Every Parent’s Nightmare
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The child molester has found a home in the world of youth sports, where as a coach he can gain the trust and loyalty of kids—and then prey on them
Norman Watson still misses the game he loves most. He misses the dusty world of Little League baseball. He misses riding to the games on a motorcycle, and he misses managing and umpiring and the feeling that Little League gave him, the sense that in a life of drift he somehow belonged. Come the shades of nightfall—as he stokes the embers of his darksome fantasies in his prison cell—he also misses sex with his preferred partners. He misses the boys.
Blue-eyed and articulate, cool and composed, Watson hardly fits the stereotype of the child molester—a snaggletoothed gargoyle in a trench coat at the edge of a playground, leering at the downy-limbed children playing on the swings. That was never Watson, never his pedophiliac style, though he has spent most of his 54 years sexually preying on children. By his own count, he figures he has molested “a couple of hundred” children over three decades. Most of them were youngsters, between the ages of 11 and 14, whom he first met through his work in Little League. With many of those kids he spun his sticky web into affairs that lasted months and even years.
It’s because of his uncontrolled desire for sex with boys that Watson is sitting this August day in a small cubicle inside a large California prison, serving the second year of an 84-year sentence that will end no sooner than his life. Hands folded on a table, now smiling at a remembrance, now tearyeyed at another, he occasionally glances out the window to a larger visitors’ room, waving or nodding to some fellow prisoners while scanning the faces of others. He lives warily these days, an undiscovered pariah leading a life of maximum insecurity. To other prison inmates, child molesters rank somewhere between roaches and the AIDS virus, but despite the dangers of revealing the nature of his crimes—he has until now kept them secret from his fellow inmates-Watson sees a redeeming value in granting this interview. “My life is over anyway,” he says. “Maybe I can say something that will make sense to parents….”
After so many years in the criminal justice system, after so many years of counseling and therapy, Watson has reached this ineluctable conclusion: He should die within these walls that now confine him. “I think it’s good I’m no longer in the position to do any more damage,” he says. “I have hurt people out there. I’ve sat here, and I’ve had plenty of time to think about it, and I know some abused kids have been scarred for life…. I have a predisposition to want to be around, and am sexually aroused by, young boys. I can’t be where I have access to boys.”
Sixteen months earlier, during his sentencing hearing in a San Bernardino (Calif.) County courthouse, Watson, at times weeping with his face in his hands, had sat and listened as angry, tearful parents, some with their long-molested children at their sides, sent him off to prison with cries of execration. He’d pleaded guilty to 39 counts of lewd acts with children, four boys and a girl, that had occurred between 1990 and ’96, when Watson was a San Bernardino Little League coach and umpire and the five kids were all playing in the league. Unbeknownst to the players’ parents, Watson was on probation during much of that span for a 1980 molestation offense in nearby Riverside. None of the parents knew that their beloved and winning coach—this glib, engaging soul who had lived with and among them, who had so generously babysat their kids, taken the youngsters to movies and bought them expensive gifts-had undergone more than five years of treatment in two state mental hospitals for child molesting. One of those institutions was Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, not far from the East Base Line Little League field where Watson would become a leading coach.
By the time Watson was sentenced, the parents’ sense of betrayal had mutated into fury. One by one, parents and children rose at the sentencing to read their victim-impact statements. “You made my life a wreck,” said one 13-year-old victim. “You scared these kids, took advantage of their innocence and suffocated them so they would not tell on you,” a parent said. Another parent looked at Watson and said, “You’re worse than a thief. You’re worse than a murderer. A thief steals what can be replaced. A murderer kills his victim one time. What you have done to these children is going to last the rest of their lives, and unfortunately history says that a fair portion of your victims are going to start victimizing others as you have done…. I hope you rest in hell.”
Now Watson shifts in his cubicle chair and rubs the stubble on his face. “I’ve got a lot of time to think in here,” he says. “I don’t allow myself to think about what I’ve done to all those people because I don’t think I could handle it. There’s one thing that’s helped me since I’ve been incarcerated here: I’m where I belong.”
