Don Tollefson's out of prison. Now what?

Don Tollefson greets other church members before services as he attends Janes Memorial United Methodist Church in Germantown September 18, 2016.

When he was a hotshot Philly sportscaster, Don Tollefson celebrated his birthdays at the city's best white-linen restaurants.

He'd shake hands with fans. Enjoy gourmet entrees and hefty pours of top-shelf liquors and brews. High-five the staff on his way out the door.

Last week, Tollefson observed his 64th birthday with a humble lunch at City View Pizza & Grill at Broad and Venango, where his two slices - pepperoni and sausage - were served on paper plates, and the drinks were self-serve out of a soda dispenser next to the pickup counter.

As we chowed down in the busy restaurant, located next to a recovery clinic and crowded with cops and Temple hospital workers, I told Tollefson that he could have picked a fancier place for lunch. After all, I was picking up the tab.

"People have been so nice, offering to take me out to eat," he said. "I don't want to take advantage. I just appreciate that they care."

The last time I had seen Tollefson was in January 2015. He was on trial in Bucks County for fleecing dozens of people in a sports-ticket-selling scheme. He was then sentenced to two to four years in prison and ordered to pay $164,528 in restitution to 96 victims.

Back then, he looked pale and haunted. His overcoat hung off his bony frame, his blue eyes were sunken in gray hollows. His hands shook as he showed me the electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet he wore while on house arrest.

Last week, Tollefson's demeanor was calm and focused. He was a little thin, but the ghostly pallor was gone. He spoke with hope about life after incarceration.

He was released from prison in May after 14 months behind bars, mostly at SCI Pine Grove, 270 miles west of Philly. He had earned credit for time served in county prison after his arrest and through the state's Recidivism Risk Reduction Initiative for nonviolent offenders.

"We didn't oppose early release," said Matt Weintraub, named this week as Bucks County district attorney. "We got our pound of flesh. He needs to start working so we can get cash out of him" for his victims.

Tollefson recently moved from a rooming house on a dangerous North Philly block to a "transitional house" on a more peaceful street. It's owned by an on-site couple who rent rooms to Tollefson and two other recently released inmates.

"Don's room is the pantry, actually, which we converted to a bedroom," said owner Mike Zepp, who visits prisoners as part of a personal ministry. That's how he met Tollefson.

"We have a lot of structure here. Everyone has to be home by 6 for dinner, and we have nightly Bible study."

That's fine by Tollefson, who worships at Janes Memorial United Methodist Church in Germantown, where he is a member.

Zepp said Tollefson has been a good influence on the younger ex-cons in the house.

"He's positive and hopeful," said Zepp. "Don fell a long way down the mountain. I tell him that he can get to the top again through hard work and patience. He is by no means a lost cause."

That means a lot to Tollefson, who is getting used to life without alcohol and pills.

"I'm 1,068 days clean and sober. It's a miracle," said Tollefson, who wears a set of white plastic rosary beads beneath his shirt. "I hadn't been sober more than a week since I started drinking at 16."

He'd always been a high-functioning alcoholic, he said. He could guzzle a fifth of vodka and still be ready the moment the TV cameras blinked on at 6ABC and, later, Fox 29. Life frayed after a 2008 car accident injured his shoulders and back. He got addicted to the opiates prescribed for his pain; combined with the booze, they did him in.

His behavior became erratic, he developed delusions of grandeur, and his ego swelled to bizarre proportions.

"I'm not excusing my behavior," said Tollefson. "I'm humiliated by what I did. It really bothers me that I let so many people down, including people who had followed my career and supported me. If they knew the depths of my remorse, they'd see how I'm trying to turn my life around."

Still, he said, "it's one thing to be clean and sober. It's another thing to change your life to prove that your mistakes were an aberration, not an indication of your true character. It's too soon for people to believe I'm any different. I know that."

During his trial, he wrote apology letters to those whose money he stole. He planned to mail them the moment he was sentenced, but the terms of his 10-year probation forbid him to contact his victims. He recently learned that the state runs an Inmate Apology Bank, which can forward his letters to victims interested in receiving them. He's preparing a package to submit to the bank.

