AZSCAM'S BOMBSHELL

SHIREE FOSTER WAS TREATED LIKE A BLONDE JOKE UNTIL SHE MET JOE STEDINO. THEN IT GOT WORSE.

In connection with this same report, Stedino also told Tapp, "I know Romano's girlfriend's name. . . . It's Sheryl. . . . She works for the Chamber of Commerce. . . . Frequent guest [at Ernesto's] and doesn't pay her check. . . . And she is a blonde."

Five weeks and two days later, Shiree Foster was in Joseph Stedino's office, and he was complaining that he'd been trying to reach her for a month.

That first visit, during which Stedino paid Foster $200 for his chamber membership, lasted more than two hours and was an emotional one. Perhaps the intensity was inevitable: Even under better circumstances, Foster experiences mood swings. "She goes from 'I am going to kill myself' to 'This is the greatest day in my life' in just one day," says a friend who asked not to be named. But even so, this was a very bad day indeed, in that Foster was brokenhearted. Only a few weeks before, Sbrocca had dumped her.

She blurted this fact to Stedino, a stranger, almost as soon as he began sharing a confidence of his own: He represented himself as a married man who had finally cut loose his long-term mistress because their relationship held no future for her. Was the similarity between his story and Foster's, on a day when she was supremely vulnerable, only a coincidence?

She had no reason not to think so. She told Stedino, "It seems like . . . I've experienced some of the same things you're tellin' me about." She told Stedino about her relationship with a married Italian who had recently quit telephoning her, citing business pressure. "Sometimes I wonder, 'Have you been taken for a ride?'" she went on. "I don't demand anything, all I demanded was some attention and, and some time, not even that much. I was very understanding. . . . I've come through kind of a crummy time and I thought maybe, well, maybe you would understand. . . . I don't know why men do it to me. . . . I say, 'Okay, God, what are you trying to show me through rejection and disappointment, hard times, being through some real extreme situations with my job, finances, family, relationships? What are you trying to tell me?' . . . Sometimes I feel like I could just die."

As she poured out her heart, Stedino asked her, "Is there a chance I know this fella?" And again: "No chance I know this guy?" The transcripts aren't clear about the moment when Foster and Stedino agreed they were discussing Sbrocca, but from that point on, Stedino couldn't badmouth him enough. He told Foster that Sbrocca had insulted him, that Sbrocca was a poor businessman, that Sbrocca hadn't deserved Foster's love. As though waiting for confirmation, he said, "He's, uh, halfway connected, you know, with wise guys and shit, okay?" And later: "I think that this man right now is feelin' some very serious financial pressure."

Throughout their next meetings and telephone calls, Stedino never missed an opportunity to downgrade Sbrocca to Foster. His zeal for including the restaurateur in every conversation was so obvious that Foster knew there was an agenda. "At the time, I thought he was jealous and just wanted me to like him," she says. "But now I think he was trying to get me mad at Romano so I would tell him information. But I didn't know anything. As far as I know, Romano is a very fine person who got a really bad rap."

As Stedino was striving to rile his new contact, he was also trying to worm his way into her life. He dispensed as much advice as a fortuneteller during that first visit; he adopted the role of a caring mentor. As their sharing ended, he told her, "I think I made a new friend today."

"You did, and I made a new friend," she said.
It set a tone of instant intimacy that lasted until Foster read about AzScam in the papers. Foster and Stedino would sign off on the telephone by declaring "Love you!" to each other. She says he telephoned her often in the evenings just to express concern, saying, "You looked a little lonely when I saw you today." For Foster, a young woman without deep friendships, this one seemed like the real article. "He was calling me nearly every night, saying, 'I am here for you,'" she remembers. "I am a sucker for that." Within four days of their first meeting, she was telling Stedino that she knew she could always rely on him.

And he seemed determined to prove it to her by charging to her rescue. It was during their fourth conversation, when their friendship was eight days old, that he let drop the reference to American Express, the company that was trying to collect from Foster on a bill long overdue. The allusion was so artfully done--and it inspired Foster to reveal her own credit problems so immediately--that her attorney, Dennis Jones, wonders whether it was deliberate. "He seemed to be aware of the fact that she had this debt," says Jones. "I just became so suspicious that they had checked her credit out in order to suck her in to ask for money."

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