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Every Parent's Nightmare
William Nack
September 13, 1999
The child molester has found a home in the world of youth sports, where as a coach he can gain the trust and loyalty of kids—and then prey on them
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September 13, 1999

Every Parent's Nightmare

The child molester has found a home in the world of youth sports, where as a coach he can gain the trust and loyalty of kids—and then prey on them

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The phenomenon touches communities large and small and can involve coaches both celebrated and obscure. On Aug. 30 Clyde Turner, the track and field coach at John Muir High in Pasadena, was given concurrent sentences, one of three years and one of eight months, following his conviction for molesting and showing pornographic material to a freshman on his team. Turner, who is filing an appeal, was well regarded for his work with young athletes and his record as a coach; his teams won four state championships in the 1990s.

Another coach widely respected in his community was John (Jay) Davidson of Beverly, Mass. Davidson was a coach and an organizer—former president of the local Babe Ruth League, founder of the highly successful New England Mariners youth baseball club and an instructor who participated in baseball camps throughout the country. On Oct. 9, 1998, four days after being charged with sexually assaulting two of his players during overnight stays at his house, Davidson, a 41-year-old bachelor, sent off a letter to parents of his players proclaiming his innocence while keening in despair: "No money, no baseball, no friends, never again working with kids." He then sliced open his arms with a knife, called 911 to report his suicide attempt and died before help could arrive, surrounded by photos of boys he had coached.

The sexual exploitation of children is such a volatile subject that even noncriminal allegations can lead to complaints against a coach, especially if parents discover he has a molestation conviction on his record, regardless of whether it was decades ago. One of the Boston area's most successful youth basketball coaches, Jim Tavares, was forced out of the AAU last year under such circumstances. Tavares, for 20 years the coach of the New Bedford Buddies basketball program for kids ages 12 to 17, which has developed dozens of Division I college scholarship players, resigned his AAU membership under pressure in March 1998 after three sets of parents, each with a son on the 13-and-under team coached by Tavares, complained to the AAU about him. According to the parents, the 56-year-old Tavares took whirlpool baths in the nude with their sons—allegedly telling the boys that despite their reluctance, they had to take off their swimsuits before entering the hot tub—and watched them as they took showers.

One of the parents who complained had learned that Tavares had been convicted in 1974 in New Bedford of "unnatural acts with a child under 16" following an encounter in a swimming pool with a boy who played on a youth football team Tavares had coached. Tavares received a two-year suspended sentence. In an interview with SI, Tavares expressed surprise that the boy in that case had filed the complaint, revealing that for six months before the incident he and the boy had been in a relationship that included physical contact.

Despite this and another criminal conviction—in 1968 in New Bedford for being "a lewd person in speech and behavior"—Tavares established himself as a prominent youth basketball coach. In fact, he is still coaching, with the support of parents who are aware of his past record, though Nike no longer sponsors the Buddies and the club is no longer sanctioned by the AAU. Asked if someone with his criminal record should be allowed to coach children, Tavares took offense that anyone would even raise the question. He said he felt there was nothing inappropriate about his taking nude whirlpool baths with his players and denied asking them to take their suits off or watching them take showers. He also pointed out that the police hadn't charged him with any crimes.

Tavares, who lives with his mother, speaks with despair about the parents' complaints and the airing of his criminal record. He has filed a suit in Massachusetts Superior Court for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy against one of the parents who complained. "I'm very, very depressed," he says. "I go to bed hoping I die, and I wake up hoping I die. This has probably been worse than when I was arrested for the actual thing [in 1974]. I lost my whole life [last year]."

Allegations of child molestation can reverberate through communities, wreaking a kind of psychic devastation. In Las Vegas, former Little League coach Garen Pearson faces trial on 19 counts of sexual assault with a child under 14, 14 counts of lewdness with a child under 14, four counts of sexual assault with a child under 16 and two counts of open and gross lewdness. Pearson, a 40-year-old landscaper, who is pleading not guilty, according to his lawyer, is accused of molesting five boys ages 9 to 15, four of whom he coached, between 1994 and '99. Police say that the case began after a 10-year-old boy who played for Pearson broke down in tears in his parents' bedroom and told them that Pearson—who had been invited to attend the boy's birthday party several days later—had molested him numerous times. According to their parents, some of the boys Pearson allegedly molested remain traumatized. One mother told SI that her 10-year-old son, one of the purported victims, became so fearful of being in any of the rooms in which Pearson had allegedly molested him that she and the boy had to move out of their apartment. "The only two places he would go were my bedroom and the kitchen," she says. "He wouldn't go in the living room. He wouldn't go in his room. I couldn't see raising my son in a place where he was petrified."

Parents of Pearson's purported victims offered SI several reasons why he got away with his alleged molesting for so long. One was that he was so personable. Another was that, at least for a while, he had a girlfriend. (Police say that he never had sex with her.) Perhaps the most commonly cited reason was that he was such a gifted coach. He took a losing team and turned it into a winning one. "We were blinded by the winning and the fun we were having," says "David White,"* the father of a boy Pearson allegedly molested.

At practices Pearson kept the atmosphere upbeat and worked patiently with his players to teach them proper technique. "We might work a whole practice on rundowns," says a parent. "Kids loved that. If somebody wasn't using two hands to make a catch, he'd have him not open his mitt and catch the ball with the outside of the mitt, forcing the kid to use his other hand. They were excellent drills—and they'd work."

Parents acknowledge that they were so enraptured by Pearson that they ignored a possible warning sign: He spent inordinate amounts of time with the boys off the field, taking them to see movies, to the golf course and on desert outings. On some of the desert visits, police allege, Pearson took along two boys and played a lubricious game with them. Everyone would flip a quarter simultaneously, after which, depending on how the coins landed, the players would either have to touch Pearson's genitals or let him touch theirs.

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