Suspected Sponger Still At Large

The federal probe into the sponging incidents at Kentucky racetracks over the past two years could lead to the indictment of more individuals than William Michael McCandless, the Tennessee man charged in the case. The possibility of more than one person being involved in the sponging emerged as details of how the FBI was led to McCandless became public.

McCandless, 51, who previously served a federal prison sentence after being convicted in the 1977 theft of the Canadian champion mare Fanfreluche, remained at large as of May 10. The Hendersonville, Tenn., man was indicted on six felony charges associated with the sponging incidents. Along with the Fanfreluche conviction, McCandless reportedly has served eight years in prison after being convicted of drug charges and being involved with an interstate farm equipment theft ring.

The trail that led to the sponging indictments began at a horsemen's picnic at Ellis Park last August.

At that event, Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said he was approached by a man who said a friend had personal knowledge of the sponging and the individuals involved. Maline's contact was seeking legal assistance on behalf of his friend.

Although McCandless has been the only suspect indicted in the case, Maline said his contact made it clear that his friend knew of more than one person associated with the sponging incidents. Following McCandless' indictment, the office of U.S. attorney Michael Troop, who is prosecuting the case, said more indictments could be forthcoming.

After continuing discussions between the contact and Maline, KHBPA legal counsel Don Sturgill obtained legal representation for the informant, who is not considered a suspect. Accompanied by an attorney, the informant then contacted the FBI. Maline said there is a possibility the informant could receive the $50,000 reward offered by Churchill Downs, the KHBPA, and others in Kentucky racing if the person or persons responsible for the sponging is arrested and convicted.

Meanwhile, the search for McCandless continued as Kentucky racing officials sought to determine if there were any unusual betting patterns associated with the sponging incidents. Churchill Downs officials reportedly did not discover any tickets cashed by McCandless for $600 or more on wagers offering odds of 300-1 or more. The payoffs and odds on those tickets are common with exotic wagers and qualify for automatic reporting to the IRS.

McCandless' indictment on wire fraud and interstate travel with intent to carry out an unlawful activity stated the suspect tried to "gain an advantage in gambling" on three races at Churchill Downs in 1996 and '97.

McCandless has not been a licensed track worker in Kentucky, but had previously been licensed in Nebraska in 1975, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The newspaper quoted Western Kentucky-based trainer Marion Thomasson as having employed McCandless as a teenager to work with his horses on the Illinois county fair circuit.

Thomasson last saw McCandless at Bluegrass Downs in Paducah, Ky., about 18 months ago, the Courier-Journal reported.

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, McCandless left his mother's Tennessee home about one month ago after the residence was searched by the FBI.

The newspaper also reported McCandless' mother said her son believes he suffers from complications associated with exposure to Agent Orange while he was stationed with the U.S. military in Vietnam.

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