BERWYN, Ill. – When a band teacher was arrested here and charged with sexually abusing 16 students, jaws dropped at the allegations: Police said the teacher had tied young girls to chairs with duct tape and rope and then re-enacted bondage scenes from his porn collection. Investigators now say the school district in this blue-collar Chicago suburb had received complaints about the teacher years earlier and had warned him in 2001 against "inappropriate touching" but never reported him.
Robert Sperlik Jr. (search), 45, was still teaching last month when the parents of a 15-year-old girl contacted police with her story of abuse and he was arrested.
Sperlik was formally indicted Wednesday on multiple counts of kidnapping, sexual abuse and unlawful restraint.
The case has led to a flurry of allegations and legal actions. Two former students have filed federal lawsuits against the district over its handling of their allegations. And Sperlik's lawyer has demanded a gag order, saying police have talked so much about the case it could be hard to find an impartial jury or unsullied defense witness.
Police say the investigation into what really happened in Sperlik's classrooms over a six-year period ending in 2003 is continuing and the number of alleged victims could grow. They have yet to identify two students in Polaroid pictures found in Sperlik's North Riverside home, partly because the girls have so much duct tape on their faces, police say.
"It's a troubling time," said Patricia Wernet, superintendent of Berwyn School District 100 (search). She was not in the job when the alleged abuse occurred.
Sperlik, who is being held without bond, did not speak at Wednesday's preliminary hearing. But his attorney, William Hedrick, used the opportunity to blast Berwyn police for "parading" his client in front of news cameras and mailing a letter to residents saying Sperlik's arrest "should put an end to this behavior."
"As opposed to acting as a police department, they appear to be acting as leaders of a mob action," Hedrick told Judge Daniel Weber. Weber set a Monday hearing on the gag order request.
Outside court, Hedrick said Sperlik maintains his innocence.
"He did not commit any of the crimes charged. Period," Hedrick said. "He will be vindicated in a trial if we're ever allowed to get a fair trial."
Sperlik taught in Berwyn for almost 18 years. Authorities say the alleged abuse occurred in six Berwyn schools between 1998 and 2003 and involved girls ages 9 to 14.
Frank Marzullo, Berwyn's public safety director, said police found two reprimands in Sperlik's file from 2001 and 2002, warning him against "inappropriate touching" and reminding him to keep his door open while teaching.
Marzullo said none of the instances were reported to police or the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (search), as required by state law of school officials who suspect abuse. The state's attorney's office has subpoenaed records to see if the district violated state law, he said.
William Jordan, Berwyn's superintendent from 1996 to 2003, said he has a "weak recollection" of a reprimand about five years ago involving Sperlik, but he said it wasn't sexual. It was akin to Sperlik instructing a student to play a musical instrument by using the child's hand or urging a student to sit up straight, Jordan said.
Some band boosters and community members have questioned how abuse of such a wide scope could have continued unexposed for so long, but Marzullo said Sperlik took advantage of the fact that he often had as few as two or three students in a class.
"No children want to come forward against a teacher, a person in authority. ... It was a fun music class," Marzullo said. "He made it out be a game."
Besides the photos of the students, police said they seized 30 to 40 adult bondage videos from Sperlik's home.
A friend of Sperlik, Patricia Paolicchi, said nothing she has heard resembles the man she has known for 12 years. Sperlik used his own money to buy instruments for underprivileged students and was patient with his young pupils, she said.
Paolicchi got to know Sperlik while volunteering in the schools, and her daughter learned to play trumpet in his band class as a fourth-grader.
Her daughter, now a high school junior, was "as shocked as I was," Paolicchi said.
"I can't believe any of these allegations unless he says they're true," she said. "They just don't fit his character."