In late 2019, North Carolina gym owner Julie O'Brien called a competitor to warn that one of her former cheerleading coaches, Darius "DJ" Williams, had been arrested amid accusations he sexually assaulted a young athlete.
O'Brien said she assumed the owners of Cheer Extreme, a gym Williams had joined nearby, didn't know he faced criminal charges. Williams was accused of repeatedly abusing a 14-year-old boy, including at a sleepover with athletes, according to law enforcement and court records.
"They were concerned," she said. "They acted like they were concerned."
Yet over the next year and a half, Williams practiced alongside fellow athletes, taught lessons and posed in Cheer Extreme team photos, according to a dozen social media posts, including some from team accounts. The 26-year-old, whose criminal case is pending and who denies the allegations, told USA TODAY gym officials have been well aware of his charges since 2019.
"They didn’t believe it," Williams said. "They knew who I am."
Over the past three decades, Cheer Extreme Allstars has become a powerful force in the world of competitive cheerleading, drawing thousands of athletes to its gyms and raking in more than a thousand titles, according to its website.
A USA TODAY investigation found those accolades belie a troubling record on child protection. Owners and officials at several Cheer Extreme locations have disregarded allegations of sexual misconduct against athletes and coaches, in some cases allowing those accused to move from one gym to another, where new accusations emerged.
Last year, USA TODAY revealed pervasive failures across the sport of competitive cheerleading, including how the governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF), delayed investigations and failed to prevent those accused or convicted of crimes from working in member gyms. The news organization detailed sexual misconduct allegations against celebrity cheerleader Jerry Harris, who has been arrested and pleaded not guilty to federal charges. USASF has since hired a consulting firm to strengthen its policies and enforcement.
Problems persist. USA TODAY found individuals USASF suspended or banned continued to participate in the sport. And this week, twin cheerleaders sued USASF and another powerhouse cheer company, Cheer Athletics, accusing the organizations of failing to act when the women anonymously reported allegations against an owner. Cheer Athletics initially denied wrongdoing but deleted the statement, apologizing for the tone. USASF said it does not comment on litigation.
Members of the cheerleading community who spoke with USA TODAY said they were frustrated by the gaps in athlete protection. Several of them cited Cheer Extreme as an example of how the desire to win, coupled with USASF's weak policies, can put the sport's children at risk.
USASF suspended Williams last August, nearly a year after his arrest and as USA TODAY prepared to publish an article about the sport's anemic list of banned coaches. That has not stopped him from being at Cheer Extreme.
USASF Vice President of Membership Amy Clark, who declined to be interviewed, previously told USA TODAY a suspension or ban means that an individual can't take part in any USASF-sanctioned event. Outside that, she said, she expects gym owners would check the list of flagged individuals and "make the decision to not allow that person to interact with minors."
W. Scott Lewis, managing partner at TNG, the company that USASF hired to conduct investigations and review its child protection policies, declined to speak about specific cases but said the sport faces "a culture change." In a departure from Clark's comments, Lewis said he would recommend that USASF no longer permit its gyms to be affiliated with suspended or banned coaches and that it sanction individuals who fail to comply.
"I can tell you what we're doing moving forward, which is that's a violation and we would investigate and sanction accordingly or recommend sanctions [to USASF]," Lewis said.
Help USA TODAY investigate misconduct in cheerleading
If you are an athlete, parent, coach, gym owner or someone else with a connection to cheer, we want to hear your story.
Cheer Extreme said in a statement that it has "zero tolerance for any kind of inappropriate or illegal behavior."
"We meet all requirements of the USASF, and in addition, we do extensive background checks, continual training on the signs of grooming and abuse for all of our staff, and have strict rules for communications between coaches and athletes," the company said.
Three of Cheer Extreme's locations are owned by sisters Courtney Smith-Pope and Kelly Helton, members of the family that founded the company. The other eight locations are under separate ownership and pay a licensing fee to use the Cheer Extreme brand.
