Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
The conviction last week of nationally acclaimed high school track coach Clyde Turner on charges of having unlawful sex with a 15-year-old team member leaves parents and school officials in Pasadena facing a tough and painful question: Who knew of Turner’s alleged penchant for seducing under-age boys, and when did they know it?
The Pasadena Superior Court jury returned its verdict after deliberating for two days. On additional charges that Turner molested a second boy, the panel hung 10-2 in favor of acquittal, and Turner’s lawyer vowed to appeal his conviction on two felony counts. But evidence presented at trial and statements by police investigators indicate that Turner’s bosses at John Muir High School had received a series of reports over the years that Turner had made inappropriate advances toward young men under his supervision.
Similar allegations are detailed further in two separate civil lawsuits filed by the parents of the boy Turner was convicted of molesting, and by the guardians of the second alleged victim in the criminal case, a male student who claimed Turner tried but failed to persuade him to have sex. The suits allege that Turner’s criminal conduct was known, or should have been known, years prior to these incidents to officials at Muir High and the Pasadena Unified School District, but that these officials did nothing to stop it.
Both suits suggest that the silence was motivated by Muir High’s long-standing reputation as a sports school — it counts Jackie and Mac Robinson among its many standout graduates. Turner was a consistent standout as a coach until his arrest in April 1998. His track teams won five state championships and never lost a dual meet.
Aside from potential liability, the allegations of crime and cover-up could shake the city’s education establishment. “If this was actually happening, why didn’t anybody intervene?” asked parent and longtime schools gadfly René F. Amy. “If this is true, they [top Pasadena school-district officials] ought to fry.”
The parents of the boy whom Turner was convicted of molesting filed their suit in late April, alleging that school-district officials “turned a blind eye” toward the coach’s “sexual encounters with a number of students.” The school district “intentionally secreted Turner’s past history for over a decade,” the suit alleged.
To date, district officials have not answered in court filings the specific allegations.
In effecting its cover-up, the lawsuit alleged, the district failed to report incidents involving Turner to the proper state and county child-care authorities. According to the suit, “This failure [was] all done in an effort at self-preservation, maintaining a winning track team and to desperately attempt to minimize liability, all with reckless disregard to and for the rights of victims and plaintiff.”
The other lawsuit, filed in December by the parents of the child Turner was charged with but not convicted of molesting, is equally critical of the district. That suit names Superintendent Vera Vignes, her predecessor Ramon Cortines and other top school officials as partially responsible for failing to corral Turner. Prosecutors have not yet decided on recharging the part-time coach for those alleged crimes.
The parents of both boys did not want to comment at this time. School officials also declined to address the allegations, though in the year after his arrest they denied any prior knowledge of Turner’s sexual proclivities toward young boys.
Superintendent Vignes, who was personnel director five years before taking over the district’s top job for Cortines in 1992, declined to be interviewed in person and did not return calls to her office. Cortines, who went on from Pasadena to head school districts in both New York and San Francisco, could not be reached.
The most damaging testimony against the district did not come from the alleged victims of the crimes for which Turner was charged. Instead, it was the claims of Christopher Martin and two other men, who testified they were sexually molested by Turner when they were teen-agers in the early 1980s, that suggested the complicity of district officials.
Martin is 31 now. But he claims that Turner molested him when he was 16, in 1983, at a time when Martin was fighting with his parents and staying at the trusted coach’s home a block away from the school campus. The day after the incident, Martin testified that he went back home and told his mother, Isabelle Tate, who, in turn, called for a meeting with school officials to discuss what had happened.
Martin’s charges were recorded in a memo that was placed in Turner’s personnel file the following February, after a meeting between Martin, Tate, and top officials from Muir High School and the district. The memo was never admitted into evidence during Turner’s criminal trial, but Turner’s attorney made a copy available. The memo, which was addressed to Cortines, says Turner was accused by Martin and his mother only of inappropriate touching of the boy’s buttocks.
Both Martin and his mother say that’s a fabrication. Martin testified at trial that the molestation went well beyond Turner’s touching his buttocks. According to Martin, he had slept at Turner’s home for a week and, on his last morning in the coach’s bed, “woke up and found his penis between my legs.”
Tate contends that officials promised at the 1984 meeting to keep Turner away from children. That promise is reflected in the memo, along with allegations by a security officer who “gave the names of several students that Mr. Turner may have made inappropriate advances toward.” Yet Turner was never disciplined or reassigned. Turner, who also worked as a part-time security guard at Eliot Middle School in Altadena, continued his part-time track and football coaching duties. Martin left Muir and finished his last two years at another local high school.
Tate said in a recent interview that after that meeting, she thought Turner would be “put on as a janitor at night, or something.
“I didn’t follow Mr. Turner’s career after that,” Tate said, adding that the family has since moved to the Pomona area. “But now, here we are 16 years later, and he [Turner] is at the same school where all this stuff took place. The [district] never did anything, and that’s very disturbing. Clearly, clearly, clearly, they’ve known. It’s just all very disturbing.”
Martin and the other adult alleged victims never filed formal complaints with police but were allowed to testify in the criminal case of the two latest victims under a recent penal-code provision that allows prosecutors in sex-offense cases to introduce such testimony in order to demonstrate a pattern of behavior.
Deputy L.A. District Attorney Amy Suehiro asked to bring three more alleged past victims as witnesses, one of them a member of Turner’s family. But their testimony was barred by Pasadena Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House.
Suehiro, Pasadena Police Detective George Vidal and Sergeant Tom Delgado said in separate interviews that during their investigations they learned that many kids at Muir said they knew to steer clear of Turner, even if school officials didn’t.
In fact, police themselves knew of at least one person who claimed to have been molested as a child by Turner. That person, who was also barred from testifying, had been arrested himself in 1992 for molesting his own 8-year-old daughter. During his interrogation, and during a subsequent trial, he said he had those urges because he was molested by Turner as a boy, according to a motion filed by Suehiro.
Vidal said he did not know the detective handling that case, but said it would take more than the word of a suspected child molester to launch an investigation into the behavior of Turner, one of Pasadena’s most respected sports figures.
However, Delgado said investigators found that many children attending Muir had suspicions of Turner. But he said there is no evidence to show that school officials had prior knowledge of Turner’s sexual activities.
“There were rumors in the school that Mr. Turner was not straight. We talked to more than a few people who said that it was known in school between peers and students,” Delgado said. “Now I’m not saying the faculty knew, or that the administration knew. But the students talked among themselves and told each other to be careful because there’s something that isn’t straight about Mr. Turner.”
Delgado pointed out that that doesn’t mean school officials had no prior knowledge of Turner’s behavior. “We just couldn’t prove it,” he said.