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Darrell (Dudley) Ross, who owned Dudley'z, initially told SI that Halko was lying in saying that Ohio State players were tattooed there and partied there, and that Halko was "just trying to get his name in the paper." Ross later acknowledged that he might have tattooed some Buckeyes but said that Halko did not and that the players always paid for the work. Ross said that Halko worked at Dudley'z for "three or four days" and said of himself, "Look, I am a career criminal, but I've only been convicted of one felony. I'm not a drug addict like [Halko]."
Megan Zonars, who says she lived in an apartment above Dudley'z for about six months beginning in June 2003, contradicts Ross's account that Halko was employed only briefly at the tattoo parlor. She told SI that Halko worked at the parlor "every day" while she lived there. Like the two associates of Halko's who spoke to SI, she also confirmed Halko's account that many Buckeyes frequented the shop. "I met Chris Vance and Maurice Clarett and others," she said. "And it wasn't just [Halko] who needled guys. A lot of people worked on Buckeyes."
Halko does have a troubling background and, like Clarett, is easily impeached by those unsettled by his allegations. In 2005 he was found guilty of assault and sentenced to 180 days in jail. In '08 he was convicted of misdemeanor theft and possession of drug paraphernalia, and last year he violated a protection order. In March he was sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted of three felonies: attempted burglary, breaking and entering, and domestic violence. He spoke to SI in a series of phone calls from Noble Correctional Institution in Caldwell, Ohio. He said that in addition to his legal trouble, he has had a drug problem in the past, "but I'm not lying. Why should I lie?"
After Halko left Dudley'z in 2004 he opened his own shop, which he operated for about a year. Then he pleaded guilty to assault and served time in prison. After his release, he bounced around, eventually landing a job at, of all places, Fine Line Ink, in 2009. Halko was at first surprised to see Ohio State football players regularly come through the door, but it made sense. Dudley'z had closed, and the Buckeyes needed a new hangout.
Halko worked at Fine Line Ink for only a few weeks and says he did not witness the transactions involving the six Ohio State players who would be suspended. Nor did he see the drug trafficking that would lead federal prosecutors to indict owner Edward Rife. In a plea deal last Friday, Rife pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana, offenses that carry a maximum sentence of 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $2.5 million.
In its letter to Ohio State, the Department of Justice linked Rife, 31, to Ross, the Dudley'z owner. The letter listed transactions between the two involving six pieces of signed memorabilia. There was also a footnote: "Ross is a friend of Edward Rife, who deals in sports memorabilia." Asked about his relationship with Rife, Ross told SI he knew him but couldn't comment further.
On what would be his last day at Fine Line, Halko says Rife accused him of stealing some cameras, which Halko denied. He also says that Rife, the man who would become close with many of Ohio State's best players, then pointed a gun at him and ordered some of his associates to take him outside and beat him. Halko says he ended up in Mount Carmel West Hospital with multiple injuries, a description confirmed by one of Halko's associates. Rife's lawyer, Stephen Palmer, told SI that Rife denies pulling a gun on Halko or having him assaulted.
On the second floor of the nondescript building that houses Fine Line Ink, Rife created the ultimate Ohio State--themed man cave. Huge photographs hung on walls painted scarlet and gray. Images of Hayes and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler sandwiched a picture of Ohio Stadium. There were shots from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, where the Buckeyes won the national title, including one of Tressel. Signature-covered jerseys were displayed, and on a small table was an autographed helmet encased in glass. A large sectional couch sat in front of a big flat-screen television that was hooked up to a PlayStation3.
"It was a cool place to hang out," says a former Rife employee. "Everybody could just relax and have a good time. The players were catered to. Eddie would tell people, 'Go get them some chicken' or 'Run to the store and get them something to drink.' Whatever they wanted." The former employee, who worked for Rife from the fall of 2008 until last summer, agreed to speak to SI on condition that he remain anonymous; he fears that Rife or one of his associates will seek retribution for his disclosures. He will be referred to in this story by the pseudonym Ellis.
Ohio State has conceded that six current players committed an NCAA violation by trading memorabilia for tattoos or cash at Fine Line Ink: Pryor, tackle Mike Adams, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, defensive end Solomon Thomas and linebacker Jordan Whiting. Ellis, who spent time in and around the tattoo parlor for nearly 20 months, says that in addition to those six, he witnessed nine other active players swap memorabilia or give autographs for tattoos or money. Those players were defensive back C.J. Barnett, linebacker Dorian Bell, running back Jaamal Berry, running back Bo DeLande, defensive back Zach Domicone, linebacker Storm Klein, linebacker Etienne Sabino, defensive tackle John Simon and defensive end Nathan Williams. Ohio State declined to make any of its current players available to respond to SI.