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Worries preceded child sex arrest

Deputies complained that the YMCA leader was "having a hard time setting boundaries" with children.

By CURTIS KRUEGER and JANE MEINHARDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Weeks before his arrest on charges of sexually assaulting two girls and fondling a third, parents and police had expressed doubts about St. Petersburg YMCA outreach director Christopher Lee Allen.

Parents complained to sheriff's deputies that Allen showed favoritism toward some youths. The deputies complained in memos to supervisors that Allen was "having a hard time setting boundaries" with some children.

Allen's boss at the YMCA was concerned enough that he warned Allen not to be alone with his charges at the outreach center.

But while the YMCA and the deputies were aware that Allen had been arrested -- though acquitted -- in South Carolina in 1997 on two counts of a lewd act on a 12-year-old child, the new complaints weren't enough to prompt his removal from close contact with preteen girls.

"It's real easy to look back now and say "Well, golly, that was a wrong decision,' " said Doug Linder, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg YMCA.

Allen was charged Sunday with sexually assaulting two 11-year-old girls and fondling a third. He met all the children through his YMCA job working with children from the Lealman area, specifically the Pinellas County Housing Authority's French Villas apartments. He remained in the Pinellas County Jail on Monday where he is being held without bail.

Linder said that before Sunday's arrest, the complaints he heard about Allen were mostly about "operational issues," which he said were "things that gave me concern, but obviously weren't anywhere near this serious."

Though his deputies were concerned enough to write memos to their supervisor in early March questioning Allen's behavior around children at French Villas, Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice said the allegations weren't specific enough to lead to action until after the incidents that led to Sunday's arrest.

"Part of the problem is that Allen was very hard working and appeared to be dedicated, even to the parents," Rice said.

Allen, 26, was hired by the YMCA about two years ago. He told Y officials about his arrest in South Carolina, in which an officer's affidavit says that "while in a position of authority over the victim, a 12-year-old female, he did touch her (genital) area," an allegation similar to the new ones.

"The fact that he had told us upfront about it meant that he was not denying (the arrest)," Linder said. Linder said he could not elaborate on that decision because he was not the YMCA's director at the time Allen was hired.

Last year, Allen married the woman who oversees teen programs and community outreach for the YMCA. The ceremony was performed by John Cannon, the Y's former executive director and a notary public, according to the couple's marriage certificate.

He impressed his superiors, youths and parents with his energy and enthusiasm for work.

But at the same time, questions surfaced. Deputy Kent Viera said in a March memo that Allen "appeared not to be able to set boundaries or guidelines with the children."

Viera wrote that he was dispatched to French Villas in November 1998 because of children yelling and screaming in the complex at 11:30 p.m. He suggested keeping the children inside at that hour. Allen responded, "F--- all these people. I'd rather have them screaming and chasing me than breaking into houses," the deputy wrote.

Viera wrote that on one occasion "we observed Mr. Allen laying down on the sofa with a young girl sitting on the sofa next to him. Another young girl was rubbing his shoulders." Viera and another officer urged Allen to set boundaries with the children because "it would be easy for anyone to misinterpret what he or she saw."

Rice said that it wasn't enough to merit a criminal investigation.

"The memos don't say (Allen) committed a crime," Rice said. "Obviously, the guy's conduct raised the suspicions of deputies, but I don't know that they could have moved any faster on an investigation."

In February, another deputy began an investigation into the alleged neglect and abuse of a young girl and, according to a memo, "I learned that Chris Allen had prior knowledge of abuse, yet he failed to notify any law enforcement agency."

So deputies investigated him. YMCA employees are trained to call the state's abuse hotline in cases of maltreatment of a child, but Allen said he had instead mentioned the situation to Lt. Carol Rasor of the Sheriff's Office, who oversees community police officers. The state attorney's office declined to prosecute Allen.

Sheriff's deputies met with Linder on March 7 and discussed Allen's obligation to report child abuse cases. Linder said he discussed some of the deputies' other complaints about Allen as well.

He said he asked the Sheriff's Office for written copies of their complaints, which were outlined in memos, but was told they could not be released because they were part of an ongoing child abuse investigation.

Linder said that's why he did not hear of some of the specific complaints about Allen, such as the back rub a deputy witnessed. That would have triggered a higher level of concern.

As it was, Linder said he discussed with Allen how to make sure he was not placing himself in problematic positions, such as being alone in a room with a child.

"Chris really didn't think about the position he was putting himself in when he was around these kids," Linder said. "I often said Chris thought with his heart and not with his head."

But wanting to be sure there were not more concerns, he said he called Lt. Rasor to have lunch. They met April 28.

"I asked Carol at that time, "Is this the right place for Chris, and is he the right guy to continue forward?' " He said that "she felt that he was the right guy. I kind of reassured myself, without these documents, that I had the right guy in the right place."

But sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie described the meeting differently. He said Rasor "expressed her concerns about Allen and the perception his past charges might create relating to the Y." Dennie added that, "Linder told her he was thinking about downsizing Allen's responsibilities."

Rasor and her husband, who is also a sheriff's deputy, had recently donated a van to the YMCA, Rice said. After the memos about Allen were written, several of the deputies working for Rasor in the department's community policing unit requested transfers, but they were not specific about their reasons for the requests.

Rasor was out of town Monday and could not be reached.

Allen has been suspended from his job. Linder said he will re-evaluate his status in about two weeks.

In the meantime, sheriff's officials are asking anyone with information about more victims in this case to call Detective Matt Miller at (727) 582-6345.


-- Times staff writer Bryan Gilmer contributed to this report.

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