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The Case Against BRIAN SPENCER

May 11, 1987
May 11, 1987

Table of Contents
May 11, 1987

Kentucky Derby
Stanley Cup
Michael Cooper
Crampton
Volleyball
Tennis
Boxing
Brian Spencer
Nostalgia
Reminiscence
Point After

The Case Against BRIAN SPENCER

One woman's testimony could mean a death sentence for a former hockey player accused of murder

Early on the afternoon of Feb. 4, 1982, a truck driver named Albert Brihn, on the way to a sewage-treatment plant off PGA Boulevard just outside Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., noticed something lying in a clearing of pine trees 60 feet off the road connecting the treatment plant to the street. It looked like a dummy.

This is an article from the May 11, 1987 issue Original Layout

Mr. Brihn delivered his load and headed back out. On the way, the thing in the clearing caught his eye again. Then something else—a buzzard, floating over it, banking again and again in those grim buzzard circles. Suddenly the thought broke, and Mr. Brihn knew what the thing was.

He stopped the truck and walked to the body. It was a man dressed in a black bikini bathing suit. There was a gold chain around the neck threaded through an Italian horn of plenty. He studied the body—there was a hole to the right of the nose, another at the right temple, both with muzzle burns, and there was a tear between the nose and the mouth where a bullet fragment had passed going out. As he stood there, the chest rose and fell twice. It was 1:30 in the afternoon.

A little more than 10 minutes later, the paramedics from Old Dixie Fire Station No. 2 arrived in an ambulance. If you believe the signs you see coming into town, Palm Beach Gardens is the golf capital of the world. It is home to a large retirement community—in this case a financially secure retirement community—so when one of its citizens expires, serious efforts are made toward not leaving the body lying around. Certainly not long enough to attract buzzards.

This particular body, of course, did not belong to someone of retirement age. The paramedics were there in 10 minutes anyway, and took it, the chest still rising and falling, to Palm Beach Gardens Community Hospital, where, at 3:36 p.m., the chest went suddenly still. Michael J. Dalfo was 29 years old, and the coroner's report would say he died of two .25-caliber bullets, shot at close range into his head.

There is not much to say here about Michael J. Dalfo. He lived with his brother, Christopher, in a condominium in the Glen wood section of PGA National, a golf resort and residential development. His father had some money, and he and Christopher and his mother once owned a restaurant, Christopher-Michael's Ristorante. A year after they sold it, investigators say, someone torched the place.

Michael Dalfo had a mustache and a girlfriend, and he apparently spent a lot of time with other girls, ones he had to pay. He also apparently used cocaine.

On the night he was shot, according to police, Dalfo called the Fantasy Island Escort Service three different times. A woman named Diane De Lena had come over first, sometime before midnight, and stayed an hour. Dalfo, in the words of an assistant state attorney, "hadn't been able to get things going" and tried to talk his visitor into staying another hour. He wrote her a personal check for $75, but she refused to take it and left.

Dalfo called Fantasy Island again, this time ordering two more girls. When they arrived he told them that they were "dogs," and they left.

"He was very untactful," one of the escorts would later tell police.

Forty-five minutes later he called Fantasy Island again and ordered a fourth girl. When the service didn't send one, he ordered yet another—this one from a different outfit, Rainbow Escorts—who showed up at about 3:30 in the morning and found the door to Dalfo's condominium open. She told police she walked in and found no one home. She used Dalfo's phone to call Rainbow Escorts and report she had been stood up. Then she left.

And the next person known to have seen Michael Dalfo was a truck driver named Albert Brihn, who wasn't even looking for him.

Almost from the beginning, the investigation into Dalfo's death centered on the woman named Diane De Lena. Sheriff's investigators say they found matchbooks on Dalfo's coffee table with the names and numbers of several escort services printed on the backs, Fantasy Island among them. They found Fantasy Island's phone number written on a check, made out to cash, for $75. They also found a small quantity of cocaine.

Within a week, a detective from the sheriff's department got in touch with De Lena, who, in tape-recorded interviews, admitted that she had been with Dalfo on the night he was killed but said she had left him, healthy, sometime around midnight and gone to a West Palm hotel for her next appointment. She said she hadn't seen him again and, according to prosecutors, stuck to that story for almost five years.

