Stockbroker Steve Schillinger had worked at San Francisco’s Pacific Exchange for more than two decades when officials there discovered that he was taking illegal sports bets from other brokers and fired him. The year was 1996.
Needing a new job and intrigued by the explosive growth of the Internet, Schillinger moved to Antigua to help set up and run the world’s first online sports-betting service, called World Sports Exchange. Because the service was accepting online wagers from U.S. residents, the Justice Department deemed it illegal.
In 1998, the FBI charged Schillinger with unlawful Internet gambling and issued a felony warrant for his arrest. Until last month, he had been wanted by the FBI for 15 years.
But Schillinger’s recent death appears to have ended the saga, although several circumstances leave open the possibility of foul play.
The 60-year-old was found with a single gunshot wound to the head in a condominium he owned in the Antiguan capital of St. John’s on April 20, according to Antigua police. Neighbors who had come by Schillinger’s home told police they saw a door open, went inside, discovered the body and contacted authorities.
Back in 1998, Schillinger declined to return to the U.S. to turn himself in, electing instead to remain a fugitive in Antigua and continue helping run the online betting service.
About a month ago, however, World Sports Exchange suddenly and unexpectedly went out of business, stiffing hundreds of customers worldwide out of thousands of dollars that they had in their online wagering accounts. Company employees also were not given their final paychecks.
Two weeks later, Schillinger was found dead under violent circumstances.
Antiguan media outlets have reported that a .38-caliber handgun was found near the body and that the death was likely a suicide, but Antigua police said the incident is still under investigation and that foul play has not been ruled out.
“The investigation is continuing,” Antigua Police Senior Sgt. William Holder told The San Francisco Examiner. “No determination has been made yet about what happened, other than the cause of death was a single gunshot to the head.
“It has not been determined whether it was a suicide or a murder or something else. We are still interviewing people who knew him and looking into all aspects of his life.”
Holder confirmed that a handgun and a suicide note were found at Schillinger’s condo, but stressed that the killing still has to be investigated because of the possibility that it was a murder staged to appear as suicide.
“It’s a homicide and all homicides are investigated,” Holder said.
“Nothing has been ruled out.”
One of the things police are looking into is whether Schillinger owned the gun, and if so, how he came to acquire it, Holder said. Antigua residents are permitted to own handguns, but only if they pass a criminal background check and obtain a proper license, Holder said.
Because of the FBI charges pending against Schillinger, he would not have been able to legally acquire a license to own a gun in Antigua, Holder said.
“We are in the process of tracing the gun’s serial number to determine where it came from, how he may have obtained it and from who,” Holder said.
The entire homicide investigation should be completed in about a week, Holder said, adding that U.S. officials, through regular diplomatic channels, have been notified about the case.
Meanwhile, an expert on Internet gambling who has covered Schillinger’s career for an online gambling news site told The San Francisco Examiner that Schillinger likely became suicidal after World Sports Exchange shut down.
“A lot of people are out a lot of money because of World Sports Exchange going belly up,” said Chris Costigan, owner, publisher and editor of Gambling911.com, a U.S.-based website. “So a lot of people would have motive to kill Schillinger, though I don’t believe that’s what happened. But that’s why the cops have to examine every angle.”
“I think he was distraught about his company going bust and that’s why he took his own life,” Costigan added. “With the company gone, he felt he had nothing left to live for.”TIMELINE OF FLIGHT FROM THE FBI 1996: Steve Schillinger, a longtime stockbroker at the Pacific Exchange in San Francisco, is caught booking illegal sports bets from co-workers and is fired. 1997: Looking to continue his lucrative bookie business, Schillinger and two co-workers from the Exchange, Jay Cohen and Haden Ware, move to Antigua and start the world’s first sports-betting service on the Internet. Called World Sports Exchange (WSEX.com), it’s a success, and before long the company claims it is doing millions of dollars worth of business per week. 1998: Schillinger and his partners are interviewed for a Sports Illustrated cover story about online sports betting and talk up World Sports Exchange, declaring that what they’re doing is perfectly legal. 1998: Federal authorities in the U.S. disagree with that assessment, and a month after the SI story appears the FBI issues felony arrest warrants for Schillinger, Cohen and Ware on charges of illegal Internet gambling. Cohen returns to the U.S. to fight the charges, but is unsuccessful and goes to prison for 17 months. Schillinger and Ware remain fugitives in Antigua. 2001: Schillinger’s wife, who remained in San Francisco with their children, files for divorce. His father dies and his mother doesn’t tell him until after the funeral because she doesn’t want him returning to the U.S. and risking arrest. 2003: Accountant Chris Moneymaker wins the World Series of Poker and earns $2.5 million, igniting a worldwide poker boom. Instead of paying the $10,000 entry fee, he earned free entry by winning an online qualifying tourney first that cost only $39 to enter. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he can win the series, and Schillinger will cash in on that sentiment. Before long, WSEX.com adds online poker, further increasing the company’s already-immense profits. 2011: After 14 years of success, WSEX.com starts a slow slide downwards. For the first time in the company’s history, winning sports bettors are not being paid, because the company is having money problems. There’s more competition than there was a decade ago, plus a legal crackdown by the U.S. government has hurt all online gambling. An online watchdog site that monitors Internet gambling reports that Schillinger’s company owes bettors almost half a million dollars. 2013: Citing financial problems, World Sports Exchange goes out of business, stiffing all its customers and employees. 2013: Two weeks later, the tale of Steve Schillinger comes to a tragic end when he is found shot to death inside his luxury condo in St. John’s, capital of Antigua.