Steven Lopez is best known as one of the world’s all-time great taekwondo athletes, but USA TODAY Sports has discovered that he’s at the center of a sexual misconduct case.
USA TODAY Sports
Corrections & clarifications: A previous version of this story included a graphic that misidentified the person quoted. It was an unnamed woman who says she was sexually assaulted.
Steven and Jean Lopez, brothers in what is often called the “First Family of Taekwondo,” were allowed to participate in last summer’s Rio Games even though they were being investigated for sexual misconduct, and the allegations against them have since drawn the interest of the FBI.
USA Taekwondo began investigating the Lopezes more than two years ago after receiving complaints that they had allegedly sexually assaulted multiple women. No hearings were held and USA Taekwondo, after consulting with the U.S. Olympic Committee agreed to put the inquiries on hold before the Rio Games, meaning two-time Olympic champion Steven and longtime coach Jean were free to represent the United States.
But USA Taekwondo and the investigating attorney, Donald Alperstein, had enough concern that he shared information with the FBI and alerted police in the Lopezes’ hometown of Sugar Land, Texas.
In a March 22 letter to one of the women, which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Alperstein said he notified the FBI “because so much of the misconduct occurred in multiple jurisdictions.” He also said he “felt the Lopez brothers needed to be removed from the sport.”
Mandy Meloon, a former taekwondo athlete who has accused Jean Lopez of molesting her, said she was interviewed by an FBI agent for about two hours on May 19. Meloon says the agent questioned her about Jean and Steven Lopez regarding “stuff that happened on the national team when we traveled internationally.”
Meloon says she gave the agent names of women who had allegedly been abused — by the Lopezes and others in the sport — to contact.
Mary Holligan, a warden at the Lockhart (Texas) Work Facility where Meloon was released Tuesday after being sentenced to two years for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy, confirmed the agent’s visit.
Alperstein declined to discuss specific cases when contacted by USA TODAY Sports. But he acknowledged that he reported whatever information he thought was necessary to law-enforcement authorities, including the FBI. The FBI contacted him in response to that, and he was interviewed by phone last month.
The FBI would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, said Shauna Dunlap, a special agent and spokesperson for the bureau’s Houston office.
In separate interviews, Steven and Jean Lopez denied allegations of sexual assault made by four women to USA TODAY Sports and investigators.
“I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone,” Jean Lopez said.
Steven Lopez said he was told in January 2016 that there was a complaint against him with USA Taekwondo. But he said he was not given any details of the allegations, nor was he interviewed by Alperstein or anyone else.
Lopez says he was told in a letter last month that the complaint was being transferred to the U.S. Center for SafeSport. The independent agency, which became fully operational in March, was created by the USOC to handle abuse allegations for national governing bodies.
“I’ve never — nothing, nothing at all,” Steven Lopez said when asked if he’s ever sexually assaulted or committed any kind of inappropriate behavior with any woman. “Nothing like that. Nothing close to that.”
Steven Lopez, 38, is taekwondo’s biggest star and the most decorated athlete in that sport. He is a five-time Olympian with gold medals in 2000 and 2004 and a bronze in 2008, as well as five world titles. He was featured in Coca-Cola’s “six pack” before the Beijing Games in 2008, a promotional campaign that also included LeBron James and Shawn Johnson.
His younger siblings, Diana and Mark, also won medals in Beijing. All three were coached by the eldest Lopez sibling, Jean, 43, who also coached at the 2004, ’12 and ’16 Olympics.
In addition to notifying the FBI, Alperstein said he told Sugar Land authorities that the brothers “may have committed sex crimes involving minors,” according to a Nov. 22 email obtained by USA TODAY Sports. The Fort Bend County (Texas) sheriff would have jurisdiction.
A request by USA TODAY Sports for records pertaining to the Lopezes or Alperstein’s alert was rejected by Fort Bend County attorney Roy L. Cordes Jr., who said they were not subject to public disclosure.
