Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I didn't know autographs were fakes, Wepner says  

"The Bayonne Bleeder" has been busted in California on charges of participating in a scam to sell faked autographs, officials said yesterday.

Chuck Wepner, best known for going 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in a 1975 championship bout, admitted to mailing posters and photographs bearing the faked signatures of Ali and other boxing greats, but told The Jersey Journal yesterday he didn't know they weren't the real thing.

"I didn't know anything was wrong with them," he said yesterday. "I didn't know that they were forgeries, and I still don't."

Wepner told federal prosecutors in San Diego that he mailed a poster and three photographs with faked signatures of Ali and other boxers to a California resident in October 2001, and that he told the buyer that the autographs were authentic.

However, authorities said the signatures were scrawled not by Ali but by John Olson, Wepner's business partner in a memorabilia business that operated between June 1996 and March 2002.

Olson pleaded guilty to charges related to the scam in 2003 and was sentenced to three years probation.

Wepner said he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their case against Brian Ginsberg, who allegedly told Olson to fake the autographs on hundreds of photographs and posters.

Ginsberg, who sold sports memorabilia out of a store in Long Island and over the Internet, would then tell buyers that Wepner had taken the memorabilia to Ali and other prizefighters to be signed, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Ginsberg was arraigned last week in San Diego federal district court on 12 counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Each count of mail fraud is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, authorities said. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to next appear in court in September.

Wepner said yesterday that he is expected to testify against Ginsberg and will gladly do so.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson, who is prosecuting the case against Ginsberg, referred to Wepner as "one of many people that the government might want to call for a witness."

The investigation into the faked autograph scam is a continuation of Operation Bullpen, spearheaded by the FBI to prosecute sellers of counterfeit sports and celebrity memorabilia, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

As part of the proposed plea deal, Wepner will plead guilty in a San Diego federal court in October to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, Pierson said.

Wepner said authorities told him that as part of the plea deal, he would be sentenced to probation. Pierson would not confirm that.

Neither of Wepner's two criminal attorneys, Peter Till or Anthony Fusco, returned phone calls yesterday.

Anthony G. Mango, who represents Wepner in a civil lawsuit against Sylvester Stallone - Wepner claims the movie "Rocky" was largely based on his life, but that he received no compensation - said Monday that this "criminal matter won't have any affect on (the civil case) at all."

Wepner was shocked and angry to hear from The Jersey Journal yesterday, saying part of his agreement with prosecutors was that the story would be kept out of the media.

"This is supposed to be a sealed indictment," he said.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Armstrong ends career with 7th Tour win 

PARIS - Lance Armstrong closed out his amazing career with a seventh consecutive Tour de France victory Sunday - and did it a little earlier than expected.

Because of wet conditions, race organizers stopped the clock as Armstrong and the main pack entered Paris. Although riders were still racing, with eight laps of the Champs-Elysees to complete, organizers said that Armstrong had officially won.

The stage started as it has done for the past six years - with Armstrong wearing the race leader's yellow jersey. It ended the same way, too - with him celebrating, this time by a comfortable margin of more than 4 1/2 minutes.

One hand on his handlebars, the other holding a flute of champagne, Armstrong toasted his teammates as he pedaled into Paris to collect his crown. He held up seven fingers - one for each win - and a piece of paper with the number 7 on it.

When it was over, Armstrong saluted the race he's made his own.

"Vive le Tour, forever," he said.

The 33-year-old Texan choked up on the victory podium as he stood next to his twin 3-year-old daughters - dressed in bright yellow dresses, appropriately - and his son. His rock star girlfriend Sheryl Crow, wearing a yellow halter top, cried during the ceremony.

"This is the way he wanted to finish his career, so it's very emotional," she said.

Looking gaunt, his cheeks hollow after riding 2,232.7 miles across France and its mountains for three weeks, Armstrong still could smile at the end. He said President Bush called to congratulate him.

