Inside look at alleged point shaving scheme at U of San Diego (cont.)
On Feb. 23, 2011, Brown drove Rancifer to the Kwik Corner convenience store in Pacific Beach, where Goria and a man named Richard Garmo were waiting to speak with the USD player. Garmo, who owns the store, is a 32-year-old sports bettor and small-time bookie of Chaldean/Iraqi descent -- just like his good friend Goria. (San Diego is home to an estimated 35,000 Chaldean Christians, the second-largest population of this Iraqi expatriate group among U.S. cities.)
But someone was missing.
"Where is the guy from last night?" Brown asked. (The night before, Chas had picked up Goria and Brown in one of his fleet of luxury cars and restated his offer to pay any player willing to hear him out.)
"He said he couldn't make it," Goria said.
The meeting soon sputtered when Goria and Garmo learned that Rancifer was a forward who played about 18 minutes and averaged about eight points a game. In other words, Rancifer wasn't the kind of player who could fix a game. Rancifer, whose attorney has since said that he never intended to pocket any of the money and planned only to pass it along to Brown and Johnson, left the Kwik Corner as empty-handed and uncomfortable as when he'd entered. But the meeting had provided significant evidence for the FBI.
"Three more games go by without that kid showing up at the store," Garmo told SI.com, "and nothing happens and the season's over. And all the people that got wrapped up in this -- if that kid doesn't show up that day, this whole case falls apart."
"And the only reason he went is because [Chas] set it all up."
The next night, Rancifer played 16 minutes in San Diego's 65-61 loss to Portland, shooting 0-for-3 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the free-throw line. A video review of that game by SI.com shows no suspiciously errant free throws or timely dribbles off the foot. The most striking thing about the video is the emptiness of USD's Jenny Craig Pavilion, aka "the Slim Gym," which made every sneaker squeak audible.
In a low-profile game like Portland-San Diego, if lopsided bets are placed on one team and not the other, it's a sign that something funny might be going on, said Las Vegas sports betting expert R.J. Bell. The founder of pregame.com, which advertises itself as "the largest sports betting info site compliant with U.S. law," Bell conducted widely-used research into the Tim Donaghy and University of Toledo betting scandals. He provided similar analysis to SI.com regarding the San Diego case.
Bell pointed out that the only way that point shaving against the spread can work is if players perform at less than their best, after their off-court accomplices bet on the opponent.
Because the games allegedly affected by the USD scheme have not been disclosed, Bell reviewed betting records for the 35 games within the time windows referenced in the indictment, searching for lopsided wagering and changes in the betting line that are consistent with corrupt games. The Portland-USD game, Bell concluded, was clean. (Goria bet on Portland anyway -- and lost -- as evidenced by seven betting receipts found during an FBI search of his home.)
USD's home game against Saint Mary's on February 18, 2010, however, stood out. Before that game, which falls within the window of games Brandon Johnson is accused of influencing as an active player, enough money was bet on Saint Mary's for the line to move from USD plus-7 to USD plus-8 ½. "This sort of imbalanced betting, followed by significant point spread movement, is consistent with a corrupt game," Bell said.
Although Saint Mary's won by 12 -- a victory for all of the gamblers who bet against San Diego -- Johnson's performance doesn't show signs of point shaving. As usual, the slashing, 6-foot guard led the Toreros in scoring. His 15 points included a nine-point flurry in the game's final 3 ½ minutes -- strong evidence that he wasn't shaving points. Johnson took seven of USD's last 11 shots, making four. He missed his last two shots, both three-pointers -- one when USD was down by 13 with 3:23 left and the other when it was down by 10 with 1:46 remaining. This last attempt, had he made it, would have cut the lead to 7 -- a dangerous dip beneath the betting line of 8 ½ points.
The bottom line: If this Saint Mary's game is the one Johnson is accused of "influencing the outcome of," convincing a jury of his influence might prove difficult.
The incident that sparked Operation Hookshot had nothing to do with basketball.
In January 2008, a Toyota Camry driven by Goria was stopped at a border checkpoint in Southern California. According to court documents, officers found $104,900 cash in the car. Goria explained that he was headed to Las Vegas to pay off some legal gambling debts, but other evidence found in the Camry -- including printed directions to marijuana-rich Humboldt County -- led authorities to believe that Goria was on his way north to buy an amount of weed much larger than the "marijuana cigarette concealed in a container near one of the [Camry's] visors" according to court documents.
Goria was detained briefly. Most of the seized cash was later forfeited to the United States. More important, Goria had landed himself on the feds' radar. The FBI soon learned that Goria liked to bet on sports. A lot. He also accepted bets, placing illegal wagers for friends and clients through an offshore Internet service.
