Tutor: 'I've taken to fondling' the students
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Journals by tutor Phillip Distasio detail his sexual abuse of young autistic boys while a tutor at a Cleveland school.
An 8-year-old boy began acting out in sexual ways.
His mother feared something bad had happened at school, so she asked whether someone was touching her son inappropriately.
School officials assured her that her son's behavior was normal for an autistic child. They suggested she take a class on puberty for special-needs children.
Two-and-a-half years later, the mother learned the numbing truth: Former tutor Phillip Distasio had molested about a dozen boys during the three years he worked at PEP Harbor School in Cleveland.
"Now, when I walk into a school, I wonder what's the motive when I see a guy in the school -- because of Mr. Distasio," the mother told a judge before the confessed pedophile received 26 life sentences last December. "This guy made my son into a freak."
Distasio's case is one of 246 that the Ohio Department of Education has labeled "confidential," keeping secret the details of what he did. The state will disclose only that Distasio was convicted of a sex crime.
In more than 70 percent of the secret cases, the state will not release even the most basic information -- the nature of the allegation, the school where the educator worked or whether students were involved.
The Dispatch reviewed police and court records; talked to detectives, victims' families and their attorney; and corresponded by mail with Distasio to tell the story of the tutor who preyed on the young, autistic boys in his classroom.
Distasio, now 35 and imprisoned in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville, wrote in school composition notebooks about what he did to the Harbor School boys.
Jan. 24, 2001: I've taken to fondling and touching the kids inappropriately. Okay, molesting them.
After dropping out of Ohio State University, Distasio, a native of New Hampshire, moved to Cleveland and began his twisted quest for a boy. He applied to several schools for a job as an aide.
In the fall of 2000, he joined the staff at PEP Harbor, a nonprofit school established to teach Cuyahoga County's autistic children. Many could not speak and, developmentally, were no older than a toddler.
Distasio had been on the job less than two months when he was first warned about the "level of closeness" he displayed with some boys.
He deflected the concerns by saying it was nothing more than professional interest and curiosity.
May 16, 2001: I got yelled at yesterday for playing with J… Did I out myself? Am I being overly flirtatious?
To protect the identities of the children, The Dispatch refers to them only by the first letter of their first name.
Distasio's first school assignment involved helping teens. He hated it. He wanted to be with boys between the ages of 6 and 9.
Distasio was an active member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a group that wants to legalize sex between adults and children.
He visited chat rooms and blogged about his sexual desires for a boy. Watchdogs who troll the Internet for predators saw some of his posts and tried to learn his identity. He knew they were watching and tried to throw them off his trail by posting misleading information.
In the meantime, he begged Harbor school officials to move him to the classroom with the younger children.
In the fall of 2001, his second year at the school, his wish came true.
Sept. 5, 2001: I only made two mistakes today. I outright fondled D while he slept. I exposed R's naked glory before everyone … I don't feel as bad about D as I should. I keep telling myself that he was asleep, he's unaware … I do have to start being more careful.
The license awarded to Distasio by the Ohio Department of Education gave him nearly unrestricted access to children, both in and out of school.
The certificate meant that state Education Department officials had checked his background and criminal history -- he had none -- and deemed him harmless to children.
He baby-sat children at community meetings or events. He found jobs at day camps and YMCAs, where detectives suspect that Distasio found other victims, although none came forward.
Police, however, found many victims at Harbor School.
Oct. 25, 2001: L is having a hard time sleeping. Is it me? I either need to stop feeling so guilty about the things I do or stop doing the things that make me feel guilty. L never sat still for me anyway whether I was molesting him or not . … I fly off with him more passionately now that I've ventured into forbidden touch.
By his third and final year at Harbor, Distasio wrote that he had earned respect from some colleagues and loathing from two others because he was gay.
No one, however, suspected the unthinkable.
Distasio helped the boys to the bathroom and assisted them during field trips. The duties afforded him a lot of time alone with the kids.
Nov. 6, 2002: The only thing that makes it molestation is that it's hidden. I don't do anything they don't demonstrate that they want -- either by body language or words. These kids want to be loved physically.
Distasio touched the boys often, and parents started noticing peculiar behavior.
Boys who once radiated cheerfulness became sullen. Some became sexually aggressive with siblings. Others suddenly feared their fathers or bathing.
One boy became so angry that doctors switched his medications 12 times, unable to find anything to soothe him.
Yet no one suspected the cause of the personality changes.
Jan. 7, 2003: I molested J yesterday … He was quiet, calm. He also wore boxers. I lost it. I took him to a downstairs bathroom and … The kid was barely aware that I was even doing anything. Barely aware.
In the fall of 2003, Harbor School officials assigned Distasio to a room of 17-year-old students to help fill a staff shortage. He refused to work with older kids and quit.
But his valid teaching certificate paved the way for new opportunities. He worked as an aide to a handicapped boy at a Cleveland middle school for two months and then at a YMCA.
He yearned for a class of his own. He began talking to parents of troubled kids who had slipped through the public school cracks. He told them he could help. He could teach the boys at his Lakewood apartment.
Distasio wrote a curriculum and began recruiting students.
April 11, 2005: First day of school today. The kids are wonderful. I couldn't have chosen two greater kids to start with.
By the end of the summer, only one boy remained at Distasio's "school," where, police later determined, the 11-year-old was served Mike's Hard Lemonade, given marijuana and repeatedly sexually abused. He never cracked a book.
A neighbor called the police about the boy, who looked dirty and disheveled. She said that he wanted to play with her 5-year-old daughter.
Later that day, when detectives arrived at Distasio's apartment, the boy came to the door with unzipped pants.