When it comes to white collar criminals, the question “where are they now?” rarely produces the answers one would like to hear. The boom years of poker were as rife with scandals as with success stories, and with very few exceptions, almost none of the guilty parties ever suffered much in the way of repercussions beyond being shunned by the community and, occasionally, being forced to give back part of their ill-gotten gains. Players who are caught cheating at the tables do sometimes wind up behind bars, but when it comes to shady behavior and even outright fraud on the business end of things, there’s rarely more than a slap on the wrist. You won’t see Russ Hamilton or Howard Lederer schmoozing with anyone in a Vegas card room these days, but although their wrongdoings are well known, they and many other prominent scumbags from the pre-Black Friday era still walk free.
Unlike Lederer, Hamilton and others, one person who did for a time look like he might face some repercussions is former Full Tilt CEO Ray Bitar. He was indicted on five counts for his role in Full Tilt’s illegal operations in the U.S. and, at one time, was looking down the barrel of a potential 145 years in jail. Ultimately, he pled guilty to two of those charges, but escaped prison time on the basis that he had a serious heart condition which would have made his survival unlikely. He did, however, have to cough up $40 million in forfeiture, and so the poker community consoled itself that although justice hadn’t really been served, Bitar himself was likely broke and not long for this world.
Now, that assumption has been turned on its head by the emergence of photos of a much thinner, healthier-looking Bitar enjoying himself at what looks to be a fairly expensive wedding to one Jacquelyn Lucas (now Jacquelyn Lucas Bitar). Although it’s possible that both his health and financial condition were as dire as assumed and that he has made a miraculous recovery on both fronts, that seems a little bit unlikely, and so outrage has ensued over the past few days. It’s an interesting story, and one worth going back to beginning of.
Bitar looks healthy now, please put him behind bars. The guy got off for a massive scam, admitted to it, and never served any time.
— Remko Rinkema (@RemkoMedia) January 28, 2016
2011 – Black Friday
Five years have now passed since Black Friday, and many younger players have entered the game since. For those who’ve been around longer, though, April 15, 2011 is a hard date to forget, as that’s the day the US Department of Justice finally decided to crack down on internet poker, radically changing the landscape of the industry, with consequences that are still in the process of unfolding.
For US law enforcement, the key issue was simply that Full Tilt, PokerStars and other sites were illegally serving US customers in violation of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), and it was largely on this basis that charges were eventually filed against Bitar. For players, however, the real problem was that in the aftermath of the shutdown, it became apparent that Full Tilt did not actually have the funds available to return the account balances of all the users who could no longer play there; rather than segregating user accounts from operating funds as it had claimed, Full Tilt had been using player funds for a variety of purposes, including its marketing efforts and padding the wallets of its executives.
2012 – Bitar Arrested
Multiple civil and criminal cases were filed in the wake of Black Friday. Most of the prominent figures involved – such as Lederer – only faced civil charges, which they proceeded to settle, although a few people involved with PokerStars did end up receiving jail sentences. The highest profile criminal charges laid were against the CEOs of Full Tilt and PokerStars at the time, namely Bitar and Isai Scheinberg. Scheinberg has remained outside of the United States and never faced his charges, but Bitar surrendered himself voluntarily in July 2012 and was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport. His charges included bank fraud, money laundering and various online gambling offences. Initially, he pleaded not guilty on all counts.
2013 – Bargain Struck
In April of the following year, almost two years to the day since Black Friday, Bitar changed his tune and decided to strike a plea bargain with his prosecutors. It came out that Bitar, who was extremely overweight at the time, was suffering from deteriorating health, and his doctors had given him only a 50/50 chance of survival if he did not receive a heart transplant. In the US justice system, convicts sentenced to jail time are taken off the list for transplants, so losing the case now had potentially fatal consequences.
