Broncos Athletics

 

Spreading Fear

June 30, 2002

By Mark Fainaru-Wada
Chronicle Staff Writer

Marylyn Sandrik was thrilled when she received a call at her Pelham, Ala., home from a man identifying himself as a reporter with USA Today. He wanted to speak with her daughter Sara, a member of Stanford's national championship volleyball team, not only about a story he was working on but, better still, about a job prospect.

Marylyn Sandrik happily gave the man her daughter's cell phone number, and soon Sara, an aspiring broadcast journalist, was engaged in an enthralling 45-minute phone conversation with the man. He said he loved the diaries she was writing for the Stanford Web site and wanted to meet her in a few days when he would be in the Bay Area for the Raiders-Jets playoff game. There, he said, he could get her a sideline pass and introduce her to CBS broadcasters Bonnie Bernstein and Jill Arrington.

For Sara Sandrik, it seemed too good to be true. And it was.

Sandrik would learn that she was one of dozens of victims of a mysterious impostor who, for nearly a year, intruded into the lives of America's female college athletes in an increasingly fright ening pattern of activity traced in a Chronicle investigation.

Using the names of two national sports reporters, the man promised the young women publicity and a brush with fame but left them feeling violated and scared. The few police officers familiar with his actions agree the young women have reason to be fright ened but there is nothing authorities can do because no law has been broken.

They say the man's actions don't fall under the criminal realm of stalking, and even harassment can be tough to prove. Yet there is enough here to scare police officials.

"What happens if one of these girls meets this idiot in a hotel room?'' said Sgt. Kevin McNulty of the University of Michigan Police Department's detective bureau, which investigated the impostor's efforts to lure at least three athletes to a hotel about 20 miles from his campus. "That's what worries me.''

Fortunately for Sara Sandrik, she learned the man was a fraud early on. She had become slightly concerned when, after not immediately hearing from the man, she called back home and found out the caller ID on her mom's phone listed a number from the Knoxville, Tenn., area, and a name not the reporter's.

Sara contacted Aimee Dombroski, a sports media-relations assistant at Stanford, still hoping for some sort of reasonable explanation. But Dombroski, it turned out, had received an e-mail warning a month earlier about a man impersonating a reporter with female athletes at other schools. When Dombroski called USA Today, an editor confirmed Sara's fears of a hoax.

"What if I had actually gone to meet this guy?'' she said.

Two months later, on the night of March 16, the phone rang in the upscale home of a Knoxville, Tenn., couple. Police from Dayton, Ohio, were on the line, in quiring about a man they had detained.

Yes, the man worked for them. Yes, he watched their two children during the day while they were at work. No, they did not know he was in Ohio to meet a college athlete; he had told them he needed a few days off to visit family in Florida.

Dayton police had the man in custody after the family of a local athlete had set a trap. They caught him when he came to town pretending to be a national reporter and arranged a hotel meeting with the young woman, a University of Dayton volleyball player. Officers were trying to learn any thing they could about the man, and he kept changing his story.

First he claimed he was an air line pilot, then that he worked as a nanny. First he didn't know anything about the sportswriter the family said he'd pretended to be, then he said he was good friends with the writer but hadn't impersonated him. The more they searched for even a couple needles of truth in his haystack full of lies, the more worried they became.

They didn't even know, as The Chronicle later found, that two months earlier the same man had been talking with Sandrik, trying to attract her with a job offer. And two months before that, he sat in a hotel room not far from the University of Michigan, trying to lure three female athletes to a "group interview.''

Nor did they know that his approach to the Dayton athlete fit almost perfectly a pattern of at least 24 incidents that dated back to last July, sparking a nationwide alert within college athletic departments.

In each case, a man represent ed himself as a reporter to gain the confidence of women in sports at schools in every region of the country, from Stanford to the College of New Jersey, from the University of Michigan to Middle Tennessee State.

Dayton police had heard enough from the volleyball player and her parents, listened to enough lies from the man and could see enough just by looking at him that they were worried.

"We were trying to come up with some crime, anything, be cause this guy scared us,'' said Sgt. Anthony Quinn. "We were afraid what he would do after he was gone.''

But they had to release him because there was nothing to charge him with.

AN EARLY VICTIM

Erica DiStefano of Trenton, N.J., is among the first athletes known to have heard from the man. He left a call-back number with an 865 area code, which covers Knoxville, Tenn., and surrounding cities.

The man who first called DiStefano shortly after she was featured in the "Faces in the Crowd'' section of Sports Illustrated Women's July-August 2001 issue identified himself as David DuPree of USA Today. The real DuPree is a veteran pro basketball writer for the newspaper.

