Editor’s note: At 32 years old, Tennessee Watson reported to police that her gymnastics coach had sexually abused her as a child. This is the story of her experience, in her own words.
The first time I ever talked about it was in second grade. We were having “a good touch, bad touch” presentation – talking about what to do if someone made us feel uncomfortable. I raised my hand, then fumbled my way through describing how my gymnastics coach had touched me. Was that the kind of bad touch they were talking about?
My face felt hot. I felt dumb for even bringing it up. I’d spoken up, like they’d said to, but nothing happened. There was no follow-up and no phone call to my home.
In the years that followed, the memory of being sexually abused would come up again and again. But every time it did, I also would remember second grade. What happened hadn’t seemed bad enough for anybody to do anything about it then. I just needed to get over it.
As I got older and more aware of my body, I felt increasingly certain that my coach’s unwanted touches were a violation. I told friends at college, and with their support, I told my dad when I was 19. I said only that I had been molested by my gymnastics coach. It would take me 13 more years to tell him in detail what had happened.
Reopening this wound made me feel vulnerable and confused. To coax myself forward, I relied on my skills as a journalist. Uncertainty is no big deal when it’s your job to be curious. I wanted to see how my experience fit into the bigger story of child sexual abuse, so I started recording my conversations with my friends, family and myself, not yet sure how I would use them.
One thing I learned along the way is this happens to lots of people. But if you report it and take action, you’re an anomaly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers child sexual abuse a public health epidemic. One in 10 U.S. adults were sexually abused before they reached 18 – that’s 24 million people. And abuse may lead to health issues years later, such as depression, sleep and eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.
Yet less than 40 percent of children who are sexually abused tell anyone – and a fraction of those cases end up being reported to authorities.
People who are victims of this kind of abuse often hear a refrain: Come forward and name your abuser. Justice will be done. But we rarely get to hear what happens next. Are most of those cases prosecuted? Do most victims get turned away? I didn’t know what would happen. That’s what kept me from coming forward earlier.
I was 29 when I decided to dig back into what had happened to me. In 2010, I Googled the name of my old gym. I discovered that my coach, Parviz Youssefi, still was running GMS Gymnastics in Manassas, Virginia, with his wife and daughters. He still had access to young kids. That worried me. But I was conflicted about what to do next.
If I reported him, I was scared the response would be too punitive. I’d heard about cases in which prosecutors dished out overly harsh sentences. I wanted to address the abuse without traumatizing his family and the community.
But I also was scared nothing would happen. I’d heard story after story of prosecutors not believing victims of sexual violence or, even worse, treating them like it was their fault.
It took me three more years to call a special victims unit and leave this message: I’m calling to report a crime.
Detective Kimberly Norton from Prince William County, Virginia, called me back. The Manassas gym was in her jurisdiction. I gave her a brief run-down of what had happened 25 years earlier.
I was quick to explain that I didn’t so much care about prosecution of my case. I just wanted her to know this guy still had access to kids. But Norton told me that in Virginia, there’s no statute of limitations on felony sexual abuse. Youssefi still could be prosecuted.
She asked me to come to Virginia from New York, where I was living, to make a report in person. When I arrived at the airport, she picked me up in an unmarked police cruiser.
I told Norton all about Youssefi. To me, he didn’t fit the stereotypical image of a molester, the kind who lures children into his van with candy. To anyone watching us at the time, like fellow gymnasts and my dad, I was the loudmouth kid and he was the jovial coach.
I remember having this deeply shameful and sick feeling.– Tennessee Watson
But he had figured out how to get me alone.
He said I wasn’t disciplined enough and needed to learn to focus. He offered me a special opportunity: private sessions with him. That’s when the abuse started. I was 7 years old.
My dad and I went to the gym together. While I worked one on one with Youssefi, my dad would work out in another corner of the gym, doing a routine the coach had given him to strengthen his bad knees. Youssefi would prop up a gym mat like a room divider, ostensibly to keep me from getting distracted by my dad. As I look back, I can clearly see the mat was meant to hide what was happening.
Youssefi would start a stretching routine with me and ask me to sit on the floor across from him with my legs wide open in a split. He’d reach out to grasp my hands to pull me forward, then I’d lean back to pull him toward me. We’d go back and forth like that, working our hips and hamstrings.
Then the crotch of my leotard would catch his eye.
He’d point out it wasn’t tight enough by hooking his fingers around the little piece of fabric between my legs. I remember feeling his knuckles and fingers rubbing back and forth on my labia.
I don’t know exactly how many times it happened, but I vividly remember thinking it was my fault. The summer before second grade, I pretended to lose interest in gymnastics. My dad and I stopped going to the gym.
As I told Norton the details, I began to realize the extent of the manipulation. That made me even more worried about the coach’s ongoing access to kids. With tears streaming down my face, I told Norton that if Youssefi lived at the end of a dirt road and never saw a kid, I probably wouldn’t have reported him. If he could say to me, “You were the only one,” then I probably wouldn’t pursue this.
Norton suggested it might be a good time to call Youssefi and ask him to take responsibility for what he’d done. If he admitted it, or even just apologized, that would help build the criminal case against him.
I was recording her as we talked, but she set up her own recorder so she could record the call. She gave me a small microphone to press between my ear and my phone.
I gave it a go, but it didn’t work. Youssefi told me over and over that he didn’t know what I was talking about. By the end of the call, he was denying I had ever been his gymnastics student.
I’m calling to see if I can get an apology for what you did.– Tennessee Watson
This is a point at which a lot of cases like mine end. I had reported Youssefi to the police. I had tried the sting phone call. There wasn’t much else I could do. It would be up to the prosecutor assigned to my case to decide whether to move forward.
Before I parted ways with Norton, she cautioned me not to get my hopes up.
But my case didn’t end there. When I met Kristina Robinson, an assistant prosecutor in Prince William County, she told me she thought Youssefi might have abused other kids. She said: “In a school setting, in a gym setting, in any kind of setting where adults are supervising children, if there’s one victim, often there’s more.”
Even if no one else came forward, she told me she could charge Youssefi based solely on my account. Because I was approaching this as a reporter, I asked lots of questions about how bringing a case worked. Robinson explained that in Virginia case law, Fisher v. Commonwealth of Virginia establishes that the testimony of a victim, if believed, may be enough for a conviction.
The tough part is getting a jury to believe a victim. Jurors need proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime happened. They expect physical evidence – injuries, DNA, blood swabs, all the stuff you see on crime shows.
But if abusers first groom kids to trust them, they often don’t have to use force or worry about being reported. With Youssefi, my grooming was the special private lessons with an elite coach.
With a case like mine, far in the past, the best Robinson could do was find a way to prove that the abuse could have happened. She asked if I had check stubs or other records of payment for the private lessons, a photo of the two of us together. I didn’t have any of that stuff.
So my best hope – and also my worst fear – was that Youssefi had other victims.
Norton, the detective, went to police departments all around Virginia hunting for reports about Youssefi. In nearby Arlington County, she found one. In 1997, Jeanna Dodd had reported to police that Youssefi had sexually abused her in the 1980s.
Through Norton, I learned that Dodd grew up one town over from me and was older than me at the time she said she was abused – about 10. She had told a counselor at her school back then what had happened, and the counselor contacted the police. But her parents didn’t push for prosecution. They were scared to put her through a trial at which she’d have to testify.
Like me, though, Dodd couldn’t put it behind her. She came forward again in 1997.
Norton found Dodd’s police report from 1997 and wanted Arlington County to reopen the case.
Dodd’s case was even stronger than mine, Norton said. She had come forward multiple times, first as a kid, and her report about what happened more clearly demonstrated sexual intent. It still would be my word against Youssefi’s in Prince William County, but Norton thought media coverage would link the two cases for the public to see.
Five months later, in April 2014, we got the official word that the Arlington County prosecutor was not going to move forward on Dodd’s case. Robinson decided to charge based on my testimony alone. She was hoping coverage of the arrest would bring forward other victims in Prince William County, where she would have more control over charges.
A couple of days after the arrest hit the news, two women came forward in Maryland. They’d gone to a school where Youssefi worked as a gym teacher. Both said he’d touched them inappropriately, too. They had tried to bring charges in the 1980s, they said, when they were kids, but nothing was done.
The prosecutor in the Maryland county where their reports were made wouldn’t reopen those cases, either. That’s when I started to realize how few prosecutors take these cases further.
I asked Norton to tell the other victims about me and see if they’d talk to me as part of my reporting. Dodd agreed – but I waited too long to call her. On May 22, 2014, she died of a drug overdose.
I found out the following month, as I was about to face Youssefi in court for the first time at a preliminary hearing. Norton had been calling Dodd to let her know my case was moving forward, but she couldn’t get ahold of her. When she figured out why, she called to tell me. Thoughts of Dodd became my constant companion during the hearing.
