WRAL Investigates

NC mother calls for changes after coach sexually abused girl

Posted March 12, 2012 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated March 12, 2012 7:52 p.m. EDT

WRAL Investigates

— A Wilmington basketball coach who was convicted of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl with autism in 2008 is free after serving less than two and a half years in prison. The girl’s mother has filed a lawsuit and is calling for harsher punishments and a change to North Carolina’s sex abuse laws.

Freddie Lamont Wilson, 61, was head coach of the Southeastern North Carolina Youth Basketball Association. Court records show he began having sex with one of his players the day after she turned 16, which is the age of consent in North Carolina.

The girl’s mother, who asked not to be identified, said she feels her daughter’s autism wasn’t taken into consideration when determining Wilson’s punishment.

“It was horrific, the things he did to her,” the mother said. “There needs to be justice, not only for my daughter, but for anybody else this might happen to.”

The mother said she realized there was a problem when her husband found a sexually explicit letter Wilson had written to their daughter. Court records show Wilson wrote “sexual things he had done to (the girl), as well as depraved fantasies he wanted to try with her.”

“Neither one of us have ever gotten through reading that letter. It was so graphically horrible,” the mother said.

Wilson sexually abused the girl at Grace Harbor Church, where they held basketball practice, in the team’s van, in his apartment and at a hotel during a team trip to New York, according to court documents.

Grace Harbor Church Pastor Gabriel Tew released a statement, saying the church "has never been affiliated with Southeastern NC Youth Basketball Association. Freddie Wilson has attended Grace Harbor but not during the time of those events."

The girl's mother says the church was affiliated with the basketball association and that practices were held there, players attended church services there and Tew led prayers before games.

Tew declined to answer any questions, telling a WRAL News reporter by email: "We will not speak with you about the Freddie Wilson situation."

The girl's mother says she first met Wilson in the summer of 2007. The girl, then 15, was playing basketball at Empie Park when Wilson approached the adult she was with and said he wanted the girl to join his basketball association. He handed the adult a business card and asked that the girl’s parents give him a call.

“She really, really, really wanted to play,” the mother said. “It’s what she wanted to do, so I wanted to give her an opportunity to be able to do it.”

The mother says she did a lot of research about the basketball program before enrolling her daughter, including speaking with other parents who had children in the program.

Diagnosed with autism at age 5, the girl was high-functioning but struggled, her mother said, until she discovered basketball. She eventually joined Wilson’s team, and he began bringing her to church services, her mother said. 

Daniel Lockwood played on a different team Wilson coached but said he always saw the girl hanging around.

“I thought Coach Fred was just helping her out because I could tell there’s something wrong with her,” Daniel said. “So, I thought Coach Fred was taking her under his wing and letting her know about basketball or something like that.”

Instead, according to court records, Wilson was sexually abusing the girl. The girl’s mother said Wilson kept her on the team so he could have access to abuse her.

“What happened to my daughter has absolutely pushed her back, and I’m not sure she’ll ever recover now,” she said. “Her innocence was stolen. Everything she ever believed in was shattered.”

The girl’s family is suing Wilson, the basketball association he ran and Grace Harbor Church for $5 million in damages. Their lawsuit claims church leaders should have known how dangerous Wilson was and that they failed to protect the girl.

The teen's mother also says the state's laws failed her daughter and allowed Wilson to take sexual advantage of the girl.

Wilson was convicted in New Hanover County for "sex offense by a substitute parent," meaning he had sex with someone he was temporarily looking after. He served 17 months in the county jail and also served a year in prison in New York for having sex with the girl at a tournament there.

Prosecutors said they couldn’t charge him with rape because of the girl’s age, and they couldn’t press more serious charges since he coached the girl through a church sports team and not her school. Had he been her school’s basketball coach, Wilson could have been charged with sex offense by a school official and it wouldn’t have mattered if the girl had given her consent.

“Technically, she could consent,” said New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Lance Oehrlein. “Her developmental disabilities weren’t enough to meet the definition of mental disabilities here. Her situation fell through the legal cracks.”

North Carolina law spells out specific relationships for sexual offenses – such as teacher-student, school coach-student and any child under age 16 – but it does not have “authority figure statutes,” which a handful of other states have. Those statutes apply to any person who has significant influence over a minor.

A North Carolina lawmaker proposed the statutes a few years ago, but the bill didn’t go far in the General Assembly.

Wilson is currently out of prison and has been living at an apartment in Wilmington. WRAL News tracked him down through the sex offender registry. A man fitting his description said Freddie Wilson wasn’t home and declined to answer any questions.