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Claims of Molestation Resurface for Judo Official
By PETE THAMEL, NY Times, July 26, 2008
A high-ranking USA Judo official has been accused of drugging and sexually molesting teenage competitors he coached in the late 1970s, accusations that resurfaced last month in Internet postings by one of the sport’s top athletes.
On Friday, the United States Olympic Committee announced that it had begun a formal inquiry upon learning of the accusations in recent weeks and that it would have an independent counsel investigate the claims.
“These are serious allegations, and they will receive the attention and priority they deserve,” said Darryl Seibel, a spokesman for the U.S.O.C.
One of the sport’s national groups, the United States Judo Association, has suspended the official, Fletcher Thornton. But the sport’s most prominent organization, USA Judo, which oversees 8,000 athletes and the Olympic team, has taken no action. Thornton is on the executive board and his duties have included overseeing the board’s standards. He is not paid by USA Judo.
Thornton, 69, of Middletown, Calif., was never charged with a crime and labeled the accusations false.
The allegations were common knowledge for years in the elite judo community. In June, Ronda Rousey, a 21-year-old who is considered the nation’s best hope for a judo medal at the Beijing Olympics, chastised Thornton and the sport’s leaders on her blog and a judo message board. She wrote that USA Judo “didn’t bat an eyelash” at the claims.
The claims were detailed by young athletes in sworn affidavits signed in 1981, a few years after the incidents were said to have occurred, and again by a new accuser in 2005. In both cases, the affidavits were given to top officials of USA Judo, and no action was taken against Thornton.
Thornton is in Orlando, Fla., where he is refereeing matches at this weekend’s USA Judo National Junior Olympic Championships. Reached by telephone Thursday night and asked about the accusations, he said he had no desire to “discuss 30-year-old allegations.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t think you want to know the truth,” he said. “I have nothing more to say to you.”
Jose H. Rodriguez, the chief executive of USA Judo, said he was standing by Thornton, who served as part of the referee commission at the Olympic trials in June. Rodriguez said he found it conspicuous that the affidavits re-emerged in election years for USA Judo executive board positions. He said he welcomed any of the accusers to come forward.
“Don’t you find that something is missing here?” he said. “Should someone have written a letter or made a phone call and say, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t get a chance to be heard, this isn’t fair.’ ”
One of the accusers who gave an affidavit in 1981 said in a telephone interview this week that she had never spoken with anyone from USA Judo and did not know they wanted her to be heard.
“I would have loved to talked to someone,” she said. “I wanted someone to hear me and believe me.”
At least three athletes have given sworn statements, saying they were molested or inappropriately touched by Thornton, who was their judo coach and who was more than 20 years older than they were at the time. Two of the women said Thornton had sexual intercourse with them after they smoked marijuana he had provided them. Another woman said that Thornton routinely watched as she took off her clothes for weigh-ins before judo matches and that he groped her in training sessions. Other athletes gave sworn statements saying that Thornton regularly provided them with marijuana and alcohol, mostly on trips for judo.
The parents of a judo athlete in the Spokane, Wash., area, where Thornton coached at a club, learned about the accusations, hired a lawyer and encouraged the athletes to put together a series of sworn statements in 1981. But their case never got any traction with the authorities. The main issue, according to Paul Burney, who served as a spokesman for that group, was that the Spokane police struggled to determine jurisdiction because the suspected incidents were said to have occurred on the road and at tournaments in different cities.
“Today’s attitude about these things is not the same,” Burney said in a telephone interview. “No one wanted it then.”
In a telephone interview this week with The New York Times, one of the accusers who gave a sworn statement confirmed what she originally reported.
“For two decades this haunted me,” she said. “I made some bad choices. He was the adult in that situation and took complete advantage of me and my family. It changed the way I lived my life and looked at people and the way I had relationships with people.”
Kris Thomfohrde was part of the larger group in the Spokane area who gathered the sworn statements. She said she was not sexually molested by Thornton.
In her sworn statement and in a telephone interview, however, she said Thornton had acted inappropriately around her for years. Her statement recalled a “roaring pot party,” and that when she and Thornton were doing judo workouts, he would often put his hand through her robe and grab her breast. She also said Thornton required her to strip in front of him, including taking off her bra, for weigh-ins before many matches.
The accusations by those two women, and by a handful of other teenagers, were forwarded to USA Judo for a hearing in October 1982 in Colorado Springs. But the lack of police action and the fact that none of the accusers were present to testify prompted USA Judo officials to dismiss the claims against Thornton.
In January 1982, Thornton was suspended from the community center in Spokane where his club practiced. The center reinstated him 10 months later, after finding “questions of judgment” but no “criminal wrongdoing.” A letter provided by Don Higgins, the West Central Community Center’s executive director, attributed the allegations to an “apparent political rivalry” with another judo club.
After being reinstated, Thornton moved to Alaska from Spokane, and many of the athletes and their friends assumed he had exited the judo world. Rousey’s mother, the former world champion AnnMaria De Mars, said she could not believe it when she spotted Thornton at a tournament a few years ago.
In a sworn statement in 2005 that she provided to USA Judo, De Mars said she recalled beating a member of Thornton’s judo club to win a tournament, and how he had put his arms on her bare shoulders and said, “She’s still prettier than you.”
As her daughter, Rousey, emerged as one of the country’s top judo athletes, De Mars would not let her go on a foreign trip in 2002, at age 15, because she did not know who would be supervising it. Thornton ended up overseeing the group.
In 2004, De Mars said she received an e-mail message from a young woman at her former judo club, saying “she had been molested by the coach as a young girl, contacted USA Judo and they discouraged her from pursuing the case.” That response from USA Judo pushed De Mars to encourage a friend who had raised similar claims to give USA Judo a statement. That woman did so in 2005 and confirmed the contents of her statement in a telephone interview this week. The statement said that Thornton had “intercourse with me several times” and that she personally witnessed him have oral sex with another girl who was younger than she was.
The woman said she went to the Olympic trials in Las Vegas in June, hoping to hear of progress made on her complaint. Instead, she saw Thornton helping run the event as part of the referee commission.
Despite the formal complaints, it was Rousey’s recent blog and message board post that prompted the latest attention. She said she raised the issue because Thornton had written a letter to a friend of hers, demanding an apology for his behavior after a match. She said she found it hypocritical, so she posted the blog on judoforum.com on June 20 and pasted a copy on her blog.
Other bloggers picked up the post, although Rousey removed it from her own blog because she said her coaches did not want it to distract from her training.
Last edited by sambosteve; 7/26/2008 10:25am at .