Feds drop sex abuse case against Syracuse's Fine

Friday - 11/9/2012, 7:14pm EST

By JOHN KEKIS
Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Federal authorities have dropped their investigation into one of the sexual abuse claims that cost a Syracuse University assistant basketball coach his job, threw a top-ranked team into turmoil and threatened the career of Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.

After a probe spanning nearly a year, U.S. Attorney Richard Hartunian said Friday there was not enough evidence to support a claim that Bernie Fine had molested a boy in a Pittsburgh hotel room in 2002.

"The nature and seriousness of these allegations, which involved conduct typically committed in private with individuals who are reluctant to come forward, warranted a thorough federal investigation," Hartunian said.

It's unclear whether Fine, 66, could get his job back.

His lawyers, Karl Sleight, Donald Martin and David Botsford, said in a statement that they were not surprised by the decision.

"The damage inflicted upon Bernie and his family is simply immeasurable," the lawyers said. "Bernie hopes and prays that the lesson learned and remembered is that a rush to judgment has irreversible consequences."

The investigation erupted in the glare of a spotlight on child abuse shone by the Penn State University scandal, which broke shortly beforehand. Two former Syracuse ballboys, Bobby Davis and Michael Lang, came forward Nov. 17 and accused the longtime assistant of fondling them when they were teens. Davis said the sexual contact continued for years.

But the claims by Davis and Lang had happened too long ago to be prosecuted. Ten days later, though, a third man, 23-year-old Zachary Tomaselli, of Lewiston, Maine, went public with an accusation that Fine had molested him in 2002 in a hotel room when the team played in Pittsburgh. The same day, ESPN aired an audiotape in which Fine's wife, Laurie Fine, apparently acknowledged to Davis she knew about the molestation he alleged.

Bernie Fine, who denied the allegations, was fired Nov. 27, and the federal government began investigating Tomaselli's claim, the only one that fell within the statute of limitations. The federal statute of limitations that went into effect in 2002 allows prosecution until the victim reaches age 25; Tomaselli was 23 when he made his claims.

Hartunian, in his statement, said closing the investigation doesn't mean something did or did not happen, only that there wasn't enough admissible evidence to get a conviction. He said that people should come forward with tips if they have any more information.

Davis had made the same accusation against Fine to the university and Syracuse police a decade before, but the police couldn't investigate because of the statute of limitations, and the school said its probe turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. Davis did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday.

From the start, there were doubts.

When Davis and Lang came forward in November, Boeheim angrily defended his assistant of 35 years and said the accusers were only out for money, seeking to cash in on the publicity generated by the Penn State scandal, in which former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing several boys.

Another accuser, Floyd Van Hooser, said Fine abused him for years but later said he was lying.

That left Tomaselli, who was accused of sexually abusing a boy at a camp in 2010 and whose father had said the boy was lying. Tomaselli, who eventually was convicted of sexual abuse and started a prison sentence of three years and three months in April, insisted Friday that he was telling the truth about Fine.

Before he went behind bars, Tomaselli took the media on a wild spin, repeatedly lying in a bid, he said, to keep his name in print:

_ He said Fine had made harassing phone calls to him, and he got an order of protection. Then he said that was a lie.

_ He said he had lied about the whole thing, that Fine had never touched him.

_ He reverted to his old claim and insisted Fine abused him.

Tomaselli said Friday by phone from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine, that he had a "mental breakdown" when he recanted. He said sports figures have too much power and that may contribute to no one believing him, and he thanked law enforcement officials for thoroughly investigating his allegations even after his credibility was called into question.

There were other sordid claims to come out, including that Fine's wife had sex with players and that Boeheim knew, or should have known, of his assistant's behavior.