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UNCASVILLE, Conn. — As a part-time bookkeeper for mom-and-pop operations in the Boston suburbs, Antonis Mallios spent his workdays pushing paper and running errands.

But amid the neon cacophony of the casino floor on weekend nights, the 44-year-old Milford man played a different role: high roller.

On a whim, Mallios could pick up the phone and have $250 in credit awaiting him at one of the casino’s high-end restaurants, though the truth was, he rarely had to. As a VIP at multiple casinos in the region, he had representatives regularly reaching out to him, offering up free meals, free hotel rooms, free cruises.

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At Michael Jordan’s Steak House at Mohegan Sun — where he was regularly comped meals — Mallios dined on steak and garlic fondue. From the top floor of the Fox Tower at Foxwoods, in a room as big as some houses, he stared out over the scenic southeast Connecticut landscape.

His gambling tastes tended toward the high stakes. Within the cordoned-off confines of the casinos’ high-limit areas, he played the slots: $50 a spin, though sometimes as much as $200. He enjoyed the elevated status that came with big bets and was generous with the perks it afforded him, offering to arrange tee times on the casinos’ manicured golf links for friends, free of charge.

But as his losses piled up to well more than $1 million, and as the perks kept coming, one question seemed to go largely ignored:

Where was all the money coming from?

* * *

When Antonis Mallios first appeared in Jeff Austin’s life, in 2009, the bookkeeper was a welcome arrival.

Austin, with blue-green eyes and a wrestler’s build, had spent the past two decades building his sound-proofing business, SVA, into a thriving concern. He’d had little experience running a business when he took over after the death of his father-in-law in 1990, and there had been some early struggles.

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“I remember times where I would sit in my office and just look at the phone, and between the telephone and fax machine, it would be silent for two weeks,” he said.

Mallios, sitting in a new car he had just purchased in February 2013, has pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces.
Mallios, sitting in a new car he had just purchased in February 2013, has pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces.Daniel Holmes

In good years now SVA had more than $2 million in sales.

Still, it was demanding work, regularly stretching him thin. So when the business’s previous bookkeeper died unexpectedly shortly before tax season, Austin was relieved when his then-secretary recommended Mallios as a replacement.

In the modest confines of SVA’s small Framingham office, the bookkeeper cut a larger-than-life presence. Big and boisterous, he arrived to work in his trademark Crocs — he had a pair in almost every color — often with his small rescue terrier, Toby, in tow.

In the beginning, Mallios’s duties were fairly limited; once a week, he’d come into the office and spend a few hours entering payroll or handling sales tax returns.

But over time, as the Austins grew to know and like him, his responsibilities expanded.

It was hard to imagine a more loyal employee, they recalled thinking. Without hesitation, he would offer to run errands or lend Austin his truck. One weekend, when the Austins’ son was graduating from high school, Mallios stayed at the family’s home to look after their dog.

“He’d do anything,” Austin said recently. “If I had a truck delivery on a Friday at 5 o’clock, and I was up in New Hampshire, I’d call him and say, ‘Listen, I got this truck coming. Can you just be there while he unloads the stuff?’

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“He was helping me run my company.”

More than just helpful, Mallios seemed almost part of the family. He remembered every birthday. Every anniversary.

Once, when a local car dealership informed Jeff Austin that he’d be on the hook for a $7,000 engine repair because the car’s warranty had recently expired, Mallios called the dealership himself, persuading them to fix the car at a significantly reduced cost.

Says Austin’s wife, Sara, who during those years was busy raising the couple’s two children, “He fought for us.”

When Chris Josie arrived at the company as a salesman in 2017, he, too, developed a quick rapport with the bookkeeper. The two regularly went to lunch together and would spend hours talking about the business and its future.

By 2018, the Austins had placed their full trust in Mallios, allowing him to handle everything from their health insurance bills to their cellphone statements. And when it was occasionally suggested the business have someone from the outside take a look at the books — just to ensure everything was square — Austin dismissed it as unnecessary.

It was a testament to just how strong Mallios’s bond with the family had become.