Bitar pleaded guilty to conspiracy and threw himself on the judge’s mercy. The judge agreed that Bitar’s circumstances were exceptional, and sentenced him to time served – which had only been a few days before he’d been released on bail. Although he avoided jail time, he did agree to forfeit $40 million in assets, which were then seized from a total of 18 bank accounts in his name, spread over five countries.
2014 – Cunningham Speaks on Bitar’s Behalf
The poker community, ever-cynical and rightfully so, bemoaned the decision and there was much speculation that Bitar’s health condition and prognosis had been exaggerated in order to obtain a lenient decision, and that he probably had more money stashed away somewhere than just the $40 million he had been forced to surrender. Eventually, poker professional Allen Cunningham, who had been a sponsored pro at Full Tilt in its heyday, had heard enough. Posting to TwoPlusTwo, where the lambasting of Bitar was still ongoing, Cunningham stated that he knew, from unspecified “sources,” that Bitar was in fact broke and in poor health, and unlikely to live more than another couple of years.
Although he didn’t defend Bitar’s actions at Full Tilt in any way, Cunningham felt that it was unfair of people to accuse him, with no evidence, of faking a medical condition and hiding his money in order to avoid the consequences of his crimes. “He’s not getting away with it in a karmic way,” wrote Cunningham, “Some people still haven’t gotten paid, and it’s mostly Ray Bitar’s fault, but he isn’t benefitting from it.” Some were satisfied with this, on the basis that Cunningham, given his Full Tilt connections, was in a position to know. Others weren’t, but regardless, the discussion petered out and most people decided that Bitar’s name was one best simply forgotten.
2015 – Bitar Ties the Knot
Indeed, Bitar did drop off people’s radar in 2015, for the most part. His name only appeared briefly in the news last January, when PokerTube reported that his former home, which had been seized as part of his forfeiture, had been sold for $1.8 million. Unbeknownst to the public, however, Bitar’s situation was apparently much better than the one Cunningham had described. On October 25, he was married, in Glendora, California, to Jacquelyn Lucas, a finance graduate from the University of South Florida.
Their wedding was overlooked by the poker world until uncovered by Charles Rettmuller at PokerUpdate yesterday. Lucas’s Facebook page is public, and multiple photos of the wedding can be found there, showing Bitar looking considerably trimmer and healthier than he was at the time of his plea bargain. The wedding looks to have been an expensive affair, though it’s not clear who footed the bill; likewise, Lucas’s Facebook posts – which go back to early 2013 – make occasional reference to a serious boyfriend, but never by name, and no photos of Bitar appear before the wedding, so it’s not clear how far back their relationship goes. Aside from the wedding itself, another point of outrage in the forums community is a photo from July 2014 of a new Mercedes-Benz convertible apparently just acquired by Lucas, which some assume was bought for her by Bitar because it would fit their narrative, although there’s no actual indication of this in the photo’s caption or comment thread.
In other words, there’s no concrete evidence that Bitar exaggerated the direness of his heart condition, nor that the extravagant wedding was paid for with hidden funds left over from his Full Tilt days. Hypothetically, it’s possible that he received the heart transplant he needed, or simply recovered through weight loss, and that it’s in fact his new wife who has all of the money. Nonetheless, one year seems like an awfully short time for a man who was supposedly broke and dying to turn his life around and become thin, apparently healthy, and with some sort of access to large amounts of money, whether of his own or through marriage. It’s nothing you could take in front of a jury, of course, but for those who already suspected that Bitar had pulled the wool over the eyes of the justice system, it’s certainly a compelling piece of circumstantial evidence.
Bitar, before and after
Although we’re only seeing one facet of the story for the moment, it’s unlikely to end here. After all, it’s only been a day since Bitar’s new life has come to light, and the internet poker community has an affinity for internet sleuthing, particularly when it comes to cheats and con artists. I would expect, then, that we’ll see additional facts unearthed in the coming weeks about Bitar, the new Mrs. Bitar, and what they’ve been up to in the past couple of years. Whatever comes up, you’ll hear about it here.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.