Tuesday, January 18, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Tirrell gets 41 months. Here is his life story.


Looking fresh and healthy behind his University of Iowa facemask, Marty Tirrell, who led a complicated life as a boisterous sports-radio host and a glib conman and who was an alcoholic and gambling addict who went from living the large life with the rich and notable to being homeless and penniless, was sentenced to 41 months in prison Wednesday by Federal District Judge Stephanie Rose.

He also was ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution to eight victims. He was not fined.

He could have been sentenced to up to 20 years and fined $250,000, but 41 months is at the top of the federal guidelines for the mail fraud he pleaded guilty to. The government had asked for 60 months. He has asked to serve his time in a prison near his boyhood home in Massachusetts.

The two-hour sentencing hearing came almost a year to the day following his plea of guilty of mail fraud. That one count was the result of a plea deal arising from a 10-count federal indictment accusing him of mail fraud, bank fraud, wire fraud and credit-card fraud.

And even those 10 counts touched just a slice of the money Tirrell scammed in Des Moines, Chicago, New York, Houston and Massachusetts. Court judgments against him total over $3 million, and he stole or conned an additional hundreds of thousands of dollars — probably millions — from friends and family and ex-wives and girlfriends and acquaintances and employers and from wealthy Iowans who didn’t sue because they knew they couldn’t collect or because they didn’t want to be known publicly as suckers.


“Marty is the biggest scam artist there is,” according to an anonymous victim quoted in the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing memorandum.

His schemes weren’t very complicated. At first, he would buy big blocks of tickets from national ticket brokers — and then just not pay for them. Later, he would get friends or acquaintances or employers to upfront money for ticket blocks to be sold at a profit — and then not give them their money or their tickets. He would get employers or sponsors to put up money for various promotions — and then not deliver. And he would borrow or steal money from his wives or their families — ruining them when they found he couldn’t pay it back. 

“He’s a horrible, horrible liar,” says Margaret Doneilo, who was married to him from 1993 to 2008 and who says “he took my future and my financial well-being.”

But “he has a way about him,” she told CITYVIEW. “He draws you in. He worships you.” When he walked out of her mother’s house in Massachusetts in 2007, though, she never saw him again.

At the end of the hearing, Tirrell, sitting at the table with his lawyers, said, “I knew this day would eventually come.” For decades, he said, his life had been “an unending nightmare.” He wept as he said, “Much was expected of me, and I failed in a heap of dishonesty.” He apologized in general and made a special apology to a victim known in the court records as “J.W.,” the only victim to make a statement in the court.

After Tirrell apologized, J.W. shot back, “That doesn’t mean shit.”

When J.W. testified, he looked at Tirrell and said, “You are the lowest form of human life there is.” Included in the restitution Tirrell must eventually pay is $886,087 to J.W.

Tirrell, who turns 61 on Jan. 27, got hooked on gambling and on broadcasting as a teenager in western Massachusetts. His younger sister, Marcia Hawkins, says she remembers their mother “pleading with the phone company” regarding her bill one month, which ran to $1,000. Tirrell’s mother, a single mother of six, “didn’t make that much money in a month,” Hawkins wrote the court while asking for leniency for her brother. The charges were toll calls to a New York betting line.

“To this day, Marty can recite the phone number when asked,” she noted.

When he was 19, he was hired by a local radio station to run a Sunday sports-talk show. Initially, no one called so he gave a sidekick a dime to go to a pay phone and call in in a disguised voice, according to Chip Ainsworth, a long-time sportswriter in Massachusetts. The pattern was set: Honesty would never be a Tirrell hallmark. That job lasted just a few weeks, but then he got on with another station, and then another.

Unquestionably talented and energetic as a broadcaster, he was at best careless as a salesman in Massachusetts. He became “a station manager’s worst nightmare,” one Massachusetts station owner told Ainsworth.

He came to Iowa about 25 years ago as a brash 35-year-old. He brought with him his new bride and his old habits. He shortly formed an on-air partnership with respected broadcaster Ken Miller, a “Marty and Miller” radio relationship that lasted off and on for nearly 20 years, until Miller walked off the set at Mediacom in July of 2017. Miller remains a popular sports-show host, and he says he knew nothing of Tirrell’s scams while they were happening. Tirrell handled all the sales and the negotiations with the stations. Miller was just a radio guy.

“Other than the embarrassing periodic reminders of the colossal mistake I made, I got through (the Tirrell years) relatively unscathed,” Miller says. “He didn’t hurt me the way he did others, but sadly he did significantly hurt my reputation in the community, and I have no one to blame but myself.” He is shedding no tears for Tirrell.

The first public indications that Tirrell was a crook popped up in 2013 when two major ticket brokers — Profile Network, Inc. and First Hand Tickets Corp. — filed separate lawsuits against Tirrell in federal court in Chicago. Basically, they said he bought tickets for big events and didn’t pay for them. “I will invoice clients and settle up via wire as quickly as possible,” Tirrell — operating as Mouth of the Midwest — texted a Profile Network executive. The wire never came.

Profile Network won a $107,665 judgment that Tirrell ignored. First Hand Tickets lost about $160,000.

Tirrell “leaves a trail of devastation,” one of the brokers told CITYVIEW at the time.

At about the same time, Cumulus Radio, owner of “the Champ,” a Des Moines station that carried his show, won a $96,656 judgment against him after he purchased the right to broadcast his show on the station for 15 hours a week, agreeing to pay Cumulus $20,000 a month. (Radio personalities sometimes buy blocks of time from stations, then sell ads during that time to repay the station and earn money for themselves. Tirrell was a reasonably good salesman, but he tended to keep the sales money for himself and not reimburse the stations.)

Tirrell’s second ex-wife, Stephanie Gifford, says she knew nothing about his debts and court troubles until she read about them in CITYVIEW. Gifford, who was married to Tirrell from 2010 to 2015, says she also didn’t know that their house had been foreclosed on until she read it in CITYVIEW.  Meantime, he was stealing her money.

“I lost everything,” she said. “I cashed out my 401(k) and my savings I had” to help him. “That wasn’t enough. He ran up credit cards in my name without my knowledge and would lie about that….He’d lie and lie and then would lie some more.” In 2015, Gifford declared bankruptcy to get out of the mess. 

“He’s a bully, he’s a fraud, he’s a liar,” Gifford wrote on Facebook in 2017.

Donielo, Tirrell’s first wife, says he took mortgages out in her name when they were married and then didn’t make the payments. The house, worth about $200,000, went into foreclosure. “I lost it….He destroyed my life.”

Another secret he was keeping from his wives and everyone else: He was picking up extra money by not paying federal income taxes. Still today the Internal Revenue Service has liens against him for nonpayment of taxes in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The liens, on file at the Polk County Recorder’s Office, total about $47,000.

Tirrell was using his money to live well, driving nice cars, going to major sports events and staying in nice suites. But he also was using it to gamble and pay off gambling debts. Gambling became the focus of his life.

“I gambled away a beautiful, loving wife — you — and a daughter, an amazing little girl,” Tirrell wrote to Gifford a few months ago. The letter from a man who had been a deadbeat dad for years left her unmoved.

He loved the horses. He loved betting on them, and he loved being around them and horse owners. He said he was a 3 percent owner of Paddy O’Prado, the horse that finished third in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, a horse owned by a group put together by Jerry Crawford. But Crawford says that that isn’t true. 

Tirrell also says he had an interest in the Iowa Energy, the professional basketball team where he was the play-by-play announcer — a good one — and which was set up by Crawford. Crawford also says that Tirrell had no ownership in that, either — no ownership that was purchased and no ownership given to him for his “sweat equity.”

Still, there is a May 2011 notarized “settlement agreement” between Tirrell and Bill Jacobson, an orthopedic surgeon and investor in the Crawford deals. The confidential agreement called for Jacobson to pay Tirrell $60,000 for “any and all interests Tirrell may claim to have in Derby Dreams I [the partnership that owned Paddy O’Prada] and Derby Dreams II [another Crawford-led horse partnership].”

Under the agreement, too, Tirrell “relinquishes all rights, interests and or claims related the Iowa Energy. All investments made by Tirrell have been returned in their entirety.”

Asked about that, Crawford said, “I can’t speak to any agreements Marty did or did not have with other people,” but he repeated that Tirrell never had any interests in Donegal Racing, Crawford’s umbrella racing company, or the Energy.

Jacobson did not respond to an email asking for an explanation.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Tirrell told CITYVIEW that he had indeed owned 3 percent of Paddy O’Prada “through Bill Jacobson.” He says he never had an ownership interest in the Energy.

To support his lifestyle and his gambling, Tirrell kept coming up with new frauds. For a while, he broadcast his sports-talk show from the showroom at Toyota of Des Moines, and he told the Toyota folks that it would be a neat promotion if they’d bring to Des Moines Troy Aikman, the great quarterback who played 12 years with the Dallas Cowboys. Someone at Toyota bought the idea — and upfronted the $79,284 he said it would take in fees and expenses to get Aikman to Des Moines. Among the expenses: $6,784 for four first-class air tickets.

Tirrell couldn’t deliver, and Toyota sued and won a $72,000 judgment. Tirrell “never came even remotely close to obtaining Aikman’s appearance,” a Polk County court ruled.

One of many holes in the scheme: “Troy has his own plane and flies privately,” his agent said in a deposition.

Gambling and lawsuits were not the only problems Tirrell was facing. He also was going broke and was drinking heavily, and sometimes he was drunk during his afternoon show. 

“My drinking and gambling took on epic proportions as time progressed,” he wrote in a letter to CITYVIEW last year. “It is an existence you cannot even remotely imagine.” By then, he was going to meetings of Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, but by then, too, he had pleaded guilty to mail fraud.

Despite all the court judgments, people kept investing in his schemes, schemes that seemed bound to fail. Most simply ate the losses quietly — up to $1 million or more, in some cases — not wanting the publicity. But developer Richard Hurd acknowledged he lost $660,000 in a Tirrell deal. He had lent Tirrell money to buy out his partners in the radio show, Hurd told CITYVIEW at the time. But the show “went out of business when Marty lost the sponsorship of Toyota of Des Moines.”

Asked why he didn’t sue, Hurd said he didn’t pursue it because “obtaining a judgment would be easy to accomplish [but] receiving payment would be nearly impossible.”

FBI Special Agent Kevin Kohler, the only other person to testify at Wednesday’s hearing, outlined some of the frauds Tirrell had committed, noting almost in passing that Tirrell regularly kited checks and bounced checks, but said many victims didn’t want to go after him. “People of some standing didn’t want their names” disclosed, he testified. “They’d just as soon walk away.” Also, everyone knew Tirrell was broke.

Not everyone was forgiving, The sentencing memo says Tirrell used another person’s American Express credit card to buy $212,226 worth of tickets from Stub Hub. The victim, identified in court papers as “G.C.,” but actually Des Moines businessman George Cataldo, was furious. He cooperated with the FBI in its investigation, and at one point said that Tirrell had told him he was going to kill himself.

According to testimony at the trial, Cataldo responded: “Don’t do that. Let me do it for you.”

Cataldo got his money back from American Express, and the restitution Tirrell must pay includes $212,226 to American Express.

Tirrell sought protection under federal bankruptcy laws three times — in Massachusetts in 1992, with his then wife Stephanie in Iowa in 2014 and then personally in Iowa in 2015. The 2014 bankruptcy petition was thrown out when the court determined Tirrell was lying about his debts. The 2015 petition was thrown out, too. The court refused to allow Tirrell to discharge his debts, and that decision was upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The unraveling of his financial life was accompanied by the unraveling of his professional life and his personal life. Having burned stations and station groups, he couldn’t find an outlet for his show, finally ending up — but not for long — with a cable show on Mediacom. He took to telling people that he was sick, that he had cancer, that he didn’t have long to live. Eventually, he had no place to live, sometimes spending nights in his car, other times in shelters or churches.  

Mary Jo Corley, a one-time girlfriend that he had squired in grand style on glamorous trips, went to court and got a restraining order against him. She said he had physically abused and threatened her, had hit her “in the chest, breast and torso,” had threatened to get her fired from her job at the Iowa Clinic. She implied he had run up debts on her credit cards. The court issued a temporary restraining order against him, saying he could not “threaten, assault, stalk, molest, attack, harass or otherwise abuse her.”

Tirrell, she says, is “a sociopathic, psychopathic, narcissistic predator.”

It’s a mystery why it took 10 years or more for federal authorities to go after Tirrell. At least two victims of his schemes asked United States Attorneys to investigate him — one asked in New York, another in Iowa. But his crimes apparently didn’t rise to a high enough level. 

But in the summer of 2018, an FBI agent began asking about him. The agent, Kohler, asked people about “anything and everything,” according to one person who was questioned. 

A warrant for his arrest was issued on Jan. 23, 2019, after a grand jury indicted him on nine, later changed to 10, counts of fraud. He was put in the Polk County jail for a bit, then allowed to go to a Door of Faith residential treatment center. He flunked out of that, though, for, among other things — and ironically — failure to create a budget. The court then gave him permission to travel to Massachusetts to live with his mother or sister. 

There, he regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and as part of his acknowledgement of his troubles he wrote letters to some in Iowa that he felt he had wronged. One was to CITYVIEW, which had been writing about him for nearly 10 years. 

“Your chronicling of my life was/is a blessing,” he wrote. “I know in my heart that, if nothing else, you are a messenger of truth.”                   

Of course, for the past 40 years or so, Tirrell and truth had little more than a nodding acquaintance.                 

When FBI Agent Kohler interviewed Terrill, Terrill “said he ‘always tells the truth,’ ” according to the sentencing memorandum Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Scherle presented to Federal District Court the other day. Then, the memo goes on, Tirrell “proceeded to lie about each fraudulent transaction involved in this scheme.” ♦


  1. Joseph W. Fernandez says:

    For years, I have read your pieces on Marty Tirrell and have wondered why you seem to have an interest that goes beyond reporting, in excoriating him. I have since found out that you and Mr. Tirrell had a business relationship. Yet, I’ve never read anything in your columns about that. Perhaps I missed one. I’m a fairly rabid reader of your column and have been for about a decade. Assuming that I have not missed anything, I would think, Michael, that in the interest of journalistic integrity and out of an abundance of caution, you would have disclosed your prior business relationship with Mr. Tirrell.

    Now that the dust has settled, and you’ve provided this thorough review of Mr. Tirrell’s sentence as a book-end to the yards of column widths of text about his chicanery, would you please give us a similarly painstaking history of your business dealings with Mr. Tirrell?

  2. Joseph W. Fernandez says:

    I see that my comment about Mr. Gartner’s prior business relationship with Marty Tirrell both without a response, and has disappeared.

    I suppose we shall all assume, then, that it had no part in Mr. Tirrell’s life story, or in the tone of Civic Skinny’s coverage of Mr. Tirrell for lo these many years.

    Very well.

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