Cheerleading has a list of people banned from the sport. It was missing 74 convicted sex offenders
One after another, a dozen young cheerleaders raced across a springy blue mat and flung themselves into a series of roundoffs and backflips, the thump of their hands and feet reverberating through the open Ohio gym. Mishelle Robinson, the gym owner and coach, called out instructions across the cavernous warehouse.
Photos of beaming athletes and a line of golden trophies adorned the walls. Among a row of banners, one emblazoned with the acronym USASF denoted the gym’s membership in the U.S. All Star Federation, the national organization that oversees the high-stakes world of competitive cheerleading. USASF’s extensive rules cover everything from stunt safety to hair bows, which "should not be excessive in size."
But its rules didn’t stop someone with Robinson’s criminal record from owning a member gym.
The 44-year-old is a convicted felon – who opened a gym sanctioned by USASF while she was on Ohio’s sex offender registry.
A USA TODAY investigation found others who continued working in cheerleading despite charges or convictions for sexual misconduct involving minors.
Kale Dunlap, who pleaded guilty to online solicitation of a minor and faces sexual assault charges, kept coaching and cheering in USASF gyms after being indicted.
Patrick Avard was convicted in 2003 of two misdemeanors for exchanging explicit photos with a teenage girl, but he remains one of the sport’s most sought-after music producers.
And Ricky Despain remained in cheerleading even after his conviction in 2008 for abusing two girls at his Virginia gym landed him on the sex offender registry. Until this year, Despain owned a gym that has been sanctioned by USASF, despite a Houston Press article in 2015 that highlighted his past and a complaint in January 2019 provided to USASF.
Karrah Pope, whom Despain was convicted of inappropriately touching when she was 14, said she stopped cheering competitively because she worried about seeing him at events. Because he kept the sport, she lost it.
"I would think that they would want to put their athletes' safety obviously as a top priority," said Pope, 28. "And that clearly was not happening when a registered sex offender was allowed to be there and own a cheerleading organization still."
USA TODAY identified nearly 180 individuals affiliated with cheerleading who have faced charges relating to sexual misconduct involving minors but were not banned by the sport's two governing bodies, USASF and USA Cheer. More than 140 of them – a group that includes coaches, choreographers and others directly tied to the activity – have been convicted, and 74 are registered sex offenders.
Amy Clark, USASF's vice president of membership, said her organization has robust child protection policies and "leads the way" on athlete safety.
"I think you would be hard-pressed to find another youth sports organization that has dedicated the time and the effort that we have to these nonsporting resources," she said.
As of mid-July, the governing bodies had suspended or banned just 21 individuals, according to public-facing lists meant to warn parents and gym owners about potential threats to children. The lists have since grown to 118 names, and nearly all of the new additions came in the past four weeks from the names provided by USA TODAY.
While some of the individuals USA TODAY identified are serving lengthy prison sentences, many others could walk into a gym and, under USASF’s policies, start coaching kids.
USASF requires only coaches who go backstage or in the warmup area at competitions to be members and background checked through its system. Though it mandates gym owners conduct their own screenings and background checks for anyone who interacts with a minor, what businesses do with that information is up to them.
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"We don't get into the hiring at each of those member clubs," Clark said. "So each of them have their process. Hopefully, each of them have legal counsel that would work with them."
The world of cheerleading extends far beyond girls waving pompoms on the sidelines of football games. More than 3.7 million people participate in cheer, ranging from 5-year-olds at Pop Warner games to collegiate athletes to members of private gyms. At the highest levels, cheerleaders perform athletic, aerial stunts in nationally televised competitions. Cheerleading reached a broader audience in January, when Netflix released "Cheer," a docuseries that chronicled the journey of Navarro College's cheerleaders as they sought a national title.
Thursday, one of the stars of "Cheer," Jerry Harris, was arrested by the FBI and charged with production of child pornography. According to federal court records, Harris admitted to agents that he solicited and received explicit messages on Snapchat from 10 to 15 individuals he knew were minors, had sex with a 15-year-old at a cheerleading competition in 2019 and paid a 17-year-old money in exchange for nude photos. Harris has not responded to requests for comment.
