IT IS UNCLEAR why the coyote has migrated to the eastern coasts, out of the West. But he is to be found today in every state from Florida to Maine. Sighting him, suburban residents sequester dogs indoors and recall rabbit hutches to screened porches. A breed specific to the Americas, Canis latrans is known sometimes as the brush wolf or the American jackal and is believed to have evolved some 1.8 million years ago, during the Pleistocene era. In the edges of campfire light on the Oregon Trail, he yipped and pranced, awaiting the slumber of westward-bound ranchers whose lambs and calves he would savage. Like all enduring predators, the coyote has persisted by virtue of consistent mastery of his quarry, which, in his case, most often has the disadvantage of being very small, wounded, or dead. His howl is frantic — a high-pitched shriek that more closely recalls the cries of deranged human children than the sonorous dignity of a wolf’s baying. A New Jersey man recently described its effect to a reporter in the following way: “It sounds like something that’s dying and laughing at the same time.”
It was coyotes, Herman Liepe believed, that first came upon the body of a man who had gone missing from the parking garage of an Atlantic City casino in the spring of 2010. On a Sunday morning in late May of that year, Liepe, a 54-year-old farmer from southern New Jersey, was making an inspection of his property when he spied in his rearview mirror an adult human form. On closer examination, he found the body so blackened by decay that he could not determine its age, race, or sex. He could say only that it had been a person and that the person had not been very tall. Later, testifying in court, Liepe, a narrow man with thin blonde hair and a countrified aspect, a grower of sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and apples, described “feet and legs sticking out in the grass, sort of like,” and an exposed ribcage beset with maggots. Animal tracks, which Liepe attributed to coyotes, marked the ground. He believed they had dragged the body into the open area beside the dirt road on which he’d been driving. When police arrived that afternoon, Liepe did not meet them, saying later, “I was too shook up at the time.”
Shortly after the 20th century’s dawning, Harrison Garfield Rhodes declared the New Jersey coast the most characteristic and the most democratic, the “most intensely American” of seaside destinations. Teddy Roosevelt, for his part, considered that “a man would not be a good citizen, if he did not know Atlantic City.” For Rhodes, a travel writer specializing in vacationlands, the shore’s appeal owed less to its geography, which he judged lacking “natural advantages,” than to what had been constructed there:
Great cities now crowd the sea-front, and green trees become almost as rare as horses in Venice. Poor nature is not asked to provide, unaided, the amusements which summer humanity craves. The majestic and hitherto untamed surges of the Atlantic bow in amazed admiration before gigantic piers which bear aloft “whirlwind vaudeville” and “one-step” dancing, the wild music for which pulsates in the soft, warm night. Theaters and “movies” abound. Lion tamers and snake-charmers and curio-shops flourish.
Since Dr. Jonathan Pitney oversaw the opening of the town’s first railroad in 1854, Atlantic City’s population had grown by 1915 from a few hundred to 56,000. Fantastical experiments in architecture erupted along the sand, and, for much of the year, strolling thousands made the boardwalk’s four wooden miles all but impassable. The Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel boasted Moorish domes while the Dennis, built a few years later, assumed the trappings of a French chateau. Gilded ornamentation, velour, and faux Frescos adorned interior lobbies. Merchants of fur and jewels did brisk Boardwalk business with shoppers eager to outfit themselves for nights about town, and a few blocks inland, in a freewheeling district known as the Midway, salacious entertainments thrived with the blessings of powerful, ethically flexible political chiefs, which during the 1920s and 1930s included Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. It was here, beginning in the 1940s, that Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin came to drink, gamble, perform, and visit with Skinny D’Amato — a slick, Rat Pack-style, mobbed-up operator — who presided over backroom roulette wheels at the 500 Club.
