Lawsuit against swimming establishment
Former swimming coach Christopher Wheat was sentenced a year ago after admitting to sexual activity with a 14-year-old member of his Lawrence youth swim team.
Now, the girl's lawyer has filed a lawsuit alleging the culture around youth swimming allows pedophile coaches to prey on the kids entrusted to their care.
Lawyer Jonathan Little filed the lawsuit on behalf of the girl against United States Swimming and Indiana Swimming, the national organization that governs competitive swimming and its affiliate. The lawsuit also names Lawrence Township Schools, Wheat, former Lawrence coach John Diercks and McCutcheon High School swim coach Amanda Juntenen Cox.
Generally, the lawsuit alleges that people in positions of authority were made aware of allegations against Wheat but never went to law enforcement as required by law.
USA Swimming spokesman Mike Whewell said the organization does not have a culture of protecting pedophiles and had not been warned of allegations of past sexual abuse by Wheat. Whewell said USA Swimming has a comprehensive athlete-protection policy and it banned Wheat as a member after his arrest.
Diercks told The Indianapolis Star by email Thursday that he did not know about the lawsuit and that he was in no way involved.
Other defendants either could not be reached by The Star or declined comment.
It's Little's sixth lawsuit against USA Swimming, an organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., that faces an increasing number of lawsuits alleging a pattern of sexual misconduct among swimming coaches nationally.
The lawsuit comes at a time when the public could hardly be more aware of such allegations. No story has more dominated the national news this week than the shocking allegations of a sexual abuse cover-up at Penn State University.
In both the Lawrence and Penn State cases, a coach is accused of abusing a minor, and others in a position of authority are being accused of not doing enough to prevent it.
"We have a rotten, sick culture in USA Swimming," Little said at a news conference Thursday. "Just like in the Penn State case, those in authority ignored sexual abuse claims and failed to report sexual abuse complaints to law enforcement.
"USA Swimming and Indiana Swimming have failed to protect (my client) and possibly a number of other swimmers across the country by fostering a culture that places the protection of pedophile coaches ahead of protecting athletes."
The lawsuit asks for unspecified monetary damages and calls for the removal of USA Swimming and Indiana Swimming officials and coaches who, Little alleges, knew about the misconduct. Little also asked the Marion County prosecutor's office to charge officials and coaches who, he says, never reported allegations to authorities.
Brienne Delaney, spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office, said the office reviewed evidence before Wheat's trial and decided not to file charges against any other coaches or officials.
Wheat was sentenced in September 2010 to eight years in prison and two years in community corrections after he pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual misconduct with a minor and one count of child solicitation. The victim was an eighth-grade swimmer on the Lawrence Swim Team, where Wheat was head coach and executive director. He also was an assistant coach for Lawrence North.
On Nov. 4, a Marion County judge declined to shorten Wheat's prison sentence.
The victim asked the judge to keep Wheat behind bars, saying: "I rarely feel like a normal teenager."
She never would have been in harm's way, Little contends, if others had reported what they knew to law enforcement.
It started with John Diercks, Little said. Little contends in the lawsuit that swimmers told two assistant coaches about Wheat's "sexually inappropriate behavior" in the spring and summer of 2001.
The suit further contends that those coaches informed Diercks, the former head coach at Lawrence North.
But, Little said, Diercks never reported the allegations to law enforcement. Soon after, Wheat resigned his coaching position. But then in 2003, court documents say, Diercks hired him back.
"I am unaware of any lawsuit filed against me," Diercks said Thursday in his email response. "I was (and am not) in any way involved."
Little said officials from USA Swimming, the Lawrence school district and Indiana Swimming also allowed Wheat to be hired despite knowing of allegations made by parents.
Officials from Indiana Swimming did not return messages for comment on the lawsuit. Robin Phelps, the school district's spokeswoman, said district officials would have no comment until they had seen the lawsuit.
Little said at least one other swim coach also knew of Wheat's behavior. A series of text messages filed in the criminal case details a conversation on Oct. 4, 2009, between Wheat and Amanda Juntenen Cox, the McCutcheon High School swim coach and head of the youth team Maverick Aquatics.
Wheat, in the messages, admits to having a relationship with a young girl. He describes her as the "blonde one" and names her friends. Cox says "OK! That's was imy (sic) first thought."
Wheat describes being depressed and tells Cox the girl's mother had chaperoned a sleepover at the new pool the previous day -- and both Wheat and the girl were there.
"Her mom kept asking me what's wrong … I wanted to say well I have been making out and the like with ur daughter … and well she called it quits earlier today" and "now I have 4 years with her … ugh … who knows where this one goes … Cox replies "D`amn" and Wheat asks "what" and Cox texts "Age" and then "But good catch … now put her back in the lake and chalk it up as an experience, smile about it occationally (sic), and upgrade to college … Or a vacation w/ boys."
In the text messages, her "cavalier attitude is beyond belief," Little says. Cox could not be reached Thursday.
Little has five active lawsuits on behalf of swimmers against USA Swimming. Another case, he said, has been resolved — but he wouldn't disclose details, citing a confidentiality agreement.
In one of the five active cases, he represents one of the victims of Brian Hindson, former Kokomo and Westfield coach. Hindson pleaded guilty in 2008 to 16 counts of child pornography after secretly recording girls younger than 18 undressing.