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Michael Cardamone

Coach takes witness stand, denies abuse

Michael Cardamone

WHEATON, IL (AP) - A former Aurora gymnastics coach accused of sexually abusing 14 young gymnasts at a gym owned by his family took the stand in his own defense, telling the court he never molested the girls.

Michael Cardamone, 28, is charged with predatory criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse. Prosecutors accuse him of inappropriately touching the girls, ages of 5 and 14 at the time, during stretching exercises and in a private room at the American Institute of Gymnastics, where he coached for nine years.

In court Tuesday, Cardamone said he never spent time alone with a 7-year-old who was the first to go to police in 2002.

He said he recalled touching the girl only twice, once while her father was present to assist her with a move on a piece of gymnastics equipment, and a second time to put a bandage on her hip.

His attorney, Joseph Laraia, disputes claims by the girls that Cardamone fondled and improperly touched them and contends the girls concocted the accounts of abuse based on rumors they heard around the gym.

Laraia also suggested the sexual abuse allegations might be linked to Cardamone's decision in 2002 to split up a group of older gymnasts who had trained and competed together for at least five years, advancing some to a higher level.

Cardamone testified that some of the girls left behind became difficult to coach and said he spent much of his time disciplining them.


Coach says his work never crossed line
Cardamone denies misconduct in 2nd day of testimony

Michael Cardamone, the Aurora gymnastics coach charged with molesting 14 girls, concluded his testimony Wednesday, adamantly denying each allegation against him for nearly four hours.

Cardamone, 27, answered "Never," "Absolutely not," "No," and "Definitely not" dozens of times as he denied point-by-point the details of every incident alleged by his 14 accusers.

Defense attorney Joseph Laraia's questioning of his client was calm and precise, but Cardamone became emotional twice.

After being asked about coaching youth gymnastics, Cardamone appeared to hold back tears before replying that "gymnastics is a touching sport, coaching is a contact area when dealing with alignment and shaping [of gymnasts].

"I have never touched anyone in an inappropriate area. ... I don't play like that."

Laraia's questioning was in stark contrast to the contentious cross-examination by Assistant State's Atty. Mike Pawl. When he asked Cardamone about being questioned by police, Cardamone raised his voice, stating, "The police detectives were all accusing me; they weren't interested in finding out the truth."

When Pawl asked him about a specific allegation, Cardamone replied, "Allegations against me have changed 100 times."

The incidents occurred at the American Institute of Gymnastics, operated by Cardamone's family, during practice and treatment of injuries, and at a sleepover in the gym, police say. He is accused of inappropriately touching the girls under their leotards or on their chests.

Cardamone, who began his testimony Tuesday in DuPage County Circuit Court, was the 76th person to testify for the defense, which is expected to complete its case Thursday.

Almost all of the defense witnesses have been coaches or instructors at the gym, young gymnasts who have trained at the facility and their parents, all of whom testified that they never saw Cardamone do anything inappropriate.

Many said the gym often was so crowded that molestation never could have taken place without being noticed.

Both the state and the defense are expected to place rebuttal witnesses on the stand during the next few days, with two days of closing arguments set for next week, the eighth week of the trial.

Each of the 14 accusers testified at the start of the trial.


Coach breaks down on stand

From the onset of his trial, Michael Cardamone seemed a calm, confident and, at times, cavalier man.

Jurors saw another side Wednesday of the man whose future is held in their verdict.

Cardamone wept at times on the witness stand while defending himself against allegations that he inappropriately touched 14 gymnasts whom he coached at his mother's private training facility in Aurora.

The 28-year-old man denied the charges while testifying for several hours over two days in his mass molestation trial.

Prosecutors accused him of fondling the girls usually during stretching exercises at the American Institute of Gymnastics for a few years until his arrest in late 2002.

Another girl also alleged the coach touched her "privates" during a tumbling class in July 1999 inside an Aurora hospital.

The jury began hearing testimony Jan. 20 as all of the girls told their stories of abuse. They could not always recall exact dates or times, but the girls stood firm despite meticulous cross examinations.

The defense team called roughly 80 students, parents and coaches who support Cardamone to counter the abuse claims. Then it became the defendant's turn. The father of two boys kept a family photo out before him while testifying.

He remained calm and unemotional during most of his testimony, even chuckling a few times. Cardamone broke into tears, however, on Wednesday when answering his own attorney's questions, including one about a police interrogation.

"He (the investigator) kept telling me that I did it," Cardamone said. "He wasn't asking questions. He was accusing me. It was very difficult; very hard. I told him there's no way it could have been me."

During the interview, Cardamone said police told him they had DNA evidence from saliva found on a girl's leotard. Cardamone said he agreed to submit to testing to clear his name, but that authorities never took him up on his offer.

