On Feb. 11, 2011, Wilberto Hernandez called in a report of identity theft to the Los Angeles Police Department. Hernandez, then 37, worked as a personal credit repair consultant in L.A., and he kept a close watch on his own credit score. He became alarmed when he received a notice from a credit agency that his Social Security number had been presented for credit checks at two car dealerships, one in La Crescenta and another in Pasadena.
This is an article from the March 12, 2012 issue
When Hernandez said he had reason to believe that Lenny Dykstra was involved, the call was routed to detective Juan Contreras, a decorated 24-year LAPD veteran. Contreras was familiar with the hard-nosed former Mets and Phillies star, and not just because he was a baseball fan. Four months earlier Contreras had taken a call from a Los Angeles limo driver who claimed that Dykstra borrowed the driver's credit card and, after promising to pay him back for the charges, failed to reimburse him. Contreras had searched police records and found an earlier report, this one from a former personal assistant to Dykstra, naming the ex-player as a suspect in an identity theft case. Like the limo driver, the assistant said that Dykstra had used her credit cards and never paid her back.
Neither of those reports had led to charges, but Contreras began asking questions. By Christmas 2010, he had spoken with 17 people—personal assistants, drivers, private jet pilots and housekeepers—who claimed that Dykstra did not pay them for services, used their credit cards or got hold of their Social Security numbers and opened credit cards in their names. One of the pilots Contreras interviewed claimed that Dykstra had asked to use the pilot's credit card to gas up a private plane on a stopover in Europe. "In October, I was thinking, Hey, this is Lenny Dykstra, I grew up with this guy, I want to meet him," Contreras says. "By November, I wanted to put the guy in jail."
ON MONDAY, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Lenny Dykstra was sentenced to three years in prison, five months after he pleaded no contest to grand theft auto and filing a false financial statement. As part of the plea agreement, 21 charges against him, including drug possession and identity theft, were dropped. He still faces federal bankruptcy fraud charges for allegedly selling more than $400,000 worth of property without alerting a court-appointed trustee after he filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
The nickname Dykstra picked up when he was a young, dirt-dog centerfielder with the Mets in the 1980s—Nails—implies an unwillingness to bend, a suite of personality traits that ensures you don't compromise or listen when people say what you can or cannot be. How else could a 5'10", 160-pound, 13th-round draft pick build a 12-year major league career, play in three All-Star Games and bat .321 with 10 home runs in 32 career postseason games. How else could a player known more for his hustle than his smarts gain, after his retirement in 1996, improbable success as a day trader and stock-picking whiz. "Not only is he sophisticated," Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's Wall Street handicapping show Mad Money, said of Dykstra in 2008, "but he's one of the great ones."
Dykstra, who earned $36 million as a player, built another fortune after his retirement with his stock investments and a chain of successful car washes in California. In 2008 he started The Players Club, a finance and lifestyle magazine and investment consultancy targeted at pro athletes, so that others could learn to live like him. In a profile that year, The New Yorker labeled Dykstra "baseball's most improbable post-career success story."
By then, however, there were already signs that Dykstra's business sense was clouded by his famous obstinacy. Take one particular object of his affection in the early 2000s: an $18.5 million estate owned by Wayne Gretzky in Thousand Oaks, Calif., not far from Dykstra's comparatively puny $5.4 million mansion. "The most beautiful masterpiece ever built," Dykstra called the Gretzky home in a documentary about him filmed in 2009 that was never released but was obtained by SI. "I said to myself, If there's ever a chance I can buy that, I'm going to buy that." And so, when the property hit the market in 2007, Dykstra sold his car washes and reordered his finances to land the Great One's digs—just before the U.S. housing market began its collapse. Around the same time, with his magazine struggling, Dykstra fell deeply into debt. In 2009, unable to sell the Gretzky estate and a year after he reportedly had a net worth of $58 million, Dykstra declared bankruptcy.
After that filing, Dykstra became something more than just another ex-athlete gone broke. According to interviews with law enforcement officers, business and personal associates, and to court and police records reviewed exclusively by SI, Dykstra's life became a series of financial scrambles and schemes, including alleged financial fraud, identity theft and drug possession. (Dykstra's attorney in the auto theft case, Andrew Flier, did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.)
But even after his financial and legal troubles came to public light, Dykstra refused to give up the trappings of the gilded life. He continued to fly on private planes, and the charges that landed him in prison—many details of which have not been previously reported—stemmed from his apparently insatiable appetite for flashy cars, some of which he obtained using falsified financial documents. "He had to have all of these trappings to prove to himself he was as good as he thought he was," L.A. County Deputy DA Alex Karkanen told SI after Monday's sentencing.
