The FBI is investigating allegations that celebrity cheerleader Jerry Harris solicited sexually explicit photos and sex from minors, multiple sources told USA TODAY. Agents executed a search warrant Monday afternoon at a home in Naperville, Illinois, as part of that investigation.
“The FBI is conducting court-authorized law enforcement activity in the area,” Siobhan Johnson, FBI special agent and public affairs officer, told USA TODAY. She declined further comment.
Harris, who gained national prominence when he was featured in Netflix’s recent “Cheer” docuseries, has not been criminally charged. Harris, 21, did not respond to a request for comment.
The criminal investigation is based on allegations brought by 14-year-old twin brothers. In interviews with USA TODAY, the boys described a pattern of harassment, both online and at cheer competitions, that started when they were 13 and Harris was 19. They said it continued for more than a year.
Those allegations were also reported to police by Varsity Brands, a private company that dominates the cheerleading industry, handling everything from uniform sales to major competitions. Harris is accused of asking one of the brothers to have sex with him in 2019 at two Varsity cheerleading competitions.
In Aug. 1 letters to police in Florida and Texas, Varsity’s Chief Legal Officer Burton Brillhart said the company had learned of “inappropriate sexual conduct” allegations against Harris and was reporting the information to authorities as required by law.
“As a result of the recent allegation, we have barred this person from having any affiliation with Varsity Brands or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates, now and in the future,” he wrote.
He described Harris as a former employee who was not actively working for Varsity at the time of the incidents. In May 2019, Harris posted on social media that he was working for the National Cheerleaders Association, a Varsity brand. That summer, he posted multiple photos and videos of himself coaching athletes at NCA camps.
Varsity spokeswoman Jackie Kennedy said Monday the organization "can’t comment on an active law enforcement investigation; we continue to cooperate with authorities in their inquiries on this matter."
The brothers, Charlie and Sam, and their mother Kristen spoke with USA TODAY in August at their Texas home. USA TODAY agreed to withhold their last name because the boys are minors and alleging abuse.
The family provided USA TODAY with screenshots from five text and social media conversations between the boys and accounts they say belong to Harris. Several include messages explicitly requesting nude photos or sex. In one conversation on Snapchat, an account with the name “.jerry harris” responded to a photo of Charlie stretching his leg above his head.
“Do it naked and take a video and show me,” Harris replied privately, according to a screenshot provided to USA TODAY.
Charlie said his interactions with Harris left him struggling with anxiety. He lost sleep, his grades suffered and he cried at school.
“It was just eating me alive,” he said. “It was just making me so gross and uncomfortable. Every time I saw his name or something like that, I was just cringing about it.”
Kristen said the FBI interviewed both boys on Aug. 28 and Charlie again on Sept. 11. She said the agency has pulled data from their cellphones and requested documentation from competitions where they interacted with Harris.
Nine law enforcement agents spent about three hours Monday afternoon in Harris' home in Naperville, Illinois. From the outside, there was little to be seen of the FBI's effort. The home, tucked at the end of a quiet cul de sac, has an immaculate lawn with a row of small bushes lining the walkway. Two officials briefly stepped out to pull two duffel bags from a four-door red Jeep Wrangler Rubicon parked in front of the home.
Around 5:15 p.m. central time, nine agents walked out the front door and left in unmarked cars. Soon after, a woman who identified herself as a family friend arrived at the home. It appeared to be Harris who opened the door to let her in.
The allegations against Harris have been reported to at least four other law enforcement agencies in Texas and Florida, records obtained by USA TODAY show.
The accusations against Harris have also been reported to the U.S. All Star Federation, which governs the competitive cheerleading discipline in which Harris and the boys compete. Kristen said she filed two reports with USASF. She said her first report — sent May 15 — garnered only a brief response from USASF Vice President of Membership Amy Clark. She said she did not hear from Clark again until she filed a second report on July 9. Clark set up a call with Kristen for the next day.
