Friends in Low Places

The feds suspect that Tony Martin, Miami native and NFL star, helped his childhood pal launder drug proceeds

By all accounts Martin needed encouragement in those years. A 1997 Sports Illustrated profile sketches an often unfocused young man with great gridiron talents whose career was nearly derailed several times. The article, by SI writer Dana Gelin, reports that Martin skipped high school summer classes in 1982, then discovered he was ineligible to play his senior year. "Summer, that's play time," Martin told Gelin. "I just didn't go and I regret it." His mediocre grades and less-than-Goliath size -- he was five feet nine inches tall then -- discouraged many college recruiters. Eventually he was accepted at little-known Bishop College in Dallas.

But Martin returned to Miami after his freshman year, too homesick to stay in Texas. He moved in with his father and worked nights at a Mobil gas station on NW 67th Avenue in Miami Lakes. He trained during the day.

An Opa-locka man who identified himself only as "Cigar" says both Martin and Brownlee were regulars at pick-up basketball games in North Dade's Bunche Park around that time. Encountered during an afternoon rain under the awning of a Brownlee-owned building called the Neighborhood Market, the man recalls that Martin was a regular in the area. "This is Tony's home base," he says. "He was always hanging out here."

In 1985 a friend persuaded Martin to try out for the football team at the University of Colorado. Though he won a starting spot, Martin was thrown off the team that year after coaches discovered he had falsified his college application, according to Sports Illustrated (he neglected to mention his attendance at Bishop College). He spent nearly two years working in Boulder before joining the squad at Mesa State College in nearby Grand Junction in 1987. Martin soon won the starting quarterback job at Mesa; during his second year the team averaged 53 points a game. Pro scouts were impressed.

Martin finally seemed to have made it in 1989 when the Dolphins signed him as a back-up receiver, but he languished on the bench. Around that time, Martin occasionally borrowed money from Brownlee, according to two friends of the Opa-locka businessman who declined to give their names. "He didn't always have a fat contract," says one of the friends. "He used to call up and borrow money. He might need $500, so he'd borrow it from Rickey."

At a Chargers-Dolphins game in 1993, Martin approached San Diego's general manager Bobby Beathard, according to SI. "Get me out of here or pray for me," Martin told Beathard. Miami traded him the next year. In San Diego his career blossomed. During his first season, he caught a 43-yard touchdown pass that helped the team beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and win the American Football Conference championship. The next season he started every game and broke San Diego's single-season reception record by catching 90 passes.

When Martin visited Miami in those years, his success was reflected in the cars he drove: a Porsche 911 Turbo, a Ferrari, a silver Rolls-Royce, and an Aston Martin convertible (according to state Department of Motor Vehicle records and to several people who saw him at the Sure Kleen Car Care Service on NW 22 Avenue, a Brownlee property). Martin would sometimes eat at Brownlee's Home Style Restaurant, next door to the car wash, while workers polished his autos, according to several witnesses including Brownlee's sister Lee, who works at Home Style.

In South Florida legal circles, Milton Hirsch is no stranger. He's a former analyst for Court TV, reporters frequently call him for quotes, he's the past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and he wrote a book called Hirsch's Florida Criminal Trial Procedure. He's also familiar because of the party he throws every September 17 to celebrate Constitution Day. This year's shindig was canceled, though, because Hirsch thought he'd be in court defending Brownlee. That, he contends, was the plan on February 10, when Martin and Brownlee jointly signed a "privileged and confidential fee agreement."

According to a lawyer in Hirsch's office who wouldn't give his name, Martin was in Miami this past February to sign the contract. Coincidentally, that was around the date of his most recent visit to Home Style, according to Lee Brownlee. Some time later, Martin signed a $175,000 check payable to Hirsch, the lawyer charges in his suit. But the football player apparently stopped payment. His motivation, according to two lawyers involved in the civil case: Prosecutors had subpoenaed his financial records. In the abbreviated telephone interview, Brownlee seemed to confirm this: "[Martin] was supposed to help me out, but he got scared. Those people [the feds] scared him." (Fallon, Martin's lawyer, denies that the subpoena was the reason Martin stopped payment on the check.)

One tie between the pair that the feds are probing is the car Brownlee was driving at the time of his arrest: a black Mercedes SL 500. It was leased in Martin's name, prosecutors say. Two federal law enforcement sources confirmed the Mercedes is part of the money laundering investigation. But one of the sources implied there is more: "If this was about just one car you wouldn't be writing a story about it."

Hirsch's lawsuit may also have played a role in piquing prosecutors' interest. The lawyer filed suit against both Martin and Brownlee (the latter for technical reasons, according to Hirsch's lawyers). In June Brownlee came up with $100,000 for Hirsch. In August the circuit court awarded Hirsch a default judgment against Martin for the remaining $75,000, which has not yet been paid. Martin says he never received the papers.

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