Editor's note: This story contains graphic language. The names of the victims have been changed to protect their privacy, and their quotes come directly from their court testimony.
By Greg Hanlon
"I'm uncomfortable but I don't say anything, 'cause in my head I'm going through all the talks he gave in class about how he was such a Christian guy, and so I was like don't -- you know -- don't think there's something happening here that's not. You know, don't offend him."
ADRIAN, Mich. -- Chad Curtis didn't tell his lawyer that he's doing this interview, he admits with a sly smile. Obviously, she'd be angry, because he's appealing his conviction, and talking to a reporter is likely not in his best interests. But Curtis is still upset that he didn't get to take the stand at his trial. He sees himself as a man for whom telling the truth trumps calculated self-interest.
That's why, he believes, he has sat in prison since October on a seven-to-15-year conviction for molesting three teenage girls at the rural Michigan high school where he volunteered. Curtis, 45, says he could have taken a misdemeanor plea, served a year and a half in county, and been home with his wife and six kids by now. But he's an innocent man in his own mind, so he couldn't bring himself to swear on the Bible -- which he quotes frequently and encyclopedically during our two-hour interview at the Harrison Correctional Facility -- and admit to a crime he didn't commit.
As a major league baseball player, he wore a bracelet that said, "What would Jesus do?" Now that he's a prisoner, he tells me, "Jesus lived the perfect life, and that got him crucified." By this, he means there's historical precedent for the harsh judgments of human beings to be 180 degrees wrong, and that he's in good company.
He asks if I'm familiar with the show Pretty Little Liars. He says he prays daily for his teenage accusers, all of whom had similar athletic builds and All-American good looks. He says all he was doing in that locked, windowless, dungeon-like training room was helping those girls recover from sports injuries. He says he took the same all-out approach to treating sports injuries as he did to playing baseball -- "whether it was running into an outfield wall or breaking up a double play."
As for why the girls thought otherwise, and accused him of touching their rear ends, breasts and, in one case, genitals, he doesn't want to speculate: "I've been really discouraged by how often and how wrong people have assumed my motivations, so I'll extend them that same courtesy," he says.
He doesn't mention that not a single boy testified to having gone down to the trainer's room for similar treatment.
We're sitting in a side room off the main visitor's room of Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Mich., which is roughly equidistant between Ann Arbor and Toledo. Curtis's hair is a graying version of the same 1950s-style flattop buzzcut he wore as a player, and his broad shoulders fill out his prison uniform perfectly. He cuts a similarly classic figure in state blues as he did in Yankees pinstripes. His job now is to administer sports games (setting up cones, etc.) and he says he's made a lot of good friends. Despite the stories about child sex offenders in prison, he says he hasn't been attacked. He keeps busy by reading the Bible and by "work[ing] out like crazy," even though the weight pit is outside and the Michigan winter has been brutal.
Yes, religion and discipline have always been his calling cards: He told his students at one high school that he went years in the majors without once eating dessert or drinking soda. He never drinks alcohol, and he never swears: "Rid yourselves of ... filthy language from your lips," Colossians 3:8 says.
He also says he has never cheated on his wife, walking the straight and narrow path of a Godly man while countless teammates acted like kids in a candy store. (He considers himself a "Bible-believing Christian" and eschews denominational titles.) If his teammates were doing the wrong things -- missing chapel, not playing the game the right way, or even listening to explicit rap or watching Jerry Springer -- Curtis would call them out, for their own good. He was the ultimate God Squadder, noble to some but insufferably pushy to others, which might help explain why he played for six teams in his 10-year career. But no matter to Curtis: "You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?" states James 4:4.
Now, however, his bearing -- the burdened gestures, the heavy sighs -- bespeaks a martyr's pained awareness of the fallibility of others. People have let him down.
Like Andy Pettitte. The two were good friends, regulars at Bible study with the Yankees. When Pettitte was waffling back and forth on whether or not to retire several years ago, Curtis was on the phone with him at 5:30 in the morning giving him spiritual guidance. But since the allegations? Crickets.
And Kayla. Of all his accusers, this one hurts him most. The two were close, so close that Curtis approached her one day and said they were getting too close: "We could have a relationship within the bounds of the law if we chose to do that. But that wouldn't be good for you and that wouldn't be good for me," he says he told her.
But he is not bitter, he says. He has faith that God will use this tragedy for good. He believes that one day, Kayla will admit to falsely accusing him, that "she'll wake up, throw up her hands and just say, 'I can't do it anymore.'"
"And when that happens, I have every intention of forgiving her."
* * *
The western part of Michigan, in the area around Grand Rapids, doesn't conform to the popular notion that the state is firmly in the blue column. The airport is named after Gerald Ford, and Barry County, where Lakewood High School is located, went heavily for Romney. It's across the state from Detroit and Ann Arbor and much further away culturally, its religious conservatism dating back to the 19th century, when Dutch Calvinist separatists settled in the area so they could freely practice their strict brand of Protestantism. Several people described the area to me as "The Bible Belt of the Midwest."
