Thursday, May 7, 2009
Neel pleads guilty in child support case
SAN ANTONIO -- Former Oakland Athletics first baseman Troy Neel pleaded guilty Thursday to fleeing the country to avoid more than $700,000 in unpaid child support, which stacked up while he lived on a million-dollar South Pacific island resort bought after his brief major league career.
Shackled and wearing blue inmate scrubs, Neel made his plea in federal court and faces up to two years in prison. His attorney said Neel, 43, has no money and disputed the amount owed.
Neel lived in the Republic of Vanuatu on a tropical 16-acre resort that was purchased for a reported $1.5 million, according to court records. During the brief hearing, prosecutors said Neel stayed out of the U.S. largely to avoid paying $5,000 in monthly child support for his two children.
He played for the Athletics from 1992-94 and then continued his career in Japan and Korea before retiring in 2001. He hit .280 with 37 home runs in three major league seasons and finished seventh in the 1993 AL rookie of the year voting.
Neel was ordered to begin paying child support in 1998. Prosecutors say he began falling behind within the first year.
"This is the most egregious child support evader in Texas history," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a news conference after the hearing.
Abbott said Neel's owed amount is more than the combined total of the top-10 deadbeat parents in Texas.
James Sustaita, Neel's attorney, declined comment after the hearing.
A sentencing date was not immediately set. Abbott said prosecutors would push for the maximum punishment and start looking into Neel's assets in Vanuatu to recoup the amount owed.
"He doesn't have any money to pay," Sustaita said in court.
Vanuatu is a small chain of islands located about 1,000 miles east of Australia. Neel's tropical resort is surrounded by white sandy beaches, features a restaurant overlooking a lagoon and has the country's only full-service spa, according to its Web site.
Much of what Neel owes is from interest. The principal is more than $300,000, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bud Paulissen said.
Sustaita did not elaborate during the hearing over the amount he believes Neel owes. That is expected to be brought up during the sentencing hearing.
Neel is a Texas native who attended Texas A&M University. A San Antonio federal grand jury indicted him in 2005 on a charge of foreign travel to evade child support obligations. He was arrested at a Los Angeles airport in December as he got off a flight from Australia.