November 9, 2012

Feds drop sex abuse case against Syracuse coach

John Kekis / The Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Federal authorities have dropped their investigation into sexual abuse claims that cost a Syracuse University assistant basketball coach his job, threw a top-ranked team into turmoil and threatened the career of Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.

After a probe spanning nearly a year, U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian said Friday there was no evidence to support claims that Bernie Fine had molested a boy in 2002 in a Pittsburgh hotel room.

"The nature and seriousness of these allegations, which involved conduct typically committed in private with individuals who are reluctant to come forward, warranted a thorough federal investigation," Hartunian said.

Fine's lawyer did not immediately return a call seeking comment. It wasn't clear yet whether Fine could get his job back.

The investigation erupted in the glare of a spotlight on child abuse shone by the Penn State University scandal that broke shortly beforehand. Two former Syracuse ballboys, Bobby Davis and Michael Lang, came forward Nov. 17 and accused the longtime assistant of fondling them when they were teens. Davis said the sexual contact continued for years.

But the claims by Davis and Lang had happened too long ago to be prosecuted. Ten days later, though, a third man, 23-year-old Zachary Tomaselli, of Lewiston, Maine, went public with his accusation that Fine had molested him in 2002 in a hotel room when the team played in Pittsburgh. The same day, ESPN aired an audiotape in which Fine's wife, Laurie, apparently acknowledged to Davis she knew about the molestation.

Fine, who denied the allegations, was fired Nov. 27, and the federal government began investigating Tomaselli's claim, the only one that fell within the statute of limitations. The federal statute of limitations that went into effect in 2002 allows prosecution until the victim reaches age 25; Tomaselli was 23 when he made his claims.

From the start, there were doubts about the claims.

Davis had made the same accusation against Fine to the university and Syracuse police a decade before, but the police couldn't investigate because of the statute of limitations, and the school said its probe turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.

When Davis and Lang came forward in November, Boeheim angrily defended his assistant of 35 years and said the accusers were only out for money, seeking to cash in on the publicity generated by the Penn State scandal, in which former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing several boys.

Another accuser, Floyd Van Hooser, said Fine abused him for years but later said he was lying.

That left Tomaselli, who was himself accused of sexually abusing a boy at a camp in 2010 and whose father had said the boy was lying. Tomaselli was eventually convicted of sexual abuse and started a prison sentence of three years and three months in April.

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