Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Human Interest

Sarasota confidential: A youth soccer coach's double life unravels

HIS SECRET LIFE: Parents knew the swim coach for the Junior Olympics. They knew the youth soccer coach. They knew the athletics director for the Sarasota private school. Here's what they did not know.



In the clubby world of youth soccer, rumors had been swirling about one of the coaches. Did you know, people whispered, that Todd Proa, former athletics director of a private school, had once been arrested for pressuring a student to have sex with him?

In February 2012, someone sent an email about the arrest to the Florida Youth Soccer Association, the organization responsible for screening the thousands of volunteers who spend so much time around young players. The association's president immediately notified the 43-year-old Proa that he was barred from coaching.

But within 24 hours, Proa produced records showing he had never been prosecuted and that the case had been expunged — wiped off the books as if it never existed. A background check came back clean, and the soccer association allowed him to continue coaching.

Once again, Proa had managed to bury part of his past. To outward appearances, he was still a model of respectability — doting father of two, husband of a successful gymnastics school owner, former high-ranking director of one of the nation's oldest and largest volunteer sports organizations.

But Proa was finding it harder to keep secret a lurid double life of sex and drugs. For going on three years, he had also been CI 1528 — a confidential informant for the Sarasota Police Department.

• • •

In 2001, a 26-year-old woman in North Port found Proa crouched on her doorstep. Stopped a short time later, he told officers he had followed her home to ask her to dinner.

Police gave Proa a trespass warning. It listed his employment: "Teacher New Gate School.''

Originally from Ohio, Proa had landed at the private Sarasota school by way of Cleveland State University, where he majored in history, and the YMCAs in Gainesville and Sarasota, where he taught swimming. He had also served as national aquatics director of the Amateur Athletic Union, in charge of the swimmers for the 1999 Junior Olympics in Cleveland.

At New Gate, Proa was a popular but strong-willed athletics director. Allen McGonagill, a former student, remembers school excursions to the beach:

"He would say, 'Put on sunscreen,' and when you'd say, 'My mama doesn't make me,' he'd say, 'Your mom's not here. I'm your Mama Todd.' "

Parents, overwhelmingly white and well-to-do, approved of Proa, one of New Gate's two black teachers.

"He was very, very upper middle class," says Dr. Douglas Colkitt, who had a daughter at New Gate. "I was very impressed with his way of acting; he was probably the most articulate physical education instructor I ever came across."

Behind what the doctor calls a "refined" demeanor lay a messy personal life.

In September 2003, two months before Proa was to marry a gymnastics instructor he met through the Amateur Athletic Union, an ex-girlfriend gave birth to a baby he had fathered. Felsie Pierce, then 22 to Proa's 34, claimed he had physically and mentally abused her while she was pregnant.

He didn't want nothing to do with me, Pierce wrote in her request for a protective order. It would ruin his reputation if his other girlfriend and students parents discovered his secret. He abandoned me. No help the whole 9 months.

During their relationship, Pierce wrote, Proa told her he had cancer and said he had tried to commit suicide by overdosing.

I can honestly say I don't know who Todd Proa really is, Pierce wrote. This is scary. Only because of the lies.

Proa countered that he had been "exhilarated" to learn he was a father and intended to support the child. A judge granted a temporary injunction but lifted it in November 2003 when Pierce failed to prove she feared an imminent threat to her safety.

Over the next few years, Proa continued to teach at New Gate while playing a prominent volunteer role in the AAU. As its national aquatics chairman, he was in Largo in 2005 for a major diving meet. At their annual convention in Hawaii in 2006, fellow AAU members elected him a regional representative.

But during that same year a relationship began to develop between Proa and an athletic female student, then 17.

She hadn't liked him at first. Too bossy, too cocky, too flabby for someone who harped about healthy eating, she says. But then, she says, she developed a "bit of a crush" and he reciprocated the attention.

