Three years ago, city recreation aide Joseph Hornstein made a troubling remark to the mother of a young girl in his care. Your daughter, he said, may tell you something that you must judge for yourself.
Curious, the mother asked the 8-year-old girl. She said Hornstein had hugged her and his hand touched her bottom. She didn't like it; she wanted him to stop.
The mother complained to city supervisors, but Hornstein was allowed to remain at work. Proving whether the hug was innocent affection or deliberate abuse was _ as Hornstein seemed to predict _ a matter of opinion.
It remains so today.
Hornstein, called "Coach Joe" by some of his charges at St. Petersburg recreation centers, was arrested in February after four young girls made similar allegations. Police detectives decided his touching and patting was really criminal handling and fondling.
Prosecutors did not agree. They arranged for Hornstein's release from jail, then declined last week to file formal charges against him. They could not prove criminal intent, they said.
While police and prosecutors will meet this week to decide whether the case has any future in court, the allegations turn on whether his alleged behavior can be defined as lewd, even when the abuse is not blatant and the victims feel more uncomfortable than assaulted.
"The truth of the matter is, he never really molested my daughter. He went just far enough," said Bridget Burns, mother of the little girl who complained in 1994. "I wish people would think about it in terms of somebody hugging your wife or touching her. If you're 8 years old, why is it fine to touch your butt?"
With this case, parents of children in the city recreation program are left with conflicting images of Coach Joe: the caring counselor who once used his own money to buy socks so children could go roller skating, or a man whose behavior toward children has been questioned several times since he became a popular recreation aide.
"I don't see how somebody like Joe Hornstein had to have his life ruined like this," said his lawyer, Thomas Tripp.
Hornstein is not talking about the case. Window blinds at his small apartment on 58th Avenue N were closed last week, a pair of sneakers and beach sandals on the doorstep. His lawyer says the 25-year-old Hornstein, on leave from his city job, is working in appliance repairs for his stepfather.
Tripp refers to his client in a way most city records do: A young man who found his niche in life. A guy paid slightly better than minimum wage to occupy the attention of children at neighborhood play camps.
Tripp went to visit him at the Pinellas County Jail, stricken by how very young Hornstein appears. His round face. His chipped front tooth. "He was one of the most out-of-place people I've seen in jail. He was a nice, sweet, good kid," Tripp said last week. "He had a pretty good career etched out. He was Coach Joe. Then he had the plug pulled out."
When he was given an award in 1995, city supervisors noted Hornstein wanted children to experience the wholesome recreation he found as a youngster in league football and other city programs.
He persuaded merchants to donate recreational equipment and sports magazines. He coached co-ed hockey, worked security at citywide youth events and chaperoned teen trips to state universities. He regularly got tickets for children and their families to see Tampa Bay Lightning games.
At the ceremony to honor his fifth year of city service, more than 250 children clapped and chanted, "Joe, Joe, Joe."
"He makes the rec aide role come alive when he speaks . . .," supervisor Charles Boehme wrote in his award nomination. "New employees shadow Joe for learning how to have a caring heart with a professional approach. He inspires others through his balance. The balance of friend and professional."
Personnel evaluations since he was hired in 1990 show his supervisors scored his performance as mostly excellent, except for two veiled notations.
"He needs to be aware of his physical interactions and to stay above question with all participants," says his 1996 evaluation, his most recent.
His review in 1994 says he had a good year "with the exception of one incident from which he has learned a great deal."
Recreation officials did not notify state abuse investigators about the 1994 complaint by Burns' daughter. The girl's therapist did.
While the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services could not confirm that Hornstein abused the girl, records say investigators had concerns beyond the allegation.
A terse letter to city officials said Hornstein had contact with some children outside the organized play camps. He would leave "miss-you" notes in their school books or call them at home. He would take them to see movies, play miniature golf or eat lunch.
There was no evident molestation, but abuse investigators had a strong recommendation for city officials to watch Hornstein. Instead, the child's mother said last week that Hornstein's bosses took the approach of doubting the victim.
The HRS letter said recreation supervisors did not provide "support and neutrality" to the mother and daughter. "On the contrary, they were put on the defensive and made to feel that they had done something wrong," abuse investigators wrote.
For their part, police now say they did not pursue a complete investigation in 1994, but have reopened the case. Their new investigation, which includes interviews with more than 40 children, has come under scrutiny and has been criticized by Hornstein's defense lawyer.
"I'm kind of at a loss to understand why these cops are so hot on this," Tripp said last week.
Sgt. Karen Lea, who supervises the sex crimes squad, said the investigation evolved on its own after receiving a new complaint early this year.
"I'm glad we arrested him," Lea said last week. "I feel we did the right thing."
Detective David Klippel and Patti MacLean, a civilian investigator, were able to find questionable conduct at Roberts Community Center and Fossil Park. They found little about Hornstein's behavior toward children had changed since the original complaint in 1994.
Two girls complained about Hornstein's actions in the years he received the award. Two girls, one then and one last January, were recurring victims, arrest records say.
They described how Hornstein touched their clothed buttocks, hugged them, stroked the back of their hair. Or how they would stand innocently between his legs when he was sitting down.
Those complaints led to the arrest. Hornstein's walk to jail made the nightly news and morning papers. His release escaped the media's notice.
Beverly Andringa, the executive assistant state attorney who reviewed the case, said he was released from jail because the evidence did not prove that Hornstein had sexual intentions when he touched the girls.
At worst, she said, his behavior was inappropriate. It was not easily distinguished from the usual pats and hugs that coaches are known to give children. The alleged incidents also took place on playgrounds or in groups, not in private, she said.
Tuesday, prosecutors and detectives will meet to review the case again. Based on sufficient evidence, prosecutors could opt to file formal charges and reinstate the case.
Until it is resolved, however, the city has no plans to let Hornstein return to work.
Leisure services director Lee Metzger said he was unaware of repeated complaints against Hornstein as police suggest. But he said the city did send Hornstein for a psychiatric exam in 1994, and he was cleared to return to work.
He said the recreation department has been responsive to concerns and stresses appropriate conduct for employees.
"We want to warn them that you've got to be beyond reproach," Metzger said. "You're not allowed to touch children in a way to be misconstrued. Some children are starved for attention. It's very, very difficult."