WHEN a friend of George Richardson's emailed him the Daily News' Dec. 5 cover story about Don Tollefson, part of him couldn't believe it.
But part of him absolutely could - the part that remembered $200,000 in nonexistent Israeli bonds and the cross-country phone calls to Tollefson two decades ago threatening to expose him as a con man.
"I wish I had taped the conversations," said Richardson, a retired Burlington County financial adviser now living in Florida.
Tollefson, the former TV sports anchor now under investigation for allegedly ripping off Eagles fans through a network of unregistered charities, has not been heard from publicly since checking into an inpatient facility in mid-October for psychological treatment and a substance problem. His lawyer has described the missing money as an innocent misunderstanding based on recent "organizational failures."
Richardson, however, has a hard time believing that explanation, based on his prior encounter with "Tollie," a high-octane television personality known for calling most everything "awesome."
Richardson, 64, a former Willingboro school-board member and fire-company president, was working as a financial adviser in Lumberton in the early 1990s when two clients came to him in a panic, he said. They told Richardson they had given Tollefson $200,000 out of their retirement money, and Tollefson, who had recently married their daughter, Monica Vasquez, later said he had invested it in Israeli bonds, Richardson said.
"They were hysterical when they called," Richardson said of the now-deceased clients. "I told them to come down to my office."
Richardson said he started making calls, including to Israel, and could find no record of any such bonds having been purchased. He believes that Tollefson, 61, had represented himself to the Vasquezes as a licensed securities trader.
"It's their new son-in-law who's famous. Good grief, talk about easy pickings," Richardson said. "They admitted to me they were duped. They came to me almost crying."
Richardson said he got Tollefson on the phone and gave him an ultimatum: Return the money or I'll go public. Soon afterward, the Vasquezes got their money back, he said.
"I thought that would be the end of it, but in the back of my mind, I said, 'This guy isn't going to quit,' " said Richardson, who lives in Kissimmee, Fla. "It was sort of a quid pro quo: 'You give the money back and I keep quiet.' No one got hurt."
Tollefson and Monica Vasquez were married in 1992 and later divorced.
Members of the Vasquez family did not respond to requests for comment.
The next time Richardson saw Tollefson's name in connection with financial impropriety was this month, when a friend in Ocean City emailed the People Paper's story about the Tollefson investigation. The friend recalled Richardson telling him about Tollefson and the Israeli bonds in the early 1990s.
"I should have gone to the authorities," Richardson said, "but he paid it back."
Criminal investigators in Bucks County have been sifting through mountains of financial transactions since calls started coming in about Tollefson from irate Eagles fans. The IRS and a grand jury are involved, according to a person who was contacted by an investigator.
"We're into multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars," a law-enforcement source told the Daily News this week. The source said that Tollefson is almost certain to be charged criminally, and that prosecutors are deciding what charges to file.
Bucks County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Hyde declined to confirm whether a grand jury is involved, but he has said investigators have interviewed more than 100 alleged victims.
It's a perplexing case, because Tollefson - whose charities included Winning Ways and One Child Saved - has done legitimate charity work and has often taken children to sporting events. One law-enforcement source involved in the case said Tollefson may have run the charities with honest intentions until the wheels fell off in recent years.
But Richardson's account raises questions about the former sports anchor's earlier activities.
Tixr4kids.com is the most recent of several Tollefson charities to disappear from the Web. Earlier this month, the site was still soliciting tickets and cash donations - in all-capital-letter sentences with exclamation points - purportedly to help inner-city kids.
"There's a lot of smoke here," Richardson said. "It's obvious there's a fire."
Tollefson and his attorney, Michael McGovern, have not responded to several requests for comment in recent weeks. McGovern, a longtime friend of Tollefson's, has previously said Tollefson has not pocketed any of the money.
"I don't think there have been any allegations of Don's charities having any improprieties or any type of misconduct," McGovern said earlier this month. "The man is one of the most energetic and successful charity fundraisers I've seen in my lifetime. There's no doubt he's raised millions of dollars."
For South Philly's Lou Berman, who runs an autism charity called Louie's Voice, Tollefson is an enigma.
At a golf outing in September, Berman, 44, and a friend gave Tollefson $4,500 for tickets to the 2014 U.S. Open, set for June in Pinehurst, N.C. They had planned to resell the tickets and use the proceeds for the charity. But Berman, whose son is severely autistic, never got the tickets.
Dozens of others who gave Tollefson money or credit-card numbers have similar stories.
"He's so well-known, you wouldn't even think a guy like that would do something," said Berman, who held a fundraiser last week at SugarHouse Casino, partially to replace the money he would have raised by reselling the U.S. Open tickets.
"It wasn't like this was some schmo," Berman said. "This was Don Tollefson, for heck's sake. He's been a staple of the Philadelphia media for so long."