Sporting a baggy wrinkled suit, former Philadelphia sportscaster Don Tollefson surveyed a Doylestown courtroom with tired, sunken eyes on Tuesday morning.
After declining a plea deal on Monday, the one-time local-media celebrity would soon face the first day of trial in which prosecutors allege he defrauded donors of more than $300,000 through a charity auction scheme.
“I’m strong,” he told NewsWorks about an hour before jury members took their seats in Bucks County Common Pleas Judge Rea B. Boylan’s courtroom. “Four hundred and 51 days sober.”
After briefly speaking about acquaintances he’s lost to addiction — a struggle that he, too, has faced via alcohol and painkillers — the 62-year-old started making final preparations for a case in which he’s playing the dual roles of defendant and defense attorney.
The case, prosecutor Matt Weintraub would soon tell the jury, is about three words: “Fall from grace.”
During Tollefson’s heyday, he stood as an eminently recognizable sportscaster in a sports-hungry media market.
He was also known as a local celebrity who gave back through an array of charity efforts.
But on Tuesday, he stood accused of using that reputation as a tool to convince people to buy bogus travel packages to Eagles away games (air, hotel and game tickets included) and other events under the guise of helping charitable organizations.
It is estimated that some 200 people were defrauded out of $340,000 between January 2012 and October 2013, when he entered in-patient drug and alcohol addiction treatment.
Charged last February with theft, misrepresenting sale/promotion as being for a charity and other offenses, Tollefson faces up to 37 years in prison if convicted.
The prosecution opens
Addressing a jury that was selected on Monday, Weintraub argued that, through his job and charity groups like “Winning Ways” and “One Child Saved,” Tollefson was an icon who was trusted throughout the Delaware Valley.
“He could do no wrong. People had faith in his good name,” he said, adding that Tollefson assumed the role of a “Pied Piper to get them to donate causes that … never got the money they were supposed to get.”
Weintraub was alluding to the fact that Tollefson would show up at events that benefited other charities and make a pitch that they should donate to his causes as well.
Among those other events was a gathering to benefit the family of Brad Fox, a Plymouth Township police officer killed in the line of duty in 2012. There, he collected cash and credit-card numbers from attendees who wanted in on the $500 Eagles road-trip offer, the prosecution stated.
“The Philadelphia area is a rabid sports area and [people here] also love a good deal,” Weintraub continued. “Mr. Tollefson dangled the sweetest carrot in front of them that he could dangle: If you give me, Don Tollefson, this money, you will donate money to my charity, to your charity and go to the Eagles game with tickets, air and hotel included.”
It was a too-good-to-be-true offer, though, as victims would learn when the trips never materialized.
“The evidence will show that he conned these charities out of money that was supposed to be theirs,” the prosecutor said. “The main charity that Don Tollefson supported in these endeavors was Don Tollefson.”
Tolley makes his case
For his part, Tollefson told the jury that the only thing he’s guilty of is being a bad businessman who got in over his head.
“I did not, at any point, have any intention of not delivering on what I promised,” he said, blaming the Philadelphia Eagles for not living up to a purported arrangement he had with them. “The money ran out. Mistakes were made. The problem with me trying to do too much was that I made a lot of mistakes.”
In a winding 20-minute address, Tollefson spoke about his “abhorrence of prejudice,” telling children and donors who accompanied him to the London Olympics in 2012 about Jesse Owens and Adolf Hitler and how his wife Marilyn Torres Tollefson has filed for bankruptcy and, soon he expects, divorce.
“It will always be a moment of humiliating reflection when I think about how badly I messed up,” he said.
The first witness on the stand Tuesday was Tom Fox, father of the slain police officer.
Fox said he first met Tollefson at the funeral when he gave him a business card and said, “If there’s anything I can do for you, give me a call.”
Fox called when he thought Tollefson could serve as an emcee at a fundraising event for the Brad Fox Children’s Fund, which benefits the slain officer’s two young children.
On a video from that event shown in court, Tollefson is seen talking behind the bar about the bravery of police officers before segueing into a pitch for $500 Eagles trips for which he’d need a firm commitment (and payment) within a couple days.
“I was hoping you were sincere,” said Fox, when Tollefson asked whether he thought he was being genuine in his offers, a line of questioning that goes to whether the defendant set out to defraud or, like he claims, had dreams bigger than reality would let him reach.
Testifying after Fox were two attendees at that event. They recounted how the trips they paid for after the Fox event never came to be.
“I’m just one person, but there are going to be a lot of people lining up at your door when word of this gets out,” said Cynthia Moffit of telling police about the Tollefson “hoax” after a trip for her and 14 friends to Denver for an Eagles game fell through.
Asked whether she’s gotten her money back, Moffit told the jury, “Never. Not to this day.”
The trial, which resumes in Doylestown on Wednesday, is expected to last three weeks.