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Issue Date: May 2004 Issue


For Love Or Money

David Palange had a gambling problem and a daughter in desperate need of a transplant. So the Army veteran and former park ranger did what no one expected of him: He stole nearly $200,000 and disappeared.
Irene Dooley

David J. Palange's 5-foot-8 frame stands tall in a waiting room at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Though it's late November, his deeply bronzed skin makes him look as if he just returned from a week at the beach, rather than the Duluth Federal Prison Camp. Vivid, pale blue eyes stand out in sharp contrast to that dark complexion. At 63, his silver hair is enviably thick and wavy. His neat, tucked-in appearance recalls his military years.

Palange pulls business cards and scraps of paper from his pocket and fumbles through them. Cell phone in hand, he searches for the number of a hospital staff contact. Before he can reach anyone, hospital spokeswoman Lisa Rossi enters the room. She's posturing: "This is our hospital, and our policy is no reporters and no photographers in the intensive-care unit." Palange tries, but fails, to convince her that our presence is welcomed.

The sparse room begs you not to overstay your welcome anyway. A visitor sleeps in the fetal position on a sofa. Chair-lined walls are interrupted here and there by tables with dried coffee rings left behind by families on caffeine diets. On one tabletop, a puzzle waits for someone to fill in the gaps, except some of the pieces are missing. It's a scene of a fishing village put together by bored and nervous hands.

"We all worked on that puzzle," Palange says. "Sitting in the room there and discussing your situation, . . . kind of relieves the tension."

In Room 11, just around the corner, his 38-year-old daughter, Angela Berghaus, lies in her hospital bed, unaware of any tension. A healthy small intestine finally fills the cavity in her abdomen. She is heavily medicated, so at the moment, pain isn't an issue. But survival is. It's the fifth day after her transplant, and the danger of her body rejecting the organ still looms. Her airway, blocked by a ventilator tube, prevents her from speaking. She is the reason everyone is here, especially Palange.

A compulsive gambler, David Palange had debts. He also had a dying daughter in dire need of a transplant. What he didn't have was control over the dwindling insurance funds needed to save her life, or control over the impulse to provide the money himself. So he took the ultimate gamble: He stole nearly $200,000 from ATM machines he was paid to service. His motives were dubious and suspicious — was it a selfless act of the heart, driven by a sense of duty, or a selfish act of opportunity?

Palange is a perfectionist, eager to take charge. He earned the traits early, at St. Thomas More Elementary School in Brooklyn, Ohio. A teacher, Sister Mary David, said something to him he's remembered ever since: "If you do something, David, do it to the best of your ability."

"And I always have," he says.

He's reinvented himself many times over the years: U.S. Army security specialist, auto mechanic, business owner, dog trainer, Metroparks ranger, search-and-rescue tracker. He won commendations and accolades along the way. He and his trained Weimaraner dogs caught escaped convicts and searched for missing persons, bombs and weapons. In 1988, he was part of a team protecting President Ronald Reagan during an appearance in Berea.

"He's always been the support person and the one that figures things out," says his wife of 44 years, Jean, who lives with him in North Ridgeville. They met when both were 14. They and their five children, now aged 22 through 43, were a tight-knit family.

His oldest daughter, Justine, 41, is still grateful for her father's support during her teen pregnancy and Lamaze classes. "There sat my father with his teen-age daughter, head held high and proud. [When] it was time to welcome his first grandchild, . . . he was by my side: my labor coach, my Daddy."

The family talked on the phone daily and came together on weekends for sporting events, especially Ohio State football. "Every holiday was special and wild and fun and loud," says Justine. "The kitchen [would] become a dance floor."

The good times distracted David from the health problems he's wrestled with since his late 20s. As he tells it, his massive headaches led doctors to discover an aneurysm in his brain when he was 29. He was given last rites before surgeons clamped off the affected artery. He says he had a 50-percent chance of ending up blind, crippled or both: "The surgeon said I'd be dead before I was 45."

He lives with seizures and daily doses of anticonvulsant medication. Since 1995, a pacemaker's lithium battery has maintained his regular heartbeat. His heart rate had been too slow, causing blackouts. "I myself am bionic," he quips. "I am battery operated."

