Ex-Toledo guard charged with fixing games in '04-05 and '05-06

Updated: August 7, 2008, 8:17 PM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

A former University of Toledo basketball player has been charged with fixing games in the latest development in a nearly two-year federal gambling probe.

Sammy Villegas is accused of shaving points in games during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, according to a federal information document filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Villegas, who waived his right to a grand jury indictment in signing the information document, is charged with conspiracy to influence sporting contests by bribery. No trial date has been set, but court documents specify a sentencing date of Nov. 18, which may indicate that he is cooperating with the government.

Asked Thursday morning if Villegas has already entered a guilty plea, Detroit's U.S. District Court public information officer Gina Balaya said, "I'm not able to comment about that. I guess you can draw your conclusions, but I can't comment about that.''

The charges carry a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine.

Villegas' agent in Puerto Rico told the Associated Press Thursday that the player is cooperating with federal authorities, but he is not speaking to the media based on his attorney's advice.

"For us, the most important thing is that our client is properly represented, and we understand that with time, everything will be solved," Next Level president Giddel Padilla said in a statement to The Associated Press. Villegas could not be reached for comment at the hotel where he is staying in San Pedro de Macoris.

Villegas, a 6-foot-6 guard who finished his career at the school in 2006, is also accused of paying another Toledo player who took part in the point-shaving scheme, prosecutors said. The other player was not charged or named in the indictment, which was filed June 30.

Any cooperation by Villegas could be a breakthrough in the government's slow-moving investigation. Authorities have told ESPN.com that the probe is focused on 51-year-old Ghazi Manni, the manager of a family-owned grocery in Detroit, as well as suburban Detroit businessman Mitchell Karam.

Karam, a 75-year-old real estate developer, has ties to illegal gambling that date back three decades. Sources familiar with federal organized crime cases said he has previously been connected with members of La Cosa Nostra in Detroit. He also was identified as a co-conspirator in a 1970s federal crackdown on a sports gambling syndicate, although he was not indicted. Documents reveal a federal judge gave the FBI approval to tap the phones of both Manni and Karam.

Sources expect the investigation to proceed rapidly now that the government has a potential cooperating witness in Villegas, suggesting additional charges could be brought within the next month.

Federal investigators have focused on both the Toledo men's basketball and football programs. Last year, former Toledo football running back Harvey "Scooter" McDougle was charged on a similar gambling offense. Those charges were later dropped on a procedural matter, though authorities haven't ruled out the possibility that McDougle could be charged again.

According to sources, McDougle cooperated with investigators as they sought to make a case against Manni. Federal documents revealed that FBI agents used electronic surveillance to listen in on conversations between McDougle and Manni.

Manni declined comment Wednesday night when reached by ESPN.com.

In an interview last year, Manni said the feds had come by his store, but he declined to speak with them.

"They tried. They came up here," Manni said. "I got nothing to say to nobody."

At the time, Manni revealed a single-page federal document -- dated April 23, 2007 -- showing that a U.S. district court judge signed off on five separate wiretaps of Manni's phone. The wiretaps were in effect intermittently from November 2005 through December 2006.

The seven-page indictment filed against Villegas reveals that federal investigators picked up the player on at least four phone conversations, including three on the same day, with what is described as a "conspirator."

On Feb. 4, 2006, Villegas placed a call to a conspirator in Michigan at about 12:15 p.m. Villegas made another call to a conspirator in Michigan at 12:29 p.m. He made another at 3:57 p.m.

On that same day, according to the indictment, Villegas is accused of intentionally missing two free throws in a game against "Central State University." The box score for Feb. 4, 2006, however, shows that Toledo beat conference rival Central Michigan 78-62 that day.

The home game tipped off at 7 p.m. Villegas came off the bench to play 21 minutes, hitting his only shot of the game, a 3-pointer, and missing two free throws.

John Belanger, Villegas' attorney, did not respond to a message left by ESPN.com on Wednesday evening.

Villegas is from Puerto Rico and was an alternate on that nation's Olympic basketball team four years ago. He currently lives in the Dominican Republic, where he is playing this year for the Los Cocolos de San Pedro Macoris.

"We are as surprised as the rest of Puerto Rico is," said Fernando Quinones, owner of the San German Athletics, the Puerto Rican team for which Villegas also plays. "We understand that everyone is presumed innocent, and we will wait until the evidence is presented."

NCAA officials, meanwhile, have been in contact with the university along with law enforcement and Las Vegas gaming officials, said NCCA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn.

According to the Associated Press, Villegas started every game as a freshman and the next season he averaged 13.8 points per game, leading the Rockets to only their second 20-win season in 20 years.

He had NBA dreams, but had a horrible shooting season as a junior and never regained his touch.

"I just saw it spiraling," said James Stafford, a former Toledo assistant, according to the AP. "We all thought the pressure was getting to him."

Villegas saw limited time his senior year and averaged just six points per game -- including the Feb. 4 game when he allegedly missed two free throws on purpose.

Former Toledo coach Stan Joplin said in January 2006 that he was at a loss over how far Villegas had fallen.

"It's killing us because he gets a lot of open shots," Joplin told The (Toledo) Blade newspaper. "If he makes just one or two more shots every night, we're probably winning some close games instead of losing them."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. George J. Tanber and The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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