Operation Hookshot was born.
Chas would come along later and nudge it forward.
Though Goria has no criminal convictions on his record, he is the only defendant among the 10 in the USD case who remains in custody without bond. This is at least partly due to his being charged shortly after the USD indictment came down for his role in an unrelated robbery last December. (Goria has pleaded not guilty, and after presenting his defense at a preliminary hearing, the judge in that case said that if a motion to dismiss the charges against Goria were entered at trial, "I'd probably have granted it.")
Chas remains free, despite a lengthy criminal record. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the late 1990s for distributing methamphetamine. (He became an informant and his time was cut to seven years.) Upon his release, his adjustment to probation was "dismal," according to a report by the U.S. Probation Department. "He quickly reverted to his high dollar drug dealing activities ... was in no way humbled ... and simply started back up where he had left off,." the probation report states.
In May 2011 -- after his participation in Operation Hookshot -- Chas was charged in San Diego federal court with distributing multiple kilos of cocaine. He pleaded guilty, and despite the Probation Department's conclusion that "the impact of his drug distribution on the community is significant", was set free on less than $12,000 bond, a jarringly small amount for such a charge. His sentencing in that case has been postponed -- presumably until the USD case is decided.
Last year, Chas was charged with "exhibiting a deadly weapon" -- a misdemeanor -- after he directed racial insults at a black woman in a Del Mar restaurant, then pulled a knife on her in the parking lot. The charge was reduced to an infraction and Chas was assessed a $100 fine.
In August 2011, Chas was arrested after an altercation at the same restaurant with a different woman who police found with "swelling by the bridge of her nose and a cut on her nose ... [and] blood spattered on her face and shirt. [Chas] had no visible injury." He was released the next day on less than $40,000 bond. Assault charges against him were rejected.
When Chas appeared at a recent probation hearing on his meth case, his probation officer recommended that he be imprisoned for 30 months based on his recent violations. Assistant U.S. Attorney Harold Chun, the lead prosecutor in the USD case, who days earlier had assumed the same role in Chas' meth and cocaine cases, disagreed with this recommendation. Chas walked out of court a free man.
The government has used unsavory informants before, but this instance is compounded by the recent discovery that Chas' longtime defense lawyer also represented Steve Goria in his 2008 border checkpoint case.
"Based on what's already in the public record about [Chas]," said Kris Kraus, who's defending Goria's sister Lilian in the USD case, "I believe the government is going to have significant issues with this informant's credibility."
Prosecutor Chun and FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth declined to answer several questions posed by SI.com about the alleged game fixing, Chas, and his involvement in Operation Hookshot.
There's a hearing set for April to address the issue of the attorney who represented both Goria and the informant who set Goria up. At stake is whether the information Chas gave the FBI was tainted, and therefore inadmissible. (SI.com attempted to contact both Chas and his attorney several times, through several avenues, without success. The attorney, Nicholas DePento, told Fox 5 TV in San Diego that he still represents Chas, but denied tainting the USD case.)
T.J. Brown's attorney, Tom Matthews, summed up the government's case this way: "They were investigating a marijuana case, stumbled upon some illegal Internet sports betting, then came across some exaggerated claims of an ability to fix basketball games. The government got over-excited and filed charges without conducting a sufficient investigation."
Meanwhile, hope springs eternal at the Slim Gym where, Grier, the eternal optimist, has guided his young team to a 7-12 record this season -- one more win than USD had last year. Ken Rancifer has started 12 games, but has averaged just seven points and four rebounds as his lawyer, his coach and the university have tried to shield him from further scrutiny. As the season got under way, Grier seemed refreshed. "This time of year a lot of coaches are dreading the long grind ahead, but I've never looked more forward to getting going again," he said. "We're all very eager to move past this."
Across town in gritty, beer-soaked Pacific Beach, six miles but worlds apart from USD's pristine, private campus, defendant Richard Garmo stood behind the counter of his convenience store, thumbing angrily through a list of wiretap evidence he wished he could share. "Just looking at this stuff, everything says 'fixing' in quotations because the feds wanted to make sure that that's all we ever talked about," Garmo said, frustration flecking his voice. "[Chas] was always pushing that part. 'Have him go call this guy, have him go call that guy. Let's set this up.' I'm like, 'Whoa why are you pushing? When something happens, something happens. Something don't happen, it don't happen ...' But he forced it. He kept forcing it.
"You're telling an 18-year-old kid to show up to get $5,000. That's how this whole thing started. If that kid doesn't show up to get that money, you and me aren't having this conversation."