New Jersey businessman sentenced to probation

Updated: August 24, 2007, 1:35 PM ET
Associated Press

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. -- The last of three men who ran an illegal sports gambling ring for high rollers was sentenced to two years' probation Friday, drawing to a close a case that drew international headlines because of a link to hockey's biggest star.

James Ulmer, 42, the least-known defendant in the case, faced six months to a year in county jail under a plea agreement for his role in the bookmaking operation with links to the National Hockey League, the Phoenix Coyotes and coach Wayne Gretzky. But the judge told Ulmer he would avoid jail if he stays out of trouble for the next two years.

The NHL's probe, headed by lawyer Robert Cleary, best known for prosecuting Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, has not been completed. Rick Tocchet's future in hockey has not been resolved.

"I will," promised Ulmer.

The married father of two had no prior record but left "a paper trail" of his illegal bookmaking by allowing bettors to deposit money directly into his personal checking account, said his lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr.

Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, who was sentenced to probation last week, left no such trail, lawyers for both sides said.

"My client, through his naivete, actually created the primary pieces of evidence against him," Jacobs said.

The case became one of the biggest stories in hockey last year, when Tocchet, former state trooper James Harney and Ulmer were charged, because authorities said several of the bettors were people connected to the game.

The only name that was ever revealed among them was actress-model Janet Jones Gretzky, who is married to Gretzky, and authorities said early on that neither she nor other bettors would be charged.

Jones threatened to file a $50 million defamation lawsuit against the state of New Jersey but has not done so.

Before sentencing, Ulmer apologized to the court and his family.

"I'd like to offer my humblest and most sincere apologies," Ulmer said, calling his criminal behavior "an aberration."

Tocchet was sentenced to two years' probation after pleading guilty to the same charges as Ulmer -- conspiracy and promoting gambling. He has been on leave from the Coyotes since the charges were announced in February 2006.

Tocchet's involvement in sports betting triggered an investigation within the NHL, ordered by commissioner Gary Bettman. Lawyer Robert Cleary, best known for prosecuting Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, was hired to conduct the NHL's probe.

NHL spokeswoman Bernadette Mansur said Cleary has not completed the inquiry.

Tocchet's future in hockey has not been resolved.

The state police Organized Crime Bureau began investigating the ring in October 2005, after receiving information that a trooper might be involved.

In the 40 days prior to the filing of the charges, the ring handled $1.7 million in bets, including college football bowl games and the Super Bowl, authorities said.

Harney, who was forced to give up his badge, was sentenced earlier this month to five years in prison.

Ulmer, a medical supplies salesman from the South Jersey town of Swedesboro, agreed in his plea deal to cooperate with authorities and forfeit about $45,000 in gambling proceeds. He also paid back taxes on $52,000 in gambling winnings for 2005 and 2006, Jacobs said.

"We're completely satisfied that the cases have now all been resolved against all three defendants. That resolution included all of the principle charges initially filed," said Mark Eliades, the deputy attorney general who prosecuted the case for the state.

Burlington County Superior Court Judge Thomas S. Smith Jr. said he would vacate Ulmer's six-month jail sentence if he completes probation without further incident.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press