At Lakewood, a consolidated public school drawing its students from four tiny towns, roughly 35 minutes east of Grand Rapids, religion and sports are pillars of identity. And no teacher could validate such an identity quite like Mr. Curtis, who had grown up in the area. He was clean-cut, handsome and charismatic, his eyes framed by a perpetual furrow that conveyed his moral seriousness. He was happily married to his college sweetheart. They and their six children all had first and last names starting with the letter "C."
Discipline and undeviating faith in God had led him all the way to a 10-year career in the majors, to Yankee Stadium. In 1999, he hit a game-winning home run in the World Series against the Braves, then, in the next game, caught the last out of the last World Series of the 20th century. He gave away half of his earnings to nonprofit organizations -- groups like Focus on the Family and anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, he tells me. After he retired, instead of going someplace warm or exotic, he decided to come back to western Michigan, the area that made him who he was, the area perfectly aligned with his sensibilities.
During the 2010-2011 school year, he was living in Lake Odessa (pop. 2,018) and had begun substitute teaching and volunteering in the Lakewood weight room. The community considered itself lucky to have him; he would later be hired as football coach. He had a key card to the school and keys to the athletic department rooms.
Kayla was 15 going on 16 that year, a sophomore, and was new to the area. Interested in church, livestock and playing sports, she was the type of teenager who earnestly worked to improve herself in every area of endeavor. Before that year, a family friend told her that if she wanted to prepare for sports, she should talk to Mr. Curtis, the former major leaguer.
She did, and soon Curtis had drawn up a workout regimen for her and was opening the gym in the early mornings for her and her brother. The two became close. She became friends with Curtis' second-oldest daughter, who was her age. The family was so welcoming of her, and she was so grateful, that she invited them to her basketball banquet her sophomore year.
That following summer, between her sophomore and junior years, Kayla, who had been training for cross country in the Lakewood weight room with other athletes, began having problems with her hip flexors. Curtis offered to do manual resistance hip flexor exercises with her in the weight room, in the company of his two eldest daughters, with whom he did the same exercises. A little intimate? Perhaps, but if Kayla was uncomfortable about what was happening, she would have had every reason to think she was the only one who was.
The exercises continued over the following days and weeks, but the venue moved: First to a room adjacent to the weight room, and then downstairs to the windowless trainer's room. The sessions were now one-on-one and out of the view of other students. In the trainer's room, Curtis worked her muscles in ways that began to make her feel uncomfortable: "He'd touch all around my leg, and he'd touch up near my hip bones and inside of my hip bones," she would testify.
But she didn't say anything, instead convincing herself that the problem wasn't that Curtis was crossing lines, but that she held those lines to begin with. To be the best athlete one can be, one has to overcome self-imposed limitations and break out of comfort zones. So when Curtis asked to give her an athletic massage -- no, he wasn't a physical or massage therapist, but he had lots experience with people at the highest levels of such things -- she said yes.
He laid her down on the trainer's table on her stomach and started with her hands -- "Relax, you're too tense," she testified he said. Then he progressed to the shoulders. Then he removed her shirt, leaving her in just a sports bra.
"I'm uncomfortable, but I don't say anything 'cause in my head I'm going through all the talks that he had talked in class, and how he was such a Christian guy. And so I was like don't -- you know -- don't think there's something happening here that's not. You know, don't offend him," she testified.
It unfolded increment by increment; Curtis made small talk the whole time. First he flipped her over on her back, exposing her front, and began massaging her stomach. Then, abruptly, he vaulted onto the table, and was suddenly straddling her.
"And once again I tell myself, 'Well, he's just trying to have a better angle at massaging my abdomen,'" she testified.
She said Curtis asked her, "Are you sure you're OK with this?"
She didn't say no. So Curtis removed her sports bra and began massaging her bare breasts. Kayla stared at the ceiling.
"I try to rationalize why he could think that it was OK to do that," she testified. "I was trying to figure out how it could better me as an athlete, 'cause that was the idea of this massage. And I couldn't figure out like how that could make sense. And I wanted to say something, but I couldn't even open my mouth to say anything."
Later in the trial, John Cottrell, vice president of counseling services for the Grand Rapids YWCA and an expert witness for the prosecution, told the jury about "tonic immobility": "a neurobiological process that essentially paralyzes the body in a defensive way so that pain is not felt and resistance isn't even possible."
Child victims rarely fight back, Cottrell would say. Far more common is for children "to acquiesce, to follow instructions if instructions are given and to endure things pretty much silently."
Eventually Curtis pulled her sports bra back down, covering her. He finished massaging her shoulders, and dropped a bead of sweat on her. Then he reached down and swiped his hand over her crotch, on top of her spandex.
