In a grand ceremony in front of the future first lady, veteran Chicago teacher Harold "Jerry" Mash was lauded for tirelessly working to help his students — a stark contrast to how he was labeled in an Ohio courtroom three decades earlier.
On that drizzly day back in 1976, Mash was found guilty of one of the cardinal sins of the classroom: abuse of a child. He lost his job. He said he was leaving teaching.
But by 2005, he had reinvented himself two states and 200 miles away. He was a guest of honor at that Chicago reception held under the skylights in a special atrium atop the Harold Washington Library. Michelle Obama gave the keynote speech. Mash was among six teachers given $5,000 awards.
On Thursday, Mash's past caught up to him. The popular teacher was named in a lawsuit accusing him of molesting multiple Ohio boys, including the one he was found guilty of abusing.
Mash remains a paid CPS employee. But upon learning of the allegations and past criminal case from the Tribune, the district said it removed Mash from contact with children Thursday and began its own investigation. State teaching certification officials also have begun an investigation.
A Tribune investigation of Mash's past raises questions about how a teacher with such a conviction in one state could end up in an Illinois classroom, and it highlights how a popular teacher could carry a dark past — something experts say is not unusual among teachers found to have abused kids.
Records show Mash, 68, had spent 22 years teaching almost exclusively in Chicago schools, much of it as an English teacher, before becoming the attendance dean at Foreman High School in Portage Park. There is no record that he has faced criminal or civil allegations in Cook County except related to traffic, unpaid bills and three bankruptcies tied to heavy student loan debt.
In a brief interview with a Tribune reporter Tuesday at Foreman, Mash denied abusing students and said he'd never faced a criminal charge related to such an accusation. After he was shown the sentencing document in the 1976 case — for the crime of abuse of a child — he ended the interview and told a reporter to speak with his attorney.
His attorney, Jim Saltouros, on Thursday said Mash thought that even though a judge found him guilty, there would be no formal conviction if he followed through with requirements for therapy, which he did. Saltouros was unable to say what Mash specifically remembers of the case, other than to issue a blanket denial that Mash did anything wrong then, before or since.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday in Ohio, the accuser in that 1976 case and another man, Ronald Tremp, both allege that Mash sexually abused them when they were in their teens. Tremp alleged that Mash groomed him for sexual abuse when he was 14 and then molested him three times in 1978. The accuser in the 1976 case alleged that Mash groomed and then molested him for a year, when he was 14 and 15.
Their lawsuit said Mash for decades sought out roles in which he had authority over children, including as a coach and youth volunteer.
"All of these roles were intended by Defendant (Mash) to provide him with access to children he could sexually abuse and exploit," the lawsuit alleges.
The Tribune is not publishing the name of the accuser in the 1976 case, per his request. The newspaper typically grants victims of alleged sexual abuse the right to not be publicly named. He goes by the name John Doe in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks more than $25,000. Saltouros questioned why they would make such allegations so many years later. Both men told the Tribune they filed not for money, but decided to come forward to publicly warn of a man they consider dangerous.
Trail of allegations
Forty years ago, records show, Mash was a rising star in his native northwest Ohio, a popular English teacher who started a swim team at one of the area's biggest high schools. But he resigned after six years, citing personal reasons.
The Toledo school district's records contain no allegations of misconduct, but the lawsuit alleges that Mash was forced to resign "due to suspected sexual abuse of a child."
A former Toledo union official told the Tribune that Mash faced questions over inappropriate student contact. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue even four decades later.
"I said, 'Jerry, either I go to management with you and you resign, or I'm going to let them take you out,''' the official recalled. "He said, 'I think I better resign.'"
Records show that Mash quickly landed a new job as an English teacher and athletic trainer in a small Toledo suburb called Rossford. But he was suspended and later resigned in the middle of his second year there, records show, after he was charged with abusing a 15-year-old sophomore — one of the men now alleging that Mash molested him.
Despite Mash being 31 at the time, the case was tried in juvenile court with records offering only a vague description of the allegation as "physical harm." The prosecutor in the case, Peter Gwyn, told the Tribune he couldn't recall the details but said, in general, that was a common way such cases were prosecuted during that era, with sexual abuse considered a subset of physical abuse. A board member at the time, David Weaks, told the Tribune the allegation involved possible sexual abuse.
Records show that Mash was found guilty, fined $300 and told he'd spend six months in jail unless he continued "psychotherapy until discharged by his psychologist." Mash considered it a "deferred prosecution" — the kind of guilty finding that wouldn't technically be a conviction if he did what the court told him to do, his attorney said.
