Don Tollefson's alleged fraud: Is $100,000 only the beginning?

Posted: February 20, 2014

DON TOLLEFSON got sober 131 days ago, but rock bottom was waiting for him last night in a Bucks County prison cell.

Yesterday, the former Philadelphia TV sports anchor was jailed on allegations that he used his "good-guy" celebrity status and off-the-grid charities to scam more than 100 people out of about $100,000 and dupe the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, the Salvation Army and a memorial foundation for slain Montgomery County police officer Brad Fox.

"We have victims from New Jersey, Philadelphia, from all the surrounding counties, Lehigh County, Berks County," said Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Hyde, a specialist in complex white-collar crime. "It's generally a very wide swath."

The case is going to get more complex.

Hyde said yesterday's felony charges likely cover only a "very small percentage" of victims in Tollefson's alleged schemes, which typically involved selling tickets to sporting events, including the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl. New victims are coming forward "several times a week," Hyde said.

"He would state: For X number of dollars, half of those dollars to be split between his charities and half to another charity, he will provide tickets to a sporting event, board and air travel," Hyde said. "Mr. Tollefson then would not provide any of those benefits and certainly would not provide the half of the funds promised to the charitable organization."

Tollefson, 61, a Hall of Fame member of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia who was a familiar TV presence for years on both 6ABC and Fox 29, declined to comment as he turned himself in to Warminster police. He wore a gray suit and red tie and smiled slightly to reporters.

But "Tollie" looked haggard and dejected as police led him into court in handcuffs, as if he'd aged a few years in an hour. The tie and smile were gone.

"I think he's had a difficult time this past year, but I really think he's on the mend," Tollefson's attorney, Michael McGovern, told reporters. "I think he recognizes that he needs to put people in positions where they are whole again. There is no criminal intent here."

Tollefson, who reportedly has fought an addiction to prescription painkillers, told the judge that he is receiving Social Security payments and is in an addiction-treatment program, with 131 sober days. He was unable to post bail - set at 10 percent of $250,000 - and was sent to the Bucks County Prison.

"You steal people's money, that's what happens," said Jim Terra, a retired construction worker from Northeast Philly who lost $500 he gave Tollefson for an Eagles trip to Denver. "His attorneys say it's a mistake. Well, if it's a mistake, what happened to the money?"

Tollefson is charged with dealing in the proceeds of unlawful activity, theft and violations of the state charitable-organizations statute. Hyde said Tollefson's Winning Ways and One Child Saved charities were not eligible for federal or state tax-exempt status, as Tollefson had claimed.

The Daily News reported in December that Tollefson's charities have been raising eyebrows for more than a decade, and that a former financial adviser from New Jersey alleges that Tollefson was involved with a phony $200,000 Israeli bond scheme in the early 1990s.

Tollefson, who hosted an in-stadium Eagles halftime show between 2009 and 2012, also ran, a website that featured all-capital-letter pleas for tickets and money to help inner-city children. The site went dark in December.

Hyde said his office is still investigating how the missing money was spent. Some participants allegedly were scammed out of hundreds of dollars, some several thousand.

"Man, he just sells it so well," said Lou Berman, an alleged Tollefson victim who runs an autism charity called Louie's Voice. "I guess you can't judge someone by what they say. You gotta judge them by what they do. He's a professional pitchman. Getting sucked into this is not hard."

Hyde said anyone who believes they were scammed by Tollefson should call Warminster Police Detective John Bonargo at 215-343-0100 or 215-672-1000.

On Twitter: @wbender99

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