It has been two years since her flip-flop-wearing, math-whiz husband disappeared. “It feels like 20,” says sports-betting business-owner Laura Varela, from her home in San Jose, Costa Rica.
It has been a year since authorities identified his remains, after a botched kidnapping, a million-dollar bitcoin ransom and 12 arrests in two countries, leaving her to raise their two children alone. “I feel as if I am living my life through someone else,” adds Varela.
And it was last month that Varela agreed to pay $47 million for peace with the U.S. government agents and federal prosecutors in Philadelphia who had been pressing her husband and his Costa Rica-based, U.S.-focused sports betting company, 5Dimes, in a money-laundering and tax investigation.
“The Department of Justice understood. I felt their sympathy throughout this long process,” said Varela. “I am very, very happy and very excited the agreement reflects the fact that I was never involved in any of the wrongdoing.”
So now, with the help of gambling-industry lawyers in Philadelphia and Washington, Varela is trying to parlay her husband’s book of a million gamblers into a legal sports-betting company in New Jersey. Her lawyers are asking New Jersey to register the business there before moving into other states.
After its Atlantic City casinos lost business to new betting halls in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, New Jersey has become an early leader in U.S. online sports-betting, attracting larger wagers than rivals such as Nevada and Pennsylvania, which also welcomed pro and college football pools following favorable court rulings in recent years.
In New Jersey, no fewer than 18 registered online pro and college sports betting pool operators have each partnered with licensed New Jersey casinos or racetracks, from which they place staff and servers and offer odds. These competitors include publicly-traded DraftKings and FanDuel.
Together the New Jersey operators handled legal internet sports bets totaling $3 billion so far this year, earning the cash-strapped state more than $200 million in taxes. To bet, gamblers have to be in the state, as confirmed by the GPS on mobile-phone betting apps.
5D wants to join that list.
5Dimes alone handled billions in bets each year, and could significantly enlarge New Jersey’s industry if it brings a chunk of that business to the state, according to industry experts.
5Dimes' use of Amazon gift accounts, false names, and credit card processors to illegally pass winnings to U.S. gamblers caught the eye of investigators at the Justice Department’s asset forfeitures unit in Philadelphia, said Maria Carrillo, an attorney in that group.
William Sean Creighton was close to a guilty plea on tax, money laundering, illegal gambling and payment fraud charges when he was kidnapped, said Mike Lowe, of the department’s economic crimes unit. After Creighton’s death, Justice settled with his widow, who forfeited his ill-gotten cash, gold, horses, cars, and baseball cards, but kept his betting book. The government agreed she hadn’t been part of the illegal business: “It opens the door for Ms. Varela to get licensed in the U.S.,” Carrillo concluded.
As part of the settlement with the government, she agreed to block U.S. access to 5Dimes' websites and stop handling U.S. bets until the company is approved to do business in a U.S. state. She says she has retained the “core” of her husband’s 270 employees, who are still free under Costa Rica law to take bets from other countries, while her lawyers apply for a New Jersey license.
Will New Jersey approve the application? “We have no comment,” said Leland Moore, spokesman for New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, whose office oversees the Division of Gaming Enforcement that handles applications from online gambling companies.
The state law governing sports betting requires that operators show “financial stability, integrity and responsibility” along with “good character, honesty and integrity.” It requires that “any criminal or disciplinary proceedings” and “funds derived from illegal activity” related to online sports betting pools be reported “promptly” to the regulator.
Her lawyers expect it will take several months to get an initial decision. If 5D is approved, could it open the way for other offshore gambling operations with vast customer bases to follow? “The illegal business is certainly larger than the legal business,” says Chris Grove, partner at the Eilers & Krejcik gambling-business advisory firm in Irvine, Calif.
Besides 5D, major offshore sites include Bovada Sports and a handful of Costa Rica-based rivals, and Sportsbook.ag on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. Each of those firms handled at least $2 billion in bets last year, according to Jeff Ifrah, a veteran casino lawyer representing Varela.
Can 5D make the jump to legal status? “It’s a huge if,” said Michael Pollock, a former New Jersey Casino Control Commission spokesman who is managing director at Horsham-based consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group. “That assumes they will be able to get licensed and take whatever steps the state deems necessary.”
