An inside look at alleged point shaving scheme at U of San Diego
Last April, FBI charged 10 people with trying to fix basketball games at San Diego
The case largely centers around a confidential informant who pushed case forward
An eight-month SI investigation raises concerns about whether fixing took place
On the morning of April 11, 2011, University of San Diego basketball coach Bill Grier received a surprise visit at his home from two FBI agents who told him that one of his former players, USD's alltime leading scorer Brandon Johnson, and another ex-USD player named Brandon Dowdy were being charged in federal court at that very moment with trying to fix games.
That information was shocking enough, but when the agents told Grier about the third defendant linked to USD basketball, former assistant coach T.J. Brown -- a man Grier thought highly of even as he dismissed him in 2007 to make room for his incoming staff -- Grier almost had to take a knee. "This thing shook me to my core," Grier said. "It really hit home for me when one of our players approached me and said, 'Coach, I don't know how much of my career was real.'"
The U.S. Attorney's office charged 10 people that morning -- including Johnson, Dowdy and Brown -- with "conspiracy to commit sports bribery, conduct an illegal gambling business, and distribute marijuana." Johnson, Dowdy and Brown are the only three sports figures named in the alleged conspiracy. They have each declined to comment on the charges other than to plead not guilty in court. The other defendants have also pleaded not guilty (with the exception of David Gates, an indigent ex-gang member, who pleaded guilty in August to participating in the gambling business). A trial has been scheduled for September.
An eight-month investigation by SI.com -- which included dozens of interviews with defendants, players, coaches, law enforcement officials and gambling experts, plus a review of hundreds of related documents -- has raised new questions about the methods used by the FBI in making the case, which was called Operation Hookshot.
The agents who appeared on Grier's doorstep had just concluded four months of wiretap surveillance that collected more than 35,000 phone calls and text messages involving the 10 defendants. The court placed this wiretap evidence under protective order to guard the identity of the FBI's informant -- a man we'll call "Chas" -- who participated in Operation Hookshot because he was facing 10 to 20 years in prison for an unrelated cocaine conviction. Prosecutors haven't disclosed which game or games were allegedly affected by the conspiracy, but the indictment unsealed in San Diego federal court last April lists several illuminating allegations.
Johnson, widely considered the best player in USD history, is accused of "influenc[ing] the outcome of [a USD game] for a monetary bribe" in February 2010 -- one of the last games he played as a Torero -- and of soliciting an individual in January 2011 "to affect the outcome of USD basketball games for monetary bribes." This individual has since been revealed to be current USD forward Ken Rancifer, who has not been charged and is believed to have committed no crime. Rancifer's lawyer and university officials declined to make him available to SI.com for an interview.
Brown, the former USD assistant coach, is portrayed as the bridge between the players -- Johnson, Dowdy and Rancifer -- and a small group of gamblers led by Steve Goria, a 32-year-old Iraqi-American sports bettor, small-time bookie and alleged marijuana distributor.
The third "basketball defendant," Dowdy, had played sparingly as a USD freshman in 2006-07 (Johnson's sophomore year and Brown's first and only season as an assistant) before transferring to UC-Riverside, where he enjoyed a trouble-free career that ended in 2010. The indictment accuses Dowdy of soliciting an individual on March 3, 2011, to affect the outcome of a game.
The player Dowdy approached that day spoke with SI.com on condition of anonymity. We'll call him Brian. Like Rancifer, he has not been charged because there is no evidence that he accepted money or tried to influence a game.
Brian described Dowdy as a good friend with whom he kept in close touch, so he wasn't surprised when Dowdy called him in March. The reason for the call, however, came as a shock.
"Basically he was telling me that there were some guys who wanted to pay me to influence a game, win or lose," Brian said. "[Dowdy] said if I just met with the guys they'd give me half the money then and the other half after the game ... I told him I'm not interested. I didn't want to get either one of us in trouble, and he was basically like, 'I feel you. I feel you.' He wasn't trying to influence me to do it ... He said someone told him to present me with this opportunity and that's basically what he did." Dowdy declined to speak to SI.com through his attorney.
The indictment suggests that the person who asked Dowdy to approach Brian was T.J. Brown. At the time, Dowdy was sharing a San Diego apartment with Brown. The former USD assistant had hired Dowdy to coach at the AAU program he operated in La Jolla, an affluent San Diego suburb, and to work security with him at Stingaree, a popular nightclub in downtown San Diego whose security staff Brown managed.
A glitzy, multilevel venue in downtown San Diego, Stingaree is where Brown first met Steve Goria, the flashy, portly bookie known within the club as a frequent customer of its $300 to $500 bottle service. A friendship had formed between Goria and Brown after they met -- a bond that satisfied two vices: Brown's affinity for sports betting and Goria's desire for inside information and access to players.
Soon afterward, Goria introduced Brown to his friend Chas, a gambler who said he'd pay players just to talk to him about fixing games. Unbeknownst to Goria and Brown, Chas was also an informant who was looking at a mandatory minimum 10 years in prison for distributing cocaine and was trying to reduce his sentence by working with the FBI.
The FBI calls its informants "CHS" -- Confidential Human Sources. Chas had recently moved onto the same suburban street where Goria lived, a position from which he would skillfully infiltrate Goria's life.
By February 2011, though, Chas was running out of time. With just a few games left on USD's schedule, his window to provide evidence for his FBI handlers was closing.
According to two sources, Chas approached Brown inside Stingaree and repeated the same deal he'd been whispering to Goria: he'd pay a player $2,000 to $5,000 just to talk about shaving points. "Five minutes," Chas said, according to a source with knowledge of that conversation. "He was like, 'The kid can spit in my face, do whatever he wants. He can just take the money, say no, and leave."
That's when Brown and Dowdy discussed approaching Brian.
The indictment says that the player now known to be Ken Rancifer was solicited to fix games by Brandon Johnson -- another of Brown's former pupils who had grown closer to Brown after he was fired.