Shortly after coming to Lakewood, Kayla had been taught by a teacher to shake the hand of adults after each encounter. It would make her look more professional, and would benefit her as she got older. It had become a habit, one she was proud of. After it was over, she shook Curtis' hand, and went home.
* * *
In 1999, Baltimore rapper Sisqo put out his first solo album, Release the Dragon. Its sales were moderate until January 2000, when the novelty single "Thong Song" was released. Propelled by its catchy, goofy refrain -- "Let me see that thong!" -- it shot up to No. 3 on the Billboard charts. By that spring, it had reached terra firma of American mainstream tastes: the major league baseball clubhouse.
Under late manager Johnny Oates, the Texas Rangers of the era had a policy that children were welcomed in the clubhouse. The administration of that policy was hands-off: Oates trusted his players to sort out the particulars of etiquette. Until one day in April, when Royce Clayton, the team's African-American shortstop, was playing the song, and Curtis walked over to the stereo and turned it off. Clayton turned it back on; Curtis turned it back off. The two got in each others' faces and nearly came to blows.
"This shit happens 20 times a year in a major league clubhouse," Clayton told me recently. The difference this time, he said, was that reporters saw the confrontation and took an interest -- and Curtis took an interest in explaining his side.
"He decided to keep talking about it," Clayton said. "He decided to go to the media and self-promote about how good a Christian he is. And the media bought into it, and I knew why: It was because we're in the Bible Belt, and here was a black dude he could go after, saying, 'He was listening to profanity in front of kids.'"
The incident was one of many during a career in which Curtis was known more for his aggressive proselytizing and capacity for moral reprobation than anything he did on the field. In Texas, his teammates complained that he'd turn off Jerry Springer when they watched it in the clubhouse before games: "We'd be like, 'Whoa, what are you doing?' And he'd be like, 'This isn't good for you to watch,'" former teammate Frank Catalanotto said.
In New York, Curtis would throw away the porn some players kept stashed in the bathroom. When management suggested that Curtis keep an eye on second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who they feared was partying too hard, Curtis took the assignment to its mall-cop extreme, yelling and banging on Knoblauch's hotel room door to make sure he was there. He clashed with Derek Jeter, chastising him in front of reporters for fraternizing with then-friend Alex Rodriguez during a bench-clearing brawl between the Yankees and Mariners, and offending him by persistently soliciting him to attend chapel after Jeter had already turned him down.
"Chad just couldn't stay around any longer because that act gets tired," one Yankees official told author Ian O'Connor. "Once he became comfortable here, he became a preacher, and it ran its course."
For his part, Curtis told ESPN's Outside the Lines, "If I have something that I believe is the truth and it's necessary for other people to come to some type of a recognition or grip of that truth, then I want to share it."
Curtis was conscious of how public perception could advance his reputation for morality. He somewhat famously snubbed NBC's Jim Gray for an interview after hitting his walk-off home run in the 1999 World Series, in retaliation for Gray's aggressive line of questioning to Pete Rose earlier in the playoffs, though the decision to boycott Gray had been made ahead of time by the team. He became a go-to quote for reporters on performance-enhancing drugs for his strongly reproving stance. To him, baseball and the rest of the world had become too wishy-washy. If Curtis' firmness got him labeled as "intolerant," then so be it: "We live in a society that practices tolerance and acceptance, which at the root is a good idea," he told the Los Angeles Times. "But, you step back sometimes and say, 'What is it that we tolerate? What is it that we are accepting? Is anything acceptable?' My answer to that is, 'No. Not everything will be tolerated.'"
At the same time, he used the media to project an impossibly wholesome image of himself. He recounted getting married in his minor league uniform so as not to be late for batting practice. (His wife and kids still believe he's innocent, by all accounts.) He told The Dallas Morning News that he began each morning by charting which of his prayers from the day before had been answered. He confessed to the L.A. Times to cheating in a Sunday school card game and said, "That might have been my all-timer" in terms of moral depravity.
"Is it surprising to me that he's done what he's done?" Clayton said. "Absolutely not. People hide behind a lot of bullshit to do what they wanna do."
* * *
Kayla was no shrinking violet, no product of a broken home, not the sort of recourseless victim that predators are known for seeking out. The day after Curtis massaged her bare chest, she went to weightlifting, supervised by Curtis, with the aim of confronting him after everyone left. But Curtis beat her to the punch: "Kayla, we need to talk. Something went terribly wrong," she testified that he told her.
Out came a rambling quasi-apology. There were compliments (she's a hard worker, she's a moral person, she reminds him of his daughters), quoted bible verses and acknowledgments tinged with a self-serving air (he said it was the most unfaithful he'd ever been to his wife). He made frequent use of the conspiratorial "we" when discussing the incident, and framed it as a teachable moment for both himself and Kayla. "Like it was a lesson for the two of us," she testified. "He somehow worded it whereas it was wrong, but it wasn't too wrong."
He said he had "an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other," according to Kayla. "He said it was an inner struggle and [that] he needed to take these thoughts captive and just throw 'em out." In the midst of all this, he asked Kayla if she was a virgin.
