Thursday, December 02, 1999

'Coach' arrested for rape of boy

Florida school didn't know of Ohio man's past

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Until recently, students at Gulf Coast Christian Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla., knew Roy Puckelwartz as “Coach.”Even while under investigation in the 1993 rape of a 13-year-old boy at Midwestern Children's Home, the former foster care worker managed to avoid detection and move on to other jobs involving children.

        Before police in St. Petersburg arrested Mr. Puckelwartz late Wednesday at his home on two charges of rape involving the local boy, the head of the private school in Florida said he knew nothing of Mr. Puckelwartz's troubled past when he hired the 44-year-old preacher in September.

        Bill Alsup, administrator at Gulf Coast Christian Academy, said he fired Mr. Puckelwartz from his job as a gym teacher when Warren County detectives arrived at the school four weeks ago to confront Mr. Puckelwartz with the reopened investigation.

        “This is a terrible situation. It was an immediate termination,” Mr. Alsup said Wednesday.

        “He was very humble. He didn't try to defend himself or anything. I just said we cannot have even the suspicion of that kind of thing here.”

        Today, the experience sickens Mr. Alsup, who said the school did everything it could to check Mr. Puckelwartz's background when he was hired two months earlier to teach physical education to 125 students in kindergarten through grade 8.

        Fingerprints sent to the state of Florida showed that Mr. Puckelwartz did not have a criminal record, Mr. Alsup said.

        Mr. Puckelwartz's refer ences and job history were impressive. He taught at Redland Christian Academy in Miami in the late 1980s and had worked for a security firm in the Tampa Bay area more recently.

        His background as a minister also made him ripe for a job at the church-run school. Mr. Puckelwartz talked about preaching part time and full time in Canada and in the United States, including Michigan, Mr. Alsup said.

        “That particular stay in Ohio was never mentioned. He said he came from Michigan to Florida in 1993, and in '94, he pursued secular work,” Mr. Alsup said.

        It was Mr. Puckelwartz's experience in Michigan that led to his firing from Midwestern Children's Home in Harlan Township and eventually spurred the Warren County investigation, said Midwestern's executive director, Chris Jones. The foster care facility, operated by the Churches of Christ, takes referrals from agencies in six Tristate counties.

        Nine months after Mr. Puckelwartz and his wife, Bonnie, were hired as live-in supervisors at a group home for troubled youth on the Midwestern campus in April 1993, officials there received an unsettling phone call from a member of Mr. Puckelwartz's Michigan congregation.

        “Somebody in the congregation for whom he was preaching said that Roy had made a sexual overture to a young man, who was 16. We confronted Roy on that. He did not admit it, but we felt like it was such a serious thing given the nature of our work, we couldn't tolerate it. We fired him that day and removed him from the premises,” Mr. Jones said.

        “He had five or six boys in his care, so we notified the county (children services board). There were no allegations of anything here at that time. But where there's smoke, there's fire.”

        Three months after Mr. Puckelwartz was fired, the 13-year-old boy told Midwestern officials that Mr. Puckelwartz had raped him. Another boy reported that Mr. Puckelwartz had sexually abused him.

        Sheriff's detectives and children's services investigators looked into the allegations. But today, county officials can't explain why no charges were filed or what happened to the investigation.

        New allegations of sexual misconduct involving Mr. Puckelwartz surfaced this summer, when a third former resident called Mr. Jones. That spurred county officials to reopen the case.

        Mr. Jones described the allegation by the former resident, who is now an adult: “I would put it in the category of gross sexual imposition. It was a clear message on Roy's part that he was wanting sex.

        “If this young man had not come forward, I guess this thing would have sat there forever.”

        Sheriff's officials said their investigation is widening and more charges could be filed against Mr. Puckelwartz.

        Since 1994, the privately run facility for troubled youth has been checking national crime records through the FBI, using fingerprints, Mr. Jones said.

        Attempts to reach Mr. Puckelwartz on Wednesday were unsuccessful. St. Petersburg police were asked Wednesday night to arrest Mr. Puckelwartz on the Warren County warrant. He was taken into custody at 10:55 p.m. when he arrived at his residence.

        Mrs. Puckelwartz said earlier Wednesday that her husband was not aware of the indictment, although he knew charges were possible.

        Enquirer reporter William A. Weathers contributed to this story.


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