Field of schemes: Tacoma’s Pioneer Pony Baseball League

Promoter Ryan Rhoads promised parents and kids high-level baseball. What he delivered was lawsuits, numerous bounced checks and questions about how the money was handled.

Staff writerApril 27, 2014 

Ryan Rhoads in 2011.

COURTESY PHOTO

The pitch looked fat, aimed at sports parents with money: a high-end youth baseball league in Tacoma.

The promise: a competitive league, high-quality coaching and tournaments. Slick uniforms, promotions, all the trimmings, all for the kids — at least 452 players ranging in age from 10 to 14. Scores of parents bought the line, including deputy prosecutors, law enforcement commanders and state Auditor Troy Kelley.

The pitcher, Ryan Rhoads, was a junkballer, a man drowning in a decade of lawsuits, judgments and debt of at least $768,000. The figure appears in records of a five-month investigation by Tacoma police, forwarded to Pierce County prosecutors for a possible charging decision.

Parents didn’t know the backstory when they saw the pitch in 2011. They swung. They missed. They paid. According to police records, parents and investors shelled out at least $300,000 over three seasons (2011-2013) to the Pioneer Pony Baseball League and Rhoads, its fast-talking president.

The Pioneer league folded last year as debts, bad checks and accusations piled up. No one questioned Rhoads’ coaching ability; it was the money.

Baseball was played, but the money kept disappearing. Promised uniforms bought by parents never arrived. Umpires went unpaid. Bills for buckets of baseballs were ignored. Landlords sued for rent at practice facilities. Investment ventures, hatched by Rhoads and pitched to a smaller group of baseball parents, went sour.

Meanwhile, Rhoads used baseball league money to pay utility bills, fill his gas tank and draw regular sums of cash — more than $40,000 over two years, according to investigative records compiled by Tacoma police.

“I just don’t want anyone else to get suckered,” said Saori Takayoshi, one of the Pierce County parents blistered by league dealings. “My issue is I continue to see him wreak havoc in the community.”

Rhoads is 41, a youth baseball coach who dabbles in the construction business. This year, he serves as an assistant coach for a youth league in Puyallup.

He says the Pioneer league’s demise wasn’t his fault. He says he didn’t create it to take money or sucker parents. He says he wanted kids to play baseball, and baseball was played; young people weren’t cheated of that opportunity. He says all parents who didn’t get uniforms were reimbursed — though investigative records suggest otherwise.

“I really feel like someone felt they were done wrong, like their kid was done wrong, and I feel like they came forward and just slandered me like crazy,” he said. “I have not done anything to anybody except volunteer my time. I don’t think that I’ve wronged anybody — I really don’t.”

He says disgruntled parents are trying to ruin his life.

He’s also in a heap of legal trouble.

CHARGES FOR BOUNCED CHECK

Rhoads faces a charge of second-degree theft in Pierce County Superior Court. He’s pleading not guilty. His trial is tentatively set for May 19.

According to charging papers filed in October, he drove into a Fife car dealership on May 31, 2013, and bounced a $2,776 check for repairs to his Land Rover. The check was written on the Pioneer league account — closed for eight months at the time.

Rhoads said he didn’t know the account was closed — but it wasn’t his first bad check, according to police reports.

The theft charge is a short chapter in a longer saga. Multiple complaints from parents and burned investors prompted a wider investigation of Rhoads and Eric Jacobs, his longtime business associate. Prosecutors are considering possible criminal charges against both.

“What we’re reviewing right now are numerous possible counts of theft and forgery, with a large variety of victims,” county Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said. “Con artists dance on the edges of the law. In this case we’re reviewing files to see if Mr. Rhoads stepped over the line. This is an ongoing investigation and there’s still reports and documents coming into our office. We won’t make a charging decision until we’ve gathered all the evidence.”

Investigative records obtained by The News Tribune via public disclosure shed light on the scale of the inquiry. In February, Tacoma police Detective Elizabeth Schieferdecker, a fraud investigator, filed lengthy reports detailing her efforts to trace the disappearing baseball money. She knew of Rhoads from prior contacts.