Still, Kayla accepted his apology and believed that it would never happen again "with my whole heart," the phrase itself indicating how badly she wanted to believe him. Normalcy quickly returned. They resumed doing hip flexor exercises together. Nothing inappropriate happened. Until several weeks later -- when the two found themselves back in the trainer's room on Labor Day, when Lakewood's most dedicated athletes didn't skip their workouts.
More hip flexor work. More poking and prodding: "Does this hurt, does that hurt?" Kayla lay still as Curtis worked her shirt and shorts off incrementally, leaving her in a sports bra and spandex. All the while, he was moving side to side around the table, seemingly engaged with giving a strenuous massage, acting as if removing Kayla's clothes was an incidental byproduct. Then he removed her sports bra.
Kayla tried not to look at him, but she caught a glimpse of his eyes: "They looked animalistic, or demonic," she testified.
He leaned down over her and kissed her breast. At the same time, he took one finger, reached underneath her spandex, and penetrated her vagina.
It lasted only several seconds, but it was long enough for Kayla to realize that she was in danger, and to react. Slowly, gingerly, she pushed him off of her, and said, "No."
It was making eye contact with Curtis, and seeing a man she had once revered as a moral authority shamefully slink down into a chair "like a little kid when you slap their hand," that sent her into convulsions of bawling. It was the hardest she had ever cried.
It was too horrible to face head-on, so she scrambled for alternate explanations. The first that came to her mind was that what had happened was some sort of test -- of her own morality, of her friendship with Curtis' daughter -- and that she hadn't passed. At trial, Cottrell would testify that 95 percent of sexual assault cases with children involve a known relationship, and that for the child to blame themselves is common: "Because they hold this person in esteem and because [children] are vulnerable, they will assume this person wouldn't hurt them, so if something bad happened, it must be the child's fault," Cottrell testified.
Kayla hysterically vocalized this sentiment to Curtis. At that, Curtis re-assumed the role of the calm, poised authority figure. He put his hand on her thigh and said, "Kayla, you're wrong. You did pass. You have to understand that."
Another lecture followed, and it confused Kayla. On one hand, Curtis accepted responsibility and said he was sorry. On the other, he put in Kayla's mind what would happen if she told anyone.
"He's like if you go to the police, he's like I will lose my job…. [His wife] will be extremely hurt, and I probably won't see my kids again," she testified. "But Kayla, that's not your fault. I made this decision, and these are the consequences I have to deal with. If that's what you need to do, go to the police, then that's what you need to do."
Kayla asked Curtis what he was going to do, and he said he was going to talk to God, and keep it between himself and God. Then, just as Kayla was getting ready to leave and ponder the most difficult decision in her life, a decision with nothing but horrible outcomes on both sides, Curtis asked her to pray with him. "I didn't want to say no," she said. "Prayer is always good."
After the prayer, and after he told her that her confronting him was a "step in the right direction" for him, and that it would never happen again, she turned again to leave. He again called her name.
"Did you enjoy any of that?" he asked her.
She said no.
"And he turns it into a lesson, and he goes, 'Well, good, now I know that if you ever get into a situation with a boy, you'll be able to make an excuse or go home or something like that.'"
She listened to Christian music on the car ride home, went through the motions of helping to clean up after her family's Labor Day party, jumped in the shower and resumed bawling uncontrollably.
At trial, Cottrell testified that child victims "try to maintain a sense of normalcy as much as possible," as both a denial mechanism and a way to exert control. That's what Kayla did in the months following the incident. She continued to banter with Curtis in the weight room, though there would be no more trips to the trainer's room. Her friendship with Curtis' daughter, who she couldn't bring herself to hurt, actually deepened, and she found herself going over to the Curtis house regularly.
"I decided I was gonna pretend," she testified. "And if I was going to make this commitment to pretend like nothing happened, then I had to make it look like nothing changed much."
* * *
"He told me he didn't think that we should text anymore because he didn't want his wife to be mad."
Teaching was a natural second career for Curtis for several reasons, among them that his father had also been a teacher. The family moved around to accommodate his jobs: Curtis was born in Indiana, raised in Middleville, Mich. -- 30 minutes from Lakewood High School -- and went to high school in Arizona.
But his teaching career, like his playing career, would be marked by short, contentious stints. After getting his teaching certificate at the evangelical Cornerstone University, he lasted only two years at his first job, as a phys ed teacher and coach at Caledonia High School, just outside of Grand Rapids. As he had in the major leagues, he immediately began irking his colleagues who felt he imposed himself, in this case by disregarding pre-existing weight-room teaching techniques. "Mr. Curtis thinks his way is the right way," one teacher told me. "It was his way or the highway. We'd been teaching it one way and the baseball legend wasn't buying in."
The superintendent who had brought Curtis to Caledonia, a friend of Curtis', wound up being imprisoned for embezzlement. With that, Curtis' position was eliminated.
