Former fugitive sports gambling employee avoids U.S. prison term

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An American who spent over 13 years as a fugitive from U.S. authorities for his role as an employee at an Antigua-based online sports betting enterprise was sentenced on Monday to six months probation.

Haden Ware, who voluntarily returned to the United States in January to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge stemming from his involvement with World Sports Exchange, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan.

Prosecutors had sought up to a year in prison. But Pauley rejected what he called the prosecution’s “wooden approach,” saying that Ware had just a small role in the sports betting enterprise, which illegally took bets from Americans.

“Why you waited so long to come back to the United States, only you know,” Pauley told Ware. “But I sympathize with the fact that this hung around your neck all these years.”

Ware, 41, in court said he took responsibility for his actions as a 20-something, and was “extremely grateful to cast that weight behind me and move forward past it.”

In 1996, Ware left his job as a low-level employee at Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco to follow two of its options traders, Jay Cohen and Steve Schillinger, to Antigua to start World Sports Exchange.

The company was considered a pioneer of Internet gaming that took in hundreds of millions of bets annually.

But in 1998, the U.S. Justice Department brought charges against 22 people including Cohen for their alleged involvement in operating offshore sports books that illegally took bets from Americans online and over the telephone.

Cohen in 2000 was convicted at trial on charges that he violated the federal Wire Wager Act. He was sentenced to 21 months in prison.

Ware, a Boston native, was not charged initially, but was indicted with others at World Exchange in 2002. Rather than face the charges, he remained overseas.

World Sports Exchange ceased operations in 2013, citing inadequate capital resources. Schillinger died days later, the victim of what Antiguan media described as an apparent suicide.

After his employment at World Sports Exchange, Ware worked in Germany, Ireland, Antigua, Montenegro and Brazil in legal gambling endeavors, software sales, and educational development for needy children, his lawyer wrote in court papers.

The case is U.S. v. Ware, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 02-cr-634.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Phil Berlowitz