“During the course of my investigation of Ryan Rhoads in 2010 and the subsequent investigation in 2013/2014, I discovered more scams, lies and deceptions than I could cover in his report. … Rhoads has a very extensive history of entering verbal agreements with parties, only to later default on his word.

“Many of these cases have been settled with civil judgments, but that has never stopped Rhoads from continuing to persuade unsuspecting individuals out of thousands of dollars. Rhoads has maintained a comfortable lifestyle without having a paying job.

“He most likely is unable to hold a paid position because of the sheer number of judgments he has against him. Instead, he has managed to survive on funds that were specifically paid for and designated for legitimate business endeavors … all at the expense of parents, their children and unsuspecting investors.”

– Excerpt from Tacoma police report, Feb. 5, 2014

TROUBLE IN THE FAMILY

Long before Rhoads coached baseball in Tacoma, his grandparents sued him.

Victor Rhoads was 85. Hazel Rhoads was 81. They lived in West Seattle on Southwest Othello Street, in a house they bought in 1957.

In 1996, their basement flooded. Victor and Hazel — and their daughter Victoria Thomas, who was living with them, along with her teenage son — shopped for repair estimates.

The grandparents consulted Rhoads, one of their grandchildren. He was 24 at the time, just starting out in the construction business, according to statements in court records. He called his company Triple Play Contracting.

Rhoads advised against remodeling, according to court records. He suggested demolition and a rebuild instead — a brand-new house. He figured the project would take six months and $100,000.

Grandpa and Grandma took out the loan. They signed the check over to Rhoads. They moved out, stayed with relatives and waited.

An architect designed the new place — the first expense. The fee: $6,000, records state (Rhoads disputes this figure and says it was higher.) Rhoads went to work. He knocked the old house down.

“Ryan brought in a dumpster and took down the roof, a few walls, the floor and the porches. But progress slowed after only a couple of weeks. Pretty soon there was no work at all being performed.”

– Statement of Victoria Thomas, May 20, 2003

The family called Rhoads repeatedly, according to court records . Eventually, he stopped answering the phone. They discovered he didn’t have a contractor’s license and never obtained proper permits. They confronted him.

He said everything was fine. They agreed to let him keep going — he was family — but he never finished the house.

“When the six months were up, the house was still in ruins. Ryan said he needed more money to build the house, but he had no receipts for the things he said he spent the money on.

“Ryan then disappeared, and no further construction on the house ever happened. Victor and Hazel had nowhere to go.”

– Statement of Victoria Thomas in federal bankruptcy court proceedings, May 20, 2003

The grandparents were living with their children — Ryan’s parents. Their house was gone.

The parents took out a second mortgage on their own home to build a manufactured house at the Othello Street address, in effect doubling the debt.

In 1998, the grandparents sued Rhoads in King County Superior Court, charging fraud and breach of contract. In 1999, they won a summary judgment for more than $86,000. They never saw a dime. Grandma Hazel died in 2002. Grandpa Victor followed in 2004.

Eric Thomas, Victoria’s son, now 33 and living in Seattle, remembers the effect on his grandparents after they lost the house.

“Ryan, totally in my mind he stole $100,000 from my family,” Thomas said. “It put a strain on my grandparents’ later years that left them with nothing to show as far as a legacy goes. They had no property. They died without any possessions and that’s a sad thing.”

Rhoads said the house project ran short of money. He said it cost more than he expected; he had to remove asbestos. He said his relatives took some of the loan money for their own use. He said he was young, 24, starting out in business, working for family. His father died in the midst of the dispute. It was complicated.

“I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes,” he said.

He added he couldn’t afford to fight his grandparents and Aunt Victoria in court, so he didn’t fight the $86,000 judgment. Instead, he filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and buried the debt.

“Satisfied on bankruptcy,” he said.

So were other debts, according to the 2001 case file.

Seven years later, Rhoads filed for bankruptcy again — sort of.

CARS AND BOATS

The record of his 2008 bankruptcy filing listed $1.24 million in various debts.

The hits included $216,000 to the IRS for unpaid taxes; a $39,000 judgment from a lawsuit filed by Rhoads’ ex-brother-in-law, a $69,000 judgment linked to a construction project in Thurston County and numerous collection agency accounts.