Already by 1910, Atlantic City was providing, for hairdressers and auto mechanics, bank tellers and freight loaders from the immigrant-dense neighborhoods of eastern cities like Camden and Baltimore, an affordable getaway in which to see and be seen. A place where through unsubtle public consumption, people on their way up could affect postures of a particularly American kind of success. It was, Bryant Simon said recently, in some ways, an anticipation of Disneyland — an insulated daydream tuned to the aspirational desires of the middle class. A professor at Temple University and the author of the Atlantic City history Boardwalk of Dreams, Simon is a South Jersey native with longish salt and pepper hair and an aging surfer’s easy drawl. He has visited the Great Wall of China and found it wanting by comparison to the Atlantic City boardwalk. “Atlantic City has always been a dream spot,” he said wistfully, as we talked over coffee in a Philadelphia cafe. “In the past, it was the dream that celebrated upward mobility. And that dream was plausible for lots of people. The old Atlantic City was, basically, a celebration of a system that worked.”
The city’s initial decline, in the late 1950s, has inspired theories that range from the advent of air conditioning to a crackdown on organized crime that neutered the Midway. But reduced airfares, which diversified travel options for a middle class formerly limited to the highways, played a large part. With Miami Beach and the Bahamas in striking distance, Atlantic City lost much of its allure. Rising crime brought a tailwind of grime and broken glass, and the fantasy on which the city relied became impossible to market. Bulbs flickered dark and businesses shuttered. Neighborhoods grew ghostly as a period of private disinvestment took hold.
In 1976, an amendment to New Jersey’s constitution made Atlantic City the only town outside Nevada with lawful betting. The proposal cleared the legislature on the strength of promises from gambling promoters, local and state leaders, and the support of business owners who were by then desperate for relief. Gaming, they were sure, would bring trickledown prosperity; casino tax dollars would alleviate statewide financial woes. In 1978 Resorts — Atlantic City’s inaugural casino — opened to swarms of patrons willing to endure four-hour queues for the chance to try their luck. Resorts reported $18 million in earnings its first month in operation, and between 1978 and 2010, gaming halls claimed nearly $105 billion in wins. New Jersey draws $300 million in annual taxes from casinos, and it has been with understandable disquiet that elected officials and local gambling executives have reacted to casino openings of recent years in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Since 2006, Atlantic City casinos have shed more than 10,000 jobs. Revenues are off by more than $1 billion.
At a press conference in the summer of 2010, calling local conditions the product of a “recent and acute crisis,” Governor Chris Christie turned over the city’s resuscitation to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), a state body responsible for investing a percentage of casino revenues in community and economic development. The governor outlined a plan that would revolve around a state-controlled, casino-centric tourism district, and he encouraged state and local officials to work with the casino industry, “the industry that [had] helped build this city over the course of the last 30 years…to attract private investment.” Now, Christie said, was “not a time to look in the rearview mirror and assess blame.”
A native of Puerto Rico and veteran of the United States Army, Martin Caballero lived until the time of his death in North Bergen, New Jersey — a working class hilltop community off the Turnpike’s northernmost exit, where Spanish is the spoken language on the street. He was known to neighbors as a diligent worker who at times kept more than one job to support his family, maintaining for years a position as manager at a nearby supermarket, and working for a time at the Coca-Cola company. Friends have recalled a jovial spirit and a generous father, a Yankees fan and a fond player of pranks. In a photograph circulated after his disappearance, he is smooth-faced with a thin mustache, smiling and chubby-cheeked. A longtime visitor to Atlantic City, he was a great enthusiast of the penny slots. At times, his ardor for the machines reached such a pitch that he declined to be interrupted at them even by phone calls from his wife and children. Caballero liked to stroll the boardwalk — stopping at casinos along the way to inquire about promotional packages — and none suited him better than the Trump Taj Mahal, where invariably he stayed when, approximately once a month, he headed south to the shore.