His next stop was NorthPointe Christian School, a fundamentalist Baptist school in Grand Rapids whose rigid handbook explicitly bans clothing with "graphics and words of secular musical groups," "extreme hairstyles" like dreadlocks and mohawks and low-cut tops for girls. On paper, the place was right up Curtis' alley, and he excelled at first, becoming the school's athletic director and creating a football program. But the relationship soured, and he was gone after two years. Principal Todd Tolsma would not tell me why Curtis was dismissed, but he said, "Chad Curtis' separation was unrelated to any issue that has been publicized with the charges and trial."
I asked Curtis why he was dismissed, and he demurred at first. But then he said that he butted heads with the administration over its laxity about enforcing the strict guidelines in the handbook. When I pressed him for specifics, he cited the ban against low-cut tops: A girl had been revealing cleavage in class, and when a teacher (not Curtis) complained to the administrator in charge of dress code, the administrator let the matter slide.
"My take was, you either have to take the rule out or you have to enforce it," Curtis told me.
That Curtis had two short tenures at two different schools before he was accused of molesting children invites the obvious question: Did he do anything untoward at the previous schools, and did the schools, by getting rid of him without contacting law enforcement, look the other way?
The prosecutors looked into this and couldn't find anything they could introduce at trial, though Barry County prosecutor Julie Nakfoor-Pratt stressed to me that "the door is always open." Lake Odessa superintendent Michael O'Mara said that Lakewood's review of Curtis complied with proper background check protocol, including fingerprinting.
"He had explanations [for leaving those schools], and they were viable. We thought we knew what we were getting as a person," O'Mara said.
However, the mother of a male Caledonia athlete told me that rumors of Curtis' lecherousness were openly discussed among parents at the time. And a former Caledonia athlete told me that it was an acknowledged joke among his group of friends that Curtis took a disproportionate interest in attractive girls when supervising the weight room.
"He would always be encouraging the girls to stay after," the student said. "He would be like, 'All athletes stay,' and we'd all stay, but he'd pretty much just focus on the girls. He literally would spot girls [on weights] all the time. And looking back, that's where we were like, 'Holy shit, did we see this coming?'"
* * *
Several years later, at Lakewood, a student named Kaleb Curry and his friends had a similar ongoing joke. Mr. Curtis, it seemed, had a thing for Jessica, then a 15-year-old sophomore. According to Curry's testimony, Curtis would pull her out of gym class at least once a week for 20-minute periods to work with her in the trainer's room. When Jessica broke her pinkie, Curtis did one-on-one resistance work with her in lieu of a barbell bench press, leaning over her with their hands together and having Jessica push up. Curry said that Curtis even remarked to him once that Jessica had a "nice athletic butt."
"I kinda feel like he paid more attention to Jessica … than any other person in there," Curry testified. Of the 20-minute disappearances during class, he said, "It was kinda suspicious. It didn't seem right."
One day, on a lark, Curry and a friend headed down to the trainer's room to scope out what was happening. After seeing Jessica emerge from the room, they started teasing her. Soon after, according to Curry's testimony, "Mr. Curtis approached me and Anthony and asked us if we were giving her a hard time about anything. And he said if you are, you need to stop."
What Curry didn't know was that Curtis and Jessica had exchanged 115 text messages between late February and late April of 2012. Many of these concerned weight room scheduling, which is what Curtis told me and what the defense said at trial. But many concerned Jessica's boyfriend and tensions in their relationship. Curtis would tell her that she was too good for her boyfriend's immaturity, that she was a pretty girl.
This made Jessica trust Curtis and feel flattered, and perhaps it also played to her awareness of her burgeoning sexual power. In the weight room one day, she once playfully asked Curtis to tell her boyfriend to stop staring at her. She also once texted him, "I would have a thing with you." She was a kid playing with boundaries and roles. "Like I had a crush on him, but it wasn't anything that I would ever take," she testified.
Curtis's response to that text was, "I don't want my kids to see me in jail," according to Jessica. The next day, she said, "He told me he didn't think that we should text anymore because he didn't want his wife to be mad."
Most of the texts from that period were gone by the time detectives obtained a warrant for Curtis' phone. Between Feb. 21 and March 2, 85 consecutive texts between Curtis and Jessica had been deleted, investigators testified.
The texts between Jessica and Curtis were actually sent after the incidents when Jessica said Curtis touched her inappropriately. The defense portrayed this as proof that the so-called incidents were harmless byproducts of athletic training methods. The prosecution portrayed a predator who opportunistically capitalized on a teenager's experimentation with boundaries and who couched his true motives in the guise of legitimate athletic massage.
The first incident occurred in August 2011: Jessica reported a problem with her rib area and asked Curtis to wrap her with an Ace bandage. He began wrapping, with Jessica's shirt up so that the bottom of her sports bra was exposed. Then he asked her to lift the bra up a little bit, exposing the bottom of her breast, so he could get the wrap underneath it: "Is this OK?" he asked, similarly to how he had asked Kayla.