Records indicate Rhoads fought foreclosure on his house in Tacoma’s West End throughout the 2000s. He also wrote multiple bad checks for cars and boats on closed accounts — one check for $52,319 paid for a new Chevrolet Tahoe. Rhoads returned the vehicle three weeks later, after the dealership filed a police report.

Three weeks after he filed for bankruptcy in February 2008, Rhoads wrote a check on a closed account for $9,908, police records state. It paid for a 1990 Land Rover.

In September of that year, Rhoads’ bankruptcy attorney, Travis Gagnier, formally withdrew from representing his client, citing lack of cooperation.

“The Debtors have failed to cooperate in providing vital information for their case to both myself and my staff,” Gagnier wrote. “I feel that any further work on my part would be fruitless.”

The bankruptcy case was dismissed in December 2008. The debts weren’t discharged, but Rhoads had fended off creditors and foreclosure for 10 months. Rhoads said the case was dismissed because he was starting to repay creditors.

In June 2010, as debts mounted and foreclosure threatened, he bought a boat for $9,978, paid for with a bad check on a closed account, according to a Tacoma police report.

Two more bad checks for $1,300 paid for a boathouse; the owner was a 77-year-old man.

The boat owners filed a police report Aug. 3 — Rhoads had been holding the boat for two months. Schieferdecker, the Tacoma police detective, picked up the case. Rhoads told officers the boat was moored at Commencement Marine. It wasn’t. He said it was in Foss Harbor. They found it.

Rhoads returned the boat and backed out of the boathouse purchase. Schieferdecker made a mental note to keep an eye on him.

Meanwhile, Rhoads started a new venture: a youth baseball league in Tacoma.

A TALE OF TWO ACCOUNTS

The guts of the investigation into Rhoads’ dealings reveal a tale of two bank accounts: one for the baseball league and another tied to failed investment schemes that snared a smaller group of sports parents.

Records compiled by Tacoma police indicate Rhoads bled the baseball league account for personal expenses over three years and tried to funnel money from the investment schemes to backfill the baseball losses — all while continuing to withdraw money for his personal use. By late 2012, both accounts were empty and closed.

The seeds of the Pioneer baseball league sprouted in mid-2010, according to records. That year, Rhoads met Matt Spitzer, a Pierce County resident, coach and longtime youth sports organizer. Spitzer discussed an idea for a local league. Rhoads thinking along the same line, was all for it. He soon claimed he had pledges of $80,000 for the effort.

The idea was born. The Pioneer Pony Baseball League soon had a board of directors. Rhoads served as president. His friend Eric Jacobs filled the vice president’s seat.

Seeking investors, Rhoads said the league was a nonprofit organization, eligible for tax-deductible donations. It wasn’t — Rhoads never obtained the required federal paperwork.

“Pioneer Pony Baseball League was never a 501c3 nonprofit, only a business registered with the state of Washington as a nonprofit,” the Tacoma police investigation states. “But it was never eligible for tax deduction status for its donors as Rhoads presented.”

The Washington State Patrol Troopers Association and the Washington State Council of Firefighters didn’t know. They ponied up a total of $1,700, according to records. Other donors followed suit.

In an April 15 interview, Rhoads told The News Tribune the nonprofit approach proved unworkable, and that he and Jacobs “paid ourselves” with knowledge and approval of league board members. Tacoma police records, including interviews with more than a dozen parents and former board members, show no sign of such an approved arrangement.

As the league formed, Rhoads talked his way into another venture. It involved Impact Sports Academy, a local company that promotes youth sports, owned by Pierce County residents Michael Dougherty, and Michael and Laurie Williams.

Impact leased an indoor sports facility at 3712 S. Center St. In 2011, Rhoads and Jacobs struck a deal with the Impact owners, agreeing to assume the lease under the Pioneer league’s banner, with the idea of using the place for indoor practices.

The Williamses and Dougherty threw about $100,000 into the venture. According to investigative records, Rhoads and Jacobs promised to repay half of that sum. Both men say no such repayment was required.