In preying on prepubescent and newly pubescent athletes, Watson was hardly a lone wolf. While there have been no formal studies to determine how many child molesters have coached youth teams, a computer-database search of recent newspaper stories reveals more than 30 cases just in the last 18 months of coaches in the U.S. who have been arrested or convicted of sexually abusing children engaged in nine sports from baseball to wrestling—and this despite the fact that child sex-abuse victims, for reasons ranging from shame and embarrassment to love or fear of their molesters, rarely report the crime. For every child who reports being molested, according to a variety of experts on the sexual exploitation of children, at least 10 more keep their secrets unrevealed. The molesters are almost always men, and in youth sports most, though not all, of the victims are boys. (The one girl Watson admitted molesting was only five when he began abusing her. He says because she was a player he viewed her “as just one of the boys.”)
Today the reporting of child molestation in youth sports is about where the reporting of rape in society was 30 years ago. However, there are indications that things are changing, that after decades of being ignored, minimized or hidden away, the molestation of players by their coaches is no longer the sporting culture’s dirty little secret. “I’m no longer surprised when I read that this or that pillar of the coaching community has been accused or convicted of multiple counts of child molestation,” says Steven Bisbing, a clinical and forensic psychologist from Takoma Park, Md., who studies sexual abuse of children by authority figures. “It’s not an isolated problem, just a few bad apples. This was the prevailing view for a long time: ‘It’s isolated. It’s one guy. They’re rid of him. No more problem.’ That’s absurd…. It occurs with enough regularity across the country, at all levels [of society], that it should be viewed as a public health problem.”
Although child molestation is by no means confined to sports, the playing field represents an obvious opportunity for sexual predators. In the U.S. more than 10 million children under the age of 16 play organized sports, coached or otherwise supervised by more than a million adults, many of them unscreened male volunteers—which is to say, men on whom background checks have never been done. “Youth sports are a ready-made resource pool for pedophiles, and we better all get our heads out of the sand before we ruin the games,” says Bob Bastarache, a police officer turned private investigator and the current president of one of New England’s largest AAU clubs, the Bristol Stars, of New Bedford, Mass. “Parents today are so busy, they’re allowing coaches to take over the after-school hours, and that’s the foot in the door pedophiles need.”
The phenomenon touches communities large and small and can involve coaches both celebrated and obscure. On Aug. 30 Clyde Turner, the track and field coach at John Muir High in Pasadena, was given concurrent sentences, one of three years and one of eight months, following his conviction for molesting and showing pornographic material to a freshman on his team. Turner, who is filing an appeal, was well regarded for his work with young athletes and his record as a coach; his teams won four state championships in the 1990s.
Another coach widely respected in his community was John (Jay) Davidson of Beverly, Mass. Davidson was a coach and an organizer—former president of the local Babe Ruth League, founder of the highly successful New England Mariners youth baseball club and an instructor who participated in baseball camps throughout the country. On Oct. 9, 1998, four days after being charged with sexually assaulting two of his players during overnight stays at his house, Davidson, a 41-year-old bachelor, sent off a letter to parents of his players proclaiming his innocence while keening in despair: “No money, no baseball, no friends, never again working with kids.” He then sliced open his arms with a knife, called 911 to report his suicide attempt and died before help could arrive, surrounded by photos of boys he had coached.
The sexual exploitation of children is such a volatile subject that even noncriminal allegations can lead to complaints against a coach, especially if parents discover he has a molestation conviction on his record, regardless of whether it was decades ago. One of the Boston area’s most successful youth basketball coaches, Jim Tavares, was forced out of the AAU last year under such circumstances. Tavares, for 20 years the coach of the New Bedford Buddies basketball program for kids ages 12 to 17, which has developed dozens of Division I college scholarship players, resigned his AAU membership under pressure in March 1998 after three sets of parents, each with a son on the 13-and-under team coached by Tavares, complained to the AAU about him. According to the parents, the 56-year-old Tavares took whirlpool baths in the nude with their sons—allegedly telling the boys that despite their reluctance, they had to take off their swimsuits before entering the hot tub—and watched them as they took showers.
