Claiming that an epiphany during prayer convinced him of his innocence, former sportscaster Don Tollefson on Monday unexpectedly withdrew his guilty plea to charges of defrauding sports fans with phony travel packages.
As he appeared before Bucks County Court Judge Rea Boylan for what was supposed to be his sentencing, the onetime celebrity broadcaster instead asked for a trial and said he would serve as his own attorney going forward, in part because he lacked the money to pay a lawyer.
Tollefson, 62, also told Boylan he has new evidence to bolster his defense - although he did not say what it was - and said he believed the matter should be heard in civil court, not criminal.
His attorney, Sharif Abaza, said that he disagreed with Tollefson's decision and that he withdrew from the case because "at this point, I don't know what more I can do."
Matt Weintraub, Bucks County's chief of prosecutions, said that he had hoped to put the case to rest Monday, but that he would be prepared for the trial Jan. 5.
"Justice delayed in this case is not justice denied," he said.
Tollefson, once the city's highest-paid sportscaster, pleaded guilty in September to selling more than 200 people about $317,000 worth of bogus travel packages to high-profile sporting events such as the Super Bowl or out-of-town Eagles games. He apparently told buyers the proceeds would be used to benefit local charities.
But police said that after Tollefson collected money for the trips, pieces of the promised packages, such as tickets to the game or hotel rooms, never materialized. Tollefson would generally cease communication with the buyer once he had their cash, police said.
Tollefson has never explained why he may have engineered such a ruse. But he has said that while he was selling the packages, he struggled with addiction.
In court Monday, he said he had been sober for more than a year.
Tollefson also described what he said were a series of other life changes since he decided to plead guilty, including a rededication to Christian faith. He said he has sought spiritual counseling and has "prayed considerably on this matter."
At one point, he told Boylan that he had a "conversation with my God, as I understand him," and that the result was an epiphany that he should fight to prove his innocence.
Tollefson testified that he had been struggling to raise $10,000 to pay Abaza for the case and that as he has tried to sell merchandise to make restitution, he got lowball offers because of his legal troubles.
A group of apparent victims sat in the courtroom Monday but declined to comment after the proceedings.
Weintraub said that he would be preparing them to testify at next month's trial and that he believes Tollefson will still be proven guilty, even if he withdrew his plea.
"It's just another speed bump," he said.