Upon cross-examination, Cardamone sparred with prosecutor Michael Pawl who pointed out inconsistencies or questioned the coach about his version of events in comparison to his accusers.

The defense rested with Cardamone's testimony. Each side is expected to call more rebuttal witnesses through Friday. Lawyers will do closing arguments next week. The jury then begins deliberations.

Cardamone faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted of at least two of the most serious allegations of predatory criminal sexual assault. He does not have a criminal record.

The crux of the prosecution's case lies with a now 9-year-old girl who was the first to go to police. She said Cardamone often abused her after taking her out of the crowded gym and into an empty pre-school room.

Cardamone said he never spent time alone with the girl. The defendant said he recalled touching her twice, once while her father was present to assist her with a move on a piece of gymnastics equipment, and a second time to put a bandage on her hip.

He suggested the allegations may be linked to his decision to split up many of the girls who had trained and competed together for at least five years. He testified the girls became difficult to coach and he often disciplined them.

In explaining gymnastics, Cardamone told the jury it is important for a coach to instill confidence and trust in students. Pawl reminded the jury of that point at the end of his cross examination.

"They had to trust you ... no matter what, right?" the prosecutor said rhetorically.


Aurora coach testifies, denies abuse

Says girls may have been upset he split them up

Standing near his wife, Michael Cardamone heard a thump and turned to see a pint-sized gymnast lying on her belly after falling off the bars.

The 7-year-old girl met Cardamone minutes later in a nearby kitchen, where the coach said he fastened a bandage to the child's skinned hip and sent her and a teammate back inside the gym.

The seemingly innocent episode took just five minutes, but it has consumed hours of testimony this last five weeks as a crucial moment in the coach's mass molestation trial.

It again became the focus Tuesday, but this time a jury heard Cardamone's version of what happened Nov. 8, 2002, inside his mother's privately owned American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora.

Cardamone, 28, testified for two hours in his own defense in an emotional trial that may stretch into mid-March. He appeared confident, calm and, on occasion, joked while answering his attorney's questions despite the serious nature of the proceedings against him. The solemn jury did not react.

Cardamone faces a mandatory life sentence if he is convicted of at least two of the most serious offenses involving predatory criminal sexual assault. He does not have a criminal history.

The coach repeated words such as "never" and "absolutely not" when asked if he ever inappropriately touched any of his students.

Cardamone suggested many of his accusers concocted the stories of abuse in late 2002 because he had split up their longstanding clique and disciplined them for poor attitudes. Some of the girls had quit the gym in recent months.

"This was a group of girls I once thought was easy to train," he said. "They became difficult after I split them up. I spent half the time yelling and disciplining them. It was not fun for me."

His testimony continues today. So far, the defense team has called nearly 80 witnesses such as coaches, parents and students, and recorded more than 130 pieces of evidence. The prosecution's side, however, may prove tough to overcome.

One after the other, 14 young gymnasts testified Cardamone fondled them beneath their leotards during stretching exercises. Their stories are the crux of the prosecution's case. The last girl to testify last month was the first to report the allegations. The others followed.

The girl, now 9, said Cardamone repeatedly abused her, including while applying the bandage when they were alone. Another child, though, testified she accompanied the girl into the kitchen and nothing happened.

Cardamone said Tuesday he tended to the child's injury and then returned to the gym to where he and his wife, also a coach, had been readying students to start their routines.

He emphatically denied fondling the child beneath her leotard that day in the kitchen, during a gym sleepover, or inside empty preschool rooms as alleged. The girl's coaches also have testified that Cardamone never took the girl out of her group as she testified he often did to get her alone.

Besides the 14 girls, most of whom are from Naperville, one child who was not connected to the gym also accused Cardamone of inappropriately touching her. In July 1999, before the mass molestation allegations arose, the child accused Cardamone of fondling her during a tumbling class at an Aurora hospital.

Cardamone also denied that allegation.

His trial continues today before DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke.


Teen tells her story of coach
Molestation trial opens with gymnast's testimony

The 16-year-old Naperville girl said she admired and trusted her head gymnastics coach.

In fact, she had grown into a top-notch gymnast in 4 1/2 years under Michael Cardamone's tutelage.

"He was a great coach," she said.

But prosecutors maintain the two shared a dark secret. It was a secret, they allege, other young girls at the American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora also kept.

The Naperville teen revealed the allegations Thursday at the opening of her coach's mass molestation trial.

Cardamone is accused of inappropriately touching 14 of his students over a three-year period during stretching exercises. Despite having a clean record, the 27-year-old Aurora man faces a mandatory life prison sentence if convicted of at least two predatory criminal sexual assaults.