One of the parents who complained had learned that Tavares had been convicted in 1974 in New Bedford of “unnatural acts with a child under 16” following an encounter in a swimming pool with a boy who played on a youth football team Tavares had coached. Tavares received a two-year suspended sentence. In an interview with SI, Tavares expressed surprise that the boy in that case had filed the complaint, revealing that for six months before the incident he and the boy had been in a relationship that included physical contact.
Despite this and another criminal conviction—in 1968 in New Bedford for being “a lewd person in speech and behavior”—Tavares established himself as a prominent youth basketball coach. In fact, he is still coaching, with the support of parents who are aware of his past record, though Nike no longer sponsors the Buddies and the club is no longer sanctioned by the AAU. Asked if someone with his criminal record should be allowed to coach children, Tavares took offense that anyone would even raise the question. He said he felt there was nothing inappropriate about his taking nude whirlpool baths with his players and denied asking them to take their suits off or watching them take showers. He also pointed out that the police hadn’t charged him with any crimes.
Tavares, who lives with his mother, speaks with despair about the parents’ complaints and the airing of his criminal record. He has filed a suit in Massachusetts Superior Court for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy against one of the parents who complained. “I’m very, very depressed,” he says. “I go to bed hoping I die, and I wake up hoping I die. This has probably been worse than when I was arrested for the actual thing [in 1974]. I lost my whole life [last year].”
Allegations of child molestation can reverberate through communities, wreaking a kind of psychic devastation. In Las Vegas, former Little League coach Garen Pearson faces trial on 19 counts of sexual assault with a child under 14, 14 counts of lewdness with a child under 14, four counts of sexual assault with a child under 16 and two counts of open and gross lewdness. Pearson, a 40-year-old landscaper, who is pleading not guilty, according to his lawyer, is accused of molesting five boys ages 9 to 15, four of whom he coached, between 1994 and ’99. Police say that the case began after a 10-year-old boy who played for Pearson broke down in tears in his parents’ bedroom and told them that Pearson—who had been invited to attend the boy’s birthday party several days later—had molested him numerous times. According to their parents, some of the boys Pearson allegedly molested remain traumatized. One mother told SI that her 10-year-old son, one of the purported victims, became so fearful of being in any of the rooms in which Pearson had allegedly molested him that she and the boy had to move out of their apartment. “The only two places he would go were my bedroom and the kitchen,” she says. “He wouldn’t go in the living room. He wouldn’t go in his room. I couldn’t see raising my son in a place where he was petrified.”
Parents of Pearson’s purported victims offered SI several reasons why he got away with his alleged molesting for so long. One was that he was so personable. Another was that, at least for a while, he had a girlfriend. (Police say that he never had sex with her.) Perhaps the most commonly cited reason was that he was such a gifted coach. He took a losing team and turned it into a winning one. “We were blinded by the winning and the fun we were having,” says “David White,”* the father of a boy Pearson allegedly molested.
At practices Pearson kept the atmosphere upbeat and worked patiently with his players to teach them proper technique. “We might work a whole practice on rundowns,” says a parent. “Kids loved that. If somebody wasn’t using two hands to make a catch, he’d have him not open his mitt and catch the ball with the outside of the mitt, forcing the kid to use his other hand. They were excellent drills—and they’d work.”
Parents acknowledge that they were so enraptured by Pearson that they ignored a possible warning sign: He spent inordinate amounts of time with the boys off the field, taking them to see movies, to the golf course and on desert outings. On some of the desert visits, police allege, Pearson took along two boys and played a lubricious game with them. Everyone would flip a quarter simultaneously, after which, depending on how the coins landed, the players would either have to touch Pearson’s genitals or let him touch theirs.
