WILKES-BARRE — Mark Heltzel was living “the American dream.”
But a loving family and the prosperity brought by a successful career in finance was gambled away when the father of two exceeded his grasp and participated in a criminal scheme that defrauded Mohegan Sun Pocono out of $420,147, prosecutors said at Heltzel’s sentencing Friday in federal court.
“He was living what everybody would call ‘the American dream,’” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Olshefski said. “Apparently, that was not enough.”
Heltzel, 52, of Dallas, received an 18-month federal prison sentence for his guilty plea to a felony count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Heltzel gambled at the Plains Township casino using rewards cards loaded with bogus free play credits, winning $420,147 from May 2014 to April 2015.
In a tearful apology with his school teacher wife at his side, Heltzel acknowledged he couldn’t differentiate between right and wrong when faced with the scheme. He should have known better, he said, and he’s dearly paid for it.
Heltzel said he’s been undergoing counseling for alcohol and gambling addictions for the past two years. He claimed it saved his life.
“I don’t think I would be here today had I not hit rock bottom,” Heltzel said.
His attorney, Demetrius Fannick, described him as a “professional,” “well-educated” man whose lapse of judgment was out of character. Fannick said Heltzel’s casual gambling and drinking got out of hand and “snowballed” on him. In the end, Heltzel lost everything — except the support of his family.
His wife, Karen, a teacher in the Dallas School District, said her husband strived to be number one in everything. She asked a judge to give Heltzel the chance to be number one in “redemption,” saying Heltzel was sorry and wanted to return to being productive in his home and business life.
Olshefski argued “everyone is sorry when they get caught.”
She noted Heltzel only stopped participating in the scheme when investigators caught on. There was no telling if he would have stopped otherwise, she said, adding a sentence outside the standard range would send the wrong message to other offenders.
U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo said Heltzel didn’t make a single mistake, but a series of missteps carried out for more than a year.
“You lived ‘the American dream,” Caputo said. “You had family support. Not all defendants have that.”
Caputo ordered Heltzel to split restitution with codefendant Robert Pellegrini, the former casino executive who the judge deemed “most responsible” for the scheme.
Pellegrini, 51, of Fairview Township, is serving 32 months in federal prison. At sentencing, he told a judge he stole to support a gambling addiction. Prosecutors argued it was greed.
A third player in the scheme, former cocktail waitress Rochelle Poszeluznyj of Kingston, is scheduled to be sentenced later this month.
Prosecutors said Poszeluznyj stole casino patrons’ personal identification numbers and passed them on to Pellegrini, who used the numbers to create duplicate rewards he then gave to Heltzel. Heltzel turned about $478,000 in phony free play credits into a $420,147 profit, prosecutors said.
After Heltzel, a casino regular, complained to management when he overheard employees talking about his personal finances, he was introduced to Pellegrini, then the vice president of player development, who awarded him $10,000 in free play at $1,000 weekly increments, according to court documents.
The award led Heltzel to become a fixture at the Plains Township casino, and a friendship developed between he and Pellegrini. Heltzel was approached with the scheme by Pellegrini and “succumbed to temptation,” court documents said.
Heltzel must report to the federal Bureau of Prisons by Sept. 5.
Mark Heltzel of Dallas leaves the federal courthouse in Wilkes-Barre after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering earlier this year. He was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison Friday for his role in the scheme that netted $420,000 from the casino using phony rewards cards.
Reach Joe Dolinsky at 570-991-6110 or on Twitter @JoeDolinskyTL