Victim reports sex offender's coaching role with Housatonic youth league

By Heather Bellow
Berkshire Eagle
July 19, 2019

Joseph Cahoon is pictured in 2005 while stationed at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in California. As a Marine, Cahoon did a humanitarian tour in East Timor, and one tour in Iraq. He said that what happened to him as a child was worse than war.

Joseph Cahoon was on Facebook when his childhood rapist's profile showed up on his screen in the "People you may know" section.

Cahoon followed the link and found that Victor Holcomb, the man who went to jail for sexually assaulting him for several years beginning when he was younger than 10, was coaching youth basketball in Housatonic, even though he remains a registered Level 2 sex offender.

Holcomb resigned in February, after the volunteer-run Housatonic Basketball League, also known as Housy Hoops, broadened criminal records background checks to include assistant coaches. The league had, since 2017, required only head coaches in the house and travel leagues submit to the check.

But seeing Holcomb's photo online last year sent Cahoon, a 39-year-old electrical engineer and former Marine Corps sergeant, into an emotional tailspin that led him to call local authorities and alert them to Holcomb's past.

In a 1993 statement to police, Cahoon said Holcomb molested and raped him, starting when Cahoon was 7 and Holcomb was 15.

"I'm falling apart," he said by phone from Englewood, Colo., where he lives. "It's all because of that picture."

Cahoon's case comes at a time when victims of childhood sexual abuse are speaking out in greater numbers in the wake of ongoing revelations of widespread abuse in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts and other institutions.

Cahoon said he was emboldened to go public after reading about a woman's billboard campaign in Great Barrington regarding sexual assaults in the former Sheffield Center School. The billboards were paid for by the mother of a man who claims that he was sexually assaulted in the janitor's room about four decades ago.

Holcomb was 22 when he pleaded guilty in 1995 to multiple counts of rape for assaults on Cahoon and another child, a girl who was between the ages of 9 and 14 during the assaults. Initially charged with multiple counts of forcible rape of a child, Holcomb pleaded guilty to lesser charges of rape with "no force," reducing his sentence and avoiding state prison. He was sentenced to 2 years in jail in Berkshire County.

Cahoon says that Holcomb, now 47, was 15 when he began the assaults on him and continued them for five years. Holcomb also had been charged with, but not prosecuted for, showing Cahoon pornography during those years.

Holcomb, who owns a plumbing business, denied at the time that he did any of this to Cahoon. He still says he never assaulted Cahoon. He only admits to having a relationship with the girl, and in his initial statement to police in 1993 said that he thought she was "maybe 10 or so."

Distraught that his past would be rehashed for this story, he told The Eagle that he was young during that time.

"My incident happened when I was 17-18 years," he wrote in an email. "I'm a 47-year-old man with family, house and a business to take care [of]."

Holcomb said that he understands that the term "sex offender" is frightening to people, but that he is the father of two sons and is not one of the "horrible people in this world who do a lot of bad things to children."

In her 1993 statement to police, the girl estimated that Holcomb had raped her more than 300 times over five years starting when she was 9 and Holcomb was a teenager.

Holcomb said he accepted the plea deal that included the charges in the Cahoon case to avoid a possible state prison sentence. "I regret every single day what happened 30 years ago and have been living with that ever since," he wrote.

Protecting children

Housy Hoops officials claim that subjecting Holcomb and the other assistant coaches to background checks in February was unrelated to the phone call police say they made to the league in response to Cahoon's complaint.

It was a parent who raised questions about a coach, according to Patrick Hanavan, the league's president.

"It was brought to my attention by a parent in the community that we may have a red-flag on our staff," he wrote to The Eagle in an email. Hanavan did not identify which coach had raised suspicions for the parent.

After seeing Holcomb's Facebook photos of him coaching children in March 2018, Cahoon said, he contacted various agencies, including the Berkshire District Attorney's Office and the Sex Offender Registry Board, to alert them. He said that he was told that if Holcomb was a registered sex offender, the league would know.

DA spokesman Dennis Yusko said that its Child Abuse Unit does not have a record of that 2018 call, but it did confirm that Cahoon called the office in February of this year. Yusko confirmed that the office then called the Great Barrington Police Department, following protocol upon receiving such information.

Police Chief William Walsh said Officer Jonathan Finnerty then contacted Housy Hoops, where Holcomb was an assistant volunteer travel team coach. He also contacted the the Sex Offender Registry Board and the DA's office about Holcomb's status.

"Finnerty was liaison between these parties to get everyone on the same page w[ith] the same information," Walsh wrote The Eagle in an email.

Hanavan said that he was in communication with Finnerty, and told him that all the coaches passed their background checks, and that Holcomb resigned when asked to complete the paperwork consenting to a CORI, or Criminal Offender Record Information, check.

