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Acclaimed Philly scholastic chess coach sexually abused boys in 1980s, former pupils say

A nationally renowned chess coach who was co-recipient of the 1978 Philadelphia Award for developing chess champions in Philadelphia public schools is accused of sexually abusing preteen and teenage boys in his home in the 1980s.

Stephen Shutt outside his home on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018.
Stephen Shutt outside his home on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

A nationally acclaimed chess coach who for decades taught math in Philadelphia's public schools sexually abused preteen and teenage boys in his Fairmount home in the 1980s, according to three former pupils who say they either endured or witnessed the abuse.

In independent interviews with the Inquirer and Daily News, the men described how the coach, Stephen Shutt, molested members or former members of his chess team from Frederick Douglass Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

One said he was about 11 when Shutt performed oral sex on him in the shower at Shutt's house; the other two said they saw Shutt do the same in his bed to boys who were in their early to mid-teens.

Shutt, 76, denied the accusations in interviews outside his home Thursday and Friday. "No, that did not happen," he said, speaking softly and at times shaking his head.

Shutt, who initiated scholastic chess in Philadelphia in 1971 when he was a math teacher at Douglass, has been widely praised for developing chess champions among African American pupils.

In 1990, Shutt transferred to the highly rated Julia R. Masterman School, in Spring Garden, where he taught in the gifted program and where he still coached chess until Friday despite retiring from the faculty in 2012. Under his tutelage, Douglass and Masterman both won multiple chess championships.

On Friday afternoon, after the school district was informed of the allegations by the Inquirer and Daily News, Masterman Principal Jessica Brown sent an email to parents informing them that Shutt would no longer be coaching chess or volunteering at the school.

Her note said Shutt had sent the Masterman administration an email about "a serious and concerning matter. It referred to allegations of inappropriate behavior with students that occurred in the past and not at Masterman." The letter said the school district will investigate the matter.

Shutt, who is ranked in the top 2 percent of all rated chess players in the U.S., is an active member of the United States Chess Federation as co-chair of two committees and a member of two others, a spokesperson said Friday. Shutt was vice president of the federation's executive board from 2001 to 2005.

"US Chess is troubled to hear of these serious allegations against one of our federation's members that were only brought to our attention today," the spokesperson, Daniel Lucas, wrote in an email Friday. "Our organization is poised to take appropriate actions per well-established internal procedures once we have an opportunity to read the article."

The Inquirer and Daily News began looking into the allegations against Shutt after being contacted by Eric Rogers,  one of the men who said he witnessed the sex acts. Rogers, 46, said he was spurred to come forward after watching a TV program about USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who has been convicted of sexually abusing girls.

"That's what I saw that pushed me over the edge," Rogers said in an interview last month. "If he [Shutt] dies, he's going to die with this wonderful legacy, with no one knowing what he did."

Asked why he had not contacted authorities, Rogers said that in the 1980s the "word 'pedophile' didn't come to mind. I just thought he was gay." Rogers said that he had contacted a lawyer a couple of years ago about a possible lawsuit, but that the lawyer told him the statute of limitations had passed. Recently he decided to contact a reporter.

Under Shutt, the chess team at Douglass, then a district elementary school (and now a charter school), won the state championship every year from 1976 until about 1991, capturing the national elementary school championship in 1982. Shutt helped establish a feeder system for chess players, by which many pupils went on to play at Vaux Junior High School in North Philadelphia. The Vaux team won the national championship every year from 1977 to 1983.

Based on Rogers' assertions, the Inquirer and Daily News independently located 20 other former chess players who had attended Douglass or Vaux in the 1980s. Nine said they were unaware of any impropriety, five said they had heard rumors, one had no comment, and three declared the claims to be false.

Two recounted their own memories of sexual abuse by Shutt.

‘Like a father figure’

One, now 44, recalled visiting Shutt's house many times with other boys for chess practices or just to hang out. Once, around 1985 when he was about 11 years old and still attending Douglass, Shutt drove him to a store alone to buy him sneakers, he said.

"My mom didn't have much money," he said, and because his father wasn't in his life at the time, Shutt "was like a father figure looking out for me."

Back at Shutt's house, he thanked the coach.

He said Shutt suggested they go swimming and should take a shower first. He entered the shower, then Shutt joined him, he recalled. "I let him wash my back," he said. "He told me to do his. I washed his back."

Shutt then got down on his knees and asked the boy to shampoo his hair, then Shutt began performing oral sex on him, he said. "At the time I'm scared," he said, "but I also didn't want him to get off of me because I didn't know if he was going to take the sneakers back."

After the shower, "he took me home. He gave me the sneakers. We never talked about it. Never."

As an adult, the man said, he has thought of Shutt at times. "I look at him with hatred," he said.

"I felt I could hurt him. But then I said, 'I can't be mad at him, I have to blame myself. I should have known.' "

The man said the experience scarred him. He won't hug his own son. When his son played on a basketball team, he said, he'd attend practices and stay until the end to ensure his son was never alone with his coach.

Shutt said Thursday that the man's account was not true. "I don't remember taking anyone to buy sneakers," he said.

Sitting on a chair on his porch, his hands clasped, Shutt acknowledged that chess team members did come to his house. But he said he didn't touch them. He speculated that rumors about him may have spread because in the 1970s he had sexual encounters with young black men in their 20s who lived near Douglass.

"Word gets around," Shutt said.

Payments alleged

Rogers also grew up near the school. He said he began playing chess under Shutt in fifth grade, during the 1982-83 school year. "I loved it," he said.

