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The Philadelphia Inquirer

What a coach, Mike Zolk thought.

It was nearly midnight on a Friday in 2011. Zolk and his son were swatting balls at a batting cage in Northeast Philadelphia when Lou Spadaccini walked up.

Spadaccini had coached Neumann-Goretti High School to its first baseball championships in decades. Zolk's son, nicknamed Zoom, played second base.

The coach knew where to find Zoom that night after seeing a Facebook post by the teen. For an hour, he just watched the father and son swing.

Must be a baseball junkielike me, the elder Zolk thought. What a coach.

Spadaccini's success gave him access and credibility. It also made his crimes all the more scarring.

That same year, Spadaccini, 37, plied two boys, both baseball prospects, with alcohol and drugs. He sexually assaulted one, then 13. He took the other, 14, to a hotel, but rushed him home intoxicated, although unharmed, when the boy's parents kept calling.

The Philadelphia region has experienced a spate of such betrayals. In the last three years, 11 area youth coaches - from the Main Line to North Philadelphia to upper Bucks County - have been charged with attempting or having sexual contact with a player.

Spadaccini is among eight who have admitted such crimes. Two others are awaiting trial. The range of affected sports and schools is broad:

Eric Romig, 36, a softball coach at Bucks County's Pennridge High School, had sex with a 16-year-old player.

Kenneth Fuller, 47, slept with a 17-year-old girl on his swim team at Bayard Rustin High School in Chester County.

Lana Trotter, 27, had a two-year affair with a 16-year-old on her softball team at Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square.

Ivan Pravilov, 48, a renowned hockey coach who ran a youth program, allegedly sexually assaulted two 14-year-old boys at an apartment in Mount Airy. He killed himself while awaiting trial.

James Civello, 50, a squash coach at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, had sex with a 16-year-old player.

Fran Murphy, 39, the athletic director and a former coach at Archbishop Carroll in Radnor, sexually propositioned a 16-year-old football player.

New Jersey has had similar cases. In 2009, David Durling, who coached club soccer in Vineland, was convicted of molesting three players, ages 7 and 8 when the crimes began.

Experts agree the number of arrests has increased. But the rate of assaults has likely remained the same. The difference, they say, is a heightened awareness, driven in part by the prosecution of Jerry Sandusky, the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach, for sexually assaulting boys.

The coaches who have been arrested almost certainly represent fewer than 1 percent of the adults active in youth sports. But the wave of cases in the region has helped spawn legislation in Harrisburg and Trenton, training in schools, discussions across the country, and a new attention on the field.

"I see people hanging around our practices, and I ask, 'Who is that?' " said Mike Matta, a guidance counselor and head football coach at Downingtown East. "Ten years, ago I wouldn't have asked."

Matta is one of the few coaches, school officials, or parents who agreed to talk publicly about the topic for this article. But interviews and a review of hundreds of court records offer a glimpse into how and why such assaults occur.

Abuse often starts with special attention and extra one-on-one practices before the coach and the player start spending time off the field. Most offenders have known their victims for months, if not years, employing a kind of long con on players, parents, and communities.

"The good news is that we seem to be waking up to it," said Kate Staley, associate director of the Penn State Justice Center for Research. "What I hope is a sea change in looking at the issue honestly and saying, 'It happens, and it happens a lot more than we ever thought it did.' "

But, as Zolk discovered, such revelations come at a price.

"My son was at a school where me and 35 other parents were completely fooled by their head coach," he said. "I don't trust anymore."

'Not a coincidence' Spadaccini grew up in South Philadelphia. He was an all-Catholic outfielder at St. John Neumann High School in the 1990s and played for Temple University. After college, he worked as a court crier in the city's Criminal Justice Center.

As a favor to a friend, he said, he agreed to coach a travel team of 10- to 12-year-olds.

"I didn't even know if I wanted to coach," he told The Inquirer in 2010, before his arrest. "I didn't think I had the patience. But I fell in love with the kids."

Even in his first season with Neumann Goretti's Saints in 2007, Spadaccini kept an eye on the younger clubs, ostensibly looking for prospects for his high school team.

One was a fifth-grade boy whom Spadaccini would assault years later.

"The coach would say how good our son was and how he wanted him to go to Neumann one day and play for him," the boy's mother testified last year at Spadaccini's sentencing.

Advocates say child sex abusers often take their time to build trust with their victims, a process called grooming.

"It's not a coincidence that predators choose activities or professions where they have access to children," said Steve Doerner, an education coordinator at the nonprofit Network of Victim Assistance of Bucks County. "That's why an overwhelming number of children who are victimized know and trust their attacker."

