Julie Bremner seems to have it all. She is a second-year UCLA medical student engaged to a man also studying to be a doctor, and she still finds time to train with a professional beach volleyball team.
But she is haunted by a 1 1/2-year period of her life in youth volleyball before she became an All-American at UCLA and one of the U.S. national team’s most promising setters. She says it so traumatized her that it took her six years to tell anyone but her closest friends about it.
The ordeal has left her psychologically scarred and her Midwestern family in turmoil because her 17-year-old sister continues to play for the coach Bremner says had a sexual relationship with her when she was a minor.
Even though the coach denies her allegations and vows to clear his name, and even though she alienated USA Volleyball by speaking publicly about it, Bremner will not back down.
“What she sets her mind to, she is committed to achieving,” UCLA Coach Andy Banachowski said of the player who led the Bruins to a national championship in 1991 and a second-place finish in ’92.
In 1994, Bremner registered a complaint with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which found evidence to substantiate the charges of sexual misconduct. Then, Bremner and two other women went to USA Volleyball’s ethics and eligibility committee, charging Rick Butler, owner and coach of Sports Performance Club of West Chicago, Ill., with having had sex with them while they were 16- and 17-year-old players.
USAV ultimately expelled Butler for life although he has denied the allegations. He acknowledged having relationships with Bremner and the other women but said the relationships were consensual after the women had left his program and were legally adults.
“Even now, it’s rare that a day goes by when I’m not haunted by that abuse,” Bremner testified before volleyball officials in July. “I often have drenching nightmares, sometimes five nights in a row. I dream Butler or a big, powerful man is chasing after me, trying to kill me.
“Kill me slowly.”
Saying those words while Butler sat silently nearby during testimony in front of volleyball officials had a cathartic effect on Bremner.
“I know if I had this bottled up inside of me I’d go crazy,” she said recently, explaining why after so many years she wanted to talk about the experience.
Bremner, 25, grew up in the quiet Chicago suburb of Lisle, Ill., in a devout Catholic household. When she joined the Sports Performance Club as a 16-year-old, she, like many girls her age, had dreams of becoming an Olympic champion.
Butler, 40, showed special interest in her setting abilities from the beginning, she said. He often called her at home to talk about volleyball and later began coming over for dinner. As coach and protege became closer, the conversations grew more personal.
He once asked if she was a virgin, Bremner said, adding that he often talked about the players’ sexual experiences.
Butler’s stance on all this is markedly different.
“A decade later you can say anything you want about anybody and it’s pretty hard to prove right or wrong,” Butler said. “It seems if you say things about people you have to prove them. People are going to have to clearly back up the things that they say.”
Although uncomfortable with the subject of sex, Bremner brushed it aside, focusing on becoming an Olympian. An excerpt from Bremner’s diary in March of 1987, when she was 17, exemplified her devotion.
“I plan on playing my [butt] off,” she wrote about a tournament in Japan. “I mean giving until I cannot give any more. Then giving more.”
Bremner said Butler first kissed her on that trip after inviting her to his room to discuss strategy, as they often did. Afterward, Bremner said, Butler told her not to say anything. She had not intended to.
“I felt ashamed and dirty and didn’t want anybody to know,” Bremner said.
Said former teammate and schoolmate Laura Biggins, an insurance saleswoman in Glen Ellyn, Ill.: “Julie became like this machine. She wasn’t fun anymore. [Butler] controlled every thought and emotion she had.”
Bremner testified before volleyball officials that Butler had a sexual relationship with her for about 1 1/2 years, mostly while she played for him. The two other women, 30 and 27, reported similar experiences. The women, both national-level players in the 1980s, have not allowed their names to be used and refused to be interviewed.
After a yearlong investigation, the ethics and eligibility committee took the unprecedented action in July of expelling Butler. He can apply for conditional membership in five years if there is no evidence of further relations with minors and if he agrees in writing to not coach junior girls.
“The act by a coach of having sexual intercourse with a junior volleyball player entrusted to his care constitutes such immorality, lack of judgment and unacceptable behavior as to cause the United States Volleyball Assn., at the minimum, public embarrassment and ridicule by its merely having taken place,” the committee wrote.
Butler, who married his business partner last year, filed an appeal, which will be heard by USA Volleyball’s executive committee Monday. If necessary, he said he will appeal to the board of directors in December.
“I’m fighting for my life here,” he said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure what I feel is an injustice is righted.”
Although the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution expired for the cases of the women who testified at the volleyball hearing, the DuPage County (Ill.) grand jury is investigating Butler, said Thomas Epach, chief of special prosecutors. Investigators are trying to uncover new cases that could lead to an indictment.
