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Late Hit from a Con Artist

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

High School Basketball
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Late Hit from a Con Artist

You know who you are.

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue Original Layout

You know what you did.

You ripped off a down-on-his-luck, Alzheimer's-spun Hall of Fame
football player.

You went to Philadelphia Eagles great Pete Pihos's house, made
nice with the ex-wife he lives with and took nearly every piece
of football memorabilia he had, leaving Pete and Donna with
$30,000 in bogus checks and a stack of bills they still can't
pay.

You had to know--once you saw that emptiness in Pete's
80-year-old eyes--that the only reason they were selling his
stuff was to pay for his care. Maybe you didn't know that Donna
is also staring into the teeth of a $6,000 dental bill for Pete
and that prescriptions run $625 a month, all on a high school
librarian's salary. But you knew you were digging them a nice,
deep hole.

You said you were a New York pediatrician, "Dr. James Hart," and
you were starting a "museum." A month ago you went to their home
in Winston-Salem, N.C., and took Pete's last two jerseys--ones he
wore in Pro Bowls during the 1950s. You took his original leather
pads. You took a near-priceless football that was signed by 25
Hall of Famers, including Night Train Lane and Bulldog Turner.
Yeah, you took all that, and you took their hope too.

Hey, it's what you do. You look for Hall of Famers who are either
punch-drunk or suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's. You
contacted Ernie Stautner, the Pittsburgh Steelers great who has
Alzheimer's, about paying him to sign autographs and to buy
memorabilia. Calling yourself "Dr. James Hart," you spoke to his
wife, Jill, who agreed to a meeting in Dallas but not at their
home and only if you paid in cash. You never came.

You also set up a meeting with Baltimore Colts great John Mackey,
who cannot remember what he had for breakfast today. This time
you said you were "Dr. James Hart," psychologist. But you never
showed, leaving Mackey and his wife, Sylvia, waiting at a
Baltimore hotel for three hours.

Which NFL legend will you try to steal from next? Jim Ringo, the
Green Bay Packers center? Steve Van Buren, the Eagles' coal train
of a halfback? John Henry Johnson, the Steelers' workhorse?
They've all got Alzheimer's. Otto Graham had it, too, and Tom
Fears died from it. The AMA hasn't quite proved the link between
all those years of taking forearms to the head and Alzheimer's,
but you know. And you're using it to line your pockets.

For Pihos, it started creeping up a few years ago. "What are we
going to do tonight?" he'd ask Donna 10 to 20 times a day. She'd
find frozen TV dinners in his closet. Over and over he'd pull two
Advils out of his pocket and say, "What are these for?"

So now the bull of a man who served two years under Gen. George
Patton, who was all-NFL at wideout and defensive end, spends his
days playing solitaire, looking out the window and waiting for
Donna to come home. He can't read or write much anymore, soon
won't be able to drive and may start wandering away.

It's not like Donna wanted to sell the stuff. She ached at having
to do it. After all, Pete himself can't remember specifics about
his great career, doesn't remember how many NFL titles he won
(two), can't recall the coaches he played under. For Donna those
jerseys, those pads, that ball were the last means by which she
could hang on to the old Pete--the man Pete himself has
forgotten.

Donna still shakes with anger over what you did. She doesn't
sleep some nights. And she has no idea what she'll do about
taking care of Pete.

Anyway, you better fence the stuff soon. Hall of Famer Ron Mix,
an attorney who also runs the Hall of Fame Players Association,
says the organization is offering a $5,000 reward (619-688-9630)
for information leading to your "arrest, conviction and, if
possible, hanging."

The cash might soon go to a collector in Richmond, Jeff Whitmore,
who told me this all smelled like the work of a memorabilia
dealer from upstate New York with a reputation for skipping out
on payments. "He's a real sick puppy," says Whitmore.

Then there's this: When you blew off Mackey at that Baltimore
hotel that day, you left an address when you made your "Dr. Hart"
reservation. The clerk gave that address to Sylvia Mackey. SI
researchers linked it to a man with a different name--the same
name provided by Whitmore.

Sylvia remembers working with that man at a memorabilia show in
November 2002. She describes him almost word-for-word the way
Donna described you: good-looking, 25-ish, "too young to be a
doctor," she says. And Sylvia remembers the man's wife, who also
shows up as living at that same address.

So either the man and "Dr. Hart" are the same person, or it's a
very crowded house in upstate New York. I called the numbers that
the man and the so-called doctor had given to the players' wives,
and they were either disconnected or the calls went unreturned.

Doesn't matter. Detectives should collar you posthaste.

And how do you think juries will take to your ripping off a
football legend who can't even remember his glory days?

Maybe it's a good thing these men think like toddlers now. This
way, the wickedness of what you've done can never sink in.

See you at the hanging.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER
How do you think juries will take to your ripping off a football
legend who can't even remember his glory days?