He vehemently maintains his innocence.

Prosecutors told jurors they, too, will know the truth after the 14 girls testify. In addition, two other gymnasts will testify with allegations of inappropriate contact.

After the prosecution finishes its case, the defense team plans to call dozens of former students, coaches and parents to counter allegations that Cardamone ever acted inappropriately.

The trial is expected to last a couple of months and include up to 150 witnesses. It's unknown if the defendant will testify, though many suspect he will take the stand.

Cardamone had worked at his mother's gymnastics facility at 881 Shoreline Drive for nine years until the allegations arose. His wife, Elizabeth, who will deliver their second child next month, also coached there.

The tempest broke in November 2002 after a 7-year-old girl told her mother Cardamone had fondled her in a playhouse inside an empty preschool room at the gymnastics institute.

"(That) created an avalanche from other young girls who would now reveal the truth about what Michael Cardamone had been doing to them," prosecutor Alex McGimpsey said. "It was a pattern of sexual abuse that betrayed their trust, their innocence and their dignity."

On Thursday, the 16-year-old Naperville girl testified Cardamone began coaching her in 1998 when she was 9. The teen said she admired Cardamone. She even went to his wedding in 2000 and also went along on a group trip with him to Disney World.

She left the gym in November 2002 because of the allegations. She said the coach repeatedly fondled her beneath her clothing during the last year of her training.

The girl said neither of them acknowledged the inappropriate touches when it happened. Upon cross examination, defense attorney Joseph Laraia pointed out parts of her testimony that were inconsistent with what she told investigators in 2002.

They also asked her why she never reported the allegations for an entire year or called out for help in the crowded gym.

"I was scared," she said. "I was confused. I didn't know why he was doing it."

She later added, "I didn't want to believe that it was such a big deal."

The teen remained calm and unconfused during her roughly four- hour testimony. She admitted helping to make a scrapbook for Cardamone in June 2002 - after the alleged abuse had begun - in which she wrote a poem describing him as the kind of coach she wishes for every gymnast.

The defense team, which includes attorney Jack Donahue, is not suggesting the girls are blatantly lying. Rather, they contend the girls have false memories of what really happened to them because of suggestive or leading interviewing by police investigators and parents.

DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke has blocked the jury from hearing a defense expert regarding false memories in mass molestation cases. The judge argues the jury, as fact finders, should base its decision on the reliability of the girls. If he allowed the expert to testify, the prosecution would have called its own experts.

Laraia and Donahue declined to lay out their defense at the start of the trial. They'll do so after the prosecution wraps up its side of the case.

But defense attorneys have argued in the two years since the allegations arose that the case created a mob mentality among litigious parents. They'll also try to show the jury that gymnastics is more hands-on than most sports.

That said, the Naperville teen said none of her other coaches ever touched her beneath her bra or other clothing.

From the onset, both sides promised a fierce legal battle. At times, though, the drama spilled out of the courtroom. In the past, the judge repeatedly warned both sides to behave themselves or face contempt-of-court charges.

Cardamone had been free on bond after his arrest, but the judge ordered he remain locked up without bond last summer when the defendant was accused of making a false 911 call after a run-in with one of the child's mothers outside court.

Prosecutors charged Cardamone with disorderly conduct and harassment of a witness after accusing him of lying to police in reporting the woman was driving drunk. Cardamone denies those allegations.

The jury most likely will be sequestered if it deliberates overnight. For security purposes, when the verdict is read, sheriff's deputies might pull out a portable wall with Plexiglas windows to separate the crowd from the defendant, jury and attorneys.

The wall has been used only once before, during the 1995 acquittal of Rolando Cruz for the unsolved 1983 murder of Naperville schoolgirl Jeanine Nicarico.

Despite the drama, DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett said the case will be tried in the courtroom and not in the media or public opinion.

"The first and foremost interest to us is that the defendant receive a fair trial and that the privacy and dignity of the victims and their families be respected," Birkett said. "Some people will talk about this case, but the facts will speak for themselves in the courtroom."

The trial continues today in Wheaton.


Lawyer picks at gymnasts' abuse stories
Two more Naperville girls testify against coach

A 13-year-old Naperville girl told a jury Friday she initially lied when denying her gymnastics coach ever fondled her.

The teen even signed a sworn statement May 1, 2003, in which she agreed Michael P. Cardamone isn't a danger to the public.

In sometimes tearful testimony, the girl said she didn't reveal the three years of abuse she suffered beginning at age 7 until last April - long after several of the coach's other students had come forward.

"I didn't want to get in the middle of everything," she said. "I didn't want everyone to hate me in the gym."

