A former Ahwatukee club baseball coach last week was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his conviction on charges that he molested young players in a case that raised questions about the scrutiny that club sports organizations give adults involved in their activities.
The arrested of Richard Allen Gallegos, 55, of West Wildwood Drive two years ago also prompted police and experts on sexual predators to remind parents that they must take an active role in protecting their children.
“Organizations that sponsor any kind of youth activity have a responsibility to protect children,’’ said Becky Ruffner, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse of Arizona. “They must have two adults present at all times. Predators thrive on secrecy and deniability.’’
Gallegos admitted to a long list of sex charges filed by Chandler Police two years ago and admitting he targeted and molested young boys while coaching them.
Before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jay R. Adleman sentenced Gallegos, a stream of victims and their families delivered painful impact statements about the harm he had inflicted.
“You molested me. I wasn’t the first and I wasn’t the last one. What kind of a despicable monster steals the innocence of a child for self-gratification?” said one victim, according to Channel 3 News.
Prosecutors said Gallegos used fraudulent connections to the baseball world to gain the trust of his young victims.
“I was so brainwashed to believe that Rick was essentially the savior, the guy that was going to get me to my ultimate dream of Major League Baseball,” said the victim, according to televised reports.
Gallegos was a coach for a club baseball team that practiced in Ahwatukee, Chandler and Tempe.
Police had documented a series of incidents in which the predator molested boys, including one in which he forced a boy into a sexual act while he was supposedly consoling the victim after his team lost a baseball game.
The court document said the case against Gallegos crystallized when a male victim, who is now 21, told police that Gallegos had molested him when he played on the team when he was 11 to 14 years old.
The second victim, who also was 11 to 14 years old at the time, was interviewed by detectives and recounted sexually abusive incidents to police, Mejia said.
A police spokesman said police had dropped a previous investigation in 2009 because the boys declined to reveal abuses.
“During this time, Gallegos helped coach a club baseball team in Ahwatukee and volunteered as a baseball coach at Seton Catholic Preparatory High School in Chandler. Detectives at the time did not have enough evidence to charge Gallegos with a crime,’’ according to a Chandler police press release.
Seton said that while no incident had been discovered during his involvement with the school, officials there cooperated in the investigation.
Police and child advocates say the Gallegos case also shows how difficult it is for victims of any gender — but especially males — to come forward and report such hurtful experiences.
They are hoping that victims who have buried the psychological trauma caused by abuse many years ago are inspired by the courage of the 21-year-old victims, who were 14 when they were molested, to finally report molestation.
The sentencing occurred at a time when a number of Republican lawmakers are resisting Phoenix GOP Sen. Paul Boyer’s efforts to raise the statute of limitations for when sex abuse victims can sue their assailants.
The Legislature on Monday agreed to extend that statute of limitations, allowing sex abuse victims up until age 30 to sue their assailtants.
Some high-ranking Republican House leaders would not even let sex abuse victims testify in favor of Boyer’s measure.
Opponents of Boyer’s efforts said they want to protect businesses from unwarranted lawsuits, but Boyer said very often people who are victimized as youngsters don’t evcen recall those incidents until they get much older.
Police say predators usually follow a somewhat predictable pattern of abuse. They start by targeting vulnerable children, who sometimes are estranged from their parents or are not getting enough attention for other reasons.
Predators gradually take steps to gain the trust of victims, grooming them with gifts such as video games, she said. Eventually, they seek to isolate the child so that they are alone together, making the abuse possible. After the sex crimes start occurring, there are threats designed to manipulate a child into not reporting it.
Studies have determined that boys are less likely to report sexual abuse than girls because of embarrassment and the stigma associated with it. Detectives have to combine empathy with their investigative skills to successfully put a case together that can lead to a conviction.
Chandler police Detective Ashley Nolan, who has investigated sex cases for more than six years, said at the time of Gallegos’ arrest that police must console as well as cajole a victim.
“This is a horrible thing that happened to you, it’s terrible you have had to live with that for so long, but we can bring justice to light,’’ she explained, repeating her advice to victims. “People will say, this happened a long time ago, but I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.’’
Gallegos’ arrest also spotlighted the level of background checks and supervision given to coaches and the adults involved in club sports.
Club teams, often referred to as travel teams, generally attract serious players who are hoping to advance into college or even professional sports after they graduate from high school. The teams typically travel to tournaments in Arizona and other states.
Rick Kelsey, chief executive officer of the Arizona Soccer Association, said he knows it is impossible to catch every potential predator, but it his obligation to protect children in every way possible.
“We do background checks on all of our coaches,’’ he said, with two or three applicants rejected every year for a variety of reasons. “Anytime you are involved in youth sports, safety is paramount.’’
Kelsey said youth organizations are under increasing pressure to assure the safety of children in every way possible, especially in the aftermath of sexual abuse cases involving Olympic athletes, including the U.S women’s gymnastics team.
Congress established the U.S. Center for SafeSport to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympics, focusing on the 49 governing bodies involved with Olympic sports. SafeSport also conducts training sessions on how to prevent sexual abuse aimed at any sport.
The federal mandatory reporting law resulted in 1,037 reports of potential abuse during the organization’s 15 months in existence, with 289 sanctions imposed and 149 individuals ruled permanently ineligible. More than 400,000 people have completed an online training session.
For decades, Arizona has had a mandatory law for reporting sexual abuse, although there have been instances of it not being followed properly.
“Irrespective of legal obligations, there are moral obligations,’’ Kelsey said.
Kelsey said parents need to ask what organization is sanctioning a team, whether it’s part of a league or a club team that travels to tournaments and whether the coaches have been vetted properly through background checks.
“The complication of it is these club teams,’’ he said. “I am convinced we are doing everything we can. We have all the right intentions to do all the right things.’’
Although background checks are important, experts say it’s important for parents not to think of them as a panacea for weeding out would-be abusers.
A background check on Gallegos found no arrest history in Arizona, a fact police confirmed.
Experts also said it’s critical that parents establish a deep relationship with their children through strong communication. They also should watch how their children interact to coaches, ministers or any other adults associated with youth programs, Nolan said.