Jessica, like Kayla, didn't say no. So Curtis lifted the bra up all the way, exposing her breasts. When Jessica instinctively covered herself up, Curtis didn't flinch: He stared straight ahead and continued to wrap her rib, as if the whole thing was purely clinical. The man who couldn't abide porn in the bathroom and cleavage on a female student was trying to convince both a teenager and himself that there was nothing wrong with what he was doing.
He finished wrapping Jessica, then pulled her bra down. This forced Jessica to remove her hands momentarily and expose her chest again. Curtis stared directly at her the whole time.
The wrapping thus completed, she went off to volleyball practice. She later told her mother that Curtis had wrapped her, and then texted Curtis that the wrap had solved her rib problem.
In the ensuing months, Curtis regularly pulled her out of class to give her massages, which Jessica says progressed up her thighs to her underwear line. Curtis, in a statement he made after he was convicted but before he was sentenced, said Jessica would come to him with "fake-type injuries because she wanted to talk to me."
But Jessica says the opposite, and that the ostensible hip injury for which Curtis took Jessica to the trainer's room one day in the winter of 2011-2012 was a figment of his imagination.
Jessica lay on her stomach, and Curtis peeled her sweatpants down, exposing her underwear. Then he moved her underwear to the side, exposing her bare rear end. Then he started massaging her there, continuing for several minutes.
"I wasn't so much scared. I was uncomfortable. But I trusted he was doing his job, so…."
Jessica wasn't the only person who reflexively believed Curtis was just doing his job. Just minutes after he was finished rubbing her bare rear-end, the school's principal, Brian Williams, came looking for Jessica on an unrelated matter and was told by the regular gym instructor -- from whose class Curtis routinely pulled Jessica -- that she was getting ice in the trainer's room. Williams walked in to find exactly that: Jessica on the trainer's table, clothed and with ice, and Curtis seated on a chair. It was not a suspicious sight.
Williams testified at trial, "I've been asking myself, you know, since I found out all this going on, why I wasn't alarmed. And the only thing I can come to is Mr. Carpenter [the weight room instructor] said, 'They went to get ice.' And she was there with ice."
The incident raised the obvious question of whether Lakewood was at all responsible for its female students being molested in the school building. O'Mara, the district superintendent, said that if he knew Curtis had been massaging girls even for the medical reasons Curtis purported, he likely would have fired him on the spot: "You can't put yourself in that position," he said. But Curtis called that assertion "baloney," and claimed what he was doing was widely acknowledged. Curtis' take on this seems to jibe with the fact that he often pulled students out of other teachers' classes for the one-on-one sessions.
A report by O'Mara, issued to the Lakewood School Board in early March, said, "Existing school policies and procedures were adhered to by school personnel." Soon after the accusations broke, Lakewood installed a window on its training room.
Curtis told me that he has heard grumblings through his lawyer about a lawsuit against both the school district and himself, but no suit has been filed as of yet.
* * *
"I no longer enjoy going to school ... I hear the gossip and I had to quit volleyball because [tryouts] were the same week as the trial, and the coaches didn't show support for my decision."
Curtis tells me that the first accusation against him broke on his 3-year-old's birthday. The second came on his 11-year-old's. He was arrested on the day of his 19-year-old's graduation.
"Now, is that coincidental? Or is that someone looking at your personal file and deciding to mess with you?" he says to me.
Looked at one way, it's a laughably grandiose delusion of a man whose persecution complex is in proportion to his Jesus complex. But in person, in real time, Curtis is more compelling than he is after the fact. Like any charismatic person, he pulls you in and makes you want to go along with what he's saying. He has the convincingness of someone who has thoroughly convinced himself of his own innocence.
This helps explain why, in the aftermath of the initial allegations, much of the local public outrage was directed at the accusers. The comments section of an early news report summed up this line of thought:
"I bet you some girl tried to seduce him and he turned her down," read one comment. "He's a former MLB player with two world titles. There's no teenage girl he would ever go after. Use common sense."
"I agree it has to be bogus!! All we can do is pray!" read another.
Curtis had a list of some 40 character witnesses he wanted to call at trial, though only a handful of them got to testify. One said, "Chad's integrity is the highest of any man I've ever met." Another said, "He is flawless."
The defense also called a psychologist who cited the "post-event information effect," when outside sources can cause someone to alter their interpretation of events, and who alluded to the daycare sex abuse hysteria cases of the 1980s. The defense's other star witness was an athletic massage therapist who said the rear end is a repository for lactic acid buildup from all kinds of leg injuries.
