Thursday, August 18, 2011

TENNESSEE TRAGEDY: Did drugs-in-sports scandal play role in Ryan Ferguson case? Pt. 2

Did a college athletics scandal figure into a Columbia homicide?  Cont. from Part 1

COLUMBIA, 8/18/11  (Beat Byte) --  Fifteen years before his death in Columbia at the hands of assailants many say remain unidentified, Columbia Daily Tribune sports writer Kent Heitholt was considered a potential witness in a drugs-in-athletics scandal  that cost Heitholt his job; laid low the University of Tennessee; sent star football players to prison; and prompted the NCAA to rewrite its drug-testing rules.

Hired on behalf of Ryan Ferguson, whose conviction for Heitholt's murder strikes many as dubious, defense experts earlier this year suggested that "revenge" was the most-likely motive, a finding that points away from Ferguson and fellow defendant Chuck Erickson, who didn't know the victim at all.  

With the revenge motive in mind, other defense experts have pointed the finger at sports writer Michael Boyd, the last person to see Heitholt alive.  Boyd, rumor has it, harbored some sort of workplace grudge against Heitholt, a charge that remains unverified.  

As several recent cases suggest, to rigorously check a motive for revenge, law enforcement authorities should thoroughly investigate a victim's past as well as present.  Michael Boyd was a figure only from Kent Heitholt's present.  

"Bad drugs" motivated an Indianapolis father and son to murder over an 18-year-old vendetta reported last year.   A 36-year-old homicide prompted a New York father to threaten a revenge murder in March.  Eight years passed before a fired store clerk took revenge by murdering his former boss  in the U.K.  

Columbia Police Department officials have declined to comment on the issue of past revenge motives in the Ferguson/Heitholt case "since it is in appeals," CPD public affairs officer Jill Wieneke explained.   

Our two-part story concludes below. 

TENNESSEE TRAGEDY:   Continued from Part 1

Booster bennies 

After they arrested Tony Robinson on cocaine charges, police found credit cards in his car belonging to Knoxville physician and Vols booster Robert Overholt.

Charges of booster-provided "extra benefits for Vols athletes" then prompted a 15-week UT investigation that paralleled the Robinson-Cooper prosecution, and uncovered six NCAA rules violations.  

Investigators found that UT football coach Johnny Majors knew Robinson had used Dr. Overholt's vehicle during 1984-85, but failed to report the violation.  

They also substantiated that Robinson used Overholt's credit cards and stayed at his home;  that other players had reserved unauthorized game passes; and that another booster, Gatlinburg hotel owner Trent Richey, allowed Vol athletes to stay at his hotel for free at the request of coaching staff.   

University of Tennessee officials suspended all-SEC kicker Carlos Reveiz and linebacker Kelly Ziegler;  reprimanded coach Majors; and moved to bar Overholt and Richey from participating in UT athletic events, even as spectators.

The accusations stung the two wealthy boosters.  While Overholt denied wrongful intent in a Nashville Banner interview -- just three weeks after the Banner terminated Heitholt and Thorup -- Richey acknowledged that he had given "$100,000 worth of rooms to UT players, the families of UT players, and UT coaches.   

"The UT coaches would call me when they wanted to bring in a player and his family," Richey said.  "They asked me to provide free rooms.  I knew it was a violation of the rules, but I never said no."

UT officials reprimanded Majors' in August 1986, after he confirmed he knew Robinson was violating NCAA rules but never reported it.  "I fully understand and accept the reprimand," said Majors, a UT coach since 1977 and All-American tailback there in 1956.  "I regret any embarassment that may have been suffered by the University of Tennessee."

In addition to the UT sanctions, NCAA officials ordered "light probation" for the Vols program.   They also cited the Robinson case as a key motivator in a sweeping change to drug testing rules called Proposal 30.

"The message is clear," said former NCAA president John Toner at the time.  "Cocaine is your friend, your lover, and your confidant.  But it never, never lets you get away from it.  It destroys you."  

Seven-year ordeal
As the Vols investigation wound down, the case against Robinson and Cooper ramped up.  Six months after they were arrested, a grand jury indicted the pair on 26 counts, including various felonies alleging the sale -- at different times -- of 76 grams of cocaine.  

Robinson's defense attorney said the indictment was unnecessarily broad and alleged that his client had been entrapped.  

A larger anguish lay elsewhere, said UT athletic director Doug Dickey.  "The tragedy of it to me is who's selling cocaine to Tony Robinson?" Dickey said.  "His mistake is his mistake, but I'd like to know who sold that stuff to him."

Though a judge eventually dropped one of the charges, Robinson pleaded no contest and served two years of a six-year prison sentence, including time in solitary confinement.  

Cooper received 8 years. 

Work release and probation violations followed, adding more time to Robinson's sentence, which he served between court-ordered rehabilitation efforts trying out for the Pittsburgh Steelers and even playing for the Washington Redskins.   Followup stories in the Knoxville Sentinel and Sports Illustrated report that Robinson has been in and out of jail over the past 25 years

"Tony Robinson basically disappeared," said Sentinel sports writer Mike Strange.  "He tried for years to get his sports career back on track, but it never happened."  

Robinson declared the "end of the ordeal" in July 1993, emphasizing the tragic mess Bill Thorup and Kent Heitholt had worked amidst.   Drugs were everywhere, in every collegiate sport, he maintained.   Athletes used them and trainers knew it.   Everyone looked the other way, leaving the shadows -- of anonymous informants, drug kingpins, and unidentified co-conspirators police thought they might arrest with help from Thorup and Heitholt -- undisturbed.    

"I remember what Coach Majors told us," Robinson told the Associated Press.  "Do whatever you've got to do to get mentally and physically prepared for the game."  


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