Former Berkeley Swim Coach Accepts Plea Agreement

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Jesse Stovall, the former Berkeley-based BEAR Swimming coach who faced criminal charges for having sex with a 16-year-old swimmer at a swim meet in Florida, pleaded no contest to the accusations last Friday, according to court documents. The 37-year-old was sentenced in Orlando to four years probation on a second-degree felony charge of sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year old, and will be registered as a sex offender for life, according to a report by ABC News.

Stovall faced three first-degree felony charges of sexual activity with a child, and three second-degree felony charges of sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old. The Express first reported the allegations in an April 7 cover story, “Swimming in Sex Abuse.”

According to ABC News, the victim and her family did not want Stovall to go to prison and supported the plea agreement so that the victim could focus on her swimming career in college. In addition to being registered as a sex offender, according to ABC News, Stovall also will not be allowed to use a computer to visit pornographic sites, research the victim or any of her swim meets, or contact her through social media, according to the terms of the plea agreement. Midweek calls to the Assistant State Attorneys Office were not returned.

Stovall’s former employer was satisfied with the outcome. “Given the fact that ‘Allison’s’ family didn’t want him to go to jail, given that, I am absolutely not surprised,” said Gary Firestone, BEAR Swimming’s president of the board of directors. [The article in the Express used the pseudonym of Allison to identify the victim, whose real name is not known to this newspaper.] “The fact that he has to register permanently as a sex offender, I think that’s a pretty justifiable outcome. He’ll be punished for the rest of his life.”

“I’m relieved that a decision by the court was made so quickly,” agreed Carol Nip, BEAR Swimming’s current head coach. “I was worried that this was going to take four to five years. I’m glad to know that there is a resolution. … I’m also grateful that he is not going to jail. I do feel that this is a one-time; it’s not something that he repeated over and over again for decades. I think he was probably tempted greatly, under great temptation, and fell. It would have been a different story if he did this to other people in other teams and was a repeat pattern. I don’t think it was a repeat pattern in his life.”

The agreement may have satisfied the victim and her family, but some in the swimming community are still concerned. “It’s pretty messed up; pretty much everybody I’ve talked to is pretty disappointed,” said a former assistant coach at BEAR Swimming, who requested anonymity, about the terms of Stovall’s plea.

“I think the community wants to know where he is,” said Irvin Muchnick, a parent of a former BEAR Swimming athlete. “We want to know is he here — and if so, the community should be on the lookout for him. If not, we should share with [people in Stovall’s new community] the stories.” Muchnick is skeptical that USA Swimming’s decision to ban Stovall from coaching will prevent him from coaching kids at a swim club that isn’t under the umbrella of the national organization.

USA Swimming has come under attack from critics in recent weeks for allegedly turning the other cheek to widespread sex abuse. And the Stovall case is representative of that bigger problem. “He coerced his athlete to have sex with him; she didn’t choose to have sex with him,” said Jonathan Little, an Indianapolis-based attorney who filed one of the current sexual abuse cases against USA Swimming. “To focus on the age issue is to ignore what’s really going on here — the culture of USA Swimming allowed this to happen. That’s the problem I see involved in all these cases.”

San Jose-based attorney Robert Allard filed a lawsuit in March that touched off a firestorm of media attention about sex abuse in the swimming community. USA Swimming admitted that it has suspended 36 coaches in a ten-year period for sexual abuse. But since then, Little says they’ve received numerous calls from women saying they’ve been victims of sexual abuse by their coaches. Well over 75 coaches are now accused or are known to have been convicted of sexual abuse, said Little (about half of whom have been convicted). “We get phone calls from women who were abused by their coaches every day,” he said. “This is a horrible problem at USA Swimming.”

In an interview with ABC News, USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus said that while one abused swimmer was too many, he didn’t feel a need to apologize to the victims.

Last week, USA Swimming announced a seven-point plan to address sex abuse by its swim coaches, but lawyers representing victims called the plan “flawed” and “vague,” and said it was thrown together for PR purposes.

Earlier this week, a former USA Swimming Vice President, Michael Saltzstein, wrote a newspaper guest column agreeing with the victims’ attorney. Saltzstein wrote that he was voted out of office for his efforts to deter child abuse. While serving as a member of USA Swimming’s Background Checks Task Force from 2004 to 2006, he said “members were publicly attacked, volunteer swimming careers directly threatened, and multiple filibusters and delay tactics endured. … As threatened, I lost the 2006 election for USA Swimming President.” Saltzstein also accused USA Swimming of failing to protect youth, saying “our culture encourages non-reporting” and “permits process failures that allow coaches to be wrongly accused or not promptly cleared.”

The lawyers for the victims volunteered to help USA Swimming develop a better policy, but so far, Little says there’s been no response. “They just don’t care,” he said. “They’re not serious about addressing this problem.”

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