LAKE BLUFF, Ill. (WLS) --Six months after the I-Team first investigated sexual exploitation allegations against former Lake Bluff teacher Charles "Chuck" Ritz, he is facing a criminal charge. The Lake County state's attorney is charging Ritz with one count of public indecency.
"My initial thought was that there would be charges and never realized the mountain that there was going to be to climb," said John Bollman. Bollman organized a group of former students who say they were sexually exploited by Ritz and says even a single misdemeanor charge filed against his former junior high teacher was considered a victory following an investigation of what police call "illegal sexual contact."
"Our aim on the crime itself was a mixture of justice is served - and justice being served in our view is he doesn't have access to children - he doesn't have access to society," said Jim Moss, who also says he was an alleged victim of Charles Ritz.
Jim Moss is among the alleged victims of Charles Ritz - all now approaching middle age - who came forward in the last year. Lake County investigators now say they interviewed more than 50 witnesses from Florida to California.
His classmate John Bollman said the number of Ritz students claiming to be victims has steadily increased.
"I know that the state's attorney interviewed 50 plus people, I'm not saying those are all victims, but there are a number of victims in Lake County," said John Bollman.
The alleged Ritz victims are represented by Chicago attorney Marc Pearlman.
"They are extraordinary courageous men, in my view they are heroes, I have two young daughters, they have made the world a safer place for all of our children," said Marc Pearlman.
In the 1980s, Ritz was teaching junior high in north suburban Lake Bluff, where several former students have made claims that they were sexually exploited by him. These men, now in their 40s, said when they were growing up Charles Ritz was more than a math teacher and athletic coach at what was Lake Bluff Junior High, now the middle school. They said he'd take groups of his favorite students on Friday night pizza parties at an arcade in Waukegan.
The former students described the alleged incident that the charge stems from to the I-Team during our initial investigation.
"After we were done he said, 'Do you mind if we stop at my parents' house?'" former student Jason Suciu said.
"There was a videotape in the living room, he said put it in. We start watching a pornographic film," former student Joey Lombardi said.
"Wow, now we're watching porn with our math teacher, and it got almost immediately uncomfortable," said Suciu.
"He asked permission if it would be all right for him to masturbate while we watched," said Lombardi.
"I just remember being panicked and I remember mustering the courage to say, 'We need to go,'" Suciu said.
"And I remember him saying we all know that you can't discuss this with anybody," said Lombardi.
The next Monday in school they told their friends what they said happened, and the story made it back to their parents who alerted District 65 officials.
Ritz resigned from the Lake Bluff schools in 1985 amid allegations of "unacceptable behavior" with students. He was paid $22,000 on the way out the door and the allegations appeared to have not been shared with police, prosecutors and potential employers until last year.
The Lake Bluff school superintendent from the 1980s told the I-Team there was no need for him to contact police or prosecutors at the time. In a statement last fall, current District 65 officials said they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation by local police. Lake Bluff police told the I-Team they were investigating "several allegations of inappropriate illegal sexual conduct" and interviewed possible victims.
In February, one former student who says Ritz abused him in a separate incident told the school board that his "victims may number in excess of 100."
"Charles Ritz is a monster" said Jim Moss, whose family members have attended Lake Bluff schools for the last 90 years. "In a short span of a time in Lake Bluff Ritz progressed from providing students with pornography, alcohol and conducting inappropriate touching to conducting the most horrific acts imaginable" Moss told the school board.
After Ritz left Lake Bluff schools in 1985, he moved to California where he taught high school in Orange County for three decades. Ritz became a prominent teacher in California, appearing as an expert in videos and serving on state commissions and at the teacher's union, where he was chief negotiator. Ritz most recently taught math at upscale La Habra High School in suburban Orange County.
School authorities there opened an investigation following I-Team reporting last November. The Fullerton school district that employed Ritz hired an "investigative special counsel" after receiving a 300-signature petition seeking an inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct in Southern California.
When ABC7 showed up last fall at Ritz's home outside Los Angeles, the former math teacher and coach refused to discuss the allegations and closed his front door on the I-Team.
In February school officials in north suburban Lake Bluff sent a letter to residents aimed at calming local nerves, frayed after the I-Team report and sordid details of the Ritz allegations were circulated.
"This is a criminal investigation of allegations dating back more than 30 years, and by necessity is being conducted by law enforcement" stated the letter from Lake Bluff Schools Superintendent Dr. Jean H. Sophie, and the District 65 Board of Education.
Ritz taught at Lake Bluff Junior High for ten years spanning parts of the 1970s and '80s.
"We want the community to know that we take these allegations very seriously and feel compassion and concern for anyone who may have been impacted" officials state in the "open letter."
Even as criminal investigations were underway, the school district says they had already implemented student safeguards including:
- Regular checks of registries to determine if there are sexual offenders living and working within the community.
- Requiring all faculty and staff to comply with district policies on ethics and technology use and attend training regarding the parameters of appropriate conduct with minor students during and outside of the school day, including a teacher's use of social media, as well as other topics related to maintaining a safe school environment.
Ritz will need to be extradited to face the charge in Illinois.
On Friday, Ritz's attorney, Staycie R. Sena released the following statement:
"This is a witch hunt. The State of Illinois has spent inordinate resources canvassing this country in an attempt to pin something, anything, on Mr. Ritz. To justify this expenditure, they had to file something and went with a misdemeanor. Once the facts themselves are considered, Mr. Ritz fully expects to be exonerated."
District 65 also released a statement about the charge announced against Ritz on Friday:
"The Lake Bluff School District 65 Board remains deeply saddened by the painful events described by former students of Charles Ritz, who taught at Lake Bluff Junior High School between 1975 and 1985. We appreciate the diligent work of the Lake County State's Attorney and the Lake Bluff Police Department in their investigations of this matter."
With the charge filed today by the Lake County State's Attorney's office, we are hopeful that Charles Ritz will be swiftly brought to justice and held accountable for his actions. The District cooperated fully with law enforcement officials in their investigations and released to them all documents related to Ritz, his employment in the District and his interactions with students, including personnel records, notes, and memos. We will continue to cooperate throughout the criminal prosecution of Ritz.
Looking forward, we will remain vigilant in our duty as a School Board to provide a safe and supportive environment for learning. We will continue to share updates on our assessment of current policies and procedures at future public Board meetings and in directed communications to our parents, staff and community."
Warrant bond was set at $100,000 for Charles Ritz. If Ritz doesn't surrender himself in Illinois, Lake Bluff police chief David Belmonte told the I-Team he "will send officers to bring him back to Illinois to stand trial."