Caron's New Branch Laden With Thorns : Colleges: Personal injury lawyer's attempt to become a sports agent has led to controversy.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After graduating from the Ventura College of Law in 1984, Robert Troy Caron spent the next decade developing a thriving personal-injury law practice.

Some would say he had climbed to the highest level of that branch of the profession, figuratively as well as literally. His plush 16th-floor office is in Oxnard's 21-story Union Bank Tower, which stands above the fertile farmland of southwest Ventura County like an out-of-place monument to modernization.

But Caron, 37, wanted to expand. In 1993, he established Pro Manage, hoping to become a major player in the high-profile sports-agent game.

"I warned him early on, 'You're trying to jump into a pool already filled with great white sharks,' " said one former associate, asking not to be identified. "But he wanted something more fun than the drag law had become."

What Caron wanted, said Dennis Ebell, Pro Manage's marketing director, was for the agency to become the largest in its field, the William Morris of sports.

In the last two weeks, however, Bobby Caron has been on a detour. He has found that life as a sports agent is certainly no drag, but the fame, action and headlines his career move have brought may not be quite what he had in mind.

For allegedly giving athletes money and other benefits in an effort to secure them as clients, Caron is the subject of investigations not only by the NCAA and the Pacific 10 Conference but also the FBI. He also is a defendant in a civil suit filed by USC and is dart-board material for coaches around the country who have sounded the alarm against unsavory practices by agents.

Twelve players from seven schools have been questioned about their association with Caron. Under NCAA rules, athletes who accept money or other favors from agents can lose their eligibility.

"I just feel this is a big issue that has been simmering for a long time," Caron said Tuesday night. "It seems to have exploded on me. What has happened [to me] is unprecedented. They are exploring the waters. The current situation can't go on any longer. They're using this to take control of it. . . . in a strong-handed way."

Three USC football players--running back Shawn Walters, defensive end Israel Ifeanyi and linebacker Errick Herrin--were suspended Sept. 28 for their involvement with Pro Manage. They have not been reinstated.

Walters allegedly received $15,900 in airline tickets, concert tickets, pocket money and other items, according to a ledger acquired by The Times. USC officials say the total is much less. The other players were given phone cards, pagers and trips to Las Vegas with Caron, Ifeanyi told school officials.

UCLA linebacker Donnie Edwards, who has been injured since the Oregon game last month, allegedly received $150 for food, according to another document. He was declared ineligible by UCLA on Monday. The school has asked the NCAA to restore his eligibility.

The Times also reported that Caron signed promising teen boxer Fernando Vargas of Oxnard to a professional contract, jeopardizing his chances of competing as an amateur in the 1996 Summer Olympics. After initially suspending Vargas, USA Boxing officials said Tuesday he can fight while they are investigating him but cannot receive money from either their organization or the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Caron, who is not subject to NCAA regulations, has denied wrongdoing. In telephone conversations with The Times, he said he never paid an athlete who had eligibility remaining. He said he has been misunderstood and falsely accused, but has declined extensive comment on the advice of his lawyer, Russ Sauer of Los Angeles.

"We have strongly advised Bobby to remain silent for the moment while we fully assess all these nefarious issues that have been raised," Sauer said. "Bobby has attempted to cooperate as best he can with the NCAA and USA Boxing. He is being attacked from a whole host of angles. He would prefer to help these athletes get back on track. He would like to be speaking publicly.

"He has spent a great deal of time donating many, many thousands of dollars to sports organizations throughout Ventura County, and it pains him to read all these terrible things."

Caron was a football star at Ventura High and Ventura College in the '70s. He then played at San Diego State for two years, but the feisty strong safety never really left this close-knit coastal community.

After graduating, Caron returned to the town where his parents raised two boys and two girls, and went to law school. After passing the state bar exam, he opened practice as a criminal lawyer here.

It did not take long for Caron to become successful, as a lawyer and a businessman. A Golden Gloves boxer who competed into his 30s, he first dabbled in professional sports by representing Lupe Aquino, a junior-middleweight world champion from Santa Paula who was convicted in 1989 on vehicular manslaughter charges. He was released from prison in November of 1992.