“Since the 1970s, the culture and history of regulation in New Jersey puts a premium on suitability,” he added, ensuring a Garden State license “connotes sufficient honesty and good character.” He expects objections from rivals “who play by the rules and will likely take offense at any effort that might appear to be a short cut.”
But Grove, of Eilers & Kerjcik, said there are powerful reasons for New Jersey to approve. Offshore betting “is a multibillion-dollar industry," he notes. Together the offshore firms “are doing wagers worth hundreds of billions of dollars,” especially on NFL and NCAA football games.
“Regulators in New Jersey could say that, for the legal gambling market to thrive, we need to deprive the illegal-gambling market of oxygen,” he said. “Offer those sites or their marketing partners a path into the regular market, a path for offshore operators to come in from the cold,” instead of “this game of cat and mouse that hasn’t worked out so well.”
Varela grows warm and expressive when asked about her husband. Creighton, son of a West Virginia supermarket owner, eschewed bodyguards and business formality, preferring to walk around San Jose in shorts with Varela, she said.
He could focus intently on anything from home decor to exploiting intricate bets by competing bookmakers. “He could see 20 miles down the line,” she said. “I could talk to him about anything.” He was such a helpful guide that she had to learn "to trust myself again and make decisions” after he vanished.
Creighton was persistent: “He was the best example I ever saw of ‘El que persevera, alcanza’ ” — the one who keeps at it, wins, added Varela, a Costa Rica native. That’s how he courted her, for two years, after she spent part of her senior year at the University of Costa Rica working at his neighboring company in the San Jose suburb of San Pedro. After she graduated in 2005, “I moved to the beach,” but he kept calling. They married in 2011 and had two children.
He was alone in the summer of 2018 when, police say, two corrupt police officers waved his Porsche off the road. Kidnappers bundled him into a pickup and took him to an apartment arranged by local criminals. His wife paid $1 million of the $5 million in Bitcoins they demanded. The kidnappers took the money through Panama and Cuba, before police tracked the leader of the effort, Jordan Morales-Vega, a 25-year-old engineer, to Spain. That’s where he was arrested in January 2019 seven months before Creighton’s remains were finally found and identified in a Costa Rican cemetery. The complex case is approaching trial, Varela said.
Varela had known her husband was under investigation, said Stephen Miller, a lawyer at Philadelphia-based Cozen O’Connor who is representing Varela along with his law partner Barry Boss. “She hired us to to engage the prosecutors and propose 5Dimes would go legitimate. Settle its liability with the federal government. Enter the regulated sports-betting market.”
Miller noted how sports betting is now advertised on U.S. TV. “There’s a lot of interest on the regulated side. But several times that amount is still on the unregulated side."
For legalization, “they can’t make up a better test case than Laura Varela, whose husband was killed, and whose agreement confirms she was not involved in the business, and cooperated with the investigation” while keeping gamblers' identities private. "It’s an opportunity for regulators to start [picking up] tax revenue.”
Gamblers using 5Dimes and other big online Caribbean bookmakers “tend to spend more than U.S. regulated customers,” says lawyer Ifrah. “A U.S. company might have a customer spending $125 or $150 a year on average. The Costa Rican books might spend $1,200 on average per year. They cater to more serious gamblers.”
Ifrah earlier helped several potential 5D competitors win New Jersey approval. “New Jersey is unique,” he said. “You have a great partnership between casinos and online [bookmakers].” The state director of gaming enforcement, David L. Rebuck, “really gets it. He wants to grow the market and get his new partners in.”
It costs extra to go legal. Offshore operators avoid state taxes on net gambling revenue — 36% in Pennsylvania, 6.5% in New Jersey. 5D would need a New Jersey casino or racetrack partner. Besides taxes, Ifrah says it costs tens of millions for the marketing, security, payments and compliance systems to start a legal sports-betting operation. Her lawyers say Varela can raise the needed cash.
Ifrah said Pennsylvania has moved more slowly. It taxes sports betting more heavily, and has failed to see the market grow as much as in New Jersey. The Garden State realizes that “this pie grows, when you have more participants.”
Staff writer Andrew Maykuth contributed to this article.