On Feb. 11, 2011, Wilberto Hernandez called in a report of identity theft to the Los Angeles Police Department. Hernandez, then 37, worked as a personal credit repair consultant in L.A., and he kept a close watch on his own credit score. He became alarmed when he received a notice from a credit agency that his Social Security number had been presented for credit checks at two car dealerships, one in La Crescenta and another in Pasadena.
When Hernandez said he had reason to believe that Lenny Dykstra was involved, the call was routed to detective Juan Contreras, a decorated 24-year LAPD veteran. Contreras was familiar with the hard-nosed former Mets and Phillies star, and not just because he was a baseball fan. Four months earlier Contreras had taken a call from a Los Angeles limo driver who claimed that Dykstra borrowed the driver's credit card and, after promising to pay him back for the charges, failed to reimburse him. Contreras had searched police records and found an earlier report, this one from a former personal assistant to Dykstra, naming the ex-player as a suspect in an identity theft case. Like the limo driver, the assistant said that Dykstra had used her credit cards and never paid her back.
Neither of those reports had led to charges, but Contreras began asking questions. By Christmas 2010, he had spoken with 17 people—personal assistants, drivers, private jet pilots and housekeepers—who claimed that Dykstra did not pay them for services, used their credit cards or got hold of their Social Security numbers and opened credit cards in their names. One of the pilots Contreras interviewed claimed that Dykstra had asked to use the pilot's credit card to gas up a private plane on a stopover in Europe. "In October, I was thinking, Hey, this is Lenny Dykstra, I grew up with this guy, I want to meet him," Contreras says. "By November, I wanted to put the guy in jail."
ON MONDAY, in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Lenny Dykstra was sentenced to three years in prison, five months after he pleaded no contest to grand theft auto and filing a false financial statement. As part of the plea agreement, 21 charges against him, including drug possession and identity theft, were dropped. He still faces federal bankruptcy fraud charges for allegedly selling more than $400,000 worth of property without alerting a court-appointed trustee after he filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
The nickname Dykstra picked up when he was a young, dirt-dog centerfielder with the Mets in the 1980s—Nails—implies an unwillingness to bend, a suite of personality traits that ensures you don't compromise or listen when people say what you can or cannot be. How else could a 5'10", 160-pound, 13th-round draft pick build a 12-year major league career, play in three All-Star Games and bat .321 with 10 home runs in 32 career postseason games. How else could a player known more for his hustle than his smarts gain, after his retirement in 1996, improbable success as a day trader and stock-picking whiz. "Not only is he sophisticated," Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's Wall Street handicapping show Mad Money, said of Dykstra in 2008, "but he's one of the great ones."
Dykstra, who earned $36 million as a player, built another fortune after his retirement with his stock investments and a chain of successful car washes in California. In 2008 he started The Players Club, a finance and lifestyle magazine and investment consultancy targeted at pro athletes, so that others could learn to live like him. In a profile that year, The New Yorker labeled Dykstra "baseball's most improbable post-career success story."
By then, however, there were already signs that Dykstra's business sense was clouded by his famous obstinacy. Take one particular object of his affection in the early 2000s: an $18.5 million estate owned by Wayne Gretzky in Thousand Oaks, Calif., not far from Dykstra's comparatively puny $5.4 million mansion. "The most beautiful masterpiece ever built," Dykstra called the Gretzky home in a documentary about him filmed in 2009 that was never released but was obtained by SI. "I said to myself, If there's ever a chance I can buy that, I'm going to buy that." And so, when the property hit the market in 2007, Dykstra sold his car washes and reordered his finances to land the Great One's digs—just before the U.S. housing market began its collapse. Around the same time, with his magazine struggling, Dykstra fell deeply into debt. In 2009, unable to sell the Gretzky estate and a year after he reportedly had a net worth of $58 million, Dykstra declared bankruptcy.
After that filing, Dykstra became something more than just another ex-athlete gone broke. According to interviews with law enforcement officers, business and personal associates, and to court and police records reviewed exclusively by SI, Dykstra's life became a series of financial scrambles and schemes, including alleged financial fraud, identity theft and drug possession. (Dykstra's attorney in the auto theft case, Andrew Flier, did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.)
But even after his financial and legal troubles came to public light, Dykstra refused to give up the trappings of the gilded life. He continued to fly on private planes, and the charges that landed him in prison—many details of which have not been previously reported—stemmed from his apparently insatiable appetite for flashy cars, some of which he obtained using falsified financial documents. "He had to have all of these trappings to prove to himself he was as good as he thought he was," L.A. County Deputy DA Alex Karkanen told SI after Monday's sentencing.
In the unreleased documentary, filmed after his bankruptcy filing, the former Met and Phillie explains the importance of a private plane to his contentedness. "I said, O.K., I know I'll be happy when I buy my own Gulfstream," says Dykstra, reflecting on the plane he purchased in 2007. "But I got down to the end of the nose, I looked back and I said, O.K., happy, come on, come on. So it's not about the Gulfstream. But it is about the Gulfstream. Meaning it just wasn't as good a Gulfstream as I wanted."