In the unreleased documentary, filmed after his bankruptcy filing, the former Met and Phillie explains the importance of a private plane to his contentedness. "I said, O.K., I know I'll be happy when I buy my own Gulfstream," says Dykstra, reflecting on the plane he purchased in 2007. "But I got down to the end of the nose, I looked back and I said, O.K., happy, come on, come on. So it's not about the Gulfstream. But it is about the Gulfstream. Meaning it just wasn't as good a Gulfstream as I wanted."
The case of Wilberto Hernandez didn't exactly fit the pattern of the earlier complaints against Dykstra. Unlike the others, Hernandez barely knew the ex-player. They had met once, in September 2010, introduced by Robert Hymers, a mutual friend and a mild-mannered, churchgoing, then 27-year-old accountant at Ernst & Young. On Valentine's Day 2011, when Hernandez followed up on his call to the police by coming in to speak with Contreras, he brought Hymers with him.
Hymers told police that he had introduced Hernandez to Dykstra so that Hernandez could help Dykstra improve his credit. At the time, however, Hernandez did not realize that Hymers, who had been doing financial work for Dykstra outside of his employment with Ernst & Young, had been seduced by Dykstra's lifestyle—riding in fancy cars, meeting retired ballplayers and hanging out with celebrities, including Charlie Sheen. Hymers told Contreras that he loaned Dykstra money and credit cards and would later tell police that spending time with Dykstra was "like being in a movie." In a well-publicized stunt last May, Dykstra, with Hymers in tow, made a spontaneous nighttime visit to Dwight Gooden, one of Dykstra's old Mets teammates, while Gooden was participating in the VH1 show Celebrity Rehab. Dykstra tried to spring Gooden from the house where the program was being shot but instead reportedly left only with Gooden's bags.
In late 2010, Hymers, according to a taped interview that police conducted with him on Feb. 14, 2011, began helping Dykstra package assets—specifically his MLB pension and a stake in the online celebrity poker site Hollywood Poker—to be sold or used as collateral to obtain loans. Dykstra promised Hymers equity in his new business Home Free Systems, ostensibly set up to help people refinance predatory home mortgages. Dykstra had also introduced Hymers to Sheen, with whom Hymers hoped to partner on an energy drink with the slogan, "Sheen power, Sheen blood, Sheen energy." Hymers also wanted to market an electronic cigarette called the Nico-Sheen through a company called Vapor Rush. Vapor Rush, which lists Hymers as the CFO on its website, filed for a Nico-Sheen trademark on April 4, 2011, according to records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Later that month, TMZ reported that Nico-Sheen would be billed as the "winning E-cigarette" and Dykstra would be a partner in the venture.
Hymers was dazzled by the possibility of earning money with Sheen; in a second police interview, on March 22, 2011, he referred to Dykstra as "Sheen rich and cash poor." Hymers also portrayed himself to Contreras as a friend who tried to help Dykstra, of whom Hymers told police, "Some nights he'll be in Beverly Hills staying in a hotel, and other nights he'll be in his car." He recounted trying to take Dykstra to his church: Hymers said Dykstra immediately claimed to smell mold in the church and had an insurance adjuster come to the building after hours to inspect it, claiming that the adjuster was a friend who would give him a kickback if there was money to be made from a claim. "I've never been good with profiling people," Hymers told Contreras. "Lenny took advantage of that."
Hymers had done some tax work for Hernandez and had Hernandez's personal information stored on his laptop. In the fall of 2010, Hymers had filed a police report saying that his Dell laptop had been stolen. In his Valentine's Day 2011 interview with Contreras, Hymers said that it was taken when he fell asleep during a late night working with Dykstra in a room at the Intercontinental hotel in L.A. When he woke up, Dykstra told him a prostitute had come in, threatened him with a taser and taken the laptop. "You believe that?" Contreras asked incredulously.
In 2010 a former Dykstra personal assistant that Contreras tracked down had passed along a tip: Dykstra never erases any of his Yahoo! e-mail. Contreras submitted a search warrant to Yahoo! and, on Feb. 16, 2011, two days after Hernandez and Hymers visited the station, reams of Dykstra's e-mails arrived. LAPD computer crimes officer Maurice Kwon found among them copies of pay stubs from Home Free Systems made out to Jessica Costa, a then 35-year-old model and single mother of five who had met Dykstra at a party in the fall of 2010. In an e-mail to SI last month, she said that "modeling is not my dream job, I studied electrical engineering, however it pays the bills."
