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Brooksville man's fortune, marriage are casualties of wife's gambling

BROOKSVILLE — Scott Dennison's voice fades almost to a whisper and his dark eyes wander the floor as he talks about what's become of his life. There are times when all he feels is shame.

"Everything I've worked for," he says, "is gone."

After Scott, 49, sold his share of the family welding business about three years ago, the high school dropout was semiretired and a millionaire.

Now, he's strapped with so much debt he may lose his house. Hardly able to sleep, he scrounges for work and comes home to unopened envelopes strewn across the granite countertops in his kitchen. They're letters from creditors demanding money he doesn't have.

He says his wife, Jennifer, gambled away his life savings before she did the same with all but $9,000 of his parents' money.

But the fault, Scott says, is his own. For Jennifer's 40th birthday in 2008, he took her to Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. For the first time, she slid a quarter into a slot machine.

That night, he's now convinced, sparked an addiction that consumed her.

"I just beat myself up every day for introducing that place down there to her," Scott says. "It's the f------ devil."

He pauses, his head shaking and jaw clenched.

"I'll live with that for the rest of my life."

• • •

Jennifer, 42, has become the subject of international ridicule. After she lost all of the couple's money, investigators say, she took nearly everything from Scott's dad, Laverne, 88, and his mom, Janet, 73, who suffers from advanced-staged dementia.

Jennifer, Scott's wife of nine years, is accused of stealing more than $500,000 of his parents' money. She was arrested two weeks ago on 16 theft-related counts and faces up to 180 years in prison.

The signs of Jennifer's problem were all around him. Scott admits that now. He just didn't see them.

Seven months after Scott introduced her to a slot machine, his parents gave him power of attorney in November 2008. Jennifer handled all of the finances. Three months later, she took a job teaching a medical class at Tampa's Sanford-Brown Institute, just a mile and a half from the casino on Orient Road.

Over two years, Hernando County sheriff's investigators say, Jennifer gambled at the Hard Rock nearly every day. She used to insist on leaving early for work to beat the traffic. Scott figures she went straight to the casino.

Some weekends, Scott and Jennifer gambled together. When he was there, Scott says, they never lost more than a few thousand dollars, well within what they could afford. Now and then, he'd wonder if she had a problem, but she always denied it.

Laverne Dennison says his son told him that one evening Jennifer was up $38,000. Scott left for a few minutes; when he came back, she'd lost it all. After that, Scott placed a cap on how much the two would spend when they went together.

But there were perks to the $14 million Jennifer risked over those two years. The Hard Rock sent Scott and seven friends on an all-expenses-paid fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. It also gave them tickets to the 2009 Outback Bowl and offered to fly the couple to another Seminole casino.

Once, she won a silver Cadillac CTS. He later discovered Jennifer had sold it and financed another car so she could gamble with the cash.

The couple never paid for food, drinks or rooms. The Hard Rock even gave special doggie treats to their Pomeranian, Cupcake.

As Jennifer forged checks and cashed in Scott's parents' life insurance policies and certificates of deposit to support her compulsion, authorities say, she shredded the documents that showed the accounts hemorrhaging cash.

Hernando Detective Irene Gray, who investigated the case for five months, says she believes Jennifer even pawned a three-carat diamond ring so she could keep playing.

Still, Scott says he never knew that, when he wasn't with her, Jennifer wagered $200 a spin; or once gambled nearly $290,000 in a single day; or that, in total, she lost $734,993.59.

• • •

Standing in his house on a recent evening, Scott held out a hand covered in black soot after a long day of welding. He can count his friends on five fingers.

Though he intends to divorce his wife, Scott still talks to her by phone. Jennifer, who bonded out after she was arrested April 4, lives with her family in Bushnell. She recently told him she's considered suicide.

One evening not long ago, Scott didn't want to hear the questions from people who knew of the allegations. Too embarrassed to go grocery shopping, he sat at home alone and picked at Spam and canned tuna.

Laverne Dennison worries about his youngest son. Just behind his father's small white home west of Brooksville, Scott lives alone with his dog in an immaculate two-story, four-bedroom house. On some nights, Laverne Dennison peers out his back window until Scott comes home and turns his lights out. He wants to know his boy is okay.

"That's my child," Laverne Dennison says. "She took him to the cleaners, too."

Like several of his five siblings, Scott's sister, Vera Cannon, doesn't feel sorry for her brother. She feels sorry for her parents. Scott was supposed to protect their savings — money that was intended to provide full-time help for Janet Dennison, who requires constant care, when her husband dies. Now, Vera says, she's not sure what the family will do. "He's betrayed them. That's what we're angry at."

• • •

Scott is a quiet, simple man. Since birth, he's lived on the same 21-acre plot on which his father once raised cattle. He drinks Bud Light, fishes the grass flats for speckled trout and can snipe a deer from 150 yards.

He can weld just about any two pieces of metal, but Scott wonders how long he can keep doing it. The profession, he says, wears on a man.

Scott has a long, distinct nose and a bend in a smile he seldom wears. His hands are calloused, and his brown goatee is patched with gray.

Jennifer didn't pay the car insurance on Laverne and Janet's minivan, and, at his age, the World War II vet can't get a new policy, so the couple can't drive anymore. On Sundays, Scott takes them for rides, usually to Checkers. His dad gets a hamburger, fries and an apple pie; his mom likes vanilla milk shakes.

Scott still loves Jennifer, or at least who she used to be. Pictures from their marriage and cute sayings about matrimony sprinkle the shelves in his home. He still hasn't removed a sign outside his front door that reads "The Dennison Family Established October 13, 2001," their wedding day.

Jennifer, with whom Scott never had children, has not admitted stealing from his parents, he says. He knows she'll likely soon lose her freedom. "It's wrong what she did," he says in a faint, Southern tone, "but if she goes to prison, her life is over."

Scott misses the sweet, social woman he met on a blind date more than a decade ago. She was always kind to his parents, bringing them desserts and helping care for his mother.

Scott hopes to pay his parents back one day, but what his life will look like in 10 years, or even one, he doesn't know.

His father couldn't say if Scott's ever broken down under the weight of what's happened, but he's never seen his son cry over it.

"I asked him if he wanted to talk it out," Laverne Dennison recalls. "He said, 'No, Dad, I don't think there's much to talk about.' "

News researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

. FAST FACTS

How $14 million equaled only $730,000

Jennifer Dennison is accused of stealing more than $500,000 of her in-laws' money to feed her gambling addiction. But authorities also say she wagered at least $14 million over two years, a far greater figure than what she lost. How did that happen? Because she played slot machines — a game that pays a high return on investment — she won back most of the money she gambled. For example, a person who sits down at a machine with $1,000 could easily wager $20,000 or more before running out of the original $1,000. In Dennison's case, she reportedly lost a total of more than $730,000, because out of the $14 million she gambled, Dennison won nearly 95 percent of it back.

Brooksville man's fortune, marriage are casualties of wife's gambling 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 10:45pm]

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