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    When warning signs are ignored

    YMCA co-workers complained about how he handled children in his care. Now Christopher Allen faces sexual abuse charges.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 15, 2001


    The people who worked with Christopher Lee Allen did not know he had once been arrested in another state and accused of lewd acts on adolescent girls.

    All they knew was what they saw on the job. And what they saw, they did not like.

    Sitting in the cafeteria of Maximo Elementary School in St. Petersburg, where he worked in a YMCA after-school program, Allen would invite a young girl into his lap. He would bounce her up and down, over and over, in a way that seemed suggestive and inappropriate to his co-workers.

    That wasn't all. Allen -- tall, fair-skinned, with waves of red hair splashing onto his forehead -- caressed the children's arms, massaged their backs and stroked their hair. Sometimes he hugged the girls, "like he was hugging a grown woman," one co-worker said.

    To his colleagues, the touching crossed a line. "We just knew it didn't look well. . . . You don't sit and rub a child," said Elizabeth Howard, a former colleague.

    So she and two co-workers met with Allen's supervisor to complain.

    But nothing happened.

    The supervisor at the St. Petersburg Family YMCA, Jennifer West, said Allen "was just giving the kids the love they need," another co-worker recalled later.

    West has never publicly said why she brushed aside the complaints. But two years later, she married Christopher Allen.

    Jennifer Allen now stands by her husband -- even as he faces a potential sentence of life in prison from his arrest last year on charges he victimized and sexually abused some of the Pinellas County children he was supposed to help.

    Since that arrest in May 2000, his court file has grown 12 volumes thick, filled with depositions and other statements from both children and adults.

    The common theme through their stories is inappropriate touching by Allen -- kissing, caressing, sucking a girl's earlobe in plain view of others, as well as the more serious allegations of molestation.

    Like all criminal defendants, Allen, 27, is innocent unless proven guilty. But even if he is cleared of all charges, the pattern of behavior alleged in court documents raises questions about how closely the YMCA monitored an employee whose conduct with children drew complaints and concern.

    Repeated red flag behavior

    After Allen's Pinellas County arrest last year, he was charged with two counts of sexual battery for allegedly penetrating a girl with his finger; two counts of lewd or lascivious molestation for allegedly touching private areas of a child; and one count of lewd or lascivious conduct. Each of the alleged victims, three girls and one boy, was under 12.

    More than a year later, the YMCA has never fully explained why it hired Allen in 1996, at a time when he was facing two sex crime charges in South Carolina.

    This has been called a hypersensitive era; some grade school teachers won't even let kids hug them anymore, for fear they'll be accused of abuse.

    With Allen, red flags were everywhere, but none kept him away from kids.

    Sometimes Allen would sit in a YMCA center north of St. Petersburg with a middle school girl on his lap, the two of them sucking each other's ear lobes, "in the living room in open view," a teenage former co-worker recalled in court testimony. One mother testified that when Allen was with YMCA children, he "roughhoused with them, giving them wedgies. Actually there was one time I remember when he was in the clubhouse he actually pulled one of the kids' pants down."

    "Including the underwear?" asked an attorney during her deposition.

    "Yeah."

    The mother said Allen was "teasing (this boy) saying "you've got a white bootie.' I mean, I don't think that was funny for everybody to see that." But she never complained "because, I mean, at the time you just think it's harmless play, you know?"

    Beverly Capana, an administrative supervisor at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, remembers seeing Allen bring four or five children of varying ages to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball game at Tropicana Field in 1999.

    She was surprised when he let one girl sit on his lap, looking straight ahead, facing the game. "Then he started running his hands up and down her arms and on her thighs and legs and then it progressed to where he put his hands underneath her shirt and was moving his hands around underneath her shirt."

    Then she turned around on his lap so she was facing Allen, Capana recalled in a deposition earlier this year. "He was caressing her and then, he started giving her love bites. . . . It was a soft bite, like a love bite."

    She looked around for an officer who usually stood by, but none was there.

    Some of the behavior witnesses described, the kissing and caressing, might not be considered a crime, but it still would be abhorred by many children's agencies and parents. Groups that work with children increasingly give employees training to avoid physical contact with kids and avoid being alone with them. These boundaries are designed not only to protect children from being victimized, but also to protect well-meaning employees from accusations of inappropriate conduct.