Kristen, a mother in Texas whose 14-year-old sons accused Harris of abuse, told USA TODAY she reported the allegations involving her sons to USASF in May and July. USA TODAY withheld Kristen's last name because her sons are minors and alleging abuse. She said she was frustrated the organization didn’t do more.
In an email to its members Wednesday, USASF defended its handling of Kristen's reports and provided a timeline. It says that after receiving the first report in May, Clark asked Kristen if she had reported to police, then confirmed a gym owner had reported the allegations. "Based on this information – the mandated reporting requirements had been followed and the USASF would follow the process in place, and let the investigation proceed," the timeline reads.
The organization’s timeline indicates it did not contact Kristen again until after she sent a second report to USASF, eight weeks after her first. USASF suspended Harris on Sept. 14, the same day USA TODAY reported the allegations against him. Harris was in a USASF-member gym as recently as June, according to that gym’s social media account.
Clark spoke with USA TODAY for about 30 minutes in late August, then declined further interview requests. USASF President Jim Chadwick declined to be interviewed. Neither would discuss specific individuals, including Harris and Robinson, the Ohio gym owner.
Clark and USA Cheer Executive Director Lauri Harris (no relation to Jerry Harris) said their organizations adopted policies and implemented training courses to prevent and identify sexual abuse in the sport.
USASF and USA Cheer made changes to their websites as USA TODAY conducted its investigation. USA Cheer dropped the word "preferred" from its roster of music vendors and added a disclaimer that it is not responsible for the actions of any company in the directory. Avard’s company remains on the vendor list.
USA Cheer’s banned list has more than quintupled in size since Aug. 25, when USA TODAY shared the findings of its investigation with cheer officials. USASF says any coach banned from another sport is ineligible for USASF membership.
Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, founder and CEO of the advocacy group Champion Women, said the incomplete banned lists represent a stunning abdication of responsibility, particularly in the wake of a sex abuse scandal that consumed gymnastics.
"If it’s going to be a tool, you just made it into a toothpick instead of an ice pick," Hogshead-Makar said. "You essentially made it meaningless by only having 21 people on there."
USA Cheer banned Robinson in early September, but she still can coach in and own her USASF-member gym in Ravenna, Ohio.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Robinson was open in describing how she started a member gym while on the sex offender registry.
Robinson said her sister is the registered owner with USASF because Robinson knows her conviction in 2006 for sexual battery of a high school boy would show up on a background check. She said she buys a spectator ticket and does not go backstage or in the warmup area of competitions.
She said she assumes USASF knows about her criminal record. Her uncle has been involved with USASF as a member, gym owner and credentialing instructor. Robinson, who was on Ohio’s sex offender registry until March, said USASF has never questioned her involvement in the sport.
"Everyone deserves a second chance," Robinson said. "Now, had I gone out there again and reoffended and did it again, no. I would have no right to ever expect anyone to forget or forgive. Never. But the fact is, I didn't."
'That just boggles my mind'
USASF and USA Cheer’s abuse prevention policies appear to lie in those organizations' own hands. But both entities were founded by and retain strong ties to Varsity Spirit, a for-profit company that dominates the sport.
Varsity – whose empire extends into cheer clothing, camps and competitions – provided the startup capital for USASF in 2003. Four years later, the company created USA Cheer, the national governing body that serves as the umbrella organization for all aspects of cheerleading, including school-based programs, youth and recreational clubs and the U.S. national teams.
USA Cheer has no employees of its own. All six of its staff members are Varsity employees contracted to work for the nonprofit group. The same goes for USASF’s president and vice president of events and corporate alliances. Varsity-owned companies hold a permanent majority of seats on USASF’s board of directors.
Cheer empire: A for-profit company built competitive cheer, pays people who make its rules
John Patterson, a former staff member of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center who has consulted with nonprofit groups on youth safety issues, said he’s never heard of an arrangement quite like the one between Varsity and the governing bodies. He said the company's control of the USASF board means "whatever Varsity wants, Varsity can get."
"With that kind of influence, it seems to me that the company should have an influence over the measures that they take to protect kids," Patterson said.
