Copyright 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc.
Not guilty. The words long awaited by former Maine West High School soccer coach Michael Divincenzo came Wednesday from a judge who acquitted him of hazing and misdemeanor battery.
In announcing his verdict, Cook County Judge Jeffrey T. Warnick said Divincenzo, 37, of Elk Grove Village, had no knowledge of the behavior of players who engaged in hazing, did not condone it and punished them for it.
Warnick earlier had dismissed charges that Divincenzo failed to report child abuse as required for school employees, saying the Illinois statute does not apply "to acts committed by students upon other students."
Moments after Warnick's announcement, an emotional Divincenzo expressed gratitude to his attorneys, friends and family.
"I have some great people behind me," said Divincenzo, who said he has not decided whether he will seek to teach or coach again.
"It is obvious that some soccer players' conduct was bad and that's unfortunate," said Divincenzo's attorney, Thomas Breen. "However, coach Divo had nothing whatsoever to do with that conduct."
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez expressed disappointment with the outcome but stood by her decision to bring charges against Divincenzo.
"We brought the charges in good faith," she said. "Despite the ruling, I would hope this is a clear message to coaches and student-athletes: You don't have to be hazed to be part of a team."
Antonio Romanucci, attorney for five students who filed a separate civil suit against Divincenzo, another coach and Maine Township High School District 207 officials, said the verdict in the criminal case was a "slap in the face," but he remained confident "justice will be carried out" in the civil case.
District 207 spokesman Dave Beery declined to comment on the outcome of the criminal case, since the district is a defendant in the pending civil suit.
The investigation began after two then-14-year-old freshman soccer players at the Des Plaines school said they had been assaulted by seniors as part of a hazing ritual. The mother of one boy claimed her son had been sexually assaulted by team members during the hazing.
Alvarez's office filed charges against Divincenzo in May. The office dropped charges against six teens after a five-month investigation.
Prosecutors asserted during closing arguments in December that circumstantial evidence showed Divincenzo established an environment in which hazing was condoned.
Divincenzo, a 1994 Maine West graduate who had taught at the school for more than 10 years, was fired by the District 207 school board in December 2012 after the hazing allegations surfaced. Divincenzo appealed the decision to the Illinois State Board of Education but in April dropped the appeal, which District 207 considered to be a formal resignation, Beery said.
Breen, Divincenzo's lawyer, said his client neither "aided, abetted or encouraged any of the conduct" among the students.
Referring to testimony from former players, including varsity team members who prosecutors say tripped, poked and hit freshman players as part of an "initiation," Breen said that after Divincenzo learned of the behavior he was angry and disciplined the players.
"One player after another said this coach didn't know anything about what was going on, ... these acts were done out of his sight. They were done behind the back of Coach Divo, without his authority."
While exonerating the coach, Warnick took the students to task.
"This was not OK. It was wrong," said Warnick, who also pointed out that the players who testified "took ownership of what they did" even though they could have faced prosecution themselves.
* Daily Herald staff writer Christopher Placek contributed to this report.