To celebrate the 22nd birthday of his daughter Jessica, in 2010, Caballero booked a pair of rooms at the Taj. The reservation was for a Friday, the 21st of May, and he left with his family from their sloping tree-lined street after 7 o’clock. Jessica drove her mother’s silver Toyota Corolla, accompanied by her sister Nancy and two friends. Her father, with his wife in the passenger seat, piloted a white Lincoln MKS sedan, a vehicle on which he lavished meticulous good care and in which he took considerable pride. Caballero’s wife and daughter would later say that they had not been permitted to drive the car, and that Caballero hardly ever drove it himself. Including a stop at a Quick Chek, where Caballero withdrew his daily limit of $300, the 127-mile trip took three hours. Temperatures in Atlantic City had broken 84 degrees that day, and with coastal towns beginning to hum with seasonal activity, traffic moved perhaps a bit slower than usual. Caballero reached the Taj first, and Martinez, a diminutive woman in her early 60s with light brown hair and high rounded cheekbones, asked that her husband wait for their daughters outside while she checked in.
When she emerged 25 minutes later, Jessica and her friends were there, and Cabellero, Jessica believed, had driven into the parking deck. For the next three or four hours — until 2 o’clock in the morning — Caballero’s family tried to contact him via uncounted calls and text messages. The group made a search of the casino floor, and Martinez and Nancy went so far as to scour the Taj Mahal’s garage. There, they sought Caballero in secluded areas, where, for fear other drivers might scratch the Lincoln, he insisted on parking whenever he drove the vehicle. Jessica, a pretty, dark-haired woman with fair skin and slim elegant features, had gone to her room to prepare for dinner and dancing, and did not participate in the parking deck search. The women were concerned, but they also suspected that Caballero was simply absorbed in the Taj’s entertainments: “I thought he was just playing and he just didn’t want to answer his cell phone,” Martinez said. “He was like that sometimes. When he started playing, he wouldn’t answer his phone. We had not eaten. We were hungry, waiting for him. Jessica started feeling bad, saying, ‘Dad, how can you do this to me?’” Exasperated, Martinez began preparing to check other casinos when around 2 a.m., she received a call from her older son Christian, who had stayed at home. He told her that police had found Martin Caballero’s car in a region of southern New Jersey known as Blackwood, some 50 miles from Atlantic City. To Martinez’s knowledge, no member of her family had ever been to Blackwood or had reason to visit. The Lincoln, Christian said, had burned.
On the northern portion of the Atlantic City strip, just across from Gordon’s Alley and blocks from the Showboat casino and the House of Blues, the faded minarets of the Trump Taj Mahal rise above a doublewide drive flanked by white stone elephants in Eastern style saddles. Acres of golden paint and dizzying barber’s pole stripes ornament the Taj’s crowned towers, which number 70 in all, and seem to bob in the salt air like strange, festive buoys. Come nightfall, the complex is reliably lit by uncountable rows of blinking red and yellow bulbs, which lend to the Taj a lurid, piratical malevolence. At the time of its 1990 construction, on an urban renewal site known as Pauline’s Prairie, the Taj Mahal was New Jersey’s tallest building and the largest casino in the world. Its 51 stories held 1,250 hotel rooms and 3,000 slot machines. The parking garage, The New York Times reported, contained 5,300 spaces. Atlantic City’s own Francis X. Dumont, the architect responsible for the Taj, told journalists that the maharajas’ palaces of India had inspired the structure’s exotic flourishes. In this it resembled Atlantic City’s hotels of old and differed from contemporary casinos — drab, undistinguished affairs that, like embittered streetwalkers, did little to conceal their particular designs.
By contrast, phone operators at the Taj advised callers that at the Trump Taj Mahal, “wonders never cease.” Stilt walkers stalked the lobbies and turbaned men stood at doors. “Harem girls” ferried cocktails beneath chandeliers the size and luminosity of minor stars. In the cigarette pits, there lay a fine purple gravel. “We want this to be a complete fantasy,” Robert Trump — brother of Donald — said at the time. “A place where you close the door behind you and are in another world.” The fantasy, it seemed, had been imperfectly budgeted, for although the Taj boasted wins of $105.7 million in its first operational quarter — higher than any other Atlantic City casino — it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy just over a year later. To keep the venture alive, a restructuring agreement required that Donald Trump sell a yacht and a private jet. Certain embellishments had to go. The flowered robes once worn by staff have been replaced with more sedate garb and the shimmying of lobby belly dancers has stilled. On a recent morning, two middle-aged women, escalator-borne toward the Sultan’s Feast buffet, spoke wistfully of a motif of hanging birdcages, now vanished.
