SYRACUSE, New York (Reuters) - A man accusing an ex-Syracuse basketball coach of molesting him as a boy said that because of the alleged abuse he never learned sexual boundaries and this may have led to his own arrest on similar charges of fondling a boy.
In a telephone interview with Reuters on Thursday after a court hearing in a sex abuse case against him in Maine, Zach Tomaselli said that he was abused at age 13 by former Syracuse coach Bernie Fine and by his father, Fred Tomaselli.
But the credibility of Tomaselli, now 23, of Lewiston, Maine, has been questioned by his own father who says Zach is lying, and because of Zach’s own major legal problems.
“Bernie and my father had a lot to do with confusing my understanding of what a normal relationship should be between an adult and a teenage boy,” Zach Tomaselli said.
“I wish I grew up in an environment where I could have understood what was normal,” he added. “I really think I wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for the abuse.”
Fine has called the allegations “patently false,” and Fred Tomaselli denies abusing his son. New York State police confirmed that they had investigated the alleged abuse by his father but no charges were filed. They would not say why.
“We still love him and we hope that he recovers from his problems,” Fred Tomaselli said on Friday. “I can’t speak to the other accusers, but I can tell you 100 percent, actually 1,000 percent, that my son was not abused by Bernie Fine.”
Asked directly if he abused his son, Fred Tomaselli said: “He’s lying.”
“New York State Police have already come out and said they didn’t find anything,” Fred Tomaselli said.
Zach and Fred Tomaselli both said they are estranged.
Despite credibility questions, a law enforcement official working on the case told Reuters that Zach Tomaselli’s account was important in deciding recently to reopen an investigation six years after accusations against Fine first surfaced.
Tomaselli is one of three men who have accused Fine of abuse -- the others being former ball boys for the basketball team Bobby Davis and Mike Lang.
The Syracuse accusations emerged after a similar sex abuse scandal involving a longtime assistant football coach at Penn State University startled the nation and prompted the dismissal of the university president and legendary football coach Joe Paterno for failing to tell police.
In the wake of Penn State, Syracuse fired Fine on Sunday just hours after ESPN aired audio of what it said was a call between Fine’s wife Laurie and alleged victim Bobby Davis in which she appeared to admit knowledge of the alleged abuse.
A grand jury is investigating the accusations against Fine, but unlike the Penn State coach, Fine has not been charged with any crime. Multiple attempts to reach Fine in person at his home and by phone were unsuccessful this week. Fine’s attorney had no comment for this story.
On Thursday, Zach Tomaselli appeared in Superior Court in Maine to face charges of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy he met at a day camp where he was serving as a counselor.
He was arrested on April 11 on charges including sexual assault, exposing himself to a child and unlawful sexual touching. Tomaselli’s lawyer on Thursday sought to have a police interview with him barred from evidence, saying police had failed to follow procedures. A judge has not yet ruled.
Zach Tomiselli would not comment on the details of the case against him, but did say that he feels “guilt and shame” that he put himself in the position of facing criminal charges.
Tomiselli said he is angry that he is being held accountable for his alleged actions, while no charges have been filed against the alleged actions of Fine or his father.
“It was very hard to sit there in the courtroom realizing both Bernie and my father have never had to go through a courtroom setting and they were both the ones who abused me,” he said. “I never really hated Bernie before until today.”
As a child, Tomaselli said he lived with his parents in Copenhagen, N.Y., a small town 90 miles north of Syracuse. Prior to the start of Syracuse’ 2001-2002 basketball season, he said his father took him to a team autograph session.
Tomaselli said his father met Bernie Fine there and after speaking with him, introduced the assistant basketball coach to Zach Tomaselli. “Bernie had asked for our phone number after talking to us for over an hour,” he said.
Tomaselli said Fine called his parents in early 2002 to invite him, then 13, to a Syracuse away game in Pittsburgh.
“They (parents) told me to behave myself and what to expect taking the bus by myself on this trip.” Tomaselli said he boarded a bus of what he assumed were team staff “not fans.” . Everything seemed “normal,” he said, even plans to stay in a hotel room with Fine.
“Mr. Fine was the one that invited me and it was very clear from the beginning that I was expected to stay in that room.”
It was a room with two beds and as Tomaselli sat on his bed, Fine put on some pornography, he said. “He ... asked me if I liked it several times,”
“...He said that sometimes friends touch each other and help each other masturbate.”
He said Fine did this to him several times that night and the entire ordeal was confusing. Tomaselli said that he was taught to believe this was wrong. But allegedly being sexually abused by his father prior to the Fine incident blurred his sense of judgment, he said.
“What Bernie did to me, I didn’t think it was wrong because my father had been doing it to me for at least 4-5 months before that,” he said.
Reuters was unable to corroborate independently Tomaselli’s account of events surrounding the alleged 2002 incident at a Pittsburgh hotel.
In November, Tomaselli said he learned of Fine accuser Bobby Davis’ story by listening to ESPN radio. Tomaselli decided to go public with his accusations against Fine because it appeared Davis’ allegations were too old.
“I knew the statute of limitation laws in New York very well because I had reported my father (to police),” he said. Under New York law the limit is five years after the victim reaches the age of 18. The other two accusers were older.
Tomaselli contacted an ESPN reporter who put him in touch with Davis, who recommended he speak to Syracuse police, he said. Reuters could not reach Davis for comment, but an ESPN spokeswoman confirmed ESPN put Tomaselli in touch with Davis.
Tomaselli said that he testified to police for some four hours. “I felt validated at that point ... I was asked if I thought I could pass a lie detector test and I said yes.”
“Through a lot of the searching of Bernie Fine’s house and looking at the tape of the Pittsburgh game, police have been able to confirm that I was in Pittsburgh,” Tomaselli said.
Reuters has not been able to corroborate that police have confirmed Tomaselli was in Pittsburgh for the game in 2002.
Tomaselli said the intense national interest in the Fine accusations has increased scrutiny in his own case.
“The first court hearing there weren’t any media. But now it felt like the eyes of the world were on my case,” he said.
Editing by Greg McCune