- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

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. Mr. 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, Atlantic City, N.J., had about one-third as many nonresidents take their lives during that period. In the same six years, no one committed suicide at Disney World.

“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.

Professionals 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.”

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

“They always showered him with the attention he felt he deserved,” his widow said.

The couple separated and planned to divorce. She said Mr. Orbe was also despondent over recent financial setbacks, but what he was thinking always will be uncertain.

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

Four months after Mr. Orbe’s suicide, Gloreah Hendricks, 30, jumped from the ninth floor of the Aladdin hotel-casino parking garage.

Her family thought Miss 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.”

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.

Mr. Strickland was depressed he “had fallen off the wagon,” a friend told investigators. Mr. Strickland, who was in Alcoholics Anonymous, was worried his girlfriend would leave him after his relapse.

But why Las Vegas?

“I’ve asked myself that 100 times,” said Judi Kagiwada of Middleboro, Mass., whose 39-year-old husband, Terrence, hanged himself at a downtown casino on March 5 last year.

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

Professionals 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 the University of California at 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, taxicab 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 Las 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.

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

Suicide destinations exist around the world, the most famous of which 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.

In 2001, Nevada ranked third behind New Mexico and Montana in suicide rates, according to the American Association of Suicidology. For many years it was No. 1.

From 1991 to 2002, 4,994 persons killed themselves in Nevada. Of those, about 11 percent, or 547, were from out of state. Most suicides take place in southern Nevada’s populous Clark County, home to the Strip and its decadence and debauchery.

“Vegas is a canvas for American neurosis,” University of Nevada-Las Vegas history professor Hal Rothman said. “It’s a place where we paint our hopes, dreams, fears and apprehensions. … It’s the city of excess. What could be more of an excess than killing yourself?”

Mr. Rothman added: “The average person who comes here still sees it as Sin City, where the rules of their lives have been suspended, where their actions have no consequences.”

There are consequences to suicide, of course.

The body of William L. Mauldin III, 32, was discovered Aug. 2, 1999, in a swath of rocky dirt next to New York-New York hotel-casino’s 10-story parking garage.

In the disc jockey’s pocket was a note for his mother: “Tell her I’m sorry and I love her with all my heart. I have been depressed for almost a year now. Don’t blame anyone but me.”

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