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Ex-students file 12 sex abuse lawsuits against 6 cheerleading gyms in 7 states

Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks with reporters during a news conference announcing a cheerleader abuse lawsuit filed in Tennessee on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn.
Adrian Sainz
Attorney Alexandra Benevento, center, speaks with reporters during a news conference announcing a cheerleader abuse lawsuit filed in Tennessee on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Memphis, Tenn.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — It's been eight years since a South Carolina mother told her daughter she thought her cheerleading coach at Rockstar Cheer and Dance in Greenville, S.C., was a nice guy. The comment elicited a conversation and guilt she still can't shake.

"My daughter said, 'Mom, he's not what you think,' " said the woman, who NPR is not identifying to protect her daughter.

It was then that her daughter told her she had been forced to perform oral sex on the coach when she was 13 years old.

"I paid for someone to murder by daughter's childhood," the woman said.

Nearly a decade later, Rockstar Cheer and Dance is closed. It shuttered in September after a civil lawsuit accused the owner of sexually abusing minors and allowing several coaches to do the same, including the coach the mother says abused her then-13-year-old.

The suit says the owner killed himself in late August after learning he was under federal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. NPR has confirmed his death but does not know whether his suicide was related to the federal investigation.

DHS handles child pornography but won't comment on the case.

Since that first federal civil lawsuit in South Carolina was filed, Rockstar has been hit with three more.

Similar suits have also been filed in six other states, naming five gyms, 15 coaches and two choreographers.

In all, 12 lawsuits on behalf of 21 plaintiffs allege a culture of sexual abuse, drugs and pornography in competitive cheerleading.

The suits, filed in civil court, accuse some of cheerleading's top institutions of conspiracy for failing to protect minors and seek compensatory and punitive damages. Of the dozens of defendants named, two have been criminally charged. The attorneys who filed the suits say they expect to file even more in other states as plaintiffs continue to come forward with cases that span decades.

"Similar to other sports which have had their reckoning, this is a reckoning for cheer nationwide," says one of those attorneys, Bakari Sellers.

Lawsuits in 7 states

In the latest suit, filed in late December, a former cheerleader says a coach at the CheerForce Simi Valley gym in Moorpark, Calif., gave her drugs and alcohol, and had sex with her when she was 15 years old. She says she was too terrified at the time to report the abuse.

But last year, she says, she came forward and filed a report with cheerleading's governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation or USASF, only to be met with skepticism and a "deeply traumatizing and unsettling" process.

A USASF website shows one of the owners of CheerForce, Becky Herrera, serves as a voting board member for the organization but does not indicate how long she's held that role. NPR tried to contact Herrera by calling the gym and was told by a woman who answered the phone Herrera and her co-owner husband were not available for comment. An email to the gym was not answered.

In another lawsuit filed in November, a former cheerleader in Ohio says two male choreographers repeatedly had sex with him in a hotel room in 2016. The suit alleges he reported the abuse to the USASF cheerleading governing body but was told there wasn't enough evidence.

"Our clients have been led to believe that they're alone," Sellers said in news release announcing the Ohio lawsuit. "But nothing could be further from the truth."

In Florida, Sellers and his team have filed three lawsuits on behalf of girls who say a coach at the now-closed Champion Elite Legacy gym in Daytona Beach inappropriately touched them and repeatedly exposed himself in person and on video. The suits allege there had been a previous complaint about the coach to the gym and USASF, but nothing was done until police got involved.

Arrest records say that the coach, 43-year-old Erick Kristianson, was taken into custody in August on felony charges of lewd and lascivious exhibition and molestation of victims under 16. He posted bail and his case has been continued, according to records.

Calls to Kristianson's attorney were not returned. NPR also tried to reach the gym's former owner, but messages left by email and telephone were not answered.

In Georgia, a cheerleader at the Stingray Allstars Marietta gym alleges in a lawsuit he was raped by a male coach two years ago, when he was 15 years old. He accuses adults at the facility of knowing about the assault but not reporting it. He says an adult cheerleader also sent him nude photos.

Kim Brubeck, a sports compliance manager for Stingray Allstars, denies the allegations that adults knew, adding the coach was let go in February for an unrelated matter. She says the gym contacted police in September, after hearing from the boy's mother.

The former coach, 20-year-old Robert Stone, was arrested in November on charges of aggravated sodomy, according to the Cobb County Sheriff's Office.

Court records show he posted bond in early December and is living in Tennessee. NPR reached out to Stone and spoke with his father, who said he would contact his son's attorney, but NPR did not hear from the attorney.