The boys’ parents are now left to wonder why they found nothing suspicious in Pearson’s deep involvement with their kids. “Is this a normal situation?” White asks. “A 40-year-old guy who’s living with his mom, helping coach little boys, who doesn’t have a kid on that team? Is that normal?”
Of course, not all such coaches should be seen as pedophiles. Nor are single men the only pedophiles. On June 18, in an Illinois courtroom filled with the parents and relatives of victims, a Cook County judge sentenced Michael Hughes, 33, to 27 years in prison after Hughes pleaded guilty to molesting eight boys, ages 12 to 14, most of them members of his youth football team in the Chicago suburb of Streamwood. Hughes sexually abused most of the boys downstairs during sleepovers at his Hanover Park house, while his wife and two young daughters were in bed upstairs.
“The biggest mistake people can make is to think that it just doesn’t happen here, that we’re safe,” says FBI special agent Roger Young, an expert on crimes against children, who worked on the Pearson case. “The size of the town doesn’t matter-sexual exploitation of children occurs everywhere.”
Watson and Hughes fit the broad profile of the child molester most often found in youth sports. Though Hughes was married, most such molesters are not. The majority are white males who have average to high IQs and extremely good verbal and interpersonal skills. The majority also claim they were molested as children (though only a small percentage of victims become molesters). While in youth sports leagues the crime most often involves men molesting boys, experts don’t view molestation as a homosexual phenomenon; in other settings, such as the home, men molest girls far more often than boys. Nor is pedophilia curable. Like alcoholics, however, molesters can be treated (generally with drugs that diminish their libido), and like all addicts, they are cautioned to stay away from that to which they are addicted—in this case, children.
Kenneth Lanning, an FBI supervisory agent who has written extensively about child molesters, divides them into two groups. The so-called situational child molester isn’t a true pedophile because he doesn’t prefer having sex with children; rather, he turns to them for any number of reasons—out of boredom or curiosity, in response to a precipitating stress or simply because he is sexually or morally indiscriminate. It’s the so-called preferential child molester who’s the genuine pedophile, who prefers to have sex with children and seeks them out as partners.
In this second group, there’s the “introverted” type, who lacks the interpersonal skills necessary to court a child, so he forcibly molests very young children, or makes obscene phone calls, or exposes himself to kids, or wanders through cyberspace chat rooms talking to children and fellow pedophiles. There’s also a “seductor” type, and this is the kind of pedophile most likely to seek work as a coach of children—the likable, chatty, often witty guy who finds in sports an accessible pool of children to prey on. He uses his position as a coach to win over the kids’ parents and, through patience and stealth, breaks down the children’s inhibitions until he’s able to seduce and molest them. Most such pedophiles have an age preference, but what really sets them apart from situational and introverted offenders is the often staggering number of boys they seduce. These sex offenders “will molest more children than any other type,” says Young, “anywhere from 12 in a lifetime up to 500 or 600.” (Studies have found that the average preferential molester victimizes about 120 children before he is caught.)
Seductors aren’t violent; they don’t force their victims to have sex. Stemming from ancient Greek, the wordpedophile literally means “lover of children,” and in fact the seductor sees himself as a kind of Don Juan of deviance. He’s the pied piper of molesters. Children often adore him. Parents see him as just the male role model their boys need and invite him to Thanksgiving dinner. All the while, of course, the pedophile is picking out his targets—the boy he senses needs attention, the boy who reminds him of himself when he was young. He believes he truly does love the boys in a way that raises him above other abusers. Lanning says that these seducers see themselves as a breed of pedophile apart. “They get along so well with kids,” Lanning says. “They like to talk like this: ‘Society confuses us,’ they say. ‘They mix us up with those guys who abduct and use force and brutalize children. We are child lovers! I’ve had sex with a hundred children, but I’ve always asked.’ ”
While society has no trouble envisioning the violent molester and the child who is forced to submit to a sexual predator, many people are baffled by how adult seducers are able to get young athletes to go along with them voluntarily. “These men seduce children, in this case boys, in exactly the same way that men and women have been seducing each other since the dawn of mankind,” Lanning says. In other words, they flirt with them, laugh at their jokes and shower them with attention, with gifts, with affection. “They size up their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their needs,” Lanning says. “They will target the kids who are more vulnerable, the kids who are not having their needs met elsewhere. Kids from broken homes or whose fathers travel a lot. A lot of these guys will specialize as coaches on inner-city teams or as coaches of troubled youth.”
