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How a Predator Continued to Coach Gymnastics

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USA TODAY

 

Jenny Brannan answered the phone, and 20 years of fear bubbled to the surface with the caller's first question: "Do you know who Ray Adams is?" Silence.

The Missouri woman spent most of her life trying to forget that name. In 1993, when she was 12, she accused the charismatic gymnastics coach of sexually abusing her. But the case never went to court.

Now a Florida prosecutor was on the phone, asking Brannan to share her story. Adams had hurt another little girl.

Brannan's first thought: "He's still doing it?"

He was.

Brannan would eventually learn that Adams had been accused of inappropriate conduct involving 15 other girls. Over the years, he had worked in at least a dozen gyms in four states. He had been fired at least six times. He had been criminally charged four times. Once he was acquitted. Another time he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery for abusing four little girls. Now he was facing two new criminal prosecutions in Florida.

Yet, somehow, Adams kept getting hired, even by elite gyms that produced Olympians for USA Gymnastics.

Adams' case -- more than any other uncovered in a nine-month IndyStar investigation -- demonstrates the breadth of flaws in the apparatus of the USA Gymnastics network and a culture of secrecy that has enabled sexual predators to continue coaching.

Again and again, girls he targeted didn't recognize the abuse or were too scared or embarrassed to report it. Parents declined to prosecute, fearing further trauma to their children. Gym owners didn't recognize the signs of abuse or worried that reporting it would hurt their businesses. And USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, doesn't enforce strict standards or effectively track potential predators as they move through a system of 3,400 independent gyms.

No one wanted to give Ray Adams ready access to victims for 16 years. But the events that occurred between Brannan's first encounter with Adams and the call she would receive two decades later point to a stark reality: America's gyms are failing at every level to protect the children under their watch.

1993

ALL AMERICAN GYMNASTICS, ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Brannan told IndyStar she met Adams in the early 1990s at All American Gymnastics in St. Louis.

At 5 feet 10 inches, the coach seemed tall to Brannan, who was a petite elementary school student. Adams, then in his early 20s, was slender and full of energy, Brannan recalled during an interview with IndyStar. He showed off with a series of round-offs and back flips.

The girls he coached adored him. Adams acted silly, laughed with them and asked questions about school and boyfriends. He also chatted with gymnasts' parents.

IndyStar typically does not name alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

Brannan, whom IndyStar agreed to identify by her maiden name, said she trusted Adams. So she said she brushed it off when he stood over her as she did the splits in a handstand. She dismissed it as weird when Adams' thumb rubbed her nipple as he spotted her on bars.

That trust shattered during a private lesson in 1993, Brannan would later testify in court. She struggled to hit a tumbling pass. Adams asked what was wrong, and when she answered, he replied, "I can't hear you. Let's go into the office."

Away from others in the gym. Adams closed the door.

"Sit in my lap," he invited. "Tell me what's wrong."

He placed his hand above her knee, she testified. He asked if it tickled or gave her goose bumps.

"No," she said.

Adams slid his hand higher. Does this tickle?

"No."

He pulled her leotard to the side and touched her vagina. Does this?

"No."

He put his finger inside her. Brannan said she knew it was wrong. She wanted him to stop but didn't say it.

"I was raised that you don't really question authority," she said.

Brannan said she thinks Adams stopped because he realized she was getting upset. They finished practice as if nothing had happened.

At first, Brannan didn't tell anyone. She didn't know what to say.

A couple of weeks later, while Brannan's classmates played on the swings and tossed a ball during recess, she stood off to one side of the playground, crying.

A friend came over and asked what was wrong. Brannan shared what Adams had done.

"Don't tell anybody," she said.

But that friend told her mom, who called Brannan's mom. Brannan's mother met with Anna Lum, who owned the gym until 1998. Brannan's mother made it clear she didn't want to press charges. But she wanted Adams fired.

Despite concerns, Lum said she honored the request. She fired Adams but didn't contact police.

She also adopted a new sexual harassment policy that specifically prohibited gymnasts from being in the room where the alleged abuse took place.

"I was just too naïve," she said.

Brannan's mother, who was present during IndyStar's interview with her daughter, declined to be interviewed. Brannan said her mother was trying to protect her. "It was kind of done," Brannan said. "Like, we didn't talk about it."

Adams was far from done.

1997-98

YMCA, METRO ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

A 7-year-old girl at the YMCA said she and her teammates sat in a circle under the uneven bars and played duck, duck, goose. The winner got to sit in Adams' lap.

"It was something, you know, he wanted you to work for," the girl said in a deposition taken 15 years later during an unrelated criminal case.

"It was something that he wanted you to try to win."

The girl said Adams rubbed her stomach, chest and vagina while she was on his lap in front of other girls at the gym. She said he kept talking as though nothing was happening.

By 2008, Adams had worked in at least 10 gyms and had been accused of inappropriate conduct involving at least 14 underage girls.

2009

A WARNING LETTER

On Dec. 30, 2008, a woman from Treasure Coast, a Florida gym that fired Adams, approached American Twisters Gymnastics head coach Gary Anderson during a meet.

"Why do you have that guy working for you?" she asked, referring to Adams. "We had all kinds of problems with him."

Sonya Fronsoe, a Treasure Coast mother who had researched Adams' background, said her daughter refused to compete when she saw Adams.

Infuriated that Adams was still coaching, Fronsoe said she wrote a scathing letter to USA Gymnastics on March 19, 2009, detailing her concerns about the coach. She said the fact that Adams was still coaching was "horrifying."

2009

MORE QUESTIONS

In spring 2009, Anderson warned Adams about his behavior again. The head coach said he also brought the problems to the attention of owner Randall Sikora, who told him to keep an eye on Adams.

