I-Team: How a Future Sex Offender Found a Home in 2 NY Boy Scout Troops

What to Know

  • Decades before John Stella became a registered sex offender, he was an Assistant Scoutmaster dogged by allegations of abuse in upstate NY

  • “He was a sadist,” one ex-Scout said. “I can still think of details. Like the smell of this guy’s chewing tobacco is still in my nose"

  • The Boy Scouts of America told the I-Team Stella’s 1989 arrest was the first time the national headquarters knew of any allegations

Decades before he became a registered sex offender, 60-year-old John Stella was an Assistant Scoutmaster dogged by allegations of abuse in an upstate Boy Scout troop.

“He was a sadist, really,” said Rob Simandle, a former Boy Scout who grew up near Utica. Before he quit the troop out of disgust, Simandle says Stella used to strip him down to underwear and paddle him during leadership drills.

“I can still think of details. Like the smell of this guy’s chewing tobacco is still in my nose.”

Around the year 1982, when Simandle was 13 years old, he says he and at least one other boy told their parents Stella was holding perverted one-on-one spanking sessions.

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The reports led scout leaders to kick Stella out of the troop, and into his adulthood, Simandle assumed Stella had also been booted from all scouting activities, nationwide.

But that’s not what happened.

Internal files, produced and archived by the Boy Scouts of America, show Stella simply moved from a scout troop upstate to a scout troop downstate.

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By the late 1980’s, Boy Scout records known as “Ineligible Volunteer Files” show Stella was volunteering with Boy Scout Troop #404 in Suffolk County Long Island.

And it was on Long Island that he was arrested and convicted in 1989 of three misdemeanor counts of child sex abuse. A report of that arrest did make its way to the Boy Scouts’ national headquarters and John Stella was permanently banned. His Ineligible Volunteer file says there were at least twenty victims going back to 1986 and that he “likes to spank boys” with a “preferred age range [of] 14-18” years old.

“If they listened to me in the early 80’s, this guy would have been off the street,” Simandle said. “They didn’t protect me. They didn’t protect the kids that came after me.”

How did an accused child predator seamlessly slip from one troop to the next without a warning about his past?

The Boy Scouts of America told the I-Team Stella’s 1989 arrest was the first time the national headquarters knew of any spanking allegations. The original abuse claims- from upstate – were unknown to the national organization because the Utica-area Scout leaders kicked Stella out without escalating the report.

Paul Obernesser, Stella’s Scoutmaster in the early 80s, said he declined to inform regional and national Scout offices about the misconduct because he didn’t consider the spanking to be a clear example of sexual misconduct.

He also noted that Rob Simandle’s father, who was a leader on the Troop Council, was aware of the allegations – and he didn’t escalate the complaint either.

“Should we have done more than that at the time? I don’t know,” Obernesser said. “At the time the National Boy Scouts didn’t have any particular training on that. Obviously today if that had happened it would have gotten reported up because we have more training. In 1982 everything was pretty innocent.”

Michael Pfau, Rob Simandle’s attorney, suggested the lack of training was precisely the problem back in the 1980s. Back then, he said, the national Boy Scouts of America were the only entity that could have known how crucial more training was. By the 1980s, the Boy Scout headquarters in Texas had compiled hundreds of those Ineligible Volunteer files – and were in a unique position to tell Scoutmasters and parents just how many child predators were trying to become Scout volunteers.

“Parents, for decades, sent their kids on Scout trips without warning or information when the organization, the Boy Scouts of America, knew that they were being infiltrated by pedophiles.,” Pfau said.

Now that the New York legislature has passed the Child Victims Act – a bill to extend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims - it appears Simandle will get his chance to sue the Boy Scouts of America.

In the past year and a half, state records show the Boy Scouts of America spent more than $200,000 on lobbyists who sought to influence New York’s Child Victims Act legislation.

In an email to the I-Team, the nonprofit declined to voice support or opposition for the bill, instead writing generally that the Boy Scouts “support reform in statutes of limitation and emphatically support reform of civil statutes of limitation for individual abusers and against organizations that intentionally concealed wrongdoing.”

The email also listed a series of steps taken by the Boy Scouts to better respond to reports of abuse. They include better training for volunteers and staff, mandatory reporting of suspected abuse to authorities, and a more formal process for selecting troop leaders that includes criminal background checks.

“At no time in our history have we knowingly allowed a sexual predator to work with youth, and we always seek to act swiftly when alerted to abuse allegations,” the statement read.

After he was banned from the Boy Scouts, John Stella was arrested again in 2006. This time he pleaded guilty to a charge of attempted possession of child pornography. He is currently listed on New York’s Sex Offender Registry as living in Coney Island. The I-Team was unable to reach him at his home.

Paul Simandle, Rob Simandle’s father, took issue with the notion that he failed to escalate his son’s complaint against John Stella, saying that he believed it was the responsibility of Paul Obernesser, the Scoutmaster.

“I would have wanted that escalated definitely and I don’t remember saying not to go forward at all. I don’t really remember discussing that aspect of it,” said the elder Simandle.

In 2017, Rob Simandle notified the Boy Scouts that John Stella wasn’t the only Scout volunteer who allegedly took advantage of him while he was a Scout in upstate New York. In a letter to the national headquarters, he asked for an investigation into another Assistant Scoutmaster who he says plied him with alcohol and sodomized him during two camping trips.

“He gave us all beer, got me drunk and he ended up in my tent,” Simandle said. “I was thirteen. I hadn’t even kissed a girl. And all the sudden this guy is fondling me. Then he’s on top of me.”

The Boy Scouts said the volunteer in question left Scouting activities in 2007, but out of caution the organization removed his privileges for future volunteering.

Jennifer Freeman, an attorney on Simandle’s team, said his case may be deserving of a criminal investigation. And she said prosecutors throughout New York would be justified in opening wide-ranging probes into the Boy Scouts, much the way the Attorney General is now examining the New York Archdiocese.

“When there’s a criminal investigation there is a lot more at stake,” Freeman said.

“It’s a very important problem that needs to be looked at just as much as the Catholic Church.”