On the morning of April 11, 2011, University of San Diego basketball coach Bill Grier received a surprise visit at his home from two FBI agents who told him that one of his former players, USD's alltime leading scorer Brandon Johnson, and another ex-USD player named Brandon Dowdy were being charged in federal court at that very moment with trying to fix games.
That information was shocking enough, but when the agents told Grier about the third defendant linked to USD basketball, former assistant coach T.J. Brown -- a man Grier thought highly of even as he dismissed him in 2007 to make room for his incoming staff -- Grier almost had to take a knee. "This thing shook me to my core," Grier said. "It really hit home for me when one of our players approached me and said, 'Coach, I don't know how much of my career was real.'"
The U.S. Attorney's office charged 10 people that morning -- including Johnson, Dowdy and Brown -- with "conspiracy to commit sports bribery, conduct an illegal gambling business, and distribute marijuana." Johnson, Dowdy and Brown are the only three sports figures named in the alleged conspiracy. They have each declined to comment on the charges other than to plead not guilty in court. The other defendants have also pleaded not guilty (with the exception of David Gates, an indigent ex-gang member, who pleaded guilty in August to participating in the gambling business). A trial has been scheduled for September.
An eight-month investigation by SI.com -- which included dozens of interviews with defendants, players, coaches, law enforcement officials and gambling experts, plus a review of hundreds of related documents -- has raised new questions about the methods used by the FBI in making the case, which was called Operation Hookshot.
The agents who appeared on Grier's doorstep had just concluded four months of wiretap surveillance that collected more than 35,000 phone calls and text messages involving the 10 defendants. The court placed this wiretap evidence under protective order to guard the identity of the FBI's informant -- a man we'll call "Chas" -- who participated in Operation Hookshot because he was facing 10 to 20 years in prison for an unrelated cocaine conviction. Prosecutors haven't disclosed which game or games were allegedly affected by the conspiracy, but the indictment unsealed in San Diego federal court last April lists several illuminating allegations.
Johnson, widely considered the best player in USD history, is accused of "influenc[ing] the outcome of [a USD game] for a monetary bribe" in February 2010 -- one of the last games he played as a Torero -- and of soliciting an individual in January 2011 "to affect the outcome of USD basketball games for monetary bribes." This individual has since been revealed to be current USD forward Ken Rancifer, who has not been charged and is believed to have committed no crime. Rancifer's lawyer and university officials declined to make him available to SI.com for an interview.
Brown, the former USD assistant coach, is portrayed as the bridge between the players -- Johnson, Dowdy and Rancifer -- and a small group of gamblers led by Steve Goria, a 32-year-old Iraqi-American sports bettor, small-time bookie and alleged marijuana distributor.
The third "basketball defendant," Dowdy, had played sparingly as a USD freshman in 2006-07 (Johnson's sophomore year and Brown's first and only season as an assistant) before transferring to UC-Riverside, where he enjoyed a trouble-free career that ended in 2010. The indictment accuses Dowdy of soliciting an individual on March 3, 2011, to affect the outcome of a game.
The player Dowdy approached that day spoke with SI.com on condition of anonymity. We'll call him Brian. Like Rancifer, he has not been charged because there is no evidence that he accepted money or tried to influence a game.
Brian described Dowdy as a good friend with whom he kept in close touch, so he wasn't surprised when Dowdy called him in March. The reason for the call, however, came as a shock.
"Basically he was telling me that there were some guys who wanted to pay me to influence a game, win or lose," Brian said. "[Dowdy] said if I just met with the guys they'd give me half the money then and the other half after the game ... I told him I'm not interested. I didn't want to get either one of us in trouble, and he was basically like, 'I feel you. I feel you.' He wasn't trying to influence me to do it ... He said someone told him to present me with this opportunity and that's basically what he did." Dowdy declined to speak to SI.com through his attorney.
The indictment suggests that the person who asked Dowdy to approach Brian was T.J. Brown. At the time, Dowdy was sharing a San Diego apartment with Brown. The former USD assistant had hired Dowdy to coach at the AAU program he operated in La Jolla, an affluent San Diego suburb, and to work security with him at Stingaree, a popular nightclub in downtown San Diego whose security staff Brown managed.
A glitzy, multilevel venue in downtown San Diego, Stingaree is where Brown first met Steve Goria, the flashy, portly bookie known within the club as a frequent customer of its $300 to $500 bottle service. A friendship had formed between Goria and Brown after they met -- a bond that satisfied two vices: Brown's affinity for sports betting and Goria's desire for inside information and access to players.
Soon afterward, Goria introduced Brown to his friend Chas, a gambler who said he'd pay players just to talk to him about fixing games. Unbeknownst to Goria and Brown, Chas was also an informant who was looking at a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison for distributing cocaine and was trying to reduce his sentence by working with the FBI.
The FBI calls its informants "CHS" -- Confidential Human Sources. Chas had recently moved onto the same suburban street where Goria lived, a position from which he would skillfully infiltrate Goria's life.
