Bail set at $250,000, Don Tollefson jailed on charity fraud charges

Don Tollefson is escorted out of District Court in Warminster by two Pennsylvania constables on his way to prison, with bail set at $250,000.
Don Tollefson is escorted out of District Court in Warminster by two Pennsylvania constables on his way to prison, with bail set at $250,000. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 20, 2014

Don Tollefson made his name - and his living - talking to people, anchoring the sports segment of the most-watched local newscast in a sports-crazed town.

But on Tuesday, as he finally showed up to answer fraud charges that had been building publicly for months, the former sportscaster was silent.

Handcuffed and lacking his trademark smile, Tollefson looked tired and gaunt as he walked into a Warminster courtroom for his arraignment, the TV cameras that created his career swarming around him.

Prosecutors say Tollefson, 61, of Glenside, fleeced at least 100 people out of more than $100,000. They have not offered a motive or explanation.

And in his first public appearance since the allegations emerged in the fall, neither did Tollefson.

Sitting next to his two lawyers in a courtroom crammed with reporters, Tollefson spoke in clipped but polite responses to District Judge Daniel Finello.

Yes, he said, he's married. No, he'd never been arrested. No, he isn't working, but is collecting Social Security disability benefits.

When asked if he was addicted to drugs or alcohol, Tollefson said that he had been receiving treatment and that he had been sober for 131 days.

That sobriety thus began about the time Warminster police began probing his charity fund-raising.

He allegedly sold travel packages that failed to provide what was promised, such as airfare and game tickets - in some cases, anything at all - over the last three years.

Tollefson, who spent nearly 30 years at the city's Fox and ABC affiliates, was able to dupe many of his victims because of his celebrity status, according to Ryan Hyde, a deputy district attorney in Bucks County. Many were too timid to come forward, at least at first, because the money they lost involved charities, Hyde said.

About half of the packages were for Eagles road games. But other events included Super Bowls, Phillies spring training, and the Kentucky Derby, police said. Tollefson's alleged victims lived in Philadelphia and its suburbs, as well as in New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley.

The packages were sold with the understanding that some of the money would go to a charity, such as one of Tollefson's organizations for children or an outside foundation. Those included the Salvation Army, Special Olympics of Pennsylvania, and a foundation for the family of Plymouth Township Police Officer Bradley Fox, who was killed in the line of duty in 2012.

Police said those charities often failed to receive the money Tollefson raised, and Tollefson's charities lacked the tax-exempt status he claimed.

Hyde told the judge that police continue to receive calls about game packages sold by Tollefson. He argued for a high bail, saying Tollefson might attempt further scams if allowed to go free.

One of his attorneys, Raymond McHugh, said Tollefson was prepared to defend himself against the charges, but did not elaborate.

Finello set bail at $250,000 and Tollefson was jailed at the Bucks County prison after he did not post bond Tuesday afternoon.

Tollefson is charged with a first-degree felony, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, as well as lesser felony counts of theft and two misdemeanors. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 44 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines would call for far less time given Tollefson's clean record, Hyde said.

Tollefson worked at 6ABC from 1975 to 1990, ascending to sports director, and had the same job at Fox29 from 1995 to 2008. He also was a sidelines reporter at nationally televised college football games and hosted an Eagles pregame show.

He most recently hosted a weekly television program called Tolly's Awesome Friends, which profiled people in the region who helped others in need. It was shown on a Cherry Hill-based station and stopped airing in April.

The investigation began in October. A woman called Warminster police to say Tollefson failed to provide travel packages that she and her friends bought for an Eagles-Broncos game in Denver, court records stated.

The packages, which cost $500 for two people, were supposed to include airfare, game tickets, and accommodations. The money was to be split between Tollefson's "One Child Saved" charity and a foundation for the family of Fox, the fallen police officer, court records stated.

Tollefson allegedly sold 18 of the Denver game packages at a 5K memorial run for Fox and at the Madison Tavern in Warminster, where many runners gathered afterward.

Thomas Fox, father of the officer, told detectives that Tollefson had failed to provide any money to the foundation for Bradley Fox's children, police said.

Hyde declined to speculate on Tollefson's motives. but he said the deception progressed from selling packages that lacked only some of the promised amenities, such as airfare or game tickets, to ones in which all of the money was "misappropriated."

Prosecutors said they suspect there may be more victims.

Tollefson did not appear at a hearing in Montgomery County last month in a civil case brought by an Allentown couple who said he sold them a Super Bowl package but never provided airfare. A judge entered a $3,300 judgment against Tollefson. "I hope he gets what he's got coming to him," Steve Cirino, 62, of Bensalem, said Tuesday. "He's ripping people off."

Cirino said that last summer, he bought a travel package for two to this year's Kentucky Derby from Tollefson for $1,500. The deal was supposed to include four nights' lodging, parties, race tickets, and round-trip airfare. He said he got nothing, and Tollefson stopped taking his calls.

Marty Mellman, 58, of Cherry Hill, said he had purchased a Kentucky Derby package from Tollefson that fell short of what was promised.

"I don't want him to go to jail, but to pay back the people that he hurt," Mellman said.

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

Inquirer staff writers Chris Palmer and Carolyn Davis contributed to this article.

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