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Michael Cardamone

Michael Cardamone

Michael Cardamone and his wife, Liz

'I have been buried in an avalanche of lies'
Gymnastics coach fights prison time

Saying he finds comfort in the belief that God knows what happened, convicted child molester Michael P. Cardamone Wednesday professed his innocence while asking a judge to spare him prison time.

"My behavior was always responsible and appropriate," the former gymnastics coach said. "I have never crossed any boundary."

Cardamone was convicted in March of fondling seven of the 14 girls under his tutelage at the American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora, a training facility owned by his mother.

A jury acquitted the 28-year-old man of molesting the other girls and of more serious predatory criminal sexual assault charges.

Now DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke must decide whether to sentence Cardamone to probation or up to 63 years in prison. The decision is expected Monday.

On Wednesday, prosecutors said they want a punishment of at least 35 years in prison - five years for each victim.

"These young girls were supposed to be protected," Prosecutor Alex McGimpsey said during his closing argument. "And he (Cardamone) betrayed that trust - over and over again."

But defense attorney Joseph Laraia said prison time is "totally inappropriate to Michael and this case." With no criminal record, he said, Cardamone poses no danger to the public.

"He is a good person - well-qualified and appropriate to give probation to," Laraia said.

But the most emotional comments came from Cardamone himself.

Wearing his jail-issued orange jumpsuit, Cardamone stood before the judge and said he can't express remorse for crimes he didn't commit.

"I have been buried in an avalanche of lies," he said. "I am going to fight this conviction to my death."

Cardamone is appealing the conviction to a higher court. His family hired Naperville attorney Kathleen Zellner, who represented Kevin Fox, the Wilmington father accused of his 3-year-old daughter's murder before prosecutors dropped charges when forensic tests cleared him as the rapist.

During his trial, Cardamone's accusers, now ages 8 to 16, testified he touched them beneath their leotards, usually during stretching exercises within the crowded gym.

Defense attorneys countered by calling 80 gymnasts, parents, teachers and coaches who said they never saw Cardamone make any inappropriate move.

On Wednesday, Cardamone said the gym is like a stage. "No one could have committed these acts without being seen," he said.

Cardamone said his trial taught him that when someone is accused of molesting a child, guilt is presumed. He claimed jurors never made eye contact with him during the proceedings.

"My trial was over before it began," he said.

Cardamone said he has since "lost valuable time" with his wife and two young sons. If given probation, he said, he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it.

But prosecutors say Cardamone is a "systematic and serial child abuser" who should be given a lengthy prison term.

"Based on this defendant's character and what he did to those little girls no less than 35 years," McGimpsey said.

While Cardamone didn't have a criminal record before the March 11 guilty verdict, prosecutors argue some of his past conduct has been "suspicious" and "scary."

At 17, Cardamone was ticketed for using oscillating blue lights similar to a police squad while he and his buddies pulled over a carload of teenage girls in Naperville in July 1994. They never approached the girls.

Four months later, as a Waubonsie Valley High School senior, Cardamone was expelled for the remainder of the semester after bringing a metal pellet gun to school that another student mistook for a real weapon.

"What does it say about his character?" McGimpsey said. "Not much. He's dishonest and manipulative."

But after the hearing, Cardamone's wife, Liz, accused prosecutors of trying to "lie and manipulate stories."

"I love my husband, and I am so proud of the courage he has shown this entire ordeal," she said in a handwritten statement. "We will continue to fight this injustice together so he can come home to our family where he belongs."


Coach rails at judge, seeks light sentence

Even as Michael Cardamone asked DuPage County Judge Michael Burke for leniency and no prison time Wednesday, the former Aurora gymnastics coach harshly criticized the seven young girls he's convicted of molesting.

"These kids have been brainwashed by the state," said Cardamone, 28, as he spoke on the sixth day of his sentencing hearing.

"These kids are highly suggestible and manipulative," he said. "They cry while giving testimony, but laugh and carry on in the hallway. This is a joke."

The girls were sitting in the courtroom as the statement was made.

A jury convicted Cardamone in March of nine counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of seven pupils under the age of 13 until 2002 at his family-operated Aurora gymnasium. He faces a sentence of either probation or 3 to 63 years in prison.

