Don Tollefson’s Last Stand

Photography by Wesley Mann

Photography by Wesley Mann

She kept Don inside. His mother wanted him to study. She wouldn’t let him be like them, those other kids who got into trouble. Don rarely saw his father — his parents had separated. So the boy would spend hours in his bedroom in San Francisco, playing endless games with his baseball cards: Dodgers-Giants, over and over. He’d go out into the tiny backyard of their small house near Lake Merced and re-create the ’60 Olympics. With string, he’d make a high jump. A broad jump. A track around the perimeter. That’s how he spent his childhood. In fantasy. Alone.

He did what he was told, and he earned the A’s his mother demanded. She taught piano, at the Conservatory. Sometimes, on her days off, they’d go for drives down the Peninsula together. His brother Arthur was 10 years older, and had gotten into Stanford. Arthur was gone, just like Don’s father. Don was student body president of his high school. He was accepted at Stanford, just like his brother, at 16. He was sure he could make his mother proud.

Then his mother got sick. It was pancreatic cancer, and it was quick. She died just before he graduated from high school. She’d fought Stanford to allow Don to live at home instead of on campus once he started there, and she won. But now Don was going to stay with his father, a man he barely knew, while he went to college.

By the end of that month — May of 1969 — everything was different. Don had started drinking. He hung out with another boy — something his mother would never have let him do — and they sipped beer under a bridge off El Camino Real. His father, a paper pusher for the telephone company in San Francisco, ignored Don most of the time. He could do whatever he wanted.

It was a beginning that had no middle and seemed to go on forever, because from that moment forward — from the time he was 16 years old until last October, when he was 61 and everything changed once again — Don got drunk every night.

Often, that’s how he delivered the sports, either at Channel 6 or Fox 29 — half shot, or worse. He’d go to dinner or a bar or some event after the six o’clock news and drink. He’d pop back at 11 and deliver the sports with the same Tolly awesomeness. He had no home life, even when he was married. But he was still Don Tollefson. And then it all fell apart.

HE WAS THE MOST unlikely guy in Philadelphia to get into the sort of trouble he did.

Not very long ago, Tollefson had this city at his beck and call. In his prime, he was the go-to sports newscaster in Philly, and a fixture on the local scene for almost all of the past 40 years. Tolly practically leaped out of the tube every night over some Julius or Randall or Chase act of wizardry, landing in our living rooms on raw energy alone; on a “cold, cold, cold” day against the Giants, he declared the Eagles defense “hot, hot, hot!” He talked up his charity work with the same over-the-top vigor, every chance he got, and showed up all over town to emcee events, especially for underprivileged kids. “Good guy” was practically stamped on his forehead.

Or maybe we had been utterly snookered.

Tollefson was arrested in February, accused of selling ticket packages and trips — Eagles games, the World Cup, the U.S. Open and other events, with some of the proceeds destined for charity — without delivering on them. The deputy Bucks County district attorney claims he’s scammed at least 150 people out of more than $250,000. He’s been charged with theft by deception and other crimes. Suddenly, there was a question, both profound and simple: Who is this guy?

After his arrest, he disappeared into jail. Tollefson had to stay there for a month because he couldn’t come up with the 10 grand to get out. A measly 10 grand! That used to be walking-around money for Tolly. But he was broke, and no one was willing to bail him out.

He left jail in late March, but the silence continued. Now, after a month at a treatment center for an addiction to alcohol and painkillers, Tollefson is under house arrest in an apartment in North Philadelphia. The legal trouble continues — he’ll stand trial later this year on charges stemming from that quarter-million dollars he allegedly swindled. But Don has decided that it’s time to talk. It’s a matter of survival.

IN HIS LAWYER’S OFFICE one afternoon in mid-May, Don looks considerably better than he did in his mug shot back in February, when he appeared ghostly. Tollefson admits he was scared; now he’s tan and friendly. He’s also far too thin — his jeans dangle off him in scarecrow folds, hiding an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements. Don lives, post-rehab, in a small, messy apartment in North Philadelphia near Temple University — one room is stuffed with sports memorabilia that he’s trying to sell. He looks every bit of 61, with sparse, spiky gray hair. But he’s zeroed in, now, on his new story, one that’s emerged in intense therapy.

“I wasn’t making clear-thinking decisions,” Don says. “Whether it was with women or going on the air inebriated or whatever it was, I think back to my childhood when I created that make-believe world. Addicts create make-believe worlds — not just the denial, but the delusion that they’re functioning adults, and they’re not. They’re addicts.”

Going back to that 16-year-old about to enter Stanford, he can barely remember a day when he didn’t get drunk — first it was beer, then, as he got older, beer and wine and mixed drinks. Over the past few years, he added painkillers that had been prescribed for shoulder injuries following a bad car wreck in 2008. From late 2012 until he first went into treatment a year later, he was mixing booze with Percocets and Oxycontin and other drugs. “You take enough codeine three’s,” he says, “in combination with alcohol, you’re on the way to dying.” He doesn’t have any doubt about where he was headed.

Prior to that — all those years on the air, the charity work and mentoring and hosting fund-raisers for good causes — he somehow functioned despite drinking heavily every day. But Don hates the phrase “functional alcoholic.” He wasn’t functioning. He was a mess.

“Relationships with women were alcohol-based and drug-based,” he says. “And very immature, as a result. I was still being a high-school kid in my adult relationships with women.” The day he went into rehab last October is also when he and his second wife, Marilyn, separated; they have a four-year-old daughter. “I cannot remember in my marriages or my relationships outside of marriage having many serious, sober conversations,” Don says. “Because I just preferred to isolate myself.” And that meant getting drunk.

His openness is riveting, as if he’s still the old Tolly you couldn’t stop watching, though far different from the guy ­enthusing wildly from his nightly-news perch. He is intense, straightforward: an addict all his adult life now fighting hard to get healthy, to make amends.

Yet there is much that is not straightforward, when you take a look at the path he went down. Some of it is marvelous. Some of it is not. And some of the trouble he’s gotten into doesn’t seem to have much to do with addiction.

LET’S START WITH the marvelous.

Don still had his life ahead of him when he entered Stanford. He immediately started writing for the student paper, and was blessed with a certain radar for the big story.

One day in 1971, Tollefson walked into the Stanford Daily offices and a cop was standing there with a search warrant. Police were looking for photographers’ negatives that might bolster their case against demonstrators who had turned violent during a protest over a mistreated black university hospital worker. “It has been our policy since last spring’s demonstrations to destroy negatives in order to protect our photographers from harassment,” a very serious Tolly, the Daily’s news editor, said at the time; the story made the CBS Evening News. The Daily would go on to win a judgment against the police that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, sparking national debate on freedom of the press and leading Congress to pass legislation giving greater protection to the notes and files of journalists.

National news take two: When Patty Hearst was kidnapped in early 1974, Don just happened to be driving near the Hearst mansion in Hillsborough. He camped out on the mansion grounds and covered the story for the Associated Press for weeks.

In the fall of that same year, Don and Jim Lampley were picked by ABC Sports, after a nationwide search, to be the first football sideline reporters. The idea was to add a little color about college life, supplied by two college-age guys. Tollefson attacked the new assignment as a serious journalist. For a University of Mississippi game, he brought James Meredith, the school’s first black graduate, back to the very steps where Governor Ross Barnett had turned him away in 1962, when he first tried to enter Ole Miss

After the Meredith interview garnered death threats for ABC executives, Don says, he was forced to start interviewing cheerleaders for his halftime bits. There was another price to paving the way to the pretty-girl celebrity gig that sideline reporting would become — Don and Jim could walk into any college bar in America and drink for free, hang with the hottest coeds, get feted as big stars. “There was no possible way we’d live an unspoiled life again,” Lampley says. “Any person would be altered in some way, that autumn.”

Tollefson, still only 22 and still a student because of all his time away for work, suddenly had myriad options. When he’d flown to New York to interview for the ABC job, he ran into William Randolph Hearst in an elevator. “Don, what are you doing here?” wondered Hearst, who remembered the kid camped outside his mansion when Patty was kidnapped. Don told him. “We’ll still have a job for you,” Hearst said, meaning in newspapers. But the next year, in 1975 — enamored of the money and trappings of TV over print — Don left Stanford without a degree and joined Channel 6 in Philly. He would also be close to New York, where his girlfriend of the moment, the secretary of ABC Sports president Roone Arledge, lived.

Within a year, Don was sports director at Action News, and the city was his. The troika of Jim Gardner, Jim O’Brien and Tolly was the most-watched local newscast for years. When Lampley would come through Philly, he and Tolly would have dinner at Bookbinder’s, where Don could barely eat for all the attention and autograph-seekers. He wouldn’t pay or enjoy a private moment in public ever again.

Tollefson lapped up the fame and women. He was always out at charity functions, too, as if he couldn’t ever go home. Circa 1980, Don was showing up at better than 400 events a year: Special Olympics, PAL, toy drives with firemen. His best friend at WPVI, sports reporter Jack Brayboy, points out the obvious: “Don never met a microphone he didn’t like.” Endless motivational speeches at schools. Little League dinners. Even part-time teaching at William Penn High School.

