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updated: 9/16/2011 5:26 AM

Gymnastics coach accused of molestation says no plea deal

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  • Former gymnastics coach Michael Cardamone looks back on his case, now in it ninth year. Cardamone was convicted of inappropriately touching students, but later won an appeal. He is now facing retrial.

       Former gymnastics coach Michael Cardamone looks back on his case, now in it ninth year. Cardamone was convicted of inappropriately touching students, but later won an appeal. He is now facing retrial.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Cardamone in his original booking mug

      Michael Cardamone in his original booking mug

 

It started with a single allegation.

Michael Cardamone says two investigators slapped down a manila envelope on the table in front of him and announced they knew what he'd done.

Then 25 and a successful coach at his family's Aurora gymnastics facility, Cardamone says he expected a colleague to burst into the room and confess it was all an elaborate hoax.

Only it wasn't.

Nine years later, Cardamone is still trying to prove he isn't the cunning child molester who authorities -- and, later, a jury -- made him out to be that fall day in 2002.

Now 34, he and his supporters say they're pinning hope on a new trial, a new judge and a long-held belief he will someday be exonerated.

"It would be devastating to walk down that DuPage tunnel again, kissing my family goodbye, seeing my life repeat itself," Cardamone said in a Daily Herald interview. "But you know what? I'm not afraid of them anymore -- even under those circumstances."

Cardamone's case came to be one of the most publicized legal dramas in the suburbs as it grew to encompass 14 female gymnasts, ages 4 to 13, who told of the popular coach touching them under their leotards during stretching exercises at American Institute of Gymnastics, among other allegations.

A DuPage County jury in 2005 convicted Cardamone of abusing seven girls and acquitted him of abusing the other seven. All 14 testified. He was acquitted of the most serious charges, which carried a possible life sentence.

But three years later, an appeals court ordered a new trial, finding the jury was allowed to hear too much evidence of prior accusations -- up to 257 incidents -- that didn't result in charges. In 2009, a judge allowed Cardamone to go free on bail after serving about 4 years of a 20-year prison term.

Today, as he awaits retrial on the seven remaining cases, the former coach contends he has been wronged by the "maliciousness and vindictiveness" of prosecutors, who remain steadfast in their allegations.

"They took away a very large portion of my life," Cardamone says, adding that a community within the gym also fell apart. "It's not just me. Coach Mike is the name in the paper that everybody reads about. But what this county did represents destroying across the board."

In recent months, Cardamone and his supporters say they've held out hope that State's Attorney Robert Berlin would take a fresh look at the charges and consider dropping them. But Berlin, who took on the case when former State's Attorney Joseph Birkett left office last year to become an appellate judge, says he has no such plans.

"I've reviewed the case and we're going forward," Berlin said. "We're trying the case where it should be tried -- in court, not the press."

Berlin declined to discuss specifics of the case or respond to Cardamone's accusations. The retrial is set tentatively for April.

The parents of three of Cardamone's alleged victims did not respond to messages from the Daily Herald. Others could not be located.

Cardamone and his supporters have long maintained that a key element to his case was the fact the abuse was alleged to have occurred in an open, 17,000-square-foot gym often crowded with parents, children and workers. They claim investigators interviewed alleged victims en masse at a pizza party rather than talking to those who worked closest to Cardamone.

"I was standing six feet away from him," said Justin Hawk of Naperville, who coached alongside Cardamone for four years. "I know if there's a child being molested six feet away from me. He'd have to be a magician. There's just no way."

In his last trial, Cardamone's defense team fought unsuccessfully to take jurors to the facility, which burned down earlier this year in an apparent electrical fire. Cardamone's mother, who owned and operated American Institute of Gymnastics, since has vowed to rebuild the facility exactly as it was in the event a future jury is allowed a tour.

Prosecutors have portrayed Cardamone as a serial child molester who acted methodically so his alleged victims would endure abuse rather than betray the coach they trusted.

They argued in 2005 that he carried out the majority of the abuse even as other coaches and parents were nearby, a "pattern of sexual abuse that betrayed (the victims') trust, their innocence and their dignity."

All 14 of the accusers identified Cardamone at trial and were later lauded for showing determination on the stand, even under intense cross-examination.

But the appellate later court took issue with Circuit Judge Michael Burke's decision to bar testimony from a defense expert who testified the girls could have developed false memories through "suggestive" interviewing.

In its 72-page ruling, the appellate court paraphrased the testimony of one girl: "I didn't think it happened to me. I didn't believe it. Then I realized it did happen to me because I was hearing about it. It happened to the other girls, and I know the other girls don't lie."

Cardamone says that once his first trial was concluded, and he was convicted of abusing seven girls, prosecutors offered to seek a lighter prison sentence in exchange for his promise not to appeal.

Cardamone, who won full custody of his two sons after his release from prison, says he wrestled with the possibility but could not go through with it.

"I'm like, if I come home, I'll be able to teach my son to ride a bike, but what am I teaching him about being a man?" he said. "I'm teaching my son that if somebody says you did something and they throw you in prison and do the worst to you, and you just put your head down and allow something like this to happen to you, you are no better off than anybody else."

Today, Cardamone says he cherishes the time he has with his sons as he also tries to build a new career as a heating and air conditioning repairman. He remains barred from coaching and also must wear a GPS device that allows authorities to track his whereabouts while free on bail.

Cardamone's sister, Alysha Millard, says his family will support him to the end.

"Unfortunately, the system doesn't work all the time, and in this case it certainly didn't work," she said. "If this doesn't get fixed, it's going to happen to somebody else."

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