Danton: prodigy, prospect, suspect

Hockey: The Mike Danton story is a bizarre case that revolves around a troubled young NHL player, a controversial agent and an alleged murder-for-hire plot.

May 03, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

By first grade, Mike Jefferson knew his destiny. He'd be a hockey star. A Scud missile on skates. The Great One, redux.

It was the quintessential Canadian dream. In Brampton, Ontario, where Jefferson grew up, kids learn to skate figure eights before they can count. While American youths decked their walls with posters of Magic and Bird, Jefferson's room lionized the likes of Mario and Wayne.

His parents embraced their son's goal. You've heard of soccer moms? Up north, they have hockey dads. Stephen Jefferson taxied his son to and from games and hosted team parties in the family's basement, where the gang wolfed down puck-shaped cakes and played mini-hockey with tiny sticks and "balls" of cotton and tape.

"Those were great times," said Rich Williams, who played peewee hockey with Jefferson.

That was 10 years ago. Before Mike Jefferson became Mike Danton. Before he reached the NHL. Before his life began to unravel.

The former Ontario phenom is in the custody of law officers, apparently being transported to the St. Louis area to face charges of conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Danton is accused of attempting to hire a hit man to kill an acquaintance in his suburban St. Louis apartment. The alleged target? Danton's agent and former youth coach, a man named David Frost.

Danton, 23, a forward for the St. Louis Blues, and a friend, Katie Wolfmeyer, 19, were indicted in the bizarre case. She reportedly found Danton a trigger man, and the player made a deal with the man for a $10,000 hit. Make it look like a burglary gone awry, Danton supposedly told him, and take the $3,000 cash in a bedroom safe as a first payment.

But the man contacted the FBI instead, and Danton was arrested in California on April 16, after the team's elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the San Jose Sharks.

While Danton is headed for arraignment, Wolfmeyer remains in her parents' custody, free on $100,000 bond. On Thursday, she pleaded innocent in federal court to charges that she was Danton's accomplice. Her trial is set for July 13.

Though his arrest may have shocked teammates and acquaintances, Danton had been headed down a curious path for years.

At 13, eight years before he would change his name from Jefferson to Danton, he seemed like any other hockey prodigy, those who knew him said.

"Mike was a hard-working wing who made the most of his chances and did everything for the team," said Williams, who played beside him on the Toronto Young Nationals. Players liked to congregate at the Jeffersons' modest two-story bungalow in a blue-collar enclave of North Brampton, he said.

Often present was the team's coach, Frost, whom the Jeffersons had asked two years earlier to mentor their son.

It was an association they would live to regret.

Under Frost's tutelage, Jefferson sharpened his focus, honed his game, achieved his dream.

He also abandoned his family, moved in with his handler and, some say, lost touch with reality.

From all appearances, Frost seemed to have Jefferson on a fast track to the pros as the youth skated in the small circle of Frost's hand-picked charges.

But Frost carried baggage of his own. He had been dismissed as a coach in two junior leagues - for falsifying documents and for promoting his team's ultra-violent play. In 1997, while coaching in a third junior league, Frost was arrested for assaulting one of his players during a playoff. He pleaded guilty and paid a $250 fine.

Moreover, Frost was gaining notoriety as a control freak, a manipulator of young hockey minds.

"The guy is a lunatic," Canadian junior coach Rob Ciccarelli told The Toronto Sun in 1999. "What worried me is he had a cult-like attraction for [Jefferson]. ... The kid totally did everything that Frost said. It was shocking."

Frost shrugged off the accusation. "I've heard the brainwash stuff, that I brainwash players," he told The Toronto Sun. "You know how crazy that is? If I was that smart, I would brainwash 20 of them and we would go win the Stanley Cup."

Vulnerable time

"At 14 or thereabouts, kids are awfully vulnerable," said Debra Steckler, a professor at Mary Washington College in Virginia who teaches sports psychology, adolescent development and the psychology of criminal behavior.

Teenagers are "establishing a sense of self," Steckler said, and are targets for "a charismatic leader who takes them under his wing and shows them the way. His way.

"That's exactly how cults are formed."

The Jeffersons ignored the red flags. That same year, Stephen Jefferson called Frost "the best thing to ever happen to my kid."

By 17, Mike Jefferson was captain of his junior team and a fury on ice. Penalties piled up for the 5-foot-9 center and his skating clique. Jefferson sucker-punched rivals, scratched faces, gouged eyes. Sometimes, a fracas spilled onto the parking lot outside the rink.

In November 1999, he drew a 10-game suspension for cross-checking a defenseman into the boards and then slugging him after he crumpled to the ice, dislodging three teeth.

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