The USOC has been criticized for not taking a more proactive role in addressing sexual abuse allegations within the national governing bodies that oversee each sport, with scandals over the past decade involving USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and US Speedskating.
USA Taekwondo consulted with the USOC on the Lopez investigations before the decision was made to allow them to go to Rio, according to a former federation official who was told by the organization’s executive director, Keith Ferguson. The official spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the allegations.
USA Taekwondo told USA TODAY Sports it does not discuss ongoing investigations. But in a statement, the federation said it “places tremendous importance on protecting and preserving the safety of our athletes.”
“USA Taekwondo gave Mr. Alperstein a broad charge and unfettered ability to carry out his task — to expeditiously chase down every complaint, talk to every witness, gather hard actionable evidence and prosecute fully any violations, no matter where the evidence led,” USA Taekwondo said.
“Additionally, as he uncovered evidence USA Taekwondo has diligently provided any and all information to relevant law enforcement agencies, including local police and the FBI.”
USA Taekwondo turned over all the investigations and its work to the U.S. Center for SafeSport in March, according to spokesman Steve McNally
USA TODAY Sports spoke with eight people who were interviewed as part of USA Taekwondo’s investigations of Steven and Jean Lopez, including the four women who said they were sexually assaulted by the brothers.
Heidi Gilbert and Meloon, two of the women, spoke on the record. The other people, including the two other alleged victims, requested anonymity because they said they fear retribution by USA Taekwondo or the Lopezes.
Steven Lopez is scheduled to compete at the world championships later this month in Muju, South Korea. Jean Lopez was not selected as a coach for the team but said he will attend the championships.
GALLERY: JEAN AND STEVEN LOPEZ THROUGH THE YEARS
The USOC weighs in
The family’s celebrity status, along with the priority the USOC puts on winning medals, has convinced Meloon, Gilbert and the unnamed women that officials with USA Taekwondo and the USOC are not eager to pursue sexual misconduct allegations – cases that are difficult under ideal circumstances.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like they’re going to do anything about it,” Gilbert said. “I just feel like it’s going to continue to get swept under the rug.”
The USOC declined to answer questions from USA TODAY Sports regarding the Lopezes and the investigations. But in a statement, USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said, “Preventing and responding to sexual abuse is something we take incredibly seriously, and it is why we founded the independent U.S. Center for SafeSport to investigate and adjudicate allegations of sexual misconduct in sport.
“When the center opened in March, we appropriately submitted the taekwondo matter for its review, and to comment publicly in the midst of the center’s investigation would be inappropriate,” Sandusky added. “We will continue to dedicate the resources necessary to keep athletes safe.”
In 2015, three women sued USA Taekwondo and the USOC for allegedly failing to protect them from sexual abuse by Marc Gitelman, a taekwondo coach who was convicted earlier that year of abusing two girls.
Both USA Taekwondo and the USOC were dismissed as defendants in November, but the women are appealing that decision.
‘Nothing is going to happen’
Meloon, a bronze medalist at the world championships in 1997 and 2005, has previously accused Jean Lopez of molesting her. She also told USA TODAY Sports that Steven Lopez, whom she dated on and off for about six years, ending in 2006, raped her once and repeatedly physically assaulted her.
Gilbert, a gold medalist at the Pan American Championships in 2002 and a bronze medalist in 1998, told USA TODAY Sports that Jean Lopez drugged and sexually assaulted her.
The third woman, a former member of the junior national team, says she was drugged three times and that Steven Lopez had sex with her while she was unconscious on one of those occasions. The woman requested anonymity, and USA TODAY Sports does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault who have not gone public.
And the fourth woman said she had a consensual relationship with Jean Lopez when she was in her 20s. But, on one occasion, Lopez forced her to have sex.