Smith-Pope declined to be interviewed. In a statement, she said Williams "was not welcome in our facilities," a point she said she reiterated to staff when she learned he showed up at the Charlotte gym. That location closed this year. Smith-Pope said Cheer Extreme has never hired or paid Williams and any coaching Williams did was individual lessons booked by parents "with no Cheer Extreme knowledge or involvement."
Williams appears in at least half a dozen Instagram photos that official Cheer Extreme team accounts posted after his arrest. Williams told USA TODAY that Charlotte gym director Tez Parker is a close friend who asked him for input during practices. Williams said Parker connected him with families seeking cheer lessons after Williams lost his job teaching middle school, when he was charged with two counts of felony criminal sexual conduct with a minor.
Williams insisted he is not a coach.
“What you’re seeing from the outside is like, ‘Oh, you're a coach,’” he said. "But no, I’m just a glorified spectator, I guess, if you want to call it that."
In two photos taken this spring during a cheer competition in Florida, Williams posed beside Cheer Extreme athletes while wearing a Cheer Extreme team outfit, the word "Coach" emblazoned on his shorts.
Williams said he attended the competition as a spectator and parents from the team bought him the branded outfit "because they thought I played a vital role in helping their kids get there." He said he was allowed to practice with a Cheer Extreme team because "we were hoping" that the charges would be dropped before the competition season began.
Two days after USA TODAY told Cheer Extreme officials how Williams described his involvement at the gym, the company provided a statement from Parker in which he said Williams was "immediately removed" from the program when officials learned of the allegations.
Soon after, Williams sought to change his story in a brief text message to USA TODAY.
"I was told I couldn’t be at the gym by the Charlotte staff," Williams wrote. "[Staff] communicated this to me when I showed up at the gym."
'I wish they would have removed him'
For cheerleaders who want a chance at a title, Cheer Extreme is a good bet.
Since the company was founded in 1992, it has expanded to locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Illinois. Spots are coveted on the gym's marquee teams and at its flagship location in Kernersville, North Carolina. It isn't uncommon for parents to drive two hours or more to practice. Athletes who live farther away stay with host families or relocate for the season.
USA TODAY spoke with nearly two dozen former Cheer Extreme athletes, parents and employees, most from the North Carolina locations owned by the family that founded the company. Many described a win-at-all-costs culture inside their Cheer Extreme gym, where the pursuit of perfection was prioritized over an athlete's well-being. Though some athletes thrive under Cheer Extreme's exacting standards, other families said the gym was a toxic and dangerous place.
Under the company's code of conduct, families with concerns must first contact the designated "team mom," then the gym director, then a head coach before calling an owner – and there are no exceptions for situations concerning child welfare. The code of conduct cautions: "Anonymous emails/ letters/texts, etc. will be ignored."
Dr. Yetsa Tuakli-Wosornu, director of the Sports Equity Lab, an independent research group studying inequities in sport, said the multistep process for reporting concerns, coupled with the gym’s position on anonymous reports, can create an environment in which predators flourish.
"Making the podium doesn't necessarily mean that you have to sacrifice your own values, your intentions, your integrity, your athlete's joy and well-being along the way," she said.
In 2018, Sabrina Miller followed the rules laid out in Cheer Extreme's code of conduct and went first to a team mom in Raleigh to report that a male athlete, Nore Simmons, 19, sent her daughter Kiara Cox sexually charged messages that made her uncomfortable. In one message reviewed by USA TODAY, Cox attempted to rebuff passes from a man she said was Simmons by reminding him that she was a minor, 16 years old. "It's the age of consent," the man replied.
Miller said the team mom she talked to about Simmons replied, "Oh no, not again." She said the gym had had problems with Simmons messaging underage athletes and promised to take care of the matter.
Cox said she continued to hear from Simmons, a dozen times over three weeks in late 2018, even though she largely ignored him, messages show.