The strip on which the Taj stands stretches some 2.5 miles on Pacific Avenue, along the eastern coast of a spit of land 10 miles long known as Absecon Island. On Pacific Avenue’s ocean side, backing up onto the boardwalk, are nine casino hotels and one freestanding gambling hall. The hotels range in size from small suburban high school to big-city convention center, and on misty mornings, which are common, their towers loom like Bavarian spires through clearings in the vapor. The denizens of the sidewalk have about them a less fantastical aura: men in bunched suits with faces like wet papier-mâché roll luggage over the pavement, and on the corner of Pacific and South Carolina, a haggard procession queues early mornings for doses of methadone. Further south, between Michigan and Ohio, where in May 2012 a homeless woman stabbed to death two Canadian tourists, a man roots beneath trash bins for half-smoked cigarettes. Outside a motel north of Iowa, a young prostitute applies makeup with a handheld vanity, her body contorted unnaturally by a recent heroin fix. Between and among the casinos are bodegas and liquor stores, strip clubs and rooming houses, hair and nail parlors, a half-dozen churches, and the occasional regional bank. No fewer than 21 cash-for-gold exchanges dot the boulevard. Nearer the city’s center, stone church towers and wooden crosses rise solemn and smog-stained over the glass-sugared vistas of vacant commercial lots. Writing about Atlantic City for The New Yorker in 1972, John McPhee described “the physical profile of streets perpendicular to the shore,” as “something like a playground slide,” and the city retains the silhouette he observed: everything west of the shoreline — which is to say most of the city — feels tamped down or scooped out, a sensation heightened by a contagion of crumbling steps and boarded windows, of rotting, stilted mansions.
Since 1960, some 20,000 residents have fled. Though casinos proliferated — today there are 13 in all — private investment on the advertised scale never materialized. Closure of independent bars and restaurants accelerated after 1977, and poverty and unemployment rates rose. Public schools routinely rank among the worst in the state. Speaking in Congress in 1996 — 10 years before casino profits crested in Atlantic City — New York representative John LaFalce noted that between 1993 and 1994, national casino revenues increased 33 percent, to $40 billion, outdistancing American spending on movies, books, music, spectator sports, theme parks, and arcades combined. “Discretionary spending is diverted from other forms of entertainment and consumer expenditures to casinos and other gambling establishments,” he said. “Restaurants, hotels, and other competing local businesses lose revenues and fail. Resources are diverted to the least productive local activities and economic wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.” When we spoke recently by phone, John Kindt, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Illinois, who has published widely about gambling’s impacts, described Atlantic City’s desolation as typical of the near-uniformly cannibalizing effect of casinos on host communities. While gambling interests have produced evidence to counter that analysis, studies in the mid 1990s by the Congressionally authorized National Gambling Impact Study Commission and by the University of Massachusetts concluded independently that economic reports underwritten by the industry misled and deceived state governments on the impacts of legalized gambling. “They just make up numbers,” Kindt told me. “[The numbers] don’t mean anything.”
A 2006 study produced jointly by the Community Affairs Offices of the Federal Reserve and the Brookings Institute further found that since the early 1990s, despite its development mandate, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority — the body Governor Christie has tasked with reviving the city — had become increasingly devoted to bolstering casinos. And a review of CRDA annual reports from the last 10 years reveals expenditures of many millions of dollars on hotel expansion, parking lot beautification, and entertainment and convention facilities for Caesar’s, Trump, Harrah’s, Sands, Resorts, the Showboat, the Tropicana, and others. In Bob McDevitt’s view, the CRDA is part and parcel of the nepotism and graft that have long dominated local politics. (Since 1969, five mayors and numerous members of city council have faced corruption charges; several have been jailed.) “I could walk through this city and show you one boondoggle after another,” he told me. Since 1996, McDevitt, a fair-skinned, wide-hipped man with ice colored eyes and a thundering voice, has been president of Unite Here Local 54 — the union representing roughly two-thirds of casino employees. “You can trace back most projects to the board members and the narrow interests of those that placed them there,” he said. “The vast majority [of the CRDA’s work] has been wasteful.” McDevitt has lived in Atlantic City for all but a few of his 51 years and he believes unequivocally in the casinos’ potential to improve conditions. He has been sorely disappointed, though, by the influence of gaming dollars: “If the next 30 years are like the last 30 years, I don’t want to see it,” he said. “I’d rather get hit by a car. We’re not going to make it if the city continues to be run by people profiteering off the misery of others.”
