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Position of trust provided sex crime suspect with plenty of prey

ST. PETERSBURG — For at least a decade, Richard O'Toole placed himself around teen boys.

He hired them to do lawn work. He counseled them at his church and house about teen issues.

At First Unity Church in St. Petersburg, O'Toole convinced parishioners he was a doctor who specialized in adolescent psychology. He carried business cards identifying himself as Dr. O'Toole, and counseled many church members — including children. His counseling sessions sometimes included hypnotism.

In early 2007, a boy at the church said he didn't want to be around O'Toole, whom he called a "dirty old man."

Police later found that O'Toole had made sexual comments or suggestions to some of the boys he had counseled. They also learned that over the past several years, a number of boys outside of the church had accused him of more than talk.

Detectives began to believe O'Toole had abused teen boys and considered bringing child sex charges against him. But for various reasons — statute of limitations, insufficient evidence, reluctant accusers — they couldn't make any cases.

They found one thing, though. O'Toole was not a medical doctor or licensed mental health counselor. He was arrested on 10 counts of unlicensed practice of a health care professional.

Though those charges are third-degree felonies that can result in prison time, they were not the child sex charges that could land O'Toole on a statewide database of sex offenders.

Earlier this year, prosecutors were set to head to trial.

But just a few days before the trial was set to begin, another young man called police with a familiar story about O'Toole.

The accuser was willing to testify. The statute of limitations had not expired.

For the first time, O'Toole was charged with sexually abusing a child.

• • •

Police say they believe O'Toole, 71, is a serial child sex predator.

"It's not too often you get a case like this," said St. Petersburg police Detective Joe Gasper, who has been investigating O'Toole since the fall of 2007. "We'll probably never know how many victims are really out there."

What's most striking, police say, is how long O'Toole operated under the radar.

The first allegations against him were made in 1997 — 10 years before the First Unity Church investigation began.

That year, a 17-year-old boy accused O'Toole of showing him a pornographic movie, then grabbing his penis, which the boy said O'Toole called a "tiger" — a sordid nickname that detectives would hear years later from other boys.

O'Toole was charged with battery. He pleaded no contest. Adjudication was withheld.

Later that same year, an 18-year-old mentally handicapped man told police that O'Toole made sexual advances toward him, tried to pull down his pants and offered to buy his underwear. O'Toole wasn't charged.

In 2006, a young man told police that O'Toole had sexually abused him about six years earlier, when he was 17. The man said he was at O'Toole's home watching a football game when O'Toole pulled down the man's shorts and performed oral sex. The man told police he just wanted to forget the incident and didn't want to prosecute.

Though two teens and a young man had accused O'Toole of sexual or criminal behavior, sex crime charges never were filed.

That information also was unknown to the parishioners of First Unity Church, where O'Toole was a board member.

• • •

Francine Arrington thought O'Toole had a knack for counseling adolescents at First Unity.

"He was probably one of the most popular guys in the fellowship hall," said Arrington, who was a youth leader. "He was big man on campus."

O'Toole took a special interest in the church's teens, Arrington said, and was even known to give them money from time to time.

Outside of the church, O'Toole volunteered at hospice and at hospitals. He owned a landscaping company.

"To be quite frank, the man is a very charming, charismatic individual," said Tom Crowley, who was a youth leader at Unity.

But in early 2007, a young man who had been doing maintenance around the church made the "dirty old man" comment.

Arrington heard the boy say it.

"All my alarms went off," she said.

Arrington started asking around. She and her husband and Crowley talked to several teens or young men who described unusual interactions with O'Toole.

One boy who had done yard work for O'Toole said he had made a sexual advance toward him. Another said that when he was 17, O'Toole asked him to pull out his "tiger," according to Arrington and police.

Arrington took her concerns to the church minister, Temple Hayes. Hayes said she had been contacted by the grandparent of another young man who was concerned about O'Toole, Arrington said.

Despite the many complaints, Arrington and Crowley say the church didn't do anything and allowed O'Toole to be around kids. A concerned Arrington told some church members about the accusations.

She later was fired as a youth leader. Crowley also was asked to leave the church.

Arrington filed a whistle-blower lawsuit, claiming she was fired for telling people about the allegations. The suit was settled out of court.

Gasper, the detective, said the church never called police to file a complaint against O'Toole.

The complaint to police came from Crowley and Arrington in late 2007 — several months after they first heard the "dirty old man" comment and brought their concerns to Hayes.

• • •

The case landed on Gasper's desk. What he discovered about O'Toole's past concerned him, particularly the similarities between the old accusations and the allegations at the church.

Several young boys told Gasper that when they went for counseling sessions with O'Toole, sex was always a topic. O'Toole brought up masturbation and often used the "tiger" term. He also would offer them money for their underwear.

Gasper also was struck by the type of boys O'Toole seemed to be drawn to: older teens who were disenfranchised, some with substance abuse problems.

"He's a very resourceful and intelligent man," Gasper said. "You start to look at that and think, maybe there's a pattern here."

Still, Gasper didn't have enough to charge O'Toole with any sex crimes. After the unlicensed practice charges were filed in 2008, he didn't give up.

"I just didn't want him to get back on the street and reoffend," Gasper said. "You have to remain vigilant and continue to dig and dig and dig."

• • •

The phone call came out of the blue as Gasper prepared for O'Toole's trial in April.

The young man said he had met O'Toole at age 12, when he offered to mow his lawn. Within a year, O'Toole was talking about sex, touching him and performing oral sex, police said.

Police said it continued once or twice a week for years — and ended only a few weeks before the young man came forward.

O'Toole was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior and unlawful sex with a minor, both felonies that could result in prison time and a sex offender designation. O'Toole has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

A judge revoked O'Toole's bond. He now sits in the Pinellas County Jail. He has a pretrial hearing scheduled for Monday. The trial on the unlicensed practice charges has been delayed.

For those who raised concerns about O'Toole three years ago, the latest charges brought confirmation, sadness and a fear that more victims are out there.

"We were all taken in by him. … His M.O. used to be, if there was a young man in trouble, he was there to offer his services," Crowley said. "Unfortunately, when it came to teenage boys, he had his own agenda. He needs to be taken off the street and helped by professionals, and the public needs to be protected."

Position of trust provided sex crime suspect with plenty of prey 07/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 12:21am]

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