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Cancer-stricken Rigas beats the odds as he fights to bring son home from prison

The 93-year-old former Adelphia chairman, released from prison in 2016 because doctors and officials expected him to die soon, is fighting to clear his name and to free his son, Tim, from prison.

COUDERSPORT, Pa. – John J. Rigas says he really can’t answer why he is still here.

He was, after all, granted “compassionate release” in early 2016 after eight years in federal prison because doctors and officials expected that  he would soon die.

But Rigas has beaten the odds. Not only has he survived, he appears a step ahead of that cold night in February 2016, when he returned from the U.S. Penitentiary at Canaan, Pa., to a hero’s welcome in Coudersport. Back then, his diagnosis of terminal cancer offered little hope for anything – let alone a life today of directing the family business, walking the streets of his adopted hometown or roaming the estate his family carved from a cow pasture back in 1961.

At 93, the former chairman of Adelphia Communications and the Buffalo Sabres can only credit immunotherapy sessions every three weeks – which he would not have received in prison – for prolonging his life.

And, oh yes, there’s luck, too.

“I’m blessed,” he said. “I really am.”

Rigas remains a controversial figure in this picturesque borough 110 miles south of Buffalo. Visitors marvel over downtown’s 19th century buildings that he helped restore, and residents give thanks for the industries he helped lure to Coudersport, or the favors he and his once-thriving cable TV empire granted so many.

Others revile him for financially raiding his Adelphia Communications, the company in which many lost their life savings and which the government said the Rigases used as a personal piggy bank more than a decade ago.

Rigas, a World War II veteran who saw combat in France and Germany, remains bitter about his 2005 conviction on multiple charges of fraud that made him an eight-year ward of the federal government.

But he is also sure that a purpose lies behind his unexpected survival. He dives daily into appealing his case, and hopes efforts to clear his name will prevail in court soon against a federal government he has come to distrust – maybe even despise.

After prison, ‘the fight continues’ for John Rigas

And then there’s Tim.

His 61-year-old son remains behind bars at Canaan, facing four more years of a 17-year sentence for hiding $2.3 billion in liabilities from Adelphia investors and using the once-private firm for personal purposes. The elder Rigas refuses to share that view, and is dedicating the rest of his days to bringing Tim home.

Nothing can ever be the same, John Rigas said, not like back when Adelphia stood among the giants of the cable television industry and the Rigases were revered throughout Coudersport and beyond. For one, he did not return home to his wife, Doris. She died in 2014 while he was locked up at Canaan and he was not allowed to attend the funeral. His Adelphia world also is gone, and many old friends now shun him.

Now, he's focused on bringing Tim home.

It could be the only way he will see him again. Federal officials will not allow him to visit Tim at Canaan, where the father and son inmates shared a bunk area for eight years.

“I asked a couple of times,” he said, descending into the low point of a two-hour interview. “They won’t let me. It’s sad.”

Bureau of Prisons officials said they could not answer questions about why visits are not allowed because of inmate confidentiality considerations. But after the inquiries by The Buffalo News, the bureau may relax its restrictions. Michael Rigas, the elder Rigas' second son, said officials have indicated a new warden at Canaan is now considering the visit request and has asked for the proper paperwork to be submitted.

Meanwhile, John Rigas said the forced separation after years of incarceration together, the frustration of it all, and the realization that every day is precious with a diagnosis of terminal cancer weigh “on my mind all the time.”

“I can’t express how deep the wound is,” he said of Tim, “knowing what he’s going through – the restrictions, the harassment, the lousy food.

“But, he’ll be home soon,” he adds. “And I hope to be alive.”

A bitter victim

Maybe Rigas reflects the feeling of all ex-cons as he savors freedom. The feeling of being imprisoned, he said, never seems to leave. Sometimes he dreams he is scheduled to be freed from prison, and then it doesn’t happen.

“The sting of being arrested and perp-walked, having handcuffs put on and being incarcerated never leaves you,” he said. “At times, I still feel incarcerated – you just can’t get rid of that.”

The former Adelphia Cable’s headquarters still stands on Main Street in Coudersport, Pa., where one investor says he’d like to run into John Rigas after the one-time mogul advised him to “bet the farm” on the company. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

When John Rigas returned home in February of 2016, 100 people crowded the main square to greet Coudersport’s most famous citizen. They told of jobs he provided, money he donated and projects he sponsored over the years. They were overjoyed.

Recently, at the Coudersport Public Library on Park Avenue, Peggy Wilkinson – who knows the family well –was browsing the shelves when she was asked about Rigas’ return.

“I’m glad he’s back in town and that he’s feeling better,” she said. “It’s good for the family and the people who still respect him. I don’t think Mr. Rigas did anything to hurt us, and the majority of the people are all glad.”

But she acknowledged that those who lost their investments, in some cases their life savings, remain upset.

Count Rance Baxter among them. He is 73 years old and retired from his automobile systems business. He wishes Rigas no ill but won’t ever forget the cable mogul advising him to “bet the farm” on Adelphia. Now he wonders why Rigas is out of prison.

“Good snow job there, huh?” he sniffed when asked about Rigas’ release.

Baxter lost $96,000 when Adelphia foundered and knows others who watched even more disappear. He has little faith in the law and courts, especially since the Rigas family still has substantial assets.

“It’s a two-tier justice system that trickles down,” he said. “In John’s case, I don’t think he should have been released. There should have been some restitution.”