Her testimony began the second day of Cardamone's trial on molesting girl gymnasts. The coach is accused of inappropriately touching 14 students during a three-year period at the American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora.

He faces a mandatory life sentence if the jury convicts him of at least two of the predatory criminal sexual assaults. Cardamone, 27, of Aurora, has pleaded innocent.

So far, the jury has heard from three of the 14 girls. Each teen testified they admired and trusted Cardamone. The girls said they kept the allegations a secret for a long time because they were frightened or didn't realize the criminal nature of what they said their coach had done.

Cardamone's attorneys pounced on their every inconsistency. Defense attorney Joseph Laraia pointed out at times their testimonies conflicted with earlier police interviews.

For example, a 16-year-old Naperville girl who testified Friday gave varying accounts of how many times she was abused. At one point, she said Cardamone touched her inappropriately some 337 times in two years during an abdominal exercise in the usually crowded gymnasium.

The teen said the abuse stopped after she asked Cardamone if she could exercise without him to gain more strength. The girl said she really made the request, "to get him away from me."

Cardamone had worked at his mother's gymnastics facility at 881 Shoreline Drive for nine years before the allegations arose. His wife, Elizabeth, who will deliver their second child next month, also coached there.

Police began investigating him in November 2002 after a 7-year- old girl told her mother Cardamone had inappropriately touched her inside an empty preschool room at the gymnastics institute.

Initially, his gymnasts were told their coach was out sick. One week later, at a Nov. 23, 2002 sleepover, many of the girls learned for the first time that Cardamone had been accused of the criminal acts.

The 16-year-old gymnast told the jury that some of the girls at the party began revealing to each other that they also had been fondled. She and her best friend, who testified one day earlier in the trial, left the party and told their mothers of the allegations that night.

The 13-year-old Naperville girl, though, waited until last April. Besides being scared, she said her mother's faith in the coach's innocence made it even more difficult to tell her story. After she finally revealed the allegation, the girl's parents took her to the police.

The defendant's lawyers have suggested the teens either misinterpreted the coach's training techniques or that they have false memories of what really happened due to suggestive questioning by their parents and investigators.

The trial is expected to last several more weeks and include up to 150 witnesses. It's unknown if the defendant will testify, though many suspect he must take the stand in an attempt to counter the girls' emotional testimonies.

The trial resumes again Tuesday.


Gymnastics coach didn't molest girls, wife testifies

During the 3-1/2 years she coached alongside her husband, Elizabeth Cardamone never saw him molest any of the young girls he taught gymnastics, she testified Friday.

Taking the witness stand in Michael Cardamone's defense, Elizabeth Cardamone insisted that her 27-year-old husband is a good coach who only touched his young students to correct their form or body posture.

"Have you ever seen your husband touch any girl inappropriately?" defense attorney John Donahue asked her.

"Absolutely not," she answered firmly.

Michael Cardamone is charged with molesting 14 of his female students at the American Institute of Gymnastics, a private gym his family operates in Aurora.

Rumors, gossip cited

DuPage County prosecutors contend that between 2000 and late 2002, Cardamone fondled and improperly touched the girls, who ranged in age from 4 to 14 years old.

Defense attorneys dispute those claims, contending the girls concocted the accounts of abuse based on rumors and gossip they heard around the bustling gym.

Elizabeth Cardamone, 28, described how she also coached at the school beginning in 1999 and worked closely with her husband, whom she married in 2000. The couple have two young children, including a boy born two weeks ago.

She confirmed that several situations described by prosecutors and Cardamone's alleged victims happened but disputed their allegations that her husband abused any of his students during those times.

She acknowledged seeing her husband leave the gym area briefly in November 2002 with the 7-year-old girl whose initial abuse allegations led to Cardamone's arrest. The girl testified earlier in the trial that she was abused by Michael Cardamone when he took her off the gym floor to a nearby preschool room.

But Elizabeth Cardamone said the two were gone for "less than two minutes" and were followed by another young gymnast.

History of biting?

Elizabeth Cardamone also recalled seeing her husband rubbing a pain relief gel on a girl's upper thigh in mid-2002 but said she never saw him touch the girl inappropriately. That youngster testified earlier in the trial that Cardamone fondled her while applying the gel after she strained her hamstring while working out.

Elizabeth Cardamone also described how another girl who testified she bit Michael Cardamone when he fondled her had a history of biting others at the gym.

She herself was bitten twice by the girl while the youngster was "goofing off" between exercises at the gym, Elizabeth Cardamone said. Defense attorneys produced a picture of Elizabeth Cardamone that showed a bruise on her upper arm that she said resulted from one bite.

Michael Cardamone could face a life sentence if convicted.