Armstrong's new record of seven wins confirmed him as one of the greatest cyclists ever, and capped a career where he came back from cancer to dominate cycling's most prestigious and taxing race.

Standing on the podium, against the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe, Armstrong managed a rare feat in sports - going out on the top of his game. He previously said that his decision was final and that he was walking away with "absolutely no regrets."

Armstrong mentioned Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Andre Agassi as personal inspirations.

"Those are guys that you look up to you, guys that have been at the top of their game for a long time," he said.

As for his accomplishments, he said, "I can't be in charge of dictating what it says or how you remember it."

"In five, 10, 15, 20 years, we'll see what the legacy is. But I think we did come along and revolutionize the cycling part, the training part, the equipment part. We're fanatics."

Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan eventually won the final stage, with Armstrong finishing safely in the pack to win the Tour by more than 4 minutes, 40 seconds over Ivan Basso of Italy. The 1997 Tour winner, Jan Ullrich, was third, 6:21 back.

"It's up to you guys," Armstrong said, forecasting the Tour future.

Armstrong's sixth win last year already set a record, putting Armstrong ahead of four other riders - Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Belgian Eddy Merckx and Spaniard Miguel Indurain - who all won five Tours.

Along the way, he brought unprecedented attention to the sport, and won over many who had dismissed it.

"Finally, the last thing I'll say for the people who don't believe in cycling - the cynics, the skeptics - I'm sorry for you," Armstrong said. "I'm sorry you can't dream big and I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race, this is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe."

Armstrong's last ride as a professional - the closing 89.8-mile 21st stage into Paris from Corbeil-Essonnes south of the capital - was not without incident.

Three of his teammates slipped and crashed on the rain-slicked pavement coming around a bend just before they crossed the River Seine. Armstrong, right behind them, braked and skidded into the fallen riders.

Armstrong used his right foot to steady himself, and was able to stay on the bike.

His teammates, wearing special shirts with a band of yellow on right shoulder, recovered and led him up the Champs-Elysees at the front of the pack.

Organizers then announced that they had stopped the clock because of the slippery conditions with more than 10 miles to go.

Vinokourov surged ahead of the main pack to win the last stage. He had been touted as one of Armstrong's main rivals at the start of the Tour on July 2, but like others was overwhelmed by him.

Armstrong's departure begins a new era for the 102-year-old Tour, with no clear successor. His riding and his inspiring defeat of cancer attracted new fans - especially in the United States - to the race, as much a part of French summers as sun cream, forest fires and traffic jams down to the Cote d'Azur.

Millions turned out each year, cheering, picnicking and sipping wine by the side of the road, to watch him flash past in the race leader's yellow jersey, the famed "maillot jaune."

Cancer survivors, autograph hunters and enamored admirers pushed, shove, and yelled "Lance! Lance!" outside his bus in the mornings for a smile, a signature, or a word from the champion.

He had bodyguards to keep the crowds at bay - ruffling feathers of cycling purists who sniffed at his "American" ways.

Some spectators would shout obscenities or "dope!" - doper. To some, his comeback from cancer and his uphill bursts of speed that left rivals gasping in the Alps and Pyrenees were too good to be true.

Armstrong insisted that he simply trained, worked and prepared harder than anyone. He was drug-tested hundreds of times, in and out of competition, but never found to have committed any infractions.

Armstrong came into this Tour saying he had a dual objective - winning the race and the hearts of French fans. He was more relaxed, forthcoming and talkative than last year, when the pressure to be the first six-time winner was on.

Some fans hung the Stars and Stripes on barriers that lined the Champs-Elysees on Sunday. Around France, some also urged Armstrong to go for an eighth win next year_ holding up placards and daubing their appeals in paint on the road.

Armstrong, however, wanted to go out on top - and not let advancing age get the better of him.

"At some point you turn 34, or you turn 35, the others make a big step up, and when your age catches up, you take a big step down," he said Saturday after he won the final time trial. "So next could be the year if I continued that I lose that five minutes. We are never going to know."

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