CNN – Seven former Taekwondo Junior Olympic medalists, alleging years of sexual abuse by their coach who they say molested them as they traveled around the world to compete, are suing tournament organizers. The men are also suing their former instructor, Craig Peeples, who still coaches at a martial arts school he operates in the coastal town of Kingsland, Georgia.
The lawsuit goes after the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), one of the largest youth sports organizations in the country, Pak’s Karate Academy and USA Taekwondo (USAT), which is part of the U.S. Olympic Committee, for allowing Peeples to continue entering tournaments with children to this day, even after law enforcement in Georgia found “sufficient evidence” to move forward with criminal charges.
State officials say no criminal charges could be filed in the case because of the statute of limitations.
“The karate school is still open, and he’s still getting new kids to go out there,” one of the alleged victims, Christopher Brazell, told CNN in an interview. “(Parents) should know who they are taking their kid to. Just because the criminal statute of limitations has run out doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
The alleged abuse
All seven of the alleged victims were top competitors, prodigies in Taekwando, racking up Junior Olympic medals and state, national and even international titles.
“(Peeples) was who you went to if you wanted to be an Olympic level or Junior Olympic level athlete,” said another of the men, Justin Conway. “We all were at state championships … Olympic training centers, the U.S. Cup. How could you say anything about somebody who was so respected and so trusted? Who would believe you?”
The men say Peeples sexually assaulted them when they were in their teens — varying in age from 12 to 16 — from 1989 to 2000.
It happened during sleepovers at Peeples’ home, at Pak’s Karate and during tournaments on the road with Peeples often plying them with alcohol, showing them porn and then later giving them gifts and money, they said in interviews with CNN and in the lawsuit.
They recalled how the abuse often happened in group settings — a letter from the district attorney described incidents occurring “with as many as six or seven boys of similar age in the room at the same time.”
All the while, their lawsuit says, Peeples would manipulate them, saying things to keep them from telling others what was happening.
“Peeples told Plaintiffs that his acts of sexual abuse were ‘just something guys do.’ … that they ‘would be grateful’ to him ‘for showing [them]…’ ” the lawsuit says.
“I thought there was something wrong with me. That’s how it was. That’s what you did,” Christopher Garwood said.
In such a high level of competition, they spent almost every waking moment with Peeples, traveling to California, Colorado, South Carolina, Florida and even the United Kingdom.
“Your idol, the guy that seems to have given you so much, is at the same time abusing you,” Brazell said. The men eventually taught Taekwondo at Pak’s Karate Academy as well.
Song Ki Pak, the owner of Pak’s Karate, which has multiple locations in the area, says he considers himself independent from Peeples, who pays him training and certificate fees.
Peeples’ attorney, Gary Baker, told CNN the allegations are false, isolated complaints from more than a decade ago, and that the men filing suit are disgruntled former instructors. He said Peeples plans to file a countersuit for slander.
“How is it that with all of this publicity and the thousands of students who have gone through that school, not one person has come forward and said, ‘Oh yes, me too?’ ” Baker said. “It’s finally an opportunity for us to prove that it’s all made up, false and an attempt to gain money. I’d rather it be tried in court than in the court of public opinion, which is the only thing that’s happened so far.”
AAU and USAT have not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
The civil suit was the first to be filed in Georgia under its new Hidden Predator Act, which expanded the civil statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse.
Several of these men, alongside their attorney Marci Hamilton, were instrumental in passing that act, even holding a news conference in the Georgia Capitol Rotunda in 2014, trying to draw attention and change the law.
After months of speaking out, they were finally successful, and the law allowing them to sue was signed March 16.
“We are hopeful,” said another alleged victim, Steven Hood. “I think it was a great step forward for the Hidden Predator Act, that was a big win and I think there’s still a long way to go, but I’m hopeful anyway.” There can be no criminal charges at the state level because too much time has passed.
In 2014, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigated the men’s claims and the Camden County District Attorney wrote a letter saying there was “sufficient evidence” of sodomy and child molestation but that the seven-year criminal statute of limitations in Georgia had run out for all of the victims, making it impossible for her to proceed with a criminal case.
Jackie Johnson, the district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, ended the letter with a plea for new evidence, saying, “any new evidence or witnesses coming forward could potentially affect our ability to proceed with criminal charges in this case.”
But so far, no one else has come forward. And the men, all but one who still live in the Kingsland, Georgia, area about 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, say the community has not reacted the way they’d have hoped.
Instead of shunning Peeples, parents continue to send their children to Pak’s Karate; Peeples drives a bus to pick up elementary school kids and bring them to lessons. He even participates in town parades.
“It’s disappointing, it’s hurtful,” said one of the men, Steven Tann. “We’re out there trying to make sure kids aren’t getting hurt, and it’s like people don’t care or don’t believe us. It’s embarrassing that we even have to say this stuff, but it’s even more embarrassing that people don’t believe us.”
Continuing to coach
During the time these men allege abuse, the AAU was being run by Bobby Dodd, who was accused in 2011 of sexually molesting two players who came forward on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
The AAU contacted police, who investigated, but no charges were filed. Dodd resigned. Dodd’s attorney did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but he has previously called the accusations “unsubstantiated, salacious allegations.”
Lauren Book, a Florida advocate who runs an organization fighting child sex abuse, says the AAU had no systems in place to protect children until she was called in to help after Dodd’s resignation. Even more shocking, she said, culturally, nothing seems to have changed.
“We were told and promised that these policies and procedures would be adopted and the culture at AAU would change. It’s clear what was existing here … you have an organization that seeks to protect its prestige and coaches over the lives of children,” Book said.
The AAU, which describes itself as “one of the most respected and oldest youth amateur organizations in the United States,” has been criticized for not properly dealing with coaches caught having inappropriate relationships with athletes. Most recently, it was criticized in an ESPN report for allowing a volleyball coach banned by USA Volleyball to continue with the AAU.
“I think the AAU is an organization that puts sports first and protection 3 or 4 or 5 down the line, which is a really scary thing,” Book said. “… It’s a volunteer organization. You don’t have the right to be there.”