“Rhoads and Jacobs were to pay Dougherty and the Williams’ back $50,000 and assume the lease,” Tacoma police records state.

Behind the scenes, the Pioneer league was in trouble, facing multiple complaints of unpaid bills for uniforms, baseballs and umpires. Umpires were owed $5,000 for their work in a spring tournament. The money was supposed to come from the league’s bank account, funded by league fees from parents, but Rhoads hadn’t paid.

Spitzer, one of the board members, obtained a cashier’s check for $5,000 to pay the umpires with his own money. He told Rhoads he expected the league to reimburse him, according to records.

Rhoads promised repeatedly to cover the debt. He didn’t. At the time, he was fighting foreclosure and eviction from his house.

Bank records, obtained by Tacoma police with a search warrant, list multiple withdrawals from the league account stacked next to fraudulent deposits — empty envelopes fed to an ATM, with phony amounts keyed in, followed by immediate cash withdrawals on the phantom money.

Spitzer, now suspicious, began to ask for records of the league’s bank account and contracts. Rebuffed and scolded by Rhoads, Spitzer resigned from the Pioneer league board in mid-2012, but kept watching.

In a recent interview, Rhoads told The News Tribune that Spitzer had been “sabotaging the league,” resulting in his dismissal from the Pioneer board. Spitzer said he resigned — so do the emails he wrote to board members in 2012, obtained by The News Tribune.

Around the same time, Rhoads pitched a new idea to Dougherty and the Williamses, his partners at Impact Sports Academy: a website and a magazine to promote local youth athletics. He called it CitySport.

“It seemed like a brilliant idea,” Dougherty wrote later, in a letter to Pierce County prosecutors. “(Rhoads) asked for a $24,000 investment from each of us and he and Kyra (Rhoads’ wife) would put up $52,000 and this $100,000 would get things started.”

CITYSPORT

Pitching CitySport, Rhoads said he’d already started work on the project and paid $39,000 to a website company in San Francisco. He claimed to have a line of credit for $100,000. He told his fellow investors he’d lined up $30,000 in advertising for the magazine, including ads paid for by Tacoma attorney Jack Connelly.

“Let me know where you are at with your buy-in dollars because we are going to really get moving this week,” Rhoads wrote in a June 2012 email to his partners.

None of it was true. Rhoads hadn’t paid a dime to the San Francisco company. He didn’t have a line of credit, and he had no ad purchases from Connelly, records state.

The Impact partners didn’t know. In June and July 2012, Dougherty and the Williamses pumped an initial $48,000 into CitySport, according to their statements and accompanying financial records obtained by Tacoma police.

Their checks went straight into the Pioneer league bank account. Rhoads started making cash withdrawals, covering unpaid league expenses, and paying his utility bills.

Schieferdecker, the police detective sifting the financial records, tried to tally the total amount of money the investors provided to the two ventures.

“Dougherty and Michael and Laurie Williams gave (Rhoads and Jacobs) $107,223 for the Impact Center Street project and an additional $72,500 for CitySport. At best, there was $27,663 of the $179,723 spent for its intended purpose. … It was clear Rhoads was using Impact money and CitySport money to cover expenses from Pioneer because he and Jacobs used a large portion of that money for cash withdrawals and personal expenses.

“In reviewing the financial transactions alone, it appears Rhoads and Jacobs used these investors solely for the purpose of large personal gains with very little effort or money spent on what was agreed upon.”

– Excerpt from Tacoma police report, Feb. 5, 2014

Jacobs denies all involvement in CitySport and said his only connection was the Pioneer league.

Interviewed on April 22, Rhoads said CitySport failed — but not because of any wrongdoing. He said he believed in the venture, and he lost money, too.

“Businesses fail,” he said. “Businesses fail all the time. They don’t understand that.”

By August 2012, the Pioneer league account at U.S. Bank, fed by fees from parents and hefty sums from Rhoads’ investment partners, was overdrawn. It stayed that way for the next two months.

Account statements obtained by Tacoma police show U.S. Bank closed the account on Oct. 25, 2012.

