And Justice for Some

Dropped and dismissed: Child sex abuse lost in the system

Credit: Anna Vignet for Reveal

Reporter Tennessee Watson says she was sexually abused by her gymnastics coach when she was a kid in the 1980s. More than 25 years later, when she learned he still was coaching children, she called the police. Her inside account of the painful process of seeking justice in her own case exposes discrepancies in prosecutors’ responses to reports of child sexual abuse and spotlights a lack of accountability.

In this hour of Reveal, we meet Tennessee, who decides to confront the man she says abused her decades earlier. As she pursues her case, she gets an unexpected response from a police detective and a prosecutor – they believe her and want to take her case seriously. And as her case snowballs, police find other victims.

Tennessee’s search for answers leads her back to one of the people who often shapes the outcome of child sex abuse cases: the prosecutor. But will she get the justice she’s looking for?

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Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list: All music composed for this episode by Jim Briggs (Cut-Off Man Records, 2016)


TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al : From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Tennessee Watson is an independent radio producer and reporter. She has a story that's going to be our entire episode today, and it starts with a home video. It was recorded when Tennessee was just a kid in the 1980s, growing up in a Virginia suburb.
Parviz: Stand up and do some cartwheel.
Tennessee: This video of me is from 1 of my private lessons with my gymnastics coach, Parviz Youseffi. Back when this recording was made, I was about 7 years old and he was in his 40s.
Parviz: That's good, step.
Tennessee: I was a spunky little kid with a lot of attitude. I'd go to school dressed up in tights and an oversized off-the-shoulder t-shirt.
Parviz: That's it.
Tennessee: I have this tape because my dad brought our camcorder with us 1 day to the gym. I'm out on the floor and Youseffi is behind the camera, filming me doing cartwheels.
Parviz: Do cartwheel now, Tenny.
Tennessee: You might hear that he has an accent. He's originally from Iran, and he's calling me by my nickname, Tenny. I always felt uncomfortable and uncertain around him. I liked the special attention he gave me, but his critiques could be harsh.
Parviz: Do it again.
Tennessee: Again?
Parviz: Make it faster. That's good, do it again. On time, right away.
Tennessee: He said I wasn't disciplined enough and needed to learn focus. He offered to give me 1 on 1 lessons, which sounded fun. I imagined having the giant trampoline all to myself. It also meant I would spend time alone with him. It was during those lessons that the sexual abuse began. I don't know exactly how long it went on, but I knew it felt bad and wrong. To make it stop, I pretended to lose interest in gymnastics, and we stopped going. I never told anyone, not until I was grown up, because I was scared it was somehow my fault. I carried my secret for years and years, and eventually, I told the police.
Speaker 4: Tennessee is going to take us along on her journey from victim to survivor to reporter. She investigated her own story and recorded everything that happened for years, documenting her decision to report her coach and what happened when a police detective and a prosecutor took on her case. It's an intensely personal story, but it's also 1 that looks at how the system handles cases like hers, and the consequences for victims of sexual abuse everywhere. We should warn you, there will be a description of the abuse. This is not a story for all listeners.
Tennessee: As I got older, what happened would occasionally come to mind, and I knew it wasn't right, but I didn't know what to do about it. When I was in my mid 20s, I was working as a radio producer and I started making recordings of myself.
It's now 12:33 on November 10th. I guess it's really hard to figure out where to start.
I think it was a way to coax myself into going public about the abuse.
I have all of the lights on in my apartment. I have checked all the nooks and crannies to make sure that there's no one hiding here.
I couldn't make myself say exactly what had happened out loud. It was hard enough just to say something happened.
It's kind of scary to record it and document it and make it permanent, but it's really important.
I put those recordings on a shelf. A couple years later my dad came to visit me in Washington, DC, where I'd gone to live.
Every time you've come to visit me, I thought about having this conversation, and something else better always comes along.
I'd already told my dad that Youseffi had sexually abused me. I'd called him and told him on the phone back in college. Not any details, just that it happened. He'd asked me what I wanted to do about it, and at that point, I didn't know, but now I needed his help to deal with it.
Part of me would really just rather avoid this topic for the rest of my life, but I can't avoid it. It always comes up again and again.
Speaker 5: I don't know how you ... I don't know how you let go of it.
Tennessee: My dad's an externalist in his late 60s. I usually call him by his first name, Bill. My mom died when I was 16, so since then, it's just been me and Bill.
Since I called you and told you, has it come up? Do you think about it?
Speaker 5: Yeah, I will. In a way you can't help but feel like you failed as a father. Your whole job is to protect your daughter, and you missed this. You missed it completely. I want to take it and put it away. Just take that failure and put it away, but you can't.