Gilbert and the first unnamed woman did not contact law enforcement officials, but each said the allegations they made to USA TODAY Sports were also provided to the investigators for USA Taekwondo and SafeSport. The second unnamed woman shared her story with the USA Taekwondo investigator but not SafeSport.
Gilbert says she did not file a complaint at the time because, “They’re not going to believe me, nothing is going to happen.”
In 2006, Meloon told USA Taekwondo and the USOC that she’d been abused by Jean Lopez in 1997 while they were in Egypt for a competition. In 2007, she filed a report with the police in Palm Bay (Fla.), where she was living at the time.
But Meloon says she was told it was out of the department’s jurisdiction and she would need to file in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she was living when the incident occurred. Meloon says she didn’t because David Askinas, the then-CEO of USA Taekwondo, told her too much time had passed.
In response to emailed questions, Askinas said that was “not true.”
While USA Taekwondo wouldn’t speak to what happened prior to Alperstein being retained in 2015, it pointed out that he was told to pursue any allegation, regardless of when it occurred.
Indeed, Meloon’s complaints got renewed attention after Alperstein began his investigation. In addition to her meeting with the FBI agent, she has been in contact with SafeSport and plans to talk to its investigator now that she has been released from prison.
Meloon says she has suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She told USA Taekwondo and USOC officials she had to be hospitalized in 2015 after discussing with Alperstein the details of her alleged assaults.
Meloon also told Alperstein and the USOC that she had been raped when she was 15 by a former national team member while they were both at the Olympic Training Center. USOC general counsel Christopher McCleary confirmed in a Jan. 25 letter that her allegation had been sent to the police in Colorado Springs, Colo., the previous month. Meloon was interviewed by a detective from the department, and police spokesman Lt. Howard Black said Tuesday that the case is still active.
‘I couldn’t respond’
Gilbert says she began occasionally training with the Lopezes when she was 16, and moved to Houston to train with them full-time in 2003, when she was 20.
While they were at the 2002 Pan American Championships in Qito, Ecuador, Gilbert said she and Diana Lopez were with Jean Lopez in his hotel room after the competition.
Diana Lopez left the room, and Jean shut the door. Gilbert says he threw her on the bed, and she thought they were just wrestling. But she alleges he started to rub against her and simulated intercourse while both were still dressed.
The following year, at the world championships in Germany, Gilbert, Jean Lopez and other U.S. team members were at the party organizers threw following the end of competition. Gilbert says Lopez gave her a drink and, within 15 minutes, she says she was partially incapacitated, still aware of her surroundings but unable to move or speak.
She alleges Lopez took her in a cab to the team hotel, where he choked and slapped her, performed oral sex on her and penetrated her with his finger. Unable to have intercourse because he couldn’t get Gilbert’s pants off, he rubbed his penis between her legs instead.
“I could feel everything that was going on,” Gilbert said. “I was pretty out of it, but I definitely knew. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t respond.”
Gilbert said Jean Lopez told her repeatedly on the plane home that he didn’t remember anything that had happened the previous night and must have blacked out.
“I’ve never been inappropriate with Heidi,” Jean Lopez told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “I can’t say anything negative about her. She was my athlete. I was her coach, but I’ve never been inappropriate with her.”
Gilbert left the sport soon after the second incident. She did not make a complaint to USA Taekwondo but says she told Meloon and at least two others about the incident shortly after it happened. All three confirmed her account, with two requesting anonymity because they fear retribution.
About two years later, Gilbert said she got a call from Askinas asking if she was going to file a complaint. If not, Gilbert says Askinas told her, she needed to keep quiet.
“He was basically calling me to tell me to shut up,” Gilbert said. “He said, ‘These are really big allegations against Jean and could really affect his career and family life.’ ”
Askinas, now a vice president and general counsel at a business efficiency firm based in Chadds Ford, Pa., said, “I never asked Ms. Gilbert to keep quiet about anything.”