Lampley was right: Fame changed them, especially someone as needy as Don. In 1984, when local TV news was much bigger than it is now, ’PVI sent about a dozen staffers to L.A. for the entire Summer Olympics. Every night, there was lobster and serious drinking. The crew got invited to the ABC Sports wrap party with Lionel Richie. Tolly, with ABC and now ’PVI, had hit the fast lane of TV sports.

And then, in 1990, after 15 years at Channel 6, he quit. Tollefson ditched his TV career for North Carolina, to devote himself full-time to charity work. A lot of people in the broadcast news industry assume Tollefson got fired. He was 38, making $300,000 a year at Action News, a big star in a city that has so few, and he decided to give all that up to … move to Greensboro?

But that’s where his brother lived — Arthur Tollefson was a dean at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a concert pianist — and Don says he moved down in part to be near him. Other reasons for his leaving TV news made the rounds: There was talk of him showing up just a few minutes before he went on the air, being more committed to outside events than to his job. Management was getting frustrated; they pushed him to change. Tollefson says that yes, there were a lot of discussions with management, but that he decided it was time to go.

Alan Nesbitt, who was president and general manager of ’PVI when Don left, is adamant that he wasn’t fired. Now retired in Florida, Nesbitt remembers questioning Tolly on whether he was really sure about doing charity work full-time. “It sounded a little nebulous,” Nesbitt recalls.

Don admits now that leaving television to create his own charity wasn’t the whole story. The constant drinking and out-and-about life had started to overwhelm him; he was living as if he needed a constant audience. Don had to get away. “At least subconsciously, I knew,” he says, “that I was feeding my addiction, in a number of different ways.”

So he escaped to a higher calling. And his story got really strange.

TOLLEFSON DID MAKE a go of it in Greensboro. He registered his first charity, Winning Ways, with the state. He traveled all over the co­untry — Don claimed early on that he had gone to hundreds of school districts and after-school programs in nine states to give talks, especially to disadvantaged kids. Sometimes he charged nothing, or a few thousand dollars, depending on what a school could pitch in. Corporations and individuals donated some money; he says he paid himself nothing.

But he needed more. Tollefson had gotten married in 1992, to a 30-year-old named Monica Vasquez, whom he’d met in Philadelphia 12 years earlier at a fashion show. They bought a spacious house with a pool in Jamestown, the next town over from Greensboro. Her parents had some money, and soon after the wedding, Don convinced his in-laws to give him $200,000 to invest in Israeli bonds, according to their financial adviser.

It didn’t take long for his new in-laws, who lived in South Jersey, to get nervous; they went to the adviser, George Richardson, who’s now retired in Florida. Richardson made calls to Israeli financial markets. He called management at Channel 6 to see what he could learn about Tollefson (not much). But he did enough digging to be convinced that Tollefson hadn’t put his clients’ money into Israeli bonds, and he tracked down Don, who was on a golf outing in California. Richardson remembers their conversation vividly. He told Tollefson he knew he hadn’t invested the money. Don was silent.

“What in the hell are you doing, Don?” Richardson said to him.

“They had this money they wanted to invest,” Tollefson said. “I needed that money.”

Richardson was stunned — Tollefson was admitting that he stole it. “Why?” Richardson demanded. “You were making a fortune at Channel 6.”

“I needed it to live on.”

Richardson gave Tollefson a week to get the $200,000 back to his in-laws. If he didn’t, Richardson told him, he’d file charges.

“No, no,” Don said, “don’t do that. I’ll get it back to them.”

Though the money — all 200 grand — was returned, Tollefson’s marriage didn’t last long. Richardson’s only regret now is not going to the D.A. anyway, in order to stop the trouble that would come later.

Around that same time, Tollefson got caught up in something as strange as those Israeli bonds. His brother, Arthur, and his wife, Brenda, say they began getting calls from banks around the country about credit-card applications they’d been making. This was odd — they hadn’t applied for any credit cards. They went to the police, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. Arthur was able to convince a bank that called to send him one of the applications. It was in Don’s handwriting, filled with Arthur’s financial information.

Arthur and Brenda are convinced that Don was setting up a scheme to rip off his own brother, by applying for credit cards in Arthur’s name and having them sent to a post office box in Greensboro.

Why would Don do that? “We’ve tried to figure that out for decades,” Brenda says. Arthur and Brenda still have no clue. They don’t even know why Don came to North Carolina in the first place; he’d hardly been in touch with them much before moving down.

“He said he wanted a change,” Brenda remembers. At the time, Arthur talked glowingly of Don’s shift from newscaster to charity head, telling the Greensboro paper that “it takes a great deal of courage and dedication when you’re on top of a career and making a substantial salary to say, ‘There is more to life than this.’” But Arthur didn’t see much of his brother in North Carolina.

When they learned that Don was preparing to scam them, “It was the end of a friendship and a family,” Brenda says. They say they’ve rarely talked to Don since.

“He’s called here a few times and left a message — happy Father’s Day or birthday,” Brenda says. “We haven’t returned the call. He’s never admitted what he did.” Don’s current legal troubles don’t surprise her. “Once this happens to you,” she says, “he becomes a different person in your mind. In that case, he’s capable of anything.”

Don was supposed to file a report with the state every year on how much money Winning Ways took in and where it went. He never bothered with that.

DON TOLLEFSON WON’T address the Israeli bond deal or scamming his own brother — mere allegations, to be sure, but troubling ones — because of his ongoing legal battle.

That presents a problem for him. Tollefson talks a great deal now about coming clean: “You can’t be in recovery without being totally honest,” he says. Which means that he runs a risk — perhaps with himself, and certainly with the rest of us — if he’s open about abusing alcohol and drugs but buttons up when it comes to other misdeeds. Tollefson was still drinking dangerously in North Carolina, he says. But would that lead him to try to steal from his own brother? And why was he so desperate for money — did he have a gambling problem?

Tollefson says he didn’t have a gambling problem, and that he wants to explain everything. He does admit that going to North Carolina “was just running away, and you can’t run away from your addiction. I need to make amends with people for things that happened while I was in North Carolina.” That’s all he’ll say about that period.

When he returned to Philadelphia and to television, working for Fox 29 in 1995, his life would continue to veer off the rails. The station took him on because he was still a big name here, and he was willing to start as a general assignment reporter. Tolly was shifted into sports, his natural groove. That’s when the same issues that had annoyed management at ’PVI emerged: showing up 15 minutes before a telecast, not doing the nuts-and-bolts reporting on stories.

And something had changed in Don. A colleague who knew Tollefson at both stations could feel the difference more than define it: “There was a sense of him being there but not really being there,” she says. “I never read it as arrogance — I read it as ephemeral. Don just kind of floated, in and out of stuff. At ’PVI, he’d gather himself and be totally present in the moment.”

This colleague liked Tollefson; she thought he was complicated and sensitive, but his strangeness drove her a little crazy. “I couldn’t put a finger on what the hell was happening to him. I went to him a few times: ‘Are you okay, Don? Is everything okay?’ He would always say he was fine.”

Tollefson says that he was just as engaged in doing TV as always, but that his life was still a mess. Once, after a big Eagles game, a manager pulled him off the air because he was drunk. Yet he hadn’t admitted to himself that he drank far too much. Don was older, and despite marrying his second wife, Marilyn, he still didn’t really have a life, beyond the public persona. And the bottle.

“I got the sense,” the colleague says, “that something was terribly wrong, and that the facade was cracking.”

Over the years Don was at Fox, the sports department started to get wind of a more concrete problem — his charity work was beginning to draw suspicions. A different co-worker saw him come into the office one night a couple days before the Super Bowl in 2000 and try to book hotel accommodations on ticket packages he’d sold — it seemed awfully late for that. In 2001, Philadelphia Charge soccer star and Olympic silver medalist Lorrie Fair asked the same co-worker to come to a fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis at Tiki Bob’s Cantina in Northern Liberties, and suggested that he invite Tollefson as well.

Two weeks later, when the co-worker arrived at Tiki Bob’s, there was Tollefson, now emceeing the event — typical Tolly, never missing a chance to worm his way in and get before an audience. After he auctioned off sports memorabilia, Don told everyone to make out the checks to Winning Ways, his charity. The Fox co-worker made the winning bid on a golf outing.

After the event, Fair says, she called Tollefson about the money raised: Where was it? He said it was taking time to collect; she didn’t even know how much it was supposed to be.

The co-worker says the golf outing never materialized. But his check wasn’t cashed, either; he figures that’s because Don had to keep working with him.

Lorrie Fair gave up pestering Tollefson and never got any word from the MS Society that they received anything. “I was naive,” says Fair, who now lives in California. Though she can’t prove anything, she admits, “I probably got duped.”

Tollefson’s co-worker began watching him. Calls started to come into the office, people wanting to speak to Don: I’m supposed to get tickets from Tolly. Where are they? The co-worker sent a note to the Daily News about his suspicions; he never heard back. But the complaints started coming faster, according to another newsroom source, near the end of Tollefson’s time at Fox.

Meanwhile, his obsession to put himself front and center seemed stronger. In 2007, when the Phillies clinched the division title, a Fox broadcaster and a producer were up in the Citizens Bank Park press box, planning their coverage of the team’s celebration, when they saw Tollefson down on the edge of the field. What? Don never came to games. He hadn’t done any of the legwork for the Fox coverage that night, but sure enough, there was Tolly, on-air, having convinced hitting coach Milt Thompson to spray him with champagne.

