Volleyball coach Rick Butler hit with class-action lawsuit over sex abuse claims
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Laura Mullen trusted her daughter to the successful west suburban volleyball club built by Rick Butler.
She came to regret it.
Mullen’s husband began to lose a battle with prostate cancer around the time her daughter’s team planned to play a tournament in China. Through pressure and shame, Mullen said Butler convinced her to let the girl play overseas — and she missed her father’s death.
Mullen pulled her daughters from Butler’s program. Later, she learned of the sexual abuse allegations in Butler’s past.
Now, Mullen has begun what may be the most significant assault yet on Butler’s career, filing a federal class-action lawsuit against Butler, his wife Cheryl and Sports Performance Volleyball Club in Aurora. The lawsuit alleges the Butlers deceived parents and youth athletes to get them to join the club, that Butler “used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls,” and that Cheryl Butler concealed his abuse by pressuring and threatening victims.
The lawsuit could potentially cripple Butler’s volleyball empire if other parents join Mullen as plaintiffs — and they prevail in the case.
Behind the lawsuit is a prominent Chicago attorney, Jay Edelson, who rose to prominence taking on tech companies in Silicon Valley. He told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday that his firm’s “whole effort” against the Butlers will be done for free, and Mullen’s lawsuit indicates any money the firm receives will go to charity.
“We would not take a penny on anything to do with this,” Edelson said.
The lawsuit notes Butler has a “special relationship with Michigan State University,” which is already under fire over its disgraced former sports doctor, Larry Nassar. It indicates Butler has continued to coach despite bans from multiple organizations. And it lays out another previously untold accusation against Butler — alleging he raped a sophomore player in a shower and tried to take her to Sybaris Suites.
The details of the Mullen family’s brush with Butler are contained in the lawsuit. Mullen could not be reached for comment. Nor could the Butlers or an attorney representing them, though Butler has previously insisted he has “never sexually abused any individual.” Michigan State officials also could not be reached.
The new 72-page lawsuit lays out the decades-long history of the sexual abuse claims against Butler. It names previously identified accusers including Sarah Powers-Barnhard, Julie Romias, Christine Tuzi and Beth Rose, whose allegations were first reported by the Sun-Times in the November series “Net Pains.”
None of the women are named as plaintiffs, however.
It is highly detailed. It alleges that, when Butler would call Powers-Barnhard when she was a teenager, he would hang up after the first ring as a code that she should call him back. It claims that Butler once told a young Romias to stand still before he threw a desk at her because he didn’t like her setting choice. And it alleges he referenced the 1983 TV movie “The Thorn Birds” in a love letter to Tuzi.
It also alleges that Butler targeted another rising star in his program in the 1980s and groomed her in a pattern similar to most of his other accusers. It claims he offered to drive her home one day after practice but told her she was too sweaty to go home. He allegedly said she should stop at his apartment and take a shower.
The lawsuit claims that, after the girl began showering in Butler’s bathroom, Butler “entered the shower and raped her.” It alleges that was the first of more than 40 such incidents. By her junior year, she allegedly lived in fear of Butler.
In 1995, when allegations against Butler first became public, Cheryl Butler allegedly called that victim and threatened her to keep quiet, according to the lawsuit.
Such harassment has only continued with the rise of social media, Mullen’s lawsuit claims. It accuses Cheryl Butler of lashing out at Butler’s accusers on Facebook.
Since the start of 2018, Butler has been banned by the massive Amateur Athletic Union and the Wisconsin-based Junior Volleyball Association. USA Volleyball, the sport’s national governing body, also announced a ban in January.
Though all three gave somewhat vague explanations for their bans, USA Volleyball later updated its statement to explain that it had “received allegations of sexual misconduct and abusive coaching practices against Mr. Butler,” which led it “to bring a disciplinary action” against him.
This all came more than 20 years after USA Volleyball first banned Butler from its ranks. That happened in 1995 after Powers-Barnhard, Romias and Tuzi alleged he sexually abused them in the 1980s while he was their coach and they were under 18.
The coach has never been charged with a crime, though his accusers say the relevant statutes of limitations had expired before they came forward.