Before the magazine item, DiStefano had been a relatively obscure Division III track athlete at the College of New Jersey (formerly Trenton State). But her picture accompanied a brief item in SI Women that said she was "the first Division III athlete to win the high jump at the Penn Relays,'' a well-regarded national track meet. It also listed her hometown.

The impostor initially reached DiStefano's grandmother, who passed along Erica's number. What followed was a one-week seduction of sorts, a string of contacts that carried DiStefano at first to a dreamy state, only to see her entire family plunged into a nightmare by the end.

The first conversation DiStefano had with the man lasted about two hours. They talked mainly about the Penn Relays and track and field.

"He was very, very knowledgeable about the sport,'' she says. "And I was so in awe. "This big-time reporter really wants to talk to me? I'm just a Division III athlete.' I was so excited, just answer ing questions left and right.''

They talked again the next night for about an hour. This time, he said USA Today was playing a role in a White House dinner to honor special athletes, and his paper would fly DiStefano and her parents there for the event.

That made DiStefano leery, but his knowledge and his earnestness kept her believing. When he called the next night, DiStefano's mother, Liz, answered the phone and pressed to find out if this was the real deal. The man insisted it was no hoax.

DiStefano and the man talked for another two hours that night. He set up an in-person interview, saying he and his photographer would be in town Friday night. They would be flying in from Denver, he said, after interview ing Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, who was in the news at the time because of a legal case involving prescription drugs. They arranged to meet at a Trenton restaurant called Antonio's.

"As parents, we kind of sat back and said, "Wow, this is unbelievable,''' said Dino DiStefano, Eri ca's father.

Erica DiStefano waited 2 hours at Antonio's. When "DuPree'' didn't show, she left in tears, embarrassed that she had allowed herself and her family to get so caught up, frightened there was someone out there collecting information about her, perhaps with the intent to harm.

Dino and Liz DiStefano left for vacation in North Carolina but continued to be concerned by the calls. They called USA Today and found that their daughter had been the victim of a fraud.

Dino DiStefano interrupted his two-week vacation to return home for a week both to be with his scared daughter and to install a $2,000 home security system.

"She was just scared to death,'' he said of Erica, who, after her parents left, put their dogs in the kennel and stayed at a friend's house. "It goes beyond the dollars,'' he said. "It's the mental an guish, probably more so for her than for us.''

COMING CLOSER

Four months later, from a hotel room 20 miles from the University of Michigan, the calls came at a dizzying pace. The impostor was in town, and he was pressing hard to meet his targets.

They were a volleyball player, a field hockey player, a tennis player. The impostor was not seeking the high-profile athletes, the hard-to-gets. He was going after women mainly in less publicized sports, not necessarily the stars of their teams.

"This guy is targeting sports that are trying to grow'' and that need the media attention to do so, said Amy Symons, an assistant sports information director at UCLA.

At the hotel in Romulus, Mich., he apparently set his sights on a group interview. But the closer the man got to what he was after, the more over-anxious he became.

He called the tennis player 16 times one night, and the volleyball player 10 times one day. When the athletes talked with each other, they discovered he had been lying about conversations he said he'd had with the others.

One of the athletes told an Athletic Department official about the man. University police were notified, but by the time they got to the hotel, they said, he had checked out, paying with a credit card issued to Karl Morgan Sr., a deceased Florida resident.

TALL, BLOND SENIORS

The month of November was a particularly busy one for the impostor. In addition to his trip to Michigan, he contacted or tried to reach athletes at UCLA, USC, University of Miami, Michigan State and University of Colorado.

He favored tall, blond women, mostly seniors.

By the time he got in touch, he was well-informed, which is easy these days. The Internet is filled with useful information for someone like the impostor. With a mouse click, he could go to a school's Web site and see pictures of the college's athletes and learn the player's height, weight, birth date, major and, often, the names of parents and siblings.

All player bios also have a personal section, enabling people to learn, for example, that Niki Hartley, a University of Florida volleyball player from San Jose whom the impostor claimed as his sister while speaking with other athletes, eats a bowl of Lucky Charms for her pregame ritual. Or that Alicia Hartlaub, a basketball player at the University of Miami whom he contacted in November, was a high school prom queen. Or that Tera Bjorklund, a University of Colorado basketball player he "interviewed,'' grew up on a farm and competes in live stock shows with pigs.

"People can turn on a computer and pull up this very intimate knowledge about this person whom they've never met,'' said Professor Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "Instantly, they know her hometown, what she looks like, how many siblings she has, so it just creates this boundary-less, false sense of intimacy.''

Name-dropping was a big part of the man's game. Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez, Anna Kournikova, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal. He said he had interviewed them, he knew them, he hung with them.