Kenneth Fuller, the Chester County swim coach, met his victim when she joined his team at age 14.

Over the years, Fuller gave the girl the "star treatment," said Tom Hogan, Chester County's district attorney. When she was 17, after the swim season ended, the coach met her outside of school to discuss her "swimming future," police said.

The two eventually had sex in hotel rooms.

Fuller left roses on her car and sent text messages that said he was "falling in love," according to court records. He was arrested after the girl confided in friends who told police. Fuller was sentenced to seven to 23 months in prison after pleading guilty to charges including corruption of minors.

His attorney disputed that the coach groomed the girl, saying the incident unfolded only in a few weeks. "Somehow he became enamored with this young girl and made a huge mistake," attorney Vincent DiFabio said.

'Like a teenager' During his third season, Spadaccini took the once-downtrodden Saints to their first Catholic League championship in nearly 50 years. The team won again in 2011, months before his arrest.

Looking back, however, Zolk said Spadaccini wasn't an "X's and O's" kind of coach. Despite having a young son of his own, he acted more like a teenager.

Spadaccini let players talk trash to opposing teams. He had practices year round - even in a factory - and hung out with his team off the field, playing video games and having "heart-to-heart" talks.

The younger Zolk played for Spadaccini for two seasons and neither he nor his father saw clues that the coach was grooming sexual targets. Rather, the elder Zolk thought, baseball was Spadaccini's outlet "because he didn't have a life."

A coach spending more time with players than with peers is one of many red flags, said Christopher Gavagan, a New York-based filmmaker whose documentary on sexual abuse in youth sports, Coached Into Silence, will be released this fall.

"The grooming process is so subtle, there's not one thing a parent can look for," Gavagan said. "But when there are too many [warning signs], questions have to be asked."

Spadaccini's all-encompassing style extended to the younger boys he tried to recruit, inviting them to workouts and offering rides to practice.

"It was just a great feeling to be practicing with one of the best teams around, especially with Lou as the coach," the 13-year-old victim wrote in a statement read aloud at Spadaccini's sentencing.

Special attention is one of the key danger signs, said Tammy Lerner, vice president of the Bryn Mawr-based Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse and a victim of sexual abuse by a relative. "It always starts with an overt interest in a child singled out from the rest of the group," she said.

Lana Trotter, the former softball coach at Delaware Christian Day School, offered an extra hour of practice to her player before their sexual relationship developed, said Newtown Township Detective John Newell.

Trotter was arrested in August after the 16-year-old's parents found inappropriate text messages on her phone. She pleaded guilty this month to institutional sexual assault and faces up to 23 months of house arrest.

Scott Godshall, her attorney, said Trotter did not intend for the help she extended to the victim to lead to a sexual relationship.

Matta, the Downingtown East coach, said staffers there are constantly warned against individual training sessions.

Besides, he said, it's not good coaching.

"We want every kid to feel that they're treated the same," he said.

Baseball dreams Spadaccini lured the younger boys into his orbit because of his team's success. Some of his former players made college teams. One plays in a major-league team's farm system.

Branwen McNabb, who prosecuted Spadaccini, said Spadaccini took advantage of his victims' baseball dreams, talking to them about college scholarships and turning pro.

Experts said abusers often find something to exploit within their victims, whether athletic aspirations or someone having trouble at home.

Francis Murphy, a coach turned athletic director of Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor Township, admitted propositioning a former football player who left the school for financial reasons.

In an online message, Murphy, then 39, offered to be the teen's "Sugar Daddy" and promised sports gear in exchange for a sex act.

"We should try it out," Murphy wrote in 2011. "See how you like. I will hook you up. Must stay between us."

The boy's mother contacted police, who in turn posed as the teen online and ultimately arrested Murphy at an ice cream parlor where he thought he was meeting the boy.

Murphy was sentenced to five to 23 months in prison for felonies including unlawful contact with a minor. At that proceeding, the teenager testified that even at his new school he feared Murphy was in the stands during football games - "thinking about what he can do to me if I weren't around people."

The response The wave of arrests, especially Sandusky's, has stirred action.

In late 2011, Pennsylvania legislators changed the law to allow authorities to charge school employees, including coaches, with a felony for having sex with any student or player. A bill pending in Harrisburg would expand the statute to include sports officials unaffiliated with a school.

A state law took effect last year that requires school employees, including coaches, to receive training to recognize signs of abuse. Another pending bill would require coaches, among others, to report suspected abuse.

In Trenton, legislators are weighing a bill that would require New Jersey school districts to adopt policies governing electronic communications, such as text messages and e-mails, between staff and students.

State Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington), one of the bill's two cosponsors, said the proposal reacts to the growing number of teachers and coaches nationwide accused of inappropriate behavior.

