino.

Naylor, 31, died from a loss of hope, said his father, Lewis Naylor, an engineer in Baltimore. "He just had a lot of challenges in life and gave up. He couldn't see how it was all going to come together to make a life worth living."

David Strickland, 29, a Hollywood actor whose wrists were scarred from previous suicide attempts, toured strip clubs and partied before he put a bedsheet around his neck at the Oasis Motel on March 22, 1999.

Strickland was depressed because he "had fallen off the wagon," his friend and fellow actor Andy Dick told investigators. Strickland, who was in Alcoholics Anonymous, was worried that his girlfriend would leave him after his relapse.

But why Vegas?

"I've asked myself that 100 times," said Judi Kagiwada of Middleboro, Mass., whose husband Terrence, 39, hanged himself at a downtown casino on March 5, 2003.

Relatives suggest that their dead loved ones might have been attracted to a place where you can get lost, and be found only when it's too late.

Experts say some might have been looking for one last sign not to pull the trigger or tie the noose: a jackpot, blackjack or smile. Anything.

"You're in a place that nobody cares. It's not famous for being warm and fuzzy. It's a place you can be anonymous and die," said David P. Phillips, a sociologist at UC San Diego who co-authored a 1997 study that found Las Vegas had the highest level of suicide in the nation for residents and visitors.

Still, he said, "I wouldn't bet big money on any particular explanation" behind the deaths.

Victims included a banker, musician, immigration officer, pharmacist, exotic dancer, cab driver, disc jockey, car salesman and professional gambler. Most came from California, same as the tourists. Others hailed from Texas, Wisconsin, New York, Utah, Kansas, Maine and Oklahoma -- 26 states and two foreign countries in all.

Almost all had medical, financial or domestic problems. In some cases, victims appeared to suffer from gambling addictions or killed themselves only after Vegas took their money.

Elton Beamish, 24, drove to Las Vegas from Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was a student at the University of Michigan. He checked into a motel Jan. 12, 2000. Four days later, he was dead. His checkbook told the story.

Beamish lost his financial-aid money and became depressed. He bought a 12-gauge shotgun from Kmart, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

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Suicide destinations exist around the world. The most famous is the Golden Gate Bridge, where more than 1,000 people have jumped to their deaths since the bridge was constructed in 1937. It averages about 20 suicides a year.

Other places resonate with the suicidal, such as Mt. Mihara in Japan and the Empire State Building in New York.

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