Coach denies abusing students
Defendant testifies of dissension in class

Former Aurora gymnastics instructor Michael Cardamone took the stand in his sexual abuse trial for the first time Tuesday, testifying that he never spent time alone with a 7-year-old girl at his mother's gymnasium, let alone inappropriately touched her.

Cardamone, 28, is on trial on charges he sexually abused 14 girls, who are now between the ages of 8 and 16, during stretches and in private rooms while a coach at the American Institute of Gymnastics. Defense attorneys questioned Cardamone about allegations made by the girl, now 9, who was the first to go to police in 2002.

The trial is in its sixth week.

Cardamone testified for more than two hours in a packed courtroom that included some of his family members, speaking confidently and in long narratives.

He described how he first started working at the gymnasium when he was in high school, helping teach gymnastics to special-needs children. In 1996, after three semesters of college, he started coaching full time at the gymnasium.

"Gymnastics just came very easy," Cardamone said. "I could see the skill and break it down ... I could explain things at their level."

He and his wife, Elizabeth, met in 1999 at a state gymnastics meet in Bloomington, Ill., and married in August 2000, he said.

Eventually, he became the main coach for the girls with the highest levels of skill. In the spring of 2002, that team placed first at a state meet, he said. But Cardamone said some on the team, including four girls who have filed complaints against him, became unhappy in the summer of 2002 after he split up the group, advancing some to a higher level and leaving others behind.

Some of the girls left behind became difficult to coach, he said.

"I struggled with them," he said. "I spent half my time yelling and disciplining them rather than teaching them. It was not fun for me."

Cardamone tried to testify that the parents of three sisters who alleged he abused the girls pulled their daughters out of the gymnasium because there was a dispute about their bill, but the state objected to his testimony and the record was stricken.

Cardamone testified that another girl who made allegations against him left the gymnasium because he insisted that she attain a specific gymnastics skill to remain at her competition level. She refused and didn't return, he said.

His attorney, Joseph Laraia, asked Cardamone repeatedly whether he had ever inappropriately touched the 7-year-old girl, to which he firmly replied "no" and "never."

The girl testified last month that Cardamone started touching her inappropriately in 1999, when she was 4. She testified that in November 2002 Cardamone abused her in a playroom adjacent to the gymnasium when she asked for a Band-Aid after injuring herself.

Cardamone said he did take the girl into the preschool kitchen to get a bandage and placed it on her hip, but he did so in front of another gymnast nearby.

He said he never took the girl into a playroom alone, and never abused her during stretches, in the gymnasium's pit or during a sleepover at the gymnasium, as she has alleged.

Cardamone will return to the stand Wednesday, when he will likely be questioned by his attorneys about the other girls' allegations, as well as face questions from prosecutors.


Girl says she lied when she denied coach molested her

A 13-year-old Naperville girl testified she lied in 2003 when she denied her gymnastics coach had molested her, even though back then, she had signed an affidavit.

During sometimes tearful testimony, the teen told a DuPage County jury Friday that Michael Cardamone had repeatedly fondled her -- beginning when she was 7 years old -- while she took lessons at the American Institute of Gymnastics.

She told jurors she didn't disclose the alleged abuse in her initial statement to investigators because she didn't want to anger Cardamone's supporters at the Aurora gym, including her mother.

Naperville teens testify

"I didn't want everyone to hate me at the gym," said the teen, who testified that Cardamone touched her under her leotard dozens of times while she did stretching exercises at the gym, from about 1999 to 2002.

A 16-year-old Naperville girl testified Friday that Cardamone, 27, had fondled her during lessons at the gym run by his family.

Cardamone is charged with sexually abusing 14 girls he coached. The charges carry a possible life sentence if he is convicted.

Defense attorneys Joseph Laraia and John Donahue on Friday focused on discrepancies in the girls' accounts of the alleged abuse. They also raised questions about whether the second teen had disliked Cardamone and his wife, Liz.

That teen, who testified that Cardamone fondled her during lessons between 2000 and 2002, said she quit attending classes shortly before the coach was charged because she was unhappy and felt pressured by her coaches.

Cardamone has denied abusing the girls. Defense attorneys have suggested that the girls' accounts are unreliable and were made after they learned that one gymnast claimed Cardamone abused her.


Gymnastics coach's trial set to begin:
Man is accused of molesting girls

Aurora gymnastics coach Michael Cardamone, charged with molesting 14 young girls, is expected to go on trial Thursday in what is shaping up to become one of the most contentious court battles in DuPage County history.

Prosecutors and the defense already have squared off over the case's underlying legal complexities--particularly the reliability of testimony by young witnesses. Outside the courtroom, the palpable hostility between Cardamone's family and the parents of his alleged victims has at times erupted into confrontations.