For other youth sports leagues affiliated with a national organization, it's nearly impossible to avoid a background check, said Bob DeVergilio, president of the Great Barrington Little League.

Criminal checks are processed quickly through the official Little League Baseball website, he said. Any potential coach or umpire in any Little League affiliate has to be vetted this way.

"They are very thorough and vigilant," said DeVergilio. In the three years since DeVergilio has been with the Little League, he said he hasn't had to reject anyone for this reason.

"They remind you to do it when they know you have a new volunteer. They don't charge for it, even when we have to do 110 checks. So, there's no excuse to not check," DeVergilio said.

Under the radar

It might have been Holcomb's Level 2 sex offender status that made it harder for league officials to know.

The state classifies a Level 2 sex offender as one who has "a moderate risk of re-offending" and poses "a moderate degree of danger to the public."

Information about Level 1 sex offenders, who the state says pose a low risk of re-offending, is not available to the public. For the high-risk Level 3 sex offender, information is available online.

A person classified as a Level 2 offender before July 12, 2013, will not show up in an internet search. While it is public information, that status only is available through police and the state's Sex Offender Registry Board.

Holcomb had started as house league coach in 2012. But the league's criminal background checks were not instituted until 2017, after Hanavan was elected president and brought up the question of how the league should clear coaches for eligibility. The board vote to require background checks was unanimous.

Massachusetts is one of nine states requiring background checks for volunteers of nonschool youth sports and athletics. Hanavan said that it was the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandal that prompted him to act.

Hanavan, a licensed Team USA basketball coach who played youth and college basketball in Catholic schools in California, said Housy Hoops had safeguards in place during Holcomb's time at the local league. The group was founded more than 70 years ago and has 150 players from kindergarten to eighth grade. Travel team members range from third to eighth graders.

"In 2015, the league instituted a policy requiring that no coach may be with any child or children (other than his/her own children) unless accompanied by another coach or responsible adult and that there should always be at least two adults in the gym," Hanavan wrote in an email in response to questions from The Eagle.

Hanavan also said that he believes Holcomb only spent time alone with his own children, who also played in the league.

"I am not aware of Mr. Holcomb ever spending time alone with players outside of practices or games nor am I aware of him supervising players alone on trips for away games," Hanavan said.

Long-term impact

Cahoon says he still is trying to disentangle himself from the trauma of a childhood that involved what he called a predator always waiting for him at home.

"I was afraid to come home after school," he said. "If I unlocked the door and went in, he'd be there."

Cahoon says Holcomb assaulted him from 1987 to 1992. The assaults began after Cahoon's family moved into an East Street duplex next door to the Holcombs.

Cahoon said he lived in fear. When he walked home from school, he sometimes wouldn't go straight home. Instead, he took a circuitous route up through boulders on East Mountain, then down through the forest behind the house. Cahoon said he would hide among the trees above the park at Park and Quarry streets to see if Holcomb was home.

After the assaults stopped, Cahoon said, Holcomb made life miserable for him and his family through the years, blaming them for his arrest.

He said Holcomb and some in his family bullied and ostracized Cahoon's family, which continued after they had moved out of the duplex to the home they built on Alford Road, Cahoon added.

Cahoon said that, for years, and throughout a troubled adolescence, he had suppressed memories of the assaults. He struggled with himself, and in trusting others, he said. He said he still has nightmares.

"It took me 31 years to have a mental breakdown, and it changed my life," he said of the moment he saw Holcomb on Facebook and remembered exactly what had happened. He also began filing public records requests for police and court documents from that time.

His statement to Great Barrington police in 1993 reveals that, even when he was 13, he knew he had begun to suppress the memories.

"I have pretty much had long talks with myself and decided to try and put them out of my mind," he told Officer John Beckwith, who handled the case.

He couldn't talk to his parents in detail about the assaults, especially while they were happening.

"I also was very scared to tell anyone because I was afraid of what [Holcomb] might do. ... He never threatened me with harm but the feeling was there just the same," Cahoon said in his 1993 statement.

Cahoon's mother, Susan Patterson, said it was the state child welfare agency, then known as the state Department of Social Services, that learned of the assaults on Cahoon while helping the other child Holcomb was convicted of assaulting. Documents from the agency reviewed by The Eagle confirm this.

It was the agency that told local police, leading to more than 30 initial charges against Holcomb that included the assaults on both children, according to Patterson.

Cahoon said he is speaking out now to prevent other children from being abused, and to raise awareness about local youth sports leagues that might not be taking precautions.

Cahoon is now an X-ray equipment technician and salesman. As a Marine, he did a humanitarian tour in East Timor and one tour in Iraq, where he received medals for his work on communications equipment in a combat zone.

He said that what happened to him as a child on East Street was worse than war.

"I have anxiety attacks, flashbacks, seizures," he said. "I'll take war over that every day."



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