These extended courtships, which are calculated to break down the child’s inhibitions, might take weeks or even months, but the determined pedophile coach knows exactly what he’s doing and how to take advantage of his position of authority and trust. Lanning believes there’s no easier target for seduction than an adolescent boy. The youngster is not only at a stage of sexual exploration, an innocent in search of his sexual identity, but he’s also often in rebellion against his parents, bent on taking risks. And all of this comes at a time when his hormones are in full gallop.
“The only difference between seducing an adolescent boy and seducing a woman is that it’s about a thousand times easier to seduce the boy,” says Lanning. “Why? The ease of sexual arousal. What does it take to give a 14-year-old boy an erection? A ride on a school bus and two potholes. You are talking about a boy who can be aroused by almost anything.” Add to this already volatile mix the use of alcohol, marijuana and video pornography, all used by some molesters to further erode inhibitions, and the seduction can occur with surprising ease.
Alcohol, pot and porn all played a part in Hughes’s scenarios for seduction. First Hughes captured the hearts, minds and trust of the parents. One single mother invited him to holiday dinners and her children’s birthday parties. “He was very sensitive,” she says. “He’d give you the shirt off his back. I never knew anything was going on.” Another couple, wanting to go out to celebrate their wedding anniversary, had Hughes baby-sit their 13-year-old football-player son at Hughes’s house. While the parents were out, Hughes molested their boy. “I feel real betrayed,” says the mother. Hughes was described by more than one parent as a “great guy” who provoked no strong suspicions over the large amounts of time he was spending with the boys.
In 1984 Hughes had been convicted on two counts of taking “indecent liberties” with a child in a community near Stream-wood and was sentenced to four years probation. This didn’t come to light during the years he coached in Streamwood because no one looked into his past. Hughes resigned in late 1996 after Streamwood Park District officials decided to do criminal background checks on all of their volunteer coaches; Hughes objected strenuously to the checks. When he quit, he told parents he had “scheduling conflicts” at work. The parents were still ignorant of his past, and Hughes continued to come around and hang with the boys at some practices and games. “He was still very involved talking to the kids,” says the father of the victim for whom Hughes had babysat.
Hughes seemed an ideal companion for the boys. “He was a nice, nice man,” the mother of one victim says. “The kids idolized him. A real fun-loving guy. He was just a big kid at heart. The boys liked him so much. They’d have done anything for him.”
Through one victim after another, Hughes’s modus operandi was remarkably similar from the summer of 1996 through May ’97, when he was having the sleepovers, usually for one child at a time. “We thought he was having a bunch of boys over,” one parent said. Typically, Hughes would take the boy for a ride in his car, give him Mountain Dew laced with Seagram’s Seven—sometimes Hughes would also offer the kid marijuana—and then drive him to Hughes’s place, where he would pop a pornographic flick into the VCR. While the movie was showing, he would massage the boy’s shoulders and eventually molest him.
That Hughes could follow this routine with a succession of boys before he was caught isn’t surprising. “In these cases the kids almost never tell,” says Lanning, who lectures on child sexual abuse to police investigators. “I’ve been talking about this dynamic for a long time. It’s not uncommon, when I finish a class, that a police officer will come up and say that something like that happened to him when he was a boy: ‘I’ve never told anybody about this.’ I say, ‘Why are you telling me?’ He says, ‘You described exactly what happened to me. So I knew you’d understand.’ ”
There are numerous reasons why children don’t report sexual exploitation. Adolescent boys fear being teased about having had sex with a man. “The stigma of homosexuality—probably much the worst thing that can happen to a boy,” Lanning says. They also fear that their parents might, in Lanning’s words, “go ballistic,” and they’re embarrassed that they have been victimized and duped. “I didn’t want people finding out what was happening,” one of Hughes’s victims says. “I was flabbergasted when he did it to me. I didn’t know what to say. I was high on pot and drunk, and I thought, I better go along. He was my coach! I was embarrassed about it. I’m still embarrassed about it.”