Most of Tollefson's victims would probably prefer cash over an apology, but that will be a long time in coming. He owes restitution in amounts ranging from $75 to $18,900; 54 of his 96 victims are owed $1,000 or less. To date, he has paid $2,181.29 to the state, which will distribute the money evenly among his payees. Checks will be cut when the payments reach $25. To date, victims have less than $23 in their accounts.

For Marie Sedlock, manager of the Tally-Ho Tavern in Bethlehem - a frequent sponsor of fund-raisers for charities run by Tollefson - $23 is a pittance. In 2013, she bought a bogus $3,600 travel package from Tollefson for airfare, hotel accommodations and two tickets to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

"It was supposed to be a surprise for my boyfriend's 40th birthday," she told me. "I was so hurt and upset. I trusted Tolly. I thought he was my friend."

I asked Tollefson how he planned to pay back his victims. He's unemployed but receives a monthly Social Security disability check for injuries he sustained in his 2008 accident. Some of the money goes toward child support for his 6-year-old daughter, who lives with Tollefson's wife (they are amicably separated; he prefers I not name her or their daughter). Some pays for his rented room, and some goes to the state for restitution.

He hopes to make money through a for-profit addiction-recovery program he's creating called "Overcome Thyself" (he's forbidden from working in the nonprofit world because of his past fraudulent use of charities).

And he's writing a novel about an addict's journey to sobriety. Its 25-page epilogue will be a serious discussion about America's opiate epidemic. He plans to publish it as an e-book and hopes it will lead to speaking gigs, which will pay him honoraria he can put toward restitution.

He also wants to become a trained addictions counselor.

Novelist? Addictions counselor? Both are worthy callings, but unlikely to generate enough to pay back his victims.

Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell once described Tollefson as the "most extraordinary talent I've ever encountered." Couldn't he tap those talents again?

"I don't want to return to broadcasting - not that anyone would even give me a job after what I've done," said Tollefson. "I think my calling is in helping others."

He discovered it in prison.

At SCI Pine Grove, where he attended daily Bible classes and 12-step meetings, he found satisfaction tutoring teens who had been adjudicated as adult offenders. He also spent days in the library researching addiction and the rise of opiate use. And, for fun, he attended most of the 15 basketball games played each week by the prison's teams.

He took copious notes and then recorded a half-hour highlights show for broadcast on SCI Pine Grove's internal inmate channel.

"He was very, very talented," said the prison's activities manager, Mark Rydbom. "It's a shame he never got to cover the Eagles in a Super Bowl."

The activities helped Tollefson keep loneliness at bay while he was in prison. So did weekly calls with his daughter.

"To hear her voice, while I was surrounded by the chaos, kept me sane," he said.

"I won't say I was scared, but I was often concerned. If I sensed trouble, the corrections officers were very approachable. And there were a lot of Philly guys there who knew me from TV. Once they got past asking me about the Eagles and the Sixers draft, they said, 'By the way, you're a Philly guy, so everything will be all right. We have your back.'

"All I can say is, I never got attacked. So that was wonderful."

Not many of Tollefson's former colleagues are in touch. But he was touched when George Mallet, with whom he worked at Fox 29, wrote a letter of support to the parole board when Tollefson applied for early release.

"I had not been super-close with George, so that meant a lot," said Tollefson. "He told the board that I'd been a good dad and my daughter needed me."

Mallet, now a news anchor at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, told me he felt for Tollefson.

"Don't get me wrong," Mallet said. "What Tolly did was awful. He deserved to go to jail. But I've had experience with people close to me who were addicted. My view is that it's a scourge, it's real, and people lose their way. I felt compassion for him."

Tollefson is still recognized on Philly's streets. Indeed, during our pizza lunch, a customer approached to ask him about Eagles quarterback phenom Carson Wentz. Then, he shook Tollefson's hand and wished him luck.

"That happens a lot," said Tollefson. "People stop me all the time to ask, 'You doing OK? You doing better?' On my way here, a guy walked past me and said, 'You can't keep a good man down!' "

Tollefson wants to prove to his victims that he's just such a good man.

For them, only time will tell.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

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