When Julie Martin’s 16-year-old son rang as she drove home from work, his words made her blood run cold. “Don’t come home. Dad’s at the front door.”
His father, Bylent “Bill” Troshupa, was subject to a restraining order barring him from the family home after violent rages. His sudden arrival, nearly a year later, spelled danger.
As Martin approached from the back of the housing estate in Waltham Abbey, Essex, where the family had lived, she saw smoke rising. It was 90 minutes later, when police finally let her see her son, that she discovered the horror that had unfolded.
“[Bill] had been screaming and shouting at the door but my son wouldn’t let him in. Bill had a knife with him. Then he stood there, covered himself in petrol and lit himself on fire.”
The kitchen of the family home looks directly out on to their front drive. Her son, whose name has been withheld, witnessed everything.
Troshupa died in hospital later that night. Martin, with help from neighbours, spent the early hours cleaning up outside. She was determined there would be no evidence of the horrific scene left for her son to see when he woke up.
Her husband’s suicide, in November 2021, was the culmination of a years-long downward spiral that Martin says was inextricably linked to his heavy gambling. She is among a growing number of campaigners calling on the government to impose tougher regulations on gambling.
But, with a government white paper on the proposals expected within days, reports suggest that policies put forward by the gambling minister, Chris Philp, will be watered down, diluted by reluctance from the Treasury to accept anything that might affect the tax take.
This, Martin believes, would mean more families experiencing horrors like those she endured.
Troshupa had always been a recreational gambler, but the advent of the internet – and the life-altering impact of successive pandemic lockdowns – intensified his habit. He would work all night in his job driving for nightclubs, then set an alarm for 8am to be ready for Sky Sports to start.
“He’d keep saying to me: ‘Oh no, it’s fine, just a little bit here and there, just for fun.’ But the more he gambled, the more intense it got, the more his mental health deteriorated. His anger got bigger, his aggression and threats got bigger,” said Martin.
“He’d be choosing his accumulator for that day. It would be going well and he’d only need one more or two more … that was really stressful.”
She would end up desperately hoping for his bets to come in, to avoid another fit of rage. “I lived in my bedroom and the kids lived in theirs. Bill had that front room with the sport on, his laptop and his phone.”
Bank records shared with the Guardian show that Troshupa would regularly gamble hundreds of pounds at a time with firms including William Hill and 888.
According to Martin, both companies – soon to become one via a £2bn takeover – gave her husband “free” bets and bonuses, amounting to thousands in the case of William Hill.
The companies said they could not comment on an individual customer’s account, but were willing to discuss the matter with Martin. 888 said it had strict safer gambling policies in place, backed up by sophisticated technology.
Any money Troshupa had in the early days of his gambling was made through the hard work ethic he showed after arriving in the UK. He was born in Kosovo and was forced to serve in the Yugoslavian army. What happened in his homeland, Martin believes, went some way towards explaining his volatile mental state.
But when he wasn’t gambling, she says, he was his “normal self”, a good father to the two children he adored. His anger, which at its worst escalated into death threats to Martin and her parents and occasional violence, appeared to coincide with gambling episodes.
One source of anger was that he began losing much more than he could afford. When his money ran out, he took out loans, from Martin’s parents and then from business associates. At one stage he won £19,000 then lost it all and drained their bank account in the hope of getting it back.
Martin is still paying the price for his high-roller lifestyle. She has huge debts and works four jobs.
She now works with gambling addiction groups and is keeping a close eye on the government’s plans for limiting gambling-related harm.
One of the measures that could feature in the gambling white paper is a new form of affordability check, where gambling operators are required to ask for proof, such as bank statements, that a gambler can afford their losses.
Campaigners have called for the threshold to be set at £100 a month, although people close to discussions say it appears unlikely the watermark will be anywhere close to that low.
Martin fears that the gambling industry lobby, which opposes many of these measures, wields too much political power, pointing to revelations in the Guardian about the extent of hospitality and second jobs that MPs have enjoyed courtesy of gambling firms.
“When I read that I just thought: ‘They shouldn’t be voting, should they? Why should they have a right to vote when they’ve taken the spoils of what killed my husband?’”
Like Martin, the primary school teacher Annie Ashton lost her husband, Luke, to a gambling addiction, leaving her to bring up their son alone.
While the circumstances of their relationship were different, elements of Luke’s death were similar. His gambling intensified during the pandemic, with firms apparently doing little to intervene as the family’s money flowed into their coffers.
“There were red flags and they should have been dealt with,” she said. “He was the typical person they should have been looking out for, someone who wasn’t gambling much, but then all of a sudden was.”
Affordability checks would have been “ideal” in her husband’s situation, she said. “He’d been furloughed and the money was not coming from work, it was coming from loans.”
She is also keen to see tighter curbs on gambling advertising and a greater role for the NHS in providing treatment.
Campaign groups say the NHS should take the lead role in fighting addiction, funded by a mandatory levy on gambling revenues, overturning the current system of voluntary industry contributions to a series of charities and counselling groups.
Will Prochaska, of Gambling with Lives, a charity that supports those bereaved by gambling-related suicide, said: “Every day at least one person takes their life because of gambling in this country.
“If the government is serious about preventing deaths, they will put an end to gambling advertising, enforce stringent affordability checks, and enact the long-awaited statutory levy on the gambling industry to pay for independent research, education and treatment.”
At the moment, the largest firms pay voluntary sums, while some pay nothing or nominal amounts. Clinicians have voiced fears that the level of control that gambling firms have over these funds means the work they fund can never be truly independent.
The Treasury is understood to be sceptical, not just of a mandatory levy, but of any reforms that would clip the wings of an industry that paid £3bn in betting and gaming duty last year.
This, says Gambling With Lives, would be an unforgivable misstep. “If they [the government] miss the opportunity for proper reform, they will bear responsibility for the continued deaths of hundreds of people every year and the misery of hundreds of thousands more.”
A spokesperson for the Betting and Gaming Council said: “The Betting and Gaming Council’s largest members pledged an additional £100m of funding between 2019 and 2023 for research, education and treatment services to tackle problem gambling to be administered by the independent charity GambleAware. The industry has no say on how that money is spent nor does it have any formal or informal role with GambleAware.
“We believe enhanced spending checks should be used online to identify those showing signs of problem gambling and to focus in on those at risk, so swift interventions can take place.
“But it is essential this is targeted and does not interfere with the vast majority of people who gamble safely and responsibly.
“We strongly support the gambling review as a further opportunity to raise standards and promote safer gambling, but any changes introduced by the government must not drive gamblers towards the growing unsafe, unregulated black market online, where billions of pounds are being staked.”