Attorneys have filed federal lawsuits on behalf of three athletes alleging sexual abuse by a former coach at Champion Elite Legacy cheerleading gym in South Daytona.
Erick Kristianson, 43, is accused of exposing himself to the minors both in and outside of the gym, as well as over video calls. He is also accused of inappropriately touching the girls, according to the lawsuit filed in the Orlando Division of the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida.
Champion Elite Legacy, which has since permanently closed, is also listed as a defendant, as are former owner Ashley Hughes and several businesses and organizations affiliated with the cheerleading industry.
The three lawsuits, which only identify the accusers as “Jane Doe,” allege the defendants “together and individually have knowingly, or with a reckless disregard, created, organized and propagated a system of young-athlete abuse against innocent victims.”
Kristianson accused of inappropriately touching girls
According to the first two lawsuits, Kristianson formed a “swift and meaningful” bond with two sisters who met him around 2019, when he began coaching at the gym. Kristianson and the family bonded over shared religious values, and the sisters and their family began to see him in social settings outside of the gym. They “grew to love and trust” him, “welcoming him as part of their family,” the lawsuit stated.
He often transported the girls to and from cheer events and practices and accompanied the family on several weekend trips. He later temporarily moved into a detached apartment on the family’s property after needing a place to stay, according to the suit.
In late June or early July, one of the girls showed her mother video recordings of Kristianson “engaged in sexually abusive behavior” with the plaintiff and others. One video shows Kristianson sexually touching himself in the shower while talking to the minors and asking them to bring him items, according to court documents.
The second was a FaceTime recording between Kristianson and two of the minors in which he was lying nude, exposed to the camera, sexually touching himself, the lawsuit stated.
The minor said she created the recordings as proof of the abuse out of fear no one would believe her.
She also accused Kristianson of exposing himself to her on numerous occasions at the gym and at home, and touching her inappropriately while stunting. Kristianson was known as “creepy Erick” around the gym for such behavior, she said.
After asking Kristianson to wear proper undergarments during practices, Champion Elite owner Hughes did not take further action to ensure compliance or deter the behavior, the lawsuit states.
Kristianson was arrested in July
The complaints were previously reported to the Florida Department of Children and Families and cheer governing body U.S. All Star Federation, but no action was taken until the abuse was reported to the Daytona Beach Police Department in July, the lawsuit stated.
Kristianson was arrested in Kansas on Aug. 4 for felonies of lewd and lascivious exhibition and molestation to victims under 16. He posted bail of $300,000 and was out less than seven hours later, according to police records.
On Oct. 11, Kristianson's attorneys, at their request, were granted a continuance of 120 days from the pre-trial conference that was scheduled for Oct. 19. It is now slated for April.
The attorneys "are still reviewing these discovery materials in preparation for the scheduling and taking of depositions in this case," court documents state. "There are multiple witnesses that will need to be deposed."
Three victims seek damages
The second sister, who began cheering around 2019 when she was 10 years old, said Kristianson played a “game” called “Jeepers Creepers,” where he would discuss sexual content, grope and fondle the plaintiff while she rode in the front seat of his car. She was 13 at the time.
She also accused him of entering her home while she was alone and fondling her, and he did so on another occasion while taking the minors to a hot tub at a local resort, according to the lawsuit.
She continues to experience seizures and trauma-related symptoms as a result of the sexual abuse, the lawsuit says.
A third plaintiff began cheering around 2017 when she was 8 years old and met Kristianson around 2019. Kristianson developed a friendship with the girl’s father, and the girl, a friend of the other two children, saw him often in and outside of the gym, according to the lawsuit.
The girl accuses Kristianson of similar exposures and inappropriate touching.
In addition to the sexual abuse, the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Osborne & Francis of Orlando and Strom Law Firm of Columbia, South Carolina, allege gross negligence, negligent supervision, assault/battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The plaintiffs will continue to sustain “actual and ongoing injuries and damages," the lawsuit says. They are seeking compensatory, statutory and punitive damages, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees and other relief the court deems appropriate.
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Lawsuit also targets major players in cheer industry
In addition to Kristianson, Hughes and Champion Elite Legacy, cheerleading companies Varsity Brands and Varsity Spirit, as well as cheerleading governing bodies USASF and USA Cheer are listed as defendants.
Jeff Webb, founder of Varsity Brands and Varsity Spirit and current president of the International Cheer Union, is also named as a defendant.
Bain Capital and Charlesbank Capital Partners are also defendants, accused of financially incentivizing coaches and gyms, which the lawsuit claims perpetuated an environment where athletes would be minimally supervised. Bain Capital purchased Varsity Brands from Charlesbank in 2018.
“In short, (the defendants) have created an elaborate illusion of a safe system in order to draw more members in so they could sell more merchandise and collect more fees for events and camps, knowing their young vulnerable members were at risk and that they were doing nothing about removing the criminal coaches, affiliates, gym owners, and administrators creating that risk,” the lawsuit summarizes.
The Varsity Brands control an estimated 80-90% of the cheerleading market, and Champion Elite Legacy was an affiliated gym and substantial financial contributor to the companies, it says.
USASF, USA Cheer and the Varsity defendants are all connected to the gyms and coaches through cheer competitions, certifications, facilities and sponsorships, according to the lawsuit. USASF’s board is controlled predominantly by Varsity.
Gyms affiliated with the organizations promote “intensive one-on-one time” with the athletes, giving “coaches and staff increased access to young and impressionable athletes,” the lawsuit states.
Furthermore, USASF certifications of coaches and gyms served as a “warranty” that the organization was holding adults to the highest standards to prevent athlete abuse. USASF failed to appropriately investigate reports of misconduct, the lawsuit states.
USASF and USA Cheer include Kristianson on a Unified Ineligibility List of offenders who are temporarily ineligible for membership in either organization, pending investigation. Details state a violation related to “athlete protection.”
A phone number for Champions Elite Gym was no longer in service. Voicemails left for Webb with the International Cheer Union, Hughes at her chiropractor’s office and USA Cheer, as well as an email to USASF, have not been returned. Contact information for Kristianson could not be located.
Varsity Brands provided a statement on Monday that its first and foremost concern is for the survivors and their families. It also stated that it is a member of USASF but does not control it in any way.
“Children should be protected and safe at all times, and no child should ever be exposed to the kind of abhorrent behavior and abuse alleged in this lawsuit," it stated. "We reject any accusation that Varsity Spirit enabled such unthinkable behavior."
The statement continued that the Strom Law Firm has not provided any evidence of their "false and defamatory statements about Varsity." The firm "has exhibited reckless disregard for the truth" in making unsupported claims about Varsity, it said.
"To be clear, Varsity stands with the survivors and their pursuit of justice. We are outraged that predators took advantage of cheerleading programs to abuse innocent children," the statement concluded.
Katie Kustura contributed to this report. Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: South Daytona cheer coach accused of sexually abusing minors in lawsuit