Tennessee: I wanted to confront what had happened head-on. I asked my dad to help me take the first step, to find out if the gym was still open.
Speaker 5: I wonder if it even exists even more.
Tennessee: I don't know. I've never looked it up.
That night, we went for it.
I got to do it.
Speaker 5: Got to do it.
Tennessee: GMS Gymnastics. They have a website. Should we click on it?
Speaker 5: Sure.
Tennessee: GMS Kids. Oh my god, please don't have a picture of him on there. My eyes are closed. If you see him, will you let me know so I don't have to look?
As I typed, my dad was sitting across the room. He got up to put his hand on my shoulder, and we peered at the screen together.
Should we click on staff bios?
Speaker 5: Sure.
Tennessee: Oh god.
Youseffi was still running the gym in Manassas, Virginia.
I'm cringing right now, I'm cringing.
It was almost midnight, but my dad and I decided to drive out there.
You want to come?
Speaker 5: Yeah.
Tennessee: The gym was in the same cinder block building, tucked behind some big box stores. I stood in front of it wondering, "How could somebody who did what he did to me still be in business 25 years later?"
Speaker 5: Looks just like it did 20 years ago.
Tennessee: Yeah.
Speaker 5: 2 decades. What I'm thinking is is the same thing still happening?
Tennessee: I wondered that too. Was Youseffi still abusing kids? How many other people like me were out there trying to deal with what he'd done to them? I wasn't ready to confront him. I was still afraid about how people would react, how he would react. Right after this visit to the gym I moved to New York City. The distance took some pressure off me to decide what to do. It took me 3 years to take the next step. I learned that he started another side business working with disabled kids 1 on 1, doing something called sensory motor integration therapy. I called Youseffi and said I was doing a documentary on healing and injury, on how childhood injuries can affect us as adults. I asked if I could interview him, and he invited me to the gym.
When I arrived, there were a couple parents in the waiting area, and a handful of kids on the floor bouncing on trampolines, rolling around on those giant exercise balls. Youseffi walked out with a kid to the waiting area, and then brought me back to his office. It was filled with thank you cards and kids' art. He looked the same as I remembered. Still super fit, but now with more gray hair.
Parviz: You said you want to record everything?
Tennessee: Yeah.
Parviz: All right.
Tennessee: I'm a radio producer. I may ...
Parviz: When I got a note and then said Watson because I had a student ...
Tennessee: You probably knew me as Tenny, though. That might have been what you ...
Parviz: Jenny Watson.
Tennessee: Tenny.
Parviz: Tenny Watson, [inaudible 00:09:30].
Tennessee: I focus on my audio recorder, getting good levels and that keeps me from totally freaking out. I started asking him about old wounds and healing, hoping he'd say something that would give me a way to bring up the abuse.
If there are certain patterns that are set from the time that you're a kid, and then as an adult, how do you disrupt that, and can you rework yourself so that you're more integrated and physically-
Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Tennessee: -work yourself, so that you're more integrated and physically function better?
Dr. Youssefi: It depends on how much fear you've created. If you're psychologically scarred by those injuries, it's [so 00:10:13] difficult to go back to the same-. Like someone from diving, for instance. Height involved, speed involved, for instance. Like on the high bar, [giant 00:10:22]. [Giant 00:10:23] just has lots of speed, right? If someone, 120 [crosstalk 00:10:26].
Tennessee: I kept the interview going, sizing him up. We talked about a lot of different kinds of injuries, but I never brought up the abuse. After that day seeing him in a gym full of kids, I realized this was bigger than what I could handle on my own. I felt like I had no choice; I had to call the police and tell them what I knew. I wasn't calling to press charges. I didn't even know if what my coach had done to me was technically illegal.
Good morning, Sergeant Brown. I got your phone number from the [crosstalk 00:10:56].
I called someone at a special victims unit in Virginia.
My name is Tennessee Watson, and I'm calling to report a crime, so if you could give me a call back, that would be great. [crosstalk 00:11:14]
Al Letson: When Tennessee left that message, she had no idea if anybody would even call her back, but that phone call set off a big chain of events, which is where we'll pick up her story in a minute. You're listening to Reveal.
From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Tennessee Watson has been telling us a story of how she first reported that her gymnastics coach had sexually abused her as child. People who are victims of this kind of abuse often hear a refrain: "Come forward and name your abuser. Justice will be done," but actually, we don't usually get to hear what happens next. That's what we're about to get into, but I should let you know it includes a graphic account of sexual abuse. We pick up as Tennessee, at age 32, has just made a police report. This was in 2013. She flew from New York City to Virginia to meet a detective named Kimberly Norton.