The impostor also concocted tall tales of his own athletic prowess. He told one athlete he was an Olympic diver, another that he was an Olympic swimmer, another that he was an Olympic runner.

December was a bit slow only three confirmed contacts but the pace picked up again in January. That's when he made his play on Sandrik of Stanford.

RENDEZVOUS IN DAYTON

Then, in mid-March, Matthew Dean Morgan, 36, drove 300 miles north from the Knoxville area to Dayton -- ready to assume the identity of Justin Tejada, Sports Illustrated for Kids' chief of reporters. His goal: to rendezvous with a University of Dayton volleyball player.

What Morgan didn't know was that, just as with most of the other women he contacted, this athlete had come to realize he was bogus. And she had a determined, protective family that had decided to set a trap.

"We put the whole family at risk,'' said the mother.

"I wanted to know if this guy is gonna be at the mall sometime when I'm shopping, and I wanted to know what he looks like,'' said the volleyball player, who along with her parents agreed to talk only if their names were not used.

Morgan had started in on the player simply enough, with an e-mail that said he was Tejada and was seeking an interview for an article about student athletes who are good role models for children.

The Dayton athlete sent back an e-mail saying she'd be glad to help, the "reporter'' responded by requesting her phone number and she wrote back saying they should stick to e-mail. A day later, her cell phone rang. It was a man identifying himself as Tejada.

Their first conversation was brief, with the man saying he would be in town to cover a basketball game between Dayton and Tennessee Tech that week.

So began a string of conversations -- some lasting as long as two hours -- that fit the pattern of "interviews'' detailed by other athletes throughout the country.

He dropped the names of pro basketball star Bryant and tennis diva Kournikova. He also told the woman -- an education major student-teaching a group of eighth-graders -- that his sister worked for a major radio company and could get autographs from the likes of Britney Spears and 'N Sync for her students.

"I was like, "Wow, I can't imagine giving these kids this. Sure, that would be awesome,''' she said.

He claimed his wife was a sports reporter and would soon be covering a Lakers game. She could get some autographs from the defending world champs.

He, too, was an athlete, having played basketball at the tradition-rich University of North Carolina.

By then, the volleyball player had developed some of the same concerns that cropped up during his conversations with other athletes: This guy seems over the top but, hey, he works for a big-time media organization, he wants to talk to me, and my sport certainly could use the publicity.

The Dayton athlete checked the North Carolina Web site to see if Tejada was among the school's basketball letter-winners. He was not. But his name was on the Sports Illustrated for Kids Web site and in the magazine.

She, like so many of the others, had desperately wanted to believe -- for herself, for her sport, for her family. Eventually, though, the evidence of fraud piled up, and she called her parents.

They hatched a plan to confront the man.

The meeting between the daughter and the reporter was scheduled for the night of March 16, in the bar atop Dayton's Crowne Plaza Hotel.

Shortly before departing for the hotel, the player received a call from the man.

"He said, "We're gonna probably have some drinks. My magazine can pick a room up for you. If we have too much to drink, we can buy a room for you guys (her 20-year-old sister was going along) for the night. Don't worry about it. I do it for athletes all the time.' ... He starts throwing out professional athletes that he's done this for. He said, "Don't be embarrassed, I want you guys to have a good time.'''

The family showed up in two groups. The mother and the athlete's boyfriend went in early to scope things out, with the player and her sister planning to enter the bar a half-hour later. The father lagged 10 to 15 feet behind.

"I'm very, very nervous,'' said the father. "'Cause you know, I'm thinking I have put my family at risk. Still, the justification is we gotta find out, is this somebody she knows or somebody that could bother her?''

The mother and boyfriend took a table near three men, and she soon got a feeling about one of the men when she heard him talking about his life as a Northwest Airlines pilot after Sept. 11. She worked her way into the conversation and asked what he was doing in Dayton.

He said he was on vacation and that Northwest employees got free lodging at Crowne Plaza hotels. But, she asked, why would he vacation in Dayton, of all places? He said he was meeting his sister at the bar. She was a student at the University of Dayton.

"I realized at that point I had my guy,'' said the mom.

Just then, the athlete and her sister walked into the bar, the man looked at them and said to the player's mom, "Speaking of my sister, isn't she beautiful?''

"I honestly felt like I was gonna be sick,'' said the mom.

The man calmly walked over to the player and her sister and introduced himself as Justin Tejada.

"From there to there, he changed his personality that quick,'' said the mom. "I had no idea that people could do that. I mean, he actually assumes identities.''

The sisters and the man ordered drinks and chatted awkwardly. The player sat stunned, mostly silent while her sister carried the conversation. But even as the sister spoke, the man's eyes didn't stray from the player. Once, he mentioned he had some autographs and other material in his room that they could get later.