Saltouros said Mash thought: "I can get along with my life. It's something I can put to bed, get over it, and nothing comes of it."
Board minutes from the district show that Mash, in his resignation letter, told the board he would "seek employment in an area outside of the educational field."
Weaks said he thought the board ensured that by sending a special alert about Mash to Ohio licensing officials regarding the case in the hope that he would be barred from teaching.
"This guy doesn't belong around kids, let alone in a classroom," Weaks said.
Ohio officials, however, said they have no record of any discipline filed on Mash — helping fuel questions about how, in an era of increasing background checks, he found his way to one of the nation's largest school districts.
By the time Mash started his new life in Illinois, authorities had begun to abandon the once popular notion of molesters as mostly strangers in overcoats who lured children from playgrounds with candy. Experts had begun to caution that molesters could be found among a child's family and acquaintances, including teachers. In response to the movement — and five years before Mash set foot in an Illinois classroom — the state had begun background checks, but Mash's Ohio case was not found.
Experts and the district say there are several reasons for that. Chicago Public Schools initially checked only statewide databases, not the FBI's national one. Even if officials had checked the national database, most states didn't begin sending information on all misdemeanor convictions until the 1990s. Before then, much of the cataloging was done by hand, with little manpower to process the files.
And the FBI data also could exclude cases that didn't lead to charges. In Tremp's case, his mother, Adela Tremp, told the Tribune she filed a report with Toledo police in 1978 after her son told her Mash had begun molesting him after hiring the boy to rake leaves. But Tremp said she balked at filing charges for fear her son would be ostracized and ridiculed by his peers.
Toledo police said they could find no record of such a report but told the Tremps that such records were commonly destroyed after 15 years.
Mash had run-ins in another state with police, too, before being hired in Illinois. Records in Iowa show he was arrested twice on assault and once on telephone harassment charges. He was convicted of one of the assaults — a misdemeanor. None of those allegations involved juveniles.
Illinois didn't require him to mention any of it when he applied to be a teacher — even the 1976 criminal case. Records show Mash was asked only if he had been convicted of a felony, or if any state was considering or had suspended or revoked his certificate there. He checked no to all and in 1990 was given a certificate to be a substitute teacher, and two years later, a full-time teacher, and four years after that, a school administrator.
State records show he taught mostly in Chicago Public Schools — from Kilmer Elementary to Westinghouse Career Academy — with a brief stint as an administrator in Maywood's District 89 from 1999 to 2001. He has been at Foreman since 2006.
But his big day came in 2005, when he was one of six winners out of 776 teachers nominated by students for the Suave Performance Plus award program. Mash was credited with working long hours after school and on weekends tutoring students preparing for college.
To Mash's attorney, it's clear evidence of a conscientious educator who had nothing but the best of intentions for students in Chicago — none of whom have ever publicly accused him of improper contact.
But the fact that an award-winning teacher could be accused of sexual abuse is no surprise to a former FBI agent.
Ken Lanning spent more than 30 years in the FBI. He wrote a key guide for law enforcement to understand sex crimes. And he said that the rare type of teacher who molests children is typically popular and appears dedicated.
"Many of these guys become schoolteachers, camp counselors and volunteers not to simply gain access to kids they can molest, but to further convince themselves that they're not a sick pervert," Lanning said. "They say, 'I'm a child lover. I help these kids. I nurture these kids.'"
Experts say it's difficult to tell how dangerous past offenders remain as they age; offenders, like most people, typically become less violent and less sexually active with age. But Lanning said they usually continue to have urges throughout life.
The public saw that this year in the infamous Jerry Sandusky case, in which the 68-year-old former Penn State assistant coach was imprisoned for molesting 10 boys over 15 years. Prosecutors said he abused kids even into his 60s.
It was that high-profile case, Tremp said, that led him and his wife, Julie, to worry whether Mash still had access to children. They discovered a man by the same name as a teacher in Chicago schools and began digging for records. They contacted an advocacy group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which agreed to help even though Mash was never a priest.
The Tremps also contacted the Tribune, which separately sought records across three states — leading to the unearthing of the 1976 case file and its victim.
The advocacy group's president, Barbara Blaine, said that Mash forfeited any right to be in a classroom after what happened in the 1970s, even if it's more than three decades later.
"I believe he may have served his sentence," Blaine said, "and maybe he wouldn't abuse anyone, but why risk it?"Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times