They all wanted to be Olympians.
And when they were teenage girls in the 1980s, they all said they heard a version of the following speech from youth volleyball coach Rick Butler:
“You’re not like everybody else. You need to understand. You need to be pushed harder than everybody else. You have to listen to me. You have to follow me blindly, and you just have to do what I tell you to do.”
Sarah Powers-Barnhard, Christine Tuzi and Julie Romias have maintained for decades that Butler’s speech was a mere prelude to sexual abuse — the grooming of young, ambitious teenagers with stars in their eyes. And while Butler has denied the allegations and continued his successful coaching career, the women say they still struggle with what happened to them.
Mentor or predator?
“It used to make me feel dirty and unclean and unworthy,” Romias said. “And, you know, who would want me as a friend? Much less a wife? It’s like a cancer invading — with tentacles — invading every area of your life.”
Butler has never been charged with a crime. He has admitted having a sexual relationship with each of the three accusers but claims it was after they played for him and were no longer minors. “I have never sexually abused any individual,” he said in a statement released by his attorney, Terry Ekl.
The accusers made their allegations in sworn affidavits and in testimony before USA Volleyball’s Ethics and Eligibility Committee. The committee took their side in 1995, finding that Butler “had unprotected sexual intercourse and a subsequent physical and emotional relationship” with each of the girls before each turned 18.
The committee banned Butler “for life” — but it let him successfully reapply for membership in 2000 on the condition that he not coach girls who are in high school or younger in USA Volleyball-sanctioned events. Butler has gotten around that by having his girls’ teams instead participate in tournaments sponsored by other sports organizations, including the massive Amateur Athletic Union.
In the 1990s, and in a series of interviews this year with the Sun-Times, the women alleged a similar predatory pattern. They said Butler ostracized them from the rest of the team and promised them athletic glory, but he demanded total devotion to himself and the sport.
Soon, they said, the abuse would start. At the time, Butler, now 63, was in his mid- to late-20s or early 30s. The three women were then 16 or 17.
It allegedly began for Powers-Barnhard during a trip to Syracuse, New York, in 1981. She said she didn’t follow Butler’s precise instructions when the team stopped to practice at Western Michigan University. So Butler forced her to travel the remaining 600 miles in an equipment van — separated from the other players.
When they arrived in New York, she said he apologized, told her she “needed to obey his coaching to be the best” — and kissed her. She said the sexual abuse began later, in August 1981, when she was 16. Afterward, she said, Butler “would engage in some form of a sex act with me whenever and wherever he wanted.”
She said it lasted about two years.
‘I felt so disgusted’
Tuzi said her abuse began in 1984, when she was 16. Butler offered to help her write a school paper. She accepted and, after working on the paper for a while at his home one night, they went out for pizza.
That’s when she said Butler professed his “overpowering feelings” for her, and offered to help her become “a real star.” When they returned to his home, Tuzi said Butler backed her up against a wall and eventually had sex with her. She said the abuse continued for more than four years. She said she wound up getting pregnant and having an abortion.
Tuzi also said Butler wrote her several love letters — and she still has them.
“Either you believe me, or you think I’d be willing to make a public fool out of myself,” Tuzi wrote in a letter to USA Volleyball in 1995.
Romias said Butler first initiated sexual contact during a team trip to Japan in 1987 when she was 17. She said he called her to his room, where she found him lying on a mat with a bathrobe on. She said he asked her to sit down beside her and, after she did so, he began to kiss and fondle her.
“I remember when he kissed me, I felt so disgusted,” Romias said. “This is an old man.”
She said they first had sex later, in April 1987. She said he forced himself on her as she insisted she didn’t believe in sex before marriage. She said the abuse lasted a year and a half.
Multiple universities recruited Powers-Barnhard and Tuzi. But they said Butler pressured them to attend Western Michigan University, where Butler was working as an assistant coach during a brief hiatus from Sports Performance Volleyball.
Today Powers-Barnhard, 52, is a club volleyball coach in Florida and a member of USA Volleyball. Tuzi, 50, works in real estate. And Romias, 48, is a family medicine doctor in California.
These allegations all came to light in 1994 after Romias visited a therapist’s office in California who insisted on calling child welfare officials.
Butler repeatedly, but carefully, denied the allegations. During a July 1995 hearing of USA Volleyball’s ethics committee, his attorney asked him, “do you deny sexual intercourse or other sexual contact with all players on your team?”
Butler said, “Yes.” He confirmed that his denial stood regardless of whether the players were 18, and he acknowledged his answer applied to his entire coaching career.
Later in the hearing, the chairwoman of the ethics committee, Rebecca Howard, pushed back. And Butler gave a different answer, according to the official transcript of the hearing.
Howard: “Can you tell me, have you ever had sexual relationships with Christine (Tuzi)?”
Howard: “Have you ever had sexual relationship —”
Butler: “As a player.”
Howard: “No, that’s not my question. That’s why I am asking —”
Butler: “Yes, I have had sexual relations with Christine (Tuzi).”
Howard: “Have you had with Sarah (Powers-Barnhard)?”
Howard: “And have you had sexual relations with . . . Julie (Romias)?”
