JUSTICE

A hockey player’s victory in court

MALCOLM GRAY October 26 1987
JUSTICE

A hockey player’s victory in court

MALCOLM GRAY October 26 1987

A hockey player’s victory in court

JUSTICE

By turning in his seat at the defence table last week, onetime professional hockey player Brian Spencer could see two other former National Hockey League teammates in Florida’s Palm Beach county circuit court. Behind Spencer sat ex-New York Islander Gerry Hart and Richard Martin, a retired Buffalo Sabre. They and Spencer’s mother,

Irene, were among the friends and relatives who crowded into Courtroom 315 in West Palm Beach. They were there, they said, to provide moral support to a 38year-old former resident of Fort St. James, B.C., who stood accused of kidnapping and murdering the son of a wealthy local developer in 1982.

But at week’s end, with tears streaming down his cheeks, a relieved Spencer turned to embrace his two former teammates. After a fiveday trial that had electrified the rich resort community with testimony about sex, drugs and violence, the jury acquitted Spencer of the charges.

The seven men and five women on the jury needed only 61 minutes to reach their verdict—a swift decision that removed Spencer as the prime suspect in a puzzling case. The former left winger, who won the nickname Spinner for his whirling, crowdpleasing style of play, had been out of hockey for three years. And the money, glitter and excitement of a 10-season NHL career had given way to a new life near Palm Beach. There Spencer worked as a mechanic at a local electrical contracting company—and shared a trailer parked near a swamp with his girlfriend, Diane Delena. At that time the shapely brunette was working as a prostitute for a local escort service.

But in 1984, after she had broken up with Spencer, renounced that occupation and married an area resident, Delena’s dramatic—and revised—testimony concerning the death of one of

her former clients led police to arrest Spencer and charge him with murder and kidnapping.

The 1982 killing that led to the trial was not the first time that violence has stained Spencer’s life. On Dec. 12, 1970, RCMP officers shot and killed his father in a clash outside a Prince George, B.C., television station. They

had been called to the station after an angry Roy Spencer had driven 175 km south from Fort St. James and forced CKPG TV off the air at gunpoint—because the station had not carried an NHL game that his son was playing in for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After leaving the station Roy Spencer refused to obey a police order to lay down his gun, shot at two policemen with his nine-millimetre pistol and then was mortally wounded when the police returned his fire.

The Florida murder investigation began on Feb. 4, 1982, when a trucker who was driving along a highway that

afternoon noticed vultures circling over something lying in a nearby clearing. He called the police, who found a man clad only in a black bikini bathing suit, who had been beaten, shot in the head with two .25-calibre bullets and left for dead in the pinewoods. Twenty-nine-year-old Michael Dalfo died without regaining consciousness, but a police search of his nearby luxury condominium revealed a small amount of cocaine and several matchbooks bearing the names and telephone numbers of several local escort services.

That quickly led them to Fantasy Island Escort Service, the agency that had dispatched Delena to Dalfo’s condominium on Feb. 3 in response to his request for a prostitute. But during that initial police investigation, Delena steadfastly maintained that Dalfo had been alive and healthy when she left him around midnight.

Still, police contacted her again late last year during a review of unsolved murder crimes in the area—and offered

her immunity from prosecution. As a result, Spencer’s former girlfriend told police a dramatically different version of the events leading to Dalfo’s death.

Indeed, her court appearance last week as the prosecution’s star

witness provided a sharp contrast between her present status and her former occupation. Now she is the mother of two and has used her husband’s name—Fialco—since her 1984 marriage.

Many observers said that the 28year-old Fialco fit the role of a young matron well as she entered the court wearing a stylishly cut pink suit and with her shoulder-length brown hair pulled back from her face. But Fialco recalled that in the past she had earned more than $1,000 a day by going to bed with “lawyers, doctors and judges—all kinds of people.”

Fialco testified that Dalfo was using cocaine and appeared intoxicated when she arrived at the condominium. After she had been there for about an hour, she said, he had insulted her and chased her out of the apartment when she rejected his request that she stay longer. She recalled that she had then sought out Spencer at the Banana Boat, a bar that her former boyfriend had frequented.