In the spring of 2011, jailers moved Craig Arno from a county lockup in the town of Mays Landing, New Jersey to a more secure facility upstate, after implements for digging were found in his cell. The prisoner showed no signs of remarkable ingenuity — his biography rather suggested a kind of long-standing generalized incompetence — and the county prosecutor cited as partial justification for the transfer a previous incarceration during which Arno had drawn up escape plans and knotted bed sheets together, presumably dreaming of a daring rappel from penitentiary walls. Arno is a pale bearish man with dark hair and small close-set eyes, which seem neither to emit nor absorb light. A veteran state police sergeant who helped apprehend him described Arno in court as having the look of “someone [he] should fear,” someone who “scared the daylights” out of him. Arno’s voice, strangely soft, is characterized by the exaggerated vowel pronunciations of his native Philadelphia and he can, depending on his weight, bear resemblance to former Phillies slugger John Kruk. It is difficult to imagine his success in any endeavor requiring agility or stealth. Within a year of his transfer, he would garner a term of 12 decades in federal prison.
Arno is a man for whom the system did not work — who was unable or unwilling to navigate its boundaries. A multiply failed entrepreneur who struggled to hold a job and often seemed given to delusion, Arno had been attracted since childhood to the speed, violence, and social status that adhere, in the American consciousness, to both automobiles and casino gambling. Drag racing one October night in 1981 on a Philadelphia boulevard, Arno crossed a double-yellow line into oncoming traffic and head-onned with a blue Camaro, maiming fatally the young nurse at its wheel. In the months prior to the resolution of murder charges leveled against him, the 16-year-old Arno was stopped again, in a high-speed motorcycle chase in which police pursued him for nearly three miles. Convicted of lesser charges in 1982 and given probation terms that forbade his possessing a motor vehicle or a driver’s license, Arno quickly acquired a Toyota and was stopped twice more for traffic violations. Of a loan he used to buy the car, Arno explained in a probation hearing that he was “merely trying to establish [his] credit and establish Craig Arno as a decent citizen.” A Philadelphia judge sentenced him to two and a half to five years.
In 1997, Arno pleaded guilty to depositing counterfeit checks, producing false IDs, and possessing illegal weapons. In addition to 70 months in prison, a US district judge ordered treatment for bipolar disorder and gambling addiction. Arno would heed these recommendations selectively. Following his release, in 2003, Arno’s mother Gail helped him start and run a gift basket business in the beach town of Ventnor, New Jersey, which borders Atlantic City. The venture failed — one of three ill-fated endeavors the pair attempted — and in 2006, Arno assumed his mother’s identity to obtain $250,000 in credit, which, she wrote in a bankruptcy-related filing, “he ultimately used […] to defraud others.” When federal prosecutors obtained a warrant for his arrest, Arno fled in a rented car. Captured two years later driving a different — stolen — vehicle, Arno signed a statement in Beaumont, Texas attesting to personal debts exceeding $1 million. He returned to Atlantic City in 2008 to face charges that would yield a two-year prison sentence, plus two years of supervised release. The judge further required that Arno attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, seek mental healthcare, and register for Atlantic City’s casino exclusion list. These last provisions he would ignore.