In a lawsuit in North Carolina, a former cheerleader at Cheer Extreme Allstars in Raleigh accuses several coaches of sending pornographic photos, giving him cocaine and sexually abusing him. He does not name the adults who committed the abuse but does name the gym's owner and two other coaches he says knew he was being abused but failed to report it.

The owner of Cheer Extreme Allstars, Kelly Helton, says the gym is surprised and extremely disheartened to be named in the suit, stressing safety is a top concern.

"The complaint does not name the alleged abusers, making a response difficult, however what we can provide are the systems in place at our company with regards to athlete safety," Helton said in a statement.

In Tennessee, another lawsuit alleges a coach at Premier Athletics Knoxville West sent two boys pornographic images before sexually abusing them.

"I've never felt such complete injustice and rage," says one boy's mother.

NPR is not identifying the woman to protect her 15-year-old child.

The mother says she found out about the abuse in fall 2022, after her son switched gyms. She says the owner of the new gym told her Premier Athletics was investigating abuse reports and her son's name was mentioned. But she says she never heard directly from Premier.

An attorney from Premier Athletics, Chad Hatmaker, says the gym has been inaccurately implicated in the lawsuit and the coach was fired.

And, in South Carolina, where the first suit was filed, three more have been added on behalf of new plaintiffs. According to the lawsuits, a dozen male and female cheerleaders from Rockstar say they were plied with drugs and alcohol, and sexually abused by seven coaches, as well as the owner, over the past decade. The suits allege it happened in cars, hotels and private homes

"We have people who have attempted suicide, who can't establish relationships with the opposite sex," says Sellers. "Some have substance abuse issues."

In addition to reaching out to gym owners, NPR also tried to contact the 15 coaches and two choreographers named in the lawsuits. Two denied the allegations and the others either could not be reached or did not respond to calls, emails and direct messages on social media.

It's important to note, again, that only two people named in the lawsuits, the Florida and Georgia coaches, have been criminally charged.

Allegations of conspiracy

Attorney Alexandra Benevento, who works with Sellers, says they've been inundated with calls from people across the country who also allege abuse at cheerleading gyms. But she says coaches and gyms aren't the only ones to blame for the abuse of minors. The lawsuits allege other responsible parties.

"They were also harmed by these companies that not only didn't do anything about it, but decided they were going to protect themselves over protecting children," says Benevento.

The lawsuits say one of those companies is Varsity, cheerleading's dominant commercial force. A multibillion-dollar enterprise, Varsity organizes competitions and sells apparel.

Varsity is owned by Bain Capital. NPR attempted to obtain comment from Bain Capital, but the company did not answer emails or telephone calls.

The lawsuits say gyms pay dues to be affiliated with Varsity, and families at those Varsity-affiliated gyms are required to pay fees to cheerleading's governing body, USASF. It handles abuse complaints.

The suits say Varsity controls USASF and that USASF has failed to address multiple abuse reports even as it continues to collect fees from families.

The suits accuse the defendants of "knowing their young vulnerable members were at risk and they were doing nothing about removing the criminal coaches, affiliates, gym owners, and administrators".

Attorney Jessica Fickling, who's also on the legal team, says Varsity has created a structure to report abuse, but it doesn't keep kids safe.

"It is a structure put in place to give an impression of safety," says Fickling. "Perhaps it could work that way. It's just that it's not working that way."

Varsity spokesman Tom Becker rejects the accusations of abuse and civil conspiracy. He says the company does not control the U.S. All Star Federation and would expect USASF to investigate abuse allegations.

USASF did not respond to repeated calls and emails from NPR requesting comment.

In mid-December, Varsity founder Jeff Webb, took legal action to clear his name. He and several other defendants, including Varsity, filed motions to dismiss the first South Carolina case.

Webb's attorneys say he has no ties to South Carolina and his contributions transforming cheerleading from a sideline activity to competitions do not "impose liability on Mr. Webb for the alleged conduct of a handful of rogue bad actors."

NPR reached out to Webb for further comment on the allegations but did not hear back.

Daphne Young, the chief communications officer for Childhelp non-profit organization, says she's not surprised by the allegations. The decades old non-profit fights child abuse through education, services and a national hotline.

"What we know from the work that we do is the pain never goes away," says Young.

Young says Childhelp met with survivors of the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal after the conviction of team doctor Larry Nassar. What they learned, she said, is that internal reporting within sports organizations doesn't always work.

"There can be a culture of secrecy, a kind of authoritarian structure," says Young, who stresses she cannot speak directly to the allegations against competitive cheerleading.

She says Childhelp just launched a service called the "Courage First Athlete Helpline," which allows minors and adults to discuss their concerns anonymously and get help.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.