"There's no question that social media has made it easier for adults to prey on children," she said.

Pennsylvania lacks a similar proposal, although districts develop their own policies, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. A policy in Bucks County's Council Rock School District, for instance, "strongly" discourages employees from communicating with students via any personal social-media page or a personal cellphone.

The issue is also getting wider attention across the country.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hosted a meeting on sexual abuse in sports last year. The subject will be the focus of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Safe Sport Summit this spring. The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency for Congress, is investigating youth athletic clubs' handling of abuse claims.

Policies among local club leagues also have evolved. Some, mirroring public schools, require criminal background checks and training for potential coaches. Philadelphia's Catholic Youth Organization holds a coaches' orientation that warns against one-on-one practices as well as friending players on Facebook, said Bill Morris, a CYO commissioner and former football coach.

Coaches in the North Philly Aztecs youth football program no longer invite players to sleep at their houses the night before a game to ensure everyone makes it on time, said president and cofounder Wayne Allen.

'Just really bad' By the summer of 2011, Spadaccini had known his 13-year-old victim and his family for years. He had known the 14-year-old boy for months, having recruited him to play for the Saints. He took both boys, on separate occasions, to a Holiday Inn in South Philadelphia, serving them drinks laced with vodka and Xanax.

"It was just really bad," the younger boy wrote to the sentencing judge. "Why would he want anything sexually to do with me, especially when he has a kid of his own?"

Spadaccini was caught after giving the 14-year-old the drug- and alcohol-laced drinks and failing to return him home on time. His arrest prompted the 13-year-old to tell his parents about the sexual assaults.

At his sentencing, Spadaccini told the boys that he was "truly, truly sorry" and that he wished he could change what happened.

"I tried my whole life to help people, and I obviously failed in a big way," he said.

He is serving a 12- to 24-year prison term. Neither Spadaccini nor his attorney, Tariq El-Shabazz, responded to requests for interviews.

A new coach Zolk took over the Neumann-Goretti team. He said that applying for Spadaccini's job was not a huge leap; he had already informally trained some of the players along with his son, who had since graduated.

After Zolk got the job, he said he briefly mentioned the former coach during his first meetings with parents and players.

"I said: Look, fellas, here's the deal. If you need to talk, we'll talk, but this is full steam ahead with the baseball program," Zolk recalled. "I told the parents that whatever happens on the field, I'm not letting the kids take the fall for any of it. Whoever wants to make fun of them will have to go through me."

Under Zolk, the Saints won the Catholic League championship and the citywide title and made the final four in the state championship.

Zolk resigned after the 2013 season because he said the commute from his day job in Northeast Philadelphia was too draining. He manages Sluggersville, an indoor baseball and softball training facility near Grant Avenue and the Boulevard.

The place is filled with children and adults, many hitting in batting cages. Zolk can't help but wonder if some of the adults want to prey on children.

"Because of what he did, I don't trust anybody that I come across with kids anymore," Zolk said. "It made me wonder how many are out there, which I still do."

Betrayal Of Trust

In the last three years, 11 area coaches have been charged with attempting or having sexual contact with a player. Eight have pleaded guilty. Two await possible trial, and one killed himself while awaiting trial.

Leon Watson, 24

A neighborhood football coach in North Philadelphia, he is accused of molesting five boys on or associated with his team. He was initially arrested in November but formally charged by a grand jury this month. His formal arraignment is scheduled for Monday. A trial date has not been set.

Charles Meredith, 52

A tennis coach at Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Bryn Mawr, a Catholic girls' school, he allegedly kissed a 15-year-old and sent her inappropriate text messages. He was arrested in December. After a preliminary hearing this month, a Montgomery County district judge sent his case to county court for a possible trial. His formal arraignment is scheduled for March 26.

Eric Romig, 36

A softball coach at Bucks County's Pennridge High School, he had sex with a 16-year-old player. He was arrested in October and pleaded guilty in January to charges including institutional sexual assault, a third-degree felony. A sentencing date has not been scheduled pending an evaluation to determine whether he is a sexually violent predator. He is expected to face up to

20 months in jail.

Lana Trotter, 27

She had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl on her softball team at Delaware County Christian School in Newtown Square. She was arrested in July and pleaded guilty this month to charges including institutional sexual assault. Her sentencing is scheduled for May. She is expected to serve 23 months of house arrest and three years' probation.

Kevin Jones, 34

He had sex with a 14-year-old player on his club softball team in Levittown, Bucks County. He was arrested in January 2013 and pleaded guilty to charges including involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, a first-degree felony. He got five to 10 years in prison.

bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

 

February 23, 2014

 

 
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