The Wrong Turn

Onetime Detroit Lions quarterback JEFF KOMLO was a success in sports, business and love. So why did he die alone, on the run, thousands of miles from home?
June 14, 2009

When he went onthe lam, his old college teammates passed around a cellphone number and lefthim encouraging messages. Sometimes the voice mailbox was full, other times itwas receiving. The players debated whether the messages were getting to him orit was an FBI trap. Their venerated coach called the number and left a messageurging his old quarterback to turn himself in, take his punishment and come outof it a better man. "Sad to say," the coach laments, "I never heardback." ¶ Using a calling card with a blocked international number, thefugitive was in periodic contact with his family, his younger brother inparticular. He was careful not to tell them where he was, but, the brotherrecalls, "he did say that he was in a place where life was slower, thereweren't money stresses and he was happier than he had been in a longtime."

Then, in thesummer of 2006, one of his daughters received a call from a friend. "You'renever going to believe this," the friend said. "We were just in Greece,and guess who we saw on a train, dressed in a golf shirt, reading a newspaper?Your dad!"

"You sure itwas him?" Christie Komlo asked.

"Positive."

He tried to killme. Jennifer Winters stood in the driveway at the end of a tree-linedcul-de-sac in Chester Springs, Pa., watching the house burn, and the samethought kept rocketing around in her head. He tried to kill me.

It was a warmSaturday evening, June 4, 2005, when Winters pulled up to the sprawling houseowned by her boyfriend, former NFL quarterback Jeff Komlo. Their relationship,then in its fifth year, was tempestuous, marked by booze-fueled fights,dramatic breakups and reconciliations, and a flood of calls to the cops. Onseveral occasions Winters had filed domestic battery charges against Komlo onlyto refuse to cooperate with prosecutors. But despite all the friction betweenthem, she says, Komlo "could be incredibly charming," and no matter howvicious their fights became, she always went back to him.

Just earlier thatday, while Winters was visiting her parents in Connecticut, she and Komlo hadargued on the phone. But, she recalls, he sweet-talked her into coming homethat evening. He bought her a plane ticket from Hartford to Philadelphia andbooked her a rental car at the airport. Her flight was delayed, so it wasaround 7:30 p.m. when she drove past the dogwoods that led to his property. Bythat time there were black billows of smoke in the sky and fire trucks in thestreet. "If my flight had gotten in on time," says Winters, "Iwould have been in the house. I would have been killed."

Fire departmentinvestigators don't dispute this. This wasn't your typical house fire, theysaid, which starts in one room and spreads outward. This was a blast that beganin the kitchen, shot upward and almost instantly engulfed the entire structure.Fire marshal Harrison Holt immediately thought that the blaze "wasn'tconsistent with an accident." When the fire dogs were called in, theysniffed accelerants in four areas.

Winters says thatas she stood staring at the inferno, her cellphone chirped. It was Komlo."I like your outfit," he said.

"Where areyou?" she gasped.

"In thewoods."

She spun aroundbut couldn't see him. In fact, she would never lay eyes on him again. Neitherwould Komlo's parents, his three siblings, his four daughters, his ex-wife orhis former football teammates. A warrant for his arrest would be issued ongrounds of arson, the last in a string of charges that included cocainepossession, DUI and domestic violence. But by then he would be gone, hiswhereabouts unknown, the latest act in a disintegration that was as spectacularas it was mystifying.

A few yearsearlier Komlo had been living on Philadelphia's affluent Main Line, an ex-jockwho had replicated his athletic success in business. Two decades before that,he had been a starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Now he was on therun.

In the fall of1975, Jeff Komlo strutted onto the Delaware campus in Newark. He stood6'4", had a strong, well-proportioned body and had excelled at every sporthe'd tried. At DeMatha High, the Catholic sports powerhouse in Hyattsville,Md., Komlo had been the star shortstop and cleanup hitter. But his father,William, had played football at Maryland in the 1950s, and Jeff, who had been astarter on DeMatha's team, was determined to become a college quarterback. Whenhe wasn't recruited out of high school, he took a postgraduate year at ForkUnion (Va.) Military Academy to improve his skills. Finally the coach atDelaware expressed interest. "I can't give you a scholarship," TubbyRaymond told Komlo. "You're going to have to make the team as awalk-on."