According to LAPD records, when Contreras first visited Costa, on Feb. 22, 2011, she told him that she knew Dykstra but had never done any work for Home Free Systems and did not receive any of the money indicated in the pay stubs. In the Home Free Systems documents, Costa was portrayed as the company's sales director—at a supposed salary of $120,000 per year—and a credit application in her name was used in November 2010 to lease a Porsche 911 for Dykstra from a dealership in Newport Beach.
According to prosecutors, Home Free Systems was a company in name only. Account statements for the company proved, after Contreras contacted the banks represented, to be fakes allegedly made on a personal computer. (Dykstra contends Home Free Systems is a legitimate business.) Before the Home Free Systems website went down last year, SI contacted Moshe Mortner, a New York lawyer who worked with Dykstra on his bankruptcy case and was the sole partner listed on the Home Free Systems site. Mortner was surprised to hear that he was listed as a partner. "Maybe in the loose sense of the word," he said, "[but] not a business partner."
E-mails between Costa and Dykstra show that Costa had misgivings about procuring the Porsche, but that Dykstra encouraged her by suggesting that he would help her purchase a house. In an e-mail Dykstra sent to Costa on Nov. 6, 2010, in response to her concerns about who would make the car payments, Dykstra writes, "come on Jessica, they call it the Top 1% for a f------ reason!" He concluded the message saying, in all capital letters, that "EVERYTHING WILL BE OK ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS FOLLOW THESE STEPS AND YOU WILL BE FINE, JUST FINISH OFF WHAT WE NEED WITH THE CARS AND YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL BE FINE."
The Porsche was leased using Costa's personal information and a credit application that appears to bear her signature stating her employment with Home Free Systems. Costa, who according to Orange County Court Records pleaded guilty in December 2011 to fraud, maintained to SI that she never went to the dealership with Dykstra and that Dykstra stole her personal information and forged her signature. According to police, the whereabouts of the Porsche are unknown.
On Feb. 16, 2011, Contreras visited the two car dealerships where Wilberto Hernandez's information had been used without his permission. The dealership in La Crescenta was very familiar with Robert Hymers—his father, also named Robert, a well-known pastor, often referred people there. The younger Hymers had called the dealer to help get a deal for Dykstra, who would flash pictures of his 1986 Mets World Series ring and copies of his defunct The Players Club magazine to dealerships he visited. Hymers presented himself as a financial manager for Home Free Systems.
A month earlier, on Jan. 12, Dykstra and Hymers tried to lease a Cadillac DTS and a Mercedes Benz S-550 at the La Crescenta dealership. That's where Hernandez's personal information, and strong credit rating, came in. Dykstra and Hymers presented financial information that showed Hernandez as the vice president of operations of Home Free Systems. The dealership was prepared to lease the vehicles to Dykstra and Hymers before the elder Hymers telephoned the dealership to say that Dykstra was not to be trusted.
According to documents reviewed by SI, the pair went to a dealership in Pasadena three days later, this time asking for a Cadillac DTS and a Cadillac CTS-V, and again providing Hernandez's address and Social Security number and claiming that he was an executive with Home Free Systems. Dykstra presented personal financial statements—nothing more than homemade spreadsheets—purporting to show that he had a net worth of nearly $3 million. He was, in fact, in bankruptcy proceedings. Again they were denied, this time by a dealership manager who would not release the vehicles unless Hernandez himself came to sign for them. So, on Jan. 28, 2011, Dykstra and Hymers moved on to Galpin Ford in North Hills.
Galpin Ford is the largest-volume Ford dealership in the world, and, it would turn out, an extraordinarily bad place to attempt to perpetrate fraud. By the time Dykstra and Hymers visited the dealership, Dykstra had a new partner for the scheme. Christopher Gavanis, then 30, had just moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania. Gavanis, who met Dykstra through Hymers, couldn't afford a car to help him find work—but he did have a sterling credit rating.
According to an interview police conducted with Gavanis on April 14, 2011, Dykstra promised him the car he desperately needed in return for the use of his credit. "I kind of took a gamble because I was so in need of a car," Gavanis said in the interview. "[Dykstra] seemed trustworthy to make the payments. I know he's got a lot of money. He was a professional player, he's got to have some money."
Dykstra also promised Gavanis a job with Home Free Systems once clients started rolling in. Plus, Gavanis knew that Dykstra had plans to make money with Charlie Sheen. "They're trying to get some video game going, a downloadable app," Gavanis said in the police interview. Gavanis believed that a man who spent 12 seasons as a star major leaguer could not possibly be penniless.