It was not just De Lena, though, who caught the investigators' attention. At the time of the murder, Diane De Lena was living with a man who had once been a major league hockey player. His name was Brian Spencer, and he had spent more than eight years in the National Hockey League—with Toronto, the Islanders, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. He was an aggressive player without exceptional talent, scrambling to stay even, scrambling to stay in the league. A scrappy 5'11", 185-pound left wing, Spencer did not produce dazzling numbers but was still a favorite of the fans; he was even voted the most popular Islander by the team's booster club in 1973. By 1979, however, the popularity and the scrambling weren't enough, and he was sent by Pittsburgh to the minors, where he stayed a season and a half and then left the game. His marriage dissolved, and he got in his car and drove to Florida.

The assistant state attorney says the sheriff's department "knew" Spencer had done the actual shooting all along. Spencer and De Lena had lived in a trailer on Skees Road, at the far western edge of West Palm Beach. The place may not be officially designated as a swamp, but the mosquitoes come in clouds, the ground is wet all the time, and anything you step on that doesn't bite you or go "squish," crumbles.

Spencer must have liked the swamps. Two, maybe three years later, he began to build a house and a shop in Loxahatchee, which is officially a swamp, but he ran out of money and ended up building neither. He was good with his hands, he seemed to understand the way things worked and could fix them when they didn't. He met De Lena, in fact, when he did some repair work on her car.

During the time he and De Lena lived together, he worked as a mechanic for an electrical contracting company, Fischbach And Moore. His Florida friends say the mechanical work was enough, that it had replaced whatever he had in hockey. Spencer had loved the game and the life of a big league professional. "I loved the travel, the people; I loved it all," Spencer said. But when it was over, he wanted to leave it behind—the game, the people. And in the end, leaving was failure. "Even Gordie Howe, at 52, was seen as a failure," Spencer said.

"He used to talk about playing," said a friend named Dan Martinetti, "but he loved working with his hands—fixing equipment—more than hockey. He went from nothing to having everything, and then he went back to chopped bologna. But he didn't care about money, he still doesn't. You could give him $100,000—he'd look at it and then go spend it on tools and equipment."

Diane De Lena, now Diane De Lena Fialco, has a different story. Offered immunity and threatened with jail for contempt if she did not testify, she has told the state attorney that Spencer bragged constantly about his days in the NHL. She has said that he roughed her up. She draws a picture now of a frustrated and violent man and says she was afraid of him.

Diane De Lena Fialco says a lot of things, and the assistant state attorney who until three weeks ago was handling the case—a woman named Lynne Baldwin—thought that a jury would believe her. Baldwin laid the groundwork in the newspapers, referring to Fialco by her working name, Crystal, in order to protect her for as long as possible from the scrutiny of the press. "She's a very beautiful young girl and, even though she worked for an escort service, there's something about her that makes her seem vulnerable, sort of like Marilyn Monroe...." the prosecutor told the Palm Beach Post in February. "Because of this incident, she got out of that kind of life and is working a good job and has a family."

The state attorney's office needs Diane Fialco, and needs her to be credible. Without her, there is no case. There seems to be no other evidence linking Spencer to Michael Dalfo—no gun, no blood, no witness save Diane De Lena Fialco herself.

And on the testimony of this one witness, who reminds the prosecutor of an actress, Spencer was indicted by a Florida grand jury on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping. And on her testimony, the state of Florida is willing to end Brian Spencer's life.

There is a temptation here to set Brian Spencer's life on the table, the way museums set out antique silverware and plates and glasses in an Early American dining room and pretend that the setting is somehow what pioneer life was like.

The trouble, of course, is that a life isn't one way or another. A lot of things happen, and the reflections of those things are shaded by time and mood, and are lost and invented even if you were there. Even if you happen to be a professional athlete and thousands of people see what you do, and remember. But the moment becomes private as soon as it is over, because it is dependent on your other moments. And it is not so much the glory itself that follows you later—reminding you of a way things will not be again—but its reflections.