"O.K.,"Komlo replied, "then that's what I'll do."

He didn't get manysnaps on the freshman team, but that did little to dampen his spirits. He justwoke up earlier and worked harder. On school breaks he went home to CollegePark, Md., and jumped rope for so long that his parents feared he would dropdead from a heart attack. Then he ran for miles around the neighboring horsecountry.

As a sophomoreKomlo surpassed the other Delaware quarterbacks and won the starting job andeventually a scholarship. Coaches remember that William Komlo, an insurancesalesman and thoroughbred horse breeder, would sit quietly in the bleachersduring practice, nodding when his son made the right plays. Jeff didn't havethe strongest arm or the greatest accuracy or mobility, but he radiatedconfidence. He was Steve McQueen in the pocket, a natural-born leader."There was just this air, this presence Jeff put forward," recalls TedKempski, then the Blue Hens' offensive coordinator. "All the coachesthought the same thing: This guy's got it."

Handsome andpersonable, Komlo was the classic Big Man on Campus. He was seldom without agirl on his arm. The professors all knew him. He and his roommate and favoritereceiver, Peter Bistrian, would tool around Newark in a yellow Corvette, musicblaring. "He was larger than life," says teammate K.C. Keeler, now thefootball coach at Delaware. "We were in the same locker room, but youdidn't even know if you should address him, or how."

Komlo got bettereach year. As a senior he was a Division II All-America and led the Blue Hensto the national championship game. In three seasons he passed for 5,256 yards,set more than a dozen school passing records and laid the groundwork forDelaware's unexpected rise as an NFL quarterback factory. Komlo's backup, ScottBrunner, would end up playing for the Giants, Broncos and Cardinals. RichGannon, the Blue Hens' quarterback a decade after Komlo, would lead the Raidersto the Super Bowl in 2002. Most recently, of course, there was Joe Flacco, wholed the Ravens to two playoff victories as an NFL rookie last season."There's no doubt," says Raymond, the man after whom the Delawarefootball field is named, "Jeff Komlo did a lot to put this program on themap. You know what he had? An athlete's mentality."

Toward the end ofhis four years at Delaware, Komlo began dating Jennifer Aldrich, a prettyfreshman from a prominent Philadelphia family. She saw up close the treatmentaccorded a star quarterback. "Jeff cut to the front of every line," sherecalls. "He never paid for a beer. He had girls writing his papers. Thelocal merchants would do his dry cleaning or make his travel arrangements forfree. I guess it's like this everywhere: When you're the star quarterback,you're like a god."

Komlo was theLions' ninth-round pick in the 1979 NFL draft. He had hoped to go higher, buthe entered training camp full of confidence. He'd just have to do what healways did and play beyond his abilities. "That's how we were raised,"says Jeff's younger brother, Drew, who was a quarterback at Maryland."There's nothing you can't do. It's up to you to work hard and make ithappen."

When the Lions'incumbent quarterback, Gary Danielson, had knee surgery in the preseason, Komlobecame the starter as a rookie. Though the 2--14 Lions went 2--12 in the gameshe started, he threw for 2,238 yards, then a team rookie record. For the firsttime, however, Komlo showed flashes of a disturbing alter ego. He once bloodieda teammate, Keith Dorney, in a barroom dispute by throwing a beer mug atDorney's head. But Komlo apologized, promised the coaches it wouldn't happenagain and became friends with Dorney.