The charges allege he touched the girls inappropriately on or under their leotards during practices. The same jury acquitted him of sexually abusing seven other girls.

DuPage prosecutors asked for 35 years, 5 for each of the seven victims, while defense attorneys asked for probation.

Cardamone also blamed Burke, who will announce the sentence Monday, for his conviction.

The defendant chastised Burke for not allowing the jury to visit the gym.

"They would have seen that the crimes I am convicted of could not have been committed in a place full of people," Cardamone said.

"I was always presumed guilty, and my trial was over before it started," said Cardamone, who has been in the DuPage County Jail since August 2004. "I can't express remorse because I have been buried in an avalanche of lies. The prosecutor's case has been based on lies.

"The kids are pawns in the system that has been forced to give in to peer and political pressure," he continued. "The truth can be subverted, but it will emerge. Judge, you are depriving an innocent man of his freedom."

Assistant State's Atty. Alex McGimpsey, in asking for the 35-year sentence, called Cardamone, "a systemic serial child abuser. These seven young girls are to be called courageous and have suffered humiliation that will have a lasting impact on their lives. He betrayed their trust over and over."

Defense attorney Joseph Laraia called the convictions "fantasy situations that never happened."

Laraia said Cardamone still strongly claims his innocence, but told Burke, "if you believe the jury verdict was correct, they were but a momentary touching during a gymnastics maneuver that lasted for less that a few seconds. None of these touches were for sexual gratification."


Appeal begins in abuse case
Ex-coach denied new trial, but fight not over

A former Aurora gymnastics coach lost an early round Wednesday in a legal fight to clear his name of sexual abuse charges, but his family vowed to mount a fierce appeal.

A judge denied Michael Cardamone's request for a new trial after discounting 30 legal issues the defense raised in its attempt to have the jury's March 11 verdicts dismissed.

The jury convicted Cardamone after 22 hours of deliberations of inappropriately touching seven of 14 girls while they were under his tutelage at his family-owned American Institute of Gymnastics.

Jurors acquitted the 28-year-old man of molesting the other seven girls and of predatory criminal sexual assault charges - two of which call for a mandatory life prison sentence.

Cardamone faces probation or up to more than 60 years in prison for aggravated criminal sexual abuse. DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke, who presided over the arduous trial, denied the defense's motion Wednesday and set a Sept. 7 date for sentencing.

Cardamone is appealing the conviction to a higher court. His family hired Naperville attorney Kathleen Zellner, who represented Kevin Fox, the Wilmington father accused of his 3-year-old daughter's murder before prosecutors dropped charges when forensic tests cleared him as the rapist.

Similar to Fox's family, Cardamone's also supports him.

"I worked beside my husband every day with these girls," said his wife, Liz, also a former coach. "That is how I know he never did anything inappropriate. I will stand beside him while we continue to fight to prove his innocence."

The defense argued the jury reached a "compromise verdict" without holding prosecutors to their high burden of proving Cardamone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The girls said Cardamone touched them beneath their leotards mostly during stretching exercises within the crowded gym. The defense fought the allegations while calling 86 gymnasts, parents, teachers and coaches who said they never saw Cardamone make an inappropriate move.

To corroborate the accusers, the prosecution called upon a 15th girl who wasn't connected to the gym who also said Cardamone fondled her in July 1999 during a tumbling class at an Aurora hospital.

As part of his motion for a new trial, defense attorney Joseph Laraia said the family discovered new evidence after the trial ended that proves Cardamone couldn't have abused the girl. The evidence, hospital payroll records, show Cardamone did not work there in July 1999, but prosecutors pointed out they weren't certain of the time frame.

Laraia also argued Cardamone was denied a fair trial because the jury was not allowed to tour the gym or to consider a lesser battery charge, in reaching a verdict.

The tempest erupted in November 2002 after a 7-year-old Aurora girl reported that Cardamone, who wasn't her coach, often molested her. The others followed. Unlike them, the first gymnast said he often took her out of her group and into an empty preschool room.

Prosecutors painted Cardamone as a serial child molester who methodically manipulated his gymnasts so that the girls endured repeated abuse rather than betray him. But the defense said it all began with the first girl's wild imagination, spread through gossip to include other girls, and developed into false memories.


