Ex-Tiger’s sex case hangs over west Mich. community

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Lake Odessa — A furor erupted when former pro baseball player Chad Curtis was convicted in 2013 of molesting three high school students in this western Michigan community.

Fallout from Chad Curtis’ 2013 conviction continues to plague the Lakewood Public Schools district.

Nearly three years later, it hasn’t abated.

The victims were publicly attacked. The Lakewood Public Schools superintendent, school board president and high school principal have resigned. School board meetings remain emotional.

A lawsuit by the victims continues to spill fresh revelations about the abuse and how it was handled by the school district.

The latest disclosure came last month, when a school board member, during a deposition in the federal lawsuit, said he had known about the abuse but failed to tell administrators.

“The whole district has been swirling down the bowl, and we’re waiting for it to finally go down,” said Anne Adams, an upholstery shop owner who is friends with the families of two victims.

Curtis, 46, convicted of six counts of criminal sexual conduct, fondled the students during massages that were supposed to be rehabilitative in 2011 and 2012. He is serving seven to 15 years at the Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian.

Despite the conviction, some residents still support Curtis. They said there’s no way such a good Christian would do such a thing. The victims must be lying, they said.

The issue has turned student against student, parent against parent.

In a small town where many residents are connected by blood or friendship, the issue has ruptured those longtime bonds.

“It hurt the community. It hurt the school system,” said Gary Elliott, a retired Michigan state trooper whose children attended Lakewood High School. “It’s a sad state of affairs.”

When Curtis volunteered to be the strength and conditioning coach at Lakewood High in 2010, the school couldn’t believe its luck.

Sports and religion are important in the four farm towns that comprise the rural school district in western Michigan, and Curtis was a pillar in both fields.

He won two championships with the New York Yankees, hitting a game-winning home run in the 1999 World Series. He also played for the Detroit Tigers, California Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers.

During his 10-year career, he wore a bracelet that read WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) and wasn’t afraid to confront teammates about looking at porn or listening to off-color music.

He reads the Bible daily and doesn’t swear or drink alcohol.

“I live my faith every day,” he said during his sentencing in 2013. “I wake up every morning and ask: How can I be a positive influence.”

Married with six children, he grew up in Middleville, fewer than 20 miles from Lake Odessa.

Curtis, who still sports the flattop he had as a player, didn’t respond to several letters from The Detroit News requesting an interview.

Each revelation from a lawsuit against the World Series hero who grew up in the area riles Lake Odessa.

Offered to massage muscles

As strength coach, Curtis supervised the high school weight room and designed training programs for students.

He offered to massage sore muscles of athletes — but only the female ones, according to trial testimony.

He would bring the students to a windowless training room and, while the two were alone, gave massages behind a locked door.

In 2011 and 2012, his hands moved from the shoulders or legs of three girls to intimate parts of their body, they testified during his trial.

“There was a time I believed you to be a man of high morals and integrity,” one victim told him during the sentencing. “That time is long gone.”

Curtis sometimes straddled the students, they said. Other times, he discussed religious topics while touching them.

With one of the girls, he exchanged 115 text messages during a two-month period in 2012, later deleting 85 of them, testified a detective.

The girls, who were 15 and 16, referred to him as Mr. Curtis.

Besides the three victims involved in the charges, two other girls testified against Curtis, including a 14-year-old who roomed with Curtis’ daughter during a high school softball trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, in 2011.

Early one morning, Curtis climbed into the bed of the 14-year-old while his daughter was asleep in the other bed, the 14-year-old testified.

He got under the covers and tried to put his hand under her shorts, but the girl moved it away.

Curtis apologized when the victims became upset by the fondling, they testified.

At different times, he asked them to pray with him, said the incident was a good life lesson, and told one girl he had an angel on one shoulder and devil on the other.

Several weeks after apologizing to one student, he molested her again and she began to cry, she testified, according to trial testimony. He told the girl he would lose his job if she went to the police.

Before leaving the training room, he had a question for the student: Had she enjoyed any of it?

Sentencing speech

Curtis didn’t take the stand during the weeklong trial in Barry County Circuit Court, but spoke during his sentencing.

In a rambling, 50-minute soliloquy, he talked about all the students he helped as a coach, and all the people he brought to the church through his example, according to a transcript of the hearing.

Addressing the victims’ claims one by one, he said they weren’t telling the truth, that they propositioned him, and he rebuffed them.

One of the girls left the courtroom while Curtis was talking about her.

“I hope that’s hard for her,” he said, “and I hope that from that hardness she says what is true.”

He said he hoped, one day, he and one of the victims could write a book together that would help millions of people.

His speech stunned the courtroom.