"We couldn't go out in Sarasota without the risk of seeing someone," she told the Tampa Bay Times, so they sometimes drove to Brandon, where they walked around the mall and ate at the Cheesecake Factory. Or went to Orlando ("He was obsessed with Disney") and even to his house when his wife was away.

Once, on the way to Brandon, he asked her to pull off at a rest stop and perform oral sex, she said.

They continued to see each other outside of school. I'm spending the night with friends, the student would tell her mother.

"I'd just lie every day. It was stressful. That's his lifestyle, to be a compulsive liar. No one knows who he is. I started to become like that, I was lying about my entire life."

• • •

In June 2007, at the end of the school year, Proa parted ways with New Gate. The principal at the time could not be reached for comment. But Proa says that he received positive evaluations. His contract wasn't renewed, he says, only because of "structural changes'' in which other people also lost their jobs.

By then 18, the girl had gone off to college in New England. Proa repeatedly called and texted her, she said, "doing anything to make me feel sorry for him. He lied and said he was dying of cancer."

Feeling guilty, she invited him to visit. They stayed in a hotel, she says, but had a fight. She screamed at him, "Stay out of my life."

At Christmas break, her mother confronted her with a large envelope stuffed with Facebook photos, some that showed her drinking. There was no return address but the girl told her mother who had sent them.

"I was, like, this guy is blackmailing and stalking me.''

Her mother issued an ultimatum: Either talk to authorities about Proa or "I was out of the family, they were not going to pay for college."

• • •

In February 2008, as Proa continued to send her "crazy'' letters, the student went to court in New England. A judge there found her in "immediate and present danger of abuse'' from Proa and ordered him to cease all contact with her.

Three months later, on May 23, 2008, this headline appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: "Former New Gate employee charged with abusing student." According to the article, the student, who was not named because of the nature of the allegation, told Sarasota sheriff's investigators that Proa had forced her to fondle him on three occasions.

Within days of Proa's arrest, his wife filed for divorce. The New Gate community was stunned.

"There were two sides to the story," says Colkitt, the doctor with a daughter at New Gate. "One — Todd was just a very friendly, great guy who liked hanging out with students. The other side of the story — here's a guy married with kids, why is he spending Saturday nights or Friday nights with students? It's sort of weird, right?"

In the end, prosecutors declined to charge Proa. They are not allowed to say why because at some point he had the arrest case expunged. No official record of it exists.

In her interview with the Times, the former student, now 24, indicated she would have been a reluctant witness.

"I was a freshman in college, I really didn't want to deal with this. I felt like I was responsible (that) I had let this happen."

As for Proa, he describes their relationship as "strictly platonic," saying she was a fine athlete but a troubled youth who had made similar accusations against other adults. They never were alone together, he said, and never had sex.

"She's either mistaken or lying," he says.

• • •

By late 2008, Proa was no longer affiliated with the Amateur Athletic Union. The organization declined to renew his membership that year because "he lied on his application" about his arrest, president Henry Forrest says.

All contact with Proa's former student had also ended. But another woman, Shawnda Taylor, says Proa started a relationship with her after seeing her ad under "escorts" on the website Backpage. They had sex, she says, and over the next few months talked about getting cocaine and selling it in Ohio.

Taylor introduced him to a drug dealer named Edwin Mooers, scion of a wealthy Sarasota family. Mooers, who fatally overdosed this year, would be Proa's ticket back to the shadowy world of confidential informants.

While still living in Cleveland, Proa says, he had worked with the FBI to crack down on drug dealing at a pool where he taught swimming. After moving to Florida, he says, he became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Arcadia Police Department and a drug task force in Fort Myers.

The claims are difficult to verify; the agencies said they never talk about informants.

What is certain: By 2009, Todd Proa was in financial straits. He was making $10 an hour as a "produce associate" at Winn-Dixie, according to records in Felsie Pierce's child support case. He was thousands of dollars behind in support for their daughter. He also had two children by his wife, who had dropped her divorce petition.