“Jeff and Sara, they’re very warm and welcoming people, but they don’t just trust you with these things,” Josie said. “He had Social Security numbers, he had bank accounts, he had 401(k) information.

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“It takes years to gain that trust.”

Last December, then, when Austin noticed a relatively minor discrepancy in one of the business’s bank accounts, he didn’t jump to any conclusions.

Glancing over a bank statement one Sunday evening, he discovered that much of the $10,000 he kept in a small safety fund had recently been transferred out. Confused, he called Mallios.

That night on the phone, Austin recalled, the bookkeeper calmly shrugged off the anomaly.

Just an accounting error, Mallios had assured him: I’ll take care of it in the morning.

* * *

“It was an escape,” Mallios said, of his time playing slot machines at Connecticut casinos.
“It was an escape,” Mallios said, of his time playing slot machines at Connecticut casinos. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

The first time Antonis Mallios set foot inside a casino, he said during a recent interview, he hated it.

He was in his early 20s then, chauffeuring his aging grandmother to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, and as she whiled away hours at the slots, he wondered why anyone would willingly pump their money into a machine.

“I was 21, working for a car dealership for $12 an hour,” he said. “Losing $50 was a big deal to me.”

For the next decade or so, Mallios said, he avoided gambling entirely. But in 2010, following the death of his brother to a drug overdose, he began returning occasionally with his parents, finding a strange comfort in the enveloping din and glow of the casino floor.

At first, he said, it was little more than a social thing, a way to feel less alone. He’d play the quarter slots, befriending some of the other patrons, getting to know the casino employees.

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“It was an escape,” Mallios said.

Over time, though, the quarter slots became $5 slots, the $5 slots became $10. The first time he made a $20 bet, he was so nervous he was sweating, he said. Later, when he’d learned how to work around the ATM caps that were meant to limit the amount of money patrons can withdraw at one time, he wouldn’t flinch at a $100 spin.

The casinos took notice. Both Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods awarded him VIP status as a “frequent and valued customer,” according to court documents. Hosts were assigned to him, Mallios added, arranging for comped meals, concert tickets, a free iPad.

More than the perks, though, it was the prospect of a big win that kept him coming back.

He lived for the nights when he returned home to Milford with a large stack of cash, able to pay off a credit card, get ahead on a car payment. Once, he said, he won $5,000 on his first spin of the night. Another time, he turned his first $200 into $20,000.

But there were bad nights, too.

On the worst of them, he made the hourlong drive home in tears.

To colleagues, there was little indication that anything was amiss. Austin and Josie knew that Mallios occasionally liked to gamble; he often carried a strip of scratch tickets with him into the office and would sometimes boast about a successful night out at the casino, holding up his phone to display a video clip of a recent jackpot win.

But nothing about it seemed out of the ordinary.

“That was just his thing,” Josie said. “I like to go play golf on the weekends; he liked to go gamble.”

Besides, what was there to worry about? By all outward appearances, the business was humming along as it always had, the area’s countless construction projects keeping the small company flush with work.

“All of our bills are getting paid, I’m getting my commission checks, our company lights and doors are on and open,” Josie said.

Even so, by the final weeks of 2018, both Austin and Josie began to notice changes in Mallios that would seem significant only in retrospect. A white lie here and there. Uncharacteristic days off work.

At the time, Josie paid it little mind.

“Looking back,” he said, “it’s almost like he knew that this was all coming to an end.”

* * *

On Monday, Dec. 10 — the day after Austin had noticed money missing from the company’s safety fund — Josie arrived at the SVA office to find Austin and Mallios chatting casually about the matter.

This was nothing out of the ordinary; the two often talked over various accounting issues. But when Austin insisted on handling the problem himself, rather than letting Mallios do it, the bookkeeper quickly grew upset, Josie and Austin recalled.

As Austin picked up the phone to call the bank to clear up the problem, Josie and Austin said, Mallios hastily gathered some things from his desk and abruptly departed.

When Austin hung up the phone a few minutes later, he was stunned.