By February 2011, though, Chas was running out of time. With just a few games left on USD's schedule, his window to provide evidence for his FBI handlers was closing.
According to two sources, Chas approached Brown inside Stingaree and repeated the same deal he'd been whispering to Goria: he'd pay a player $2,000 to $5,000 just to talk about shaving points. "Five minutes," Chas said, according to a source with knowledge of that conversation. "He was like, 'The kid can spit in my face, do whatever he wants. He can just take the money, say no, and leave."
That's when Brown and Dowdy discussed approaching Brian.
The indictment says that the player now known to be Ken Rancifer was solicited to fix games by Brandon Johnson -- another of Brown's former pupils who had grown closer to Brown after he was fired.
On Feb. 23, 2011, Brown drove Rancifer to the Kwik Corner convenience store in Pacific Beach, where Goria and a man named Richard Garmo were waiting to speak with the USD player. Garmo, who owns the store, is a 32-year-old sports bettor and small-time bookie of Chaldean/Iraqi descent -- just like his good friend Goria. (San Diego is home to an estimated 35,000 Chaldean Christians, the second-largest population of this Iraqi expatriate group among U.S. cities.)
But someone was missing.
"Where is the guy from last night?" Brown asked. (The night before, Chas had picked up Goria and Brown in one of his fleet of luxury cars and restated his offer to pay any player willing to hear him out.)
"He said he couldn't make it," Goria said.
The meeting soon sputtered when Goria and Garmo learned that Rancifer was a forward who played about 18 minutes and averaged about eight points a game. In other words, Rancifer wasn't the kind of player who could fix a game. Rancifer, whose attorney has since said that he never intended to pocket any of the money and planned only to pass it along to Brown and Johnson, left the Kwik Corner as empty-handed and uncomfortable as when he'd entered. But the meeting had provided significant evidence for the FBI.
"Three more games go by without that kid showing up at the store," Garmo told SI.com, "and nothing happens and the season's over. And all the people that got wrapped up in this -- if that kid doesn't show up that day, this whole case falls apart."
"And the only reason he went is because [Chas] set it all up."
The next night, Rancifer played 16 minutes in San Diego's 65-61 loss to Portland, shooting 0-for-3 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the free-throw line. A video review of that game by SI.com shows no suspiciously errant free throws or timely dribbles off the foot. The most striking thing about the video is the emptiness of USD's Jenny Craig Pavilion, aka "the Slim Gym," which made every sneaker squeak audible.
In a low-profile game like Portland-San Diego, if lopsided bets are placed on one team and not the other, it's a sign that something funny might be going on, said Las Vegas sports betting expert R.J. Bell. The founder of pregame.com, which advertises itself as "the largest sports betting info site compliant with U.S. law," Bell conducted widely-used research into the Tim Donaghy and University of Toledo betting scandals. He provided similar analysis to SI.com regarding the San Diego case.
Bell pointed out that the only way that point shaving against the spread can work is if players perform at less than their best, after their off-court accomplices bet on the opponent.
Because the games allegedly affected by the USD scheme have not been disclosed, Bell reviewed betting records for the 35 games within the time windows referenced in the indictment, searching for lopsided wagering and changes in the betting line that are consistent with corrupt games. The Portland-USD game, Bell concluded, was clean. (Goria bet on Portland anyway -- and lost -- as evidenced by seven betting receipts found during an FBI search of his home.)
USD's home game against Saint Mary's on February 18, 2010, however, stood out. Before that game, which falls within the window of games Brandon Johnson is accused of influencing as an active player, enough money was bet on Saint Mary's for the line to move from USD plus-7 to USD plus-8 ½. "This sort of imbalanced betting, followed by significant point spread movement, is consistent with a corrupt game," Bell said.
Although Saint Mary's won by 12 -- a victory for all of the gamblers who bet against San Diego -- Johnson's performance doesn't show signs of point shaving. As usual, the slashing, 6-foot guard led the Toreros in scoring. His 15 points included a nine-point flurry in the game's final 3 ½ minutes -- strong evidence that he wasn't shaving points. Johnson took seven of USD's last 11 shots, making four. He missed his last two shots, both three-pointers -- one when USD was down by 13 with 3:23 left and the other when it was down by 10 with 1:46 remaining. This last attempt, had he made it, would have cut the lead to 7 -- a dangerous dip beneath the betting line of 8 ½ points.
The bottom line: If this Saint Mary's game is the one Johnson is accused of "influencing the outcome of," convincing a jury of his influence might prove difficult.
The incident that sparked Operation Hookshot had nothing to do with basketball.
In January 2008, a Toyota Camry driven by Goria was stopped at a border checkpoint in Southern California. According to court documents, officers found $104,900 cash in the car. Goria explained that he was headed to Las Vegas to pay off some legal gambling debts, but other evidence found in the Camry -- including printed directions to marijuana-rich Humboldt County -- led authorities to believe that Goria was on his way north to buy an amount of weed much larger than the "marijuana cigarette concealed in a container near one of the [Camry's] visors" according to court documents.
