FORT WORTH — Norris "Kenny" Alexis led his girls soccer team to a silver medal in a tournament two months after being arrested by Fort Worth police on a warrant alleging aggravated sexual assault of a child.
Benny Cristantielli, another girls soccer coach, was arrested by Weatherford police on three charges of fraudulent possession of a controlled substance. He also faces a charge of possession of child pornography related to material that police found in his car at the time of his arrest.
Eddie Ray coaches the Fort Worth Westside Cowboys Pee Wee football team even though he was sentenced to four years in prison in 1998 after his probation was revoked because he failed drug tests.
Coaches and officials with youth sports groups are entrusted to watch over children and serve as role models while teaching them how to block and tackle, pitch and catch. But the backgrounds of some of the adults have parents wondering who is watching over them.
In late September, the president of the Keller Youth Association resigned after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that he operated several Metroplex strip clubs. Steve Craft had never been convicted of a crime, but an agent with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission once reported that Craft was associated with corporations that had a history of 109 violations, including prostitution and incidents involving minors.
Shortly after Craft resigned, the Star-Telegram discovered that in other youth sports associations, some officials and coaches with criminal records were being allowed to work with young people.
In other instances, background checks may not be thorough enough to identify potential concerns, experts say.
Sally Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports, said youth sports organizations are taking great risks if they don't ensure that background screenings are up to date and complete or if they're not setting the bar high enough for whom they hire or let volunteer.
Those who work with children have a huge responsibility to make certain that everyone involved is "tiptop," Johnson said.
"There are plenty that still are not. ... Quite frankly, the parents shouldn't be putting their children in those programs," Johnson said.
Continuing to coach
Kenny Alexis has an impressive resume. It says he played professional soccer for five years in Germany and has 25 years of coaching experience, including stints with several North Texas soccer clubs.
The 51-year-old Cleburne man was coaching for the Fort Worth United Soccer Club and serving as coaching director for the association's south branch when Fort Worth police notified club officials that he had been arrested in March on a warrant alleging aggravated sexual assault of a child.
Despite being initially suspended and stripped of his "coaching director" title, Alexis was later allowed to resume coaching.
Alexis declined to be interviewed.
Though he has since been permanently removed from the club after being indicted in August, the 25-year-old woman who claims that Alexis molested her over three years in the 1990s said she is appalled that he was allowed to continuing coaching girls after his arrest.
"That just made me want to go to them, stand atop a car and scream that he freakin' molested me," said the woman, who said the abuse occurred while Alexis was dating her mother.
In a statement, Moses Zialu, the coaching director, said that the club conducts yearly criminal background checks on coaches and volunteers and that allegations of any felony behavior result in immediate suspension pending investigation.
Zialu said Alexis was allowed to resume coaching after the North Texas Soccer Association held a hearing and ruled not to suspend him -- and after the presiding judge in his case gave Alexis "a release to continue working with his youth soccer teams with supervision."
Zialu said the teams that Alexis had been coaching also requested that he be allowed to continue.
"After a long and thoughtful deliberation, FWU found no other reason to keep Mr. Alexis on suspension," Zialu said.
He declined to answer more specific questions or to provide a copy of the judge's "release," stating he could not comment further because Alexis had threatened legal action against the association.
Alexis' case file has no documents showing that the judge gave him a release.
Rose Anna Salinas, Alexis' attorney, said that from what she understood, the only document provided to the club was a copy of his bond conditions, which restricted him from unsupervised contact with children under 17.
In an Oct. 25 hearing, state District Judge Elizabeth Berry indicated that she was unaware that Alexis had been coaching after his arrest.
Alexis explained to her that while he had initially been suspended, he was reinstated a couple of months later and also gave private soccer lessons during that time.
He told the judge that parents of some of the kids he coached had paid his bond.
Berry ordered that he have no contact with any child under 17 and only supervised contact with his teen daughter and three grandchildren.
'A lot of gray area'
In September, Weatherford police arrested Benny Cristantielli, a former coach for the Fort Worth United Soccer Club who more recently coached a Fort Worth girls soccer team for the Allen-based Texas Football Club.
Ed Puskarich, the Texas Football Club's coaching director and board vice president, said that a background screening was conducted on Cristantielli through the North Texas Soccer Association and that his job references were checked, as is the club's policy.
"Every board member, every coach, every assistant coach, every manager -- anybody that comes in contact with our kids -- goes through a background check," Puskarich said. "His came back without red flags."
Puskarich said that after a parent reported that Cristantielli had been arrested, he was placed on leave.
"We when we found out what the accusations were and how deep they were, we removed him from TFC," Puskarich said.
The Texas Football Club did not learn about the child pornography allegation until after Cristantielli was fired, he said.
