Meltdown man

John Spano was just a dull, two-bit Dallas businessman before he tried to buy a professional hockey team. Now he's been charged with bank fraud, and his claims of wealth and business prowess are dissolving in the glare of scorching publicity.

Last April, Lemieux, who has been plagued with chronic back problems and announced his retirement earlier this year, told The Dallas Morning News that he and Spano often played golf together, and that their personalities "clicked."

It isn't clear when, exactly, but somewhere along the line Spano began spinning a tale of vast inherited wealth. Some of his business background can be discerned from a deposition Spano gave as part of a lawsuit filed against him by Hughes & Luce. In July 1996, the powerhouse Dallas law firm sued Spano for $250,000, saying he never paid for work the firm did as part of Spano's failed effort to buy the Stars.

In the deposition, Spano said he borrowed money from his family to start up several businesses. He refers to a grandfather named Angelo who left him a large inheritance. Yet in its search, Newsday could find no evidence of a grandfather by that name. Spano, according to the paper, had two great uncles named Angelo. One died in 1941 and left his $3,131 estate to his wife and five children. The other Angelo lived in Oswego, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario. He was a truck farmer who died in 1963. His wife and two sons inherited his $150,000 estate.

For a time, it appears, Spano was willing to live like most other freshly minted college graduates--to start at the bottom and work his way up. His first job after college graduation, according to the Hughes & Luce deposition, was as a sales associate at a Pittsburgh auto leasing business called Intellease. He worked there from 1986 to 1987. In 1987, Spano was hired by a Burbank, California, company, Reseda Finance, as a credit manager in its Dallas office. Reseda arranged car loans for people with poor credit and had representatives in 44 states. The company folded in 1989.

It was during his stint at Reseda that Spano met Shelby Hansen, now 28, an Oregon native and student at Southern Methodist University. After Reseda shut down, Spano returned to New York City, where he started the Bison Group, a heavy equipment leasing business. But his relationship with Shelby, his future wife, kept him commuting frequently between New York and Dallas from 1990 to 1992, Spano said in his deposition. He finally moved to Dallas in 1992, and the couple married in July 1994. They have no children. Shelby Spano did not return telephone calls from the Observer.

"Shelby is a lovely person, just a solid, salt-of-the-earth type. But I really don't know her any better than I know John," says Robert Innamorati.

Innamorati, a 50 year-old Dallas investment banker, briefly shared office space with Spano in North Dallas, and introduced him to several local sports luminaries, including Norman Green and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Innamorati was also named in June 1995 as vice president of Hockey International Inc., a corporation set up by Spano's lawyers to insulate him and his silent partners in the Stars deal from liability. Hockey International had no assets of its own, a point that became pivotal when Spano refused to pay Hughes & Luce for the research the firm did on the Stars in advance of Spano's bid--in legal jargon, the "due diligence" period. Spano claims that the law firm overcharged him for its services, that it did shoddy work at times, and that it is Hockey International Inc.--not him--whom the lawyers should come after.

As a result of Spano's failure to pay Hughes & Luce, Innamorati says, he has not spoken to Spano since September 1996. He says he removed himself from any association with Hockey International, and indeed, Hughes & Luce has dropped Innamorati--one of the original defendants in its suit--from the legal action.

But even before they went their separate ways, Innamorati says, he rarely socialized with the Spanos. "They're much younger than I am," he says.

Still, it continued to puzzle Innamorati why Spano would not "do the right thing" and just pay his legal bill. "I couldn't understand it. John asked for my opinion back then, and I told him he should just pay," Innamorati says. "They did what he hired them for, and they deserved to be paid."

In hindsight, it seems clear to Innamorati and many others that Spano's gilded world of big sports deals, fine suits, and fast cars was probably cracking even back then. But who knew?

Says one former associate of Spano who asked not to be named: "This is turning out to be like a woman who's married for 15 years to a man she thinks is the perfect guy. Then suddenly she learns he has other women all over the place. I swear, no one knew."

After settling in Dallas in 1992, Spano began building up his Bison Group and joined in numerous other investments. On paper at least, the structure of the Bison Group resembles a global-commerce octopus, with impressive subsidiaries reaching like tentacles all over the map.

He kept the Bison Group incorporated in New York, and added Bison Leasing, incorporated as a limited partnership in Texas. He also claims to own a holding company called Bison BLG, incorporated in Delaware. Then there's Bison Automotive Leasing Acceptance and Bison Food Services, which Spano describes in a deposition as a business that leases cappuccino makers, hot dog machines, and other restaurant equipment to convenience stores.

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