A Fox broadcaster says in that same year, news director Kingsley Smith called him into his office and asked, “What do you know about Tollefson?”

“What do you mean?” the broadcaster said.

“I think he’s running a pyramid scheme,” Smith told him.

Tollefson says now that Kingsley Smith never said a word to him, and that he never got the sense he was in trouble. (Smith didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.) But by 2008, when he had a bad car accident and went on medical leave for shoulder injuries, his career was crumbling. He was seen during his leave at charity events, even as he was still claiming he couldn’t get behind a microphone. Two days after he came back to work, Don was fired.

The calls kept coming in to Fox, from people who wanted to know where their Eagles ticket packages were. As Don’s life unraveled, he did some TV work with the Eagles, continued mentoring kids, and spent a lot of time at home, getting drunk, and then drunk and high on painkillers — a combination that was killing him, he knows now. Until he finally went to rehab.

And then he was arrested.

DON TOLLEFSON HAS a gift. Once, it was the Tolly we saw every night on TV, the maniacal finger-pointer, the guy who found everyone “absolutely awesome.” Those who worked with Don attest to his back-slapping sunniness. But he admits now that he was hiding.

“I was trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t as depressing as I found it to be, because I had no real home life, even in marriage,” he says. Don seems thankful now that his estranged wife, Marilyn, lets him see their daughter, Gabriella, a couple times a week. “I was very lonely and depressed, because I couldn’t have adult relationships.”

Tollefson’s real gift is in how he can move people. Practically all the way up to the end, before rehab and jail, he could still perform. One of the charities he’s accused of ripping off was created for the family of Brad Fox, a Plymouth Township policeman killed in the line of duty in 2012. Tollefson was asked to make an appearance at the charity’s 5K. When the volunteers went to Kenney’s Madison Tavern in Warminster, he asked to speak briefly on the importance of police and first responders. But Don gave a much broader speech on the nature of heroism, on how a hero isn’t someone making millions a year playing football; a true hero protects our communities, or ventures overseas to make our country safe. That day in Kenney’s, many people listening to Tollefson grew emotional.

Was it real? Did Don believe what he was saying, or was he ingratiating himself and working the crowd for other reasons?

In a sense, those are questions he’s trying to answer for himself. From the time he started at Channel 6 in 1975 and was showing up at several hundred charity events a year, Don was hooked. “Hopefully,” he says, “the reason for doing them was in some large part for the charitable nature. But I now know that it fed the addiction of being a public figure. Certainly it was a combination — I only hope it was a balanced combination.”

His need for fame and good deeds is a toxic mix, especially considering that the Bucks County D.A.’s office is chasing him now for ripping off his own and other charities. That, in turn, produces the most daunting question of all, with the curtain on his addictions to fame and alcohol and painkillers ripped back: Did Tollefson really care?

Don wants us to know that he cares deeply. In his lawyer’s office in May, on the heels of discussing his interview with James Meredith back in 1974, he goes on to talk for several minutes about the evil of racism, on how Eagles receiver Riley Cooper using the word “nigger” last year drove him nuts, on how we would not believe how many people in the Philadelphia sports world spout racial epithets and how despicable that is. Hatred of any kind, he says, makes him crazy. And that’s the driving motivation of his work with inner-city kids, especially. All this from Tollefson can come across as too much, or simply self-serving. But it seems to be equal parts what Tollefson does believe and what he would like to believe, about himself. He wants to help other addicts, once his legal problems are behind him — to become the sort of man Gabriella can be proud of. He is a 61-year-old in recovery, trying to re-form himself.

But when it comes to those Israeli bonds or credit-card scams or whether he hustled people through ticket packages or convinced people to trust him just because he was Tolly, Don turns silent. These allegations seem to have nothing to do with addiction; they’re all weird money-grabbing gambits. And when he’s confronted with them, one by one, Tollefson appears to go somewhere, as if he is leaving his lawyer’s office for a moment. Then, barely above a whisper:

“I can’t answer that.”

There are still many questions he hasn’t answered, for legal reasons, he says. But Tollefson knows the stakes go beyond a possible jail sentence. “I firmly believe that if you relapse, after as much addiction as I had for as long as I had,” he says, “you are kind of signing a death sentence. You’re headed in that direction pretty quickly.”

On that level — a man’s very survival at stake — you root for him. Don Tollefson knows he must come clean; he says that in therapy he’s totally open, about everything. But for us, he won’t go very deep into the story of what he has done wrong. His passion for mentoring inner-city kids pushed him to go too far, he does admit: “Sometimes my ambitions overcame my resources.” In the end, though, we need much more than that. Don Tollefson must come fully clean for us, too.

Originally published as “Tolly’s Last Stand” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

The Last Days of Bill Conlin

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Illustration by Eduardo Recife

A year and a half ago, I flew down to Largo, Florida, and knocked on Bill Conlin’s door. It was early evening, and I couldn’t tell if he was home or not. Nobody came to the door. I thought I heard a TV, though. I knocked again.

Conlin had been the baseball beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News for two decades, starting in 1966, then wrote a regular column for the DN for an even longer stretch, until the end of 2011. He was the city’s most-read sportswriter, and was nationally known via a long stint on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters as the fat guy waving his coffee cup in high-volume arguments that were often brilliant, or at least amusing. In the summer of 2011, he was inducted into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But that December, the life he’d built for half a century collapsed, via a devastating article published in the Inquirer: A niece of Conlin’s and three other people (including one man) came forward to accuse him of sexually molesting them back in the 1970s, when they were children. They were speaking out after so many years, they said, because the recent allegations against Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky had reignited their pain, and because it was time to end what amounted to a conspiracy of silence among Conlin’s family and friends covering up his horrible deeds. The alleged abuse happened far too long ago for charges to be brought. But the accusers were finally determined, they said, to tell their stories.

Conlin resigned from the Daily News immediately and wasn’t heard from again. Eventually, word got out that he was holed up in his condo in Largo. Where I stood, on an October evening at dusk, almost a year later. I knocked on his door a third time. I was sure I heard a TV.

Finally, I could hear someone coming.

“Yeah?” Conlin yelled — it was unmistakably his blistering foghorn voice — on the other side of the door. He didn’t open it.

I told him who I was, that I wanted to talk. Conlin and I knew each other a bit, having emailed occasionally as fellow journalists over the years. After the allegations hit, I’d emailed asking if he’d talk to me. He’d written back that he’d had a nervous breakdown and wasn’t ready to talk. He didn’t answer subsequent emails. I decided that getting face-to-face was the only chance I’d have. Though he still didn’t open his door.

Instead he yelled, “I’m not talking to anybody!”

So that was that — or so it seemed. I went back to my motel in Largo and called him. I got voicemail, and left a message: Would you have dinner with me? Just a dinner. A conversation.

I got an email back: You took a certain liberty coming down here without a prior head’s-up …

After venting a bit on the hell he’d been through, Conlin agreed in the email to have lunch the next day. But it would be, he said, on his terms.

THERE WAS A TIME when he was no mere sportswriter, but the most important journalist in Philadelphia. If that seems like a stretch, we’re forgetting the impact of the daily missives he would deliver from all over the country, all summer long, on our baseball team, in the halcyon days pre-Internet. As king of the sporting scribes here, Conlin shared with a few hundred thousand locals not only hardball derring-do, but his take on the world at large. Here is Conlin beginning a piece on the riots in Watts in August 1965, during a Phillies road trip to play the Dodgers:

This is a city at war with itself. The looters and the rioters are holed up, guerrilla-like, in a section of Los Angeles as big as Northeast Philadelphia. They have Molotov cocktails and whiskey and whiskey-courage enough to burn and pillage and rape and plunder. …

There are 13,000 National Guard troops here and the trucks whine through the freeway night bearing puzzled-looking kids from all over the state. Yesterday they were pumping gas and growing avocados. Today they are getting shot at. It is Vietnam in Southern California.

More often, Conlin’s style exhibited a sort of grand goofiness. One of his passions was weather. On a deadly summer day at the ballpark in South Philly in 1995:

Hot town, summer in the city. … The epicenter of the heat island this town becomes in central July is the molten turf of Veterans Stadium. Heat waves shimmer in the mid-afternoon sun like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia. … Yesterday was one of those brain-poachers where any inning I expected public address announcer Dan Baker to intone, “Now pitching for the Phillies … Omar Sharif.” I didn’t know if Ahmed Ben-Fregosi was trying to win a ball game or reach Damascus before Lord Kitchener.

A learned smart-ass. Vintage Conlin. He was pretty good at the particulars of baseball, too.

The Phillies generally sucked, but no matter: Baseball, in the slow unwinding of a season, offered Conlin the perfect writer’s playground. It was personal as well. He could drink and carouse with the best of them, like, well, a ballplayer; Conlin once told a friend that he put away a quart of vodka a day. And he was full of stories that couldn’t see print. On the road back in the ’70s, a certain Phillies slugger went drinking with his teammates. They met some girls and brought them back to their hotel, and somebody got the bright idea to fill the bathtub with ice water and bet the slugger that if he got in the tub, he wouldn’t be able to perform with said girls afterward.