One day later, on Oct. 26, Rhoads got a massage at a spa in University Place. He paid with a check for $250, written on the closed Pioneer league account. It bounced. A copy of the check appears in Tacoma police records.

Speaking to The News Tribune on April 15, Rhoads said he didn’t know the Pioneer bank account was closed.

“There was no notification,” he said.

PROBLEMS MOUNT

By fall 2012, the CitySport investors were increasingly wary of Rhoads and alarmed by a stream of personal expenses appearing in bank records, such as gas, utility bills, coffee and burgers. They set up a separate bank account for CitySport in September 2012, and admonished Rhoads not to use the money for personal needs.

Rhoads was drowning in debt again, fighting foreclosure on another house in University Place, and defending himself from Pioneer league parents who were starting to rip him in online forums.

“I am writing this email with frustration and disappointment in response to the continual negative attacks,” he wrote in a posting sent on Oct. 31, 2012. “I really have been taken aback by the level of vindictiveness.”

He didn’t mention he wasn’t paying rent at the Impact facility on Center Street. The debt had climbed to $8,085. The owner of the building complained to Dougherty and the Williamses, who now faced a new headache.

By November 2012, they were done with Rhoads. Bank records showed he still was using CitySport money for personal expenses while not paying the rent at Center Street. The investors had checked into Rhoads’ claims of payment for website development and the magazine, and discovered a trail of lies.

After a stern meeting with Rhoads on Nov. 29, they withdrew from CitySport and the Center Street lease, eating extra costs to get out of both deals. Records show the CitySport bank account was closed for good in December 2012.

Rhoads pressed on. The Pioneer league was about to start its third season.

By now, the league had no bank account. Indoor training was out, too. Rhoads was evicted from the Impact facility on Center Street in February 2013, according to records.

As the season began, he collected baseball fees from parents, including Kelley, the state auditor.

League fees climbed. Kelley wrote three checks to Rhoads and Pioneer: a total of $981 for a uniform, fees and extra training. Other parents followed suit.

Rhoads told The News Tribune he didn’t know the Pioneer bank account was closed at the time.

However, records from the police investigation show no sign he tried to deposit checks into the league account as he had for the previous two seasons. Instead, parents’ checks for uniforms and league fees were cashed at Money Tree, a check-cashing business. Rhoads said that move was deliberate; in 2013, he said he wanted to start working solely in cash, without the bother of the bank.

CALLING IN THE LAW

In early 2013, the CitySport investors told county law enforcement leaders about their dealings with Rhoads. Michael Dougherty penned letters to Lindquist, the county prosecutor, and Sheriff Paul Pastor, and provided supplemental records to back up the statements.

“We do not expect we will be able to press criminal charges due to the wording of the operating agreement we signed, nor do we expect to ever recover the more than $100,000 that we collectively lost in our dealings with Ryan Rhoads and his wife.

“However, since becoming aware of the scam, we have also learned of many others in the Tacoma area who have been victims of similar, if smaller, scams by them, and so we have decided to at least file a statement with your office.”

FLOOD OF PROBLEMS

The uniforms promised to Pioneer parents in 2013 sounded like the complete package: hat, bag, jacket, pants, a numbered helmet and a personalized jersey, numbered and named. The fee was $311, on top of the required $220 for league registration.

The uniforms never came. The 2013 season ended. Parents, including Kelley, started asking for the money back.

“Parents have been very patient and now for the first time are insisting that you verify some of the things you have told us,” Kelley wrote in a July 21 email to Rhoads. “Trust but verify. No one was in your business and accounting until we had missing uniforms and money for six months.”

Rhoads promised he’d take care of it and repay the debts. In most cases, he didn’t, though he sent a partial repayment to Kelley in October 2013, after Tacoma police started their investigation. Records show Kelley didn’t cash Rhoads’ check and turned it over to police.

Rhoads told The News Tribune that “all parents were repaid” for the uniforms and said he had the records to prove it. Jacobs provided access to seven money orders written in October 2013 for parents who sought reimbursements. One of the money orders was addressed to Kelley, the state auditor. Kelley declined comment when reached by The News Tribune, but records show he later spoke to Schieferdecker, the Tacoma police detective.