Sometime in 2009, Proa contacted the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tampa, which contacted Sarasota police, who were about to arrest Mooers on various drug charges. Detective Robert Armstrong agreed to meet with Proa anyway. The former teacher told the detective that he was appalled by the drug activity at Mooers' home and the effect it might have on neighborhood kids.

"It seemed like his motivation (to be an informant) was almost altruistic, like he was trying to do it for the greater good," Armstrong would later say.

That Proa had no pending charges himself yet still wanted to be a CI should have been a big red flag.

"You always want to know the motivation of an informant because people don't just do that," says Charles Drago, a former assistant chief of the Fort Lauderdale police who now consults on police practices. "If they are working off charges that's obvious. Other than that you need to dig in and find out why they want to help you."

Armstrong signed Proa up on Oct. 8, 2009, code name "Winn-Dixie." Under "specialty," the detective wrote "cocaine."

• • •

In his first few months as a CI, Proa provided information that led to the arrests of two young women, one of whom advertised on Backpage.

A third woman — Janis Williams — says that by August 2010 Proa had also begun frequenting the Peek-a-Boo Lounge in Bradenton where she worked as a stripper.

Williams was flattered that Proa, who said he worked in marketing for Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando, paid her as much as $500 a night not to dance or strip. They had sex numerous times, she says.

"He said, 'Don't go to work, just hang out with me,' " Williams, now 31, told the Times. "He'd be with me sometimes until 3 in the morning. That he had a wife didn't cross my mind."

Eventually, Williams says, Proa discovered she was addicted to painkillers and said his brother would sell her oxycodone pills cheap. Proa pressured her to arrange a deal, to the point "it seemed like he was obsessive," Williams says.

On Feb. 8, 2011, Williams met Proa's "brother" — Armstrong — in a Kmart parking lot in Sarasota. As the detective later acknowledged, there was a tense moment. Williams asked how they could be brothers since Armstrong is white and Proa is black. But the sale went through. Williams bought 500 pills.

Faced with a 25-year minimum mandatory sentence, Williams agreed to testify against the male co-defendant who financed the purchase. She spent 18 months in prison.

• • •

In his other life, Proa was coaching the Musketeers, a team in the North Port Youth Soccer league. An August 2011 newspaper photo shows him and a female coach proudly posing with a young girl and five boys shortly after they competed in a national soccer tournament at Disney's Wide World of Sports.

About the time the Musketeers returned from Orlando, a petite 20-year-old strawberry blond named Nicole Rein was running an ad on Backpage.

She says Proa called her and they talked a few times, with Proa claiming he owned a party yacht where strippers entertained businessmen from all over the country. When they met in person, she found him "a bit overweight" but charming and sharply dressed, Oakley sunglasses perched on his smooth head.

"He said, 'You're gorgeous, I'd really like to get you out of this apartment and put you somewhere nicer. I'd like you to be my girl in the long run.' "

Rein had no criminal record but needed money to support her pill addiction. It irked her, Rein says, that Proa paid her $80 after they had sex instead of the $200 she asked him for rent and groceries. He gave her a few pills once when she was "dope sick,'' she says, while badgering her to buy more from his buddy Rob.

On Dec. 9, 2011, Rein slipped into a white Cadillac Escalade and handed $800 to Proa's buddy — Armstrong — in exchange for 100 pills. Charged with trafficking in a controlled substance, she was sentenced to two years of community control.

• • •

Despite Proa's efforts to suppress his 2008 arrest, parents periodically called the Sarasota sheriff's office, asking if he was allowed to be around children.

Detectives couldn't talk about the case because it had been expunged. Google it, use your own judgment, is all they could say.

Early last year, someone sent an email to the Florida Youth Soccer Association, whose president, Marino Torrens, suspended Proa from coaching anywhere in the state. Torrens quickly reversed his decision after Proa produced records showing prosecutors had declined to file charges.

"Nothing else came out on the background check to review so once he submitted the documents to us there was nothing to hold him back from coaching," Torrens said.