There, she told him that Dalfo had frightened her. And around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4, the couple returned to Dalfo’s condominium where, she said, they found Dalfo standing in the driveway, dressed only in a gold neck-chain and his bikini bathing suit while he waited for the arrival of the fourth escort agency employee that evening.

According to Fialco,

Spencer forced Dalfo to get in her Fiat, and the three drove away with Dalfo demanding to know where they were taking him. Declared Fialco: “He said that if we didn’t take him back he was going to call his lawyer.” Fialco testified that she had pulled off the highway and stopped the car on a dirt road. Then, she said, she became nervous and ran down the road, leaving the two men arguing. But several minutes later, when Spencer drove up behind her, she noticed that Dalfo was not in the car. “I asked him what happened, and he said that Dalfo wouldn’t be able to call his lawyer now,” she recalled.

“I was scared.”

Still, under crossexamination by Barry Weinstein, Spencer’s publicly appointed defence lawyer, Fialco said that while she knew exactly what she had been wearing on the night of the killing —a blazer and a sleeveless blue dress—she had only a hazy recollection of events. For one thing, she did not remember if she had gone on to another assignment after Dalfo had thrown her out. And she said that she could not recall the conversation later that

evening between Spencer and Dalfo while they were driving away from the condominium.

More significantly, she said that she had not seen Spencer holding a gun— nor heard any gunshots as she ran down the road. While police discovered prints made by a woman’s high-heeled shoes leading away from the body, Weinstein argued successfully that there was “no gun, no footprints, no blood samples—nothing that connects the defendant to this crime.”

Indeed, a former bartender at the Banana Boat testified that Spencer _ had been in the bar during the time that he allegedly shot Dalfo. Martin Malvaso testifed that he remembered serving Spencer a rum-and-coke around 1 a.m and seeing him prepare to leave when the bar closed at 4:30 a.m on Feb. 4. Malvaso added that Spencer had called him at home five days after the shooting and asked the bartender to testify that the defendant had been in the bar. According to Malvaso, Spencer told him that “someone is trying to put a bum rap on me.” Spinner Spencer was a journeyman player throughout almost a dec-

ade in the NHL. He scored only 80 goals while playing with Toronto, the New York Islanders, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. But he gained the approval of the crowd with his hustling style and his readiness to take on opponents. Last week former teammate Gerry Hart, who helped raise the $50,000 bond that freed Spencer from jail last April, said that his onice aggressiveness hid a gentler side. Added Richard Martin: “I’ve known him for 12 years, and he is a complex individual. But if the team wanted someone to go see kids in hospital, Brian would be the one to go.” And Spencer himself relived the faded glory of his hockey days as he reminisced with reporters and attorneys during breaks in the trial. At one point he joked that he had been happy to see one prospective juror rejected—because the man had described himself as a fairweather fan of the New York Islanders.

Spencer acknowledged that the constant help of his friends and family had steeled him for an adverse verdict that could have led to the death sentence. That support was clearly evident at last April’s successful bond hearing. As well as his mother and such former NHL colleagues as Martin and Hart, Spencer’s former wife, Janet, flew from New York state with their two sons, Jason and Jarret, to attend the hearing. Indeed, his adherents were so noisy in their support for Spencer that Judge Edward Fine ordered them out of the courtroom.

Then last Friday, moments after the jury returned its verdict, Spencer revealed his thoughts during the trial. He declared: “I didn’t want to be sitting in a jail cell or to have to face an electric chair. I thought of all the people that have been behind me. I thought of friends that I’ve made. I thought of the miles that I’ve travelled around this country and Canada. I would have felt bad not to have that experience again. If I could take anything good about this experience, it’s that I can rebuild my life and help other people—use it as an example. I feel pretty good now—my life’s been saved. I was in jeopardy.” He is now a free man—and the police file on the case remains open.

-MALCOLM GRAY with JIM BAY in West Palm Beach and PETER KIERNAN in Miami

MALCOLM GRAY

JIM BAY

PETER KIERNAN