Rousey role model in combatting alleged sexual abuser

A 20-year-old female karate instructor was recently arrested after it was discovered that for months she had been sending an 11-year-old male student nude pics and suggesting sex. She faces charges of attempted lewd or lascivious conduct, solicitation of a minor via computer, showing obscene material to a minor, unlawful use of a two-way communication device, child abuse, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

This is just one in a shockingly large number of martial arts instructors who have abuse their position of power and trust. It was unusual only in that the instructor was female. In the overwhelming number of cases, the instructor has been male.

One reason instructors abuse students sometimes for years is that the students are reluctant to stand up and bring the criminal activity to the attention of responsible adults, including the police.

In 2008, before she won a bronze medal in Olympic Judo, and years before she began MMA, Ronda Rousey was still a fighter. In a post on, Rousey blasted the USA Judo governing body for not appropriately addressing allegations against official Fletcher Thornton, who was accused by several female athletes of plying them with drugs and alcohol and molesting them while they were in their teens.

“My mom has a saying ‘Physical courage is the easy kind’, wrote Rousey at the time. “USA Judo didn’t bat an eyelash at Fletcher Thornton’s DOZENS of documented accusations of molesting young girls. One of our ‘A’ referees even covered his eyes and refused to look at the police reports these girls filed. This is playing with the safety and careers of our athletes. How is this man still allowed to be in the same VENUE of our athletes let alone protected by USA Judo and kept in an extremely influential position?”

Rousey’s mother, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, the first American to win a world championship in Judo, was likewise trying to seeking justice, as seen in this letter on WikiLeaks.

The story went national, with the New York Times prominently covering it on 26 July 2008.

A high-ranking USA Judo official has been accused of drugging and sexually molesting teenage competitors he coached in the late 1970s, accusations that resurfaced last month in Internet postings by one of the sport’s top athletes.

On Friday, the United States Olympic Committee announced that it had begun a formal inquiry upon learning of the accusations in recent weeks and that it would have an independent counsel investigate the claims.

“These are serious allegations, and they will receive the attention and priority they deserve,” said Darryl Seibel, a spokesman for the U.S.O.C.

One of the sport’s national groups, the United States Judo Association, has suspended the official, Fletcher Thornton. But the sport’s most prominent organization, USA Judo, which oversees 8,000 athletes and the Olympic team, has taken no action. Thornton is on the executive board and his duties have included overseeing the board’s standards. He is not paid by USA Judo.

Thornton, 69, of Middletown, Calif., was never charged with a crime and labeled the accusations false.

The allegations were common knowledge for years in the elite judo community. 

The claims were detailed by young athletes in sworn affidavits signed in 1981, a few years after the incidents were said to have occurred, and again by a new accuser in 2005. In both cases, the affidavits were given to top officials of USA Judo, and no action was taken against Thornton.

Reached by telephone Thursday night and asked about the accusations, he said he had no desire to “discuss 30-year-old allegations.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think you want to know the truth,” he said. “I have nothing more to say to you.”

Jose H. Rodriguez, the chief executive of USA Judo, said he was standing by Thornton, who served as part of the referee commission at the Olympic trials in June. Rodriguez said he found it conspicuous that the affidavits re-emerged in election years for USA Judo executive board positions. He said he welcomed any of the accusers to come forward.

“Don’t you find that something is missing here?” he said. “Should someone have written a letter or made a phone call and say, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t get a chance to be heard, this isn’t fair.’ ”

One of the accusers who gave an affidavit in 1981 said in a telephone interview this week that she had never spoken with anyone from USA Judo and did not know they wanted her to be heard.

“I would have loved to talked to someone,” she said. “I wanted someone to hear me and believe me.”

At least three athletes have given sworn statements, saying they were molested or inappropriately touched by Thornton, who was their judo coach and who was more than 20 years older than they were at the time. Two of the women said Thornton had sexual intercourse with them after they smoked marijuana he had provided them. Another woman said that Thornton routinely watched as she took off her clothes for weigh-ins before judo matches and that he groped her in training sessions. Other athletes gave sworn statements saying that Thornton regularly provided them with marijuana and alcohol, mostly on trips for judo.

The parents of a judo athlete in the Spokane, Wash., area, where Thornton coached at a club, learned about the accusations, hired a lawyer and encouraged the athletes to put together a series of sworn statements in 1981. But their case never got any traction with the authorities. The main issue, according to Paul Burney, who served as a spokesman for that group, was that the Spokane police struggled to determine jurisdiction because the suspected incidents were said to have occurred on the road and at tournaments in different cities.

“Today’s attitude about these things is not the same,” Burney said in a telephone interview. “No one wanted it then.”

In a telephone interview this week with The New York Times, one of the accusers who gave a sworn statement confirmed what she originally reported.

“For two decades this haunted me,” she said. “I made some bad choices. He was the adult in that situation and took complete advantage of me and my family. It changed the way I lived my life and looked at people and the way I had relationships with people.”