Within minutes, the father was confronting the so-called reporter, who rose and introduced himself as Tejada. When the father asked for identification, the man "got a very strange look on his face and started to walk around the table,'' saying his ID was back in his room.

"You are not gonna leave this bar,'' said the father, who yelled for a bartender to call police. That brought a hotel security guard to the scene, and ultimately the three men boarded an elevator and headed down to the lobby to speak with a manager.

But when the doors opened, the man bolted for the exit. The player's father followed in hot pursuit. The man dashed into a nearby Greyhound bus station and slipped into the bathroom. The father stayed outside the rest room, fearing for his safety if he opted to go in, not wanting to go to a phone to call police for fear the man would escape.

The dad asked a bystander to call police, and, as he waited, the man finally emerged -- his demeanor having shifted dramatically, from nervous to collected.

Said the player's dad: "He goes, 'I gotta apologize. I'm not Justin Tejada. I'm a friend of his, and he's coming to the Crowne Plaza to meet me.'"

When police arrived and began to question the man, they say they got few straight answers.

He said his name was Matthew Dean Morgan, and he denied ever pretending to be Tejada -- though he did say he was a close friend of the reporter. (Tejada declined to comment for this story, other than to say he does not know Morgan and he never made calls to any of the athletes contacted.)

Dayton police believe one of the few truthful statements Morgan made to them was that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic depression) -- an illness characterized by wide swings in mood and behavior -- and had stopped taking his medication about six months earlier.

Dayton police checked Morgan's hotel room but found nothing out of the ordinary. They wanted to hold him -- but on what charges? Finally, they sent him to nearby Miami Valley Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. He was held overnight and then sent on his way with a stern warning not to return.

UNRAVELING THE TALE

Of the two dozen cases The Chronicle discovered in which a man falsely posed as a reporter to contact female college athletes, three have direct ties to Morgan, and two others have connections. The rest fit the pattern.

Beyond the Dayton case and Morgan's detainment by police, there is Michigan, where the credit card of Karl Morgan Sr. was used to secure a hotel room. Public records indicate a Karl Morgan Sr. once lived at an Oak Ridge, Tenn., address once used by Matthew Morgan.

One of the Michigan athletes also picked up a number off caller ID that originated from the Knoxville area code, 865.

In the Stanford case, when the mother took the first call at her home in Alabama, her caller ID showed an 865 number. That number came from the home of the Knoxville couple whose two kids Morgan baby-sat. The couple told The Chronicle recently that after Dayton police had contacted them, and after they had fired the man and changed the locks on their home, they discovered phone bills totaling nearly $1,000.

The wife, who along with her husband requested anonymity for this story, also said that a subsequent check of the family computer showed someone had been using it to access many sports-related Web sites.

In two other cases, with DiStefano in New Jersey and with contacts made at the University of Texas, numbers from the 865 area code showed up.

In all two dozen cases, a man posed as a reporter with USA Today or Sports Illustrated for Kids and typically identified himself as either David DuPree or Justin Tejada. He usually circumvented normal media channels, calling the athletes directly or charming relatives into giving out the play ers' numbers. He kept the women on the phone for extended periods and often tried to set up in-person meetings.

Given these details, Dayton and University of Michigan police said they would be inclined to believe the same person had approached all the athletes. Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who is an expert on stalking, said the use of a particular alias and the dropping of certain names would be considered signatures.

"Signatures are better proof that a series of (actions) was committed by the same individual,'' Dietz said.

Morgan did not respond to The Chronicle's attempts to contact him. His mother, contacted in Florida, said she passed along two messages, and the man who formerly employed him as a nanny said he forwarded two e-mails.

No one responded to a reporter's knock on the door at what is believed to be Morgan's Knoxville apartment, though someone peered out the front window.

Morgan remains unsought by authorities, although University of Michigan police said their case remains open.

Time Inc., which owns Sports Illustrated and its ancillary publications, first learned a man was impersonating one of its reporters in October. The company began contacting individual schools and ultimately issued a warning that was posted on a Web site for college sports information directors.

A Time Inc. spokeswoman said the company also reported the matter to the FBI and various local law enforcement authorities. The company does not know the identity of the impostor, she said, but is following up on the incidents. A representative of USA To day said the company is aware of the problem and has lawyers investigating.

It is unclear what recourse the companies might have.

The incidents that struck fear in the athletes and their families apparently involved no illegal activities. Though Dietz said he con sidered the behavior stalking, police say it doesn't rise to the level of criminal conduct. As for falsely using the names of real reporters and publications, there's no law against that. Criminal identity theft typically requires monetary gain.

Said the mother of the Dayton player: "To me, this is just amazing this is not a crime.''