"I wish they would have removed him from the gym right then and not waited for it to happen again to somebody else," Cox said. "They were just waiting for it to be bad enough that they could kick him out, as if it wasn't bad enough from the start."
Simmons moved to the company's Maryland gym, where he occasionally coached. He continued messaging underage athletes, according to interviews, social media posts and screenshots of messages provided to USA TODAY.
Cheerleader Alexa Ryan Amendola said Simmons reached out to her on social media when she was 13 and continued for years, even after he moved to the Maryland location. Amendola, who is not a Cheer Extreme athlete, shared screenshots of messages with USA TODAY that show an individual she said was Simmons telling her, "Even tho ur 13 ur really cute," "I wish u were older" and "U are hot asf."
Amendola and Cox are two of at least four athletes who posted accusations of misconduct against Simmons on social media last September. An official from Cheer Extreme's Waldorf, Maryland, location responded on Twitter to the allegations, saying Simmons had only cheered there for a season and was no longer with the program. Amendola said she found his comment dismissive.
"It's not the program's fault for the incident happening," Amendola said. "It's the program's fault for not doing anything about it."
Cheer Extreme Raleigh owner Kelly Helton declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, she said she removed Simmons from her gym when she learned he was "sending girls unwelcome messages." She said she hadn't realized he moved to another Cheer Extreme location until she saw him onstage at a competition months later. At that point, she said, she notified the Maryland gym's owners and coaches. Helton said those owners removed Simmons when the additional allegations surfaced on social media last September.
Officials from the Maryland location did not respond to requests for comment.
Simmons could not be reached for comment. Last September, in response to the allegations against him on social media, Simmons posted a statement on Twitter: "I truly apologize if I made anyone feel uncomfortable." He said he had requested that he be permanently banned from the sport.
It is unclear whether he is still involved in cheerleading, but he is not on USASF's list of banned individuals.
Hired to coach despite criminal record
Cheer Extreme failed to keep someone with a lengthy criminal record from coaching its athletes.
Joshua Caudill had at least 11 misdemeanor convictions when Cheer Extreme hired him in 2018 to coach at its Roanoke, Virginia, location. In Washington state, Caudill was convicted of obstructing a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest after he fought with officers responding to a call about him trying to break into a woman’s home, court records show. In Virginia, he attacked a stranger outside a coffee shop with no provocation and was convicted of assault, according to an interview and court records. In Arizona, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after yelling profanities at customers outside a taco restaurant and walking shirtless through the drive-thru before getting in a physical fight with several patrons, court and police records state.
Six months after joining Cheer Extreme, Caudill was charged with rape.
The woman was not associated with cheerleading. The prosecutor handling the case in Bedford County, Virginia, told USA TODAY his office found troubling messages on Caudill's cellphone that showed he was "very aggressive" about developing close relationships with underage athletes.
"There was definitely a false front that he provided to most of the people that he interacted with. I think the young women that he had interactions with, however, saw a whole different side of his character," Bedford County Commonwealth Attorney Wes Nance said. "Dealing with Josh Caudill took a lot of vigilance. You had to see behind the false face that he had."
Becky Fleitz, who owned Cheer Extreme Roanoke before it closed, said in a statement that she relied on Caudill's USA Gymnastics membership and background check when he was hired. She said "an additional baseline background check" revealed nothing "that alerted us to any potential issue."
Caudill, who prison officials said declined to be interviewed, pleaded guilty to felony rape and is serving a 7½-year prison sentence while facing prosecution in another rape case.
Kayla Cotten, the survivor in the first rape case, said she pursued charges in part because she knew Caudill was a coach and worried about him being around young athletes.
"Cheer Extreme should be completely shut down for being so neglectful and in hiring somebody who had such a checkered and violent past," Cotten said. "They should be held responsible for every person that they put at risk because they enabled him."
'I felt very duped'
In two cases investigated by USA TODAY, some of the accused's fiercest defenders were members of the Cheer Extreme community.
