A drive with Tollefson: Confessions of an alcoholic

Don Tollefson now lives in a North Philly house owned by a Good Samaritan who is allowing him to stay, rent-free, in a spare room.

"LET ME get this stuff out of the way," says Don Tollefson, moving a briefcase, files and papers from his car's front passenger seat to the back one, which is already jammed with a big cooler, law books and various bags. "I want to drive you around my neighborhood. This is my world now."

I do not fear the watchful young men who coolly assess us outside Tollefson's digs on Monday. He lives on a rundown North Philly block where the drug trade operates, 24/7.

I am more nervous about Tollefson's 1997 Honda Civic. It groans painfully on turns. I can't tell if it's the shocks, struts or brakes that need attention.

I can only imagine how the car strains on Tollefson's 50-mile round-trips from North Philly to the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown. That's where the disgraced former sportscaster was on trial for 11 days for theft and fraud, accused of swindling more than 200 people out of $317,000 for bogus travel packages.

Yesterday, Tollefson, acting as his own attorney, gave his closing argument to the jury, under the careful eye of Judge Rea Boylan. Soon he will learn whether the jury bought his defense that it was an addiction to alcohol and narcotics, not "criminal intent," that caused him to "mismanage the money" entrusted to him.

"I just want people to get a full picture of who I am," says Tollefson, 62, a gaunt shadow of the handsome hotshot who for almost 30 years was an icon in TV sports. His once-devilish eyes look haunted, and his hand shakes as he points to the electronic monitoring bracelet he wears on his ankle ("I can't drive far," he apologizes).

"I feel humiliating guilt and remorse. I am so angry that I let people down. I want them to know how sorry I am."

But first he wants to show me the neighborhood where he hopes to find a permanent home when his legal travails are over.

"I am indebted to the people of North Philadelphia," he says, piloting us south on Broad Street past William Penn High School. He taught communications there in the mornings "for five glorious years" in the 1980s, before work at 6ABC, where he was a phenom. "They have accepted me without judgment. When people think of North Philly, they think of the crime. But there's a rich fabric here of people who take care of each other."

He drives past a ramshackle tire place on 16th Street that looks abandoned on some days. But, no, he says: It is run by "Charlie, who would do anything for anybody." Around the corner is Shiloh Apostolic Temple, whose bishop and congregants embrace Tollefson and his little daughter when they visit. (Tollefson and his wife, who lives in their lovely Wyndmoor home, are separated.)

And there is the APlus Sunoco station where Tollefson met "an angel named Jeff." Tollefson had run out of gas and walked to the station to buy a gallon but couldn't afford a $5 container to carry the fuel to the car (Tollefson once earned $5,000 a week). Jeff, who lives nearby, recognized him and said, "Don, I have a can."

By the end of the encounter, Jeff was both a friend and a benefactor, offering Tollefson a free room in his house. It was a happy change for Tollefson, who'd been living a few blocks away, in a sketchy building shared with clueless Temple students who left the doors unlocked. Jeff's house feels peaceful in comparison.

"He could've rented it and made money, but that's the kind of good man he is," says Tollefson, who wants to be a good man, too. He believes that his sobriety - 468 days as of yesterday - is a start. For the first time since he was 16, he says, he is thinking clearly.

 

Liquor and narcotics

"I always drank," he says - as much as a fifth of vodka before noon. But life didn't become unmanageable (to quote the language of 12-step recovery) until he got hooked on the narcotics he started taking for back pain after a 2008 car accident.

"OxyContin, Percocet, Tylenol 3. Once you pair that with alcohol, you're done," he says.

He was in denial about his addiction until everything fell apart in fall 2013, Tollefson says, when people started reporting that he'd stiffed them out of thousands of dollars.

A cynic would say that Tollefson entered rehab - in Scranton, where he had relative anonymity - to curry favor with the court. Maybe. But there doesn't seem to be anything phony about the recovery he calls "life-altering." He makes at least seven 12-step meetings a week, has a sponsor, supports others in recovery.

"In addiction, your mind is dominated in every waking moment with the next drink or drug," says Tollefson. "From the moment you wake up, you ask, 'How am I gonna get it?' It is a constant, overwhelming obsession."

Today the obsession is gone, replaced with an urgent desire, he says, to make amends to those whose money he took.

"I have not been allowed to contact the victims" during the trial, he says. But the moment a verdict is reached, he will call each one, apologize and discuss restitution. He says he already has prepared reams of letters.

Of course, if found guilty, he'll have to make those amends from prison. He got a taste of incarceration last year, when he spent 38 days in the Bucks County Jail, unable to post bail.

"Anyone who says county jail is not dangerous is wrong," he says.

 

Jail time was 'uplifting'

Some inmates knew of him and wanted to talk sports. Others made him feel threatened. He won't go into detail, except to say that he had to get himself "out of situations" a few times, and that corrections officers kept him safe.

He found the experience both frightening and, oddly, "uplifting." He made sure never to ask inmates why they were there.

"I wanted to talk human being to human being," he says.

No matter the trial's outcome, he eventually wants to be an addictions counselor in North Philly, using "the notoriety of my case to reach others."

Our drive through Tollefson's world ends where it began, in front of his home. A drug dealer taps on my window, looking to sell. Tollefson shakes his head, and the man moves on to the Chinese takeout place (the food, Tollefson says, "is fantastic").

I ask Tollefson how he will handle prison, if it comes to that.

"I can try in that setting to help people who are also doing time," he says. "I will deal with whatever comes my way sober, clear-thinking and very remorseful. No matter what, I can handle it."

 

 


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