Det. Norton: Let's go in this room here. If I could just have you sit on that side, because [crosstalk 00:12:54].
Tennessee: Detective Norton wore her dark hair in a long braid. She was strong and compact, and looked like she'd be hard to knock over. I found out later she was a military police officer before she became a county detective.
Det. Norton: -[crosstalk 00:13:05] I'm going to give you my business card. This is my business card. That's the case number that you will always refer to when you call me or something if it's like a year later, just to refresh my memory.
Tennessee: This was getting more serious than I had anticipated. Norton had brought me up to an interview room. Cinder-block walls, a simple table, and a couple of chairs. There was mirrored glass to an observation area. She agreed to let me record our conversation.
Det. Norton: I have your name as Tennessee Watson. It's two N's, two S's, two E's, correct?
Tennessee: Just like the state, yeah.
Det. Norton: [crosstalk 00:13:39]
Tennessee: When I called the police, I wasn't even sure what happened was a crime, and I figured it was too late, but Norton told me that in Virginia, there's no statute of limitations on felony sexual abuse. Youssefi could still be prosecuted.
Det. Norton: Can you tell me the first memory that you have of something that you felt uncomfortable with and what that memory was?
Tennessee: Yeah. I mean, in terms of the sexual abuse, that-.
I was about to say out loud to Norton things that I'd only thought in my head.
I think there was definitely [crosstalk 00:14:19].
I'd never told anyone, even my parents, the details of exactly what Youseffi had done.
He had set up this mat, a floor mat that he could prop up, explaining to me that because I had trouble concentrating and focusing and he didn't want me to be distracted, I had to stretch with him behind the mat, and [crosstalk 00:14:40].
Youssefi used to make a big deal out of how I had trouble concentrating and focusing. The mat, he said, was so I wouldn't be distracted by my dad, who came to my lessons with me, but really the mat was to hide what was happening. Youssefi would start a stretching routine with me and then ask me to sit on the floor across from him with my legs wide open in a split.
He got me into that position and then sort of stuck there. It was in that moment when he would sort of be like, "Oh, your leotard is too big," and in order to show me how big it was, slide his hands into my leotard, and my legs are spread wide open in front of him in this really compromising position, but he would rub my labia, the outside of my vagina, like stroke my body with his hand.
Det. Norton: At that moment, did you feel uncomfortable at that age?
Tennessee: Yeah.
Det. Norton: You already felt like this was something that shouldn't have been happening?
Tennessee: Yeah. I remember having this sort of deeply shameful/sick feeling, knowing it was wrong, not knowing exactly what to do.
Det. Norton: Would it always be the same-?
Tennessee: Same parameters. The mat.
Det. Norton: The mat would be up?
Tennessee: The mat was up. [crosstalk 00:16:12]
Finally telling someone exactly what happened, all the details, felt really good, and I was telling someone who could actually do something about it?
Det. Norton: Are you describing back when you were thinking [crosstalk 00:16:21]?
Tennessee: As a kid, I trusted my coach. I wanted to trust him. Norton told me this is typical of kids who are sexually abused. Most of them know their abuser. An abuser will create a trusting relationship, what's called "grooming," not just with the kid, but with their parents, too. Youssefi did that with my dad. He invited him to use the gym to work out and gave him exercises to strengthen his bad knees. I told Norton that.
I mean, it's hard to admit, but I think there was a really optimistic part of me and also the tenacious part of me that's like, "This won't happen again," almost giving an adult who I trust the benefit of the doubt the first time that it felt weird and wrong, that it was a mistake and that it wouldn't be a thing that would happen again.
Det. Norton: [crosstalk 00:17:15]
Tennessee: Now, as an adult, I was thinking about all the kids he had access to who might be going through the same thing I did.
[crosstalk 00:17:19] You know, if he lived at the end of a dirt road and never saw a kid, then I don't know if I would be sitting here, but the fact that he isn't isolated, the fact that he does still work with young people. If he said to me, "You were the only one," I don't know what I would do, but if he could say that to me, if I could know that I was the only one, then I might walk away, like, "Okay, don't do it again."
Det. Norton: How did you feel, and we discussed this before, about calling him and trying to get him to take some kind of responsibility today for his actions and then I can record that conversation?
Tennessee: At this point, right when I got really emotional, Detective Norton suggested that we call Youssefi right then and get him to take responsibility or apologize. She's record the conversation.
Yeah, I mean, I'd like to try.
Det. Norton: Well, let's do that now. This goes on the phone, wherever you put your ear up to, like right here. Then put the phone up to your ear and that's it. Whenever you're ready.
Dr. Youssefi: Hello?
