Pole vaulter amused pic used in admission scam


In May 2016, after weeks of practicing three hours a day, six days a week and paying for private coaching, Jancen Power’s hard work paid off: He won a Texas high school state gold medal in pole vault after clearing 14 feet on his first attempt.

On Wednesday, Power saw a photo from that meet on CNN.

But the picture had been purported to be that of another former high school student, one whose mother paid $250,000 for her son to be admitted to USC as a member of the school’s track and field team, according to the federal indictment detailing a widespread college admission scandal.

“I noticed it was me,” Power said, adding that the photo is on his Instagram profile. “I didn’t think too much about the scandal that was going on. I thought they might just have found pictures of Texas athletes and they might have put that up there.”

Using an online reverse image search of the photo taken from the criminal complaint released by the government Tuesday, ESPN tracked it back to a May 13, 2016, story in the San Angelo Standard-Times about the state track meet, in which Power was identified.

The other photo in the complaint was of a female water polo player, and it was used as part of a scam to help the daughter of a California vineyard owner gain admittance for his daughter to USC, the complaint states.

The real water polo player is Shannon Whetzel, pictured in a photo that ran in the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat newspaper in October 2014, showing her competing for her high school in Ukiah, a small town in Northern California (although her name is misspelled in the caption).

The two photos actually reproduced in the complaint — with the faces blurred — were among many allegedly used to create fake athletic profiles for high school students whose parents solicited the services of William Rick Singer, the CEO of college admissions prep company The Key. By paying off test takers and facilitators, coaches and athletic administrators, Singer enabled students to cheat on their college admission tests and gain preferential athletic admittance by submitting faked athlete profiles for students who had little or no skill in their purported sport, according to the criminal complaint. Singer pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges including racketeering conspiracy, prosecutors said. Fifty people have been charged in the case, of which 33 are affluent parents including celebrities, attorneys, prominent business leaders and other executives.

Power said it was “kind of flattering” to see his picture featured so prominently, “but it’s not flattering when you use it to fake [someone] being an athlete to get admitted into a school.”

The pole vaulter photo was passed off as the son of Elisabeth Kimmel, one of the parents charged in the case. The Kimmels own a $5.5 million house in Las Vegas. Elisabeth presides over a media company that operates several television stations, and her husband, Gregory, who has not been charged, is a former San Diego deputy district attorney and now CEO of a lighting control company.

In 2013, the Kimmels had already secured their daughter’s admission into Georgetown by passing her off as a tennis player and, through a family-run foundation, paid $275,000 to Singer’s nonprofit.

In August 2017, Singer told Laura Janke, the former assistant coach of women’s soccer at USC who allegedly worked with Singer on his schemes, to create a fake profile for Kimmel’s son with “pole vaulter pics,” according to the complaint. The resulting profile included the photo of Power and a description on Kimmel’s son’s admission application that stated that he was a “3 year Varsity Letterman” in track and field and “one of the top pole vaulters in the state of California.”

Singer arranged for the family to pay $50,000 to the USC Women’s Athletics Board and $200,000 to Singer’s fraudulent charity. And with the assistance of now former — and criminally charged — USC senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel, Kimmel’s son was accepted into USC on March 22, 2018, as a Division I athlete.

But Kimmel’s son didn’t pole vault in high school. And he never actually participated in the team at USC.

Power, however, was a real pole vaulter at a high school Water Valley, Texas, a community of about 120 people near San Angelo.

“You wouldn’t even notice it was a town,” Power said. “There’s a football field on the right, a cemetery on the left and a little further down a gas station, and that’s about it.”

In high school, Power said his dad ran a small chiropractic practice and his mom was a children’s minister at the family’s church. He worked in the summer doing odd jobs on nearby ranches, such as shearing sheep and fixing fences, and he applied for as many scholarships as he could to help pay for college.

“We are perfectly middle income,” Power said. “Very normal. We’re not very rich. We just know how to take care of our money. Safe but not rich.”

