The rise and fall of Marty Tirrell

  • Marty Tirrell, right, with Bob Ryan during a remote broadcast at Flemings Prime Steakhouse in West Des Moines, Iowa. Ryan, a Boston Globe columnist and ESPN commentator, was a regular guest and occasional sidekick. “He owes me at least $30,000 for shows,” Ryan emailed. “I had NO idea.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Marty Tirrell and John McDermott broadcasting an Iowa Energy game from the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines in 2010. The Energy were an NBA minor league team. McDermott was Tirrell's broadcast partner for several years doing shows from a studio built inside a Toyota dealership. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Martin J. Tirrell appears in a pretrial conference in Franklin District Court earlier this month. Staff FILE Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 3/27/2020 4:44:12 PM

Marty Tirrell was in Greenfield District Court earlier this month, aptly on Friday the 13th. He appeared before Judge William Mazanec III and pleaded not guilty to swindling a Red Sox fan out of $4,750 worth of tickets.

A disgruntled Iowa acquaintance had tipped off the police that the 60-year-old Tirrell was staying at his sister’s house in Deerfield. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant by Deerfield Detective Sgt. Adam Sokoloski. Bail was set at $5,000 and he remained in custody until it was reduced to $2,500.

According to various accounts, Tirrell returned to his roots after he was booted out the Door of Faith residential treatment center in Des Moines. He had failed to attend church, create a budget and open a bank account.

Tirrell found riches in Iowa faster than Harold Hill found trouble in River City. A year ago, the FBI nabbed him for fraud and in December, he pled guilty to one count of swindling eight people out of more than $550,000. This doesn’t include judgments of other claims against him totaling over $4 million, according to Des Moines City View columnist Michael Gartner.

He was due to be sentenced April 7 but the coronavirus pandemic bumped the date to May 13, giving credence to his claim that he’s a bug that won’t go away. “I’m like a cockroach,” he told the Des Moines Register in 2014. “You can step on me. You’re going to hear the crunch. But you can lift your foot up, and I’m going to go for the daylight.”

The Bob Ryan angle

People who knew Tirrell’s methods and followed the regional sports scene were puzzled by his ongoing relationship with Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. They wondered how an admired author and ESPN commentator like Ryan could hook himself up with a character like Tirrell. A transaction list prepared by Des Moines CPA Becky Kile in 2011 showed six checks payable to Ryan, each for $3,000 from April through December, all for calling into his show and making an occasional in-person appearance.

“I think Bob was clueless,” said Tirrell’s second ex-wife Stephanie Gifford. “I sent him an article about the most recent arrest. I wanted Bob to look at the warrant but he didn’t jump at the chance (laughs). Bob is gracious and humble, and all he said about Marty was life is stranger than fiction.”

Asked for a response regarding Tirrell’s alleged criminal mischief, Ryan emailed: “I had my share of bounced checks over the years. He owes me at least $30,000 for shows. He was charmingly slippery. But who could have imagined the scope of his machinations? No, I had NO idea.”

The formative years

For those who’ve known him since his Franklin County radio days, it was a predictable downfall for the kid who grew up practicing his play-by-play into a tape recorder at Vets Field.

Tirrell got his first sports talk show when he was a teenager, a two-hour program called the Sunday Sportspage on WPOE (now WIZZ). When he didn’t get any calls, he gave his sidekick Doug Stotz a dime and told him to go to a pay phone, call the show and disguise his voice.

His fiery, shoot first, aim  later delivery portended a short tenure at the 5,000-watt station, and he was fired three weeks into it for criticizing — egads — The Greenfield Recorder.

“I think he called it the Greenfield Distorter,” said Bob Diamond, who was working his way up the marketing ladder at WHAI. Diamond saw something of himself in the edgy Tirrell and convinced co-owner Ann Banash to make him the sports director. “He had unlimited talent and tremendous vision,” said Diamond. “He created great marketing opportunities for us. He made us a lot of money.”

Tirrell did high school play-by-play and embraced the Johnny Most style of good versus evil. “He made things exciting, like Dick Vitale did for college hoops,” remembered Cam Ward, who played for GHS in the late 1980s. “This was before social media and news didn’t travel like it does today, so hearing your name on the radio was special. At least it was for me.”

Tirrell’s energy and ability to pump the ratings had a downside. “At the Springfield Civic Center we were playing Drury and a Greenfield player took a jumper and looked like he got fouled but there was no call and Drury won by a point,” said Diamond. “Marty was doing play-by-play and I was the color guy. Without saying anything he ripped off his headset and stormed onto the court and chased the officials into the locker room. It was a glimpse of trouble to come.”

One year, he sold cars and quit before buyers returned for the free snow tires he’d promised. “We were like, ‘Oh boy, what’re we gonna do about this?’” remembered Tom Dillon.

Tirrell could charm the bark off a tree, but his penchant to close the deal gave him a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering. “I heard story after story of what he had done to clients and friends,” said Diamond.

By the time he left WHAI for another station, Tirrell had become what Banash called “a station manager’s worst nightmare.”

