Football coach Wayne "Chief" Hall is spinning a yarn about his friend, onetime Arizona State University quarterback great Dennis Sproul.

In the mid-1970s, Hall--a former ASU assistant under head coach Frank Kush--had convinced Sproul, a California high school all-American, to become a Sun Devil. He and Sproul became close during the star's years at the school, Hall recalls in his no-nonsense, twangy style.

The coach dredges up some bad memories of those days, when fickle ASU fans razzed Sproul incessantly and called radio talk shows en masse to implore Kush to play a homegrown quarterback instead of Sproul.

Even when Sproul's football career ended at the 1977 Fiesta Bowl, the ASU crowd wouldn't leave him alone, Hall recalls. Despite the home team's loss to Penn State, sportswriters had chosen Sproul as the game's most valuable player. Still, Sproul was booed.

The catcalls so infuriated Hall, he says, that he suggested to Sproul that the two of them display their middle fingers on the way to the locker room.

"He just wouldn't do it," recalls Hall, nodding in the direction of his former quarterback. "The quality of individual he was, he withstood it all."
The anecdote completed, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Anderson speaks up. "I was at that game," the judge tells Hall.

"I hope you weren't one of the booers," Hall retorts.
"I don't remember that," Anderson continues. "But you're not suggesting that his football skills have anything to do with his business acumen? You're not suggesting that, are you?"
Hall thinks for a moment. "No," the retired coach says, sadly. "I don't think one has to do with the other."

Unfortunately for Sproul, athletic success at ASU wasn't going to count for much last week, as Judge Anderson considered how the 36-year-old quarterback turned stockbroker should be punished for embezzling approximately $500,000 from several victims.

During the proceedings, the boyish Sproul, clad in a red suit and wearing a gray tie, fidgets at the defense table, whispering to his attorney, James Lagattuta. Sproul looks briefly at his wife, Anita, who sits in the front row, surrounded by her family and friends. She stares straight ahead, awash in tears. In the hall outside the courtroom, the couple's two daughters frolic happily, too young to understand their father's dilemma.

Sproul sneaks a peek across the courtroom, where 77-year-old Lorna Parnell sits with her daughter and her granddaughter. They stare back balefully. Last December, Sproul had pleaded guilty to stealing Parnell's life savings, about $150,000. A few minutes earlier, Parnell had taken the stand and recounted the events that led to her financial ruin.

"I don't want to be vindictive," the retired registered nurse had told Judge Anderson, "but Dennis deserves to be punished. He made me feel like it was his money and I was guilty. I was counting on this money so I could have a good way of life--get my hair done, go out to dinner, buy a car. I have a good family and they are helping me out, but I wanted to help myself."
Then this thrice-widowed grandmother had broken down and sobbed.
Sproul's modus operandi was of grade-school caliber. He never did complete graduation requirements from ASU for his bachelor's degree in finance. Put simply, he took, for his own use, funds that clients at Southmark Financial Services and Sun/America Securities had turned over to him for investment. The roof caved in for Sproul after clients began questioning him and he couldn't account for the funds.

"He exuded confidence and enthusiasm in establishing their portfolio," probation officer R. Brian Colgan wrote in a presentencing report. "His embezzlement of his clients' funds was born out of lust for pecuniary gain."
Sproul also had a lust for gambling, court documents show. In 1990--after he knew police were investigating him for embezzlement--he reported $29,142 in total income to the Internal Revenue Service. All but $400 of that sum was in gambling winnings. That year he listed $15,000 in gambling losses.

In the back of Judge Anderson's courtroom, Andrew Low does his best to contain his temper. In the late 1980s, Sproul had hired Low as a stockbroker, and Low had convinced his fiance, Lynda Cullor, to invest her life savings of about $14,000 with Sproul, who stole it from her.

The fiasco had caused Low and Cullor to break up. It took years, but the ex-couple finally is on speaking terms again. Low has come to court with Cullor to lend moral support, and out of a deep sense of guilt.

"He's scum," Low says of Sproul in a loud whisper. "I'd like to strangle the bastard. Big football hero. Shit."
After three hours of testimony, it's time for Judge Anderson to sentence Dennis Sproul.

County prosecutor Donald Conrad calls for a prison term. Defense attorney Lagattuta asks for probation. Judge Anderson, a calm, capable jurist, gives Sproul a chance to speak.

Sproul turns to Lorna Parnell--the other victims had left soon after they testified--and apologizes for ruining her life. Then, calling up a football metaphor, Sproul asks the judge for another chance. As a player, he was a fighter, Sproul tells Judge Anderson. Even if it was fourth down, late in the game and the Sun Devils were behind by too many points, he'd battle on. He realizes he's in that kind of situation now. Could he be granted just a few more "minutes" to pull things out?

No, Judge Anderson says. He sentences Sproul to five years in prison and orders him into the custody of the sheriff. Sproul surveys the scene--his sobbing wife and his mother, elderly victim Lorna Parnell, Andrew Low, Coach Hall and the rest. He lowers his head and looks away. The game is over.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin