From Savior to Convict, James Duckett Faces Sentencing in Dillon Stadium Fraud

James C. Duckett looked every bit the savior in early October 2015 as he told rapt Hartford City Council members of his plans to build a spectacular soccer complex over the dilapidated remains of Dillon Stadium – all at minimal cost to the city.

Hartford had earmarked $12 million for the project, but Duckett, who had been presented as a wealthy ex-NFL player, brushed aside the millions, grinning as he recounted the moment, months earlier, that he told his business partner: “You know what, Mitch? Let’s let the city have that $12 million. We’re going to bring the funding in to put this thing up.” When he was done speaking, the crowd in the city council chambers erupted in applause.

But as Hartford officials embraced Duckett’s vision that night, his soccer plan was already in shambles, with mounting debts, little prospect of attracting a professional team and serious questions about his claimed sources of private funding. And those same officials were days away from learning that hundreds of thousands of dollars of city money had seemingly vanished.

Today, bright orange netting at Dillon Stadium blocks off decaying bleachers overrun by weeds. And Wednesday, Duckett, 45, is to stand before a federal judge to be sentenced for his role in diverting huge amounts of city cash intended for subcontractors.

It will not be the first time Duckett has faced a judge to learn his fate for committing financial crimes. But city officials knew little of Duckett’s past in February 2015 when he joined the effort to bring professional soccer to the capital city.

They believed that Duckett was a former Washington Redskins football player with successful development projects across the globe and access to enormous amounts of cash. When Duckett, charming and charismatic, declared matter-of-factly that he could tap a $440 million bank account, many in city government wanted to it to be true.

But none of it was.

‘Always A Go-Getter’

James Cecil Duckett Jr. grew up in Huntingtown, Md., and attended Bishop McNamara High School, a private Catholic school a half hour’s drive north near the Washington border.

“He was working three jobs in the summer so he could go to private school,” said his older sister, Danene Tinalon Duckett. “He was always a go-getter. He worked pumping gas and in the cashier booth. He’d work overnight. He would work as many hours as he possibly could.

“He’s not one that tried to obtain fame, but he always tried to attain success.”

Duckett made the varsity football team his senior year of high school, graduating in 1990. Five years later, he enrolled in Millersville University in Pennsylvania and was brought on as a wide receiver in the fall of his sophomore year. He got his name in local papers a few times after scoring touchdowns, then left the school before the spring semester due to failing grades, a Millersville spokeswoman said.

But at 6-foot-3 with an athletic build, Duckett’s football pedigree lived on. In 2004, he gave a motivational speech at a job-training center in Massachusetts, where he was described as having been drafted in the sixth-round by the Washington Redskins before playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he earned half a million dollars a year before blowing out his knee in a game against the Tennessee Titans.

More than a decade later, Duckett was telling a similar story to Hartford officials. In an “ownership proposal” presented to the city during negotiations over Dillon Stadium, Duckett’s biography claimed that he was a sixth-round draft pick and played five seasons for the Redskins and Steelers.

In an October 2015 interview with The Courant, Duckett acknowledged it wasn’t true, saying he had not been drafted and never played in an NFL game. Instead, he said he had been signed by the Redskins as a free agent and had played on practice squads.

During Duckett’s criminal trial in June, a lawyer for the NFL testified that that claim, too, was false, and that league records show Duckett was never on the payroll of any NFL team.

However dazzled city officials were by Duckett’s alleged football credentials, they were more interested in his money, which seemed to show up just in time. The failed effort to rebuild Dillon didn’t start with Duckett. In September 2014, the Dillon contract was awarded to Mitchell Anderson, an Avon businessman well-known in local soccer circles. Anderson had until March 2015 to sign a professional team or risk losing the project, and as the deadline approached with few prospects, he turned to one of his partners for help.

Tony Camilleri, a retired Hartford cop, was hired as the security consultant for Premier Sports Management Group, the company Anderson created for the Dillon project. Anderson promised Camilleri and two others a total of $60,000 to find an investor with the wherewithal to bring a team to Hartford.

Camilleri had a prospect. He had worked with Duckett on past projects, so one day in February 2015, he took Anderson and Tom Novajasky, a vice president with Premier Sports, on a drive through rural Somers up to the seven-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot house that Duckett rented as both his home and the headquarters of a company he called Black Diamond Consulting Group.

Inside, Duckett regaled the trio with tales of his time with the Washington Redskins, Anderson would later testify. He had a line into other NFL players, he said, and was committed to bringing sports to the youth of Connecticut.

And the millions needed to bring a professional soccer team to Hartford? That wouldn’t be a problem.

The men struck a deal in which Duckett would become the majority owner of Hartford City FC, the soccer club he and Anderson would pitch to professional soccer leagues. On March 13, 2015, a relieved Anderson emailed the city’s development director, telling him about a prospective ownership group, including an “ex-NFL, business owner” who would be majority owner.

Later that month, Duckett took to Facebook to declare: “I’m about to bring professional soccer to Hartford. Let’s get ready baby.”

But by the time he wrote that post, federal prosecutors said, Duckett had already begun looting the bank accounts of Premier Sports Management Group and leaving the organization struggling to pay its bills.

$120,000 Range Rover

It started with check No. 1005, for $200,000, drawn on March 27, 2015 and made out to Duckett’s lawyer, Deron Freeman of Hartford. In an interview with The Courant in February 2016, Duckett said the check represented PSMG’s buy-in for a small share of the soccer team and that he had used the money for “everyday business purposes and also to help secure the funds for the project.”

But little if any of the money went toward the soccer deal.

A disbursement sheet introduced at Duckett’s trial showed that the largest share – just under $120,000 – was sent the same day Freeman received the money to pay a luxury car dealer in Atlanta for a special-edition Range Rover that Duckett had his eye on. Over a few weeks’ time, Freeman also provided $36,000 directly to Duckett. Another $11,000 was kept by Freeman, as repayment of a loan and payment of legal fees for past work he had done for Duckett. Within a month, all but $8,000 was gone.

Premier Sports was able to write the $200,000 check to Freeman only because the city of Hartford had weeks earlier sent Premier $321,000 to cover bills submitted by subcontractors on the Dillon project. But most of the money was never passed on to those companies.

In the months that followed, more bills were submitted to the city, more checks were written to Premier, and more money flowed out of Premier’s bank accounts for Duckett’s benefit – $40,000 moved to a Black Diamond account in May; $135,000 in August; $105,000 more in September.

Duckett “was essentially bankrupt but for the money coming to him as a result of the fraud,” the government alleges in its sentencing memorandum. And that money, they say, was used to buy thousands of dollars in merchandise at high-end stores including Cartier, Nordstrom, Gucci and Ferragamo.

“The indictment speaks in terms of ‘fraud,’ ” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Karwan wrote in the sentencing document, “but in reality Mr. Duckett’s crimes were just an outright theft, used to support his taste for luxury cars, expensive clothes, travel, and restaurants.”

‘Lied, Exaggerated, Deflected’

Checks and wire transfers directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Duckett, but Duckett – as his legal team noted repeatedly – had no control over Premier’s bank accounts. Instead, all of the payments were approved by Anderson, who testified at Duckett’s trial that he had questioned the large payments, but was assured by Duckett that once his outside investors came through with millions, the bank accounts would be replenished and the subcontractors would be paid.

Whether Duckett truly believed that remains an open question. His supporters say he was duped by shadowy businessmen in Massachusetts and Florida, who claimed to have hundreds of millions of dollars ready to invest – just as soon as Duckett sent them some up-front money.

Duckett had a “strong belief” that those investors were legitimate, his lawyer says. “It was not his intent that the City lose any money on the project,” attorney Richard Brown wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “It was not his objective that the project, itself, fail.”

Duckett told probation officers that he was “guilty of not paying attention.”

But the government paints him not as a victim, but as a smooth con artist with a lengthy track record of lies and schemes – about the NFL, about a sports dome at Foxwoods Casino, about helping the Oakland Raiders football team move to Las Vegas.

“Throughout the charged scheme, Mr. Duckett regularly misrepresented, lied, exaggerated, and deflected,” Karwan, the federal prosecutor, wrote in her sentencing memorandum. “Undoubtedly, he showed charisma, enthusiasm and confidence, but all while masking his best ability—to hide the truth.”

Neal Keating, the CEO of Kaman Corp., the Bloomfield-based aerospace and industrial-materials company, wasn’t impressed with Duckett. Keating, whose daughter played on a soccer team coached by Anderson, had agreed to put $200,000 into the Dillon project and become a silent minority owner. Later, he said he participated in one five- to seven-minute phone call on which Duckett was introduced as the majority owner.

“He talked about the fact that he was a former professional football player. He said he had a lot of business interests. He thought this was going to be great,” Keating said in an interview. “I thought he was full of himself.”

But while Keating wasn’t taken in, city development officials eager for a marquee soccer stadium continued to pay Premier’s invoices with minimal scrutiny – including $700,000 in bills from a Florida company called Big Span Structures for roof work that was proposed but never done.

Overall the government contends that Hartford and architecture firm Quisenberry Arcari of Farmington lost more than $1 million in the Dillon Stadium debacle, and Duckett is expected to face a restitution order to repay that money. Whether he can pay back any of it remains a mystery. The government says he has no bank accounts or credit cards in his name and has not filed a federal income tax return for at least the last two years.

Whatever the financial penalty, Duckett is also going to prison. Federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of 51 to 63 months. The government is recommending 60 months, while the defense is calling on U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill to depart from the guidelines and impose a sentence below 51 months, in part because of unspecified medical issues Duckett is facing.

Eighteen years ago, Duckett received probation after being convicted of embezzling from a Virginia staffing company where he worked. Two years ago, he told The Courant that sort of stumble merely made him stronger.

“We learn from our mistakes. And, you know, that made me a sharper person on top of that. I learned from that,” he said. “Those are things that are a learning lesson. We grow from them. And that’s made me the tough exterior that I am today.

“Certain people, hey, we have stories. Those stories aren’t complete until you go through some rough things.”

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