A father-of-one who went on the run after stealing €1.75 million euros from the post office he managed reveals how he became trapped in a desperate cycle of borrowing money and running up credit cards as he tried to pay off debts.
Tony O’Reilly, of Co Carlow, placed his first bet – for €1 – at the age of 24 and initially satisfied himself with small bets on football and horse racing, believing it was something he was ‘really good at’ and that it was an ‘easy way to make money’.
Over the years he graduated to online gambling, setting up an account with bookmakers Paddy Power.
But the addiction took hold and Tony eventually found himself tens of thousands of euros in debt. In desperation, he began taking money from the post office he managed, believing he could use it to win big and settle his finances.
By the time his theft was uncovered in June 2011, Tony had stolen €1.75 million from An Post, Ireland’s national postal service.
Speaking to Jane Garvey on her Radio 4 programme Life Changing, Tony explained how his gambling addiction impacted every area of his life, led to the breakdown of his marriage and ultimately left him feeling suicidal.
Tony O’Reilly, who went on the run after stealing 1.75 million euros from the post office he managed reveals how he became trapped in a desperate cycle of borrowing money and running up credit cards as he tried to pay off debts. He was eventually sentenced to prison
Even his destination wedding to Cyprus was impacted by his gambling.
‘I was supposed to have the balance of the wedding, about €6,000, on my credit card,’ he said. ‘A couple of weeks coming up to the wedding, the balance of my credit card was near enough to zero.
‘I [had been] gambling really heavily trying to win this €6,000 that I was supposed to have saved. So I went to my bank and asked them for a top up, like I had done numerous times previously.’
The bank declined but in a fortunate twist of fate his fiancée’s father phoned and offered to foot the bill for the wedding as a gift.
While his fiancée was reluctant, Tony persuaded her that they should accept the generous offer. ‘I was manipulating the situation because I knew, financially, how bad we were,’ he said.
However Tony would gamble away the entire sum while placing bets on a computer in the hotel lobby.
In a stroke of luck, he was able to win back the money through a four-part accumulator bet, the final part of which was on the Epsom Derby.
‘My heart was about to jump out of my chest during the whole race,’ he recalled. ‘I went into the toilet and I nearly bit my fist screaming out of pure relief. With that bet coming in, it meant that I was due to win about €6,000 .’
For the rest of the destination wedding he avoided places any more bets and thought, “This isn’t right, you shouldn’t have to wait for a horse to win a race to pay for a wedding”.’
However he was still in debt and his wife believed they still had €6,000 euros on the credit card, because it hadn’t been spent on the wedding.
‘Unfortunately, if you’re someone with a gambling problem, you try to fix it by the same means that got you into trouble in the first place,’ he said.
By this point, he was ‘tens of thousands’ of euros in debt because of gambling but was still trying to fix the problem by gambling.
As manager of an An Post branch, Ireland’s national postal service, Tony had access to hundreds of thousands of euros.
Although he was on good money, most of his salary went on repaying debt. At the same time his wife had discovered she was pregnant with their first child, a daughter, meaning she would soon lose her salary and be on social welfare.
Over the years he graduated to online gambling, setting up an account with bookmakers Paddy Power. But the addiction took hold and Tony eventually found himself tens of thousands of euros in debt. Pictured, a stock image of a Paddy Power bookmakers
Tony began to consider stealing money, rationalizing that he could use it to win back more to pay off his debts and help his family. He started off with €100 but the amounts quickly grew.
When it came time for the branch to be audited, Tony had stolen €8,000. To make up the deficit, he ‘coerced’ his mother into taking out a loan for the same amount.
However they didn’t notice any cash missing. ‘I was sitting with this cheque [the one given to him by his mother] in my pocket thinking “I can cash this cheque and use this money to try and win back the other €8,000”.’
He gambled the €8,000 and lost that within a couple of weeks, and from there, his situation snowballed. Tony kept his money worries to himself.
‘In the mornings she [his wife] was getting sick with morning sickness, I was in the other bathroom dry-retching with stress,’ he recalled. ‘My whole day was full of worry. The only way I knew how to fix it was to gamble.’