Baxter said he looks forward to the day when he will run into Rigas in Coudersport so he can ask about “betting the farm.”

“When you invest, you’ve got to take the good with the bad,” he said. “But because I knew John personally, I felt I had a better chance. That’s what hurt. I trusted the guy and got the short end of the stick.”

Someday, Baxter said, he also will ask about his money, even as he acknowledges Rigas remains a much-loved figure here. He even grants that those who say Rigas was “set up” by the government may be right.

“Those who loved him before still do, and those who paid the price have probably put it behind them,” he said. “And he paid the price by going to jail, but I think he got away with a lot.

“Lots of times he’s misconstrued as ‘good, old, big-hearted John,’ ” he added. “But in the long run, it was just John looking out for John.”

Freedom feels good

The single-story, brick estate tucked back from Route 49 just outside Coudersport seems tailored for a wealthy captain of industry. It sits along Baker Creek and offers spectacular views of the Allegheny foothills beyond.

The elegant home displays works of art, antique furniture, freshly cut flowers everywhere and a bright ambiance against the intricate and dark woodwork.

“Everything here goes back to his wife,” said aide Stacey Howe.

Along the shelves sit photos of Rigas with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as Pope John Paul II. Other photos depict him with fraternity brothers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and running track at Wellsville High School, where his letters in four sports earned him entry to the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

A framed citation records his Citizen of the Year award from the Coudersport Rotary Club, and books, maps and globes seem ready for his use.

Preserving his reputation for tardiness, Rigas met a reporter and photographer 45 minutes late, impeccably clad in a light blue blazer and maroon tie. He is also known for his easy-going manner, even as he delves into the intricacies of a case he still blames on overzealous prosecutors eager to score political points.

“The people in my hometown and my adopted hometown have rendered a different decision to me – they believe in my innocence,” he said. “That support has been huge in my staying strong and not giving up the fight."

It feels good to be free. Rigas has used his 2 1/2 years home to acquaint himself with seven grandchildren, travel a bit, reclaim his old seat in the Reilly Center for St. Bonaventure basketball games, and even throw out opening night’s first pitch for the Wellsville Nitros, a college baseball league team he started.

“I had beautiful form,” he quipped, “but I only made it three-quarters to the plate.”

Visitors are regular. A few days ago, St. Bonaventure Athletic Director Tim Kenney dropped by. Back in March, so did Terry Pegula, his successor as Sabres owner.

The $30 million hulk along South Main Street that once served as headquarters for Adelphia’s 2,500 workers now stands largely vacant, but Rigas enterprises continue there. The family has built Zito Media from the 5,000 subscribers left in the Adelphia breakup to about 50,000 now, also providing fiber optic connections to business and tower sites.

It all reminds him of starting from scratch the cable empire that once boasted more than 5.6 million customers. He reminds everyone that the Greek word “zito” means “succeed.”

Appeal, not presidential pardon

For John Rigas, following the news of the day since his release from Canaan has proven more than interesting. He has especially watched the trials and tribulations of former FBI Director James Comey. As U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Comey successfully prosecuted the Rigases and sent them to prison.

Comey seems to personify the anger and resentment Rigas harbors against the federal government. He thinks Comey’s career as a prosecutor ultimately led to his firing from the FBI by President Trump.

“I think he abused his power,” Rigas said. “We have given way too much power to prosecutors.”

When he returned to Coudersport in 2016, Rigas expressed to The News his resentment against the government and its prosecutors, almost as if he were unleashing a burden. Nothing has changed in 2 1/2 years.

He has watched Trump dole out pardons to people the president thought were victims of politics or misguided prosecutors. He said he contemplated seeking presidential forgiveness, especially for Tim.

“But then I thought I really would not know where to begin, approaching the president about a pardon, and I don’t know if I have the money or the time [left],” Rigas said. “And I’d rather appeal this.”

Their case has been assumed by a Stanford University law professor, and Rigas hopes it will resonate with U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood when it reaches her chambers in the next few weeks.

He continues to dismiss some in Coudersport who think Tim remains responsible for Adelphia’s transgressions, and that his actions ensnared others.

“When people say that, I have to respond very strongly that Tim was a big part – more than a big part – of Adelphia’s growth, with an extraordinary financial mind,” the elder Rigas said. “He was always very careful to do the right thing. I tell people 'you have Tim wrong.'”

Rigas regularly speaks with his incarcerated son over the telephone. They are allowed 15 minutes.

“Tim has never brought up the subject of how hard it is,” Rigas said. “It’s amazing what we talk about – how we are taking care of his daughter, and what’s new in the community. He never gives up.”

Rigas said he still quietly helps people, including those who write him from Canaan upon their release, asking for clothes or other help.

“Yes, I’ve helped,” he said. “But not enough.”

Rigas expresses fond feelings for Buffalo, and while he has attended Greek fraternal events in the city and addressed the University at Buffalo law school, he has not visited the arena where he once occupied the owner’s box.

“I feel stronger now,” he said. “I’d like to go and look around.”

He still talks about writing a book, depending on the outcome of his appeal. But more than anything, he uses the time he was not supposed to have – for both him and his son.

“To think I was that close to giving up,” he said. “Here I am.”

JURY CONVICTS JOHN RIGAS, SON TIMOTHY; SECOND SON ACQUITTED OF SOME COUNTS; OTHERS PENDING PANEL FINDS MULCAHEY NOT GUILTY ON ALL CHARGES

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