And the intense emotions common in cases involving sexual abuse of young children also promise to heighten the trial's drama.

The trial, for which jury selection began last week, is expected to last 6 to 10 weeks. Cardamone, 27, has been a coach his entire adult life at the American Gymnastics Institute, a private facility operated by his family in Aurora, where children begin gymnastics training as early as preschool.

In 2002 a young girl told her parents Cardamone had touched her inappropriately. The parents discussed this with other parents, eventually resulting in an initial group of seven young girls, ages 7 to 13, saying they were touched inappropriately.

Cardamone was charged with numerous sexual abuse charges, all of which he vehemently denied.

The number of alleged victims grew since his initial arrest in December 2002 to 10 girls, then 13 and now 14. His denials have grown more vociferous.

Prosecutors Alex McGimpsey and Michael Pawl will claim that in stretching exercises, warm-ups and the practice of gymnastic routines, Cardamone molested the girls. The incidents allegedly took place in several locations in the gymnastics school.

Defense attorneys Joseph Laraia and John Donahue will deny those allegations on two fronts: They will claim that the acts never occurred, first of all, but that if they did occur, they were misinterpreted parts of a gymnastic instructor's standard techniques.

The testimony of each of the 14 girls is expected to be the main evidence against Cardamone. Each of them will be called to testify before the jury, behind doors closed to the public but not the press.

The defense has contended in numerous pretrial hearings that the girls' memories and the investigators' questioning techniques are flawed.

They have offered the theory that one of the girls conjured up an incident of sexual molestation and told her fellow young gymnasts about it at a slumber party.

After the party, the other girls complained they had experienced the same type of abuse, the defense said.

Several defense pretrial witnesses have likened the Cardamone case to the controversial McMartin case in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

In the McMartin case, which drew national media attention, a mother and her son who operated a preschool day-care center were accused of horrific sexual exploitation of numerous children under their watch.

Both Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son, Raymond Buckey, were acquitted on most of the charges in January 1990. Raymond was retried on 13 unresolved charges, and the jury deadlocked in July 1990.

Laraia and Donahue have asked several times to allow trial testimony from national experts on the false memories of children.

Judge Michael Burke rejected such testimony, ruling that the credibility of all of the child witnesses is for the jury to decide.

"When we hear such an allegation from a child, our first instinct is to question its reliability," said DuPage County State's Atty. Joseph Birkett. "I have heard the allegations that these girls were coached, but there is nothing to gain from that. I don't believe they are making anything up."

The defense's witness list origi| included more than 250 names, including Olympic gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner and Olympic coach Bela Karolyi, in an effort to show that the techniques Cardamone was using were normal acceptable methods of gymnastic instruction.

Those three people and others have since been removed from the witness list, but numerous other local coaches will testify similarly.

Though the trial is expected to be tense and emotional, a subplot to the trial exists between Cardamone's family and the parents of the alleged victims.

There are representatives of both groups, often as many as a dozen, at each court hearing.

In the first several court sessions Burke issued numerous warnings about decorum and threatened contempt of court charges.

Although each DuPage courtroom typically has a sheriff's deputy present, four or five attend every Cardamone hearing.

There have been complaints about confrontations in the courthouse and parking lot.

The girls' parents are angry and believe that their trust in the gymnastic school was betrayed.

Linda Lynch, Cardamone's mother, has openly criticized Birkett and Burke.

"It's a disgrace what they are doing to Michael," she said. "This case is totally parent driven and prosecutor driven."

If Cardamone is convicted, he faces a sentence up to life in prison.


Coach accused of molesting 14 girls goes on trial

A suburban coach accused of fondling 14 young female gymnasts during practice goes on trial today in DuPage County on sexual molestation charges that could send him to prison for life.

Michael Cardamone's lawyers plan to argue that the 27-year-old coach never touched the girls improperly while instructing them in exercises at the American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora.

Defense attorneys also are expected to argue that the girls -- 7 to 14 years old -- are unreliable witnesses who are suffering from false memories of abuse based on rumors they heard about Cardamone and suggestive interviewing by investigators.

During a hearing last week, a psychologist and memory expert called by defense attorneys John Donahue and Joseph Laraia described how children can inadvertently manufacture false accounts of abuse based on information they may have picked up from family, friends or even police investigators.

No direct witnesses

"Children of this age can en masse provide false information without knowing it's false," Donahue said.

Judge Michael Burke, though, barred testimony from psychologist Charles Brainerd and another expert defense attorneys wanted to call to testify about false memories.

Cardamone's lawyers are still likely to try to raise the issue through their questioning of the girls and of the investigators who interviewed them. There are no direct witnesses to the alleged abuse besides the girls themselves.