"You don't want to remove someone unfairly. You're innocent until proven guilty, but anytime there's kids involved, you've got to be extra careful," Puskarich said.
Cristantielli is being held in the Parker County Jail.
"Our position is he's innocent," said his attorney, J. Warren St. John.
Puskarich said the case is prompting him to look into what the group's background checks entail and whether the Texas Football Club should conduct its own screenings.
"There seems to be a lot of gray area in regards to what is in a background check and what is a red flag and what isn't," he said.
While such screening is useful, experts say, running only local or statewide checks may not be adequate. Some checks, they say, may show only convictions.
And even a coach's or staffer's clean record should not give parents or associations a false sense of security, they say.
That's because most sex offenders who coach don't have criminal records, said Brad Snellings, co-founder of the Florida-based Protect Youth Sports, which provides national background checks.
"They're very smart, they're very intelligent, and they're not getting caught," he said.
Pedophiles also tend to win over parents to gain access to children, he said. "They're grooming the parent just like they're grooming the kids," Snellings said.
All in the past?
Eddie Ray has a past but would rather focus on the present.
Last year, at least three parents pulled their sons from a Westside Cowboys junior football team after learning that Ray, the head coach, has a criminal past.
"I'm a single parent," said Amber Gibson, whose son, Triston, played for Ray. "Triston obviously looks up to any male of any stature in his life. I don't think we should be providing people like Eddie for our children to look up to. A football coach is definitely a big part of a boy's life."
Tarrant County records show that in 1998, Ray was sentenced to four years in prison after his probation in a 1992 credit card abuse case was revoked when he failed repeated drug tests.
Between 2003 and 2006, Ray picked up three misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession, driving with a suspended license and failure to stop at an accident.
"I did what I did, and I can't take that back. I can never take that back," Ray said. "I paid my debt to society. I did everything that I was supposed to do after the fact. I got out, and I started a new life. I'm supporting my family, raising my son and teaching him to be better than I was in the past."
Charlotte Thomas, vice president of the Westside Cowboys league, said she conducts yearly background searches on coaches through "connections" she has acquired. She said the board was aware of Ray's felony conviction and that, at a meeting, parents were informed that he had spent time in prison for a non-child-related crime.
At least three parents deny being told that information.
Thomas said she did not know about Ray's misdemeanor convictions but would bring them to the board's attention. Still, she staunchly defended Ray, saying that he attends church, had done a wonderful job raising a stepson and plays an almost fatherly role for many children on his team.
"The bottom line is this guy had turned his life around," Thomas said.
As it turns out, Thomas' own son -- Westside Cowboys President Gary Calton -- has been charged with crimes eight times in Tarrant County, all but two of which were ultimately dismissed without ever going to trial.
In the remaining two -- a 1990 charge of unlawful carrying of a weapon and a 2006 charge of marijuana possession -- he was sentenced to deferred-adjudication probation.
Thomas said her son's history stems from being blamed for things that former friends actually did.
"All that was in the past, just like the other guy's past," she said.
What precludes a person from being involved with youth sports associations is usually left up to board members.
Some, like the Mansfield Youth Baseball Association, boast that they set the bar high.
Kevin Lewis, president of the Mansfield group, said the board rejects applicants with a past that includes any act of violence, any criminal offense against a child, any felony and almost all misdemeanors.
"It's not uncommon at all to have coaches come from other associations in the area saying, 'They approve me. They do background checks,'" he said. "We have our line, and we don't step over it except on a case-by-case appeal basis."
The National Council of Youth Sports co-founded a national screening service, called the National Center for Safety Initiatives, after finding that some companies being used by youth sports organizations were sometimes providing incomplete or outdated information on applicants.
Also concerning, Johnson said, was that unqualified people were left with the daunting task of playing judge and jury on their peers without any policies or standards to follow.
To help combat that, the council created guidelines to be used as minimum standards when deciding who can coach or volunteer with children.
The group recommends that associations reject those with convictions for any felony or any lesser crime involving something of a sexual nature, including pornography; force or threat of force against a person; animal cruelty; or controlled substances.
"If someone had a DUI 20 years ago and they have had a clean record and been an upstanding citizen of the community thereafter, they may be just wonderful as the first-base coach, but you might not want them driving your travel team," Johnson said. "If someone is caught embezzling, you might not want them handling the money."
Ray said he supports background checks on coaches like himself because he, too, wants to know who is coaching his children.
Still, he said, in cases like his own, he believes in second chances.
"I have a chance to give back to these kids and give them something," Ray said. "When I was growing up, I wasn't really exposed to Pee Wee football. Those certain life skills we do teach them were not provided for me. ... Maybe if I had that in my life, maybe circumstances would have been different. Maybe I wouldn't have gotten in so much trouble."