This year, with release of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), pathological gambling — formerly listed as an impulse control disorder alongside conditions like kleptomania — will be reclassified as an addiction akin to substance abuse disorders. The clinical psychologist and gambling specialist Henry R. Lesieur has written that in addition to a propensity for forgery, theft, embezzlement, and other property crimes, pathological gamblers show higher-than average rates of bipolar disorder, anti-social personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, among others. During the 1990s, a Harvard study found, gambling addiction among Americans increased by 55 percent. The number of Gamblers Anonymous chapters in the United States doubled over the same period, and according to studies of the time, some 80 percent of members expressed a death wish. Problem gambling — that is, gambling whose purpose exceeds entertainment value — spiked particularly in casino “feeder markets,” within 60 miles of gambling facilities. (Arno’s hometown of Philadelphia is 62 miles from Atlantic City; he has also lived in Las Vegas.) Problem gamblers are thought to account for about one third of casino revenues, of which — in Atlantic City — since 1992, slot machines have made up an often-substantial majority. Their now-ubiquitous electronic varieties represent the most effective instruments available in producing addiction in players.
Randy Adams, of Anchor Gaming, a manufacturer of electronic poker machines, has said, “The idea is to create a sense of winning by pulsing all the human senses with sounds and animated symbols and playlines flashing, nonaverse visual and auditory cues. The perception is that you’re winning all the time, when you’re really not.” One addict participating in an MIT study told a researcher that the machines made him feel as if he could bend time — a sensation he likened to racing a dragster, speeding on his motorcycle. In Double Down, memoir of gambling addiction, the writers Frederick and Steven Barthelme describe the experience in aspirational terms:
The people in the casino believed. However crude, however dizzy, however self-deluded these people may have been, they knew how to hope, how to imagine life as something other than a dreary chore. They imagined that something wonderful might happen, something that could change their lives.
A retired employee of the Philadelphia courts, Gail Arno now resides in Boca Raton, Florida, and despite her son’s trail of missteps, allowed him upon his release to stay in the condominium she maintained at an upscale complex on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The Plaza’s clientele is for the most part older and more polished than Arno, and desk clerks regarded his arrival with perplexed suspicion. In apartment 614, in a unit adjacent to his grandmother’s, Arno received visits from a woman he’d met a month earlier, in a county correctional facility. Twenty years his junior at 24, Jessica Kisby was a resident of nearby Egg Harbor and had been jailed on a parole violation. Born in India and adopted as a young child, Kisby has long black hair and large dark eyes. She wears on the right side of her neck a tattoo of slanted script and has about her a tough, vaguely masculine nonchalance. Arno, who thought Kisby a considerable catch, would later describe her as “a little nuts.”
On May 21, 2010, Arno and Kisby are thought to have begun the night in Gail Arno’s apartment. Having discussed no particular plan with her boyfriend, Kisby did not object when, after the couple had stepped out for the evening, Arno steered north, toward the Trump Taj Mahal. As they neared the casino’s glowing onion domes, a white Lincoln sedan entered Arno’s field of vision. “He just asked me if I liked it,” Kisby would recall at trial, at which she testified against Arno in exchange for a prison term limited to 30 years. “I said yes.” After following the Lincoln for a short time, Arno swung his grandmother’s silver Toyota right, through the Taj’s soaring gates. Tape from garage security cameras shows the Toyota tailing Martin Caballero’s car into the complex. Minutes later, a second camera captured a man and a woman — only Kisby can be positively identified — approaching the vehicle, which had parked. Caballero was exiting his car as Kisby greeted him. “Just bullshitting,” she would explain, to see if she couldn’t distract him. Caballero looked at her quizzically for a moment before Arno advanced, drawing from his waistband or pocket what Kisby took for a gun. That the pistol was capable only of firing pellets did not prevent Arno from forcing Caballero into the trunk of his car.
In the coming hours, for reasons that remain unclear, Arno would drive the Lincoln to a narrow dirt road that cuts through a rural swath of Hamilton Township, where for years Herman Liepe has cultivated the land. There, Arno used two large knife blades — one of which broke off in his victim — to stab Martin Caballero to death. When it was done, Kisby said, Arno hoisted the body from the trunk and discarded it beneath a crop of foliage. That he had sullied irreparably with blood and other potential evidence the object he’d coveted seemed only then to occur to Arno, who suggested to his accomplice that they destroy the car with fire. Some days later, on a seedy strip of local highway, police apprehended Kisby and Arno, as they lay naked in a motel bed, a spread of knives arrayed on the nightstand beside them.