After the seasonJeff married Jennifer. During the 1980 season Danielson was healthy again, andKomlo returned to his backup position. He played infrequently for the Lionsthrough 1981 and then was the third-string quarterback with the Falcons in '82and the Buccaneers in '83. The joke among his friends was that Komlo did hisbest work in the off-season. A serial networker, he would attend team-relatedfunctions and dinners and invariably end up chatting with local businessleaders, discussing commercial ventures or real estate deals. "He wasalways working some angle," says Jennifer. She was surprised to learn thathe had taken out an insurance policy on his throwing arm for$500,000—considerably more than his salary. She says she called the wife ofFalcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski and asked if this was standard. Jenniferwas told that, no, Bartkowski had no such policy. By the mid-'80s Jeff hadhooked up with the Seahawks, though he would never play a game for them. Whilein Seattle he complained of arm pain. Jennifer says that he cashed out theinsurance policy, citing a torn ulnar nerve.

Komlo retired as aSeahawk and made a seamless transition into business. He and Jennifer settledin the Main Line Philadelphia suburb of Radnor, Pa. Komlo worked for variouscompanies in financial services and then cofounded a management consulting firmcalled Bolton Capital. The confidence and work ethic that had served him sowell in football did the same in his second career. Komlo may not have had anMBA, but with his effortless charisma he made everyone in his orbit feelcomfortable. "He could talk a dog off a meat truck," says one formercoworker.

"Jeff was atough, driven guy," says Ambrose Regan, a longtime friend and colleague ofKomlo's, "but he also had this gift where people—some of the highestnet-worth people in the country—would meet him once and think he was their bestfriend."

In 1989 the Komlosmoved to a 7,000-square-foot house in Bryn Mawr, Pa., with four cars in thedriveway and a pool in back. There were furs and jewelry for Jennifer,memberships in country clubs and a vacation home in Palm Beach, Fla. The familyemployed housekeepers, nannies, personal trainers and gardeners. Jenniferestimates that by the mid-'90s the Komlos' monthly expenses were $40,000.

Jennifer wouldgive birth to four daughters, each as pretty as the last. This was a source ofgreat amusement to Jeff's old friends and teammates, who recalled his days as aladies' man. "The joke was, How do we know God has a sense of humor? JeffKomlo has four girls," says Tom Tomashek, longtime Blue Hens beat writerfor the Wilmington News Journal. By all accounts, though, Komlo was a dedicatedfather, coaching their various sports teams. Besides teamwork and technique, hetaught them toughness. "Grow alligator skin," he'd tell them when theywere about to cry.

At Delaware,meanwhile, Komlo was as popular as ever. He was no longer just the starquarterback who'd made it to the NFL; he was also a prosperous businessman.Keeler recalls that Komlo would make the hourlong drive to Newark from Phillyfor alumni functions and spring football scrimmages. Dressed sharply, still fitand blessed with a thick head of stylishly coiffed hair, he would prop his feeton the bleachers and light up a fat cigar. "He had the beautiful wife andkids, the friends, the professional success," says Regan. "You want totalk about a picture-perfect life, this was it."

Except it wasn't.As his 30s galloped by, Komlo worked feverishly to pay for a standard of livingthat seemed to get more extravagant every year. "We'd say, 'Jeff, you'renot in the fast lane; you're in the HOV lane,'" says Drew Komlo. And Jeffseemed to take little pleasure in the status that came with living on the MainLine. "We're here for Jennifer and the girls," he'd confide to friends."I may belong to the Philadelphia Country Club, but I don't belong. I'mjust a simple guy from Maryland horse country."

By the late '90sJeff's marriage to Jennifer was, after nearly 20 years, deteriorating. Sheclaims he hit her. "I learned not to provoke him," she says. Never muchof a drinker in the past—friends kidded him over his fondness for alcohol-freebeer—Komlo was now putting away glasses of vodka and cranberry juice when hecame home from work. He cut back on his coaching, and his daughters say theywould look into the bleachers during their games and see their mom sittingalone.

In early 2000,Jennifer says, Jeff told her that their marriage was over and that he had agirlfriend, Jennifer Winters. It was then that he suffered what friends andrelatives describe alternately as "an emotional breakdown," "adescent into darkness" and "the mother of all midlife crises."