    Over and over, warning signs were raised about Christopher Allen during his time with the St. Petersburg YMCA, court records show. YMCA officials never learned about some of these incidents. But others, waved in front of them, they disregarded.

    Allen's attorney, Anthony S. Battaglia, denied a request for an interview with Allen -- now out on bail awaiting his December trial -- or his wife. Battaglia also declined to answer questions from the Times.

    Hired despite S.C. charges

    Allen was well-loved by YMCA management. Not just by Jennifer West, the supervisor who married him, but by John Cannon, who at the time was the YMCA's chief executive officer and who has since retired.

    The charismatic, always-energetic Allen reminded Cannon of his own early years as a New York priest, when he worked often with children, he said in a court hearing last year.

    "On a Sunday morning after Mass, I would always have kids around me furrowed under my cape. I would hold them. They would hold me," Cannon recalled.

    In all his time with the YMCA, Cannon said, Allen was the first person who reminded him of those days. He even sometimes called Allen a "street priest."

    Cannon presided at the wedding of Allen and West. After Allen had been working in St. Petersburg several months, Cannon testified as a character witness in his South Carolina trial on the lewd behavior charges -- charges of which Allen was acquitted. After Allen's arrest last year, Cannon's support remained steadfast: "I would trust Chris with my own children or grandchildren," he said.

    He trusted Allen with other people's children, too.

    Why?

    It helps to go back to the beginning.

    When Allen was hired in the fall of 1996, the staff did not know he was facing charges of lewd behavior on a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old girl in South Carolina, said Donna Raitanen, a former YMCA area supervisor.

    But soon after, Allen walked into Raitanen's office and let her know. Surprised, she led him into the office of West, a higher-level supervisor.

    Raitanen thought Allen should be reassigned from his job at Maximo Elementary so he would not have one-on-one contact with children. Higher-ups felt otherwise.

    "Jennifer went to Mr. Cannon and (Allen) remained in the position at Maximo," Raitanen said. As far as she knows, no effort was made to tell parents or other co-workers about the charges Allen was facing.

    Later, when a parent called to complain that Allen had been overly physical with her daughter at the YMCA, Raitanen told Allen she would fire him if she heard one more complaint.

    But shortly after that incident, Allen was moved to a job as outreach director, Raitanen said. In that role, he worked to establish new YMCA programs just north of St. Petersburg.

    "I didn't want to hear any more about him going anywhere near these kids . . . but immediately he was snatched away from me," Raitanen said, in a telephone interview from her home in Finland.

    In a court hearing last year in Pinellas County, Cannon tried to explain why the YMCA allowed Allen to work with children in spite of his pending criminal charges. He explained that the usual background checks had been performed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies.

    "FDLE said these charges were outstanding, but that he was free to work with children," Cannon said. "They did not say he could not work with children in the interim. So we had no reason not to have him work with children. Otherwise, we would be discriminating against him."

    Cannon did not return phone calls last week and has previously declined to be interviewed about Allen.

    Though Allen was legally innocent, that didn't mean the YMCA was obligated to hire him.

    Lawrence Rosenthal, who teaches employment law at Stetson University College of Law, said private employers in Florida generally are free to fire employees as long as they don't break an employment contract or violate anti-discrimination laws. He was not involved in the Allen case.

    The YMCA's decision flies in the face of conventional wisdom about employees who work with children. Peggy Sanchez Mills, chief executive of the YWCA of Tampa Bay -- which is not affiliated with the YMCA -- said she would "absolutely not" assign someone with pending sex crime charges to work with children.

    Even if a job applicant had been found not guilty of a crime such as lewd behavior, she said, she would carefully review any decision about hiring or assignments. Her bottom line: "We err on the side of protecting children."

    Doug Linder, who succeeded Cannon as CEO of the St. Petersburg YMCA, said he would not knowingly hire someone facing a pending sex charge. Would he carefully consider whether to keep employing a worker facing such a charge? "I would think so."

    Linder said new hiring procedures implemented since Allen's arrest require that "if there's anything that shows any alarm" in an applicant's background, that information must be forwarded to Linder for review.

    Cannon, however, testified that he had not tried to find out the details of Allen's arrest.