Conlin also developed a reputation as a bar brawler on the road. A fellow sportswriter who covered Penn State football in the late ’70s says it was a habit on Friday nights at PSU: Conlin would regularly hit the bars, get drunk, then get pummeled. “It happened in bars in National League cities all over as well,” adds Bill Lyon, the longtime Inquirer sportswriter. “We used to kid him: ‘You’re 0-and-5, Bill.’ He did not fare well in fisticuffs.” The fights would be over … baseball? Women? “Probably both,” Lyon says.

Though there was apparently at least one drunken dustup Conlin won: He got into a fight with Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas in a bar on a road trip in the ’70s — nobody remembers what it was about — and Kalas had to do his pre-game bit on TV the next day wearing sunglasses to hide a black eye and stitches. In another instance, it was rumored that Conlin made a pass at then-Phillies owner Ruly Carpenter’s brother’s wife on the team’s charter plane (in those days, sportswriters were invited on board), a move that got him permanently banned from the flights.

All of this makes him sound like a man-child perpetually living on the brink of disaster. The writer who used to accompany Conlin to cover Penn State football tells a story that suggests how he held things together.

Once a year, Joe and Sue Paterno would invite writers and their wives to dinner at their home on the Friday night before a game, and each year Bill dutifully brought his wife Irma and their three kids to State College. After the game one Saturday, Bill joined other writers filing their game stories in the stadium press box, which was strange: Conlin didn’t have a game story to file, because the Daily News had no Sunday edition. He could have departed with his family right after the game. But an hour passed. Two hours. Conlin was still sitting there, in the press box. Finally, as the others still pecked away, he left Beaver Stadium.

Maybe three hours later, the writer and some other scribes heading back to Philadelphia stopped at the Host Inn near Harrisburg for dinner, as they normally did. And there was Conlin, having dinner with his family. Conlin quickly called out to one of the writers, the AP’s Ralph Bernstein:

“Hey Ralph, is the party still going on?”

Party? Bernstein looked puzzled.

“The press party,” Conlin called across the restaurant. “Is the press party still going on?”

“Uh, yeah,” Bernstein nodded. It was obvious that Conlin had concocted a story for Irma as an alibi: that after all those football games he’d covered in Happy Valley, when he wouldn’t make it home until the wee hours of Sunday morning, maybe after yet another fight in yet another bar, he was late because he had to stay for the “press party.” That’s why he’d made his family wait in the car for him after this game: He had to make an appearance at the phantom press party.

At the restaurant that night, Bill Conlin, this colleague remembers, looked like a little boy who had been yelled at by Irma all the way from State College to Harrisburg, as if she had seen right through him. In fact, she was the one person who could throttle Billy, as she called him, the only one who could stop him in his tracks. She was tolerant, too, which amused friends — Irma seemed to treat her husband like a third, incorrigible son. As if she understood that Billy was sometimes going to be a very bad boy.

At the same time, there was a certain largeness to Conlin. He had been the lead guy in getting writers to settle in Florida, to rent condos instead of motel rooms, to even buy their own places. To bask. Long ago he started towing a Hobie Cat down from Jersey behind his station wagon every February, and there he’d be, trolling onto the beach off the Gulf as though spring training was his oyster. That’s how it went with Conlin. He might write about the players, but he drank with GM Paul Owens. He lived large. He was large. Everything revolved around him.

To understand Conlin, another longtime colleague of his says, you have to keep in mind what that early period of his life on the road — when writers could hang with
ballplayers — was like: a lot of drinking, a lot of women, but also a lot of late nights when there was nobody else. “I think he was a very insecure guy, and I think he was a lonely man,” the colleague says. Later in his career, “he would stay up and reply to people who wrote nasty emails. We always wondered why he did that. Nothing good could come of it.”

Only Irma, it seemed, could apply the brakes to some of Conlin’s worst impulses. But Irma, a longtime smoker, died in 2009 of cancer.

Two years later, the bottom fell out.

HE SAID IT, over and over: “I’m not Sandusky! I’m not Sandusky!”

Or rather, he screamed it, to A.J. Daulerio, the then-editor of Deadspin, a sports website heavy on gossip and snark. The two had had an email relationship for a few years. Conlin contacted Daulerio on the day in 2011 when he learned the Inquirer was about to run the story accusing him of the sexual molestations. Conlin thought he might be able to write a rebuttal for Deadspin. “He never said to me that the allegations weren’t true,” Daulerio says now. “His main defense was that he wasn’t Sandusky — yelling that over and over.”

As the story broke, the Daily News immediately accepted Conlin’s resignation. He never wrote anything for Deadspin.

Instead, he attempted to hole up in his Shipwatch condo down in Largo, where he’d been living full-time. But as with any big scandal, the national media descended — one reporter knocked on some 44 doors in Conlin’s complex, looking for dirt.

Conlin was scared. He retained Philly lawyer George Bochetto to represent him, to be the face of denial to the media; Bochetto would call Conlin to give him a sounding board. “The first couple of months,” Bochetto says, “he was extremely frightened about what might happen. He felt that everybody was stalking him.” Conlin swore to Bochetto that the allegations weren’t true, would go on and on about ruining the family name, the effect on his kids and their relatives’ memories of him. Bochetto urged Conlin to tell him war stories — the Civil War and generals of all eras were special Conlin obsessions. “To get him, at least for a moment,” Bochetto says, “to forget all the horrible allegations and that his life was ruined.”

Gene Neavin, a psychologist, had been friends with Conlin for three decades; they had met as next-door neighbors in Turners-
ville, Gloucester County. Neavin is a quiet man, a natural listener. He was a perfect friend for Conlin, happy to soak up the stories and the bombast. Neavin and his wife had followed the Conlins to Shipwatch, buying a condo themselves. After the brouhaha erupted, Neavin knew Conlin had to get the hell out of town. He worried that Conlin would kill himself.

At Neavin’s urging, Conlin slipped first to an old Jersey friend’s “safe house” in Bradenton for a couple days, then for a few months to the Dominican Republic, where he had once owned a house in Cabarete and where he still had some friends who didn’t seem to know anything about any allegations. Neavin joined him there for a bit. Conlin reverted to form: He drank eight or 10 rums a day and held court. “Stories, stories, stories,” Neavin says.

At first, Conlin needed to deny the charges; he would say over and over to his friend, “Gene, you’ve known me for a long time. Do I look like the kind of guy who would do that?”

Finally, bored, with a horrific cold, Conlin decided he’d had enough of life in exile: He returned to Florida. The media siege was done, but so was almost every friendship. Bochetto had stopped calling. So had Conlin’s old network of sportswriting cronies.

Conlin had known Hal Bodley since the two of them had covered the Phillies back in the ’60s; Bodley had gone on to national prominence as a columnist for USA Today. Just three days before the allegations of abuse broke, Conlin called Hal:

“Don’t you have time for an old man?” he growled.

“Sure,” Bodley told him, laughing to ­himself — same old irascible Conlin. “We’ll get together.” Bodley, too, lived a big chunk of the year in Florida, not far away. As was true of many people who knew Conlin, their friendship was complicated: There were a thousand good-natured arguments over baseball. And some not-so-good-natured moments — Bodley says he once confided to Conlin that he had talked at length to Phils pitcher Steve Carlton for a book he was writing on the team’s 1980 championship season, something Bodley wanted kept private, because it was a great coup — the famously taciturn Carlton didn’t talk to the press. But Conlin blabbed.

Still, Bodley respected Conlin: His recall of games, of moments in games, of a certain pitch in a particular game, was jaw-dropping. And Bill at the typewriter? It was a toss-up which was more outrageous: that he’d compare a Phillies comeback to, say, the landing at Normandy, or that he could actually pull it off.

But that was the last time they talked, the Sunday before the Inquirer article changed everything. Bodley never reached out to Conlin afterward. He never made a call to see how his old friend was doing. “I would have been cordial to him, if I’d run into him,” Bodley insists. But what could Bodley — or anyone, for that matter — possibly say to Bill Conlin?

Out of some 50 people who had gone to Cooperstown to honor Conlin’s induction into the Hall of Fame in July — including some surfers from his youth as a lifeguard — only one talked to him now: his son Pete. Conlin had been estranged from his daughter, Kim, for a quarter of a century; his other son, Bill Jr., had told his father that he had disgraced the family. “How do you live like that,” Hal Bodley wonders, “when everybody shuts you out?”

Conlin escaped into deep electronic geekdom. He bought a cable package that allowed him to watch baseball the world over. He studied weather online. He checked out Cuban soccer. He was a Breaking Bad and Dexter addict, and watched old Bogart movies. He emailed his old Daily News editor pictures of birds and Phillies slugger Ryan Howard’s new mega-house in Clearwater. He played Texas hold ’em online. And billiards. And golf — he told Gene he had better scores in cyberspace than Tiger Woods.

And he drank. A lot. A fifth of vodka would last a day, two max. Gene would come over, watch a game with him. Slowly, he got his friend to come out. Not to Conlin’s favorite Italian restaurant, Villa Gallace, a place he’d plug in his column every spring and where his picture had been on the wall, next to wrestler Bobby “the Brain” Heenan, something Conlin never failed to point out to visitors from Philly. He would even spend Thanksgiving there, he and Irma, with the owner, Luigi. But no more — after the allegations, Conlin was no longer welcome in Luigi’s restaurant.

Gene Neavin got him to come to the Pantry, a little place in their Shipwatch condo community. Not on Wednesdays or Fridays, when it was busy — crowds made Conlin feel like there was a target on his back. Sunday brunch was good, though. He could talk baseball there.