Coach's guility verdict stands
DuPage judge rejects plea for new trial in sex-abuse case

Despite defense claims that the trial of an Aurora gymnastics coach contained 30 critical legal errors, a DuPage judge Wednesday upheld his conviction for sexually abusing seven students.

"Prosecutors presented competent evidence, and a reasonable jury could return a finding of guilty," said Judge Michael Burke, who set a Sept. 7 sentencing date for Michael Cardamone.

Cardamone, 28, was convicted in March, but acquitted on charges involving seven other girls. He was a coach at the American Institute of Gymnastics, owned by his family.

After a two-month trial, the jury deliberated for three days before convicting Cardamone, who faces up to 63 years in prison.

The incidents consisted of inappropriate touching of the girls, ages 8 to 16, under their leotards between 1999 and 2002.

Defense attorneys Joseph Laraia and John Donahue asked Burke on Wednesday to void the jury's guilty verdicts and hold a new trial, citing 30 complaints about the conduct of the trial.

Among the defense complaints were:

- that the testimony of the victims was outweighed by the testimony of 86 witnesses for the defense;

- that the jury verdict was a improper compromise;

- that the jurors weren't allowed to visit the Aurora gym.

"Some of the testimony of the girls was out of the realm of logic and completely refuted," Laraia said.

Laraia also said that the defense has new evidence that an incident at a Kane County recreation center where Cardamone allegedly also inappropriately touched a young girl, which was discussed during the trial, couldn't have occurred, according to recently obtained work records.

Assistant State's Atty. Alex McGimpsey said that "the defense put forth their ideas at trial, and the jury rejected them. He received a fair trial."

Burke rejected all of the defense's arguments.

"All of these issues have been preserved for appeal, but the jury's verdict wasn't legally or logically inconsistent," Burke said. "There isn't a smoking gun that would change the trial's course."

Cardamone was arrested in November 2002, and has been in the DuPage County Jail since August.


12 Ignorant People

Henry Fonda wasn't on this jury! There was no Juror number 8. The poster for 1954's 12 Angry Men said "Life is in their hands/Death is on their minds." In 2005, we could make a poster "Freedom is in their hands/Prison is on their minds."

It is time to think of Lillian Hellman who wrote The Children's Hour in 1934. Or Arthur Miller's The crucible (summarized here)

The jury believed one half of the girl complainants. It seems they were adjudicating acting performances rather than truth.

I "believed" Jody Foster in Taxi Driver and Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. They gave brilliant, believable performances -- and they were portraying fictional characters.

Of the seven witnesses against Michael Cardamone who the jury found to be credible, some were perhaps "natural" actors and others were coached. Who coached them?

We could look to The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services. "We are extremely proud of the courage and honesty the girls have demonstrated throughout this traumatic time," said Casey Woodham. a state child welfare investigator, while reading a statement from the girls' parents. "It is our hope that the bravery these girls have displayed will give other victims of child abuse the courage to come forward."

Trauma? Bravery? Courage? These girls were not traumatized, brave or courageous. They were stars in their own movie. And, if the shallowness and meanness of the jury pool at large plays out as it seems to be doing, they will be the role models and mentors for a full blown witch hunt which has been brewing for a couple decades and from which none of us will be safe. -- Sheila Steele, March 12, 2005


Jury: Coach molested seven girls

The 14 girls took their turns before the jury, telling its members their beloved former gymnastics coach molested them.

They did not have forensics, solid witnesses or his confession to support their words. In fact, many coaches, gymnasts and parents called them liars.

The jury, however, found overwhelming truth in some of their stories in a split verdict reached Friday after 22 hours of debate over three days.

At first, a stoic Michael P. Cardamone did not react when convicted of fondling seven of the 14 girls under his tutelage at his family-owned American Institute of Gymnastics in Aurora.

The jury acquitted the 28-year-old man of molesting the other girls and of predatory criminal sexual assault allegations -- which are more serious, two of which calling for a mandatory life prison sentence.

Seconds later, though, tears began to trickle down Cardamone's face as a clerk polled each of his jurors. He turned to look at his wife, Elizabeth, who with his mother, Linda Lynch, shared his tears while seated feet away. His only sibling, Alysha, who showed staunch support for her young brother, fainted as the clerk read the verdicts. Paramedics rushed her to a nearby hospital.