    Prosecutor Bill Loughery asked Cannon: "You would have been concerned enough about children at risk in Pinellas County that you would have taken the time to find out the details of the pending sex crime he had against him in South Carolina involving children before you would hire him; would you not?"

    "No," Cannon said. "I felt we were following the rule of law."

    Accusations early on

    As a teenager, Allen was a youth leader in the Pinellas Park Wesleyan Church. As a student at Southern Wesleyan College in South Carolina, he hoped to be a pastor, said a friend, Sandi Houston.

    But questions about his physical contact with young people have been with him for a long time. Pinellas prosecutors made an effort to track down people who could describe an apparent pattern of behavior.

    At Paola Wesleyan Church, just north of Orlando, youth group had just broken up one night six or eight years ago. Allen, a college student volunteering with the church's youth ministry, walked some of the youths across the church parking lot.

    Then he made a strange request.

    "He wanted me to kiss him on the lips, and I said no," recalled David Brock, who was 11 or 12 at the time, and who recounted the incident recently in a court deposition.

    But Allen kept asking and asking. Finally, not understanding why, he agreed to kiss Allen's cheek.

    "When I got close, he turned his lips like this and kissed me on the lips," he testified recently.

    "Out of the blue, he kissed him," another young man named Thomas Fodrie said in a recent deposition. Afterward, he said, Allen "tried to kiss me. . . . I told him to back off."

    Police were called, but no charges filed. Church leaders asked Allen to leave, court records show.

    In South Carolina in the summer of 1995, Allen worked as a church camp counselor. He was with a church group at a local park when, according to one of the arrest affidavits, "while in a position of authority over the victim, a 12-year-old female, he did touch her (genital) area." The allegation from the 13-year-old girl was similar, as are some that later would be made in Pinellas County.

    His first trial ended in a mistrial. In his second trial, in 1997, he was acquitted.

    By the time he was found not guilty, Allen was establishing himself at St. Petersburg's YMCA.

    In their own words

    When Allen was given the outreach director job, he set up YMCA centers at French Villas, a public housing complex on 54th Avenue N north of St. Petersburg, and the Lealman area, between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.

    In French Villas, he found children who desperately wanted attention, some from families in which single parents were overwhelmed and struggling to overcome something from their past. The mother of one of Allen's purported victims has a mental illness and a history of drinking and drug abuse. A mother of another alleged victim was so desperate for companionship that she met and married her husband while he was in jail for attempted sexual battery -- "with me being a single mom, I guess my emotions overrode my brain," she said in a deposition.

    Here, Allen worked with what everyone agrees was tireless energy and spirit. He staged a big youth fair in Lealman. He bought shoes for scores of kids and lavished some with dinners at Red Lobster, trips to theme parks or Devil Rays games. His enthusiasm was so great -- and children were so drawn to him -- that when he began having sleepovers for children at the apartment he shared with his wife, parents willingly let their children go, over and over.

    One boy who went on thesleepovers said after he took a shower, Allen would rush in to towel him off. His mother recalled that her son said, "I'm tired of him hugging on me and kissing on me and doing all that other weird stuff."

    Her response: "Okay, maybe he's just being friendly."

    A preteen girl who slept over later described her experiences, in writing. In her statement, written in the bubble-shaped, left-tilted script of a schoolgirl, she says:

    I would get ready to go to sleep. He would come up to me and hold me down, stick his hand down the front inside the underwars. . . . I would try to get away, but I couldn't.

    Another girl wrote:

    The third or the fourth time I sleeped over his house he touch me in my private port my chest and my butty that time I didn't care because he was not touching that bad. The last time I sleep over his house he did the same thing . . . I didn't tell him to stop but I made it feel like I felt unconterbel by pushing him away a cople of times then he stop.

    Later, though, the same girl testified that Allen really hadn't touched her private parts; she said a sheriff's detective had pressured her into saying so. But in this later interview, she said Allen "tickled me like down on the side of my waist and my legs" and said it made her uncomfortable enough to push him away. Detective Matthew Miller says he did not pressure her and was not in the room when she wrote her statement.

    One boy summed up his time with Allen this way:

    I think that whenever he touched me it was inapropit . . . I think when ever I stay over his house that there should be more than two people there like about 6 people. I still aprechate his stuff he does for all of us but I feel unconftoble about it.

    -- Curtis Krueger, who writes about social issues, can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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