Through all the chaos and sorrow that swept through Joplin, Mo., after a devastating tornado in 2011, one man stood out.
David Scott Zimmerman of O’Hara, near Pittsburgh, consoled teens on Facebook, shipped T-shirts to boys who needed clothing and prodded a family to form a youth group in honor of their son, who died in the storm.
“He put himself out there for us,” said Shannon Hare, whose stepson, Lantz Hare, 16, was killed in the tornado. “We trusted him.”
Michael and Shannon Hare started the youth group, and Zimmerman helped.
But the relationship quickly soured. Zimmerman formed a new charity and took many of the Hares’ supporters with him.
There was something else. Zimmerman had a secret.
The story of David Zimmerman strikes at the heart of how states regulate youth groups and what information should be disclosed about the organizations and their staffs. The issues are especially timely in Pennsylvania, where new laws about adults who work with children have been proposed in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
How long should a person be held accountable for his or her past when kids are involved?
Zimmerman said PublicSource’s inquiries about his past amounted to a “witch hunt” and interfered with his work on behalf of needy kids.
A former teacher’s secret
In September 2011, Michael and Shannon Hare formed the LP Foundation in Joplin – LP for their son’s nickname, “Lantz Pantz.” Mike Hare, a construction equipment operator, was president. Zimmerman, who said he worked in advertising and printing, was treasurer.
The Hares said they Googled Zimmerman and found no red flags. He deflected personal questions, they said.
“We had no idea he was ever a teacher,” Shannon Hare said.
Zimmerman taught English and coached basketball and cross-country at Vincentian Academy in McCandless, north of Pittsburgh, in the 1990s.
In 1998, an athlete accused Zimmerman of abusive behavior. An investigator for Duquesne University, which operated Vincentian, concluded that allegations by the athlete and other boys were credible, according to records in a civil lawsuit filed in 2000.
Zimmerman was forced to resign and Vincentian agreed not to comment on the resignation, according to a pretrial statement in a lawsuit.
Vincentian had already notified McCandless police, who interviewed 13 boys. They told police that Zimmerman had used sexually derogatory language about players, asked questions about their sex lives, showed them pornography at his home, compelled them to simulate masturbation and oral sex and goaded them to slap one another’s testicles in an initiation rite called “duping.” They said he had insisted on a code of silence, according to police reports filed in federal court records.
When police interviewed Zimmerman, he denied the allegations.
Police charged him with simple assault and corruption of minors, according to McCandless police records.
In 2001, Zimmerman, then 33, was convicted of corrupting the morals of a minor. One court document describes a negotiated guilty plea; another refers to a no-contest plea. His attorney has described the charge as failing to prevent a boy from engaging in obscene behavior.
The judge barred him from contacting his victims or engaging in work with children for one year.
“I did not plea to anything in that case,” Zimmerman said when interviewed recently by PublicSource.
He said the charges were dropped and expunged, a judicial procedure where documents are sealed or removed from the public record.
“This was over with and done,” he said.
He made a similar argument in a lawsuit brought by parents who claimed Zimmerman had assaulted their son. He countersued for malicious prosecution, stating that criminal charges were withdrawn and he had never been guilty of assault or corruption of minors.
A common pleas judge rejected that. “It did not end in a ‘favorable manner,’” wrote Judge Cynthia Baldwin. She called his case “frivolous” and said in a memorandum opinion that “there is no basis in fact or law to support this claim” of malicious prosecution.
In 2001, Zimmerman was charged by federal officials with possession of child pornography, according to federal court records. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months, but was allowed to remain free while he challenged the search warrant.
In 2002, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the search improper. The charge was dismissed.
Then, in 2008, he was charged with sexual assault of a 20-year-old man in a Harmar motel. The prosecutor withdrew three felony charges and Zimmerman pleaded no contest to simple assault, a misdemeanor, according to court filings. He was put on probation for one year.
By the time of the Joplin tornado, nothing legally restricted Zimmerman from working with young people.
A body in the morgue
The Joplin tornado was the deadliest in America in 47 years. It killed 161 people and injured more than 1,000.
Moments before the twister touched down, Lantz Hare pulled his mother’s Chevrolet Lumina into a supermarket parking lot. He was missing for four days. Mike Hare appealed for help on CNN.
All along, his 16-year-old son’s unidentified body had been in the morgue.
Zimmerman left a telephone message, Shannon Hare said, offering to send 50 free T-shirts with Lantz’s picture to give to his friends. Zimmerman’s offer set him apart from hundreds of callers.
“Of course I said that would be awesome,” Mike Hare said. “That’s how he got his foot in the door.”
Zimmerman arranged for three Joplin 18-year-olds to come to Pittsburgh in summer 2011. One, Joel King, was one of Lantz’s friends, and the tornado had destroyed his house.
His mother, Rhonda Hatfield, said she agreed with Zimmerman that her son needed to get away.
