After a decade of denying accusations, Michael Cardamone pleaded guilty Wednesday to inappropriately touching 14 young students at his family's Aurora gymnastics studio -- but insisted his actions weren't sexually motivated.
"I never sexually abused anyone ever," the former coach said.
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Cardamone, 35, pleaded guilty to seven counts each of aggravated battery and unlawful restraint, as well as one count of perjury stemming from earlier drama in the emotionally charged, controversial case.
The battery charges say the former coach touched seven female gymnasts "on or about" their sex organs in an "insulting or provoking nature." The unlawful restraint charges say he grabbed and detained seven others. But also according to the plea agreement, the crimes were "not sexually motivated."
DuPage County Judge Blanche Hill Fawell sentenced Cardamone to 10 years in prison, which amounts to time served, and two years of probation. Cardamone previously served time after he was convicted of molesting seven of 14 accusers. That conviction was later overturned on appeal.
As a result of Wednesday's guilty plea, Cardamone must register as a violent offender against youths for 10 years. He is not required to register as a sex offender.
Cardamone denied sexually abusing the girls after six former gymnasts gave victim-impact statements in court accusing him of robbing their innocence and leaving them traumatized. One girl, now 20, implored him to admit to "your disgusting actions" to give her family and others some level of closure.
Outside the Wheaton courthouse, Cardamone's accusers had more to say.
"We know what he did, and he knows what he did," said former student Bailey Prosser, who consented to being identified publicly.
"It's really difficult for us to know he's still out on the street," said a third victim, Alyssa Crosby, who also agreed to be publicly identified. "The fact that he's still out there ... is just the worst thing I could ever think. I wish he couldn't even look at another little girl for the rest of his life."
In court, Cardamone paused briefly and appeared to tear up before speaking the word "guilty." His later denial prompted the judge to ask whether he understood he had admitted guilt. Cardamone answered that he did.
In his statement to the court, Cardamone indicated a key factor in his decision to admit guilt was the removal of language from the charges that the touching was sexual in nature.
"My ultimate prayer, with today's conclusion to this case, is that everyone can hopefully now move forward with some closure, that this horrific chapter in our lives is behind us," he said. "It has always been very important to me to teach my (sons) to stand up for what is right, and I believe I've done that in these last 10 years through my actions. Now it's time to teach them that once you have been heard, to know when to walk away."
The outcome caps a 10-year legal saga that captured the suburbs' attention when 14 girls made allegations they were repeatedly molested or assaulted by Cardamone at his family's gym, the American Institute of Gymnastics.
Authorities launched the investigation in December 2002 after a former gymnast disclosed to her parents that she was touched inappropriately. Thirteen other girls, ages 7 to 14, subsequently came forward with allegations dating between 1999 and 2000.
In 2005, a jury convicted Cardamone of sexually abusing seven of the gymnasts and acquitted him of the others. The convictions were overturned in 2008 after the 2nd District Appellate Court in Elgin took issue with an abundance of uncharged allegations presented as evidence at the trial and the exclusion of a defense witness who would have testified the alleged victims could have false memories.
Cardamone declined through his family to comment outside of court Wednesday, but several of his former co-workers told reporters they still believe he's innocent.
"Nothing happened to them," former coach Sandy Huston said of Cardamone's accusers. "(They're) not lying -- I think they've been made to believe something happened to them."
Traci Scardina, another former coach, said she worked alongside Cardamone and never saw any inappropriate contact.
"I'm not calling anybody names," she said. "I was in the gym every day; every single coach was. We all know what happened."
The perjury charge stemmed from an incident in which Cardamone, following a courtroom session, reported that the mother of one of his alleged victims was driving erratically and possibly drunk. He admitted Wednesday that those statements were false.
State's Attorney Bob Berlin said Cardamone's plea demonstrated the former coach's guilt on several different levels.
"Today is the day Mr. Cardamone admitted that his accusers were not lying. He admitted touching them inappropriately. He admitted he has been lying to the court," Berlin said. "I sincerely thank each one of these brave girls for having the courage to see this case through to the end. It is because of them that Mr. Cardamone will finally be held accountable."