At Baxter'srestaurant in Paoli, Pa., they called the couple Barbie and Ken. Komlocelebrated his 45th birthday in 2001, but he could have passed for a decadeyounger. Winters was in her mid-30s, a striking, tall and slender blonde.Within months of meeting Jeff at a bar in Florida, she had relocated to thePhiladelphia area and moved in with him. The two often went to Baxter's, wherethey drank and argued with equal intensity. Komlo had never before beenarrested, but in the spring of 2001 he was cited for domestic violence and DUI.(He pleaded guilty to the DUI and did community service as a volunteer footballcoach. As for the domestic violence charge, Winters refused to testify.)

Komlo and Winterssplit their time between the Philly exurb of Chester Springs and Komlo's housein Palm Beach; at both residences there were frequent calls to 911."Neither of us were angels, put it that way," says Winters. "It wasone of those relationships where the bad times were awful but the good timeswere great. He was madly in love with me. Then I'd see his temper or hisdeceiving side. Then he was madly in love again."

In May 2004 Komloand Winters had a fight during a night of heavy drinking. According to thepolice report, Komlo shoved Winters out of her rented Monte Carlo and left herat the side of a road. He crashed the car, returned to his house, left again ina black SUV and crashed that too. He was convicted of two drunk-driving chargesbut didn't show up for sentencing. A warrant for his arrest was issued.

"What got himin trouble was his arrogance," says Michelle Frei, a Chester County, Pa.,assistant district attorney. "He literally did not think the laws appliedto him. 'Do you know who I am?' he would say. Excuse me? You don't drive drunkin this county and get away with it. He had this attitude: 'I deserve to walkbecause I once played in the NFL. I'm better than these people.'"

The Komlos'divorce proceedings, meanwhile, were contentious, a seemingly unending seriesof motions and hearings and delays—with mounting legal fees. Jeff becamedelinquent on court-ordered spousal and child-support payments. Jennifer andthe girls moved to a succession of houses, each smaller than the last, andJennifer borrowed money from friends and relatives to stay afloat. "We werestruggling to pay bills," Jennifer says, "and I would find credit cardreceipts [indicating] Jeff had taken his girlfriend parasailing in theCaribbean or skiing at St. Moritz."

It alsodiscouraged Jennifer to see that, more than two decades after his footballglory, Jeff was still being treated like the star quarterback. Court officerswould befriend him during breaks, hoping to discuss the NFL and even asking ifhe wanted to toss a football around in the parking lot. A court reporter oncegushed to Jennifer, "We love it when your case is called."

"Why'sthat?" she replied, puzzled that anyone could take pleasure from such amessy, destructive conflict.

"Your ex is sohot!"

The same year,while the divorce was pending, a Montgomery County family court judge orderedJeff to sell the house in Palm Beach and use the proceeds for the delinquentchild-support payments. Within a month the property had burned to the ground.(Local investigators would later determine that the cause was arson, and awarrant would be issued for Komlo's arrest in April 2008.)

By mid-2004 Komlo,once a devoted father, had completely dropped out of the lives of hisdaughters: Katie, then 21; Courtney, 20; Christie, 16; and Callye, 15. Katiehad been accompanying her mother to her younger sisters' parent-teacherconferences. There had been missed birthdays and graduations; tears andrecriminations and counseling sessions. Jeff's parents and siblings claim thatJennifer prevented him from seeing the kids. "He worked his ass off toprovide for the family," says Wendy Komlo, Jeff's sister, "and she madehim look like the bad guy."

Jennifer and herdaughters disagree. "That's one thing that still gets me," saysJennifer. "The Jeff I knew could not have walked away from the girls likethat."

They leaned oneach other and their mom for support and consolation. But they also relied onsports. For all four girls the school year had been divided not into semestersbut into athletic seasons; their lives were a blur of soccer games, basketballscrimmages, field hockey practices and lacrosse games. They liked thecamaraderie and the teamwork and goal-setting. But sports were also a releasefor their anger. They grew alligator skin.