Gidget Medford said she faced skepticism from the moment she called Cheer Extreme Charlotte in August 2018 to report that one of the gym's coaches had sexually assaulted her 16-year-old daughter, Gabriela. The teen was not a cheerleader but had met the coach, Curtis Rucker, 34, through a Cheer Extreme athlete she knew from high school. Gabriela told USA TODAY she was at a sleepover at the friend's home when Rucker rubbed her leg and forced his hand into her underwear.
Medford said she told the gym official police were investigating. She said the woman asked her to let the gym know if Rucker was arrested.
"She was definitely giving me the vibe that if he had not been arrested, or I didn't have concrete proof, then it pretty much wasn't their place to take any action," she said.
Within weeks, Rucker was charged with felony second-degree forced sexual offense and misdemeanor sexual battery.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Smith-Pope said the gym fired Rucker "as soon as we learned of the charges." Four months after Rucker was arrested, Smith-Pope's husband paid Rucker for "work on the gym," according to a receipt from Venmo, an online payment app. Smith-Pope said Rucker helped clean out the gym when the building was vacated.
Rumors about Rucker had circulated among North Carolina's tumbling community for years. After his arrest, a mother from a different gym wrote on Facebook that it should be "a wake up call to all those parents and coaches that KNEW something wasn't right with that guy, but did nothing." Another woman filed a report with police in North Carolina saying she heard Rucker had been flirtatious with a young athlete at a gym years earlier, records show. Police closed the case after a brief investigation without contacting the athlete.
USA TODAY spoke to the athlete referenced in that police report as well as to a second athlete who said Rucker acted inappropriately toward her when she was a minor. The news organization agreed not to name them because they allege misconduct at the time they were minors.
The woman referenced in the police report told USA TODAY Rucker began sending her sexual text messages and calling her his girlfriend when she was 14 and at times touched between her legs while helping her stretch at the gym.
The second woman, a former Cheer Extreme athlete, said she met Rucker in middle school. Unlike other Cheer Extreme coaches who were stern and distant, Rucker was affable, she said, and asked about her personal life. More than once over the years he coached her, Rucker flirted and told her he would date her if she were older, she recalled. In one screenshot shared with USA TODAY, Rucker sent the woman a photo on Snapchat in which he pointed to his cheek and beckoned her to kiss him.
The woman said though Rucker had coached her on and off for years, no one from Cheer Extreme approached her after his arrest to ask how he had treated her. And she never brought it up, fearing Cheer Extreme’s coaches and owners would look at her differently as an athlete if they knew what had happened.
"We're a very big gym, and we have a very big name. And to have something this big happen and get out in public and people are talking about it, it just puts a bad label on our name," she said. "I think that's why they swept it under the rug."
Rucker could not be reached for comment.
SUBSCRIBE: Help support quality journalism like this.
Last year, he pleaded guilty to a lesser felony charge of crime against nature. Under the agreement with prosecutors, Rucker maintained that he was innocent but was sentenced to up to 15 months in jail, a term suspended if he does not reoffend while on probation.
Gabriela Medford, now 19, said she went to police because she feared Rucker would harm someone else. That made it all the more disheartening when the gym brushed off her mother's call.
Later, she scrolled through Facebook comments on an article about Rucker’s arrest in which parents from Cheer Extreme rushed to his defense, calling it "an isolated incident" not connected to the gym and decrying that the allegations "could possibly destroy an innocent man’s life."
Back at high school that fall, Medford said, Cheer Extreme athletes she had been friends with stopped talking to her and spread rumors throughout the school about what had happened.
"Walking down the hallway, people were staring at me, whispering," she said. "Everything you see in the movies actually happened."
Of all the hurtful things said about her during that time, Medford said, one piece of gossip stung the most: that she had made it all up.
"I just didn't like everyone saying that I lied about it," she said.
