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Can suits exorcise ghost of coach?

Players are suing the estate of a soccer coach who killed himself after he was accused of sexually molesting them.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published July 10, 2005


TAMPA - No one wanted to believe that about William Burton. No one wanted to think the man their kids had looked up to for years had done those things to their boys.

In life, he was a energetic businessman and an enthusiastic soccer coach. But when Burton, 61, committed suicide late last year after allegations surfaced that he had molested several boys on the Black Watch Soccer Club, death cheated the truth. In death, Burton became for some the ghost that will forever haunt their lives.

Now the families of two of Burton's alleged victims have turned to the courts for to quiet that restless spirit. Late last month, parents of two former Black Watch team members filed separate lawsuits in Hillsborough County against Burton's estate alleging that the late Gold Cup Coffee Service executive made sexual advances toward the boys and touched them inappropriately. The lawsuits also contend the soccer coach encouraged some teenage players to have sex with prostitutes during a team trip to Europe last year.

The lawsuits call for unspecified damages. But attorneys for the unnamed teens filed legal claims earlier this year in probate court seeking a total of roughly $1.25-million from Burton's estate.

J. Meredith Wester, an attorney for a 15-year-old Tampa player and his parents, said her clients were reluctant to file their June 22 lawsuit, but felt it was their only remaining avenue to justice.

"I'm convinced that there would have been charges against Bill Burton if he hadn't committed suicide," Wester said. "I think it's real unfortunate. I think there's a lot more victims out there that haven't come forward because of this situation."

Peter Catania, attorney for Richard Coleman, the father of another 15-year-old player, agreed.

"There's no criminal prosecution available,so there's no other alternative than the civil courts," Catania said.

A former Tampa resident, Coleman moved with his son to Massachusetts before filing the June 16 lawsuit, which also names the Black Watch Soccer Club as a defendant.

"He relocated with his son because he thought it would be best for his son to get a fresh start where no one was aware of the allegations," Catania said.

The lawsuits come seven months after a Gold Cup employee found Burton dead in a company minivan near his office on the morning of Dec. 17. Investigators found a gas generator and a suicide note in the vehicle. Burton's death followed a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into allegations that he and three other Black Watch coaches were involved in sexual misconduct.

No charges were filed and the FDLE closed the inquiry in March. But during the course of the investigation, teen after teen told FDLE agents about Burton's sexual advances.

The trouble always seemed to start when the team traveled for out-of-town tournaments. During a team trip to Dallas a boy woke in the middle of the night to find Burton rubbing his back and the soccer coach's hand sliding down his boxer shorts, according to investigative reports. Other boys reported similar encounters with Burton during a trip to Seminole County. Another boy also reported seeing Burton masturbating in a hotel bathroom during one of the trips, records show.

The allegations against Burton became more complicated after several team members reported that Burton and assistant coach Eddie Rodriguez allowed the boys to visit Amsterdam's famous red light district. One team member told investigators Burton gave another teenager 50 euros to pay a prostitute to perform oral sex on the boy.

Parents of the boys reported the allegations to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office last July. The FDLE took over the case because the alleged sexual misconduct had occurred in several different places outside the county.

The charges shocked many in the community who knew Burton as the ultra-fit coach of Jesuit High School's junior varsity soccer program and longtime youth soccer booster. Before taking over his family's beverage service business in Tampa, Burton spent 17 years working his way up to the top rungs of the Marriott Corp. The allegations were a blot on his otherwise stellar reputation.

When FDLE investigators interviewed Burton last summer, he told them he knew he was in serious trouble. He said he wanted to talk about what had happened, but he'd been advised by his attorney not to say more. His death four months later left parents of the players wondering about the man they had entrusted with their sons.

"The father's upset that his son was a victim of Burton," Catania said of his client. "I think most people would be upset if their kids were a victim of something like that."

Con Foley, the personal representative for Burton's estate, said he was aware of the lawsuits but did not want to comment until he had consulted with his attorney.

Black Watch attorney Colleen Fitzgerald declined to discuss the lawsuit pending further consultation with team leadership. But she pointed out that the allegations have been costly for all involved.

Wester says her client has suffered considerably since the allegations against Burton were made public. The teenager has trouble sleeping and has lost some of his hair, she said.

"These boys are like hand picked for this team when they're 5 and 6 years old and Burton was their coach for all that time," Wester said. "That's what makes it so traumatic for the victims because the victims have known him for so many years."

The events of the past year have also damaged relations between team members, Wester said. After her client told his parents about what happened, he had few friends left from Black Watch. He now plays soccer for a different team.

"Some of those boys blame him for what happened to Burton," Wester said. "You can tell them there's nothing you did wrong, this man was sick, but when you're 14 and 15 years old, it's hard to believe that."

Researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 813 226-3337 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 9, 2005, 23:34:17]


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