Youssefi’s defense attorney cross-examined me for over an hour while Youssefi watched. He asked about details I didn’t remember, such as the exact months the abuse happened. I was 7 years old. How would I possibly know that? But every time I said, “I don’t know,” I was like “Damn! He’s getting me.”
It was a taste of how hard the trial was going to be – minus the 12 jurors who would be scrutinizing me then. I thought of Dodd. I wouldn’t give up.
After the preliminary hearing, the case went before the grand jury, which indicted him and approved a jury trial.
A date was set: June 8, 2015. A year away.
As the trial approached, I heard the defense attorney had gathered hundreds of letters of support for Youssefi and lined up 20 character witnesses. Four days before the trial, I got a call from Robinson, the assistant prosecutor. She told me she’d been thinking about the case. It sounded like the preamble to some bad news.
I can never predict exactly what a jury is going to do …– Kristina Robinson, assistant prosecutor
“I can never predict exactly what a jury is going to do,” she said. “But I just can’t see them saying the memory of a young woman in her 30s remembering something that happened when she was 6 or 7 years old is enough beyond a reasonable doubt.”
She’d hoped more victims would come forward, but none had. So all we had was my word and no corroborating evidence. Her boss, Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert, had told her she was going to lose. He instructed her to offer Youssefi a plea deal.
And what a deal it was: Instead of a trial, Youssefi would appear in court and plead “not guilty facts sufficient,” which means he wasn’t admitting guilt but also wasn’t contesting my testimony. And his charge would be reduced from a felony, for which he could have faced 20 years in prison, to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charge is a catch-all for adults who expose a minor to something that might harm him or her, like buying a kid a pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of beer.
Why was Robinson offering him a deal that didn’t require him to even admit guilt? It’s a procedure called suspended imposition. It was a way to get Youssefi on probation. He’d have to wait a year for the final disposition of the case. And until then, he was not allowed to be around kids under 12 and would have to go to counseling. If he complied, then he’d officially be not guilty and the charge would be dismissed.
I felt hurt and confused. Yet at least it was something. Youssefi started his probation.
The reporter in me couldn’t just walk away, though. It nagged at me that nothing was done in response to the allegations against Youssefi in other jurisdictions. I was told the victims in Maryland had wanted to put the ordeal behind them. But in Arlington County, Dodd had wanted to hold Youssefi accountable, yet the prosecutor refused to reopen the case.
Those kinds of discrepancies signaled a breakdown in the system to me, but according to Camille Cooper, prosecutors have the power to do whatever they want with a case. Cooper is the director of legislative affairs at Protect, an organization that pushes for a stronger response to child abuse.
“The prosecutor is the one that sets the level of priority in his or her community,” she said. “You know the buck stops with him. He can reject a case just because he doesn’t want to do it.”
I assumed we had ways to compare how prosecutors in different jurisdictions respond to child sexual abuse. But I found that prosecutors don’t have to explain any of their decisions to the public – why they charge certain cases and not others. Their right not to disclose information is protected by a slew of U.S. Supreme Court cases, some of which also protect them from being held accountable except in the most egregious cases of misconduct.
The prosecutor’s office is kind of like a black hole, and I was desperate to find out what was going on in there. How many victims get turned away, told by prosecutors that there just isn’t enough to charge? Where do things get halted and why?
I worked with the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University and the data team at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting to look at thousands of child sex abuse cases going back 15 years in Prince William County, where my case was handled. It turned out to be impossible to track each case all the way through the system. The police, Prince William County Circuit Court, Prince William General District Court and state Supreme Court all have different ways of filing cases. There’s no universal tracking number or serial code. They don’t even keep a count of how many sex crime charges have involved children.
So to a large degree, we still couldn’t see much of what was going on. But from police data, we could see that about half of reported cases of child sexual abuse had not made it past the police. Some were closed for lack of evidence, and some were rejected by the prosecutor.
What happens with the cases that do make it past the police? It was hard for me to believe that the Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney’s office wasn’t keeping track, even for itself. Five special prosecutors there work on child sex abuse cases.
But Ebert, the county’s top prosecutor, who has been elected 13 times, says even he doesn’t track how many cases his office decides to prosecute versus how many they turn down.
He explained it to me this way: “If the public doesn’t like what I do, they can kick me out of office. That’s our system.”
Rose Corrigan, a researcher at Drexel University’s law school in Philadelphia, also struggled to get data from prosecutors’ offices about how they handle sexual assault cases. Corrigan traveled to six states, interviewing victim advocates about their experience with the legal process.