Societal ignorance about the nature of pedophilia is another thing that keeps victims from coming forward. “These kids get to the point where they are willing to trade sex for attention, affection, kindness, gifts or money,” says Lanning. “People say, ‘Who’d do that?’ The answer, as best I can figure out, is just about everybody.” Much easier to understand, of course, is the child who claims he didn’t tell because the abuser threatened his life. “That’s what we want to believe,” Lanning says. “The guy had a giant machete hidden in his closet, and he told me he would cut off my genitals and murder my dog if I told. We’d all be ecstatic over that. That’s what we want to believe: Fear and threats of violence. When the boy tells something more probable, like trading sex for kindness and attention, society doesn’t understand that…. They don’t tell because, correctly, they recognize that society doesn’t understand what happened to them, doesn’t understand the seduction process.”
So reluctant are victims to come forward and so persistent are pedophiles that Hughes and Watson would surely still be molesting children today had fate not intervened. In the spring of 1997, around the time that Hughes, who worked as a salesman for a video company, abused three boys at once in his office—he molested the boys one at a time while the other two watched—the mother of another victim was folding her son’s underwear and putting it in a drawer when she saw, hidden among the clothes, a letter written by her son to his girlfriend. All she noticed at first was the word drunk, written in large letters. Curious, she read the letter. It told how Hughes had gotten the boy drunk and then “sexually harassed” him. After showing the letter to another football mother, she confronted her son and told him they needed to report Hughes to the police. The boy got angry. “Just leave it alone!” he told her.
“He was only 13, and he was scared and embarrassed,” the mother says. “He thought he was the only one involved.” She reported Hughes to authorities. Soon, under police questioning, other boys told similar tales, and Hughes was called in for questioning. He confessed. Hughes has been in jail ever since. He was originally accused of molesting nine boys, but that was reduced to eight when the boy whose letter to his girlfriend had launched the investigation died in a minibike accident.
In Watson’s case, Michael Egelhoff, who had been molested by him as an 11-year-old Little Leaguer in Riverside in 1975, was so haunted by that abuse that he asked a private detective to see if Watson was still coaching children. The incident had occurred 23 years before, and Egelhoff was now living in Portland, but his own two children were becoming increasingly active in sports, and the thought of them playing and the memory of what happened to him pushed Egelhoff to find his old seducer. “It just really bugged me,” says Egelhoff. “This guy had a mysterious way of brainwashing people, and I just kind of clammed up about it for many years. Something stuck in my brain, and it just kept nagging at me…. Something kept telling me that this guy didn’t quit.”
The detective called Egelhoff back two weeks later. “I’m really happy you had me find the guy,” the investigator said. “He’s back in Little League.”
When word got around San Bernardino that Watson might have a history as a child molester, two members of the East Base Line Little League board, Tom and Dee Simanek, went to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and called up Watson’s name on the Megan’s Law CD-ROM sex-offender registry. There he was, complete with his criminal record and even his picture, identified as a high-risk sex offender. “I was hysterical,” Dee Simanek says. “This man was in my house, he stayed in my house, and I just couldn’t deal with it.”
By the time the Simaneks (whose sons were not among those molested by Watson) made their discovery, Watson was a practiced liar and manipulator. After three years at Patton State Hospital, to which a California Superior Court judge had committed him for a maximum of seven years as a mentally disordered sex offender, Watson handwrote a letter in January 1984 seeking an early release: “My crimes (the only ones I ever had are child molest) are not anything to be proud of nor is my history of these crimes something to ignore. I have though…come to grips with many factors and know that my child molesting is something that has been replaced with those normal healthy sexual thoughts that I was afraid to acknowledge for so long…. Given a chance to return to the community, I know I can and will make it.”