But the accusations always loomed. A couple times when Conlin was at the counter at the Pantry, talking, Larry Shenk came in. Shenk, now retired, was the longtime head of media relations for the Phillies; he knew Conlin well. Even inside, Conlin would be wearing his trademark big sunglasses, though Shenk assumes he spotted him there.

Shenk didn’t have any desire to go over and say hello, however. “I didn’t know what to say to Bill,” he says, “so I avoided him.”

BILL CONLIN’S TERMS for having lunch with me at Keegan’s, one of his regular spots, was to bring Gene along and talk to me strictly off the record — he wasn’t ready for his story to be told. Though it was clear he wanted to talk. The gruffness of the guy behind the door was gone. I asked him how he was doing.

“Terrible!”

He took off his yellowish goggles, to show me an eyelid folded back on itself. Now 78, he had a huge gut — he had to be north of 300 pounds — and swollen, scabby, peeling legs. He was battling skin cancer. He had diabetes. His face was covered in chaotic white fuzz. He had bushy white sideburns. He looked … terrible.

Conlin ordered seafood bisque and told stories. The Phillies in Montreal a long, long time ago: Our player gets beaned, so Steve Carlton hits Tim Foli in the ear, Montreal manager Gene Mauch charges the mound, nobody helps out Carlton, Mauch stomps him, and Lefty was never the same after that. Conlin kept talking, one tale unfolding into another. He told me that Penn State coach Joe Paterno started losing it mentally at 70. He told me how close he was to deceased Phillies broadcaster Richie Ashburn — “Like this,” Conlin said, as tight as his two fingers. He talked about Pete Rose and a certain nationally known sportswriter renting a place together and how Rose would supply “the meat,” meaning cheerleaders, and how one of the cheerleaders was the wife of a well-known Philadelphia sports icon. He told me he had washed out of Bucknell more than half a century ago because he got drunk one night, drove his car into seven parked cars along the main drag, then ran away.

Stories. Conlin was full of stories. He was regaling me.

He told me that years ago he’d begun to pen a novel, but he’d never finished it. That he didn’t miss writing his column for the Daily News — maybe he was “written out.” He said that cigarettes had killed Irma, and that cleaning out his house in New Jersey was horrible. He said he was thinking of starting a blog or website on his various interests.

At one point, his tenor changed. He was ready now. He had a manila folder with him, and opened it. Inside were pictures of some of his accusers.

“I panicked,” Conlin said. “I shouldn’t have resigned from the Daily News — they didn’t have anything. It would have gone through arbitration.”

Conlin showed me a photo of his niece at his house at some holiday celebration. In the picture, she was older, he said, than the age when she claimed to have been abused. And here she was, at his home.

“It looks like she’s having a good time,” Conlin pointed out. This made it obvious, he said, that he hadn’t abused her.

Then he put the pictures away and went back to his stories.

Not long afterward, when I was shaking hands with Bill and Gene in the parking lot of Keegan’s, I got the somewhat eerie feeling they actually believed that what Conlin had said about his niece at his house, about her presence there after he’d allegedly abused her, proved something. Later, Gene would tell me that in all the years he knew Bill Conlin, he never saw any abuse. And that Conlin never admitted to any of the allegations.

It was as if they were living in a private echo chamber for two.

KELLEY BLANCHET, Bill Conlin’s niece who alleges he inserted his finger in her vagina when she was seven years old, and three others claiming that he sexually abused them when they were children, wrote about what happened to them in a recent New York Daily News article. They say that Conlin found his victims around the beaches of Margate, where his nickname was “Slick Willie,” and in the Whitman Square neighborhood where he lived.

Conlin’s accusers say that many adults knew he was a pedophile, but for almost half a century, no one went to police. The reason why, they say, is clear: “Conlin was a sadistic and vengeful man. He was a master at using his large stature, his prestige, his access to sports stars and sporting events and his wealth to prevent victims (and his victims’ families) from reporting his crimes.”

In going first to police in 2010, and then to the Inquirer the next year when it was clear too much time had passed for the legal system to pursue Conlin, the accusers say they “didn’t want money. We wanted him exposed for what he was. We wanted his facade of fame and fortune to crumble in the face of what he had done.”

After my lunch with him, Bill Conlin would live another year, most of it consumed with medical problems. The worst was COPD, a lung disease. Conlin’s medical care was as chaotic as the rest of his life. He lost his supplemental medical insurance because he never received the bill from New Jersey to renew it, Neavin says. He was stubborn about going to doctors — he had no regular physician in Florida. He ordered medication online from India. In the spring of last year, he fought Gene and a caregiver about going to the hospital for prostate trouble, but finally relented.

The last few months of Bill’s life, Gene would have to move his friend’s BMW or Lexis convertible close to the condo door. Bill would shuffle out slowly, eventually slide behind the wheel — Bill always drove, and drove fast; he hated slow Florida drivers. Then he would shuffle into Keegan’s. He was okay once he sat down. He could talk and eat just fine. In the end, he’d quit drinking. In their conversations, any talk of the allegations had long since faded away.

Early this winter, when his breathing got really bad, Conlin didn’t fight Neavin and his caregiver on going to the hospital. He was in bad shape.

In the hospital, gasping for breath, he said to Neavin, “I’m finished.”

Neavin didn’t believe him.

“I’m finished, Gene,” he repeated.

Five minutes later, Bill Conlin was dead.

“It’s terrible,” Neavin says, “watching somebody die.”

Conlin’s sons Pete and Bill flew south to have his body cremated.

It was their first trip to Florida since the allegations.

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Vince Salandria: The JFK Conspiracy Theorist

WHODUNIT?  JFK Conspiracy Theorist Vince Salandria photographed on January 29, 2014

Vince Salandria photographed on January 29, 2014.
Photo by Gene Smirnov

THREE YEARS AGO, Vince Salandria got a phone call from Arlen Specter, a man he didn’t know. Salandria had been in the Senator’s company only once before, but that was almost a half-century earlier, at a public event. When he called, Specter wasn’t running for anything—he had recently been voted out of office. All he had was a simple request of Salandria, who was 83 years old, a retired Philadelphia school-system lawyer: Would you have lunch with me? They eventually met at the Oyster House, on Sansom Street in Philadelphia. The lunch would turn out to be one of strangest meetings of Salandria’s life.
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Who Doesn’t Like Allyson Schwartz?

Allyson Schwartz Next Governor of PA?

Photography by Ryan Collerd

In the end—my last moment with Allyson Schwartz, sitting in her office in Washington—she is about to cry. “You’re getting a little emotional, Congresswoman,” I tell her. “Yes,” she says. “So I’m done.” // I laugh—her abruptness is funny, as she intends. But she also means it, that we’re done. I thank her for all the time she’s given me, we say goodbye, and our last interview is over.

Schwartz and I have spent the past half-hour rolling through some things other people have said about her. Normally, talking to Allyson Schwartz produces a torrent of energy and initiatives and ideas. By the time of that last interview, I’d spent hours with her—at a diner in the Northeast; in Pittsburgh, where she logged a day campaigning; and then in the U.S. Capitol. Her vigor and drive, especially, are daunting. There is nothing in the world around her—or, more precisely, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where she is running for governor—that Schwartz doesn’t want to fix.

Judging by Tom Corbett’s popularity, which is in the toilet, many Pennsylvanians will probably like that about Schwartz. Indeed, the governorship is there for the taking, and after a decade in Congress and 14 years before that in the state Senate, Schwartz has decided to take a shot at becoming the first woman to lead our state.
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Why Did the Schaibles Let Their Children Die?

Rhawnhurst_01-by-JONATHAN-BARKAT

Photo by Jonathan Barkat.

On the night of April 18th, Detective Brian Peters of the Philadelphia homicide unit saw something strange—something he’d never witnessed before—when he interviewed Herbert Schaible. Herbert’s seven-month-old son, Brandon, had died earlier that evening. Herbert and his wife, Cathy, were brought downtown for questioning from their home in the Northeast.

That was because the Schaibles were already on probation for involuntary manslaughter, following the death of another son, two-year-old Kent, in 2009.

Both boys had died of bacterial pneumonia, which most of the world treats successfully through vaccination or, in the event of an infection, antibiotics. But Herbie and Cathy Schaible are members of First Century Gospel, a nondenominational Baptist church on
G Street in Feltonville that believes strictly in divine healing—meaning no vaccinations, no medicine, no doctors. Prayer, its members believe, and believe fervently, is the path to conquering illness or injury. The members reject many other mainstays of modern life. They don’t believe in home ownership. (Everyone rents.) Or birth control. Or seatbelts. Or eyeglasses. Or college degrees.

None of that was what was strange to Detective Peters, however.

Peters likes to get to know people a bit, make human contact, before the formal interview. And Herbie Schaible, 44, a tall man dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, with short-cropped hair, was perfectly willing to explain, calmly: Healing occurs through God’s will. Only God’s will could have saved his son. He said this several times, and would repeat it in his statement when he was asked if he regretted not taking Brandon to a doctor. “No, I don’t regret it,” Herbie said, “because we believe that the only way is the right way and that is through God. I would change places with either of my sons. But it’s God’s will. He is the healer of our bodies.”