Even after his conviction, a sizable percentage of area residents still believe that Curtis got railroaded, either by trumped-up charges promulgated by overzealous investigators or by a Mean Girls gang-up against a deep-pocketed target. However, this notion seems to be undermined by the fact that the five girls who eventually accused Curtis were not friends with each other and ranged three-and-a-half years in age. There's also the fact that Curtis is currently being sued by the state of Michigan to pay for his own incarceration, and he told me he's largely tapped out of money.
Still, there are believers. Kelly Stein-Lloyd, a close friend of the Curtis family and the director of the Caledonia Chamber of Commerce, believes Curtis was doomed in court by his stone-faced expression in comparison to the girls' outward emotion. "I've coached girls for 15 years. I know teenagers. And girls can be pretty convincing. They can be pretty conniving and pretty believable. And that played to their benefit this time," she said.
* * *
When word got around that Alexis, a 15-year-old freshman, had accused Mr. Curtis of molesting her, she became persona non grata at Lakewood.
"I got really depressed because like everyone started treating me differently," she testified. Her volleyball teammates "wouldn't talk to me. I -- I would always have to find my own partner."
She had come to Curtis' attention after injuring her knee in the most childlike way imaginable: a sledding accident. Subsequently, Curtis, in the same persistent manner as he had solicited his teammates to attend chapel, asked her repeatedly if he could help her rehab it. She turned him down several times but eventually relented, "'cause I was sick of him asking me," she testified.
Soon enough, they were down in the trainer's room, Curtis rubbing her knee, then her thigh, then her upper thigh, then her groin, up to her underwear. He flipped her over on her stomach and went through the same progression, ending with rubbing her rear end, with both hands, in a circular motion. All the while, he lectured Alexis, who was also very religious, about how to prove to an atheist that God exists. During his major league career, his sermons had often been met with exasperation and dismissal. In the Lakewood trainer's room, he had a captive audience.
After it was over, Alexis wondered: Had she just been molested? She didn't know. She described to her youth pastor that night what had happened and was told "to be careful."
The next day, Curtis took her down to the trainer's room again, but she felt OK about it because another girl, Rachel, went down with them. But then Curtis told Rachel to take the medicine ball upstairs, and now it was just the two of them again, and he began to touch her in the same progression as the day before.
His hands were on the side of her rear-end, over her pants, when they both heard the jangling of keys in the door lock. It was another student, who had been sent by a teacher to fetch something. The student didn't see anything notable, but Alexis caught a glimpse of Curtis's face frozen in panic.
"I was uncomfortable the whole time, but when I saw his reaction, that's when I knew that something was wrong," she said.
The next day, a Thursday, she spoke to authorities, and she took off from school until Monday. Among the many things that would be different in her life when she returned was that Curtis was no longer at Lakewood, having been suspended immediately.
* * *
Detective Jay Olejniczak spoke first with Alexis, and then to Rachel, the girl Curtis had taken to the trainer's room with Alexis but then sent upstairs with the medicine ball. Olejniczak had sought out Rachel simply to investigate Alexis' claims, but it turned out she had her own stories to tell.
She was a family friend of the Curtises who, as an eighth-grader, had gone on vacation with them to babysit their younger kids. During this vacation, she said that Curtis rubbed suntan lotion on her and slid his hand underneath her bra. Also on that trip, she said that on one early morning, he lay in bed with her, over the covers, while his daughter slept in the next bed over. To his defenders, this was proof that the charges had been trumped up to implausible proportions. To those who believed the girls, it was evidence that Curtis had lost any sense of boundaries and judgment.
Rachel was one of two accusers who took the stand but whose accusations were not prosecuted. The other was Brittany, a recently graduated Lakewood student who also babysat for the Curtis kids. She testified that one day at the Curtis house, after she had gotten a sunburn while sitting outside, Curtis had insisted on rubbing suntan lotion all over her body, including on the top of her breasts.
Curtis was contrite afterward, Brittany said. "He said that it couldn't happen again, that we couldn't do it again," she testified, remembering his conspiratorial use of "we," just as Kayla had.
He also told Brittany that "that was as close as he's ever come to cheating on his wife." Several months later, after penetrating Kayla with his finger, Curtis said it was the "most unfaithful he's ever been to [his] wife." The prosecution pointed to this progression -- touching the top of Brittany's breasts maybe wasn't technically cheating, but penetrating Kayla definitely was -- as evidence both of Curtis' escalating behavior and the girls' truthfulness. It was too specific, prosecutors said, to make up out of thin air.
* * *
Much of Curtis' M.O. involved creating the perception of a gray area between legitimate massage and molestation. Given this, it makes sense that when Olejniczak questioned him about touching Rachel in Curtis' one and only interview with police, he said, "I don't think she's a liar, and I don't think I'm a liar either."
What really tripped his mental wiring was a question about lotion. When Olejniczak mentioned the word "lotion," Curtis announced that he was nauseous, got up out of his chair and lay on the floor for close to two minutes.
"It was a really awkward silence, didn't really know what was going on," was how Olejniczak described it.