Palange researched his illnesses and tried to stay on top of medical terminology. He did the same when Angela got sick. "The family depends on me to be the mediator between them and the physicians, because they don't understand what the physicians have to say," he boasts. "If there's such a thing as reincarnation, I'm probably coming back as a family practitioner. I'll take chickens and hogs as the fee. I missed my call."

Financially, Palange went from riches to rags, his family says. He bought a service station franchise in 1969, and, a decade later, invested $300,000 to add a garage. But he says the recession of the 1980s, coupled with a corporate buyout, forced his franchise into bankruptcy in 1986. He adds that he won $28,000 in a class-action antitrust suit against Sohio in 2000.

"When Sohio sold to BP, they took a lot of dealers out with them. He was probably one of the last dealers that survived," recalls Bill, Palange's oldest son, who worked alongside his father.

Bill, who currently owns an automotive repair business, says his father taught him his trade, but he wouldn't hire his father to work for him. "I worked with him 20 years ago and I know how he is," Bill explains. "He's just very bossy. He jumps to conclusions sometimes — very quick at making decisions. . . . He just drives me crazy."

Palange also says he ran up huge debts on credit cards, though he won't say how much. He claims he was trying to provide his family with the lifestyle they'd been used to when things were good.

He says he won $5,000 in the Ohio Lottery in 1991, which started his gambling problem. He bought tickets compulsively, eager for another windfall. Daughter Justine and her husband, Bob Butts, bailed him out more than once. Palange attended Gamblers Anonymous meetings in the mid-'90s, but says it only helped to a degree. He felt he had little in common with the people there.

He can't identify the source of his compulsion to gamble. "That's something I've been trying to figure out for quite a number of years. It was a grave error, it's a mistake, it's an addiction," he says. He struggles to live by the Gamblers Anonymous mantra, the Serenity Prayer.

When his health forced him to leave his job as a park ranger in the early '90s, he managed a Penske automotive center until it went out of business. Then, in February 2002, he took a job servicing automatic teller machines for ATM Solutions Inc.

Justine cries as she remembers her sister Angela before she got sick. Her loud, contagious laugh brought a room to life, Justine says. Her positive, unflappable attitude made every problem seem trivial.

"That's my dream," Justine says. "At the next party we have, [Angela] will be dancing with me and drinking out of the bottle, instead of the glass, just making us laugh."

Married 17 years, with three children, Angela was ambitious and dedicated to her family. But three years ago, she developed severe stomach pains that forced her to quit working at the successful corporate and residential cleaning service she ran. EmergeMcy-room visits and dozens of tests couldn't pinpoint the source of her pain.

In November 2001, she was hospitalized at Southwest General Health Center in Middleburg Heights. Doctors there discovered two tumors — one on each of her ovaries. Before they could be removed, one tumor, the size of a football, ruptured. Doctors drained liters of fluid, mostly blood, from her abdomen. A radical hysterectomy followed. Pathology reports were inconclusive. Ten days later, surgery was performed to investigate a suspected blockage in her bowels. To the surgeon's horror, parts of Angela's intestines appeared glued together. She was rushed by helicopter to University Hospitals.

Over the next eight months, Angela was repeatedly hospitalized. She developed intestinal abscesses that needed to be lanced and drained. Her intravenous feedings led to severe pancreatitis, causing intense abdominal pain. She experienced frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. Doctors tried to treat her with antibiotics, hoping to avoid further invasive surgeries, but saw little progress. Eventually, they decided she needed an intestinal transplant.

But Angela's medical expenses were mounting. Floods of tests and prescriptions quickly pushed her balance close to her $1 million insurance cap.

The numbers spun through Palange's mind like the meters on the pumps at the gas station he once owned. Justine watched her father's torment. "We had found out that the insurance was running out," she recalls. "He said, ‘We have to do something about it, Justine. She's going to run out of money. It's going to be soon and there's going to be no money for that transplant.' That's all he talked about all summer. He was obsessed by it."

The family searched for ways to pay for Angela's care. Justine considered selling her house.

Meanwhile, Palange went to work every day, handling thousands of dollars as an employee for ATM Solutions Inc. His employer, contracted by banks across Northeast Ohio, serviced bank-owned automatic teller machines and occasionally replenished their funds. He was a trusted employee, respected for his reputation in law enforcement.

But, by the end of the summer 2002, the financial pressures in his life triggered his gambler instincts. Palange started taking money from the ATMs.