Nicole Lauchaire, a senior vice president at Varsity Spirit, said Varsity helped create both organizations because it believed "oversight and rules and regulations were needed."
"Both those organizations are very much focused on the safety of athletes and athlete protection," she said. "And we share in that mission."
USA Cheer and USASF have increased their focus on child protection.
Clark said that in the past three years, USASF has implemented a sexual abuse prevention policy, adopted the policies of the U.S. Center for SafeSport and created housing and travel policies designed to minimize the risk of abuse while athletes are on the road.
During a phone call July 10 with the mother whose boys accused Jerry Harris of abuse, Clark acknowledged that not all gyms follow USASF’s sexual abuse prevention policy. "I am certain that people don't do it," Clark said, according to an audio recording the mother provided to USA TODAY.
Lauri Harris said USA Cheer has trained more than 20,000 coaches through its safety certification program, offers a course on identifying the maltreatment of children and launched an online reporting form for abuse allegations.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Harris and USA Cheer Director of Education and Programs Jim Lord said the organization's banned list is one of many tools used to keep athletes safe. Lord said he visits search engines once a week, using terms such as "cheer coach," "athlete abuse" and "sexual assault," to find people to ban. He said he looks for coaches who abused athletes in their care but also high school teachers whose victims had no connection to their role as a cheer coach.
"One of my weekly things that I do on my checklist is to go do another search, to see if anything has shown up," he said.
Lord's searching resulted in five names since the list was created in June. The others on USA Cheer's initial list were individuals already banned by USASF.
Clark, who oversees membership for USASF’s more than 2,300 clubs, said her organization is open to banning nonmembers. When provided with USA TODAY’s findings, she stressed that the majority had never been affiliated with USASF.
"We're a voluntary-membership organization," she said via email, "not a gatekeeper for participation in the sport."
Among the nearly 180 people USA TODAY found by searching Google, news archives and public records are former USASF members and some whom the governing bodies were aware of but had not banned.
Arkansas cheerleading coach and gym owner Matthew Tinkle was charged in 2013 with raping a 13-year-old girl. At the time, USASF said it would not make major changes to Tinkle’s membership status unless there was a conviction, according to a KATV report. Tinkle pleaded to a felony charge of rape in 2014 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, court records show.
Teacher and cheerleading coach Shelley Duncan kissed and groped a 14-year-old boy and exchanged 7,425 text messages with him in 2016, according to Oklahoma court records. She is serving a six-year prison sentence for committing a lewd act with a child. She is one of three people whom USA Cheer revoked or suspended safety certification for but did not ban.
Maurice Jerralds, a former USASF member, abused four girls from 2000 to 2010, according to court records. He was convicted and sentenced in 2012 on 10 counts of taking indecent liberties with a child and one count of aggravated sexual battery. Jerralds is in prison in Virginia and listed on the sex offender registry.
Nancy Oglesby, one of the prosecutors who handled Jerralds' case, laughed in disbelief last month when she learned Jerralds had not been banned.
"He's a violent, registered sex offender," she said. "He got a 20-year sentence to serve. I don't know what more you would need to determine that he needs to be banned. I mean, that just boggles my mind."
Tinkle, Duncan and Jerralds were all banned by USA Cheer after USA TODAY provided their names.
Leaving it up to the gyms
Kale Dunlap's case illustrates what can happen when individual gyms are left to decide who is safe to coach kids.
In 2018, Dunlap worked at the Flip House Cheer and Tumble in Abilene, Texas. Gym owner Karen Perricone knew the 19-year-old faced sexual assault charges but employed him anyway.
"We live in a country that people are INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY, which he has not been," she wrote in December 2018 in an email to a woman who warned her about Dunlap's charges.
"I happen to believe Kale," she continued, "and the story of his accusations is bull [----]."
Seven months later, Dunlap was seeking work in other Texas gyms – and facing additional accusations of misconduct.
In July 2019, Texas gym owner Lori Schlunt-Thomas posted a warning about Dunlap in the All-Star Gym Owners Association’s private Facebook group. She wrote that Dunlap had applied for jobs in the area and sent some of her underage athletes graphic sexual messages. Schlunt-Thomas said she reported the situation to police and USASF and questioned why Dunlap wasn't listed on USASF’s banned list.
He was indicted two months later in a second case for felony online solicitation of a minor, according to court records. Dunlap pleaded guilty to that charge in January and was sentenced to four years in prison. In June, he was indicted in a third case after police said he sent sexually explicit messages to two girls, ages 13 and 14. Dunlap declined to be interviewed for this article.
In January, Schlunt-Thomas wrote on Facebook that Dunlap had been convicted in the second case. A few days later, she noticed his name had finally been added to USASF's list – nearly two years after he was first indicted – and posted on Facebook that "between myself and the mom of the child we were on their butt constantly."
Perricone told USA TODAY that when she wrote the email defending Dunlap, she believed he was innocent.
"He was never left alone at my gym and to my knowledge he never had any misconduct with any of our students," Perricone said in an email.
Taylor Hamilton, the woman who tried to warn Perricone about Dunlap in 2018, told USA TODAY the fact that Dunlap continued to coach while facing serious charges highlights a problem in the sport.
"There's a lot of holes that gyms will go through to make their programs better sometimes," Hamilton said. "And it's not always for the safety of the athletes. It's more of just how they can win."
‘Very suspect incidents’
The custom mixes created by Patrick Avard's company – two-and-a-half energetic minutes layered with lyrics, drums and sound effects that punctuate the moments cheerleaders are flung into the air – have been the soundtrack to 168 medal-winning routines.
They have turned Avard, 43, owner of New Level Music, into one of the most sought-after producers in cheerleading. In January, Avard stood backstage at "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," where the stars of Netflix’s breakout docuseries performed to his music. This summer, his music has been broadcast into millions of U.S. homes as the Wildcats, an All Star cheer team, competed on "America’s Got Talent."
In 2015, USA Cheer named Avard’s company the exclusive music producer of its national teams, and his business is one of about a hundred on the organization's list of approved vendors.
Harris, USA Cheer’s executive director, said companies get on the approved list once owners agree to follow copyright law. They are not subject to background checks. Harris said the organization found out about Avard’s record in July, the same month his case resurfaced on social media. She said USA Cheer doesn’t have any agreement with Avard or any other providers and is reviewing its music provider policies.
Court documents show Avard was convicted in 2003 of misdemeanor counts of furnishing harmful materials to minors and sexual exploitation of children.
Avard declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he wrote, "I was charged with two misdemeanors, took full responsibility for my actions and have lived every day since working to prove that one serious lapse in judgment does not define a person’s worth. I am truly committed to my community, my family and my business, and will continue to make positive contributions to the cheer industry."
In his statement, Avard misstated his own age and the victim’s at the time of the incident, making himself a year younger and her a year older. Police records show the girl was 16 and Avard 25.
Read more: Patrick Avard's police records (Warning: These documents contain explicit language.)
She told police in Fayetteville, Georgia, that she barely knew Avard, a coach at the gym where she worked, when he wrote her on instant messaging. Soon into their conversation, Avard asked what she was wearing and initiated a game of Truth or Dare.
She picked Truth, according to police records that describe their conversation, and Avard asked how far she had been with a boy. She wrote back, "made out."
Avard picked Dare.
As she thought of a challenge, he emailed her two photos of his penis, according to police.
Avard asked the girl to call and dare him to "jerk off," saying he would take photos or show her on his web cam, police records show. He made the request repeatedly. She didn't call, and when they signed off, police said, Avard told her the conversation would “be our secret.”
Avard pleaded guilty and served three months in jail, according to court documents.
In response to questions from USA TODAY, Harris said USA Cheer encourages teams to thoroughly screen anyone who has direct contact with athletes but pointed out that music producers "have really no interaction with athletes."
Avard attended a practice of USA Cheer’s teams in Atlanta without being background checked. (Harris said the athletes on that team are all 18 or older and are never unsupervised at practices.) Avard’s social media accounts – which he turned private after USA TODAY informed him through a representative that the newspaper would report on his record – show him regularly attending competitions, including as recently as March.