Meloon appeals to USA Taekwondo
Meloon says she was at a World Cup event in Cairo in 1997 when Jean Lopez, then an athlete on the team, came into her room, lay down in bed with her and penetrated her vagina with his finger. She was 16 at the time.
She told USA Taekwondo about the incident in 2006 as part of a grievance she filed against Lopez. But Askinas told The Gazette in Colorado Springs in 2007 that USA Taekwondo’s investigation found Meloon’s allegations of sexual abuse against Lopez “weren’t credible.”
He told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday that investigations by USA Taekwondo and the USOC led to that conclusion.
Meloon says USA Taekwondo did not investigate, instead requiring her to sign a contract that would prevent her from being alone with Jean Lopez. Meloon says Askinas told her, “We don’t believe you cause we know that you’re lying.”
Askinas said that was not true. Jean Lopez denied that he molested Meloon.
USA Taekwondo dropped Meloon from the team in April 2007 because it said she failed to practice. Meloon says she never missed training but suffered a broken cheek bone in competition, limiting her in practice. She said Jean Lopez screamed at her and told her to go with him alone into and office, which she refused and walked out.
Meloon sought reinstatement through arbitration. The arbitrator ruled against her, saying USA Taekwondo was right to remove her because of her refusal to train and negative comments she posted about USA Taekwondo officials, coaches and athletes that violated the code of conduct.
But Lawrence A. Saichek, the arbitrator, raised concerns about interactions between coaches and young women in the program.
“Ms. Meloon’s core message went to the protection of young girls in the Olympic movement who could be exposed to situations that are inappropriate and potentially damaging,” he wrote in the decision. “One would hope that this message is not lost and young children in the Olympic movement are properly supervised, protected and educated. One would hope that the USOC takes a serious look at the level of social interaction between its coaches and athletes and underage drinking by its athletes. One would hope that the circumstances leading to the suspension of Ms. Meloon will not re-occur in the life of another young Olympic hopeful. Although Ms. Meloon must be held accountable for her actions, one must wonder about the culpability of the system as a whole.”
Meloon says she filed her complaint against Jean Lopez because he was the coach of the national team. She did not report her allegations against Steven Lopez to USA Taekwondo in 2006 but has since shared them with Alperstein.
Meloon says that after a physical confrontation at his parents’ home in 2004, Steven Lopez followed her to her apartment and broke in through a window.
“(He) held me down and sexually assaulted me,” Meloon said.
In 2005, at the world championships, Meloon says Lopez shoved her and then jumped on her chest, cracking a rib the night before she was to compete.
Steven Lopez also punched her in the face and physically assaulted her in front of his family, Meloon has alleged to USA Taekwondo and SafeSport.
“It’s not true,” Steven Lopez said. “At all.”
Meloon said she felt trapped because there was nowhere else to train at that high level other than to stay with the Lopezes.
“That’s why I also knew that by reporting it, reporting everything, yeah, I was hoping that they would do something about it, but I kind of knew it wasn’t going to end very well for me,” she said. “But I had to. It was the right thing to do.”
‘Not being able to see straight’
One of the unnamed women alleges that, like Gilbert, she was drugged and assaulted, but by Steven Lopez.
Recruited to join the Lopezes’ gym when she was 13, she and her mother remember Steven Lopez, who is 11 years older, taking an interest in the woman from the first day they met him at camp.
The woman says they first had consensual sex after she turned 17. The woman says she and Lopez would occasionally have sex over the next few years but never dated.
When the woman was 18, she says she was drugged while at a party with friends and Steven Lopez. After she woke up vomiting, the woman had a friend take her home. On that drive, the woman says the friend told her she’d had sex with Steven Lopez.
“The last thing I remember is standing in a living room playing pool and the next thing I remember is being driven home and just not being able to see straight,” the woman said.