Power started pole vaulting in the seventh grade, and after doing well in his first meet of his freshman year, he decided he wanted to take the sport a little more seriously. His parents paid for him to get private coaching in Abilene with the coach at Abilene Christian University, which has a storied history in pole vaulting and is the alma mater of 1988 Olympian and world record-setter Billy Olson.

Power would make the 90-minute drive to and from Abilene at least twice a week in his 2007 Chevy Silverado pickup truck — with a 15-foot pole strapped to the side in a case — through the dusty roads of West Texas, sometimes not getting home until 11:30 on a school night. And that was in addition to the three hours he’d spend on other days — all but Sunday — practicing at his school, he said.

“A year and a half, two years of driving back and forth from the town I’d end up going to college to and my home town — and hour and a half drive twice a week — before that picture was even taken,” he said.

All of that practice was building up to the state championship meet in Austin his senior year, captured in the photo and story in the Standard-Times. After going neck and next with the previous year’s first- and second-place winners through the various heights, according to the article, Power cleared 14 feet on his first attempt, which secured him the gold medal in the Class 1A boys division.

Although he didn’t get a track scholarship, he did get admitted to Abilene Christian as a preferred walk-on to the track and field team, which is the same status Kimmel’s son had obtained using Power’s photo as part of the faked credentials to gain admittance at USC. Power pole vaulted for two years at Abilene Christian, but quit the sport due to injuries. He plans to graduate next year with a degree in business management.

“There is some frustration because I know how much I have put into pole vaulting,” Power said of the photo’s nefarious use. “I know how much other people have put into pole vaulting and what it takes to be a good pole vaulter.

“In pole vaulting, there is so much technique. The stakes are so much higher that you can’t just pole vault.”

To get the water polo player into USC, Singer had the cooperation of water polo coach Jovan Vavic, who was also charged Tuesday and has since been fired by the school. The young woman’s father, Napa Valley vintner Augustin Huneeus Jr., paid $200,000 to Singer’s fraudulent charity and $50,000 to Heinel, according to the complaint.

Huneeus also paid $50,000 to Singer’s charity in exchange for manipulating his daughter’s SAT exam.

In an August 2018 phone call intercepted by FBI wiretap, Huneeus expressed concern to Singer about his daughter’s qualifications.

“You understand that [my daughter] is not worthy to be on that team,” Huneeus said.

“He knows [s]he’s not coming to play, he knows all that,” Singer responded, referring to Vavic.

Huneeus expressed concern about if a news article came out that the “polo team is selling seat in to the school for $250,000.” Huneeus reassured him, saying that it would work out, “because she’s a water polo player.” “But she’s not,” Huneeus said.

Singer obtained the photo of Whetzel, the actual water polo player, and used it to create Huneeus’ daughter’s fake athletic credentials, including a profile that falsely identified her as a “3-year Varsity Letter winner” in water polo and “Team MVP 2017,” according to the complaint.

Huneeus again expressed concern to Singer in a phone call. “You’ve said this but I just want to confirm. She actually won’t really be part of the water polo team right?” and Singer reassured him that she “doesn’t have to do anything” related to athletics.

Messages left with Whetzel or her parents were not immediately returned Thursday. She was listed on the roster of the water polo team as a goalie at Santa Rosa Junior College, most recently in the 2017-18 season.

On Tuesday, Bay Area television reporter posted the photo — the one with the blurred face used in the complaint — and stated: “Another allegedly outstanding high school athlete. This image from the #collegeCheatingScandal indictment.” Someone replied to his tweet, “The ‘real’ athlete in this photo IS outstanding. She holds the record for the most saves in Ukiah High School history. A twisted compliment that they used her image to cheat.” Whetzel retweeted that reply without comment.

Power said he wasn’t too worked up about his photo being co-opted, and actually found it kind of funny, describing his response when his mom texted him a screenshot of the photo that had been displayed on the news.

“As soon as I saw that, my first response was that I laughed,” he said. “I wrote LOL. And the next message I sent was ‘Any royalties?'”



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