All 14 girls are expected to testify in a trial that could last six to eight weeks.

"Our strategy is to present every witness to show these accusations are unfounded," Donahue said.

DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett said Burke made the right decision in barring memory experts from testifying.

"The question of whether a person's account is credible or not credible has always been the province of the jury," Birkett said.

Birkett also defended the investigative work done in the case, and said jurors likely will see videotaped statements given by the girls when they were interviewed by investigators.

Cardamone, who is in custody, faces a life sentence if convicted of predatory criminal sexual assault of two of the girls.

Jury selection begins today.


Coach's expert witness blocked
Judge bars critic of girls' testimony

An expert witness, who says 14 young girls set to testify against an Aurora gymnastics coach will be repeating false memories of sexual abuse, will not take the stand, a DuPage judge ruled Thursday.

Charles Brainerd, a psychologist on the faculty of the University of Texas at Arlington, testified for four hours Thursday before Judge Michael Burke in a pretrial hearing for Michael Cardamone, an Aurora gymnastics coach charged with molesting 14 of his students, ages 7 to 14.

Brainerd, a national expert on the memories of children, false memories, suggestibility and techniques for interviewing children involved in sexual allegations, said he reviewed about four hours' worth of videotape of DuPage County investigators interviewing the 14 girls.

He criticized the interview techniques of the investigators and called the results that led to the criminal charges unreliable.

"These statements are the only evidence against Mr. Cardamone," Brainerd said. "There is no other tangible evidence. Children basically don't remember things at that young age the way they claim to."

Jury selection begins Friday, but the trial is not expected to start until later this month.

Joseph Laraia and John Donahue, Cardamone's attorneys, have sought for months to have Brainerd's and similar expert testimony included in the trial.

The "testimony is important becomes it can show how children of this age can mass-produce false information without knowing it is false information," Donahue said.

Laraia said he doesn't say the girls are lying but that parents, friends and police may have influenced their memories of events.

Burke, however, has continued to rebuff those efforts.

"I am more convinced after hearing his testimony today that the ability to judge the reliability of these young witnesses is within the purview of the average juror," Burke said.

He said, "jurors are the fact finders" and added that he has reviewed case law and "the state Supreme Court says it is a juror's job to do just that."

In denying similar requests in the past, Burke has said he didn't want the trial to become a battle of prosecution and defense experts.


Expert says girls' memories false in case against coach

It can start with a single false rumor, many times propagated by a parent or police officer, and grow innocently enough into mass allegations.

That's the theory a defense expert put forth Thursday in the highly anticipated criminal case of an Aurora gymnastics coach accused of fondling several young students.

Charles Brainerd, a noted University of Texas at Arlington psychologist, told a judge it's his opinion the case is a classic example of how mass false memory develops in young children when they are interviewed in a "suggestive" - or non-straight forward - manner.

Michael Cardamone, 27, of Aurora is charged with inappropriately touching 14 female students during stretching exercises at American Institute of Gymnastics, which his mother owns. Prosecutors also plan to call two more girls to testify about similar uncharged allegations.

Cardamone, who does not have a criminal history, denies the conduct. He faces a possible life sentence if convicted of the predatory sexual assault of at least two girls.

Nearly 150 potential jurors will fill out questionnaires this morning in the first step of impaneling a group for the upcoming trial. Lawyers expect jury selection, which begins Monday, to take one week. The trial may stretch across seven more weeks and include 150 witnesses, including the girls.

DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke has denied the defense's request to call Brainerd as one of its expert witnesses at trial regarding the theory of how mass false memory develops.

The judge argues the jury should base whether it believes the girls are credible based on their actual testimony rather than that offered by experts.

Although Brainerd will not be a witness at the trial, the defense called him to testify during Thursday's pre-trial hearing in an attempt to change the judge's mind, or at least get the doctor's testimony on the record for appeal purposes.

The topic gained national attention in 1995 when New Jersey preschool teacher Kelly Michaels was accused of multiple counts of child abuse by her students based on police interrogations and psychotherapy.

Years later, her convictions were reversed after a higher court ruled the evidence was tainted. The children's testimonies were inconsistent when they were questioned in court and outside the courtroom.

Prosecutors are confident that will not happen in Cardamone's case. Each of the girls will testify. The jury also will view portions of their videotaped police interviews.

Brainerd said he has testified as an expert in up to 40 criminal and civil cases. The National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation are among those groups that have supported his research.

He argues authorities did not conduct proper forensic interviews of the children and pointed out several examples in their answers that, in his opinion, make their statements unreliable. If he had been allowed to testify, prosecutors were expected to counter with their own experts to rebut Brainerd's theory.


