Paul V. Coates – Confidential File, Dec. 11, 1959
December 11, 2009 | 2:00 pm
Youth Bought Death for Nickel a Game
I have never met a man who dropped $4,000 pitching pennies, but I guess it's possible. Because last week I talked to one who estimates that he has lost, in the past four years, nearly $20,000 -- on nickel pinball machines . . .
from this column, Nov. 12, 1957
Today I met a man who lost even more. He lost a son.
The man's name is George Bergeman. He lives in Montebello, where he owns a glass and mirror company.
The week end before last, he and his wife went out of town. When they returned a week ago Monday, they found a note from their son, George Jr., 24, a student at East Los Angeles Junior College, indicating that the boy had left home.
To them, it was a real shocker. There'd been no trouble, no arguments, no problems of any kind.
Then, last Friday, police found the boy's body and, alongside of it, the note:
"Dear Mom & Dad,
"I know I was weak and this is the coward's way, but I guess I am a coward . . .
"My biggest weakness was gambling and those lousy pinball machines. I couldn't leave them alone, even when it wasn't my own money.
"That's what happened to your hundred dollars, and the reason I lost everything worthwhile I ever had.
"I ruined my life, so ending it doesn't matter. I'm sorry it had to be like this . . ."
The dead boy's father brought the letter along when he talked to me.
"I don't know what it was about the pinball games," he said, "but my boy has been hooked on them since he got out of high school. He was playing them before he was 18.
"They let him play them," he added bitterly.
"They" were some of the 40 owners of the so-called "amusement" pinball games in the town of Montebello.
"The boy was brilliant -- a top student," Bergeman continued. "When he graduated from high school they announced over the loud-speaker that he was among the top 2% in the nation in math. He loved math."
The boy's father said he knew that his son was pouring money into the machines, trying to beat the percentages, hoping for the big pay-off.
"I got reports," he said. "One time, a neighbor who owns a restaurant told me about George hanging around in there. He promised to keep him away from the machine and he did.
"But," Bergeman sighed, "there are machines all over town. I'd go around to other places -- bars, liquor stores, cafes -- asking them to stop making pay-offs. I took it up with some of the responsible people in town.
"They'd just laugh at me. They'd say, 'Those machines don't make pay-offs. They're just for amusement.' "
George Bergeman Sr. slumped back into his chair. "Amusement," he repeated. "My son lost $100 into those machines in the two days before his death."
The amount didn't startle me. Nor did the fact that allegedly respectable merchants permitted minors to gamble in their establishments. The machines are geared to swallow nickels as fast as you can pump them in. Anybody's nickels.
They're outlawed in the unincorporated areas of the county, but the guiding fathers of several small towns within the county saw fit to legalize them, in spite of the fact that they're almost impossible to police for pay-offs.
And in spite of the claim by El Monte Police Chief Jay Sherman (who recently won an eight-year fight with City Hall to get them out of his town) that the machines are definitely syndicate-controlled.
Maybe It'll Help
George Bergeman told me that now he's going to see what he can do about the machines in Montebello.
"It's too late to help my son," he said. "And maybe it's true, he was weak. But maybe there are some other weak kids in town. Maybe I'll help them."
If I were the so-called respectable businessman who turned $100 into nickels for George Bergeman Jr. the other week end and then counted them into my day's profits, I don't think I'd sleep too well tonight.