By Brad Segall and Syma Chowdhry
DOYLESTOWN, Pa. (CBS) — On what was supposed to be sentencing day for Don Tollefson, the former Philadelphia television personality shocked the courtroom when he told the judge he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea for fraud and be appointed his own attorney for his trial.
“Withdrawing my plea and going to trial was the most appropriate and honest thing to do.”
Tollefson, a longtime sports anchor for WPVI-TV, pleaded guilty in September to cheating charities out of more than $340,000. Prosecutors say he offered to sell organizations sports travel packages to big games and then failed to produce the merchandise.
Judge Rea Boylan approved both of Tollefson’s requests.
Tollefson told the judge he believes there is compelling new evidence that has emerged since he pleaded guilty two months ago.
He said he’s been praying a lot with some local pastors, ministers, and a rabbi. He said scripture tells us that if we believe we are innocent we should defend ourselves. “I believe I am innocent of the charges,” he said, “and I have learned that through prayer.”
At trial, Tollefson said, he will be able to tell his side of the story, which he believes should be held in civil rather than criminal court.
Tollefson told his now former defense attorney about his decision to withdraw his plea only a few days ago.
Defense Attorney Sharif Abaza says, “Shocked and disappointed…I didn’t think it was a wise decision, no.”
Assistant District Attorney Matt Weintraub adds, “I had hoped to put this case to rest. I was anxious that Mr. Tollefson take responsibility for what we have accused him of, for what he plead guilty to, but this is his right.”
Asked by Judge Boylan how he is now pleading, Tollefson answered, “I did not commit these crimes.” After questioning him extensively about withdrawing his guilty plea and representing himself, Judge Boylan ruled that she would allow both.
Many of the alleged victims were in court. They didn’t want to speak on-camera but tell CBS 3’s Syma Chowdhry they’re disappointed by the decision.
Weintraub says, “They now are going to have to testify.”
Tollefson’s trial is now scheduled to begin on January 5th.
Bucks County prosecutor Matt Weintraub told KYW Newsradio today that he’s not shocked by the changes. He called the situation “a bump in the road” and says prosecutors expect to convict Tollefson at trial, adding that there are now more than 200 victims who say they lost money to Tollefson.