On Thursday, June 26, 2003, Robert McGuigan’s life changed forever. The Madison resident was at home when he received a call from his son, Jason’s, best friend, Dave, who said Jason’s house was on television. Robert would eventually find out from Dane County Sheriff’s Office deputies that Jason and his two roommates were murdered - allegedly by Meng-Ju Wu - over a gambling bet that was supposed to have taken place.
Although Jason McGuigan and Wu knew each other for six weeks prior to the murder, the path to his gambling addiction and death was a long one.
The McGuigan history with gambling dates back decades. Although Robert looks back now and admits he was addicted to gambling, he had no idea gambling could become an addiction until his son got involved.
For some, childhood games included kick the can, hopscotch, four square or even playing house. For Robert, games included poker, euchre and dirty clubs.
“When I was a kid growing up, a young lad growing up, all I had available to me was a deck of cards and a pair of dice,” Robert said.
The stakes were not high - he would play for pennies, nickels or dimes - and he said the gambling was a way to socialize with other children and have fun.
“When I was 8 years old and my brother was 13,14, it was not uncommon in our household on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday to have four to six, and sometimes more, tables of adolescents, of kids, playing poker into the late evening hours, sometime early morning hours,” Robert said. “These kids came from other surrounding communities. If you wanted to play poker, get in a card game for money, you went to the McGuigan household.”
Although his father was against it - and would spend time hunting and fishing with Robert - his mother preferred the children play cards and gamble instead of going outside and getting into trouble by running trucks through cornfields or throwing a beer party.
So Robert learned how to play poker. While Robert did not often get to play, by the time he was 8, he not only knew how to play the game, but he became very astute at reading people and how to tell when they were bluffing.
“I knew by his [a fellow player’s] actions when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, and I am (was) only 8 years old,” Robert said.
The McGuigan family moved to Madison when Robert was 13, and although he now lived in a much larger community, Robert still defaulted to gambling for socialization. He carried on the tradition of playing poker at the house and admits that gambling ruined his high school years.
Although the school year includes just more than 180 school days, Robert admits he did not spend much time inside the classroom during his four years of high school. He admitted to skipping 60 days of school his freshman year; 90 days his sophomore year; 120 days his junior year; and another 60-70 his senior year. What was he doing?
“Instead of going to the dances, instead of going to the football games, instead of socializing with the kids at school, getting into extra-curricular activities, my extra-curricular activity was playing poker,” Robert said.
“There was around six or seven of us at high school that got to be really good friends. We all loved to play poker. If one of us woke up in the morning and did not want to go to school....we’ll get a game and the six of us would skip,” Robert added.
Robert said he avoided getting expelled because he would intercept any mail the school sent to his parents and throw them away.
The only reason he graduated high school is because his summers were spent in summer school.
Robert joined the U.S. Navy after graduating high school, and the gambling continued. Out in the middle of the ocean for months at a time, he said many of the seamen would gamble for entertainment, and with more than a decade of experience playing cards, Robert was one of the best.
“Whether it is poker, whether it is spades, whether it is cribbage, you are going to be playing cards for money, and you did not want to sit down and play a game of cards, of poker, against me,” Robert said. “I knew what to look for.”
Robert sent all of his Navy paycheck home to help the family and lived off his gambling winnings. As his fellow Navy recruits lost their paychecks to him, they still needed money to live on. So Robert began giving out loans - for every $5 he loaned out, he got $7 back. By the time he got out of the Navy, he had collected a nice little nest egg.
After he left the Navy, Robert met the woman that would become his wife, and the mother of his son. She had a similar upbringing and grew up playing euchre and dirty clubs. She did not know how to play poker, so Robert taught her.
“We went to the euchre tournaments, we played dirty clubs, we hit the cribbage circuit and we would have poker games at the house. It was a big part of our socialization,” Robert explained.
The day Robert found out he was going to have a son shifted his perspective on gambling.
“It was like a bulb just lit. I said to myself, ‘you can’t do what you’re doing.’ All of a sudden it was like I am going to be a father, I have got responsibility...I quit playing cards. I stopped doing circuits. I stopped playing poker cold turkey.”
As his son was growing up, Robert shared some of the same interests he had growing up. The pair would go fishing together, but not hunting - Robert said Jason did not want to take a life - and would gamble.
Although Robert said he never taught Jason how to play cards, he did play dice with his son for money - games such as Monopoly, Yahtzee and Ship, Captain and Crew. Sometimes the two would play on the picnic table outside the house, and before they knew it, the neighborhood kids and even their parents would wander over and join in the game.
“I can close my eyes right now and I can see my son get ready to throw that dice - whether that was for the dice game or Yahtzee or Monopoly - I can see the intensity in his eyes and that adrenaline just flowing through him,” Robert said. “He was addicted, only dad didn’t know it. I had no concept that gambling was an addiction, none. The signs were there, but I was…there was no education.”
During the upcoming weeks, The Star will be running a series on gambling and gambling addiction.
Check back in the July 25 issue of The Star for the second part of the McGuigan story and how gambling addiction paved the way in Jason’s murder.