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Spadafora's legal troubles mounting even before arrest on shooting charge

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

By Milan Simonich and Bill Heltzel, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

In the ring Paul Spadafora seemed almost perfect.

Paul Spadafora at training camp in May. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

He compiled a 36-0-1 record, won a world lightweight boxing championship and received more than $1 million for his two biggest fights.

It was the rest of Spadafora's life that spun out of control this year, even before police accused him of pulling a gun and firing a bullet into his girlfriend's chest.

The woman, 20-year-old Nadine Russo, remained in Allegheny General Hospital yesterday. Nobody at the hospital would comment on her condition. Spadafora was released on bail last night.

Russo may not have been the first woman involved in a violent confrontation with Spadafora this year.

His former girlfriend, Crystal Dawn Conner, 24, obtained a restraining order against him last week. She said Spadafora had attacked her and threatened to shoot her.

Conner also claimed in a lawsuit that Spadafora had neglected their 15-month-old daughter, and stalked her when she ventured out to nightspots.

He behaved worst, Conner claimed, when he drank alcohol or used illegal drugs.

In May, the state suspended Spadafora's driver's license for a year because of an alcohol-related offense. He lost an appeal of the ruling this month.

With Spadafora unable to drive, Russo was behind the wheel of his 2003 Hummer H2 on Sunday morning. Witnesses told police she wrecked the high-priced truck outside a McKees Rocks gas station, flattening two tires and infuriating Spadafora, who was in the passenger seat.

Spadafora maintained that he was innocent and that Russo was shot by someone else.

Whatever troubles Spadafora had throughout the year never became apparent to his brother or his trainer. Both said yesterday they could not believe Spadafora would have harmed Russo or anybody else.

"My brother's done nothing but make me proud his whole life," said Harry Spadafora, 32. "He's not a violent person. He wouldn't hurt anyone."

He said he was confident that Paul Spadafora's version of the shooting would be corroborated by Russo.

"Nadine will tell the truth," Harry Spadafora said.

Andrew "Buzz" Garnic, 66, helped train Spadafora at his boxing camp in California, Pa. He said he had had a father-son relationship with Spadafora since the fighter was 17. He found Spadafora to be a perfect house guest and law-abiding citizen.

"I never knew him to carry a pistol," Garnic said. "I could never believe that he would be violent. This is all such a shock to me."

Conner, though, describes a different man, one prone to meanness and erratic behavior.

In January, Spadafora petitioned Allegheny County Family Court for partial custody of their daughter, Giana Spit Spadafora, who was born in July 2002. The child lived with Conner in the Strip District.

Spadafora visited his daughter about once a month, according to a court record. He also had taken her for overnight visits several times.

The judge ordered Spadafora to pay $800 a month for child support, provide medical insurance, and supply Conner with a car.

A week ago, Conner was back in court asking for a new custody order because Spadafora had "continually violated" their agreement.

Conner also accused Spadafora of attacking her. She claimed that on Aug. 2 she went to his home to see if he was going to baby-sit, and "to make sure he wasn't high on drugs or alcohol."

They argued. He spat at her and choked her, according to her version of the confrontation. Conner sought treatment at Mercy Hospital.

She received a temporary protection from abuse order in August.

Garnic, though, said Spadafora's personal life seemed smooth and orderly, including his dealings with Conner. Spadafora began training with him Sept. 22 to prepare for a fight sometime in winter.

Conner visited him at training camp Wednesday, bringing their daughter as well. They seemed to be getting along just fine, Garnic said yesterday.

Garnic said Spadafora bolted from camp about 12:30 a.m. Friday, after Conner called and told him their daughter was sick and needed to see a doctor.

Spadafora found trouble soon after. Pittsburgh police arrested him for urinating on a Downtown street.That misstep, though minor, generated small news stories because of Spadafora's high profile.Russo's shooting, at 5:54 a.m. Sunday, thrust Spadafora onto the front page.

Now his career and his freedom are in jeopardy. Harry Spadafora said he is certain his brother is telling the truth.

"I know my brother. Is he violent? The answer is no. Is he a great person? The answer is yes. He should not be dragged through the mud."

Mike Acri, an Erie-based promoter, has been involved in all 37 of Spadafora's professional fights. He said Spadafora had always been a model citizen around him, turning violent only when he hit the ring.

"This is a kid who's fought on HBO four times. He has reached that certain pinnacle, so we were trying for the right opportunity," Acri said.

Now he has other concerns.

"I'm thinking of the girl. I hope she's OK."


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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