In the wake of Martin Caballero’s death, Theodore Housel, then the Atlantic County prosecutor, sought to characterize Arno’s crime as an aberration, as “one of those things that happens once in a generation or in a decade.” But just over a year later, the Taj Mahal parking deck witnessed a second carjacking, which left one dead and another wounded. (Martin Caballero’s family has filed a wrongful death suit against the Taj, which had reduced security personnel shortly before Caballero’s attack, and which invested $5 million in surveillance upgrades thereafter.) In 1970, the city, larger at the time by some 10,000 residents, saw six homicides. Between 1985 and 2010, Atlantic City averaged 10 slayings annually. In 2006, the year casino profits reached their zenith, 18 were murdered — a historical high. A combined 32 killings were clocked in 2011 and 2012. In January, the data analysis website Neighborhood Scout ranked Atlantic City the seventh most dangerous city in the country.
Most of the violence, as Housel perhaps meant to suggest, occurs far from the casinos, in locally notorious housing projects like Back Maryland and the Stanley Homes, where gang disputes beget routine shootings and stabbings. Brian Nelson, who directs the Atlantic City chapter of Covenant House — a service provider for homeless youth — told me that although he grew up across the street from the Stanley Homes in the 1980s, he is reluctant today even to drive past. A slightly round black man with a soft, munificent smile, Nelson is a preacher’s son. He can recall afternoons on the boardwalk following Sunday services in the years before the casinos arrived, watching a horse and rider dive from the high platform on Steel Pier. “When gambling came, casino jobs were really popular,” he said. “People would wear their uniforms outside work. They were proud of them.” Nelson’s mother, who he does not remember working earlier in his childhood, managed housekeeping services for a number of casinos after Resorts opened. “But people look for choices,” Nelson continued. “It’s created a lot of frustration. Casinos put Atlantic City on the map. I don’t think there’s any question about that. But as far as rescuing its residents? I don’t know.”
Tom Gilbert is a short rigid man with small strong hands and handsome, if slightly pinched, All-American features. His gray hair appears to receive frequent attention from a military barber, and his snug suits bespeak a zealous callisthenic regimen. On the heavy wooden desk in his office in the Casino Control Commission building when I visited were a miniature Scotland Yard helmet and a brick modeled on those from the Yellow Brick Road. Before accepting Chris Christie’s appointment as security director of Atlantic City’s new tourism district, Gilbert held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the New Jersey state police, a post he describes as second in command. Since September 2011, he has overseen Christie’s “Clean & Safe” initiative, a central pillar of the governor’s revitalization strategy.
The program prescribes — among other things — improved lighting, surveillance, and policing on the boardwalk, demolition of vacant houses, refurbishing of building facades, and more enthusiastic trash collection. To complement the city’s standing force of 330 police officers, the state added 25 “Class 2” patrolmen and a team of yellow-pinned Ambassadors. “We’ve seen real nice strides in terms of improving global quality of life,” Gilbert told me. Beyond some costly streetlights modeled on 20th century gas lamps, though, he did not much say where these improvements might be observed. Gilbert was reluctant to discuss the fact that violence in the city had increased since he took over, but he allowed that Atlantic City’s rehabilitation had to be undertaken in phases: “It’s very important that those assets in the tourism district are protected,” he said. “They provide revenue to the rest of the city. They fuel the infrastructure of what needs to happen.”
Given the historical failure of the casinos and of the CRDA to revive the city, I could not help but wonder why Gilbert believed relying on them now might represent a viable strategy. For the first time in the two and a half hours we’d spent together, Gilbert’s martial bearing disintegrated, and he became flustered and voluble, launching into a winding parable about the fate of the city during Hurricane Sandy, which had passed a few weeks earlier. God and nature had been involved, luck and fortune. At the last moment, he said, the storm, which was slated to wreck the city, had turned. Though a portion of the Boardwalk washed away, the structure of things remained largely in tact. There were skiffs of sand in the street and sopping piles of furniture at the curb. A number of beleaguered downtown storefronts remained closed. But the casinos were unscathed. Their work would continue. Destiny, Gilbert believed, had smiled on Atlantic City.
