The teenage girl said she was "trapped for three years" in a prison of anger, "feeling terrified and ashamed." But she said nothing about the Elk River youth soccer coach, who is now charged with sexually assaulting her when she was 14.
Eric James Hawkins, a coach with no criminal background, had been banned by the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association (MYSA) at the time of the alleged assaults. But with no criminal history and without a requirement to list a suspension by the MYSA in a background check, there were no red flags for officials at two metro-area school districts where Hawkins worked as a coach in the past two years.
Background checks also would not have turned up a string of soccer-related lawsuits and interleague intrigue involving Hawkins, who authorities say changed his name years ago.
But a week after Hawkins, 44, appeared in Sherburne County District Court and the charges were reported in the national media, officials in the Rockford and Robbinsdale school districts, who had run background checks on the coach, were stunned.
"We did a thorough background check," said Michael Smith, superintendent of the Rockford School District, where Hawkins coached the boys' soccer team last fall. Smith said Hawkins will no longer coach at Rockford High School. The school district on Monday sent letters to families of the high school boys' soccer team, alerting them to Hawkins' status.
Hawkins' Minneapolis attorney, Mark Jason Miller, said Tuesday he welcomes the opportunity to show that "all these allegations are not true." He noted that even after Hawkins was charged on Nov. 21, he was allowed to leave Minnesota to work in South Carolina. Hawkins continues to hold residence in Elk River, as he has in the past when he has worked in other states for months at a time, Miller said.
At Robbinsdale Cooper High School, Hawkins was a volunteer assistant boys soccer coach two years ago. "He was a volunteer, but he did go through our whole system of checks," said John Oelfke, activities director at the high school. "I just don't know how you can predict these kinds of actions with nothing in the background."
And when TestQuest, a Chanhassen technology company, used a recruiting service to hire Hawkins in November 2006 as a network architect engineer, "the usual background checks were done and there were no issues with him," said Sarat Kakumanu, Hawkins' supervisor until Hawkins left the company in November.
Critics and friends agree Hawkins is a husband and father of three who knows and loves soccer, a man Kakumanu said was "a pretty good guy ... who worked well with people." Parents whose children played for Hawkins -- including the father of the victim in the sexual-assault case -- said Hawkins went out of his way to look after children, sometimes taking them out to restaurants after practices and games.
Quarrels with youth league
Hawkins' attorney Miller alluded Tuesday to "territory battles" between Minnesota soccer associations and said he hoped the "real story" eventually is told.
Soccer-related lawsuits, filed on behalf and against Hawkins, include a defamation suit in which he agreed in Hennepin County District Court in 2006 to pay $220,000 as part of a settlement to the MYSA. Hawkins was one of a half-dozen people to circulate e-mail defaming MYSA officials and the association, said MYSA executive director Candace Daley.
In late 2002, MYSA issued a four-year suspension to Hawkins for sideline behavior that included "inappropriate language" and "taunting."
But, according to court documents, Hawkins was seen carrying a whistle, wearing coaching apparel and giving direction to soccer players at Rogers High School three times in April 2004 by private investigator Grant E. Beise. Beise, a former FBI agent, was hired by the MYSA-affiliated Three Rivers Soccer Association to see whether Hawkins was coaching after the suspension.
Even if Rockford and Cooper high school officials had been aware of his MYSA suspension, Hawkins could still coach teams under the umbrellas of other youth associations, or high school teams.
Hawkins had no criminal record in Minnesota or in Texas, where he was also known as Eric J. Woodard, Texas authorities said Tuesday.
On July 9, 2006, after a young girl was invited to a sleepover at Hawkins' Elk River home, the girl's older sister had an emotional breakdown that landed her, hours later, in the teen-psychiatric unit at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, in Minneapolis, her father told the Star Tribune.
"The thought of my sister staying overnight at his house pushed me over the edge," the girl, now 17, told the Star Tribune on Monday, as her father listened to her be interviewed. The Star Tribune, by policy, does not reveal the identity of sexual assault victims.
For three years, the girl was like a simmering pot about to boil, her father said. Her anger would turn to frustration and then talk of cutting herself, the father said.
During her five days at Fairview, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, her secret came out.
"I felt like a totally new person," she said. "Do you know what it's like to hide your real feelings for three years?"
She did not meet with authorities until speaking to Elk River Police Investigator Eric Balabon on Jan. 22, 2007 -- six months after her trip to the hospital. "I was afraid," she said.
According to court documents: In the winter of 2004-05, Hawkins, a longtime family friend, was taking the girl to a soccer clinic in Plymouth when he pulled over on a road unfamiliar to the girl. Hawkins insisted that the girl remove her shirt and bra, then told her she needed to remove her pants. Hawkins then touched the girl, even though she asked him to stop. He then threw $25 at her, court records say.
In the fall of 2005, Hawkins was driving the girl to a soccer game when he pulled his car over, unbuttoned his pants and exposed himself to her, court records state. Hawkins then forced the girl to touch him. She pulled away, telling him it was "gross."
Hawkins is next scheduled to appear in Sherburne County court April 4. At a hearing in Elk River last Wednesday, Hawkins declined to acknowledge questions asked by a reporter.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419