He was just borrowing the cash, he told himself. He'd use it as betting money. He thought he could convert it into a windfall, pay for Angela's transplant, settle his debts and return the money to the ATMs without anyone knowing.

The ATMs, located in convenience stores and service stations, were surrounded by racks of candy bars and beverage displays, usually with no security cameras trained on them. Since Palange worked alone, normally on the night shift, he could take the cash while doing his job.

Between that August and October, Palange stole about $70,000, a little at a time, from machines in Summit, Stark and Cuyahoga counties. Usually, he'd take between $2,000 and $10,000 at a time, slipping the bundles into his jacket pockets.

"It was a last resort," Palange says. "I was not only doing it for myself, but, most of all, [for] Angela."

Before anyone discovered his thefts, he put about $43,000 back. Then, by the last week in October, his guilt prompted him to tell his boss what he'd done. Palange's attorney, Edele Passalacqua, claimed in court that Palange's boss, regional manager Ronald Friedman, said, "David, I understand why you're doing it. Desperate times call for desperate acts. Put the money back by Monday and no one needs to know about this." Neither Friedman nor ATM Solutions vice president Paul Scott would comment, but Friedman confirmed the story in federal court. "His past [in law enforcement] was the thing that allowed me to give him time to pay it back . . . and he took advantage of it," Friedman said.

On Nov. 1, 2002, Palange went to work and methodically took an additional $120,000, $40,000 and $10,000 from Ohio Savings Bank, U.S. Bank and FirStar Bank ATMs in Willowick, Maple Heights and Beachwood. "It all fit in an overnight bag," he recalls. "That's only approximately 17 bundles of 20s."

At the end of his shift, he turned over his phone and keys to his weekend replacement, got into his car and drove from Parma straight through to the East Coast. He was about to indulge in the biggest gambling spree of his life.

"My intention was to get enough [money] to send back to my employer and pay them back, send money home for Jean and Angela, and then, I don't know," Palange says. "[I] never thought beyond that."

Around noon the next day, Palange arrived in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and checked into a Motel 8 on Highway 17. Having no bags to unpack, he stopped at Wal-Mart and Kmart for sundries and cheap clothing. He bought a 1994 Ford Taurus for $3,500 and ditched his '93 Mercury Sable — leaving it in the last hangar on the left of the local airport. From there, he hit the high-limit slot machines in casinos along the Eastern Seaboard, plus some in Mississippi.

Palange says he doesn't feel that his behavior contradicts his lifelong reputation as a reliable employee and family man. "It really doesn't. It just exposes the real David Palange that gambled in many things . . . in life, business, et cetera," he says. He talks about his theft and gambling as if he were a daring entrepreneur: He tried, but failed, at getting the "brass ring" one more time, he claims.

"I have always shared whatever I've had and would have done the same with this venture had I been successful."

He says he led a simple lifestyle while he was away, never gambling for more than a couple of days at a time — giving him the chance to make friends. "The most interesting and honest were ones that were down-and-out homeless, who go to the casinos to warm up and get free cocoa," he recalls. "I like listening to their individual stories. [And] I did help quite a few during my travels."

For a while, Palange says, he went to another country he won't name.

Though his employer filed a police report in early November, and police issued a warrant for his arrest, Palange didn't get the sense anyone was looking for him. "All I was trying to do was stay ahead of the law, which I knew how to do from my job as a law-enforcement officer," he says. "I knew most of the tricks."

Justine got a call from her mother at 6 a.m., the morning after Palange left. "Daddy never came home last night," her mother told her. At first, the family thought he was dead. Justine worried he'd had a grand mal seizure somewhere. Then, the police and his boss called and told them about his thefts.

Nine days later, the family received a letter from Myrtle Beach. It began:

Dear Family,

What I did was planned way in advance. David J no longer exists. By the time you get this letter I will no longer be in this country . . . I am very proud of the way all of you children turned out, but at this point of my life I'd like to do what I want, when I want, and not answer to anyone. I have enough money to live out my life comfortably, and make my living legally. Unfortunately, not as David J . . . I will pray for all of you, especially Mom and Angela, and if things work out the way I think, I will be able to help Angela financially with her transplant.