"It's OK," Cardamone mouthed in their direction. Sheriff's deputies shackled his hands minutes later and escorted him alone back to his jail cell.

He faces probation or up to 63 years in prison for multiple counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The wide range is possible if the judge decides to sentence the Aurora man to consecutive terms. He did not have a criminal record.

His defense team, Jack Donahue and Joseph Laraia, vowed a fierce appeal. They remain resolute in their belief that Cardamone is innocent. Days earlier, Laraia called any guilty verdict a travesty of justice.

"Michael is a remarkable young man," he said. "He has a great deal of courage. We believe in our case and in his innocence."

The girls, now ages 8 to 16, said Cardamone touched them beneath their leotards during stretching exercises within the crowded gym. They could not recall absolutes, and their stories evolved, but their resilience shined in the courtroom despite meticulous cross examination.

"We are extremely proud of the courage and honesty the girls have demonstrated throughout this traumatic time," said Casey Woodham, a state child welfare investigator, while reading a statement from the girls' parents. "It is our hope that the bravery these girls have displayed will give other victims of child abuse the courage to come forward."

Sheriff's deputies encircled the tired jury as it left the courthouse in the midst of a media frenzy after the 5 p.m. verdict. Jurors declined comment while leaving, as well as when some were contacted hours later. The stress of their work, however, showed in each haggard expression.

The panel included a high school coach, postal supervisor, nurse, stay-at-home mom, private business owner, and American Airlines employee who served as foreman.

One juror persevered in obvious discomfort earlier in the trial after a car accident. Another juror, the nurse, was rushed by ambulance to a hospital after complaining of dizziness. She returned two hours later.

Lawyers chose them out of a pool of 124 potential jurors for the high-profile case. They served since Jan. 7, enduring an emotion-filled trial with about 100 witnesses who testified for 140 hours in 26 days.

They had been sequestered away from their homes and families since Wednesday, when deliberations began. Some of their employers paid them. Others instead made just $15 a day, the standard pay for jury duty.

DuPage Circuit Judge Michael Burke presided over the arduous trial. His words of thanks brought tears to some of their eyes.

"You are not required to justify your verdicts to anyone at any time," the judge said. "You have served above and beyond the call.

"It's been a long road, a difficult road. If it wasn't for people like you, we wouldn't be able to do this important work."

The tempest erupted after a 7-year-old Aurora girl reported that Cardamone, who wasn't her coach, often fondled her. The others followed. Unlike them, however, the pint-size gymnast said he often took her out of her group and into an empty preschool room.

Prosecutors Alex McGimpsey and Michael Pawl painted Cardamone as a serial child molester who methodically manipulated his gymnasts so that the young girls endured repeated abuse rather than betray him.

To corroborate the accusers, the prosecution called upon a 15th girl who isn't connected to the gym who also said Cardamone fondled her in July 1999 during a tumbling class at an Aurora hospital.

DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett said prosecutors will seek a tough prison sentence.

"This defendant violated the trust of these children and their parents," he said. "To betray that trust and violate the innocence of a child is matched by only one offense, and that's murder."

The defense team fought the allegations while calling 80 gymnasts, parents, teachers and coaches who said they never saw Cardamone make a single inappropriate move. His lawyers cautioned the jury against giving too much weight to the recollection of children.

The lawyers said it all began with the first girl's wild imagination, spread through gossip to include other girls, and developed into false memories after suggestive questioning.

Much of the trial centered around the first girl to report the abuse. Her coaches said Cardamone never took her out of their group. A teammate who was with the girl during some of the alleged abuse said it never happened. Teachers and parent volunteers also testified the preschool room was occupied.

They said Cardamone would have had to be a magician to pull off such widespread abuse without detection. His wife, also a coach, worked near him. The prosecution, however, compared him to a pickpocket whose masterful thievery went undetected until his arrest in late 2002.

Cardamone is back in court Monday, but for other allegations. Prosecutors charged him last summer with harassing one of the girl's parents on suspicion he made a false 911 call accusing the woman of drunken driving.

The phone call came minutes after the two exchanged words outside of court during a pre-trial hearing. Cardamone and his wife said they did not know the motorist's identity. Judge Burke did not believe them. He revoked Cardamone's bond.

The judge set a date of June 9 where lawyers will argue for a new trial.