Tennessee: Hi, is this Dr. Youssefi?
Dr. Youssefi: Speaking.
Tennessee: Hey, this is Tennessee Watson calling you again. I came and interviewed you last February, I think it was, as well.
Dr. Youssefi: Yeah, right, right, right.
Tennessee: I was holding the recorder up to the phone, so it's a little hard to hear Youssefi.
How are you doing?
Dr. Youssefi: I'm fine, thank you very much.
Tennessee: I'm calling because when I interviewed you, there was something that I wanted to talk about, but I didn't really get the chance to talk about, and I've been dealing with the impact of actions that you took when I was one of your students. I'm calling to see if I could get an apology for what you did.
Dr. Youssefi: I don't know what you're talking about.
Tennessee: He says, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Do you want me to tell you what I'm talking about?
Dr. Youssefi: Please [inaudible 00:19:52].
Tennessee: I remember you doing the straddle stretch with me and you reaching forward and telling me repeatedly that my leotard was too big and you showed me-
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Tennessee: ... repeatedly that my leotard was too big, and you showed me that my leotard was too big by sliding your fingers in between my genitals and my leotard.
Youseffi: Is that what you think?
Tennessee: That is what I know.
Youseffi: That's what you think I did, right?
Tennessee: He has the same response to everything that I ask him, that he has no clue what I'm talking about.
That is what I know you did.
Youseffi: I've never, ever, ever, ever, ever done such a thing to anyone [inaudible 00:20:29].
Tennessee: He said he had never ever done such a thing to anyone.
Youseffi: I've never done such a thing to anyone. Never, ever.
Tennessee: Youseffi didn't admit to anything. In fact, by the end of the call, he was denying I was ever even his student.
Youseffi: ... accusing me of the worst thing [inaudible 00:20:48].
Tennessee: This is a point where a lot of cases like mine stop. I reported Youseffi to the police. I tried the sting phone call, but we didn't get a confession or even an apology. It felt like a dead end, but my case didn't stop because of a woman named Kristina Robinson.
Kristina Robinson in the Commonwealth Attorney's office?
Speaker 3: Second floor.
Tennessee: Okay, great.
Robinson is an assistant prosecutor in Prince William County, Virginia. She has long, blonde hair and dresses pretty casual, but Robinson keeps a black blazer and a pair of serious heels under her desk, just in case. Her office in the courthouse has a tan, leather couch, which you can hardly see under the stacks of files. There are papers everywhere, on the couch, the desk, the floor.
Kristina: Oh, look, it is. It's right there on the top.
Tennessee: She remembers getting the call about my case from Detective Norton.
Kristina: I think it was one of these, "Well, Kristi, we kind of have a doozy, and we're probably going to bring out other victims," because 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.
Tennessee: Robinson thought this could turn into a much larger case, but even if it didn't, she told me she could legally charge Youseffi just with my account of what happened.
Kristina: Let me explain this to you. In Virginia, the testimony of a victim, if believed, is enough for a conviction. Okay?
Tennessee: If believed. That's the tough part.
Kristina: The reality of trying a case before a jury is it's usually not enough.
Tennessee: Robinson was already thinking ahead to what might happen at a trial. A jury needs proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the crime happened. They want physical evidence, injuries, DNA, blood swabs, all the stuff you see on crime shows, but with child sex abuse cases, a lot of the time, there is no physical evidence. There is no force used. There are no bruises because kids are groomed to trust their abuser. With a case like mine, far in the past, the best Kristina Robinson could do is find a way to prove that the abuse could have happened.
Kristina: What we always want to look at is for corroboration, whether it's a 5-year-old that discloses something that just happened the night before, or if it's a 20-year-old that is disclosing something that happened when they were 5. A lot of times, it's me ferreting out and saying, "What else is there?"
Tennessee: She asked me if I had check stubs or other records of payment for the private lessons, a photo of the 2 of us together. I didn't have any of that stuff. I hadn't found that old home movie of me at the gym back then. I didn't even remember it existed. My best hope, and also my worst fear, was that Youseffi had other victims.
Detective Norton went to police departments all around Virginia hunting for police reports about Youseffi. In Arlington County, just one county over, she found one. In 1997, a woman, who was a little older than me, reported to police that Youseffi had sexually abused her in the 1980s. That case had never been prosecuted. Because it was in another county, Kristina Robinson wouldn't be able to use the police report as evidence. We were getting close to running out of options.
Kristina: We need to get passed a certain point so that the media at least knows about it, because I want to ferret out if there are other victims.
Tennessee: Going on my testimony alone, without any other evidence, Robinson decided to charge Youseffi.