And so when a friend, for instance, who grew up with Brian Spencer in Fort St. James, B.C., tells you, "He was always smiling, he was always happy," it is hard to see that you are entitled to write, "Brian Spencer had a happy childhood." Or when you learn that 12 years ago in Buffalo, Spencer was charged with assaulting a motorist after a traffic accident and wound up paying the other driver an undisclosed sum in an out-of-court settlement of a civil suit—the criminal charges were dropped—you are not then entitled to write, "Brian Spencer has a violent temper."

And the idea of catching up with such a life, halfway through its 38th year, at the Palm Beach County jail, and then picking through the newspaper clippings and the reflections of friends and wives (there have been two) and teammates for some thread of cause and effect is ambitious beyond what can honestly be accomplished.

It can be said that somewhere along the line, Brian Spencer was not careful enough about his roommates, but beyond that you're on your own.

Spencer, of course, is not saying much. He has denied killing Dalfo in a letter sent to this magazine and at least one other publication, but the purpose of the letter was less to explain anything that has happened than it was simply to ask for mail.

"I sit here [in jail] with two passions, really two wishes that you in your charity might help fulfill. First, I hope you find it in your heart to think a kindly thought and to say a prayer for me.... Second, if you could, please write.... Maybe the 'glory days' are over, but not my memory of how incredibly uplifting the fans are."

The man who represents Spencer, public defender Barry Weinstein, will not discuss the case with reporters. "This is a person's life," he said. "I take this seriously. I'm not going to open it up to the kind of mistakes and misrepresentations that occur when you start trying your case in the press."

Spencer was born in Fort St. James, which is a long way north of anywhere you are, in September 1949. He was a twin, although he and his brother, Byron, do not look much alike. The father's name was Roy, the mother's is Irene. She had been a schoolteacher, and then did office work for the Hudson's Bay Co. Roy had a gravel pit, and drove the boys to hockey practice. Twenty miles, round-trip, even when he was sick.

The family lived outside town and owned a generator that was their only source of electricity. When Roy's emphysema gave him trouble breathing, they would start it to run the oxygen machine.

The boys fished in the summer and played hockey all winter. They went to the only school in town—it was three or four rooms in the beginning—through grade 10. There was no high school in Fort St. James, so they began grade 11 in Vander-hoof—a 40-mile bus ride.

Like a lot of NHL players from small towns, Spencer did not finish high school. He quit, devoting himself to the sport, and in December 1970, he was called up to the Toronto Maple Leafs from Tulsa.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, the Leafs were at home against Chicago. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation televised that game to eastern Canada. In the west, however, the CBC was carrying the Vancouver Canucks versus the Oakland Seals.

Angry that his son's game was not being broadcast by CKPG Television in Prince George, Roy Spencer got into his car and drove the 110 miles to the station, where he pulled a 9-mm pistol and, holding the news director and the program director and six other employees against a wall, ordered them to take the station off the air.

The station shut down, and Roy Spencer told the program manager, "If the station comes back on the air again, I will hold you responsible. I am very upset about the CBC coverage."

Then he backed out of the studio and ran for the door. He was crossing the sidewalk outside the station when the police told him to drop his gun. He turned, 15 feet away, and shot one of the policemen in the foot, another in the holster.

The police returned fire, hitting Roy Spencer in the shoulder, the armpit and the mouth, and he was dead on arrival at Prince George Regional Hospital.

Two of the police officers involved would comment later, at the coroner's inquest, on the exceptional length of time it took Roy Spencer to fall.

On Nov. 27, 1984, a 25-year-old man named Leslie Raymond Fialco was married in a civil ceremony to Diane De Lena. According to prosecutor Baldwin, Fialco had no hint that his new wife had ever worked for an escort service or that she had been involved in a murder case then 2½ years old. The couple settled into Palm Beach Shores and started a family. According to Baldwin, the marriage has produced two children.

Two years passed, and then one day at work Mrs. Fialco looked up from her desk and found herself being handed a subpoena. It had been a long time since the sheriff's deputies had questioned her about the Dalfo murder, and she did not realize at first what the subpoena was for.

