With handcuffs locked around his wrists, disgraced former Philadelphia sportscaster Don Tollefson awkwardly grabbed a pitcher of water in a Bucks County courtroom and nervously poured into a small paper cup around lunch time Wednesday.
Soon, he would hear the news that left Common Pleas Judge Rea B. Boylan’s courtroom packed with his victims, supporters and members of the media.
Two months after being convicted of scamming an estimated 200 people out of $340,000 worth of sports-related trips that would never come to fruition, the 62-year-old Tollefson was sentenced to two to four years in state prison.
The judge noted that Tollefson’s prison time — he could be released in as little as 15 months — should be “served in a theraputic community” that offers cognitive behavioral therapy to help address mental-health and drug/alcohol-addiction needs.
At the end of a sentencing hearing that lasted roughly three hours, Boylan recommended that Tollefson be incarcerated at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Chester.
“If I could, I would sentence [Tollefson] to three to six years in county [jail] with work release, but I don’t have that ability,” she said, referring to sentencing restrictions. “I see a lack of understanding about the impact of the crime on the community.
“The integrity of all charities in our community was impacted by what happened here. The very fabric of our society [suffered] great damage.”
Tollefson showed no visible reaction when Boylan additionally sentenced him to 15 years probation and ordered him to make $164,528.20 in restitutions other than asking reporters to respect his family’s privacy.
The back story
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.
That all changed when he was charged (and ultimately convicted) of using that fame 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.
Though the judge said such evidence was never entered into the record, it is thought that Tollefson used the money to feed addictions to alcohol and prescription medications including Percocet and Oxycontin.
Charged last February with theft, misrepresenting sale/promotion as being for a charity and other offenses, Tollefson faced up to 37 years in prison and walked away from a plea deal.
Victims and defenders
Among the groups he scammed was the foundation benefiting the widow and children of slain Plymouth Township Police Officer Brad Fox.
Fox’s parents were in court Wednesday and a spokesman for the Officer Brad Fox 5K Foundation said they were disappointed with the verdict.
“It was a great gamble on Don Tollefson’s part. They offered him a deal [but] it went to trial,” said Darren Meehan, executive director of the Fox foundation that will put on a 5K on April 11. “He made the court look ridiculous but he got a better sentence than if he took the deal.
“The Fox family is very disappointed. They don’t feel that justice was served today. It was a bizarre trial to say the least.”
At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, prosecutor Matt Weintraub entered an inch-high stack of victim-impact statements into the official record and presented testimony from several of Tollefson’s marks.
One of those statements noted that Tollefson’s criminal acts “robbed us of our faith and trust in humanity.”
Hearkening back to the time when she and 14 friends were bilked out of a trip to watch the Eagles play in Denver, Cynthia Moffit said she “was so hurt, frustrated, disappointed and angry when I was forced to see him for what he really is: A liar and a thief.”
For his part, defense co-counsel Robert Goldman called Dr. Steven Samuel, a licensed psychologist who met with Tollefson twice in the past month, to the stand.
Samuel noted that Tollefson “never had a chance to have a normal life,” what with his mother forcing him to share a bed with her and administering daily enemas until he was 16.
“That would be considered sexual abuse today,” said Samuel. “I think Mr. Tollefson doesn’t really know who he is. He’s a shell, empty inside with no real identity, self-destructive and hate-filled.”
Among several other character witnesses called on Tollefson’s behalf, Leah Yow of the Devereux Foundation said her non-profit group would not seek the $7,000 in restitution to which it’s entitled.
“I don’t believe he intended to defraud us,” she said. “I feel like he got caught up in something that made him … behave irresponsibly.”
After airing a three-minute YouTube video that showed Tollefson’s work with an organization that helps at-risk youths, Goldman said the defendant “has done more for charity than I’ve ever done in my life and ever will. I think Don Tollefson is a great man.”
Testifying one last time on his own behalf, Tollefson was prohibited from directly addressing his victims (at their request).
Though accused of being a master manipulator at points during the hearing, he said he regretted what happened to the point of writing apologetic letters to his victims.
“Every day is a day of humiliating reflection,” he said. “I feel an enormous amount of remorse that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I know I have to be punished for what I did. I take ownership of what I did.
“What I did to those people was so terrible. They have every right to be as angry at me as they are.”