Kris Thomfohrde was part of the larger group in the Spokane area who gathered the sworn statements. She said she was not sexually molested by Thornton.

In her sworn statement and in a telephone interview, however, she said Thornton had acted inappropriately around her for years. Her statement recalled a “roaring pot party,” and that when she and Thornton were doing judo workouts, he would often put his hand through her robe and grab her breast. She also said Thornton required her to strip in front of him, including taking off her bra, for weigh-ins before many matches.

The accusations by those two women, and by a handful of other teenagers, were forwarded to USA Judo for a hearing in October 1982 in Colorado Springs. But the lack of police action and the fact that none of the accusers were present to testify prompted USA Judo officials to dismiss the claims against Thornton.

In January 1982, Thornton was suspended from the community center in Spokane where his club practiced. The center reinstated him 10 months later, after finding “questions of judgment” but no “criminal wrongdoing.” A letter provided by Don Higgins, the West Central Community Center’s executive director, attributed the allegations to an “apparent political rivalry” with another judo club.

After being reinstated, Thornton moved to Alaska from Spokane, and many of the athletes and their friends assumed he had exited the judo world. Rousey’s mother, the former world champion AnnMaria De Mars, said she could not believe it when she spotted Thornton at a tournament a few years ago.

In a sworn statement in 2005 that she provided to USA Judo, De Mars said she recalled beating a member of Thornton’s judo club to win a tournament, and how he had put his arms on her bare shoulders and said, “She’s still prettier than you.”

As her daughter, Rousey, emerged as one of the country’s top judo athletes, De Mars would not let her go on a foreign trip in 2002, at age 15, because she did not know who would be supervising it. Thornton ended up overseeing the group.

In 2004, De Mars said she received an e-mail message from a young woman at her former judo club, saying “she had been molested by the coach as a young girl, contacted USA Judo and they discouraged her from pursuing the case.” That response from USA Judo pushed De Mars to encourage a friend who had raised similar claims to give USA Judo a statement. That woman did so in 2005 and confirmed the contents of her statement in a telephone interview this week. The statement said that Thornton had “intercourse with me several times” and that she personally witnessed him have oral sex with another girl who was younger than she was.

The woman said she went to the Olympic trials in Las Vegas in June, hoping to hear of progress made on her complaint. Instead, she saw Thornton helping run the event as part of the referee commission.

Despite the formal complaints, it was Rousey’s recent blog and message board post that prompted the latest attention. She said she raised the issue because Thornton had written a letter to a friend of hers, demanding an apology for his behavior after a match. She said she found it hypocritical, so she posted the blog on on June 20 and pasted a copy on her blog.

Other bloggers picked up the post, although Rousey removed it from her own blog because she said her coaches did not want it to distract from her training.

Without admitting guilt, Thornton resigned shortly before the 2008 Games began in August. The USOC concluded their investigation in October.

The crime is not limited to Judo dojo, by any means. Jail sentences have been meted out to BJJ instructors, MMA coaches, and numerous karate teachers, among others. But neither was Fletcher’s alleged abuse the exception that proves the rule in Judo.

Kayla Harrison was the first American to win Olympic gold in Judo, and was sexually abused between the ages of 14 and 16 by her childhood coach, Daniel Doyle, who was in his 30s. She confided her secret to friend, who convinced her to inform her mother, who contacted police.

Doyle pled guilty to having a sex with Harrison, and further admitted to videotaping a sexual act between the two. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Harrison has bravely discussed the abuse on a number of occasions.

Harrison describes the process of victim grooming, and suggests that a defense against it lies in open communication between children and their parents. She also noted that parents wouldn’t trust a stranger with their car keys, but can too easily give control of an aspiring athlete over to a charismatic coach.

The National Center for Victims of Crime is one of a number of efforts offering resources for parents and children to better understand the insidious grooming process, which can include:
•Identifying and targeting the victim.
•Gaining trust and access. 
•Playing a role in the child’s life. 
•Isolating the child.
•Creating secrecy around the relationship.
•Initiating sexual contact. It may begin with touching that is not overtly sexual (though a predator may find it sexually gratifying) and that may appear to be casual (arm around the shoulder, pat on the knee, etc.). Gradually, the perpetrator may introduce more sexualized touching. By breaking down inhibitions and desensitizing the child, the perpetrator can begin overtly touching the child.
•Controlling the relationship. Perpetrators rely on the secrecy of the relationship to keep it going, and to ensure that the child will not reveal the abuse. Children are often afraid of disclosing the abuse. They may have been told that they will not be believed, or that something about the child “makes” the abuser do this to them. The child may also feel shame, or fear that they will be blamed. Often, the perpetrator threatens the child to ensure that s/he won’t disclose the abuse.

Information is powerful. By understanding that sexual predators are not necessarily sneaky, sleazy characters waiting to leap out of the shadows, but can be trusted figures, the ability to defend against them increases.

And when a predator is identified, fight back by bringing the information to the authorities, and to a wider audience as necessary, like Ronda Rousey did.

Next: Karate instructor arrested for soliciting student, 11