When she walked into the state attorney's office on 3rd Street in West Palm Beach, however, and saw all the old, familiar faces, she broke into tears. According to the assistant state attorney, she cried, "I thought this was over."

Now, one of the many things that is still hazy about this case is exactly what leverage the sheriff's investigators and the state attorney's office used on Diane Fialco to get her to hand them Spencer. She was given "use" immunity, meaning she could not be prosecuted for the murder based on her own statement and would go to jail if she failed to testify, and perhaps that was leverage enough.

Lynne Baldwin has said, "The police knew they [De Lena and Spencer] did it all along, but they just couldn't prove it," and she has acknowledged that part of the deal to get Diane De Lena Fialco to testify was her promise to do what she could to shield Diane from publicity.

There is no question that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department wanted Spencer for the Dalfo murder. Here is Lieut. Pat McCutcheon of the sheriff's detective division: "From the outset of the investigation, we looked at him as a suspect. But because of the lack of cooperation [from De Lena] we couldn't implicate him. A couple of times we thought she would testify, but she changed her mind. Maybe out of affection, maybe out of fear."

Fear, of course, can come from a lot of different directions, and in the end Diane Fialco, apparently afraid of something, gave the prosecutors what they wanted. The story she has told, in a sworn statement, goes like this:

On the night Dalfo is killed, she drives to his condominium sometime before midnight, leaving the keys in the car, and stays about an hour. She always leaves the keys in the ignition except when Spencer drives her to a job and waits—a precaution against having to leave without her purse.

While she is there, Dalfo is snorting a lot of cocaine and, according to Baldwin, finds himself impotent. He asks her to stay an extra hour and offers to write her a check.

Staying beyond the agreed time and accepting checks, however, are both against Fantasy Island rules, and she starts to leave. Dalfo stops her, writes the check anyway, payable to cash, and puts it in her hand. She gives it back. He drops the check on the coffee table, angry now, and she walks out the door. She is afraid.

She drives from Palm Beach Gardens back to the trailer on Skees Road, but Spencer isn't home. She goes over to the Banana Boat—a bar where Spencer likes to drink—and tells him what has happened at Dalfo's. She also tells him that she is afraid that Dalfo may have followed her home. She then drives to the hotel in West Palm and sees another customer.

An hour or so later she meets Spencer at home, and he gets upset and wants to go to Dalfo's place. Diane De Lena wants to forget the whole thing, but Spencer won't. She is afraid of Spencer—"Spencer had hit his women," Lynne Baldwin says. "Another woman he knew showed up for work with her face bruised. She said she had been in a car accident. Her boss was suspicious." De Lena thinks he only wants to talk, or at the outside, to rough Dalfo up. She does not think Spencer wants to kill him.

So they head over to Dalfo's. De Lena's plan now is to tell Spencer she can't remember which condominium Dalfo lives in. As all the condominiums at PGA National look the same, this is not a bad plan. There is, however, a built-in flaw: Because the condominiums do look alike, it is Dalfo's habit to wait outside his place for visitors from the escort service, and so when Spencer and De Lena arrive, Michael Dalfo is standing out front in his black bikini swimsuit and his gold chain, waiting for his fourth "escort" of the evening.

Spencer asks Dalfo to get into the car. (When Diane De Lena told this version of the story to the police, she did not remember Spencer's using a gun. In a more recent version, Baldwin says, that detail came back to her.) At any rate, Dalfo, Spencer and De Lena drive out of PGA National to PGA Boulevard, turn west and travel six-tenths of a mile and then come to a white sand road. There is a sign at the junction: PGA WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT, SEACOAST UTILITIES.

Four hundred feet up the road, Spencer stops at a spot where the trees recede from the road, creating a weedy clearing. A sign says NO DUMPING.

Spencer tells De Lena to get out of the car. Spencer and Dalfo begin to argue and Dalfo says, "If you touch me, I'll call my lawyer." This infuriates Spencer, and the arguing gets louder. Diane De Lena, who is afraid, begins to run up the road, in the direction of PGA Boulevard. Dalfo is alive when she leaves. She runs, but she never hears any shots. And so when Spencer picks her up in the car a few minutes later, she assumes he has beaten Dalfo up and left him.

