Dale Gagne wrestles with the truth

Drama and deceit in sports entertainment's inner circle

Gagner sticks to the story he's told all along: While the WWE had rights to the tapes, he had bought the AWA name. In December 2008, a federal judge issued a ruling that Dale Gagner could not claim the AWA name in any way. The decision was nearly identical to the one 18 years earlier.

LESS THAN A month after the court case wrapped up, Gagner was back to pretending he was connected to the AWA.

He concocted a plan for Eric Hartsburg, an Indiana promoter and wrestler, to become Gagner's next "AWA world champion." All Hartsburg had to do was send in a $1,100 security deposit on the title belt and show up for the match.

Tony Nelson
Gagner learned how to run a wrestling organization
Tony Nelson
Gagner learned how to run a wrestling organization

"I greatly look forward to working with you more closely, Eric," Gagner wrote in an e-mail to Hartsburg. "I know you'll represent the AWA World Light Heavyweight Championship with pride and honor."

Gagner laid out the storyline for the big championship match in Alabama, right down to what the announcer should do. But the night of the big face-off, Gagner didn't show up. He did, however, make a phone call to change the plans right before the match, Hartsburg alleges. Instead of winning, Hartsburg was disqualified. He didn't take home the belt that night. The belt wasn't in the building.

Gagner promised to deliver the belt the next weekend at a match in North Carolina. But again, the belt was a no-show. So Gagner promised to deliver it at a third match, this time in Australia, where Hartsburg was headed next.

Before his bout, Hartsburg got to talking with Australian wrestler Andrew Carter. It turned out that Carter, too, had been promised the belt. He, too, had paid Gagner a $1,100 deposit.

"We realized, 'Aw, hell, he played us both,'" Hartsburg says. "The same contract, the same everything. We both ended up getting hosed."

Hartsburg and Carter say they never got their money back.

Independent wrestlers were an easy target, but Gagner didn't limit himself to people already in the business. Jill Thacker says she contacted Gagner hoping he would help steer her son into the industry.

Thacker's son Budd, a defensive tackle at Florida State, was passed over for the NFL draft and Gagner encouraged him to get into wrestling.

"I really feel strongly that in the very least, Budd should take the opportunity to attend the 'WWE Developmental Clinic' August 27–29, 2010 in Tampa, Florida," Gagner wrote in an e-mail to Budd's mom. "The cost is $1,200 for the three days which includes training, development, seminars, a live event, lodging and meals."

Gagner said he'd pay half of the camp fee and told Thacker to send him $600. "Please make payment to: WWE/DALE R. GAGNE PRESENTS. . ." he wrote.

Gagner was taking his audacity to a new level: moving beyond the AWA and co-opting the name of the company that had sued him two years before. He even suggested his WWE connections could smooth the path to wrestling stardom for Budd.

"We would then pursue the 'big' guys at WWE whom as you know, I have a very good relationship with," Gagner wrote in an e-mail to Thacker.

Thacker sent in her money. Someone cashed the check.

But the hopeful stage mom quickly found out that Gagner's story wasn't true. Over the Fourth of July weekend, she searched the Web and discovered that the WWE clinic Gagner had sold her was taking place that very weekend.

She e-mailed Gagner, who acted insulted that she would doubt him. Thacker contacted the WWE camp owner directly. He said he'd never heard of Gagner.

Gagner says it wasn't his fault—merely a scheduling blip.

"Unfortunately, the cutoff date was already done, so we offered a different camp," Gagner says. "We sent the money on retainer to them."

Thacker is still waiting to get her money back.

ON JULY 27, Dale R. Gagne entered drug and alcohol treatment at the PRIDE Institute in Eden Prairie and his life changed dramatically. Instead of coming up with new ways to make money, Gagner was in detox.

"I was basically high 24 hours a day," he says. "On alcohol and medications, Klonopin, Percocet, and Oxycodone."

When he emerged from the physically horrific process of drug and alcohol detox, Gagner was ready to slay a second dragon: the closet.

"I am gay," he says. "But I didn't have any gay relationships until I turned 32—strictly women. But it never satisfied me in an intimate way."

Gagner came out to close friends and family 10 years ago, he says. But not to his wrestling associates.

PRIDE is a treatment center specifically for LGBT people, and the counselors there shuttled him through a grueling daily regimen of emotional soul-baring: small groups, big groups, and education sessions. His days were planned out for him from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., right down to required volleyball, yoga, or gym time for 30 minutes, twice a day. He went to 12-step meetings and says he found a higher power.

Gagner was a sponge to the lessons of treatment, soaking them up just as he had the wrestling business. At PRIDE, he learned that his sense of shame about being gay had pushed him away from God, towards the bottle, and into hiding.

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