Martin Caballero’s murder received sensational treatment from the regional press. Kisby and Arno drew comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde, and in sneering, pseudo hard-boiled prose, the Philadelphia crime reporter George Anastasia chalked up their deeds to vicious sociopathy. In rendering his judgment, Judge Michael Donio would call the couple a pair of “evil pinballs,” a characterization that succeeded in randomizing their actions with respect to their environment. Random violence terrifies us most, perhaps, because it confirms viscerally what we know for sure but try hard not to think about — which is that things, ultimately, are out of our hands. But to call an act of violence “random,” to identify as its source something as diffuse and inexplicable as “evil,” can also provide comfort. “Evil” acts, “random” acts — we can file these safely away. Rootless and uncultivated, they do not ask that we consider whether we might be implicated, somehow, in their emergence.
At 16, before his drag racing collision, Craig Arno had spent time in a juvenile facility, following an arrest for housebreaking. His mother hoped that the accident would be a watershed for her rambunctious son, and testified in court to his good character. After Arno’s apprehension in connection with Caballero’s disappearance, his first victim’s husband remembered sharing Mrs. Arno’s sentiment: “I figured, if anything, this kid had a chance to start over the right way,” he said. “I thought he would fly straight.” That the teenager’s choices had tragic results is undeniable; they were, though, the choices of a relatively normal — if wild — young man. And although Arno never flew straight, he never, as an assistant US attorney who once prosecuted him observed, gave any hint that he would turn homicidal. Despite a long criminal history, until May 2010, he remained a nonviolent offender. In the run up to his penultimate imprisonment, Arno’s public defender wrote in court filings that as his business collapsed and debt mounted, Arno — unhinged and frantic — had ceased psychiatric treatment. His failures became too much for him to bear and “his panic,” she suggested, “led him to make some terrible decisions.”
The historian Bryant Simon told me that throughout its history, Atlantic City has traded on a symbiosis between everyday desires and the efforts of boardwalk entrepreneurs to stage their realization. “Increasingly, it’s not so clear how you get ahead in America,” he said. “So what Atlantic City sells today is a different version of a different dream. It’s not a celebration of hard work. It’s not a celebration that the system works.” In Simon’s reckoning, New Jersey’s 1976 approval of legalized gambling might be read as a kind of augury for the shift in national attitudes that would usher in the era’s tax revolts, Ronald Reagan’s election, and the Wall Street bonanza of the 1980s. “It happens at the very moment when Americans cease any willingness to tax themselves, where that older model starts to fall apart,” he said:
The growing inequality of wealth happens right along with it. And if you buy that there’s a relationship between crime and poverty. If you buy the inability of gambling to create any kind of long term sustainable wealth and community development, then [the carjackings] make sense. Casinos showcase easy money. They almost make a mockery of the struggles of others.
Today, only Hawaii and Utah are without some form of legalized gambling.
Gail Arno’s home in Boca Raton stands on a curving road that encircles two sizeable ponds, and, from which, in places, the greenery of the Boca West Country Club is visible. Florida offers many options to the prospective day tripper, and if she were inclined, Mrs. Arno could drive north along the coast, through Port St. Lucie and past St. Cloud and Kissimmee. There, the Florida Turnpike passes between two large lakes. Both are called Tohopekaliga, which in the language of the Seminole people means, “we will gather together here.” She could pick up Route 4 near Carnellia Gardens and move east, toward Orlando, Universal Studios, and Disney World. Depending on traffic, the journey would take about three hours. Craig Arno’s mother has the same deep-voweled intonations as her son. Her voice is soft and retiring, even when she becomes upset. She does not want to talk about Atlantic City. Not ever again. “I moved to Florida,” she says into her telephone, as if what she left behind had evaporated in her wake. “I started a new life. Is this a necessary story?”
Chris Pomorski is a writer living in New York.