Speaker 5: A Virginia gymnastics coach is behind bars, charged with aggravated sexual battery. Parvis Youseffi is accused of abusing a student, starting when she was 6 years old.
Tennessee: Youseffi was in jail for 2 days before he was released on bond. A couple of days after the arrest hit the news, 2 more women came forward in Maryland. They'd gone to the same school where Youseffi was their gym teacher. They said they'd both been touched inappropriately by him, and they tried to bring charges in the 1980s when they were kids. Here's Kristina Robinson again.
Kristina: There were 2 young ladies who actually had reported the things very close in time to when they had happened, and why Maryland did nothing about it then, I don't know, and I can't answer that.
Tennessee: Robinson was hoping there was a way for those other victims to testify in my case.
Kristina: When I tried to get in touch with at least one of them, the response was, "I'm done dealing with this. Even though I came forward to corroborate, I'm done dealing with this. I can't face it anymore," and that, also, is not an uncommon reaction. Sometimes people will just shut down.
Tennessee: A date was set for the trial, June 8, 2015, a year away. At this point, a lot of the reservations I had about the criminal justice process flew out the window. They believed me, and they were taking it seriously. I was like, "Oh, wow. This is for real." But then, at the preliminary hearing, none of the other victims were there. I realized it was just going to be me facing Youseffi in the courtroom with our lawyers. It was the first time I'd seen him since the interview at the gym. He looked straight ahead and didn't make eye contact with me.
Youseffi's defense attorney cross-examined me for over an hour while Youseffi watched. He asked me about details I didn't remember, like the exact months the abuse happened. Every time I said, "I don't know." I was like, "Damn. He's getting me." It was really defeating. It was a taste of how hard the trial was going to be, only there would be 12 jurors scrutinizing me too.
9 months went by. I was teaching documentary production to teenagers in New York City. In May of 2015, I told my boss I was going to miss 3 days of work. I sent out emails to friends asking them to come to the trial. I wanted to balance out Youseffi's side of the courtroom with my own posse of people. I heard the defense attorney had gathered hundreds of letters of support for Youseffi, and they had 20 character witnesses lined up. On the other side was me and my dad and Detective Norton.
I was planning to drive to Virginia early on Friday morning. On Thursday night, I got a call from Kristina Robinson.
Kristina: All of those things, as I was analyzing and thinking about this case and preparing just-
Tennessee: She sounded like she was about to give me some bad news.
Kristina: I can never predict exactly what a jury's going to do, but I just can't see them saying that the memory of a young woman in her 30s, remembering something that happened when she was just 7 years old, is enough, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Tennessee: She said she'd gone to her boss, and he'd said, "You're going to lose. There's no way you're going to win," and I wanted to work out a plea deal, so she was going to offer Youseffi a lesser charge.
Kristina: Contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Tennessee: Right.
Contributing to the delinquency of a minor is a misdemeanor. It's kind of a catch-all charge for adults exposing a kid to something that might harm them, like buying a kid a 6-pack of beer. His original charge was a felony, with a potential for up to 20 years of jail time. If he took Kristina's deal, Youseffi would get just a year of probation. I didn't want to go along with this, but it wasn't up to me, and at least he'd be away from kids for a year.
Kristina: Okay?
Tennessee: Okay.
Kristina: I'm still willing to answer any follow-up questions that you have. Okay?
Tennessee: Okay.
Kristina: All right. Thank you, Tennessee.
Tennessee: Have a good night.
Kristina: All right, you too. Bye.
Tennessee: Bye.
As soon as I hung with Robinson, I called my best friend.
Speaker 6: Hey.
Tennessee: Hi, [Pozner 00:28:55].
Speaker 6: What's up?
Tennessee: They're forcing a plea. They're not-
Speaker 6: They're forcing?
Tennessee: They're not giving me the option to go to trial. I just got off the phone with the prosecutor.
Speaker 6: Oh, God. What happened?
Tennessee: I mean, it's like I don't really understand it. She sounds so fucking nice, and her heart is in the right place, but she basically said that ... She's like, "You don't actually have a choice."
I was upset, but not because I necessarily wanted to go through the trial or see a harsher punishment. I was upset because I had a deep fear that this whole thing would become just another buried police report for another victim to find a decade from now. Kristina Robinson told me my case was challenging to put in front of a jury because the crime had occurred 27 years earlier, but the other 3 women had reported Youseffi when they were kids, and nothing was done then either.
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Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letso: What happened to those other cases, and how often do cases like this just go nowhere?
Commentator: I don't even know how you even look at that big picture. There's not record-keeping within this office that, after I do something with a case, I say, "OK, this is my statistics, and this is what the ultimate resolution of the case is.
