Police investigated USF Bulls basketball players, theft claims

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 showed a backcourt awkwardly fractured, with players admitting to stealing from teammates, staking out an apartment 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 — two TVs, a laptop, video games and $2,000 worth of clothes — was taken from his apartment. Suspecting three of his USF teammates, he called Stan Heath instead of calling police, and the Bulls coach called a team meeting.

"I truly believe that the team is not involved," Heath told police in May. "I have talked to several players in depth, and no one seems to have any information. I also searched the room of each player … 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.

Belardo had asked Mike Mercer, who had been dismissed from the team, to watch Bulls star guard Dominique Jones' apartment "to see if anyone takes his stuff out."

Belardo told police that Mercer called him during the meeting, saying 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 told police he suspected three teammates — 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 he had told Heath were missing.

Belardo gave police conflicting information in another instance, initially telling them that Jones had taken an iPod of his that he later found in Jones' locker.

Six weeks later, he told a different story, saying that he had given the iPod 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.

To complicate matters more, guard Jesus Verdejo was living with Belardo. 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. They argued over its value, and Crater told police he took Belardo's necklace and watch from the apartment, thinking they belonged to Verdejo.

Verdejo, reached by phone Thursday, said of the larger theft from the apartment, the only items taken that belonged to him 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."

Heath told police that he asked his players to take polygraph tests to further prove their innocence, though Jones declined.

"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."

USF's basketball team was in South Carolina on Thursday for a game against Davidson, and Heath and his players could not be reached for comment.

A report from Fanhouse.com on Wednesday alleged that USF committed multiple NCAA violations. USF issued a statement in response: "We will carefully review the issues raised in an Internet report. If we discover any issues that warrant action, we will address in an appropriate manner."

Police investigated USF Bulls basketball players, theft claims 11/19/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 12:27am]

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