Fierce battle promised as molestation trial nears

Amid the fights, nasty stares and name-calling, DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke warned his patience had worn thin.

"I will not tolerate this," he said, similar to a schoolteacher scolding children on a playground. "If you cannot behave in a more civilized manner, I will take action."

The judge's admonishment before a crowded courtroom two years ago exemplifies the volatile nature of a legal battle climaxing with this month's long-awaited trial.

Jury selection begins Tuesday in the case of a coach accused of fondling 14 young girls who were his students at the American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora.

In the largest mass molestation case in recent suburban history, Michael P. Cardamone faces a mandatory life prison sentence if he is convicted of at least two predatory criminal sexual assaults.

Prosecutors never offered a plea deal, but defense attorneys said the 27-year-old Aurora man wouldn't have accepted any admission of guilt.

"He and his family are convinced the truth will come out after weeks of testimony," defense attorney Jack Donahue said. "We're going to try to leave no stone unturned."

From the onset, both sides promised a fierce courtroom battle. Lawyers jousted in mountainous pretrial motions since the coach's arrest on Dec. 3, 2002.

But, at times, more action took place in the courtroom gallery. A half-dozen sheriff's deputies typically kept watch to keep the icy stares among coach's supporters and girls' families from escalating, as they did on more than one occasion.

"I hope you're satisfied," the defendant's mother, Linda Lynch, who owns the private training facility, once screamed at the parents.

The drama often spilled out of the courtroom.

The defendant's pregnant wife, Elizabeth Cardamone, who is expected to deliver the couple's second child next month, once fell to the floor screaming in hysterics after sheriff's deputies refused to let her back into the courtroom to see her husband.

"They're all liars," she screamed.

Burke repeatedly has warned both sides to behave themselves -- or face contempt-of-court charges.

Last summer, prosecutors accused Cardamone of making a false 911 call after a run-in with one of the child's mothers outside court. He reported a drunken driver in the 911 call and provided the mother's license plate number, officials said.

The woman was not drunk, and Cardamone was charged with disorderly conduct and harassment of a witness. The judge denied him bond after the incident. Usually stoic, Cardamone buried his shackled hands in his face and wept.

Selection of a jury from a pool of 150 people will begin Tuesday. The process should take about one week. Afterward, lawyers anticipate the trial will stretch over seven weeks and include up to 150 witnesses.

It's unclear if Cardamone will testify, though many suspect he will take the stand.

For security purposes, when the verdict is read, sheriff's deputies might pull out a portable wall with Plexiglas windows to separate the crowd from the defendant, attorneys and the jury. The wall has been used only once before -- during the 1995 acquittal of Rolando Cruz for the unsolved 1983 murder of Naperville schoolgirl Jeanine Nicarico.

The defense team, Donahue and Joseph Laraia, among the best lawyers in DuPage County, characterize the allegations as unsubstantiated. They argue the case has created a mob mentality among litigious parents.

The defense will call as witnesses dozens of former students, coaches and parents who support Cardamone. They'll also touch upon how coaching gymnastics is more hands-on than most sports.

The judge has blocked jurors from hearing a defense expert who argues the girls have false memories of what really happened due to suggestive or leading interview techniques by authorities.

Burke contends jurors, as fact finders, should judge the reliability of the girls through their testimony and not that of experts. The prosecution would have offered its own experts to counter the defense had the judge allowed the testimony.

The defendant's mother, Linda Lynch, insists her son is innocent. Cardamone does not have a criminal history.

"The truth will come out," she said. "It's (the allegations) peer pressure. It's parent- driven. It's state-driven."

Cardamone is charged with inappropriately touching the 14 girls, who ranged in age from 7 to 14 at the time, over a three-year period during stretching exercises and other points in their lessons.

In addition, two other girls will testify about alleged inappropriate contact.

Cardamone had worked at his mother's gymnastics institute at 881 Shoreline Drive in Aurora for nine years until the allegations arose.

The tempest broke in mid-November 2001 after one of the girls complained to her parents, who contacted state child welfare officials. Meanwhile, an institute employee also filed a complaint about Cardamone.

Prosecutors Alex McGimpsey and Michael Pawl said parents had complained about Cardamone's inappropriate behavior even before his arrest.

In fact, the prosecution told the judge about a specific occasion when Cardamone fell through a ceiling above a locker room where the girls change their clothing. Cardamone said he was doing repair work.

DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett has said such disbelief in these type of cases isn't uncommon. He is confident the allegations will be proven in court.

"When an otherwise respected and trusted adult in our society is accused of perverse behavior, many adults blame the child or express disbelief," Birkett said after the case broke. "Our natural inclination is not to believe it -- it could not happen to our children."

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