One employee told Anderson she had seen Adams rub gymnasts' bellies, stroke their hair and spin them around.

Anderson said he confronted Adams again in August 2009 about inappropriate conduct.

He told Adams that he wanted other employees at the gym to keep an eye on Adams. He said he warned Adams that he would be dismissed if anything else happened.

"That's the last I saw of Ray," Anderson said. Adams failed to show up for his next shift.

When Anderson emailed to ask where he was, Adams turned in his notice.

He had been hired as a coach for Bieger International Gymnastics in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Adams continued to coach at Bieger International Gymnastics for a few more weeks, until his arrest in October 2009 on suspicion of molesting the 10-year-old girl. Adams, then 38, was charged with two felony counts of lewd or lascivious molestation, Broward County court records show.

USA Gymnastics suspended Adams' membership, and then, after his conviction, placed him on the banned coaches list.

2013

FEDERAL CHARGES

The force of Adams' personality became most apparent after that arrest.

Adams had worked for Bieger for less than two months. But more than a dozen parents and children attended his bond hearing, holding signs and publicly proclaiming his innocence, recalled Stacey Honowitz, the prosecutor handling the case.

"They came to court and basically taunted me," Honowitz said. "'How dare I? How could I? There's no way.' Because once again they didn't see the act of a master manipulator that ... was teaching their child. It was more important for them to have somebody that was going to make their child an Olympic gymnast than to look at the reality in this situation."

Adams' family and parents at the gym raised $80,000 to post his bond. The booster club subsequently sent a letter urging parents to donate toward Adams' legal defense, according to court records.

"I hope everyone who receives this has heard enough to be convinced of his innocence," the letter stated. "I could sit here all night and tell you what a great coach he is, what an extremely kind and good natured person he is, but I think we all know that."

When people learned that she had accused Adams of molesting her, the 10-year-old Florida girl said, she lost all of her friends and the sport she loved.

"I couldn't understand why everyone didn't believe me," she said. "I couldn't understand why this happened to me, why I didn't have any more friends."

Adams was released on bond and placed on house arrest.

About 31/2 years later, the molestation case still pending, Adams caught the attention of federal authorities when he clicked a link in a web forum message that read: "Pics and videos to download of my personal adventures during Mardi Gras 2012!!!! See me have sex with 3-10 years olds," according to federal court records.

The FBI accused Adams of trying to access a file that described in graphic terms a 10-year-old being raped by a relative, federal court records state. Federal agents also discovered more than 100 images of child pornography, including multiple images of bondage, on Adams' computer.

He was charged in federal court with five counts of possession of child pornography and one count each of attempted transfer of obscene material to a minor and attempted receipt of child pornography.

2013-present

GUILTY PLEAS, PRISON TIME

Adams pleaded guilty May 13, 2013, to one count of attempted receipt of child pornography, federal court records show.

Adams' attorney submitted 19 letters of support for Adams.

One former gymnast who was coached by Adams from 2002 to 2004 at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy described him as her favorite coach, a happy person who strengthened her skills as a gymnast.

"He is a great man, a man full of courage, love, strength and dedication," the woman wrote. "I believe that he could not even think to do anything troublesome and/or harmful."

On the other side were two girls, molested 16 years apart, linked by fear of the same man.

Brannan, the Missouri girl whose mother wouldn't allow her to testify against Adams in 1993 after she said Adams sat her on his lap and put his finger in her vagina, agreed to testify during Adams' sentencing on the child porn charge.

Brannan had grown up, gotten married and had a daughter of her own. But the scars from her time with Adams remained.

"It forever changes you," she said. "I think anytime anyone is abused in any way it changes you, because it's something you didn't choose. It just happened to you, and you have to deal with it. You know, it's made me a strong person. I'll say that."

Strong enough, Brannan said, to confront her fears and face Adams in court on July 25, 2013. She described the fear that she still lived with to that day.

"I'm scared," she testified. "I have a daughter now that's almost the age I was, and I'm so scared. I've been scared he's going to come after me. I've been scared he's going to find me and rape me. Now I think about my daughter, and I think he's still there. What if he wants to find her?"

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandy Galler told the judge: "This is abuse that doesn't go away. It has stolen the innocence of little girls. He was in a position of trust, and he violated that."

U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks then sentenced Adams to 20 years in federal prison.

Less than 18 months later, Adams pleaded no contest to two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation of the 10-year-old girl at Bieger International Gymnastics. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, to run concurrently with his federal sentence.

Through a federal prison spokesperson, Adams declined IndyStar's requests for an interview and said, "They do not have permission to use my name, and, if they do, I will aggressively sue them."

Andrea Bieger, who owned the Florida gym where the 10-year-old said she was molested, told IndyStar she still believes Adams did not molest a girl at her gym, which has closed. Her insurance company settled a lawsuit brought by the girl's family, claiming the gym had been negligent. "It wasn't true," Bieger said. "It was never, ever true."

Honowitz, of the Broward County state attorney's office in Florida, said Adams was a master manipulator and one of the worst predators she has encountered.

"He's one of the worst that I've seen," Honowitz said, referencing her nearly 29 years as a prosecutor. "Because he's the silent type, and he does it under the guise of being a trainer."

The Florida girl testified in court during the federal case that she cried every night for four years. She slept in a room with her mother. In the girl's mind, Ray Adams was everywhere. "I didn't feel safe anywhere," the girl, now 17, said in court. She struggled with depression.

"My goal is that I'm the last girl he will ever touch," the girl said, "and that ends with me."

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December 19, 2016
 
 
 

 

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