The Mouth of the Midwest

Tirrell met his first wife Margaret “Bunny” Doneilo at a Mohawk Trail Regional athletics banquet in 1990. She was 40 and he was 32 when they married. They moved to Des Moines where he’d been hired to be the station manager at 1490AM “The Jock.”

He anointed himself the “Mouth of the Midwest” and teamed up with Prairie Meadows track announcer Ken Miller to broadcast the first two-hour sports talk show in Iowa history. At its peak, advertisers were paying $150 for 30-second spots on the Marty & Miller Show, unheard of in a mid-size market like Des Moines (71st nationally according to

Tirrell’s loud, know-it-all style jived with Miller’s straight-guy persona. “He’d stir the pot,” said radio cohort Clyde Bonnor (not his real name). “People listened to him. He was a blowhard, an East Coast blowhard who stole his intro from Chris Russo. He had a shtick, he’d take a side that would piss Hawkeyes fans off one day and Iowa State fans hated him the next. With him and Ken Miller, you tuned in because it was train wreck radio.”

But the train went off the rails between shows on KXNO in 2009. Tirrell had been in Glendale, Ariz., the previous night watching Northern Iowa lose to Purdue in the opening round of March Madness. He arrived minutes before airtime and set his briefcase on the counter, activating the on-air switch.

Tirrell had beef with Drake University basketball announcer Larry Cotlar, the 2007 Iowa Sportscaster of the Year. Cotlar had wrapped up his show and was about to leave the studio when Tirrell accused him of misusing his credentials to the state schoolboy basketball tournament. “You had TWO f****** credentials!” yelled Tirrell, the live microphone picking up every word. “You caused a f****** hornet’s nest! You’re jealous about the whole f****** distribution system! Get the f*** out of the station!”

Cell phones began buzzing in the studio from callers panicked by what they were hearing. Stat geeks counted a dozen f-bombs. The New York Daily News named Tirrell “Dweeb of the Week” and YouTube recorded over 40,000 hits before it was taken down.

Tirrell was fired and took Cotlar and producer Geoff Conn out the door with him. The mild-mannered Cotlar called it “an unfortunate incident which I did not initiate.” Married with two boys, he was swept away by a flash flood. Cotlar passed away in 2018 at the age of 66.

“Swindled people out of at least $4 million”

Years earlier Tirrell was briefly hired by the aforementioned columnist Michael Gartner, who owned the Triple-A Iowa Cubs.

“Marty was one of the talk-show guys,” Gartner emailed. “I realized he was a crook then, a con man who, by my count, swindled people out of at least $4 million, in Iowa and Texas and Illinois and New York, and took unknown amounts more from friends and family who didn’t sue because they knew it would be fruitless or because they were embarrassed.”

Tirrell returned to Franklin County for a few years around 2001 and befriended Turners Falls businessman George Rosa III, who owned the Hallmark School of Photography. Rosa built a radio studio off the lobby for Tirrell to do his shows, and Marty convinced him to buy two golf tickets to The Masters for a Boys and Girls Club fundraiser.

What happened after that, said Doneilo, was a game changer. “Marty walked out on me over the thing about George Rosa. George put up the money for someone to go to The Masters and Marty was out at Augusta and supposed to meet them but was a no-show. George called him and Marty said something like prices had gone up and he couldn’t get them so George had to buy two more tickets. Before Marty even got home, George had cleared out the studio. Marty was like, ‘George has fired me! I’m done!’ He drove our car to the Albany airport, left it there and I never saw him again.”

“Never?” I asked.

“Never,” she said.

After Tirrell filed for divorce, Doneilo’s family home was garnished to pay off a civil judgment that resulted after Tirrell had connived a Turners Falls businessman into giving him $80,000 to buy a Nashua, N.H., radio station. “He didn’t own the station,” said Bonnor. “He got seed money and wasn’t putting it back in. He had Hamburger Helper funds and a caviar lifestyle.”

Back in Iowa, the notoriety from the KXNO meltdown helped Tirrell resurrect his career at 1700 The Champ. He met Stephanie Gifford and they were married in a small ceremony. “He was fun, charming, hilarious, intelligent ... all that in the beginning,” recalled Gifford, who divorced Tirrell in 2014.

“He love-bombed me, we had a blast. We traveled to sporting events and stayed in luxury hotels. He had part ownership in Donegal Racing’s Paddy O’Prado, three percent ‘sweat equity’ — knowledge of horse breeding. Paddy O’Prado was in the Kentucky Derby — we were there. The owner of Donegal Racing, Jerry Crawford, told us we’d all be millionaires. It was easy to believe the lies.”

The Paddy O’Prado deception

Occasionally Tirrell would return to Franklin County to visit his mother and bet the horses at Saratoga. A few summers ago he walked into the Hinsdale (N.H.) OTB parlor and introduced himself to owner Bill Faucher, who died in 2018. “I didn’t know him at all,” recalled Faucher before his passing. “He said, ‘I came to bet on a horse I own out west. Bet on him, he’ll win.’”

Faucher did bet, the horse did win, and the hook was set.