In February 2012, the same month FYSA reinstated Proa, he met Heather Johnson.

An addict who was struggling financially, Johnson later told a prosecutor she fell for Proa's claim that he wanted to help her "get clean" by paying for drug treatment. She and Proa had phone sex, she said, and Proa also started calling and texting her children.

"He told me to send sexual photos and I told him no," Erica Johnson, Heather's 20-year-old daughter, said in a deposition. "He was trying to get me to go to Orlando with my mom and have a threesome. I told him no."

Heather Johnson's younger daughter, Alyssa, then 13, said Proa somehow got her phone number and began "contacting me nonstop.

"I told my mom he was creeping me out."

• • •

In April 2012, attorney Liane McCurry, representing a man arrested for drug trafficking, was reviewing a statement in which his female co-defendant talked about dating "Todd."

McCurry did a double take — another of her clients, Janis Williams, also had dated a man named Todd. McCurry called the co-defendant's attorney, who told her he was representing a third woman who said she had sex with "Todd.''

Using a reverse phone directory, McCurry found that Todd's number belonged to Proa. She and other attorneys approached the State Attorney's Office in Sarasota, convinced their clients had been entrapped by an informant using sex to lure them into drug deals. "We thought (prosecutors) would be horrified and they weren't," McCurry says.

A judge ordered prosecutors to turn over the names of all defendants in whose cases Todd Proa had been involved. There were 13 women and eight said they had sex with him.

Last Nov. 8, an article in the Herald-Tribune said prosecutors had dropped or reduced felony charges against more than a dozen people. The article did not name Proa but quoted him as acknowledging he had oral sex with several women, something he had not disclosed when questioned by police and prosecutors.

The day the article appeared, police deactivated Proa as an informant.

"I would say that he became unreliable at that point," Lt. Pat Ledwith, Armstrong's supervisor, said this year in a deposition in Heather Johnson's pending case. "I would say that most certainly his identity was compromised and because there were accusations that he frequented prostitutes I would say that at that point he was suspected of committing criminal acts."

In his own deposition this year, Proa's control agent, Armstrong, said he rarely met with Proa except to pay him, a total of a few thousand dollars over nearly three years.

• • •

Proa says he cannot talk about any of the cases he helped make because of a confidentiality agreement he signed with the Sarasota Police Department.

He denies any sexual contact with women he encountered during his time as an informant. He denies telling the Sarasota paper he had oral sex with several women (he says he was actually talking about women he knew long ago in Ohio) and he says he never took any women on trips.

So how does Proa explain the Feb. 5, 2011, text message he sent Janis Williams? Downloaded from her phone and entered in her court case, it recalls when we went to Orlando for the night ha ha. Or a text on the same date in which he asks if he made her reach orgasm?

"If I'm gonna walk the walk," Proa says, "I need to talk the talk."

• • •

As police, prosecutors and defense attorneys were learning the full extent of Proa's activities as an informant, he continued to coach kids. Although the soccer association had reinstated him, the North Port club suspended Proa anyway. So he moved to a club in Charlotte County a few miles away.

Some of its officers had also heard talk of Proa's 2008 arrest and were concerned about it.

"There were several of us that wanted to ask Mr. Proa to leave, but it was brought up that there could be legal ramifications if we did that," says Paul Couto, former president of the Charlotte club.

Another board member, Stacey Brown, says she didn't know about either the 2008 arrest or Proa's years as an informant mingling with drug users, strippers and prostitutes. Would that be of concern?

"Absolutely," she says.

No one has alleged any misconduct by Proa as a youth soccer coach. Now back with his wife and running a pool-cleaning business, he hopes to coach this fall.

Is he still working as a confidential informant?

"I can't answer that question. Actually I can. To say 'no' means I might have been. To say 'yes' means I endanger my family.''

A long pause. "You know what? I'm living a simple life. I have a great life and I'm enjoying it to the fullest.''

Times senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]

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