When Dykstra, Hymers and Gavanis went to Galpin Ford, they presented financial records, including a forged biweekly $15,000 pay stub for Gavanis, who was identified as the corporate vice president of Home Free Systems. They walked out with a gray Lincoln MKS for Hymers, a red Ford Mustang for Gavanis and a black Ford Flex for Dykstra.
Unfortunately for the threesome, Galpin Ford's general counsel is Alan J. Skobin, one of five commissioners—essentially a board of directors—of the Los Angeles Police Department. "They messed with the wrong dealership," says Contreras. In March 2011, Contreras learned of the acquisition of the three cars from Hymers and alerted Skobin to the potential fraud. Skobin was eager for the case to be pursued. When Dykstra contacted the dealership again on April 11, 2011, about leasing a Mercedes E-350, this time sending over what appeared to be a Comerica Bank statement dated Dec. 1, 2010, and showing an account worth $31,750, Skobin alerted Contreras. When Contreras later served a search warrant for Dykstra's bank records, he learned that the Comerica account had not been opened until Dec. 7, 2010, and that Dykstra had a balance of $17.50. According to police, the Comerica account statement had been fabricated on a personal computer.
On April 14, 2011, LAPD officers showed up at Dykstra's residence, a guesthouse on an Encino property that previously belonged to singer Macy Gray. The black Ford Flex was parked outside. Dykstra and Gavanis were arrested. According to police, when detective Oscar Garza searched Dykstra, he found a metal cylinder containing cocaine. A subsequent search that day of Dykstra's property turned up Ecstasy. Days later, while Dykstra was still in custody, the owner of the guesthouse called police to alert them to drugs in the refrigerator. When Contreras followed up, he found four unopened boxes of Serostim, a brand of synthetic human growth hormone, next to a loaf of bread and a carton of Muscle Milk. The boxes traced back to an HIV patient who had acquired them with a legitimate prescription and claimed that they had been stolen from his home. Police did not determine whether the boxes were actually stolen. (According to doctors and law enforcement officials, reselling HGH can be a lucrative practice for legitimate patients.)
About two weeks after Dykstra and Gavanis were arrested, Hymers came to police for a voluntary interview. After Dykstra was arrested, Hymers said, the ex-ballplayer called Hymers demanding money or he would "kill the Charlie Sheen deal." Hymers also said that Dykstra had been living life on the edge since a fortune teller told him that he was going to be rich but die at age 52. Dykstra, Hymers also said, had tried to sell him the HGH in his fridge, explaining that the drug had come from Charlie Sheen. Sheen, who last year admitted to SI that steroids put some extra heat on his fastball during the filming of the 1989 movie Major League, did not respond to a series of questions from SI sent to him through his publicist.
Last June, Hymers was charged with identity theft and turned himself in to police. In September, Gavanis, who had just started a new job at a digital video company when he was arrested, pleaded no contest to a charge of filing a false financial statement and later returned to Pennsylvania. He did not respond to a message left by SI, but his mother, Theresa, said that his involvement with Dykstra "was a nightmare. He just wants to forget all about that."
Also in September, Hymers pleaded no contest to a charge of identity theft in connection with the use of Wilberto Hernandez's personal information. (Gavanis and Hymers are awaiting sentencing.) Ernst & Young records indicate that Hymers's employment ended last June, after he turned himself in, though the company would not comment on the reason for his departure. According to records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Vapor Rush's trademark on Nico-Sheen was abandoned last month. Hymers did not respond to SI's messages after initially saying he had to speak with his lawyer, but his father says that his son "got hooked into [working with Dykstra] by mistake, and it was a big mess."
After her guilty plea to fraud charges in December, Costa was sentenced to 90 days in jail. (The sentence was modified to 90 days house arrest.) In her e-mail last month to SI she said that Dykstra "hurt my family and I in more ways than I can explain."
Says Contreras, "All these people were desperate, and Dykstra smelled the weakness."
In October, Dykstra pleaded no contest to grand theft auto. (Five days before he was sentenced, Dykstra's attorney filed a motion seeking to change the plea to not guilty. The motion was denied on Monday.) In November he did his first detailed interview since the plea, with the New York Daily News. He was in The Hills Treatment Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in L.A. "There will be a good ending," Dykstra said. "Just like I knew when I was growing up that I was going to be a Major League Baseball player. But there's work I have to do and a price I have to pay." Now he starts paying.