While covering courts in Orlando I once found myself unexpectedly interviewing Muhammad Ali — briefly, even in 1987 he was not able to talk much:
Ali In Town, A Knockout With His Fans
By Craig Crawford of The Orlando Sentinel Staff
February 4, 1987
Muhammad Ali was the main event Tuesday in an Orlando courtroom, where he sat quietly dozing behind sunglasses, hoping to come to the defense of a business associate on trial for bank fraud.
The unexpected visitor appeared in U.S. District Court during the fifth week of a trial against a group of businessmen accused of trying to bilk an Orlando bank of $30 million.
One of the defendants, Charles Bazarian, 46, of Edmond, Okla., said he asked Ali to testify as a character witness for him but decided at the last minute that prosecutor Stephen Calvacca might take advantage of his friend, the former heavyweight boxer.
”We didn’t want to embarrass the champion of the world,” Bazarian said.
Instead of testifying, Ali sat in the courtroom and attracted curious glances from jurors and spectators during the prosecutor’s closing argument. One juror said later that Ali’s presence was distracting.
Bazarian is on trial with three others in the Florida Center Bank case. Five more defendants were charged. One pleaded guilty, two were convicted by the jury and two were acquitted by Judge G. Kendall Sharp.
The second acquittal came Tuesday, when Sharp dismissed charges against Domenic Massari III, 33, of Tampa. He said prosecutors hadn’t proved the former attorney for the bank board was involved in any conspiracy to defraud the bank.
Prosecutors say the group used phony collateral to obtain $30 million in bank loans for a bogus telephone company. They were charged with conspiracy, bank fraud and misuse of bank funds.
Ali, 45, called Bazarian ”my friend and business associate. I heard he was in trouble, so I had to come down to help. He’s an honest man who’s always helping others. He sure helped me.”
The Oklahoma financier arranged a $450,000 loan for one of Ali’s companies, said Ali’s road manager, Abuwi Mahdi. He said Bazarian plans to donate the money, plus interest, to a charity of Ali’s choice after it is repaid.
The ex-boxer was mobbed by dozens of surprised courthouse workers seeking autographs. Even prosecutors got autographs. Sharp called the former champ back to his chambers during a recess.
With trembling hands and boundless patience, Ali slowly signed every autograph without speaking. In 1984 doctors reported that he suffered from minor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Although Ali didn’t testify, his presence impressed the 12 jurors, who are expected to begin deliberating today.
”I saw all of his fights,” said juror Mike Van Kulick, 68. ”I’ve got some of them on videotape.”
Kulick was watching Ali sign autographs in the courthouse cafeteria during a lunch break. Bazarian sat next to the former champ.
Several jurors lined up for Ali’s signature.
”It’s exciting,” said juror Jody Morgan, 32. ”I remember his Olympic fights.”
But Kulick, who said he assumed Ali was in the courtroom as a character witness for one of the defendants, wondered whether Ali’s presence distracted jurors from the trial.
”It’s kind of distorting,” said Kulick. ”It makes you look at him instead of what’s going on. They probably shouldn’t permit celebrities to do that, but I guess anybody can sit in.”
Calvacca said he wasn’t concerned about Ali’s presence. ”I got a kick out of it,” he said. ”And it is a public courtroom.”
Bazarian’s attorney, John O’Donnell of New York, said he didn’t plan for Ali to interfere with Calvacca’s argument. ”We’re not concerned with the government’s case,” said O’Donnell.
Ali stayed in the courtroom throughout the day as defense attorneys gave their closing arguments. Wearing sunglasses, he often dozed. Occasionally he pulled out a handkerchief and sneezed, provoking more glances from jurors.
Mahdi, his manager, said the champ will return to the courthouse this morning and fly to Washington, D.C., in the afternoon.