Katie playedcollege lacrosse at Villanova; Christie and Callye would play the sport atDelaware. Asked to list her parents for a team media guide, Katie said onlythat she was the daughter of Jennifer Komlo. For Christie and Callye, attendingDelaware—which was not only near home but also less expensive than otherschools that had recruited them—meant walking past plaques devoted to theirdad's achievements and bumping into people who recalled him fondly. The girlsendured comments such as, "You must be related to Jeff Komlo—how's hedoing?" At first they answered tersely, withholding the fact that they'dnicknamed their missing father Osama. But eventually they decided they'd hadenough. "I remember your dad," a well-wisher once remarked. "Man,what a great guy."

"Notreally," snapped one daughter. "He's not."

Komlo's downwardspiral accelerated in 2005. On Jan. 8, no longer working, he was charged withcocaine possession in Florida. (The man who was once famous for arriving atbusiness engagements 10 minutes early failed to appear for his court date.) InPennsylvania in March he was charged with assaulting Winters. According to thereport filed by state police officers responding to an alarm at the ChesterSprings house, "This female was curled into a ball with a fur coat coveringher head. She was crying and trembling [and] related that she was hiding fromKomlo out of fear." But Winters again refused to cooperate withprosecutors. Barely two weeks later, on April 15, police responded to a 911call from Winters, entered the house in Chester Springs and found a glass vial.Komlo was charged with morphine possession. He didn't show up for his courtappearance.

Around the sametime, Komlo had been investigated for alleged financial fraud. His Delawareroommate and receiver Peter Bistrian had already spent two years in jail, in1996 and '97, on federal convictions related to a $1.5 million loan fraud. Thejudge at his trial had characterized him as "the consummate con man."Now Bistrian was accused of masterminding a complex $1.4 million scam thatdefrauded a South African firm, Columbus Stainless Steel Ltd., and filtered themoney through an account belonging to Komlo. Komlo cooperated withinvestigators, claiming he believed Bistrian had obtained the moneylegitimately. Komlo was not charged in the case.

Weeks later, inthe summer of 2005, Bistrian was apprehended as he tried to cross into Canadacarrying false identification, four cellphones, $3,700 in cash and Mapquest.comdirections to Toronto International Airport. (He pleaded guilty to fraudcharges and is currently in custody at the Metropolitan Detention Center inBrooklyn, N.Y.)

Then, finally,there was the suspicious June 4 fire at the Chester Springs house. Authoritiestheorize that Komlo blamed Winters for his troubles—it was her calls to thecops, after all, that led to several of his arrests—and might have intended tokill her in the blaze. Jeff's siblings assert that this is reckless speculationand that Jeff had left the country by then. Calls to his cellphone wentunreturned. His lawyers claimed to have no knowledge of his whereabouts.Federal marshals converged on the homes of his parents and siblings, but leftconvinced that they were as clueless as everyone else.

By summer's endKomlo was featured on the website of the TV program America's Most Wanted,sandwiched between a woman accused of pretending to be a deaf mute to robstores in seven states and a Russian immigrant charged with killing anacquaintance and burying him in a backyard in Detroit. This enraged Komlo, whowent so far as to call Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kathleen Brady Shea froman undisclosed location to complain. "I'm not a criminal, and I would liketo get this resolved," he said. "I'm not above any law." He made avague reference to a vendetta against him and indicated that he would turnhimself in shortly. He never did.

Even those closestto Komlo could make little sense of what he had done. How could the BMOC andsuccessful businessman have turned into a fugitive from justice? Komlo wouldn'tbe the first athlete to make a mess of his life after his playing career. Butto those who knew him, his downfall defied belief.

It seems everyonein Komlo's life has a theory to explain his decline. His parents and siblingsthink it all started with his divorce. "When his marriage fell apart, hefell apart," says Wendy Komlo. Several friends think his volatilerelationship with Winters was the catalyst. Clearly, drugs and alcohol werealso factors. A Florida attorney who represented Komlo, Kenneth Lemoine, says,"I think he lost faith in the system. He didn't think he could get a fairshake."

Those lesssympathetic to the old quarterback, such as Chester County prosecutors, throwaround clinical terms such as sociopath and psychotic.