But Butler said he was unfairly judged on allegations that were eight to 14 years old.
“I just think from the start it has been about hurting me and about hurting my family and hurting my business,” said Butler, who before the allegations was a candidate for coach of the U.S. men’s national team that will be training for the Sydney Olympics. “It has not been about righting any wrong or about saving or protecting anybody.”
Although the parents are proud of Bremner’s determination to have her case heard, they say she has been profoundly affected.
“She is a much more hardened person,” said Bob Bremner, her father. “She is much more skeptical and cynical about things in life.”
Bremner’s parents said Butler had admitted having sex with their daughter when she was 17.
“Now, he tells everybody she was 18, trying to change the emphasis,” said Joy Dooley, Bremner’s mother, who divorced her husband in 1989.
If the parents were so concerned, Butler asked, why did they let their youngest daughter, Bonnie, play for him last year?
The parents worry that the same thing could happen to Bonnie, who is one of the country’s best high school setters as a member of Sports Performance’s elite team. Butler’s expulsion by the USAV does not prevent him from coaching the youngsters who play for his club.
The parents want Bonnie to play elsewhere this year, but she refuses. They say they will not pay her $1,500 tuition for the coming season, but Bonnie, who lives with her father and stepmother, has been told by the club not to worry about where the money will come from.
“By the time I realized about Julie, Bonnie was entrenched,” said Dooley, a family counselor now living in Naperville, Ill. “I know she is not lost, just temporarily strayed. If I dare push too hard in any direction, I know I’ll lose her.”
Butler said he was advised not to coach Bonnie under the circumstances but elected to do so anyway.
“Bonnie has been very loyal to us,” he said. “This has ripped her apart. But I’m a coach, first and foremost. That’s what I do.”
When Bonnie made an official recruiting visit to UCLA recently, Bremner spent a lot of time with her. Like many sisters, they talked about almost everything--except Butler.
“I don’t hold a single thing against her,” Bremner said. “I know when she gets away from the program [she’ll be OK]. He uses Bonnie. She thinks she is happy; she thinks she is OK. I can hear myself when she talks about Rick.”
The parents refused to let Bonnie be interviewed.
Although Bremner wanted to forget her past, she said that she couldn’t as long as her sister and others she knew continued playing at Sports Performance, a successful club for girls and boys 12 to 18. Butler’s teams have won 28 national titles and produced about 160 college All-Americans.
Since disclosing, Bremner said female athletes in other programs and sports confided to her that they had experienced similar incidents with coaches. Most thanked Bremner for speaking out, because, they said, they didn’t have the strength.
“Why would I do this if it wasn’t true?” she asked. “What do I have to gain? I’ve lost so much by doing this. . . . All I’ve done is put my name, my reputation out there for others to look down on. I’ve caused my family a lot of pain and tons of money. I’m doing this because I believe it is really right.”
Even when volleyball officials pleaded with her not to talk about the case after Butler was expelled, Bremner continued.
In a letter sent to her Chicago attorney directing Bremner not to speak publicly, volleyball officials said further publicity would bolster Butler’s case in an appeal.
But it took Bremner six years to find the courage to tell her parents what she says happened. She was not about to let up.
“The hard thing about coming forward wasn’t that my parents wouldn’t believe me, but that they would believe me but do nothing about it because [my] volleyball was too important,” Bremner said.
That sense of insecurity followed Bremner after she left Sports Performance as the co-national high school player of the year in 1988. She accepted an athletic scholarship at Notre Dame, where she stayed less than a year. She then joined the U.S. national team in San Diego in ’89 and ’90.
When she decided to resume her education at UCLA in 1990, Bremner still was a lost soul.
“I hated myself,” said Bremner, who was questioning Catholicism. “I always had a lot of faith in God. I couldn’t even face God. Why would God want to talk to such a sinner like me?”
She began looking into other religions, and during her first year at UCLA, attended a few meetings of an L.A. church whose members were described as cult-like.
“I felt worthless,” Bremner said. “I was an easy target.”
An old boyfriend persuaded her not to join that church, and Bremner soon settled into a busy life of a student-athlete. She eventually became a born-again Christian and met her fiance, Brian Romias, at a church function four years ago.
Romias looks forward to the day Bremner can direct her energy toward medical school and their future. As for volleyball, the testimony kept her from competing for Team Nike in the Bud Light beach league, but she expects to return to competition next summer.
Romias, a third-year medical student at UC San Diego, said the ordeal has affected both of them, but he sees it as part of the healing process.
“It’s almost a soul-washing for her,” he said. “Talking about the issues has helped her a lot to just carry on.”
Still, Bremner needs reassurance, Romias added.
“She needs to know she is loved,” he said.