In 2017, at another Cheer Extreme location 800 miles away, a young cheerleader felt similarly unsupported when she sought a civil no-contact order against her former coach.
Caitlin Calip, then 16, said she fought back tears as she watched parents, coaches and Cheer Extreme Chicago owner Natalie Shapiro file past her in an Illinois courtroom to huddle around and support Michael Harmon, the coach whom Caitlin said had sent her inappropriate messages on Snapchat.
The first, a photo of his penis, arrived on her cellphone with no warning in the middle of the school day, Calip told USA TODAY. Her mother, Christine, said she learned of the messages and quickly filed a report with police and petitioned for a no-contact order.
"I was just super angry that I trusted someone with my children, and I thought he was a good guy," Christine said. "I thought Mike was like that one coach that really just believes in kids. So I felt very duped."
USA TODAY found at least four other people have accused Harmon of inappropriate conduct, such as sending explicit photos and messages to them when they were minors, according to interviews and police records. Two of the accusations came from Harmon's time as a coach at Cheer Extreme Raleigh, where he worked before joining the company's Illinois gym. One of those allegations was reported to Raleigh police in February by an individual who accused Harmon of "Sex Offense/Indecent Exposure" starting in late 2015, records show.
Harmon, who has not faced criminal charges, denied Calip's allegations, telling USA TODAY "that got dropped because it was all B.S." He did not respond to requests for comment on the other allegations made against him.
Helton, the Raleigh gym owner, said in a statement that she received an allegation in 2015 that Harmon had sent a message "that made one of my athletes uncomfortable." She said she spoke with Harmon, the athlete and her mother, and they said it was a misunderstanding and they didn't want Harmon removed from the gym.
"Just recently, the athlete shared with me that there was more to the story than I knew at the time," Helton said. "I am heartbroken by this revelation because the safety of my athletes is always my number one priority."
USASF requires all members to report allegations of sexual misconduct within their programs to the governing body and, when required by law, to law enforcement. Helton did not respond to USA TODAY’s questions about whether she reported Harmon to police or USASF.
It does not appear Helton disclosed the allegations to Cheer Extreme officials in Illinois when Harmon moved there in 2016. Shapiro, the owner of that location, told USA TODAY she was unaware of any allegations beyond Caitlin Calip's.
At the hearing in 2017 on the Calips' petition for a no-contact order, Harmon admitted FaceTiming Caitlin about cheerleading and exchanging messages with her on Snapchat, but he denied wrongdoing. The Calip family was not represented by an attorney, and transcripts from the hearing indicate the judge was frustrated by the mother's lack of legal knowledge. The family did not have copies of the photos they said Harmon sent on Snapchat, an application on which messages disappear after being opened.
The judge ruled in Harmon’s favor, citing "no credible evidence to support the allegations of the sending of the inappropriate photographs through SnapChat." Police in Schaumburg, Illinois, deemed the allegations "unfounded."
Harmon coached at Cheer Extreme for at least a year and a half after the court hearing, social media posts show.
"Since we did not know of any further allegations, we saw no reason to end his employment with us," said Shapiro, the Illinois gym owner.
It is unclear when Harmon's tenure at the company ended, but he told USA TODAY he no longer works in the cheer industry.
Caitlin Calip said being doubted by members of a gym she loved was a devastating experience, leaving her numb and feeling alone.
When she learned that Helton acknowledged receiving an allegation against Harmon before he moved to the Illinois gym, Calip said it offended her that the gym had prioritized Harmon over athlete safety.
"You put pretty much every single child in that program at that gym in harm's way and didn't let anyone know about it – knowing that you had these allegations and it happened already once before," Calip said.
Her mother said Harmon should never have coached her daughter.
"They just shuffled him from gym to gym," Christine said. "They should have stopped him a long time ago."
Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny are reporters on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. Marisa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855. Tricia can be reached email@example.com or @TriciaNadolny.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cheer gym has titles – and a tarnished record on child sexual abuse