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Dele, Girlfriend Missing

Pro basketball: Former NBA player and woman not seen since July 8. They were on boat trip.

September 10, 2002|LANCE PUGMIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bison Dele, a former NBA player, is missing somewhere in the South Pacific and may be dead. "I don't want to say Bison's dead," said Dwight Manley, Dele's agent. "But is there any other option?"

Dele, 33, a former Santa Monica St. Monica High standout then known as Brian Williams, has not been seen since July 8, when Capt. Bertrand Saldo, skipper of Dele's 55-foot-long, 60-foot-high catamaran, logged out of the French Polynesian island of Moorea, bound for Honolulu.

Saldo and Dele were accompanied by at least one other passenger, Serena Karlan, Dele's girlfriend from Boulder, Colo. Karlan's family said she had been checking in regularly with her whereabouts but that she had not been heard from since early July.

Clouding the disappearance is a recent attempt by a man believed to be Dele's brother to buy gold, using the name Brian Williams, a brother who might have been sailing with Dele and Karlan as recently as July.

Dele played for the University of Arizona and five NBA teams in eight seasons.

Dele changed his name from Brian Williams in 1998 to honor his Native American roots and the last known slave in his mother's family. A licensed pilot and scuba diver, Dele chose to retire in 1999 instead of playing out the final three years of a contract with the Detroit Pistons, which would have paid him $30 million. He moved to Lebanon to run a water purification plant, then headed to Australia, where he discovered sailing.

"He's an explorer, and there's a lot to be explored on the water," said Patricia Phillips, Dele's mother.

Phillips and Manley said Dele has allowed months to pass without contacting them before. Phillips said there are differences this time. Dele is not reachable by his satellite telephone and hasn't responded to an e-mail about the cancer death of his aunt. His banker told Phillips that Dele normally checked in monthly but that he had not done so for two months.

"I've drawn conclusions that run the gamut," Phillips said. "I've gone from thinking this is just about two lovers who are laying on the beach and have almost entirely forgotten about their life on the mainland, to thinking the next phone call will be the police saying, 'We need you to come identify a body.' "

On Thursday, Phoenix police picked up and questioned a man who had tried to write a $152,000 check for gold bullion at a coin/exchange establishment, Certified Mint. Phoenix police and the FBI refused to identify the person questioned, but Phillips said it was her other son, Dele's 35-year-old brother, known both as Kevin Williams and Miles Dabord. Said Phoenix police spokesman Tony Morales: "This guy identified himself as Brian Williams, but there was not enough information available to arrest him. We are investigating this as a possible identity theft. It is in the early stages."

Scott Ohlgren, Serena Karlan's stepfather, said his family had consulted with Phillips and Dele's personal assistant, Kevin Porter, to discuss the disappearances in late August. Porter tracked Dele's bank activity and was notified of the $152,000 check.

A Certified Mint official said he was told to mail the gold to a Miami address but upon learning that address was for a Mail Boxes Etc., he told the buyer he would have to pick up the gold in person and that the transaction would require identification.

The official said Kevin Williams appeared five days later at Certified Mint to pick up the gold, signing his name "Brian Williams" and supplying his younger brother's passport.

"We finally thought we were going to get answers," Ohlgren said.

Instead, Ohlgren added, he was told by Phoenix police that Kevin Williams was released for "lack of information." Meanwhile, the search for Dele and Karlan continues.

FBI spokeswoman Susan Herskovits said her agency "obtained some information last week from the Phoenix Police Department about the disappearance of a former NBA player."

"At this time, the evidence does not exist to show that this is more than a missing persons case," Herskovits said.

Morales, the Phoenix police spokesman, said, "We don't even know if we have a victim."

A spokesman for the Rescue Control Center in Tahiti said, "There is no ability here to give any more information than there is an investigation in progress."

Jeff Janszen, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant at the Honolulu Rescue Control Center, said Tahitian authorities were hamstrung in their efforts to find a vessel in a 1,000-mile radius.

"We don't have a reasonable search area, either," Janszen said.

Phillips said Kevin Williams had spent about six months sailing with Dele, joining him in New Zealand earlier this year, then departing for the U.S. in early July.

"They were close enough as brothers to set sail together for that long," she said. "In regard to the missing, I believe [Kevin] knows more than he is saying."

Manley said he had engaged Laker officials in a discussion of a Dele comeback this season for his former coach, Phil Jackson, whom Dele played for on the Chicago Bulls' 1996-97 NBA championship team.

"He connected with Phil," Manley said. "I thought it'd be a good fit to get them back together. Now, I don't know what to think."

Times staff writers Elliott Teaford and Tim Brown and Jerry Brewer of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

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