Tirrell said he could help the struggling OTB owner make a profit. “Can you spare $3,200?” he asked.

“It was easy to believe everything he was saying,” recalled Faucher. “Everything was hunky dory, so I gave it to him. He said if you put up “X” amount we’ll do this and we’ll do that. He was speaking so fast I don’t know what the hell … His intention was to grab me for all that I would give him.”

Jerry Crawford is a Des Moines attorney and political operative who ran the Iowa presidential campaigns of John Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Hillary Clinton (both times). He also owned the city’s minor league basketball team and Tirrell did the play-by-play.

Tirrell liked to think of himself as a bigshot owner and know-it-all horseplayer who got his picture taken in the winner’s circle. The truth is, he had nothing to do with buying racehorses. According to a Donegal Racing spokesperson, Tirrell “never was involved in helping us choose horses. He never owned three percent of Paddy O’Prado and was never an investor (in Donegal Racing).”

Crawford entrusted that to trainer Dale Romans, who bought Paddy O’Prado at a yearling auction for $105,000. The gray/roan colt developed into a hard charging 3-year-old that finished third in the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Kent Desormeaux in the irons.

These were heady times nonetheless for Tirrell, who was hanging out with Crawford’s entourage and grossing $60,000 a month doing a syndicated radio show from Toyota of Des Moines. Taking a page from the Hallmark venture, he convinced general manager Steve Leubke to build him a studio next to the showroom.

“Everything he did was in excess,” his new radio partner John McDermott told the Des Moines Register. “You’d look in his car and there’d be four shirts from Von Maur, with the price tags still on. Two pairs of shoes. He’d have $4,000 worth of stuff in his car he’d never worn yet.”

The fourth estate prevails

Whenever someone questioned Tirrell’s motives and business principles, he’d go into attack dog mode, intimidating editors and media management types.

But not Michael Gartner. The 81-year-old Des Moines native worked his way up to became the second-ranking editor at the Wall Street Journal for a half-dozen years. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing at The Daily Tribune of Ames, and was president of NBC News from 1988-93.

He keeps his finger in the inkwell by writing Civic Skinny, a column that follows the goings-on of the Des Moines political, business and criminal set.

“Michael Gartner never let up,” said Doneilo.

Gartner doesn’t conceal his contempt for Tirrell, whom he refers to in his columns as a “serial scammer” and “deadbeat talk show shouter.”

“I started hearing more and more stories about him,” said Gartner. “Then people started suing him in state and federal courts, mostly in Des Moines but also in Chicago and New York and Houston. His methods were usually the same, but they got a bit more sophisticated over the years.”

One such victim, Jason Whitenger, is owed $1,071,327. “He thought he was buying a radio station in Spencer, Iowa,” said a source.

When asked for comment, Whitenger texted, “Marty’s a scumbag lowest form of a human being. Bout all I got to say about that f****** d********.”

At the car dealership, Tirrell convinced GM Steve Leubke that he could get Troy Aikman to host an “All-Toyota of Des Moines” football banquet. Owner Charles Gabus fronted the money for Aikman’s appearance plus the four first-class airplane tickets.

When they realized the Aikman story was a ruse, Gabus Motors sued Tirrell. Aikman’s agent was deposed and laughed at the notion that his client would need airfare. “Troy has his own plane,” he said.

“Marty had way too many lies and secrets upon lies and secrets,” said Stephanie Gifford, Tirrell’s ex-wife. “He let me search and question and dive down rabbit holes looking for Troy Aikman interviews or phone numbers that had never existed.”

The court ordered Tirrell to pay Gabus Motors $72,034, which was bartered down to $45,000. Gartner reported that Tirrell missed his first payment, $10,000, due on Jan. 3, 2016.

After the Toyota caper, Tirrell came knocking on Miller’s door, begging him to get the show going again. Miller reluctantly agreed.

Rather than risk another f-bomb incident, Miller told them to broadcast one hour live and repeat the next two hours.

Meanwhile, Gartner kept pounding away at Tirrell. “I’m also a lawyer, so I know how to navigate the court system and mine its data. I suspect that my regular reporting on his scams and schemes was at least a factor in the U.S. Attorney bringing charges. The guy is just a bum, and he has hurt a lot of people.”

FBI agent Kevin Kohler was able to round up eight victims who were swindled out of over $550,000 in 15 months starting in 2016. Miller has told friends he regrets “opening the door” for Tirrell to get back in business, but those final few capers triggered the investigation that began his downfall.

After an Iowa grand jury handed up a 10-count indictment against Tirrell in 2019, the Des Moines Register published a timeline of the half-dozen radio stations where he worked, the unpaid air time he purchased, the two divorces, the foreclosures, the unpaid child support, the order of protection against him for alleged physical abuse, and the civil litigation.

The mail fraud indictment that Tirrell pled guilty to carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000. “The federal judge is a former prosecutor, so I suspect it will be a pretty stiff sentence,” said Gartner. “My guess is seven years, and in federal sentences you serve the time you are sentenced.

“He lived high, but in the end he was homeless and panhandling.”

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