“I think Antonis stole from us,” he said.

* * *

Austin hustled down to the bank, where he asked an employee to pull bank statements. Within 30 minutes, he said, they had discovered $250,000 was missing. By the end of the day, the total had grown to around $450,000.

Austin felt like he was going to be sick. At one point, he called Sara, who was out shopping, to tell her what he was learning. She screamed with such force that store employees thought something had happened to one of her children.

“It felt like a physical assault,” she said. “Like I’d been physically assaulted.”

In the coming days and weeks, it would only get worse. One day, Austin got a call from a vendor asking about a late $25,000 payment Austin was sure he’d given to Mallios to send. They eventually discovered more. To one vendor alone, the Austins allege in a civil suit seeking damages from Mallios, they now owe nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

Shortly after Christmas, a family friend and retired CPA finally finished untangling the business’s finances, putting the total amount missing at more than $860,000.

According to criminal charges filed June 3 in Middlesex County, there was a second victim: the owner of Child Health Center in Methuen, for whom Mallios also worked. Between 2014 and 2018, authorities allege, Mallios wrote himself fraudulent checks from the company’s accounts, totaling more than $470,000.

In October 2018, with the health center showing little profit in the preceding years, the center’s owner — a 70-year-old pediatrician — shuttered the practice, according to the criminal filing.

In all, Mallios faces 13 charges stemming from the alleged thefts, including 10 counts of larceny, two counts of false entry with intent to defraud, and one count of being a common and notorious thief. Between the two companies, Mallios allegedly stole more than $1.3 million, according to court documents. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

In the weeks and months that followed, the Austins wondered how they would put their son, a rising college sophomore, through three more years of school. They wondered how they would pay the hundreds of thousands in debt the business had been left with.

During the worst of it, they wondered whether there would still be a business at all.

Before their discovery of the missing money, the couple had been gliding toward retirement, to a house in Rhode Island. After 30 years of hard work, Jeff had planned to gradually step back and start enjoying the fruits of a long career.

Now?

“We’ve got to rethink our entire future,” said Sara.

* * *

On a Tuesday evening last month, the Austins took a seat inside a bustling North End restaurant and — for one night, at least — tried to push the events of the previous months from their minds.

For the couple, the night was meant to be a small step toward normalcy. On the day last December that the Austins’ world came crashing down around them, Sara had spent the morning finalizing plans for the office Christmas party, an annual tradition that had quickly been shelved in the mess that followed.

Now, seven months later, they were finally getting around to it, the three of them — the Austins and Josie — seated around a dinner table. Christmas in July.

Over wine and pasta, they did their best to look forward. Jeff had been working near 12-hour days, plus weekends, to right the ship. Earlier that day, Sara had testified before a state legislative committee examining the merits of gaming and described the nightmare that gambling had wrought on her family.

Still, closure has eluded them. They have little hope of ever seeing the money again. They’ve placed their faith in the county prosecutor’s office, though they’ve been given no indication how things might play out.

After going to the police last December, the Austins waited eagerly for the kind of dramatic arrest you see on TV.

Instead, following a brief arraignment in June, they watched as the man accused of stealing nearly $1 million from them — “the guy who tried to ruin my family and my business,” Austin says — was released on his own recognizance.

Standing in the entryway of his cluttered home one recent evening, Mallios spoke freely of his gambling but declined to discuss details of his case. He cautioned, however, that people shouldn’t believe everything they read about him.

His modest house has been repossessed in foreclosure, according to public records, and Mallios said he is moving out but unsure where he will go.

Awaiting trial, he has been ordered to stay away from casinos, though the VIP overtures still arrive in his inbox.

On Tuesday nights, he attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings, sitting on a metal folding chair inside a church banquet room five minutes from his childhood home, listening to strangers recount their stories.

And yet, even now, facing the prospect of more than two decades in jail, he still feels at at times the urge to get into his truck and make the long, familiar drive down Interstate 395, to make his way through the bustling casino floor and take a seat at his favorite machine, convinced as ever that the next spin would make everything right.


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.