Watson was out of Patton State Hospital a month later and umpiring and coaching Little League inside a year. He was returned to Patton in June 1985 when a mental health official found that he had concealed his involvement in youth baseball during court-ordered outpatient counseling. He was free 16 months later. Over the next three years Watson remained under the supervision of health authorities but frequently missed counseling sessions. Nevertheless he was released from outpatient therapy in ’90; that was the year he became a growing presence on the East Base Line Little League field. That was the year, too, that he began sexually molesting the first of his victims there.
“One of the first things he did was make friends with my parents,” says “Mitch,” now 18, one of the boys Watson molested for years. “He would start talking to my parents before he even really talked to me.”
Watson, who had various jobs, including one as a plumbing-supplies salesman, was single and lived here and there, at times in parents’ garages. He spent much of his time around the boys on his team. He played Monopoly and Scrabble and cards with them and their families. He bought one boy an expensive NFL team jacket and Nike shoes. He took some of his players bowling and to the movies. “He was like family,” says Mitch’s father. “He went on vacations with people, he went on holidays, he was invited over on Christmas morning. He was part of the Base Line family.”
“He learned your movements,” says Dee Simanek. “He learned what your likes and dislikes were. I took him to the movies for his birthday—to see Star Trek. He would really get into it. He knew I was an Elvis fan, so he bought me all this Elvis stuff. He knew how to infiltrate your family.”
Watson smiles faintly when the word infiltrate is repeated to him. “I definitely did that,” he says. “My advantage is I have a good personality. People are drawn to me. They want me to shake their hand in public, stand in their pictures. I knew how to be popular in that Little League environment. It gave me a sense of power, but more a sense of belonging, which is something I lacked in my life. When I wasn’t around Little League, I was lost. It wasn’t just the boys. It was the whole Little League family that I think fell in love with me. But I did a lot of this just for the availability of kids.”
Unlike Hughes, Watson didn’t use alcohol or pornography to soften his victims. “I felt if I had to use something artificial to get the affection and the gratification I was seeking, it wasn’t worth it,” he says. “I picked kids who would have been like me at that age—outgoing, active in sports, respectful, someone I could joke around with. It wasn’t just about sex. I would be with them for six hours and maybe only 15 minutes of it would be sexual.”
Lanning says coach sex offenders often cop this plea. “It is more than sex,” he says. “They’re out in the sports fields with them, playing ball with them and laughing and joking with them. But what you have to understand is this: If it weren’t for the 15 minutes of sex, there wouldn’t be the six hours of being together. At some point there has to be sex.”
For two years Watson molested Mitch repeatedly. He had not only been his attentive coach—”My best coach ever,” Mitch says—but also, in the boy’s words, “one of my best friends. He would talk about sex a lot. And to me it just seemed like I was talking to a friend. He kind of inched his way in there to where I felt comfortable talking to him. I trusted him.” Watson manipulated Mitch into having sex with him by telling him that one of Mitch’s older friends had allowed Watson similar liberties. “It helped make me think it was O.K.,” says Mitch.
The boy was clearly trading sex for kindness and attention, and the experience was killing him inside. “I was confused,” he says. “I knew I didn’t like it. I cried and felt angry about it all the time, but I didn’t know what to do to stop it. I knew that if I just stopped going places with him, my parents would say, ‘What’s up with Norm?’ and then I’d have to tell them. I also knew that as long as it was happening to me, it wasn’t happening to anybody else. I thought that I could change him, that I could make him stop doing it and still not lose anything from the relationship.”
The seductor follows four distinct steps, according to Lanning: “He recruits, he seduces, he molests and then he breaks it off and moves on.” Given his preference for boys between 11 and 14, Watson had always told Mitch that one day their relationship would have to end. Mitch recalls, “He told me, ‘Soon you’re going to get older and you’re going to do your own thing.’ I didn’t really understand what he meant.”
