Former world champion still faces charges from Polish government

Updated: June 6, 2008, 12:36 PM ET
Associated Press

PHOENIX -- A volunteer U.S. Olympic wrestling coach was released Thursday from federal custody after being detained on fraud and embezzlement charges filed by officials in his native Poland.

Roman Wroclawski, a 1982 world champion in Greco-Roman wrestling and volunteer coach for the U.S. Olympic team, emerged from a U.S. District courtroom in street clothes and bear-hugged a few friends who were waiting.

After seven months at a private prison, Wroclawski pronounced himself strong "like a horse" and ready to coach. He criticized his native country for trying to lock him up and denied that he committed any crimes.

"I never steal," he said.

The Polish government accused Wroclawski of breaking Polish laws between November 1993 and March 1994. Authorities said he conspired to fraudulently obtain a $350,000 bank credit and embezzled from his companies, Roman, and Roman American Car, according to court documents.

The fraud charge carries a potential sentence of one to 10 years in prison in Poland. The embezzlement charges could bring a maximum sentence of six months to 7½ years in prison.

The Regional Court IX Criminal Department in Lublin, Poland issued an arrest warrant for Wroclawski in 2005, 11 years after he was originally charged. As part of the warrant, authorities said they believed Wroclawski "left Poland purposefully in order to abscond from law enforcement authorities."

U.S. authorities took Wroclawski into custody in November.

Polish authorities now want Wroclawski returned to his native country to face the fraud and embezzlement charges. However, defense lawyer Michael Reeves said those claims have since passed a 10-year Polish statute of limitations.

In an interview, Reeves said Poland has other reasons for pursuing Wroclawski. After coming to America, the wrestler published a book in the 1990s that condemned the Polish government and its athletic community.

"It's Roman's belief that this is political retribution for his having written this very condemning book," Reeves said.

Reeves asked the federal court to release Wroclawski, and numerous wrestlers and coaches testified on his behalf, including Olympic gold medalist Rulon Gardner. They credited Wroclawski with helping the United States succeed in a sport that's historically dominated by Eastern Europeans and Russians.

"Our sport will only benefit from Roman's coaching. It will likely be hampered by his continued incarceration," Steve Fraser, a national head coach for the U.S. wrestling team, wrote to the court.

A spokesman for Poland didn't return a call from the AP to the Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Poland in San Francisco.

During a brief hearing Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle H. Burns in Phoenix ordered him released, pending further extradition hearings. Burns declined to drop the case.

In her order, the judge noted Wroclawski's contribution to Greco-Roman wrestling in the United States, the Polish government's decision not to seek his extradition until nearly 11 years after he was first charged, and that he poses a low flight risk.

Wroclawski was confined to his home. But Burns allowed Wroclawski to travel to Las Vegas to attend the Olympic wrestling trials and to Colorado Springs, Colo., for wrestling workouts.

A status conference has been scheduled for July 25.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press