Cathy Schaible told detective Jimmy Crone the same thing. A small, quiet, deferential woman who wholeheartedly abides by church teaching that her husband is in charge of family decisions, Cathy said, simply, “We pray and ask God to heal … the way Jesus did when He was on Earth.”

But even more surprising than the belief that only answered prayers could heal their son was the demeanor of both Herbie and Cathy. They were low-key. Calm. Very calm. Matter-of-fact, one might say. Peters and Crone have seen a lot of things in their years of talking to suspects and family members of murder victims, but never that.

There was something else Detective Peters had never witnessed: children so well-behaved. Six of the Schaibles’ seven living children—three-year-old Nolan was with his grandmother—had come to police headquarters with their parents. As Herbie and Cathy were questioned, their children sat together on a bench, quietly, and waited for two hours. Seventeen-year-old Herbert, the eldest, was in charge. Peters and Crone had never seen such polite, nice children, obviously well cared-for, brought into a police station.

Nor parents so calm in the face of the sudden death of a child. Their second child to die in four years.

There is an explanation for the attitude that befuddled the detectives. The Schaibles’ relationship with God is, far and away, the most important thing in their lives; everything springs from it. So their faith trumps even their love for their children. The night Brandon died, the outside world—through the legal system, in the questions of the detectives—was asking for an explanation, which placed Herbie and Cathy directly in the place they feel most comfortable: within the dictates of their faith. Why hadn’t they taken Brandon to a doctor even when it was apparent he was quite sick? To our ears, it sounds absurd. In their minds, it’s fundamental: Brandon could only be saved by God’s will.

Not that it has been easy. Later, alone and with family, they would break down and cry, grieving for their second dead son.

And now Herbert and Catherine Schaible face third-degree murder charges, for not getting medical help for Brandon, for letting the pneumonia he developed kill him. Their trial is months away. Herbie is in prison—the judge is worried about him fleeing. Cathy is under house arrest at her parents’ home on Roosevelt Boulevard. Some of the remaining children are being cared for by Herbie’s youngest brother, others by a cousin.

Their family has been torn apart, but the Schaibles remain steadfast in their faith—a faith that if anything, says their pastor, is now stronger. They have prayed for greater understanding. To understand what it is they were doing wrong, what it is that would lead God not to answer their prayers to save Kent, and then Brandon.

The Schaibles’ story, and that of First Century Gospel, is large. Two children are dead. They may be dead because their parents practice a brand of Christianity that seems straight out of the Dark Ages. The D.A., however justified in charging them with murder, is rubbing up against the American founding principle of religious freedom. It is a case that may, in fact, threaten the very existence of their church.

And it’s large because of its strangeness. We want to know how you get here, where Herbie and Cathy Schaible have landed. Not the legal trouble they’re now in—that path is clear enough—but rather, their brand of faith. These two things—being accused of murder and their faith—are firmly intertwined.

It is difficult not to pass judgment, to resist dismissing the Schaibles’ beliefs as flat-out stupid or crazy. But such judgment makes the Schaibles, and their church, impossible to understand.

War in the Supreme Court: Ron Castille and Seamus McCaffery Just Can’t Get Along

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery can't seem to get along.

Late last year, Ron Castille, chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, decided he couldn’t take it any longer. Seamus McCaffery—one of seven justices on the court, and the only other one from Philadelphia—had been including a certain tag line on emails he sent from his court account. Courtesy of Ernest Hemingway, the tag line read: “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of a man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never generally care for anything else thereafter.”

McCaffery, a former Marine, a former Philly cop, a guy who carries a gun and rides a Harley, takes great pride in his toughness. But Castille could no longer abide the bluster, the preening. He himself lost his right leg while serving in Vietnam—on his 23rd birthday, no less—and he was once a hard-ass prosecutor in Philadelphia’s D.A.’s office before becoming D.A. himself. He knew all about toughness.

So last fall, Castille sent McCaffery an email, one on which he cc’d their fellow justices. It read, in part:

Your military service while honorable, did not involve combat action against armed enemy forces as did my service as a Rifle Platoon Commander in the Marines in Vietnam. In fact, I did “hunt” armed men and I can tell you and your email recipients that it is a nasty, dirty business and, while sometimes required by national policy, it is not an activity to be extolled, especially by anyone who does not have the personal experience in the activity.

Castille knew, of course, that sharing his email with the other justices would be highly embarrassing to McCaffery. He didn’t care. His feelings about the man had been building for some time, and their relationship had been deteriorating.

It would soon get worse.

At the end of last year, in a report Castille commissioned about Philadelphia’s corrupt Traffic Court, McCaffery was accused of using his power in an unseemly and perhaps illegal way: He had driven his wife, Lise Rapaport, to Traffic Court on Spring Garden Street for a hearing on a ticket and, while the hearing took place, summoned a top court administrator out to his car for a conversation. Rapaport was found not guilty.

With Ron Castille’s blessing, the Traffic Court report was given to the Inquirer, which did a series of front-page stories on it. Naturally, that didn’t sit well with Seamus McCaffery, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Then a second matter came up. The Inquirer wrote about fees that Rapaport, a Harvard-trained lawyer, received for referring cases to law firms while she was employed by McCaffery as his chief Supreme Court aide. Eleven of the law firms that paid Rapaport—one referral fee was $821,000—have argued cases before the Supreme Court while McCaffery has been on the bench.

When that story broke, Castille—who was first elected to the court in 1993 and has been chief justice since 2008—told reporters he was worried about “conflicts of interest and the appearance of impropriety.” His opinion wasn’t shocking, but it was an unusual slapdown; chief justices of a Supreme Court almost never publicly rebuke a fellow robesman. What’s more, there was the question of how the Inquirer suddenly landed on the Rapaport referral-fee story when those payments, which McCaffery’s lawyer said were routine and proper, had long been a matter of public record. While Castille denies alerting the paper to the story, he probably was not unhappy that McCaffery was being embarrassed.

In mid-June, McCaffery’s trouble seemed to grow worse. The Inquirer reported that the FBI had opened an investigation into those referral fees his wife received. Meanwhile, the Legal Intelligencer wrote that McCaffery had contacted a high-level Philadelphia Common Pleas administrator last year about civil cases—and that in two of the cases, a law firm that had paid a referral fee to Lise Rapaport was involved. McCaffery’s lawyer says there is no FBI investigation, but Ron Castille told WHYY that he has “no reason to believe the allegations of an FBI investigation against Justice McCaffery are not true.” He added, “So I think if I was Justice McCaffery, I’d start rethinking my position on the Supreme Court.”

We still don’t know how Seamus McCaffery’s problems will play out. But one thing is patently clear: This is war, between Ron and Seamus. It is ugly. McCaffery now actively avoids his chief justice, having as little to do with him as possible. Which is fine by Ron Castille, who seems determined to help get “Famous Seamus,” his nickname for McCaffery, into as much trouble as he can.

According to sources close to the court (more than 50 people were interviewed for this story), the feud is, in part, about power. One of the roles the state Supreme Court plays is to oversee Philadelphia’s judiciary—a job handled by a justice who’s appointed by colleagues as liaison to the First Judicial District. Given his two decades as a Philly cop and his decade on the city’s Municipal Court bench, not to mention his natural bent for schmoozing union guys and City Councilmen with equal aplomb, McCaffery has long seen himself as the perfect guy for that job. Indeed, he’s craved it ever since he was elected to the court in 2007, once telling a court insider that he didn’t run for the Supreme Court to sit in an office and write legal opinions; no, he wanted to oversee Philadelphia’s courts.

But Ron Castille kept the role of liaison for himself even when he became chief justice, though the chief was far too busy for the position. The reason he kept it, McCaffery believes, was to block him from getting it. He’s sure it’s personal.

And he may be right about that, because Ron Castille thinks that “Famous Seamus” is a poseur, a phony, a made-up person. What’s more, Castille believes that McCaffery wants to rule a political fiefdom in Philadelphia. A judge, however—by decree of the state’s ethics code—can’t be involved in politics. He must stay above the fray of raising money for elections, and ward meetings and the like. Especially a justice of the Supreme Court, which oversees all the other courts in Pennsylvania. In a way, that issue, too, is personal between the two men, because Castille the war hero believes fervently in a certain bottom line, in playing by the rules.

And then there is the reputation of the court itself. For decades the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has been something of a joke—a place known for petty squabbles and occasional outright corruption. Earlier this year, justice Joan Orie Melvin resigned after being convicted of using taxpayer resources for campaign purposes. Even Castille himself tarnished the court’s reputation with his bungled handling of the construction of a new Family Court building in Philadelphia.

In Castille’s remaining time as chief justice—he’s required by law to retire next year, when he turns 70, though a federal lawsuit has been filed that would allow him to stay on longer—he seems determined to do everything he can to protect the court’s reputation and, by extension, his own legacy. If that means going to war with Seamus McCaffery, then that’s what Ron Castille is quite willing to do.

The Real Chase Utley

phillies-chase-utley-second-baseman-philadelphia

There is much we don’t know about him.

Take, for instance, an incident from the fall of 2009. Chase Utley came off the field after a workout in Philly between games of the ’09 World Series—the Series in which he hit five home runs—and came upon a spread of food for players in the clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Over the years, Chase has gotten seriously into nutrition; he stocks up at Whole Foods when the team goes on the road. So when he saw the unhealthy junk the team was offering post-workout—a table full of hot dogs and chili—he wasn’t having it. This is not a fucking big-league spread!