It's hard not towonder whether the "athlete's mentality" cited admiringly by TubbyRaymond also played a role in Komlo's downfall. When he played football incollege, he overachieved through sheer self-confidence. His risk-taking wasrewarded. Again and again he was able to make the big play. Even as criminalcharges against him mounted, he carried himself in a way that suggested thatsomehow he'd pull off life's equivalent of a hook-and-ladder. The guys likedhim; the girls still thought he was hot. Everything would be O.K. Then,suddenly, he realized he was out of downs.

Greece? No onecould recall Komlo ever talking about Greece. He had no relatives there, nobusiness dealings or known contacts. The Talmud, the text of Jewish laws andethics, states that "if a man feels that his evil passion is gaining themastery over him, let him go to a place where he is unknown." Komlo, aRoman Catholic, might have been more concerned about his freedom.

Informed of Jeff'swhereabouts after he was sighted on that Greek train by Christie Komlo'sfriend, the Chester County district attorney's office looked into extradition.But federal authorities felt it wasn't worth the expense or effort, Frei says,because none of the outstanding charges against Komlo were sufficiently grave.Life moved on.

Her divorce madefinal in 2008, Jennifer Komlo found a job working in the office of a Main Lineplastic surgeon. Jennifer Winters returned to Florida and became engaged toanother man. When Callye Komlo went to her senior prom with Wayne Ellington,who would go on to play basketball for North Carolina and be named MVP of the2009 Final Four, she simply accepted that her father wouldn't be on hand towatch her date fumble with the corsage. William Komlo continued working withhorses; in fact, he trained Tone It Down, a long shot in the 2009Preakness.

Jeff, meanwhile,had a girlfriend in Greece and was working for a hair implant clinic in Athenscalled NHI. The clinic caters mostly to Brits, who fly to the Greek capital forsomething called the Choi Method—which, according to the NHI website, is "aprocedure far too labour intensive to operate in the UK." Komlo's job, notsurprisingly, was to greet clients, put them at ease and show them a good timeon the town before their procedure.

Like many wildrides, Komlo's would come to an abrupt end. At around 3 a.m. on Saturday, March14, 2009, he was reportedly killed in a car accident in southern Athens. Frei,the Pennsylvania A.D.A., was skeptical. "I wouldn't put it past this guy tofake his death," she said. But the U.S. State Department matchedfingerprints and confirmed that, yes, the body was Komlo's. According to DrewKomlo, Jeff's car hit three others before crashing to a halt. Jeff was flungthrough the windshield and died of a cranial fracture. He was 52.

On April 1 therewas a memorial mass for Jeff Komlo in Rockville, Md. It was a small, privateaffair. His parents and siblings were there; his four daughters were not. Hewas then cremated.

His parents andsiblings try to remember him in the first 45 years of his life and still puzzleover what happened afterward. "You know those unsatisfying mysteries thatnever get solved?" asks Wendy Komlo. "What happened to my brother isone of them."

At Delaware, Komlo radiated confidence. He was SteveMcQueen in the pocket, a natural-born leader.

For the first time Komlo showed flashes of a disturbingalter ego. He bloodied a fellow Lion in a barroom dispute.

"You want to talk about a picture-perfect life,[Jeff's] was it," says his friend Regan. Except it wasn't.

When asked about Jeff, his daughters didn't reveal thatthey'd nicknamed their missing father Osama.

Even as charges mounted against him, he carried himselfas if he could still pull off the big play.

PHOTO PHOTOMAKING HIS MARK Stepping in for the injured Gary Danielson in 1979, Komlo broke the Lions' rookie passing yards record. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE A SHORTRUN Komlo blazed a trail for pro quarterbacks at Delaware (opposite page), buthe was a starter for only one season in the NFL. PHOTO[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE KOMLO FAMILYFLEETING IMAGE At first Jeff (above with, from left, Courtney, Jennifer and Katie) was a devoted husband and father, but eventually he left his family for a volatile relationship with Winters (left). PHOTOCOURTESY OF JENNIFER WINTERS[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF CHESTER COUNTY FIRE MARSHALS OFFICE (HOUSE)FEELING THE HEAT By the time Komlo's house in Chester Springs suspiciously caught fire (above), his mug shot (left) was well known to local police. PHOTO[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)