Tony gambled more and more. By the time his daughter was born he had stolen €68,000.
‘The day she was born was one of the happiest days of my life but it was also tinged with sadness because I knew what kind of trouble I was in.
‘When I got back from paternity leave, I gambled and gambled and gambled. At Christmas the audit team arrived again and by then I had stolen €294,000 in the space out of a couple of weeks.
‘They arrived and by this stage I wasn’t meticulously taking the notes out, I was just changing the figure on the balance sheet to make it balance. And, for whatever reason, they took it as was. I was convinced I was going to get caught that day.’
He continued: ‘That’s when I believe I really lost my mind.’
In the space of one weekend, he started off with €5,000 euros and turned it into nearly half a million in winnings over the course of a weekend.
Having now stolen €900,000 euros, Tony was determined to double the €462,000 in his online account and ‘fix this situation’. But 12 hours and 31 bets later, he had lost all the money in his account.
Six months later, in June 2011, Tony arrived at the post office and he knew another audit was due.
‘I arrived that morning, I pulled up that morning at the rear entrance,’ he recalled. ‘It was a Wednesday morning, it was a surprise audit. I knew “this is it” so I got into the car and drove as fast as I could out of Gorey. I nearly crashed the car.
‘I didn’t know where I was going, what I was going to do. Like a scene from the films, I took apart my mobile phone and threw out the sim card. I drove as fast and as far away as I could, and I ended up in Belfast.’
With nowhere to stay, Tony went to book himself into a hotel in Belfast but was unwilling to hand over his passport. He drove to Carrickfergus, about 15km away, and found a hotel where he could remain anonymous and pay cash.
Even then, he continued to gamble.
‘At this stage I was gambling on the next available event. It could have been Azerbaijan basketball, Peruvian netball, Belarusian foot tennis. Anything.’
The day Tony was discovered he ‘wasn’t in a good headspace’.
Recalling that morning, he said: ‘I arrived down to the bookie office at about 2pm and I was going through the papers.
‘I saw the picture of Gorey Post Office, and the news had broken in Ireland, because I’d been seen leaving the Paddy Power office the night before.
‘One line really resonated with me, it said “family and friends are looking for him in the Wicklow mountains”. My family thought I had taken my own life.’
Tony went back to the hotel room, placed his final ever bet, drew the curtains and began emailing his family to apologise. He even considered taking his own life.
‘I couldn’t see any other way out. The one thing that stopped me was my daughter. I couldn’t leave her with questions unanswered and “how could he do this?” That’s the only thing that stopped me, I think.’
After receiving the emails, his family contacted the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), who sent officers to the hotel.
One of the officers told him: ‘We’re not here to arrest you. We’re only concerned for your safety… The relief I got in the room that day. I’ll never forget it.
‘It was like “this is over”. Even though I knew what was going to come down the line, that there were going to be arrests and prison sentences, it was that I didn’t have to carry it anymore… It was pure relief that I could deal with it.’
Tony went to treatment and was sentenced to four years in prison, with a year suspended. He didn’t get a longer sentence because he didn’t benefit financially from the theft. He was able to show the money went from An Post to Paddy Power.
‘I’m still paying off those loans today,’ he said. ‘But it’s a good reminder each month as the money goes out.’
He also lost relationships, his marriage, his home and his self-respect.
He continued: ‘It had a huge impact on my wife and my family and it still hurts me to think about what I put them through.
‘My biggest fear is the impact it has on [my daughter]. “I’ve dealt with lots of adversity over the years, but I’m dreading that conversation more than anything else when I have to say: “This is what your Daddy done [sic], this is what your Daddy became. That’s one of the reasons for my recovery”.
‘I want to be able to turn around to her, whenever I tell her, and be able to say “Yes, I did make a mistake, yes I did mess up, but this is what I’ve done since. This is the person I’ve become”.’
Tony is now a full-time gambling addiction counsellor with Extern Problem Gambling.