Love always,

Dad xxxooo

Justine was appalled by what she read. "I think he was trying to make us hate him so we wouldn't come find him," she says. "The letter was very strange. . . . We immediately took it to the police."

Though Palange admitted his guilt in the letter, his family remained in denial. They hoped that it was a misunderstanding or that someone made him do it. His daughter Lisa, 30, cried for many nights, hoping that he would come to his senses and turn himself in. His sons, Bill, 43, and David Alan, 22, were humiliated by what their father had done — unable to forgive him for sullying their family name. They all felt betrayed, but were relieved that Palange was alive.

As Palange justified his flight as a scheme to help his ailing daughter, Angela was finally undergoing a new surgery, without him at her side. Bill's Internet research had led her to the experts at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In November 2002, Dr. Kareem Abu-Elmagd spent more than 12 hours trying to surgically mend Angela's intestines. But he realized that at least half of her small bowel was damaged beyond repair.

"I tried to save the intestine and that was impossible. So, I took them out to improve her quality of life," he explains.

Without her small intestine, Angela's only source of nutrition was intravenous feedings. But if she were forced to rely on them for long, her liver would be damaged. Her children helped her struggle with the IV bags. The 12-hour daily feeding cycles, plus two additional hours for hydration, all but sequestered her in her home. She still ate, but she had to use an ileostomy bag instead of the bathroom.

Angela's only hope of staying alive was a small-bowel transplant. But under the transplant and insurance company rules, she had to endure a year of tests on every part of her body to make sure she was nowLcancer-free. Meanwhile, it cost $700 per day to feed her through the IVs.

While struggling with her illness, Angela bore the burMen of guilt for her father's disappearance. "I remember her sitting on that couch, just bawlYng," Justine says, "as though if [she] wasn't sick, none of this would be taking place."

Palange, still on the lam, also tried to reach his family via e-mail. On Dec. 7, 2002, his son-in-law Bob held nothing back in his response:

Be the man I know you are. Turn yourself in, quietly and without dramatics, today, and stop the pain. Get some help. If not for you, for your family. . . .

You know this family will help you get past this because that's who they are. By the way, they learned that from you. How ironic. . . .

Do not reply. I will not read it. The only time I will speak to you is face to face, when you are trying to help yourself and your family.

Palange snapped to attention. Bob somehow struck a chord. "At that point," Palange writes in a letter from prison, "I could not stand being without [my family], and I knew the only way I would go home, was if I had no money left, and I then committed financial suicide. I played $100 slots. It was either hit high or bust — I busted."

That day, he jumped into his new Taurus, still bearing the original owner's North Carolina plates, and was on his way home.

By Sunday, Dec. 8, the escapade was over. Palange checked into room 127 at a Motel 8, at Interstate 71 and Route 18 near Akron. He contacted his attorney, Passalacqua, and waited. Palange admits that his police experience influenced his next steps.

Because of his health problems, Palange was ready to bargain. He considered federal prison conditions and programs preferable to those of state prisons. He'd committed his thefts in three counties and, rather than tie up the resources of several courts, trying the case on a federal level would be more efficient and, therefore, negotiable.

On Monday, his attorney called the FBI and federal prosecutors, arranging to meet on Tuesday, Dec. 10. After his six-week gambling spree, Palange surrendered.

He pleaded not guilty during his Dec. 19, 2002, arraignment. Never jailed, he posted his own $20,000 bond and returned home.

Afterward, thinking more clearly, he saw that he could have found legal ways to pay Angela's expenses and his debts. "It was workable," he says. "I just didn't see it."

His relatives say that the man who committed the thefts was not the David Palange they knew, but they respect him for being willing to serve time for what he did. "To error [sic] is human, but I do not understand or know that man who committed this crime," Palange's wife wrote in a letter to Judge Donald C. Nugent. "Maybe as a family we leaned on him too much."

In January 2003, Palange changed his plea to guilty on one count of theft of bank funds, striking a plea agreement with the prosecution.

Friedman, Palange's ex-boss, spoke at Palange's April 2003 sentencing. He told the court that ATM Solutions' insurance premiums had gone up by about $60,000 a year because of the theft. "Because of my contract with ATM Solutions, I'm responsible personally for the deductible, which is $20,000 out of my pocket," Friedman added.

"So Dave Palange has impacted me personally."