During that call, Clark indicated the organization was opening an investigation, according to an audio recording Kristen provided USA TODAY. However, USASF did not suspend Harris from participation in All Star activities until Monday, the same day USA TODAY reported the allegations against Harris. USASF said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
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Kristen and the boys filed a lawsuit Monday in Texas against Harris, Varsity, USASF and the Cheer Athletics gym at which Harris has cheered, court records show. In it, the family accuses Harris of sexual misconduct and the cheer organizations of negligence and failures to protect the boys from abuse. The lawsuit also claims Harris sexually exploited others in the cheer community.
Varsity and USASF declined comment. Cheer Athletics owner Angela Rogers told USA TODAY that Harris has not been affiliated with the gym since March 1. She said she learned of the allegations against him in mid-May and reported them to police.
Attorney Sarah Klein, who represents the family, said she hopes the public will “let the truth play out” and not defend Harris simply because of his celebrity.
“He might be charming and funny and lovable and also be engaging in sexual activity with children,” Klein said.
‘A bad feeling’
The Netflix docuseries that made Harris famous follows Texas’ Navarro College cheerleaders in their quest for a national title. “Cheer,” which has received six Emmy nominations, was an instant success when it was released in January. Harris became its breakout star, drawing fans for his positive attitude. Throughout the documentary, the Illinois native is often seen on the sidelines, shouting encouragement at teammates as they practice difficult skills.
In February, Harris stood on a Dallas stage beside Oprah Winfrey, who handed him her microphone and asked him to pump up the crowd with his signature “mat talk.” The same month, he interviewed celebrities on the red carpet of the Oscars for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” In June, he filmed a short video with former Vice President Joe Biden, encouraging young Black voters to turn out on Election Day.
Harris’ Instagram page, which has 1.2 million followers, features partnerships with Cheerios, Starburst and Walmart. (A spokesman for General Mills, the company that owns Cheerios, on Monday said the company suspended its relationship with Harris.)
Charlie and Sam met Harris before all of that.
Charlie said he was 13 when he received a request from Harris, then 19, to follow his private Instagram account. Charlie said he doesn’t know how Harris found him in 2018 but that he had recently joined competitive cheerleading. Charlie accepted the request.
“I was getting a bad feeling from it from the beginning,” Charlie said, “because it would be weird for someone like that just to want to be friends with me just randomly.”
In that first conversation, Charlie said Harris asked how old he was and then, after learning he was 13, asked Charlie to send photos of his face and butt, according to a screenshot of that interaction.
Harris and Charlie later connected on Snapchat, too. Charlie said they spoke often, including late at night, and that their conversations were friendly but also sexual in nature.
“It was just really weird for me — especially being the first instance that stuff has ever happened to me,” Charlie said. “I've never flirted with anyone before, had a relationship with a boy before. It was weird to me that that was my first one.”
Both brothers said Harris asked them for nude photos but that Harris was more aggressive with Charlie. Charlie said he declined but that Harris pressured him to reconsider and threatened to un-friend or block him if he didn’t comply. Eventually, Charlie said, he did what Harris asked.
“I don't like when people are mad at me,” Charlie said. “So I was trying to please him any way I could.”
Charlie said he joined cheer the year after his brother, hoping to experience the same friendships and accepting atmosphere that had made Sam so happy. Instead, he said his experience has been marred by his interactions with Harris. Charlie said he spent cheerleading competitions avoiding Harris, who would walk up, hug him and grab his butt.
In February 2019, Charlie said, Harris cornered him in a secluded bathroom at the American Cheerleaders Association’s national competition in Fort Worth and begged him to have sex. Harris was 19, and Charlie was 13. Charlie said he turned Harris down and eventually rushed out of the bathroom.
Harris’ Instagram account shows he attended that competition.
Three months later, Charlie said Harris propositioned him again while they were at The Summit cheerleading competition in Orlando, Florida. The family provided USA TODAY with the May 3, 2019, text Charlie said he received from Harris.
“Hey btw I found a place for us to do stuff it’s actually pretty good haha”, the message reads.
The text was sent during the cheerleading competition.
Charlie wrote back that he couldn’t. He told USA TODAY he tried to let Harris down lightly.
“I just didn't want to make a deal out of anything at all,” he said.
When Netflix released “Cheer” in January, Charlie said people who knew of their friendship begged him to FaceTime Harris and allow them to say hello. He said Harris agreed — if Charlie agreed to send him nude photos.