Al Letso: That's coming up next on Reveal. ... From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letso. ... From the time they're little, kids across America have this message drilled into them. ... We say to kids, "Tell someone, and we'll take action. We'll protect you," but that promise doesn't always come to pass. When she was 32 years old, Tennessee Watson told the police that she had been sexually abused by her gymnastics coach when she was just a child back in the 1980s. 3 other women had reported the same man, Parvis Yusefi, but their cases didn't lead to any charges. In Tennessee's case, Yusefi was arrested, but he never went to trial. Tennessee picks up the story on the day of her coach's plea hearing.
Tennessee: I went with my dad to the courthouse in Manassas, Virginia. Instead of a trial, there was a hearing. Victims don't usually make a statement at hearings like this, but I insisted on being able to speak. I wasn't allowed to record inside the courtroom that day, but I said that I'd reported Yusefi to the police to protect other kids. I'd hoped that Yusefi would get help to prevent this from happening again. I wanted everyone there to know how hard it was to feel like the burden of taking action was all on me. My dad was there, watching me on the stand.
Commentator: I think more than anything else, I was looking at my 34-year-old daughter, and listening to my 34-year-old daughter, and seeing my 7-year-old daughter. That was what was tough, because I'd never heard her tell the story. I knew when it occurred, I knew where it occurred, but I had never heard her story, so I was very, very focused on that.
Tennessee: It was scary, but powerful, to finally get my story out in the open, but Yusefi's lawyer got the last word. He didn't even bother to deny the details of the abuse. Instead, in his summation, he discredited my entire account by saying that I'd never been at the gym with Yusefi. By this point, my dad was seething.
Commentator: They were together in that gym. He was giving her private lessons. I paid for them. I know that his summation was not true.
Tennessee: If there had been a trial, the statements made by me and my dad would have been a part of the public record, even if we'd lost.
Commentator: I would have been able to stand there and corroborate her testimony in front of the judge and say, "Yes, indeed, this did happen."
Tennessee: When I walked out of the courthouse that day, I wasn't sure how to make sense of it. Parvis Yusefi got just a year of probation. The man who'd molested me behind a mat on a gym floor when I was 7 years old was told he had to stay away from kids for 12 months, he'd go to counseling, and as long as he didn't violate the terms of his probation, at the end of that time, he'd be free to work with kids again. When I told people what happened, they couldn't believe the prosecutor had let Yusefi off so easy. What did happen? Was this a normal outcome I should have expected the whole time? To try to figure it all out, I went back to my prosecutor, Christina Robinson.
Commentator: I felt frustrated with the outcome of your case. I felt frustrated.
Tennessee: I was frustrated, too. I felt robbed of my chance to take on Yusefi directly. Going to trial would have been a giant stamp of approval saying that we, as a society, agree that sex abuse is a problem, and that Yusefi deserved to be held accountable.
Commentator: I wanted to have a permanent conviction of something on his record. That's why I come back to, I'm disappointed. I'm disappointed, but I still don't think we would have won anything at trial.
Tennessee: Actually, a lot of child sex abuse cases in Virginia end like this; with no trial and a plea bargain instead, with reduced charges and no jail time. That's according to Camille Cooper, a researcher at an organization called Protect that pushes for a stronger response to child abuse. Cooper has found that the people driving these weak outcomes are prosecutors.
Commentator: Really, the prosecutor is the one that sets the level of priority in his or her community. The buck stops with him. He can reject a case just because he doesn't want to do it.
Tennessee: Prosecutors don't have to explain their individual decisions.
Commentator: No state that I'm aware of has a statewide data system where you can look at what prosecutors are doing in every district statistically and make some sense of what's going on.
Tennessee: The prosecutor's office, where all the important decisions are made, is kind of a black hole.
Commentator: There's no way to say, "This many reports came in, here's how many went to the police, and then here's how many the prosecutor accepted and actually brought to trial." There's no way to connect the dots there.
Tennessee: I wanted to connect the dots. At least in the county where my case was handled. I worked with the investigative reporting workshop at American University and Reveal's data team. We looked at thousands of child sex abuse cases, going back 15 years in Prince William county. It was impossible to track each case all the way through the system, so to a large degree, we still couldn't see much of what was going on. We did find that about half of reported cases didn't make it past the police. Some were closed for lack of evidence, and some were rejected by the prosecutor. Why were those cases rejected? To find out, I went to Christina Robinson's boss, Paul Ebert. He's the one who calls the shots for Prince William county, and he's the one who told Robinson she had to offer a plea deal to Yusefi.
Commentator: Nice to see you.
Commentator: Good to meet you.