Curtis' first words when he composed himself were, "I guess you can just say that I'm -- I'm hurt and confused. I try to pour my time and energy into helping kids."
At the time Olejniczak interviewed Curtis, only Alexis and Rachel had accused him. In the 14 months between that interview and the trial, Kayla, Brittany and Jessica would come forward.
It was a trying period for the girls, and by all accounts still is. They were bullied in the hallways and on social media. Rachel said that after coming forward, "No one liked me. They were all against me 'cause he was a great guy and this would never happen, so we were all lying."
Some of the girls and their family members accused Curtis and his family of fomenting a campaign against them. Tensions got so bad that Curtis's oldest daughters -- one of whom graduated, one of whom transferred -- were barred from Lakewood functions.
Kayla transferred her senior year, too, and saw her close friendship with Curtis's daughter severed. She had planned to go to college but had not done so as of the trial. "She's not able to sleep by herself," her father said in court. "This week she's crawled in with her mother three or four times."
Alexis couldn't play volleyball her senior year because tryouts conflicted with the trial. She said in court that "the coaches didn't show support for my decision."
The toughest part was the trial itself. Curtis stood accused of criminal sexual conduct in both the third and second degree, the latter of which, the most serious charge, was for penetrating Kayla with his finger.
Every day of the weeklong trial, the 131-person courtroom was packed, evenly split between supporters of Curtis and supporters of the girls. In front of all of those people, the girls recited the intimate details of how they were violated, and then re-affirmed those details under cross-examination.
"These girls, they were rocks," said Nakfoor-Pratt, the prosecutor. (Nakfoor-Pratt's assistant prosecutor, Chris Elsworth, was the one who tried the case.) "Particularly when they have school, sports, family, everything. This was a long road for these young ladies to hang in there, and I was amazed by how strong they were."
Meanwhile, Curtis didn't testify, on the advice of his lawyer. Now that Curtis is behind bars, he has a new lawyer. One of the grounds for his motion for a new trial is that he received incompetent counsel, he told me.
The jury deliberated for around three hours and found Curtis guilty on all six counts. The victims and their families addressed him at sentencing.
Kayla said, "There was a time I believed you to be a man of high morals and integrity. That time is long gone. Now, a little over two years later, I have a better view of who you really are. You are a manipulator and a perpetual liar."
Kayla's father said, "You used her devout faith against her. You blasphemed. Your self-serving actions included using God as your shield, allowing you to garner support from other Christians."
Alexis said, "You know what you did, but you let us girls be put through the embarrassment of a trial and be humiliated on the stand. We didn't ask for this. You chose to put us through this. We shouldn't be treated like outcasts because of your selfish actions."
* * *
Finally, it was Curtis' turn. He had been sitting in the Barry County Jail for the previous several weeks after his conviction. Whatever denial mechanisms had cracked during his interview with Olejniczak had sealed back up. He spoke for 55 minutes. During this time, he became lightheaded and asked for a glass of water before continuing. Nakfoor-Pratt would tell reporters afterward that it was "the most selfish, self-serving, victim-blaming statement I've heard in my career as a prosecutor."
He said he prayed for the girls, the prosecutor and the judge. He said he was "a servant as opposed to a selfish person." He said he wakes up every day and asks, 'God, what would you have me do? And God, how can I be a positive influence on others and be about building your kingdom?'"
He began to address his victims' claims one by one. He said Jessica invented "fake-type injuries" and added, "I didn't touch Jessica for my sexual purposes. I tried to touch Jessica mentally and emotionally for her benefit and physically for her benefit."
Jessica left the courtroom at hearing this. Curtis said after her, "I hope that's hard for her, and I hope that from that hardness she says what is true."
"I hope it's hard for you, you ass!" an onlooker shouted back, who was then escorted from the courtroom.
Curtis continued. When he began to address Alexis, she left the courtroom too, and was followed by her mother, and Kayla, and Brittany.
When Kayla returned, Curtis said that in order to maintain proper boundaries between the two of them, he had recruited her older brother to coach a sixth-grade football team with him. "Having [him] around a little bit more would be good accountability for her and myself," he said. "It was something that needed to be controlled. We came to the conclusion that we needed to stay out of a situation where we could be tempted to fall into a situation that wouldn't be good for either one of us."
Curtis continued, saying he hoped he and Kayla "could write a book together some day, and it would be to the positive benefit of millions of people."
It was this statement, in the context of the 55-minute speech, that most people point to as the signature moment of this sad episode: Curtis was delusional, and still sought connection with his accuser.
Was he aware that people thought he was crazy, I asked him several months later?
Of course he was, he said, smiling. The judge had told him so. His lawyer even told him so. But he was proudly unfazed: To be the only one in the room who believed in what he did was a familiar role for him, a role he relished.
"That's what people told me when I said I would make the big leagues," he said.
* * *
Greg Hanlon's writing has appeared in The New York Times, SB Nation Longform, Capital New York and Slate. Follow him at @GregHanlon.