What she found affirms 40 years of research on sexual assault prosecution, which she summed up this way: “Middling to bad is what to expect.”
A victim advocate told her that in one county, the local prosecutor hadn’t brought a sexual assault charge in a decade. But she also found a small group of prosecutors, scattered around the country, who were going above and beyond. She described them as “unusually driven to seek justice for victims of sexual violence.”
Corrigan says my prosecutor, Robinson, fits that profile. Until then, I’d been thinking that Robinson had let Youssefi off easy. Now I realized that maybe she’d squeezed everything she could out of my case.
Robinson acknowledges that other prosecutors might think what she’s doing is “overreaching or trying to press a case that maybe can’t be proven.” And she gets angry, “because they don’t understand how important this is.”
Theo Stamos is the commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington County, Virginia. That’s where Jeanna Dodd had tried to bring charges against Youssefi multiple times. Stamos’ office didn’t charge him. Stamos wouldn’t say why not.
Then she was asked to talk hypothetically about my case for this story. Would she have prosecuted Youssefi?
“It would be a very odd situation where I would authorize a prosecution to go forward against that individual,” Stamos said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done. But absent an admission by the defendant, or a confession to law enforcement, it’s virtually impossible to go forward.”
Lots of thoughts were colliding in my brain. Numerous states now waive the statute of limitations for reporting child abuse, but what is that worth if prosecutors are reluctant to charge? And if prosecutors won’t put these cases before a jury, the testimony of victims never gets heard. That leaves us with no power to convince jurors and no power against our abusers.
That sense of powerlessness can have devastating consequences. It did for Dodd.
I reached out to her parents to find out what had happened. They didn’t want to talk. It was too painful. But they introduced me to Becky Newton, one of Dodd’s close friends.
Newton said Dodd had an edgy sense of humor and spent years working with rescue animals. But inside, she struggled because of the abuse.
“It was huge. It impacted every aspect of her life,” Newton said. “I think it was just this incredible weight that she was never meant to carry … this dark cloud that she carried around.”
To cope, Dodd started using drugs, Newton said, and struggled with addiction most of her adult life.
In her early 20s, Dodd got a job at a Starbucks near where she grew up. Youssefi began coming in regularly. Dodd couldn’t take it, Newton said. “At one point, before she quit, she actually looked him in the eye and said, ‘I just want you to know: You ruined my life.’ ”
That’s when Dodd decided to go back to the police. In 1997, she tried a sting phone call with the help of a detective just like mine. And, like mine, it didn’t work. Then, in 2013, when I brought my case, she got the phone call from Detective Kimberly Norton about her police report.
Newton remembers that day: “She was just so excited. Because she … had been informed about you, informed that they were looking at pursuing the case. And just a deep sense of relief that this might actually be pushed forward this time.”
But then, Newton said, “there was just some resistance in pursuing the case.”
I remember hearing that from Norton, too. She told me Arlington County was reluctant to take the case because Dodd wasn’t a great witness. I wondered if that was because of her history of drug use.
Having her case dropped again hit Dodd hard, Newton said. “Every time she brought herself to a place to be able to confront this, to be able to be honest about it, to voice what happened, and then nothing was done, I think the weight just grew. And then, you know, ultimately Jeanna’s death.”
When Dodd overdosed, she left behind a 10-month-old daughter. She left even those who knew her best unsure of whether she had intentionally taken her own life or overdosed by accident.
I had wanted to go to trial not just for myself, or for Dodd, but for all the women who’d been silenced by the trauma of abuse. I wanted Youssefi to have to explain himself. At a trial, he might have been cross-examined by Robinson. At the plea hearing, all he said was, “Not guilty.”
The final hearing happened last month, on July 11. Youssefi pleaded not guilty to the reduced charge, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He had complied with the terms of his probation – spending the year away from kids and going to counseling – so now in the court files, his case is marked as dismissed.
If you look up his arrest record, it does show that he originally was charged with a felony for aggravated sexual battery. And his mug shot does turn up in an internet search. But he never was put on the sex offender registry, and he’s free to work with kids again.
People always ask me what I think should have happened to Youssefi. Years in prison? Intensive counseling?
Even after all my reporting, I’m still not sure.
But I do know one thing: When Dodd told her school counselor about Youssefi, I hadn’t started taking gymnastics yet. If the prosecutor then had decided to charge Youssefi, maybe he never would have become my coach.