Nugent sentenced Palange to 14 months in federal prison. The judge said he was surprised the plea agreement did not consider an enhancement for the abuse of a position of trust — because Palange had taken advantage of his job, handling federally insured bank funds, for personal gain. The enhancement, coupled with the amount stolen, could have meant a longer prison sentence.

Prosecutors often drop the enhancement when a person cooperates, notes assistant U.S. attorney John D. Sammon, who prosecuted the case. "He turned himself in. We didn't have to go looking for him," he says.

At that point, Sammon and the FBI just wanted to recoup some of the stolen money. Palange agreed to take a polygraph test — and passed — satisfying the prosecution that all the money was really gone.

Passalacqua appealed to the judge for an extension on the date Palange was to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons. She wanted him to be there for Angela's pending transplant. Since there already was a standard lag of nearly two months between sentencing and entering prison, the judge denied the request.

Judge Nugent allowed Palange to report to the minimum-security federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn., without a police escort.

Last June 9, Palange arrived at the prison camp to begin his sentence. A tour in the U.S. Army in the late 1950s and early '60s prepared him to adapt to prison life, he says. "It's all basically paramilitary," he says of prison. "There are certain ways that you must conduct yourself. . . . I conducted myself in the proper manner."

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Palange's daughter Justine placed an emergency phone call to the prison. A staff member gave Palange a message: Call home immediately.

That fall, the family had struggled with Angela's insurance company, trying to get her transplant approved. At one point, the company issued what sounded to the family like a final refusal — which would have left her to die. But her doctor argued on her behalf and she underwent a new round of tests to show she was cancer-free.

Now, when Palange went to call, he saw nearly 1,000 inmates waiting for 17 phones. Luckily, they sympathized. "Most of the guys in there knew I had the situation," he says. "And they said they'd get me a phone."

Angela would get her transplant, he was told. And Palange would be there: Just one month earlier, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had approved Palange for community custody based on his reported "positive adjustment to incarceration." The prison warden granted him a furlough.

Considered a low flight risk, he was put on a plane in Duluth, and arrived unescorted at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. His family was tense about the reunion, but relieved to have him home.

"My children are angry for what I did, and they have a right to be angry," Palange says. "But they still love me as their father, and that's all I can expect."

On Nov. 17, Drs. Abu-Elmagd and Geoffrey Bond successfully performed the 12-hour small-bowel transplant.

"Dad, you look good," Angela wrote on her message board after the transplant. She was hooked up to several IV lines. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Palange took a deep breath and turned to conceal his own tears. "I was totally overwhelmed," he recalls.

Angela says her father's presence encouraged her tremendously. But, she adds, "I think a very large weakness in him [is that] he always wants to be the one to be the savior."

After only a few days with Angela, Palange had to board a plane and fly back to prison.

"[Angela] has a 90 percent chance of doing well" over the next year, reports Abu-Elmagd. Her aftercare is a lifelong routine of taking anti-rejection medication daily and getting regular blood tests. She's amazingly positive about it.

"I'm eating regular food. It's the weirdest feeling," she reports. "You could feel the intestines moving around. I haven't had that feeling in two years." Her family is working diligently with the National Foundation for Transplants to raise the $400,000 still needed to cover Angela's post-transplant expenses. Her insurance has run out.

Because of his good behavior, Palange is scheduled for early release this month. Judge Nugent ordered him to pay full restitution: $197,000. He'll have to make quarterly payments of at least 10 percent of his future income. During his five-year parole, he'll have to participate in a court-ordered outpatient mental health program.

"Unfortunately, he thought it was necessary to [steal the money]," Angela says. "But now, I feel he's doing his time. He did the right thing by turning himself in. Will I forgive him? Absolutely. . . . Will my father ever forget this? Will we allow him? It won't ever be forgotten."

From prison, Palange writes: "I was very ashamed for what I had done, and it was very difficult to face the family — I was sorry."

Yet, when Palange hit the road, money meant freedom. For six weeks, he managed to escape his true identity as David J. But when the slots devoured what he thought was freedom, he was left with no choice but to give up the real thing.

"Love showed me how much I missed my wife and family," he says. "No matter how much money I had, I could not stay away from them."

It's possible that neither love nor money drove David Palange to commit his crimes — instead, he may have been trying to escape the responsibilities of both.


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