A federal jury in Brooklyn yesterday convicted former Boston College basketball player Rick Kuhn and four codefendants of conspiring to manipulate the scores of Boston College games during the 1978-79 season.
The prosecution contended that the scheme was intended to enable the five men to win large sums of money by betting on the games and beating bookmakers' point spreads.
Convicted with Kuhn, 26, of conspiracy to commit racketeering and sport bribery and violation of the Travel Act were James Burke, 50, of New York, a reputed organized crime figure who is serving time for parole violation on a 1974 extortion conviction; Paul Mazzei, 37, of Pittsburgh, in jail on a narcotics conviction, and brothers Anthony Perla, 31, and Rocco Perla, 26, of Pittsburgh. Rocco Perla and Kuhn were high-school classmates.
U.S. District Judge Henry Bramwell set sentencing for Jan. 8. The five men could each receive a maximum sentence of 30 years in jail and $45,000 in fines. Lawyers for the defendants said they will appeal the verdict.
The jury of eight women and four men reached its verdict after three days of deliberations and a trial that lasted five weeks.
It was the government's contention that the scheme originated when Mazzei contacted Burke and said he had a friend in Pittsburgh who knew a player on the Boston College team and that there was a possibility for a betting scheme in which they could make thousands of dollars.
The player was Kuhn, a reserve forward on the team. The government contended that Kuhn was paid $2,500 per game to manipulate the spread in six games and also was given cocaine and Quaaludes.
However, Kuhn saw only limited playing time. For the conspiracy to work, the men knew they would need the cooperation of other players on the team, according to the testimony of Henry Hill, a convicted felon and the key prosecution witness.
Although a participant in the scheme, Hill was granted immunity from prosecution and testified as a government witness. He is a participant in the Federal Witness Protection Program and is receiving government protection in exchange for his testimony. He said he was brought in on the deal for his ability to maximize profits through his contacts in the gambling world.
Hill and Burke both were convicted of extortion in 1972 in Florida and have been prime suspects in the Dec. 11, 1978, robbery of almost $9 million from the Lufthansa Cargo Terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Boston College case arose out of the Lufthansa investigation.
According to Hill's testimony, he met with Kuhn and cocaptain Jim Sweeney in a hotel room near Boston's Logan Airport in November of 1978 to cement the deal.
Testifying for the government, Sweeney acknowledged meeting with Hill but said that although he agreed to participate in the scheme he never intended to go through with the deal. He said Hill told him he was backed by powerful interests in New York, and he was afraid of what might happen to him if he refused to cooperate. At one point, he said accepted $500 from Kuhn, but only to give the illusion of cooperating in the scheme.
Barbara Reed, 25, Kuhn's former girlfriend who was living with him at the time, testified that Kuhn uncharacteristically began buying her presents -- a stereo set, a television set and jewelry -- during the winter of 1978-79.
"He said he had a betting thing set up in a way to make money during the season so that we could be taken care of," said Reed, now a nurse in Syracuse, N.Y. Reed also testified that Kuhn threatened to kill her if she ever told of the scheme.
Joe Beaulieu, the starting center on the 1978-79 Boston College team, also testified he was approached by Kuhn to participate in the plan, but he said he rejected the proposal.
The government also contended Kuhn tried to recruit other players, including the team's leading scorer, Ernie Cobb, and Hill said in an article in Sports Illustrated -- for which he was paid $10,000 -- that he made payments to Cobb for his cooperation. But Cobb denied receiving any money and he was not indicted.
Testifying for the defense, Boston College basketball Coach Tom Davis said at no point during the 1978-79 season did he notice any of his players giving anything less than a 100 percent effort. Even after being informed of the investigation, he said he noticed nothing unusual after reviewing films of the games.
Several college coaches, contacted at the time that news of the investigation broke, said point shaving -- when the favored team tries to win by less than the point spread -- in basketball is almost impossible to detect and that there is no way of telling how much, if any, point shaving goes undetected. (In some of the Boston College games cited, the Eagles were underdogs and lost by more than the point spread.)
"It really could be far more serious and more of an annual situation than anyone suspects," said Ralph Miller, basketball coach at Oregon State University.
Twice, in 1951 and 1961, the sport was rocked by scandal. Seven schools and more than 30 players were implicated in the 1951 probe; more than 20 schools were involved in the 1961 incidents.
Dean Smith, basketball coach at the University of North Carolina and the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said last night it is standard procedure for coaches to speak to team members about the possibility of point-shaving overtures and to encourage them to report any efforts to persuade them to manipulate scores.
The six games figuring in the point-shaving case were Boston College against Providence, Dec. 6; Harvard, Dec. 16; UCLA, Dec. 23; Fordham, Feb. 3; St. John's, Feb. 6, and Holy Cross, Feb. 10.
In a formal statement issued by its communications office, Boston College said the school's community "is saddened by the fact that one of our former student basketball players has been found guilty of the serious charges of which he was accused . . . It is heartening, by contrast, that the integrity of our coaching and athletic staff, as well as that of our current team, was never in question.
"Boston College's tradition in athletics rests upon the accomplishments of many thousands of men and women.