On May 19, 2013, Rhoads approached a friend named Derek Eyring and asked for a personal loan of $5,000. Rhoads claimed he was using the money to buy his house in University Place. Eyring wrote him a cashier’s check. Rhoads signed a promissory note, according to court records.

He was facing foreclosure, trying to catch up. Online message boards filled with increasing shots at Rhoads, from parents, unpaid umpires and baseball tournament directors. Rhoads replied personally on May 21, 2013. He offered to step down as Pioneer league president.

“I never thought that something that I volunteer to do with passion and commitment would cause my life to be under such scrutiny and judgment,” he wrote. “It has been very painful and humiliating to read the continuous attacks demeaning my integrity, my family values and my personal financial history. … So if any one of you are not happy with me as a coach, let me know and I will step down. I coach because I love teaching this game. I’m not making a living doing this.”

On May 31, 2013, Rhoads took his Land Rover to a car dealership in Fife for repairs. He wrote a bad check for $2,776 on the Pioneer league account, which had been closed for eight months; it became the basis for the second-degree theft charge he still faces.

On June 13, police records state he tried to cash a check for $1,350 at Money Tree. The check, again written on the closed Pioneer account, was rejected.

Five days later, he lost his house in University Place. Records show a foreclosure sale on June 18, 2013. Rhoads said he was trying to save his house and got swindled before he could stop the sale. By July, he was a squatter, facing a 45-day notice to pay or vacate. Parents were still pestering him about the money for undelivered baseball uniforms.

One parent, Lonnie Staab, questioned Rhoads’ repeated excuses and mentioned the rumors of financial misdealing.

“Another sample of people talking,” Rhoads replied in an email. “I am filtering all this out of my life and negativity and gossip is the first to go. This is unfortunate but by people listening and responding it just continues to grow. Next thing you know I’ll owe a million dollars and started a ponzi scheme. Ridiculous.”

Staab shot back.

“I refuse to feel bad from a guilt trip, when all of Tacoma and University Place is accusing you of fraud. So don’t be a smart ass and act like a man.”

“A man?” Rhoads answered. “I’ll hand you your $ in person on Tuesday. I’ll text you.”

Rhoads never paid the money. In September 2013, he was evicted from the home in University Place, and reportedly moved in with relatives in Gig Harbor.

In mid-October, spurred by repeated requests, Schieferdecker, the police detective, started digging into Rhoads’ finances and interviewing dozens of baseball parents. She interviewed Rhoads, and tried to interview Eric Jacobs, who refused and forwarded requests to his attorney, according to records.

On Oct. 29, Rhoads’ friend Eyring sued him over the $5,000 loan. Eyring subsequently withdrew the lawsuit, realizing he was standing at the back of a long line.

The theft charge for the bounced Land Rover check hit on Oct. 31, 2013. The trial, set for January, was continued until March, then May. Schieferdecker kept digging.

On March 18 of this year, Rhoads’ defense attorney, Ryan Garvey, fired his client and withdrew from the theft case.

“Defendant Rhoads has violated the terms of the Engagement Agreement executed between the parties by being untruthful with attorney, by refusing to participate in a meaningful way in defendant’s case and by evading attorney since defendant’s last case hearing,” Garvey wrote, in a statement filed with the court.

The Pioneer league won’t have a fourth season. The trail of unpaid debts, documented by Schieferdecker, is still growing.

Rhoads is still coaching baseball, but not in Tacoma. As of April, he was working as a volunteer assistant coach for a youth baseball league in Puyallup. League leaders say he doesn’t handle money or make financial decisions.

He said he’s a family man, not a thief, not a con artist. He said he’s not perfect. He said he didn’t set out to screw anybody.

“I am not a monster,” he said.

The list of parents and families dismayed by the Pioneer debacle includes Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman, who had a grandson in the Tacoma-based league and coached in his spare time.

No stranger to scammers, Troyer said the real cost falls on young people who just wanted to play baseball.

“Tacoma really needed a league like that, and now it’s gone,” he said. “It’s pretty sad that all those kids don’t have a league.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@ thenewstribune.com
@seanrobinsonTNT

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