The messages continued until earlier this year, Charlie and Sam said.
“Would you ever want to ****” Harris asked Sam in a Snapchat message Feb. 6 that included what appeared to be the upper part of Harris’ face.
Complaints to police and USASF
The boys’ mother Kristen said she discovered some of the explicit messages between Charlie and Harris on her son’s cellphone earlier this year. She said one was a video of Harris masturbating.
In horror, the Texas woman said she told Charlie to immediately delete all of it. She told USA TODAY that she wishes she hadn’t done that now. But at the time, she said, she felt sympathy for Harris, who she learned through the Netflix documentary had lost his mother to cancer. She said she also read a text message from Harris to Charlie — “I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past,” Harris wrote. — and felt he was remorseful.
“It just felt like the best thing at that point was to just let things be and make sure that Charlie understood that he wasn’t to have further communication with Jerry,” Kristen said.
She said she reconsidered that decision a few months later, after the boys told her they both had been sexually assaulted by a cheerleading coach, Shaquille Brown, at a party in May. Another athlete had witnessed the coach allegedly abusing Sam, and a gym owner reported it to USASF. Kristen reported the assault to police. Brown was arrested in July for sexual assault of a child and has been suspended by U.S. All Star Federation.
Brown denied wrongdoing. “It’s an allegation that I did not do,” he told USA TODAY.
Kristen said the situation with Brown made her realize that what had happened with Harris was not an isolated incident. She worried it was part of a pervasive problem in cheerleading that would only be addressed if she took action.
She reported Harris to USASF in May and again in July. The second report spurred a phone call with Clark, USASF’s vice president of membership.
On the July 10 call, Kristen told Clark she wanted to help improve cheerleading’s child protection policies, saying there were “significant places at which I think the ball got dropped and ended up endangering my kids.”
Clark said USASF has had policies in place for years and that under the sexual abuse prevention policy, every gym is supposed to be doing “an orientation where they talk about abuse and misconduct that could happen in youth sports and who you're supposed to report it to in the gym.”
“I am certain that people don't do it,” Clark told Kristen, according to a recording of the call reviewed by USA TODAY.
Kristen told USA TODAY she was frustrated by the conversation with Clark, who appeared to have little understanding of the allegations against Harris that the mother had first reported eight weeks prior. In an Aug. 7 email, Kristen expressed that frustration to Clark.
“I am not sure whether I can trust your organization,” Kristen wrote. “I feel like on July 10 you tried to finesse me into ignoring the fact that your organization had done virtually nothing with the information.”
Kristen said she filed her own reports with Fort Worth police in July and the FBI in August detailing the boys’ allegations against Harris. She said the FBI investigation, which involves agents in Illinois and Texas, is ongoing.
‘There are actual monsters’
For Charlie and Sam, reminders of Harris are everywhere.
The boys see him promoting products on social media. They hear his signature “mat talk” when he’s interviewed on talk shows. And his voice is featured on a cheer track played during practices at their gym.
The brothers have shared their experiences privately with friends, and in July Sam sent a tweet that obliquely referenced their interactions with Harris.
“Pedophilia in cheer needs to be addressed. There are actual monsters of people who we all praise who are preying on little kids,” he wrote. “It is sad how it’s almost gotten normalized in this industry.”
Both boys said they’ve received pushback for speaking out.
In a series of private messages on Snapchat, one person claimed Charlie was lying about Harris and out to ruin his life.
“Hop off his case,” the person wrote, according to screenshots shared with USA TODAY. “he’s hurt one maybe but made millions happy.”
The boys said they are discouraged to see Harris still involved in cheerleading, his prominence only growing. They said they chose to share their story because they want to be a voice for others who may have faced abuse, including in cheerleading.
If no one speaks out, Sam said, then nothing will change.
“I would not be putting myself out there and doing all this stuff and literally losing my friends about this for no reason,” Charlie said. “It is not normal. Jerry is just an example of how you can see someone as one way, but they're truly a different person.”
Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny are reporters on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. Marisa can be reached at email@example.com, @IndyMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855. Tricia can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or @TriciaNadolny.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jerry Harris from ‘Cheer’ under FBI investigation