Police inquiry shows turmoil among USF guards
TAMPA – A lengthy police investigation into the April burglary of a former USF basketball player’s apartment resulted in no charges being filed, but the interviews from a 23-page police report show a Bulls backcourt awkwardly fractured, with players admitting to stealing from teammates, staking out each other’s apartments and accusing others in a larger theft.
Reserve guard Gaby Belardo had already announced he was transferring from the Bulls when property estimated at $7,760 -– including two TVs, a laptop, video games and $2,000 worth of clothes -– was taken from his Tampa apartment. Suspecting three of his USF teammates, he called USF coach Stan Heath instead of calling police, and the coach called a team meeting.
"I truly believe that the team is not involved," coach Stan Heath told police in a May interview. "I have talked to several players in depth, and no one seems to have any information. I also searched the room of each player, looking for Gaby’s things, but we didn’t find anything."
Heath thought the burglary might be an extension of what he told police were "pranks" among the players last season, with shoes being taken from lockers and left in the shower. "None of the pranks were ever as serious as this," he told police.
During that team meeting, Belardo had asked another former guard who had been dismissed from the team, Mike Mercer, to watch USF star guard Dominique Jones’ apartment, "to see if anyone takes his stuff out."
Belardo told police that Mercer called him during the meeting, telling him that Jones’ girlfriend, Alicia Green, left the apartment with "two very large garbage bags." Green would later tell police under oath that she was planning to do laundry with Jones, and the bags were full of his dirty clothes.
She told police that Jones’ father, Norman, called her while she was in the apartment and told her a teammate was accusing Jones of stealing from him. At his request, she went through the bag. "I recognized everything in the bag as his," she told police. "I never saw anything in his room that didn’t belong. To my knowledge, Dominique is not involved."
Police then had a county judge sign off on a subpoena to Sprint, asking that the phone company release stored text messages from three cell phones linked to Jones. A limited number of text messages were available and not from the week of the theft, but after a review of those, the police report states that "(police) did not locate any incriminating messages regarding this incident. There was no mention of the victim or the burglary at all."
Belardo had told police he suspected three teammates, all current USF players -– Jones and guards Anthony Crater and Justin Leemow –- because a week before the burglary, after another team meeting following another theft, they had returned to him a necklace and watch that had he had told Heath were missing.
After that meeting, Belardo told police he got a text message from Crater, asking him to come to his room. Jones and Leemow were also there, and he said Crater told him "Don’t ask me where this came from, but your stuff is in that drawer over there."
"This is why I suspect Dominique and Anthony,” Belardo told police.
Belardo, however, gave police conflicting information in another instance, initially telling them that Jones had taken an I-Pod of his that he later found in Jones’ locker. Six weeks later, he told a different story, saying that he had given the I-Pod to Jones with the understanding he would buy it, and that he took it back from Jones’ locker because he hadn’t paid him for it. The report stated there was a "civil matter" between the two over the I-Pod.
To complicate matters more, guard Jesus Verdejo was living with Belardo, telling police he had been kicked out of his apartment for not paying rent. Crater said he and Verdejo had previously argued because a necklace of Verdejo’s had been broken while Crater was wearing it at a nightclub. Crater told police that Verdejo had asked him to pay him $600 for the necklace, that he was upset because it "was worth only like $100." He then admitted taking Belardo’s necklace and watch from the apartment, thinking they belonged to Verdejo.
"I took the necklace and watch, thinking it was Jesus’ stuff," he told police. "I was wrong for that, but I was still pissed at him."
Verdejo, reached by phone Thursday, said his only items taken in the larger theft from the apartment were clothes and shoes. He said he did not suspect his teammates in the theft and remains friends with them.
"I don’t think any of them had anything to do with it," he said. "We’re a team. We’re like a family. I’m still really close to all the guys and still in touch with them. I hope they have a great season."
Heath told police that he asked his players to take polygraph tests to further prove their innocence. Crater agreed, though Jones declined after consulting with his father.
"I don’t have any involvement in this," Jones told police in a May interview. "I don’t even know why I have been accused. … (Belardo) is not my favorite person, and I’m sure that I am not his favorite, either. … I wish I could help you out but I don’t have any information."
Heath, returning a phone message Thursday night after USF's 65-58 win against Davidson in South Carolina, reiterated that his players were not involved in the larger theft from Belardo's apartment.
"I had several conversations with the police, and in the last conversation, they told me they had fully exonerated my team," said Heath, who declined further comment. "My players had nothing to do with it."