A second vendor on USA Cheer’s music provider list has been convicted of sexual misconduct involving minors.
Kevin Heath, owner of Utah-based Fusion Sound, has been mixing music since 1973. Law enforcement records detail an extensive list of accusations against him involving minors.
In 1986, a police report indicates that Heath told a detective from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office that he couldn’t be alone with children as a condition of his probation for a conviction of attempted distribution of obscene material to a minor. Records from that conviction could not be located.
Over the next five years, at least five girls or their parents reported concerns about Heath to law enforcement. All of the incidents allegedly happened at his home, where he worked.
In April 1986, two girls who knew Heath because he worked at their high school as a drill and cheerleading coach said he shared his sexual fantasies with them and asked them to share their own, according to Salt Lake County sheriff’s records. Two months later, a mother told investigators she worried Heath had taken nude photos of her daughter while the girl changed during a modeling session. Police said they found two peepholes had been drilled into the wall of a room in his home used for changing. A few years later, the sheriff’s office investigated Heath for potentially dealing in child pornography, records show.
None of those investigations resulted in criminal charges.
"At this point in the investigation," the detective who investigated Heath wrote in 1991, "I was unable to identify an actual incident of criminal activity other than the many, very suspect incidents of suspicious behavior."
Later that year, prosecutors charged Heath with forcible sexual abuse and gross lewdness after two girls said he fondled their breasts while they were at his home, records show. Dana Hussey, the girls' high school drill instructor, told USA TODAY they had gone there to help him write labels on mix tapes.
"They were hysterically crying," she said. "They fell into my arms. It took minutes and minutes before they could calm down enough to even talk."
Heath pleaded guilty in 1992 to a downgraded felony charge of attempted forcible sexual abuse relating to one of the girls. Though he served no jail time, Heath was ordered to register as a sex offender.
Heath, who was removed from the registry in 2005, declined to comment for this article. His attorney, Jerome Mooney, said Heath has never possessed child pornography and denies wrongdoing in the cases for which he was not charged. Mooney said Heath "wasn't as sensitive as he should have been to dealing with younger people" and his actions were misconstrued.
"He does admit that he gave into a temptation and did engage in improper touching with respect to a single individual," Mooney said of Heath’s conviction in 1992.
Heath’s conviction is no secret. A 2001 news article about his criminal record and work in the music industry is one of the first results in a Google search of his name and company.
Harris said she had no idea about Heath’s past until USA TODAY told her.
Around the time that Heath was removed from the sex offender registry in 2005, a woman went to the sheriff's office to report he had abused her years earlier. The 39-year-old woman, who asked to remain unnamed, told USA TODAY she had been abused by Heath at age 10 and again at age 19. Prosecutors declined to file charges.
The woman, who works as a dance teacher, said it's frustrating to see others support his business despite knowing about his past. She did not know he was an approved USA Cheer vendor.
"He shouldn't have any affiliation with them at all. He should have been paying for what he's done to not just me but so many other girls," she said. "It sickens me."
‘There's no secrets’
Robinson said she tells every family that comes to her Ohio gym about her conviction for sexual battery. She said she's lost some students because of it. But most stay.
"There's no secrets," she told USA TODAY in August while a team of young girls practiced outside her office window. "There's no closed doors."
About two weeks later, after her name appeared on USA Cheer’s banned list, Robinson posted a Facebook update announcing a change at her gym: Her son would take ownership of the gym’s All Star cheerleading program.
Robinson said she’d remain involved in the gym’s dance program as coach and owner. A few days later, she posted the gym’s cheer schedule on her Facebook page.
Clark wouldn’t speak with USA TODAY about Robinson’s affiliation with USASF. In an email, she offered a general observation: "It goes without saying that the question of how a registered sex offender can work in a gym is a pressing and important one."
She did not give an answer.
Contributing: Daniel Connolly, The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal
Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny are reporters on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. Marisa can be reached at email@example.com, @IndyMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855. Tricia can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or @TriciaNadolny.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cheer: Sex offenders have been allowed to continue working in sport