Tennessee: When I went to talk to Ebert, I expected a stern man in a power suit, Instead I got kind of a Wizard of Oz feeling. The man behind the curtain was an elderly gentleman in khakis and a cotton polo shirt. He's been in office a long time.
Commentator: Since Moby Dick was a minnow. 50 years.
Tennessee: Technically, it's 48 years. Ebert is Virginia's longest-serving prosecutor. When he last ran for re-election, one of his platforms was that he's tough on crime that affects women and children. His office does have 5 special prosecutors who work on child sex abuse cases, but Ebert says he doesn't keep track of how many cases his office decides to prosecute versus how many they turn down.
Commentator: I try not to be influenced by the public. I try to do what I think is right under the circumstances. Lots of time, the public doesn't understand; they don't now the facts; they don't know the law, and that's what I'm elected to do. If the public doesn't like what I do, well, they kick me out of office. That's our system.
Tennessee: Given the fact that there's little transparency, the idea that voters will take action if they're dissatisfied is a little farfetched. Rose Corrigan is a researcher at Drexel University's law school in Philidelphia. She'd looked into how prosecutors treat sexual assault cases all over the country.
Commentator: It was so frustrating to see the enormous, ongoing, and often-unacknowledged problems.
Tennessee: Corrigan traveled to 6 different states interviewing victim advocates. They're the people that help victims navigate reporting to the police and dealing with a prosecutor.
Commentator: I was talking with one advocate in Kansas, and I was asking her about their prosecutor in sexual assault cases, and she said, "We don't prosecute sexual assault out here." She had been there, I think, for about 10 years, and their prosecutor had literal never brought a sexual assault charge.
Tennessee: That was one extreme, and on the other end of the spectrum, there was a hopeful surprise in Corrigan's research. A small group of prosecutors scattered around the country who are going above and beyond.
Commentator: There were prosecutors who seemed to be unusually driven to seek justice for victims of sexual violence.
Tennessee: Corrigan says that prosecutors like this are rare, and Christina Robinson fits the profile. I'd been thinking Robinson let Yusefi off easy, but maybe she'd squeezed everything she could've out of my case with nothing to go on besides my testimony.
Commentator: My inclination is usually to charge if I can, and I think that's probably different from a lot of people that do this job.
Tennessee: Robinson's willing to charge even with the risk of eventually losing at trial, which sets her apart from many prosecutors.
Commentator: They may think that what I'm doing is overreaching or trying to press a case that maybe can't be proven, but I get angry. I get angry at other prosecutors because they don't understand.
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:51:06] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Speaker 1: ... but I get angry. I get angry at other prosecutors because they don't understand how important this is.
Tennessee : Other victims did speak out when they heard about my case, but those reports were outside Robinson's jurisdiction. One of them, right next door in Arlington County.
Theo: My name is Theo Stamos, and I am the Commonwealth's Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church in Virginia.
Tennessee : Theo Stamos' office didn't charge Youssefi. She wouldn't comment on why not, but when asked to talk hypothetically about my case, where it was only my testimony against the abuser, would she have prosecuted him?
Theo: It would be a very odd situation where I would authorize a prosecution to go forward against that individual. 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.
Tennessee : For Stamos, a victim's word alone just isn't enough, and charging a case based on that isn't right.
Theo: I think that that's a miscarriage of justice. I think that that's a real problem for the community if you have prosecutors who feel they need to do something and go forward when they really know, in their hearts, that there's no way that anyone's going to convict this guy.
Tennessee : If prosecutors won't put these cases before a jury, my word, my testimony, and the testimony of other victims, won't get heard. That leaves us with no power to convince jurors, and no power against our abusers. The woman who made the police reports about Youssefi in Arlington County was named Jeanna Dodd. Jeanna grew up one town over from me. Youssefi was her coach too. She was about ten in the early 1980s when he abused her. She told a counselor at her school, and the counselor contacted the police, but her parents didn't push for prosecution. They were scared to put her through a trial where she'd have to testify on the stand, but Jeanna couldn't put it behind her, so more than a decade later, in 1997, she brought the case to the police again. Her final attempt to get Arlington County to take action was when she heard about my case. I heard Jeanna wanted to talk to me, but I waited too long to call. On May 22nd, 2014, Jeanna Dodd died.
I reached out to her parents to find out what happened. They didn't want to talk for the story. It was too painful for them, but they introduced me to Becky Newton, one of Jeanna's dear friends. I called her at her home in Little Rock, Arkansas. She says Jeanna stood out in the crowd the first time they met at church.
Becky: She was what I called my hippy friend, and I use the word hippy with the greatest affection. It was clear that she kind of lived outside the box, and she made me laugh right away.
