PORTLAND – Joseph Ricci, the millionaire racetrack owner who founded a drug treatment center and twice ran unsuccessfully for Maine governor, died Monday after a battle with cancer. He was 54.
Ricci was best known as owner of the Scarborough Downs harness-racing track, but he also dabbled in politics, where he was not afraid to knock the establishment. He was quick to go to court when he believed he was wronged and was rewarded with a $15 million judgment against one of the state’s biggest banks after it cut off his line of credit.
A former political opponent, Portland lawyer Tom Connolly, described Ricci as a “bull in a china shop” in the political arena.
“Here is a character who’s bigger than life, full of energy, full of ideas, and ready to go after anybody,” said Connolly, who defeated Ricci in the Democratic primary for governor in 1998.
Last fall, Ricci was involved in an unsuccessful campaign to allow video gambling at racetracks. In addition to running for governor in 1998, he also came in fifth in a five-person primary race in 1986.
More recently, Ricci made national news when he became involved in an investigation into the 1975 death of a Connecticut teen-ager.
“Joe Ricci was certainly one of Maine’s more colorful characters in recent years and he will be remembered for his ability to needle government leaders and keep us on our toes,” Gov. Angus King said.
Ricci, who lived in Falmouth, died Monday morning at the Maine Medical Center in Portland, a hospital spokeswoman said. He was a former heavy smoker who had been battling lung cancer, friends said.
Ricci got involved in the Connecticut investigation into the killing of Martha Moxley because prosecutors believed Ricci overheard or knew about potentially incriminating statements made between 1978 and 1980 by Michael Skakel at the Elan School, which Ricci founded for troubled teen-agers.
The murder investigation gained headlines in part because Skakel, who has been charged with the Moxley killing, is a nephew of Robert F. Kennedy.
Ricci insisted that he never overheard or heard about any allegedly incriminating statements made by the defendant.
“The Kennedy family has gone from Camelot in America right to Dante’s Inferno,” he told The Associated Press last year. “One wonders when are they going to stop persecuting this family which has been fraught with tragedy.”
Ricci grew up in Port Chester, N.Y., where he lived with his grandparents after his parents abandoned him as an infant. He recalled his grandfather having a hard time finding work because he was Italian-American.
He became a heroin addict while recovering from a car accident at age 17. Then, after getting drug treatment, he helped people with substance abuse and other problems in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
In 1970, Ricci and a psychiatrist who had a camp in Maine started the Elan School. Nine years later, he bought Scarborough Downs.
After Ricci’s bank cut off his line of credit in 1982 after hearing a false rumor he was involved with organized crime, he sued Key Bank and won $15 million, plus an undisclosed amount from a law firm.
Ricci was known as a man who spoke his mind, but the flamboyant businessman’s mouth also got him into trouble sometimes.
He used Scarborough Downs’ public address system for an obscenity-laced tirade against a state racing official in 1994. He later apologized, paid a $1,000 fine and settled a lawsuit over the outburst that he blamed in part on the fact he had drunk some wine while taking prescription painkillers.
Ricci also was no stranger to the courts, with Ricci filing suit over alleged police harassment and other matters while also becoming the subject of discrimination lawsuits over his treatment of at least two women who worked for him at the racetrack in Scarborough.
In 1999, Ricci turned to the courts again, suing the U.S. Postal Service for defamation for remarks a manager allegedly made to postal workers at a meeting about the search for a building site.
Ricci’s brash style did not sit well with some Mainers, but Connolly said that Ricci was a complicated man who meant well.
“He took his role as a citizen seriously. That’s why he ran as governor twice. No matter what you think of his personality, he was willing to follow up his ideas with action,” Connolly said.
Bob Tardy, who got to know Ricci when he was chairman of the legislative committee that oversaw harness racing, said there was another side to Ricci that the public never saw.
Tardy described Ricci as a compassionate man who went out of his way to help people he came into contact with.
“He was modest about all of the good things he did over the years. If you made a list, you wouldn’t have enough paper,” said Tardy, who worked on Ricci’s campaign for video gambling last fall.
Ricci, who remarried last year, is survived by his wife, Sharon Terry, two sons from another marriage, his mother and three sisters. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.