The scrutiny of sports organizations
Critics of Butler say he’s thrived because of an emphasis on money, power and winning in youth sports. Butler may have also benefitted from a lack of preparation by athletic officials to deal with such a scandal. What’s more, the controversy predated the internet’s ability to spread allegations like wildfire.
Marci Hamilton, the CEO of child abuse think tank CHILD USA, also noted that when it comes to sexual assault, “it’s always someone else’s job” to stop the predator.
When USA Volleyball first investigated claims of sexual abuse by Butler, Butler’s defense often turned on technical questions of due process. For example, his attorney repeatedly asked USA Volleyball to explain what policy Butler allegedly violated.
A Cook County judge later noted there was nothing in USA Volleyball’s bylaws that specifically prohibited Butler’s alleged behavior.
Today, USA Volleyball participates in the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which explicitly outlaws such behavior. Even Butler’s admission that he had sexual relationships with his accusers after they left his program may have been a violation of the rules today.
However, Butler is also a member of the Amateur Athletic Union, which has a national policy to deny participation “to any individual for whom there is reasonable cause to believe that they have engaged in sexual misconduct.”
The AAU declined to answer questions submitted by the Sun-Times for this series. It even declined to say whether it tolerates sexual relationships between coaches and players.
After being reinstated by USA Volleyball in 2000, Butler went on to help form the Junior Volleyball Association, or the JVA. The group has since partnered with the AAU.
Jenny Hahn, the JVA’s executive director, was also among the JVA’s original leaders. She did not recall any concerns at the time of the group’s formation about the role of Butler or the sexual abuse allegations in his past. The way she saw it, it had already been dealt with by USA Volleyball.
“It was not a topic of conversation when we met to form the JVA,” Hahn said.
Butler hasn’t just won titles and produced top-notch talent in the 22 years since the sexual-abuse allegations against him first surfaced. He’s built enough trust that parents have sent their kids to live with him.
‘Nothing but honest’
Two parents, Peter Van Dyke and Julie Dailey, told the Sun-Times this month about their experiences with Butler and his wife, Cheryl. Both sent their daughters to live with the Butlers for a significant amount of time.
Van Dyke was fully aware of the sexual assault allegations against Butler when he sent his daughter Marijke to train with Butler at Sports Performance.
Van Dyke says his family “investigated them, discussed them and made the decision to join [Sports Performance]. That decision was made with some angst and concern and we were on guard for any hint of inappropriate behavior.”
Van Dyke lives in Munster, Indiana. He was so convinced that Butler was the right man to coach his daughter that he drove 75 minutes in each direction to take her to practice.
“What we experienced over the last three years was nothing short of a transformative experience,” Van Dyke said. “Rick has been nothing but honest and a man of his word in all our interactions with him. He acted with integrity and character.”
The Van Dykes allowed Marijke to graduate early last December and move in with the Butlers for six months to train full-time.
“This was offered by the Butlers, not requested of them,” Van Dyke said. “Rick and Cheryl truly adopted our daughter, and we now joke that our daughter has two sets of parents.”
Marijke Van Dyke isn’t the only teenage girl to live with Butler recently.
Julie Dailey’s daughter lived with the Butlers for three months.
“I asked them if my oldest daughter could live with them and train,” Julie Dailey said. “Rick and Cheryl were completely and fully honest with me about any accusations.”
Marijke is now playing volleyball at the University of Illinois. She’s one of hundreds of success stories. The Sports Performance website lists more than 300 alumni that have gone on to play college volleyball since 2008.
Butler’s success isn’t just raw numbers. He’s producing some of the best players in the nation. Lauren Carlini, from Aurora, and Kelly Murphy, from Wilmington, both play on the U.S. National team.
Carlini was the national player of the year her senior year at West Aurora and was the 2017 AAU James E. Sullivan Award winner, given to the best amateur athlete in any sport in the country.
Carlini’s parents, Tony and Gale, support Butler.
“Our daughter would not be the player she is today without the training, coaching, life experiences, and knowledge given to her by Sports Performance,” the Carlinis said in a statement. “The program developed many leadership styles, skills, mental toughness, enjoyment, discipline, of and for the game.”
The Haggerty family recently had three girls play for Butler. Meghan, Molly and Maddie all went on to play in college.
“Our daughters each had an outstanding experience playing for and being trained by Rick Butler,” Jerry and Stacey Haggerty said in a statement. “We found Rick to be honest, caring, and completely professional at all times.”
Butler is also supported by several high school coaches. Batavia High School girls volleyball coach Lori Trippi-Payne has seen more than 30 of her players go through Sports Performance. She hasn’t been convinced by the allegations against Butler.
“I just don’t see it,” Trippi-Payne said. “I had players there in the ’90s and not one ever said one negative thing. Not one. No one ever came to me and said something was going on and I think they would have, I’m close with my girls.”
Roger Strausberger, the dean of students and boys volleyball coach at Naperville Central, coached at Sports Performance for nine years. He says his daughter plays for Sports Performance’s Under-13 team, and he hopes she has the chance to be coached by the Butlers before they retire.
Strausberger even saves seats for the Butlers at games, just in case they show up.
“I continue to honor Rick, Cheryl and my time at Sports Performance by leaving two seats at the front of my bench for them to sit in if they happen to be in the gym,” Strausberger said.
READ MORE IN THIS SERIES:
Rick Butler’s full statement in response to sexual abuse accusations