Pose for news cameras alongside a mountain of cash and you’re bound to draw the attention of some unsavoury characters. Jonathan Duhamel understood that risk after winning the World Series of Poker in 2010—an $8.9-million haul that made him an overnight celebrity in his home province of Quebec. But the 24-year-old from Longueuil never suspected how close to home the danger lay.
Four days before Christmas, Duhamel buzzed a man dressed as a courier into his luxury condo building, thinking a shipment of gifts he had ordered online had finally arrived. “The guy had a parcel and a pencil,” Duhamel recalls. “I didn’t think twice.” He had opened his door only a couple of centimetres when the fake delivery man burst through—followed by another man who had been hiding in the hallway. The pair savagely punched, kneed and kicked Duhamel before forcing him to open a safe where he kept money and valuables.
The attackers absconded with a $40,000 gold-and-diamond bracelet awarded to World Series of Poker winners, along with a Rolex watch and an undisclosed number of 500-euro notes. But the big surprise came a week later when Longueuil police announced they’d arrested Duhamel’s 20-year-old ex-girlfriend, Bianca Rojas-Latraverse, in connection with the invasion. Investigators believe she told the assailants where to find the young poker star and his valuables. All three suspects now face robbery-related charges, while a man who was allegedly spotted showing off the Rolex in the Beauce, a small-town region south of Quebec City, was charged with possession of stolen property.
Duhamel feels fortunate to have seen Christmas. “These guys said they were going to cut off my fingers,” he says. “After I opened the safe, they tied my hands behind my back and started again. Punching, kicking me in the face. I was really scared for my life.” The young poker wizard escaped without broken bones or serious internal injury, but spent two days in hospital nursing a constellation of stitched cuts and bruises, including a badly blackened right eye. He got out in time for Christmas Day, and passed the rest of the holidays taking stock of both his security precautions and his choice of company. “I thought I was being careful,” he says. “I guess I wasn’t being careful enough.”
The attack is indeed a warning sign. As high-stakes gambling migrates to the mass media and Internet—promoted with gaudy imagery of money piled high—it is proving a powerful draw for those who would rather steal the cash than win it one hand at a time. Last year in Berlin, a group of robbers armed with pistols and machetes burst into a European Poker Tour event being held in a hotel ballroom, and got away with more than 220,000 euros. Nine months later, police and security guards in Las Vegas were caught off guard when a gunman wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet strolled onto the floor of the Bellagio Hotel casino. He held up a craps table for $1.5 million in chips.
Poker players make particularly enticing targets, say security experts, because they’re known for keeping loose treasure on hand in the form of cash and chips. “They always have a safe or safety deposit box,” says Derk Boss, chairman of the gaming and wagering protection council of ASIS International, an association of security professionals. “Down here in the States, they generally do this to keep their money hidden from Uncle Sam.” In Las Vegas, there have been recent reports of robbers following poker winners as they left casinos, and holding them up as they were heading home.
Duhamel doesn’t play to the stereotype of a freewheeling professional gambler (though he did have a safe custom-installed in his suite). After his big win in 2010, he transferred his winnings through conventional banking channels and took care to comply with tax authorities, recalls Seth Palansky, who speaks for the World Series of Poker. In Quebec, he is known for eschewing flash and bling, keeping a small circle of trusted friends and making headlines only for generous charitable donations.
As for his relationship with Rojas-Latraverse, Yves Bouchard, Duhamel’s agent and friend of eight years, says it had raised no alarm. “My only concern as an agent was: is this person a gold digger?” recalls Bouchard. “But she was not. She paid for herself, her travel expenses, everything.” Rojas-Latraverse lived in Saint-Sauveur, a small town north of Montreal, and Bouchard was led to believe her family had money. “She was always well-dressed and well-behaved,” he says.
Duhamel declined to say how he met the woman, but added the romance lasted only four months before he broke up with her in late August. “I just wanted to move on, that’s why I ended the relationship. But I guess she didn’t feel the same way.” Indeed, says Duhamel, Rojas-Latraverse took the decision badly, texting him about six weeks after he ended the relationship to tell him she was pregnant—a claim he says was untrue.
Whatever passed between them, somebody provided Duhamel’s attackers with intelligence only a close confidant would know. They had his apartment buzzer number, and soon after jumping him, he says, they demanded that he open the safe, which few people know exists. “I get along pretty well with almost everyone, so I was really wondering who it could be,” Duhamel says, noting that he did not know either of the assailants. “At some points I was suspecting almost everyone around me. So for me, the arrests were a big relief.” Rojas-Latraverse faces five charges, including conspiracy to commit a criminal act, and was held in custody pending a Wednesday court appearance. Maclean’s was unable to identify a lawyer by press time to comment on her behalf.
So far, police have recovered the Rolex, worth more than $5,000, along with one of the 500-euro notes that was in the safe. A man had tried to break the note at a bar on Montreal’s famed Crescent Street, not knowing, evidently, that 500s are a rare denomination. The bracelet—the poker world’s equivalent of a Stanley Cup ring—remains unaccounted for, but Duhamel is confident police will track it down.
Recovering his sense of security won’t be so easy. When news of the robbery broke, commenters on U.S. poker sites chided him for what they deemed lax security, suggesting he should live in a gated community. Duhamel dislikes the idea, noting that he lives in Canada because he considers it safe. “I think of myself as a normal guy, the same as I was before winning,” he explains. “I don’t want to live in some sort of huge castle and never go outside. It’s not my style.” Instead, he blames himself for lack of vigilance (“It’s me who opened the door”) and promises to be a lot more cautious in the future when it comes to selecting friends. “People say you’re always learning,” he says ruefully. “I can tell you that, in last week or so, I’ve learned a lot.”