They drive back to the trailer. According to Baldwin, Spencer then tells De Lena to take off all her clothes. She does that, gives them to Spencer, and never sees them again. She believes they were burned or buried.

A week later, the sheriff's department is asking her questions about Michael Dalfo's murder. This, of course, scares Diane De Lena. More than Michael Dalfo scared her, more than Spencer used to scare her before Dalfo was killed. She tells the sheriff's investigators nothing except that she was with Dalfo the night he was killed.

And while she will not turn Brian Spencer in, says Baldwin, De Lena now makes plans to leave him. She does not want him to think it is because of the Dalfo murder, however, so she distances herself from him gradually over the next several months, and then she moves out.

Four and a half years later, about 8:30 on a Sunday night—Jan. 18 of this year—Spencer is sitting in the El Cid bar, drinking a gin and tonic with one of his friends. The El Cid, since closed, was one of the few bars left in South Florida attached to a beauty parlor. Anyway, halfway through Spencer's first drink, his friend stands up, goes to the pay phone and calls a cab for Spencer. A few minutes later, the driver, a thick-chested man named William Springer, walks in and calls, "Taxi."

Springer is an undercover sheriff's detective. His picture, in fact, hangs in the lobby of police headquarters as 1986's Officer of the Year. Spencer takes the cab around the corner to the Mt. Vernon Motor Lodge and tells the driver to wait. He speaks to someone inside, then heads back to the cab.

Waiting for him are a helicopter with search lights, the undercover detective, a K-9 cop, a K-9 dog, and as much backup as the Palm Beach County Sheriff and the West Palm Beach police have available. In the rights and the noise Spencer struggles with police, but there are too many of them in too many places, and in a few moments he is in handcuffs.

And, for the next three months, Spencer sits in the Palm Beach County jail.

And that is it, the case against Brian Spencer.

The case was kept in a folder a couple of inches thick, which was balanced across the lap of assistant state attorney Lynne Baldwin. She was going through the papers inside, one by one, reading bits and pieces out loud.

Interviews with other girls from escort services, interviews with Spencer's friends.

A report of a possum that Spencer was supposed to have killed with a .25-caliber automatic—the same caliber that killed Dalfo—which initiated a number of searches of his backyard. No possum, no bullets, no gun.

A woman's shoe prints leading away from the scene of the killing.

Lie detector tests of numerous subjects, none of them Diane De Lena or Brian Spencer.

Dalfo's bank statements, which indicate he spent what Baldwin called "a lot of money."

More searches for the dead possum.

The office itself is beautiful, in a comfortable way. Plants, good furniture, a huge antique globe in the corner. And there are signs, one over the light switch in particular: ATTITUDES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN FACTS.

"Is what you have," she was asked when she has finished with the file, "anything more than an ex-prostitute who has lied through this whole thing?"

"I don't think it's fair to say she's lied all along," Baldwin said. "She's tried to tell the truth, she's turned her life around. A couple of weeks ago, The Miami Herald ran a story about this and called her a 'former call girl' and she called me up, just bananas...."

"I'll tell you something," she said. "They [the Fialcos] came into this office together and sat right in those chairs, and we went through it all. And for a while, it was pretty tough going. He is a very Germanic sort of guy, very stiff and proper, and you could see he didn't like it at all.

"But once it was all out in the open, he accepted it. He supports her now, and I think that someone like that, sitting there supporting you, lends credibility. Do you remember John Dean's wife sitting behind him at those hearings? It gave him a kind of credibility...."

So lined up against Spencer we now have exactly one witness and her very proper husband, who has forgiven her. And we have a question. Couldn't the "untactful" Dalfo have had acquaintances even more untactful than himself? And couldn't a taste for paid escorts and cocaine, and a habit of spending surprising amounts of money have gotten him into enough trouble with one of these untactful acquaintances that he ended up dead? If, let us say, De Lena knew about an execution committed by such an untactful acquaintance—who we can assume would not look kindly on her cooperating with the police—who is she going to give to the state attorney's office when Lynne Baldwin comes around 4½ years later, threatening to put her in jail?

