Sportscaster Don Tollefson may be about to hit a new low

Don Tollefson is accused of selling fake travel packages. He has a hearing Thursday.
Don Tollefson is accused of selling fake travel packages. He has a hearing Thursday. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 25, 2014

On a Monday afternoon in March 2008, Don Tollefson left his Montgomery County home for Villanova University, where the Fox 29 sportscaster planned to report on a Wildcats win in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

He never made it. Tollefson's 2001 Chevy Tahoe collided with a Mitsubishi Lancer and crashed into a concrete barrier on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The next morning, according to court documents, he awoke in "tremendous pain," having suffered whiplash-like injuries to his neck and shoulder.

Tollefson, then 55, had a few months left on his $4,900-a-week contract at Fox, but ended up working just one more day.

He has not held a full-time job since.

For some who know Tollefson, the accident appears to mark the start of his plunge from a local celebrity who spent decades on television and raising money for charity to a self-described addict accused of selling more than $100,000 in sham travel packages to sporting events.

"I remember him talking about how painful it was," said Bill Osborn, a friend who said he had known Tollefson for years. "I remember him talking about the medication."

Tollefson's fall could reach another low Thursday, when prosecutors are scheduled to present evidence and witnesses at his preliminary hearing on felony fraud charges. The hearing will occur in the same Warminster courtroom where he was arraigned in February and said he had been sober for 131 days.

Neither Tollefson nor prosecutors have offered a motive for his alleged crimes. In March, he answered the door at his Wyndmoor home, telling an Inquirer reporter that he could not comment but to keep him in his prayers. After promising to talk to The Inquirer last week, Tollefson reneged, first through his lawyer and then by phone, saying it was not legally sensible.

Tollefson was once the city's highest-paid sportscaster, described by Howard Cosell as the "most extraordinary talent I've ever encountered."

Since landing in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, Tollefson, who attended Stanford University, has been known for his near-constant use of the adjective awesome while reporting on sports figures and hosting charity events, including his own.

But at some point, according to police, Tollefson turned his celebrity and philanthropy into a ruse, selling travel packages at bargain prices to admirers who thought they were helping a cause. Tickets to events such as the Super Bowl or an out-of-town Eagles game often never materialized, nor did some of the promised hotel rooms and plane tickets, police said.

It is unclear where Tollefson got the travel packages, although he allegedly told some he purchased game tickets from the Eagles organization.

Osborn said he confronted Tollefson last fall when his friend failed to deliver sideline passes and 50-yard line seats he promised to an Eagles game.

"He didn't fight back," Osborn said. "He didn't argue. I could really sense something was wrong."

Osborn said he did not start to think about Tollefson's accident until after the sportscaster entered rehab.

Tollefson has twice sought inpatient treatment since last fall - once before his arrest and again after he was released from jail in March. He has gone through four lawyers, and now is represented by Sharif Abaza, who declined to comment.

Tollefson grew up in San Francisco. By 22, he had made it to ABC's Philadelphia affiliate - now called 6ABC - as a general-assignment news reporter. By 23, he was sports director. At 33, he was the highest-paid sportscaster in Philadelphia, signing a five-year deal in 1986 worth $1.5 million. He told the Philadelphia Daily News back then that he would be "financially set for life."

In 1990, Tollefson left television to focus on Winning Ways, his charitable organization dedicated to helping troubled youths. By the mid-1990s, he was back on the air. At Fox 29, his roles evolved from general-assignment reporter to morning anchor to host of an Eagles halftime show.

"I think his reputation and success as a sportscaster was as much tied to his doing good in the community, which is why this is such a tragedy," Roger LaMay, the former general manager who hired Tollefson, said earlier this year.

Whether Tollefson's 2008 car crash spurred his downfall remains unclear. But the wreck undoubtedly affected his life. He filed two lawsuits over it.

The first was against Fox for denial of a workers' compensation claim. Medical experts on both sides disputed the impact of his injuries, which included a cervical strain and a neck sprain, according to court documents. In 2012, a state court ruled that Tollefson was entitled to benefits, about $800 a week, for the last three months of his contract.

Tollefson also sued the driver of the Mitsubishi, Michael Derosa of Connecticut, claiming the injuries diminished his ability to work. The case was settled in 2009.

Tollefson never went broke. He found part-time work in television and radio. And he qualified for $2,600 a month in federal disability benefits, while his wife, Marilyn, earns about $70,000 a year, according to a petition he filed for a public defender. Together they have a 4-year-old daughter.

Tollefson also continued his charity work. "He really believed in what he was talking about," said Scott Palmer, the Phillies' director of public affairs, who worked with Tollefson at 6ABC. "I don't think you can fake that."

Palmer said he last saw Tollefson in February 2013. He was with a disabled soldier who had lost a limb and asked Palmer if the Phillies could provide some memorabilia.

The next day, Tollefson left for the Super Bowl in New Orleans, a game for which he had allegedly sold several sham travel packages at charity events.

Several months later, he gave an impassioned speech at a fund-raiser for the family of Brad Fox, a Plymouth Township police officer killed in the line of duty in 2012. Tollefson told the crowd that the real heroes were people like Fox and members of the military, not well-paid sports stars.

It brought tears to the eyes of Cynthia Moffett. She bought a travel package to an Eagles game in Denver. Some of the money was supposed to help Fox's family.

Months later, Moffett was on the phone with Tollefson, trying to get her money back.

"He said, 'I have an addiction to prescription pills,' " she recalled last week. "And I said, 'A lot of people do, but they don't steal people's money.' "

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

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