Zimmerman took the boys to a Pirates baseball game and a Steelers preseason football game, King recalled. They stayed at the house of one of Zimmerman’s friends, and Zimmerman slept on a couch in another room.
“He bought us alcohol every night,” King, now 19, said. “He said drinking was a Pittsburgh tradition, so we drank every night.”
Zimmerman, he said, was “cool.”
Zimmerman denied staying at the house and said he picked the boys up in the morning and dropped them off at night. “I highly doubt” alcohol was served, he said in a telephone interview with PublicSource.
Who’s in charge?
Mike Hare said Zimmerman “rushed us to start a foundation.”
Then the Hares and Zimmerman clashed.
“I screamed at him,” Mike Hare said. “This is my son’s foundation! And he said, ‘No, it’s my foundation!’”
Zimmerman took control of the group’s Facebook members and moved them to a new group.
Last year, papers were filed in Florida for the Y.E.A. Foundation. It stands for youth development, extreme sports and art talent. Zimmerman was listed as president and the mailing address was Okeechobee, Fla.
“The general rule for an organization that’s on the up-and-up,” said Matthew Downey, program director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, is to be “very open about everything.”
Staff and board members should be identified, he said. Financial information should be available, particularly for new organizations without a track record.
Y.E.A.’s website and two Facebook pages show no financial information and do not identify officers. Zimmerman kept his name and picture off the pages, according to Doug Baker, a volunteer from Illinois who set up the website.
Zimmerman described himself as the guy who does not need to be known or seen, according to Richard O’Bryan, a retired teacher from Ambridge, who was briefly the Y.E.A. spokesman.
Several people familiar with Zimmerman’s activities in the past two years said they saw no inappropriate behavior, including boys who traveled with him, parents of boys and volunteers who saw him with boys.
Mostly, Y.E.A. is not a “hands-on organization” and there is little adult contact with children, according to Zimmerman. He said he identifies young people and families who need financial help and gives it to them.
He estimated that he has spent $5,500 of his own money and said Y.E.A. has raised about $1,200 in donations.
“I’m the biggest donor,” he said. “Nobody made money off this. There is no salary.”
“Everybody has a right to make a living,” said David Heckler, the Bucks County district attorney who chaired Pennsylvania’s Task Force on Child Protection. “But most of us make a living without getting unique access to kids, especially on the road and without parents present at a point where they are particularly vulnerable to an adult.”
The General Assembly created the task force in response to the Sandusky scandal. The former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach was convicted last year of sexually molesting 10 boys and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. He met most of his victims at his Second Mile charity for underprivileged youth.
The task force recently recommended a law that would require adults who apply for jobs that involve direct care of a child to get background clearances. Another proposal would create a state database of all reports of child abuse, including unfounded allegations, to enable officials to detect patterns of abuse.
The proposals are aimed at licensed organizations, like day care centers. Unlicensed nonprofit groups are difficult to monitor, Heckler said.
The proposed database would not include expunged criminal cases or unfounded child abuse investigations.
The very purpose of youth organizations, according to a guide from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to help young people become healthy adults, often by nurturing relationships between adults and children.
“But that same closeness ... can also provide the opportunity for abuse to occur,” said the guide.
The CDC advocates screening employees and volunteers, strict guidelines on interactions between children and adults, and close monitoring of adults working with children.
So what can parents do to check on an unregulated youth group?
Ask a lot of questions, said Downey, the philanthropy expert.
Use common sense, Heckler said. “If some guy is hanging around kids and seeking a position of power, at least have some healthy skepticism.”
‘A normal guy’
Last summer, Zimmerman took four Joplin boys to St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
They stayed at Zimmerman’s house for a couple of weeks. They skateboarded and went to a Pirates game, according to one of the boys, who was then 15. Recently, the boy saw a PublicSource story about Zimmerman’s activities at Vincentian Academy. He was surprised and said he had not seen any inappropriate conduct.
“He was just like a normal guy.”
Parents and volunteers said they felt betrayed when they learned of the Vincentian case.
Baker, the Web consultant and Y.E.A.’s “member of the year” for 2012, returned the award and took down the website.
O’Bryan, the former spokesman, disassociated himself from the group and urged his Facebook members to do the same.
Zimmerman said everything he’s done with Y.E.A. has been “above board.”
“Why me?” he asked. Why after so many years is his conduct being singled out?
Attorney Edward Olds wrote a letter to PublicSource on behalf of Zimmerman. He said a June PublicSource story about Zimmerman “contained gross and reckless inaccuracies and has caused Mr. Zimmerman significant injury. It now comes to our attention that you are deliberately attempting to undermine his charitable activity and subvert the good works of the Y.E.A. Foundation.”
Olds did not respond to requests to identify any inaccuracies when contacted by telephone, email and certified mail. The Hares were unaware of the Vincentian case until recently.
“It breaks our hearts,” Shannon Hare said.
“My son died,” Mike Hare said. “David Zimmerman took advantage of me when I was at my lowest.”
Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org.