Jesse Stovall, a former coach for Berkeley-based Bear Swimming, has admitted to having sex with a 16-year-old East Bay swimmer at a swim meet in Florida. Stovall pleaded no contest to a second-degree felony charge of sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old, according to court documents. The 37-year-old was sentenced in Orlando to four years probation and is required to register as a sex offender. The Express first reported the allegations against Stovall in an April 7 cover story, "Swimming in Sex Abuse," which also explored the prevalence of coaches preying on swimmers and the failure of the sport's governing body, USA Swimming, to stop it.
Stovall originally 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. His no contest plea is the same as pleading guilty in criminal court. And although the plea deal brought relief to some members of the Bear Swimming community, it disappointed others who felt he should have been punished more severely.
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. The plea agreement also means the victim will not have to testify in court. ABC News reported that as part of his plea agreement, Stovall cannot use a computer to visit pornographic sites, although court documents did not mention this. According to the Florida State Attorney's Office, Stovall cannot attend swim meets, have contact with the victim or her family, or use a computer to search for or post about the victim or her family, either.
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, president of Bear Swimming's board of directors. [The Express used the pseudonym of Allison to identify the victim, whose real name was 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."
But some in the swimming community are unhappy about the plea deal. "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.
"I think the community wants to know where he is," added 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 also is skeptical that USA Swimming's decision to ban Stovall will prevent him from coaching kids at a club that isn't under the national organization.
USA Swimming has come under attack 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. "The culture of USA Swimming allowed this to happen. That's the problem I see involved in all these cases."
USA Swimming has admitted to suspending 36 coaches in a ten-year period for sexual abuse, but since the most recent scandal broke, Little said his law office has received many 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, Little said. "This is a horrible problem at USA Swimming," he said.
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. 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 public relations purposes.
And last week, former USA Swimming Vice President Michael Saltzstein wrote a newspaper guest column agreeing with the victims' attorneys. Saltzstein said 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 and coaches, 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 said there's been no response. "They just don't care," he said. "They're not serious about addressing this problem."
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