About two years later, the woman says Steven Lopez told her that after she’d had sex with him that night, he left the bedroom to get water and returned to find the friend who had driven her home having sex with her. USA TODAY Sports is not naming that man because the woman said he is not the subject of the SafeSport investigation.
The woman told Lopez she had no idea and was blacked out that night.
“And he kind of looked at me funny and goes, ‘Well, you seemed awake and fine to me,’” she said.
Steven Lopez denied the allegation, calling it “shocking.”
“Shocking because it’s absolutely, in no way, true,” he said.
The woman says Alperstein contacted her to ask if she would take part in the investigation and testify if the case proceeded to a hearing.
“I am glad that it’s a process because my hopes are that the reason it’s taking so long is because they’re really formulating a valid argument and getting as many people involved as possible,” she said. “On the flip side, it kind of makes you wonder, are they going to get away with it again like always?”
Hearings yet to take place
In a deposition from the lawsuit brought by women who were abused by Gitelman against USA Taekwondo, Devin Johnson, then chairman of the board, said he first heard of sexual misconduct allegations against Jean Lopez in the spring of 2014.
In May 2014, the USA Taekwondo board unanimously voted to hire separate counsel as part of its implementation of SafeSport policies required by the USOC. After Meloon and Christina Johnson, another former taekwondo athlete, posted online allegations of being abused, mentioning several coaches and athletes by name including the Lopez brothers, USA Taekwondo hired Alperstein in March 2015.
Gilbert and the unnamed women told USA TODAY Sports that they spoke with Alperstein and a private investigator working with him. Meloon says she first spoke with Alperstein in the spring of 2015 and has been in touch with him in the two years since.
According to seven of the people who have knowledge of the investigations, Alperstein gave the impression the intent was to conclude the case with an ethics hearing.
That would be consistent with how other cases were resolved during the time the Lopez investigations have been ongoing. USA Taekwondo’s bylaws require the ethics committee, which is responsible for handling alleged violations of the code of ethics and SafeSport policies, “to ensure that all complaints are heard in a timely, fair and impartial manner.”
Since Alperstein was given broad authority to pursue abuse cases in March 2015, USA Taekwondo has suspended six people. It would not disclose how many total hearings have been held, saying it does not discuss cases that don’t result in discipline.
Steven Lopez said it wasn’t until last month that he was told the complaint had been transferred to the Center for SafeSport.
“So this thing was like looming over me, right? I’m like trying to solve it or resolve it some way, like figure out, ‘Well who’s saying this?’ ” said Steven Lopez. “Basically, nothing happened. Nothing happened. I mean, I went to the Olympics. I’m like this is weird, why are they bringing this up right before the Olympic Games?”
Jean Lopez said he has not been contacted by USA Taekwondo, SafeSport or law enforcement regarding any allegations against him either before or since the Olympics.
Alperstein emailed Gilbert on Sept. 15 to update her on the status of the case against Steven Lopez and to check on her availability to possibly testify.
“Now that the Olympics are over and things are settling down, I want to get moving again on the Steven Lopez disciplinary case,” Alperstein wrote.
But in a March 22 letter to Meloon, Alperstein indicated that procedural issues had made holding hearings difficult, if not impossible. The Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, which governs the USOC and national governing bodies, requires at least 20% athlete representation on panels and committees.
“Because Jean and Steven have been around for so long and have interacted with so many athletes, (USA Taekwondo), despite huge effort, is having a lot of trouble putting a panel together because either athletes don’t want to be involved or because Lopezes’ lawyer objects they can’t be neutral,” Alperstein wrote. “That’s what initially stalled the case against Steven.”
It would be better, Alperstein said, to turn the investigation over to SafeSport.
“The Center for SafeSport doesn’t have the same issues, and I think that if they take over the case, there’s a much better chance of getting a final and favorable result,” he wrote.
“USA Taekwondo and I agree that it would be a much more effective way of obtaining justice.”
Contributing: Kevin Johnson; Axon reported from Lockhart, Texas.