Mitch learned soon enough. When he turned 14, he says, Watson started molesting one of Mitch’s younger friends, going back and forth between him and Mitch. “When I turned 15, there wasn’t much talking to me anymore,” Mitch says. “It was all about him and all my [younger] friends…. Honestly, I think I felt kind of betrayed but relieved at the same time that it was finally over.” What Mitch didn’t know was that Watson had started molesting Mitch’s younger brother, “Wayne,” then 13. “Norm promised me it would never happen to [Wayne],” Mitch says.
About a year after Watson’s jilting of Mitch, the Simaneks found Watson on the sex-offender registry. Watson’s world had begun to cave in around him, but not before he appeared to be saved by his hold on other parents. So strong was Watson’s grip on the Little League community that when the Simaneks approached incoming board president Cassandra Bassett with the news of Watson’s history, Watson was able to convince Bassett and the other members that they had nothing to fear in allowing him to continue to coach. “I know I’ve changed,” he lied. “I’m a good person. I’ve forgiven myself. That’s not me anymore.” The board ousted the Simaneks and one member even asked Watson if he needed a lawyer.
“Wouldn’t you lie?” Watson asks. “I didn’t want to lose what I had. I gave them what should have been an obvious lie—the old ‘That’s not me anymore.’ I gave them the runaround, and they wanted to believe me.”
Never is the seductor more vulnerable to being caught than when he breaks off a relationship with a victim. “Now the kid comes to the realization that the guy used him,” says Lanning. Mitch, feeling betrayed—doubly so when he learned of the molesting of his younger brother—told his girlfriend and his parents what Watson had been doing to him all those months and turned him in to police. Sitting in the office of the detective assigned to the case, Mike DiMatteo of the San Bernardino sheriff’s department, Mitch told DiMatteo the names of all those he suspected Watson of molesting. DiMatteo then confronted Watson, who confessed.
Mitch admits he was torn about whether to break his long silence. “To me [Watson] had been such a friend that it was kind of like I was betraying him,” he says. “Not that I wanted to hurt him, but that I didn’t want it to happen to other people. Recently I’ve had a lot of anger, but I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
Bassett wasn’t the first person fooled by a master seductor, but she still agonizes over her role in defending Watson when the Simaneks divulged his history. When Watson was arrested, Bassett, whose son was not among those Watson molested, was stunned. “I stayed nauseous for a long time, and it still makes me sick to my stomach,” she says. “How could that go on right in your face and you not see it? You could tell yourself a hundred times how easy it is, but it doesn’t matter. You still feel stupid. You’re supposed to be smarter than your children. You’re supposed to see these things.”
The family of Mitch and Wayne is still lost in grief. The father, who is disabled, thought Watson was a godsend, playing ball with Mitch and Wayne and doing what the dad could not do for his sons. “I had no idea he was using my weakness to get into our lives, to get with our boys,” he says. “It is almost unbearable to think of. He destroyed our family.”
Through all the therapy he has undergone, for all the boys he has abused, Watson claims he never realized the pain he was causing until Mitch told him about it. Watson closes his eyes and can’t speak as he hears the boy’s words: “I can’t even ride in the van with my dad without being nervous, Norm. I’m scared of men.”
Watson left a swath of human ruin in his wake, just as emotional wreckage lies everywhere child molesters have been. There’s the frightened girl Watson molested, who for years would wake up screaming in the night and could not sleep in her own bed. There are the kids from Streamwood who stayed out of school, shying from the taunts of “faggot” by their peers. There are all those parents who berate themselves daily for what their sons went through. “I feel like I failed as a father,” the parent of one Streamwood victim says.
When Hughes was pleading for mercy at his sentencing hearing, he said, “I have sinned. I have caused a great deal of pain to many people, and for that I am truly sorry. None here can know the amount of remorse I feel. None here can know the sorrow and the guilt that I carry.”
Oh, yes, they can—from their own experience, from the heartbreak his crimes have caused them. They all, the victims and their families, can feel their own remorse, sorrow and guilt. And forever will.
*The names of minors and some parents have been changed.