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.

Patrick A. Wadlington, a lawyer representing Richmont, did not return telephone calls from the Observer.

For his part, Leslie refuses--even in the face of mounting evidence--to believe that he was scammed by Spano. "We were clear-headed about the decision," he says. "We had the loan collateralized by other assets, and we had reasonable knowledge of their value." Informed of the apparently phantom collateral in the Richmont loan, Leslie says "Well, we know our collateral is real."

He would not reveal what, exactly, the investment team demanded for collateral. Real estate is involved--perhaps Spano's investment in Sebring Capital, sources say. Leslie describes the holdings as "a couple of little things that we've invested in as a company in which [Spano] was a minor partner."

Even after Spano was charged, Leslie clung to some hope that Spano's alleged fortune would materialize; that the money would float back to him and cover the $1.4 million loan. "I don't spend time verifying anybody's financial capacity," Leslie says. "We give people the benefit of the doubt that they are what they say they are. John was and is a very quiet, discreet person. Even today we don't know that John doesn't have that money."

Federal prosecutors aren't nearly so optimistic. They found Spano on July 20 at a posh resort in the Cayman Islands. Spano flew back to the United States and surrendered to authorities two days later.

At his July 23 arraignment in New York, a federal magistrate set Spano's bail at $3 million--half of which he had to put up in cash. He put up the equity in his home, as well as the homes of his mother and sister.

But even Spano's expensive University Park home is not free and clear. After the Islanders deal soured, reporters learned that Spano was delinquent in paying the 1997 property tax on his house. A Dallas County tax collection office employee told the Observer on June 21 that Spano had paid the $85,000 tax bill on July 11--just days after Newsday had uncovered his delinquency. But at Spano's arraignment, assistant federal prosecutor Gary Brown revealed that the tax check, like so many others from Spano, had bounced.

Prosecutors continue to amass evidence against Spano and expect to present their case to a federal grand jury soon. Meanwhile, Spano--who was required to surrender his passport at the arraignment--has been ordered to stay in Dallas or New York until his case is resolved. His lawyer, Nicholas Gravante Jr., offers a tepid characterization of his client: "Mr. Spano is concerned, as anyone would be who is facing these charges."

The Spano home--two stories, slate-roofed, nestled among shade trees behind an iron gate and next door to the University Park municipal offices--stands eerily dark and quiet. No one answers the telephone. On several visits last week, there were no cars in the driveway. At the Bison Group's office on North Central Expressway, a receptionist tells a caller that "Mr. Spano is in, but he has just stepped away from his desk." He never returns the call.

If the bland and bald Spano is in fact convicted of the massive scam for which he stands accused, you have to wonder, has anyone learned a lesson? Or the next time some unassuming character with a pumped-up pedigree surfaces, will the dealmakers fall in line, their hats eagerly in hand?

Bet on it. Every person interviewed for this story still hasn't a clue what happened. They still seem to be moving through some foggy dream sequence, struggling to wake up.

"You know," says Jim Lites, "with John you got none of that funny feeling you would expect to get about a guy trying to scam you. You always get a picture of these guys driving around in big limos with busty girlfriends on their arms. He wasn't like that at all. John and his wife were very simple people, very middle America."

Staubach's Jim Leslie, after a long and painful pause, puts a finer point on it: "We're very forgiving people. Sometimes too forgiving.

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