Goria was detained briefly. Most of the seized cash was later forfeited to the United States. More important, Goria had landed himself on the feds' radar. The FBI soon learned that Goria liked to bet on sports. A lot. He also accepted bets, placing illegal wagers for friends and clients through an offshore Internet service.
Operation Hookshot was born.
Chas would come along later and nudge it forward.
Though Goria has no criminal convictions on his record, he is the only defendant among the 10 in the USD case who remains in custody without bond. This is at least partly due to his being charged shortly after the USD indictment came down for his role in an unrelated robbery last December. (Goria has pleaded not guilty, and after presenting his defense at a preliminary hearing, the judge in that case said that if a motion to dismiss the charges against Goria were entered at trial, "I'd probably have granted it.")
Chas remains free, despite a lengthy criminal record. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the late 1990s for distributing methamphetamine. (He became an informant and his time was cut to seven years.) Upon his release, his adjustment to probation was "dismal," according to a report by the U.S. Probation Department. "He quickly reverted to his high dollar drug dealing activities ... was in no way humbled ... and simply started back up where he had left off,." the probation report states.
In May 2011 -- after his participation in Operation Hookshot -- Chas was charged in San Diego federal court with distributing multiple kilos of cocaine. He pleaded guilty, and despite the Probation Department's conclusion that "the impact of his drug distribution on the community is significant", was set free on less than $12,000 bond, a jarringly small amount for such a charge. His sentencing in that case has been postponed -- presumably until the USD case is decided.
Last year, Chas was charged with "exhibiting a deadly weapon" -- a misdemeanor -- after he directed racial insults at a black woman in a Del Mar restaurant, then pulled a knife on her in the parking lot. The charge was reduced to an infraction and Chas was assessed a $100 fine.
In August 2011, Chas was arrested after an altercation at the same restaurant with a different woman who police found with "swelling by the bridge of her nose and a cut on her nose ... [and] blood spattered on her face and shirt. [Chas] had no visible injury." He was released the next day on less than $40,000 bond. Assault charges against him were rejected.
When Chas appeared at a recent probation hearing on his meth case, his probation officer recommended that he be imprisoned for 30 months based on his recent violations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Harold Chun, the lead prosecutor in the USD case, who days earlier had assumed the same role in Chas' meth and cocaine cases, disagreed with this recommendation. Chas walked out of court a free man.
The government has used unsavory informants before, but this instance is compounded by the recent discovery that Chas' longtime defense lawyer also represented Steve Goria in his 2008 border checkpoint case.
"Based on what's already in the public record about [Chas]," said Kris Kraus, who's defending Goria's sister Lilian in the USD case, "I believe the government is going to have significant issues with this informant's credibility."
Prosecutor Chun and FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth declined to answer several questions posed by SI.com about the alleged game fixing, Chas, and his involvement in Operation Hookshot.
There's a hearing set for April to address the issue of the attorney who represented both Goria and the informant who set Goria up. At stake is whether the information Chas gave the FBI was tainted, and therefore inadmissible. (SI.com attempted to contact both Chas and his attorney several times, through several avenues, without success. The attorney, Nicholas DePento, told Fox 5 TV in San Diego that he still represents Chas, but denied tainting the USD case.)
T.J. Brown's attorney, Tom Matthews, summed up the government's case this way: "They were investigating a marijuana case, stumbled upon some illegal Internet sports betting, then came across some exaggerated claims of an ability to fix basketball games. The government got over-excited and filed charges without conducting a sufficient investigation."
Meanwhile, hope springs eternalat the Slim Gym where, Grier, the eternal optimist, has guided his young team to a 7-12 record this season -- one more win than USD had last year. Ken Rancifer has started 12 games, but has averaged just seven points and four rebounds as his lawyer, his coach and the university have tried to shield him from further scrutiny. As the season got under way, Grier seemed refreshed. "This time of year a lot of coaches are dreading the long grind ahead, but I've never looked more forward to getting going again," he said. "We're all very eager to move past this."
Across town in gritty, beer-soaked Pacific Beach, six miles but worlds apart from USD's pristine, private campus, defendant Richard Garmo stood behind the counter of his convenience store, thumbing angrily through a list of wiretap evidence he wished he could share. "Just looking at this stuff, everything says 'fixing' in quotations because the feds wanted to make sure that that's all we ever talked about," Garmo said, frustration flecking his voice. "[Chas] was always pushing that part. 'Have him go call this guy, have him go call that guy. Let's set this up.' I'm like, 'Whoa why are you pushing? When something happens, something happens. Something don't happen, it don't happen ...' But he forced it. He kept forcing it.
"You're telling an 18-year-old kid to show up to get $5,000. That's how this whole thing started. If that kid doesn't show up to get that money, you and me aren't having this conversation."