Youth suffers while law enforcement decides oversight

November 25, 2007 11:00 pm

"The bottom line is that the man stole from kids. Embezzlement is too nice a word for what he did."

So said Sonora youth football coach Mike Dambacher of a Jackson man charged with looting a five-county football league of more than $10,000 while serving as its president. Although 38-year-old Kevin Barnett has yet to be convicted, the crimes with which he is charged inspire a special brand of emotion and indignation.

Parents, in particular, must be outraged, as the real victims are their children — the 8- to 14-year-old boys and girls who play football and lead cheers for the teams in the Mother Lode Youth Athletic Conference. Those kids are the ones whose insurance was jeopardized, whose jerseys and trophies weren't paid for and whose all-star game was cancelled.

League officers and board members are volunteers, presumably working for the good of their own sons and daughters and those of others. Trust is implicit, and when that trust is violated, it is more than mere theft. It is betrayal borne of greed and bordering on cruelty.

That's why law enforcement should quickly build a case and prosecute anyone charged with such a crime. In such cases, the victims are many and the need for swift justice — both as a punishment and as a deterrent — is paramount.

Unfortunately this has not happened in the Kevin Barnett case.

League officials, after calculating the amount of money missing, reported the apparent embezzlement to the Jackson Police Department on June 11. But then, said a police investigator, it took four months for the department and other law-enforcement agencies in the league's five-county area to decide which of them should lead the investigation.

This is inexcusable. It is reminiscent of the 1970s Vietnam peace talks, at which negotiators spent weeks arguing over the shape of the table while the war claimed more victims.

In the months it took to decide that the Jackson Police Department should handle the case after all, Barnett could have fled to the far corners of this or any other country. Luckily for the police, he did not.

Ironically, Barnett's case is not unique.

In 2004, fellow parents told the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office that former Tuolumne Little League president Stacy Blevins had made off with $20,000. An investigation was launched and findings were delivered to the district attorney in October 2004.

Blevins was successfully prosecuted and ordered to pay restitution, but not before 19 months had passed and she had moved to North Dakota. At one point, the cash-strapped Little League was told that it must pay $3,000 for an audit before the case could move forward, a request that fortunately was dropped.

We sincerely hope that Kevin Barnett's will be the last youth sports embezzlement case to hit the Mother Lode. But if it's not, our police officers and prosecutors should learn from past mistakes and give any future cases the highest priority.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.