He recalled that he was about 12 years old and in sixth grade when he first went to Shutt's home.

About six other boys, around ages 11 to 13, were there that night, he said, and Shutt put on two adult movies in his bedroom — Debbie Does Dallas and The Pink Lagoon. Rogers said the boys slept over, but nothing untoward happened.

Months later, he said, he went to Shutt's house again when he was about 13 and attending Vaux. He was with two other boys who were a year older, he said. One said the coach would pay them $50 each if they'd let him give them oral sex, according to Rogers.

"Fifty dollars in 1985 was good money for a 13-year-old," he said.

At Shutt's house, he said, they were sitting on his bed watching TV when Rogers, who was on one side of the bed, saw Shutt under the bedsheet moving his head in the groin area of a boy on the other side. The second older boy was sitting in the middle, he recalled.

Rogers recalled that he and the other boys were laughing and looking at each other in disbelief.

Minutes later, Rogers said, he saw Shutt's head underneath the sheet in the area of the second boy's groin.

Then Shutt went into the hallway bathroom, got into the shower, and had one of the other teens summon Rogers to the bathroom, he recalled.

Rogers said he took off his clothes and got into the shower. "He didn't touch me," Rogers said. "I was just standing there."

Afterward, Rogers said, Shutt gave the other two boys $20 each but gave him $10.

"I was just thinking, 'Damn, I wanted that $20. I wanted $50,' " Rogers recalled.

He said he told friends about it afterward. One, Darrand Debnam, 45, confirmed Wednesday that Rogers told him about it soon after the encounter.

Shutt denied the account. He said he never offered or gave money to any boy for sex.

Shutt said a boy once may have brought porn films to his house, but he never played such movies and never watched porn with boys in his bedroom. "I never had that many kids in my house or in my bedroom," he said.

He called Rogers' recollection "such a delinquent fantasy on his part" and speculated that his accusers were trying to "entrap" him with bogus claims.

‘People … trusted him’

Another accuser, a 48-year-old man, said he witnessed a similar incident in Shutt's bed. He recalled traveling with the chess team to New York, Minnesota, and other places for chess tournaments, hanging out frequently at Shutt's house, and playing basketball with the coach after school. "People liked him, considered him as a friend, and trusted him," said the man.

The chess coach was so trusted, the man said, that chess players slept over at Shutt's house. "It was a very common, very normal thing," he said in an interview last month.

Once when he was about 11, around 1981 or 1982, he said, he witnessed Shutt giving oral sex to two boys when the three of them spent the night at Shutt's home. The other two boys were about 13 and 15, he recalled.

As he was sleeping on one side of the bed, next to a wall, he said he awoke and heard a noise.

"I asked what that noise was, and the kid [in the middle of the bed] alluded to what was going on," recalled the man. "That's when I looked under and saw Mr. Shutt giving this kid oral sex."

He said Shutt then went to the other side of the bed and appeared to do the same to the second boy.

The man said he thought it was important for the truth to come out. "I want to see and make sure this is not happening to anyone else," he said.

He said he wishes he had come forward earlier, but didn't want to hurt the victims involved. Because of the shame and embarrassment, he said Tuesday, "I buried it."

Shutt, for his part, denied the man's story. "Sorry, it's not true," he said.

In a brief encounter Friday outside his home, the longtime math teacher said Douglass pupils did not stay overnight at his home in the 1980s, except for maybe one time when a pupil's parents were not home. He said some junior high or high school students, who were former chess players at Douglass, did at times stay overnight at his home but he denied any sexual misconduct with them.

He noted that he had taught in public schools for more than 40 years, and lamented how the allegations would impact his reputation. "All of a sudden," these accusations "come up and just ruin somebody's life," he said. "It doesn't have to be proven true."

A chess magazine cover, a TV movie

The winning Vaux and Douglass teams and their coaches, including Shutt, were featured on the cover of the September 1977 issue of Chess Life & Review, the official magazine of the United States Chess Federation. Shutt and the Vaux coach were the 1978 co-recipients of the prestigious Philadelphia Award, credited for being devoted math teachers who set up their schools' chess teams in a tough neighborhood.

The teams also spawned a 1987 TV movie, The Mighty Pawns. That was the name of the Douglass team, although the fictional movie was based on the success of the Vaux team.

Shutt, while still teaching at Douglass, began coaching chess at Masterman in the late 1980s, according to a 1989 Inquirer article. In 1990, he transferred there as a teacher.

Although he retired from teaching in 2012, he continued to coach the chess club at Masterman, a top-rated magnet public school for middle- and high-school students. He held chess training sessions for Philadelphia's After School Activities Partnerships, and previously directed the Philadelphia Scholastic Chess League.

Not everyone whom Shutt took under his wing has negative memories.

George Graham, 52, a former Douglass chess team member, said he was "flabbergasted" to hear of the accusations.

Graham said his mother had let him live with Shutt in the early 1980s during junior high and high school because he had been struggling in school. Shutt set him on the right path, helping him to get into the University of Pittsburgh in 1985, he said.

"I don't know anyone who was sexually approached by him," said Graham, who is in custody at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility on a theft charge. "He's a very, very good man," Graham said of Shutt.

Jeffrey Chesin, 66, one of the two former chess coaches at Vaux who had worked closely with Shutt, defended him in an interview Friday, saying he supported Shutt "100 percent."

"I was with him many times at his home, with kids," said Chesin, now retired in Florida. "We traveled together to chess tournaments, in Pennsylvania, in New York. Never, ever had I seen anything that would approach anything like that, never heard anything from the students. The students respected him. The students many times loved him as a father figure."