As his firm grew, however, different sides of Caron emerged. Although he became increasingly active in Ventura County athletics by sponsoring youth, high school and college teams, at the same time his practice was plagued by controversy. He has been a defendant in at least 11 civil cases in Ventura County since 1988, according to court records.

"Local attorneys have grown to despise him," a former associate said.

An incident in the crime-riddled La Colonia section of East Oxnard in March of 1992 further damaged Caron's reputation. Under circumstances that some of his former associates called suspicious, Caron and an entourage stopped at a market after a night of cruising in his black limousine. Two in the group, Caron employees Miller Aupiu and Therman Beard, were stabbed in a fight in the parking lot.

One witness who asked not to be identified said Caron and friends were attacked by about 20 people who were at a house across the street from the market.

Caron continued to find refuge in sports and was particularly fond of Ventura College basketball. He sponsored a team of redshirts from the school in a city recreational league. He also hired several of the team's players to work as couriers in his office during summer breaks.

"He was one of the guys, a great guy to hang out with and talk sports with," said Lance Fay, a Ventura guard last season who now is at Montana State.

Until he was 35, Caron also found time to play on the Ventura County Cardinal semipro football team.

Former Cardinals reminisce about the days their lawyer teammate piled players into his large motor home and took them to road games, giving the group a touch of class.

Caron also hired teammates at the law firm "just to give them jobs," said Ebell, a former Cardinal tailback. They became the nucleus of Pro Manage.

Ebell, who played at Ventura High in the early '70s, is the marketing director, although the firm's two NFL clients, Eddie Mason and Kenny Gales, have no endorsements. Nicko Rising, a former Cal Lutheran player, is an agent. Aupiu, a former high school state wrestling champion and Moorpark College football player, also works in marketing. Beard, a former Atlanta Falcon, is listed as a personal trainer on the firm's letterhead.

"[We were] tired of being sore all the time [and] wanted to find some kind of avenue into sports," said Ebell, a friend of Caron's for 25 years. "He's done very well with personal injury, This was like a hobby . . . a little baby.

"He didn't do it for the money. The guys who worked in here, we were friends and family. He wanted to give us something we could all do together . . . as we aged."

Caron enlisted the help of former Ram Ron Jessie when he started the business in the summer of 1993. Jessie, whose son Brandon is a forward at the University of Utah and is under investigation by the school for his link to Caron, knew how the system worked.

According to a 1987 New York Newsday article, Jessie and another recruiter allegedly gave about $75,000 in loans to college football and basketball players on behalf of Pro Star Management Inc., company owner Joel Bobo told the newspaper.

"I was just giving [Caron] some credibility to help him get started," Jessie said. "The first thing I warned him, 'You can't go out and buy players.' "

Caron also found many of his recruiters from the local sports scene. Melvin Nunnery and Corey Tucker, Shawn Walters' former roommates, had played football at Moorpark College.

Another recruiter, Tim Shanahan, had played at Ventura Buena High and at Arizona. Caron hired him to help recruit Wildcat football players. Two of those, Tedy Bruschi and Richard Dice, were implicated in the controversy because their names appeared on a phone list obtained by NCAA investigators and The Times.

Dice, of Northridge, admitted having taken a phone credit card from Pro Manage. He said he gave it to his roommate, wide receiver James Romero of Tarzana. Romero was suspended for one game because of the incident.

A source familiar with the operation said Caron had a box of hundreds of calling cards with Pro Manage logos on them.

"[Bobby] always lived right on the edge a little bit," said Phil Passno, a longtime Ventura College football coach who opened a short-lived Ventura bar, BC's, with Caron.

Caron's style in business is an extension of the tenacity he exhibited as a player. Passno recalled a Ventura College scrimmage in which Caron came out of the secondary to knock out a star tailback.

"It was chilling," Passno said. "As a lawyer, he's the same way, very competitive. If he were involved in an agency, he would do what it took to attract players. He would do what his competition does."

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