Suddenly, the greatest second baseman in franchise history was slopping the chili all over the place, dumping it on the floor, even hitting the walls. His teammates quickly pitched in. The hot dogs became footballs—it was a regular animal house, with Chase leading the way. Because that’s not how things should be done in the big leagues, especially not during the World Series.

In his decade in Philadelphia, we’ve certainly never seen that side of Chase Utley. As a matter of fact, what he’s really like off the field is a bit of a mystery, because he doesn’t want us to see it. We know how he plays—in baseball parlance, like a guy with his hair on fire. And for a long time, that was all we needed. That was him. All the way to declaring the Phillies world fucking champions.

You remember. After the parade down Broad Street on that beautiful October day five years ago, the team gathered on a podium at the ballpark. Chase went to the microphone in his ski cap and—can you believe this? It rolled right out of his mouth: “World fucking champions.”

The crowd roared. What more did we need?

But something has shifted. Utley was hurt the past two springs; he didn’t play at all the first half of last year or early the previous season because of knee trouble. He didn’t say much about it—just boilerplate stuff, when he was forced to talk, about trying to get healthy. The team was largely silent about him, too, as if mere medical updates on Utley were none of our business.

Such guardedness was fine when Chase Utley was blazing his way to becoming one of the finest second basemen ever. But here he is in the last year of his contract, 34 years old, with his future and the aging team’s in doubt. And now there’s a question that, after all this time, is so simple it’s strange:

Who is this guy?

His teammates think the mystery is funny. Chase, they say, is actually pretty amusing. He’s the guy who occasionally gives shortstop Jimmy Rollins the finger from behind his glove at second base. Though he’s also the guy who, if a teammate doesn’t hustle out a ground ball, will be waiting at his usual position along the dugout railing to lash the offender with a devastating look. Serious business, baseball, and his teammates say he’s their unquestioned leader—although they shake their heads and laugh about that, too, over just how intensely dialed-in Chase is.

When he told his parents and teammates and friends a couple years ago that he was going to be a father, there was a collective … Chase? So hard-boiled and so … ruled by the routines of baseball. A guy who hung with Aaron Rowand and Jayson Werth and man-about-town Pat Burrell, big-time dudes. As Rollins thought, “How will he balance that with tenderness? We don’t see a tender side.”

He’s a guy so consumed by playing that when his wife, Jen, asked him if he was worried that his troubled knees were putting his career in jeopardy, he just looked at her silently. “I got a death glare—a murderous glare,” she says. “I don’t want to see that again.”

Maybe opening the window—getting a peek at who Chase Utley really is—isn’t such a good idea. But he agrees to have lunch with me in San Francisco, where he and Jen and 16-month-old Ben live in the off-season. So I head west.

Is Philadelphia Going Black?

In front of me the pavement is swarming with people in dreadlocks—black people who are taking their turns screaming into an expensive-looking bullhorn and hawking T-shirts with “FREE THE FAMILY AFRICA” stenciled across the front.

But behind me, a street fight is just heating up to the bloodletting stage.

I’m standing near the Market Street East entrance to City Hall Courtyard and I don’t know where to look first. It’s MOVE vs. mayhem in downtown Philadelphia on a sweltering Thursday afternoon during the dog days of this endless summer past.

I might need eyes in the back of y head to take it all in, but the guy across from me looks like he may soon need an ambulance. He’s a middle-aged hot dog vendor, white, who may have sold his last wiener-in-a-bun.

I heard screaming a block away. Now, the shouts have turned to shoves. A short, skinny black kid in an enormous straw hat is lunging for the white guy’s windpipe.

He doesn’t quite make it because a black woman, twice his size, has him around the waist, tugging him away from the hot dog man.

When I first heard the screams, people were just walking by like it wasn’t happening, clutching their briefcases and averting their eyes. But it’s been going on for a couple of minutes now and a sizable crowd—entirely black—has surrounded the hot dog vendor and his assailant.

Between the shrieks and obscenities I can make out that the hot dog vendor is to be put to death: a) because he is a “white mother fucker,” and b) because he waited on someone else—an old, white lady, in fact—ahead of straw-hat’s girl friend.

The hot dog guy, who looked worn-out and sweaty to begin with, and who seems on the verge of a coronary, is holding his ground. But it doesn’t look good. The crowd, too, is calling for his head now.

By this point I’m frantically looking up and down the street for a cop. I notice, incidentally, that I’m the only white person on my side of the street. Damn if I don’t see a man in blue less than half a block away. I take off at full speed.

He’s a big fat highway patrolman with a gold sharpshooter’s medal pinned to his chest and I don’t need to be told any more than the MOVE people around me do, that those high-top black leather boots that he wears aren’t made for walking.

If anybody can save the hot dog vendor, this guy can. Then, as I get close to him, I stop dead. He’s just looking at the fight, too—not making a move to get involved—just leaning against the traffic light, hand-on-hip and contemptuous scowl on face. I’m waiting for him to do something but he just ignores me. The crowd has obscured the hot dog vendor from my sight now, but I can still hear them going at it. The cop looks like he’s trying to decide whether he should cross the street or not and I don’t know what the hell to do. Should I go to the cop or the vendor?

Just then, there’s a loud, shrill whistle—you know it has to be a cop’s whistle—and a beat-up blue paddy wagon comes chugging toward the crowd. Two white cops get out, walking slowly, leisurely, deliberately.

One of them slips his mahogany nightstick through the round loop at his side and looks around menacingly. The other one hikes up his black leather gun belt, just the way you’d expect Clint Eastwood to do in a similar situation.

Neither gesture is lost on the crowd. It suddenly becomes as quiet as a mime troupe, and the cops move to separate the two combatants. The hot dog vendor lets out a sigh I think I can hear all the way across the street.

Now I can concentrate on the MOVE rally in front of me. A loud lack woman in dreadlocks is tearing into Jimmy Carter: “JIMMY, BABY, I SAID TO HIM. YEAH, I SAID IT TO CARTER. Y’ALL HEAR ME. I TOLD THAT MAN. MOTHER-FUCKIN’ COPS IN PHILLY KILLED BLACK BABIES FROM THE AFRICA FAMILY—KILLED BLACK BABIES, YOU GOT THAT? I TOLD HIM, CARTER, YOU BETTER LISTEN TO JOHN AFRICA. BETTER CUT OUT THAT JIVE SHIT AND LISTEN TO THE TEACHINGS OF JOHN AFRICA. BETTER FREE THE AFRICA FAMILY. WE GET YOUR ASS NEXT, JIMMER CARTER. . . .”

Moving past the Africas, past what’s left of the MOVE cult–”a gang of murderers, brigands and thieves,” as the city solicitor of Philadelphia, Sheldon Albert, would describe them for me a week later—I enter one of the damp, clammy arched City Hall passageways that leads to the center of the courtyard.

In the humid, afternoon heat even the ever-present smell of pot is overpowered by the urine stench that rises in almost palpable waves, like the shimmering heat from the asphalt outside.

Once upon a time, Philadelphians—the parents and grandparents of the people who now use this gorgeous, ornate old passageway to relieve themselves in public, or to smoke dope, or to stalk others—used to stroll here. They used to use the courtyard the way it was intended—as the safe, secure focal point of downtown Philadelphia; as the hub of the business district.

They could sit on the benches then, the lovers could, or families headed for Billy Penn’s Tower could stand in the courtyard and gawk; or students could stare in awe at the priceless, historically certified architecture around them.

Now, the lovers have been driven out by flashers; the families, by the gang on Market Street hanging outside the pinball arcade; and the students of design have been replaced by the guys that use the courtyard as a public urinal.

City Hall Courtyard really started to turn bad a few years back when a gang of kids roaming Market Street—maybe the older brothers of the gang outside the pinball arcade—made a foray into the very passageway in which I’m standing. They robber and assaulted the blind man who has been selling soft pretzels for 20 years from a dinky little homemade booth built right into one of the old stone walls.

They still sell soft pretzels in the courtyard, but now there are also African trinkets, incense, jewelry and a whole board stocked with the kind of cosmetic equipment you need to braid your hair into dreadlocks.

But the real action this day inside the archway involves a young Black Muslim vendor and two females, also black, who seem to be haggling with him over the price of a photograph in a cardboard frame. I have no idea who is selling what to whom, but first the girls pull the picture toward themselves , and then the Muslim yanks it back.

The Muslim, a big strapping kid who looks like he could play tight end for the Eagles, is in his warm weather uniform of long black trousers, polished shoes and starched long-sleeve white shirt, tightly buttoned up to the collar. He looks mean. But money must be on the line and the women are adamant.

Since no one there was about to take on the Black Nation of Islam for these damsels in distress, this scene, too, goes virtually unnoticed. I wonder if Frank Rizzo, sitting in his paneled office up on the second floor—or perhaps taking his ease in his imported marble bathroom—realizes just how restless the native are becoming in his own front yard.

Do Rizzo and the Black Muslim vendors ever exchange glances when he leaves his office? Is he ever tempted to taunt them from within the protective phalanx of his bodyguards as Milton Street had once badgered him after a particularly heated City Council showdown?