Tennessee : Becky says Jeanna had an edgy sense of humor. She spent years working with rescue animals. In one photo I saw, Jeanna's hugging a white pit bull and smiling, but Becky says inside, she struggled because of the abuse.
Becky: It was huge. I think it impacted every aspect of her life. I think it was just this incredible weight that she was never meant to carry as a little girl, that she was never meant to carry as a big girl and as a woman, but she did, just this heaviness, this weight, and this dark cloud that she carried around.
Tennessee : To cope, Jeanna started using drugs. She struggled with addiction most of her adult life. In her early twenties, Jeanna got a job at Starbucks near where she grew up. Youssefi would be in coming in regularly for coffee. After seeing him a bunch of times, Becky says, she couldn't take it anymore.
Becky: 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."
Tennessee : That's when Jeanna first decided to go back to the police. In 1997, she tried a sting phone call with the help of a detective, but it didn't go anywhere, but in 2013, when I brought my case, detectives found Jeanna's police report and called her. Becky remembers that day.
Becky: She was just so excited because she had gotten the call, that, and 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.
Tennessee : Then what happened?
Becky: There was just some resistance in pursuing the case.
Tennessee : I remember that Kimberly Norton told me Arlington County was reluctant to take the case, because Jeanna wasn't a great witness. It might have been her drug use.
Becky: 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. Then, ultimately, Jeanna's death.
Tennessee : Sorry, it makes me so mad and sad.
Becky: Me too. She would have loved you, Tennessee. She would have loved the fight in you. She just would have loved you, and she would have been right there at your side, fighting right alongside you.
Tennessee : Jeanna died of a drug overdose. She left behind a ten-month-old daughter. No one is quite sure whether Jeanna intentionally took her own life or overdosed by accident. We requested an interview with Parviz Youssefi, and he declined. This summer, I went to one of the last hearings in my case. While I was in the courthouse, I asked a producer to wait outside to try and get a statement from him.
Speaker 7: Mr. Youssefi. Mr. Youssefi. Four women have reported you to the police now. Do you have a ... What do you have to say to them?
Male: Nothing.
Male: I don't want to talk about it.
Male: Ma'am ...
Male: You got it.
Female: No comment.
Male: [crosstalk 00:46:46]
Male: No idea.
Male: My attorney.
Female: Talk to the attorney.
Male: Ma'am. Hey. Look, they don't want to talk to you.
Speaker 7: Are you going to go back to coaching young children?
Male: Please. Please let them pass. You can't chase them down.
Tennessee : Last month, there was a final hearing. I couldn't be there, but my dad went, and he called me right afterwards. What happened?
Speaker 10: Well, the bottom line, Kristina Robinson said, "Mr. Youssefi has completed all terms," and the judge looked down at the paper and said, "The motion is granted. The matter is dismissed."
Tennessee : Then that was it?
Speaker 10: That was it.
Tennessee : Youssefi's final plea was not guilty of the reduced charge, contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Because he complied with his probation, his case is marked as dismissed. Now, if you look up his arrest record, it will show that he was originally charged for the felony, aggravated sexual battery, and his mugshot will turn up in an internet search indefinitely, but he was never put on the sex offender registry, and he's free to work with kids again. People always asked me what I think should have happened to Youssefi. Years in prison, intensive counseling. I'm still not sure. All I know is this. When Jeanna Dodd told her school counselor about Youssefi, I hadn't even started taking gymnastics yet. If her case had moved forward, maybe I wouldn't have become his victim.
Al Letson: We want to thank independent producer Tennessee Watson for sharing her story with us. As we mentioned, the period of probation is over for Parviz Youssefi. Legally, he can work with kids again. We don't know if he plans to, but the gym is still open. On the website, Youssefi's wife and daughter are listed as coworkers. If this topic is important to you, you can hear a very different version of this story on The Heart, a podcast about intimacy and humanity from PRX and Radiotopia. In a mini-season of Heart episodes called Silent Evidence, Tennessee tells more about the emotional toll her abuse had on her, and what finally led her to speak out and report it to the police. Those special episodes were produced by Kaitlin Prest. Our episode today was produced by Laura Starecheski. Our senior editor was Deb George. Jim Briggs composed original music. Jocelyn Frank provided reporting help. We had help from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, Lynne Perri, David Donald, and Karol Ilagan. Special thanks to Reveal's data team, including Jennifer LaFleur, Emmanuel Martinez, and Sinduja Rangarajan.
Julia B. Chan produced our digital content. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Claire "C-Note" Mullen. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg, and Amy Pyle is our Editor in Chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Tennessee Watson's reporting was also made possible with funding from the IWMF Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember: There is always more to the story.
Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:51:06]

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