His family and long-time friends at the Progress Club knew that 77-year-old Samuel M. Shulman was deeply saddened last year by the cancer death of Elsie, his wife of 52 years.
But, they maintain, his depression was increased by the June 5 gambling raid by Rockville police on the club, which to Shulman, a 14-year member who began working at the club part-time after he retired, had become a place where he could go and not be alone.
Last July 10, Shulman leaped to his death from the 15th story balcony of his Grosvenor Park apartment. In a letter released yesterday, a Progress Club spokesman pointed to his death as a human consequence of the club's subsequent prosecution, a symbol of how they would like the public to perceive them: sweet, elderly men bullied by overzealous prosecutors and police.
State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner and Rockville Police Chief Jared Stout, maintain that, sweet old men or not, high-stakes gambling was taking place at the Montgomery County club and that gambling is against the law.
The 72-year-old club "was a gambling operation from its inception in D.C. to now," Sonner said earlier this week. The club's wealthy, influential members fled their District location in 1979, he said, "after several years of police investigations and difficulties and a grand jury investigation that was closing in on them." They moved to Montgomery, he added, where they thought gambling would be condoned.
Today the corporation that runs the 500-member club is scheduled to go on trial on six charges of illegally operating a place to gamble. It faces a maximum penalty of a $6,000 fine. Charges of illegal gambling against all but one of 21 mostly elderly men arrested in the late-night raid were thrown out after the men performed community service. The remaining member who was arrested, Lawrence I. Kasdon, 62, of Bethesda, pleaded not guilty to a charge of illegal gambling.
"Let a jury of my peers tell me that playing cards is a crime," Kasdon said recently.
Among those arrested in the June raid were Washington restaurateur Duke Zeibert and Arnold A. Heft, a former part-owner of the Washington Bullets.
Like Kasdon, other club members maintain that their card games were harmless and that they were unfairly singled out for prosecution.
They emphasize that club members, through their charitable arm, the Progress Club Foundation Inc., give between $30,000 and $40,000 to charities annually.
That money comes from separate donations by club members and fund-raising events, law enforcement authorities note, not from the club's gambling proceeds, which are far higher. In 1983, according to the club's records, the club took in about $235,000 from gambling, or more than half of its approximate $454,000 in revenue.
"They are successful in clouding the issue between the Progress Club and the Progress Foundation," said Sonner. "It's like the Ford Motor Company coming out and saying, 'We have the right to make defective cars because the Ford Foundation gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity.' "
Sonner and Stout also contend that the club, which they said was no more than a business set up for the primary purpose of gambling, was a magnet attracting organized crime to Maryland, a claim disputed by club members.
In addition, a Montgomery grand jury is investigating whether top Montgomery police officials, including Chief Bernard D. Crooke, ignored illegal gambling at the club in exchange for large contributions by club members to two police-related charities.
After a lively week of pretrial barbs tossed between the club and its accusers, the issue addressed in court may appear dull. Jurors will not be asked to decide whether the club had links to organized crime or whether club members wagered $1.1 million in poker stakes for a 28-month period ending last April, as Stout has alleged.
Instead, they must decide whether gambling, in violation of Maryland law, occurred at the club between January and June of this year, the period during which Rockville police watched the club.
Whatever the jury decides, club members have said they intend to play cards again once the trial is over. "If they lose in court and if Sonner doesn't let them play cards again, they'll go after him in two years at the next election and bury him ," said a source close to the club who asked to remain anonymous.
Housed inside a flat, prefab building behind Congressional Plaza, one of several shopping centers, the Progress Club is not the posh dark wood-and-leather oasis of many wealthy men's clubs. The walls are made of simulated wood paneling; black and orange vinyl chairs surround 21 card tables for four and 16 card tables for eight.
A hugh blown-up photograph of trees, framed by artificial window panes, decorates one long wall; pictures of members and civic awards to the club hang on other walls. A bar and buffet line complete the decor of the football field-sized room.
Other club facilities include a restaurant-style kitchen, a conference room, a small gym with exercise machines, a television set, a checker and chess board table, a massage room and a room with a sauna and whirlpool.
According to club spokesman Herman E. Eig, the club's 1983 revenues of $454,180 came from $151,000 in dues, $11,100 in intiation fees, $42,000 from the sale of food and cigars, $6,400 from special projects such as club bulletins and advertisements and $8,680 in interest -- and the $235,000 earned from the sale of playing cards and fees for entering poker and gin rummy games.
During the same year, according to Eig, club members donated or raised $32,982 for the Progress Club Foundation, which was incorporated in 1980 as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization. The foundation, in turn, donated that money to charities.
Money for the foundation is raised through the club's annual charity auction, direct membership solicitation, special occasion contributions (such as bar mitzvahs), and participation in telethons, according to documents released by foundation charity chairman Leonard Greenberg.
The club's membership is 95 percent Jewish, according to Eig, who boasts that only about 20 percent of 500 members "work for someone else." Most are affluent, successful professional men like Eig, 73. Eig said he started out poor in the 1940s with a small "Mom and Pop" grocery store, then began selling grocery store equipment to supermarkets and eventually, went into real estate sales and development.
Aside from doctors, lawyers, and liquor store dealers, Eig said, membership also includes Marlo Furniture Stores' owner Louis Glickfield; Crown Plaza Hotel owner and developer Allan Rozansky; furrier Donald Gartenhaus; Magruder's Supermarkets owners Louis Fanaroff and Stanford Steppa; Katz's Kosher Supermarkets owners Charles Katz and Stuart Kaufman; and William Proxmire Jr., son of the Democratic senator from Wisconsin. None of these members has been charged.