And what of the other people here? Are they amused, too, at the thought of Rizzo holed up in his regal bunker, seething while the barbarians defile his Roman Courtyard? Had the hot dog vendor outside—the one who had almost been strangled—voted for Frank Rizzo? For the pivotal charter change?

Does the cop who failed to take action think deep down that the people of Philadelphia—this poor helpless hot dog vendor included—are getting exactly what they deserve for failing to vote white as Rizzo warned them? Will the highway patrolman never again break up a fight because the suit filed this summer by the U.S. Justice Department has labeled him a criminal?

Being White in Philly

My younger son goes to Temple, where he’s a sophomore. This year he’s living in an apartment with two friends at 19th and Diamond, just a few blocks from campus. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. Whenever I go see Nick, I get antsy and wonder what I was thinking, allowing him to rent there.

One day, before I pick him up for lunch, I stop to talk to a cop who’s parked a block away from Nick’s apartment.

“Is he already enrolled for classes?” the cop says when I point out where my son lives.

Well, given that it’s December, I think so. But his message is clear: Bad idea, this neighborhood. A lot of burglaries and robberies. Temple students are prime prey, the cop says.

Later, driving up Broad Street as I head home to Mount Airy, I stop at a light just north of Lycoming and look over at some rowhouses. One has a padlocked front door. A torn sheet covering the window in that door looks like it might be stained with sewage. I imagine not a crackhouse, but a child, maybe several children, living on the other side of that stained sheet. Plenty of children in Philadelphia live in places like that. Plenty live on Diamond, where my son rents, where there always seem to be a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing, where it’s clearly not a safe place to be.

I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.

At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.

Take a young woman I’ll call Susan, whom I met recently. She lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova and Facebooked all the class members she could find, “wondering if you happened to pick it up or know who did.” No one had it. There was one black student in the class, whom I’ll call Carol, who responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!”

Susan assured her that she had Facebooked the whole class. Carol wrote: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them.”

After that, when their paths crossed at school, Carol would avoid eye contact with Susan, wordless. What did I do? Susan wondered. The only explanation she could think of was Vanilla-nova—the old joke about the school’s distinct lack of color, its perceived lack of welcome to African-Americans. Susan started making an effort to say hello when she saw Carol, and eventually they acted as if nothing had happened. The BlackBerry incident—it probably goes without saying—was never discussed.

Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy.”

The student went home and told his stepfather. The stepfather demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist; the principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.

Confusion, misread intentions, bruised feelings—everyone has not only a race story, but a thousand examples of trying to sort through our uneasiness on levels large and trivial. I do, too. My rowhouse in Mount Airy is on a mostly African-American block; it’s middle-class and friendly—in fact, it’s the friendliest street my family has ever lived on, with block parties and a spirit of watching out for each other. Whether a neighbor is black or white seems to be of no consequence whatsoever.

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s. A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.

On one level, such self-consciousness and hypersensitivity can be seen as progress when it comes to race, a sign of how much attitudes have shifted for the better, a symbol of our desire for things to be better. And yet, lately I’ve come to fear that the opposite might also be true: that our carefulness is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.

Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.

What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.

Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.

A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. Formerly a working-class enclave of rowhomes, it’s now a gentrifying neighborhood with middle-class cachet and good restaurants. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.

Strangely enough, a number of them answered. Their stories bring home just how complicated white people’s negotiation with race and class is in this city, and how varied: Everyone does have a race story, it turns out, and every story is utterly unique.

The Charges Against District Attorney Seth Williams

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

“You’ve got me fucking all the women in the office.”

Those are close to the first words out of Seth Williams’s mouth when I meet him in June, after paying my 50 bucks—the lowest amount that would get me in the door—to wander around incognito at his “Seth and the City” fund-raiser, in a conference room atop Two Liberty Place.

For a little while I stayed lost among the D.A.’s political friends, the swank hors d’oeuvres, a deejay’s dance offerings, beautiful women. But I knew it wouldn’t take long for someone to tell Williams there was a reporter in his midst, and sure enough, I soon saw Philly’s bow-tied, slightly rotund district attorney staring at me and the political adviser I’d just been chatting with. So I went up to Williams and introduced myself. That’s when he lets loose: “You’ve got me fucking all the women … ”

The D.A. is apparently referring to a blog post that a staffer at this magazine wrote about a party planner Williams hired to the tune of $76,000 a year, and how paying that amount for something so frivolous when first-year assistant D.A.’s make all of 48-something had the office in an uproar. In fact, the blog said nothing about Seth Williams’s sexual activities on the 18th floor of the district attorney’s office, a stone’s throw from City Hall.

So I’m silent as Billy Miller, Williams’s political adviser, stares openmouthed at the D.A., as mesmerized as I am by what he’s just proclaimed. Williams, 45 years old, is much better-looking than he appears on TV or in photos, and he doesn’t really seem all that worked up: His skin, which he calls “butterscotch” (his biological mother was white, his biological father black), fairly glows in public, as if spotlighted; his eyebrows arc in near half circles around his large brown eyes. The careful mustache that looks pasted-on from a distance is real enough. And now the D.A., nursing a Jack Daniel’s, quickly recovers. It’s natural “that some people are angry,” since he had to make changes when he came on as D.A. in January 2010 and clean out the deadwood. It gets people—there are some 300 assistant district attorneys in the office—saying things. Then Seth Williams segues:

“Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “It’s like with Abraham Lincoln.” At the end of the Civil War, Williams explains, when it was time for Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox, Union general Ulysses S. Grant saluted Lee and his defeated troops. This is a somewhat grandiose way for Williams to make another point—which is that he has, in some fashion, honored his predecessor, Lynne Abraham. Although he then goes on to tell me how much he has accomplished in two and a half years fixing what was wrong under “the death-penalty D.A.,” as he calls Abraham, with her terribly low conviction rate.

Finally, after all this flows vigorously from Seth Williams, he stops, considers me for a moment, and wonders what I am doing there, what I am after.

I’m here because Williams, as district attorney and an oft-mentioned mayoral contender, is a very powerful guy. I’m also here because of the rumblings of current and former prosecutors about the way he’s running the D.A.’s office.

And when I reach out to them, over the next few weeks, they give me an earful, telling me that Williams’s leadership is so loose—or nonexistent—that the feel and function of the D.A.’s office is at risk.

“I’ve been waiting for this call,” one says. “I’m heartbroken about what has happened.”

This prosecutor—who works for Williams in a senior position—says Williams is a terrible boss: “His Achilles heel is that he needs to be liked. He’s very juvenile. He’s like a wayward two-year-old, with no thought of appearances.” The prosecutor alludes to whispers of inappropriate relationships between Williams and women who work in the office—although the D.A. has been separated from his wife for a couple of years. He claims that Williams allows friendships to affect his decisions as D.A.; that he’s hired political pals for dubious community outreach positions; that he’s so focused on his political future, he doesn’t really know what’s going on in the office. “The joke in the office is that Seth will either leave us in handcuffs or run for mayor,” says this prosecutor.

A former high-ranking assistant district attorney who retired on the heels of Williams coming in agrees to meet me in an out-of-the-way West Philly bar. “He’s an articulate black man. That’s what the machine wanted and what it got,” she says, sizing up the political atmosphere. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Other current and former prosecutors say similar things, offering a harsh indictment: that Seth Williams has upset pretty much everything Lynne Abraham built over two decades, damaging a place they grew to love. Which certainly does not bode well, they say, for the future of criminal prosecution in this city.

Yet as I probe deeper, something else becomes apparent. That maybe making big changes is not such a bad thing. That the way Lynne Abraham’s office went about prosecuting criminals in Philadelphia—one of the most violent big cities in America—wasn’t working. Not when defendants escape conviction on all charges in almost two-thirds of violent-crime cases. Or when just one in 10 charged in gun assaults is convicted of that charge. Or when two in 10 accused of armed robbery get convicted of armed robbery.

That’s what the Inquirer found, in a four-part series on the city’s judicial system published on the eve of Seth Williams taking over as D.A.

There’s a lot to be said for Abraham’s legendary toughness: Indeed, during her tenure, the rate of murder convictions in Philadelphia surpassed the national average. But even Abraham’s acolytes admit that by her last term, she was stuck in her ways, mailing it in. Change was long overdue.

Williams has come in with big ideas and a big presence, and both are a threat to the status quo. He has reorganized prosecution across the city from horizontal to vertical, which means his ADAs are assigned to one area of town instead of bouncing around all over. He has upgraded his charging unit with more-experienced prosecutors, so that lesser crimes are dealt with faster and charges are often negotiated downward, which is designed to decrease the backlog of cases—long a huge pro­blem—and to focus prosecution on serious violent crime. He has created diversionary programs to get nonviolent offenders—es­pecially drug ab­users—help instead of punishing them.

Are these changes working? We don’t yet know, in large part because the criminal justice system has been such a mess for so long that change happens slowly.

But one thing is certain: The district attorney in any big city—especially one as besieged by violent crime and as beleaguered by problems of race and poverty as
Philadelphia—sets a standard. His tone and stance and personality send an important message. Not just on who he is, but on how criminal justice will be served.

And this is the point many prosecutors make: that the district attorney’s office should be different from other city government entities. That its standards of conduct should be “untouchable,” says the senior prosecutor who is heartbroken over the current regime. “We don’t want to fall like PHA or the school district, but if our house is not in order … Good ADAs are leaving because of money, but also in disgust.”

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