That is what we have.

What we do not have are two tapes of the statements made by Diane De Lena when she was originally questioned by the sheriff's investigators five years ago. "Deputies," Baldwin said, "they're always running out of tapes. So when they need one, they sometimes borrow it from another file, something they aren't working, and tape over whatever was on it."

"A murder case? They taped over evidence in a murder case?"

She nodded her head.

What we also do not have is any proof that Dalfo was ever in the car that was supposed to have taken him to the clearing where he died. "The detectives, for the most part, did a very thorough job," Baldwin said. "They interviewed all these prostitutes, administered all these lie tests, conducted searches for the possum. One thing they forgot to do was search the car."

Lynne Baldwin sat dead still for a moment in her beautiful office. Beautiful office, beautiful clothes, beautiful globe. It is always surprising, the places where things are decided. Baldwin listened to a hard assessment of her case against Brian Spencer. Her expression never changed. "We may lose," she said, "but my job is different from a private attorney's. I don't always have to win." She thought for a moment, and then she said, "I get a lot of cases that aren't as clear-cut as you would like them to be, and I win my share."

That much was evident. Lynne Baldwin is the last person you want to see talking about you to a jury. Or the newspapers.

And then she said, "I'll tell you this, he'll know he's been in a fight."

Perhaps. Two weeks later Baldwin would pull out of the case when she was promoted—"I got rid of that mess," she says—and turned it over to Fred Susaneck, another assistant state attorney. After a bond hearing on April 24, Spencer was released from the jail out on Gun Club Road on $50,000 bail, posted by some old Islander teammates and friends. Still, as he waits for a murder-and-kidnapping trial scheduled to begin in the fall, you can't help thinking of Brian Spencer and of the time he has already spent in jail—a place full of reflections—and of the little that is known of the things that happened to him on the way there. And you think that Brian Spencer has been struggling all his life.

It is hard to imagine, though, that he needs this murder trial to know he has been in a fight.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONSJEFFREY SMITHILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHA TRUCK DRIVER FOUND MICHAEL DALFO, BARELY ALIVE, IN A CLUMP OF WEEDS. THE BODY WAS CLAD ONLY IN A BIKINI BATHING SUIT.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHSPENCER AND DE LENA SHARED A TRAILER NEXT TO A SWAMP.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHDE LENA WAS DISPATCHED TO DALFO'S APARTMENT BY HER ESCORT SERVICE.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHROY SPENCER DIED IN A RAGE AT NOT BEING ABLE TO WATCH HIS SON PLAY HOCKEY ON TV.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHPOLICE ARRESTED SPENCER NEARLY FIVE YEARS AFTER THE MURDER.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHSPENCER WAS JAILED FOR THREE MONTHS BEFORE FINALLY BEING RELEASED ON BAIL.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHTHE SIGN IN BALDWIN'S OFFICE REFUTES HER VIEWS ON THE CASE.ILLUSTRATIONJEFFREY SMITHOUT ON BOND, SPENCER GREETED HIS SONS AND BROTHER, BYRON.

Brian Spencer played in the NHL for four teams between 1969 and 1979. A left wing without notable talent, he was nevertheless a crowd pleaser. He was the kind of journeyman found in every sport, hustling to hold his own with more gifted athletes. He scored only 80 career goals, but did contribute four assists in the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs for the Buffalo Sabres, who eventually lost in the finals, four games to two, to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Nicknamed Spinner for his skating style, Spencer once said, "I never believed in going around somebody when I could go through them." But former Sabre teammate Rick Martin says that Spencer's aggressiveness belied his gentler side. "He did a lot in the community," Martin says. "When they needed somebody to go visit kids in the hospital, he was always the first to go." Martin, who roomed with Spencer on the road, adds, "He was a very intense person at anything he did, but he was not a person who went looking for trouble."

After his retirement from the NHL, Spencer moved to Florida, where in 1985 he served 10 days in jail and had his license suspended for five years after a couple of drunken-driving convictions. On Dec. 12, 1986, a grand jury indicted Spencer for murder and kidnapping. He is expected to stand trial in Palm Beach County Circuit Court sometime this fall.