“That was the most selfish, self-serving, victim-blaming statements I’ve heard in my career,” said Barry County Prosecutor Julie Nakfoor-Pratt.

Support despite conviction

During the trial and sentencing, Curtis’ supporters filled half of the courtroom. One character witness described him as “flawless.”

At school, the victims were bullied in hallways and vilified on social media, where they were called liars and sluts, they said in a complaint filed with the federal Department of Education in February.

The complaint asks the department’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the school district for possible violations of Title IX for failing to protect the students from the abuse.

Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination in educational programs.

The victims filed 28 harassment complaints with the school district between Curtis’ arrest in 2012 and his conviction in 2013, according to the complaint.

One of the girls eventually transferred to another school district.

“Curtis was a disease. He infected all of us,” said Ken Fry, whose grandchildren attend the local schools.

Most of the bullying came from students but included some parents.

Becki Salazar, whose daughter attended the high school, wrote on Facebook in 2012 she had given her children “the green light to teach these girls a lesson,” according to the complaint.

Salazar didn’t respond to calls or emails asking for a comment.

Lakewood High School couldn’t believe its luck when Curtis volunteered to be a conditioning coach. He was later convicted of fondling students.

Anger targeted district

Residents angry with Curtis turned their wrath on the school district. They said it should have done more to protect the students.

Former Superintendent Mike O’Mara said he didn’t know about the massages and wouldn’t have allowed them, even for therapeutic reasons.

But the massages were widely known about at the high school, where the students were frequently pulled out of class for that reason, according to trial testimony.

In late 2011 or early 2012, high school principal Brian Williams walked into the training room to find Curtis alone with one of the victims, Williams testified.

He said he wasn’t alarmed because the girl was on a training table and Curtis on a chair.

The school board asked O’Mara to review his administration’s handling of the abuse last year, and his probe didn’t find any mistakes.

A window was added to the training room, and the employee handbook now advises workers on staff-student relationships.

Residents also are frustrated with the school board for not holding administrators accountable.

The frustration turned to anger in February with the filing of the Title IX complaint.

According to the complaint, two school board members privately supported Curtis in texts and emails after his arrest. Brian Potter and Gary Foltz also wrote letters attesting to his character.

“You have lived and continue to live a righteous life that no one, or no words can take away,” Potter texted Curtis in 2012.

Potter and Curtis had grown close several years earlier after Curtis joined a group ministry started by Potter, Potter wrote in the character reference letter.

Curtis’ wife, Candace, thought Potter was sitting with the victims during the sentencing but Potter, in a 2013 email to her, said he wasn’t.

“I was indeed sitting on ‘your side’ of the courtroom,” he wrote. “I have and always (will) be committed to the Curtis family.”

The revelations angered residents and two board members, who called for Potter to resign.

He resisted for nine months before stepping down last month, one week before giving a deposition in the victims’ lawsuit against Curtis.

In the deposition, he said Curtis had told him in 2012 he had kissed one of the victims, but Potter failed to tell administrators.

Potter didn’t respond to phone calls; Foltz declined to discuss the issue.

Protracted lawsuit

The three victims and a fourth girl filed a federal lawsuit last year against Curtis and the school district, saying administrators should have done more to protect them.

Curtis continues to accuse them of lying.

In court filings, he said the suit was part of a plot to get his money.

Curtis, who fired his attorney and represents himself, wanted to question the victims personally. He said it would be harder for them to lie if they had to look him in the eye.

“Curtis recognizes the questioning of plaintiffs very well may be annoying, embarrassing and possibly oppressive because it is hard to navigate through untruthfulness,” he wrote in one court pleading.

U.S. Magistrate Ellen Carmody forbid Curtis from directly questioning the victims, telling him to submit the questions to her and she would ask them.

Carmody also denied a request by Curtis that the victims be publicly identified because they were no longer minors. In the lawsuit, they’re identified by their initials.

Despite the ruling, Curtis filed a motion in October that included police and medical records containing the names of the victims. The filing, quickly stricken by the judge, was inadvertent, said Curtis.

Curtis, who had dropped his attorney against Carmody’s advice, changed his mind again in November and said he wanted to rehire one after he lost the bid to personally question the victims.

He wanted to delay the case until he found a lawyer and brought him up to speed, but Carmody said the 20-month legal proceeding had been delayed too much already.

As the lawsuit slowly winds its way through the legal system, each new development stirs emotions in Lake Odessa all over again.

It’s like a wound that won’t heal because it keeps getting picked, said residents.

“Just when you think things are starting to quiet down — then boom — something else happens,” said John Fisher, a former school board member and Eaton County commissioner. “It just goes on and on and on.”

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell