August 1, 2014
The former Maine West High School soccer coach accused of sanctioning hazing in the Northwest suburbs had no predictions for the future after a Cook County judge cleared him Wednesday of all criminal charges.
Michael Divincenzo, 37, of Elk Grove Village, simply choked up in the lobby of the Cook County courthouse in Skokie. He thanked his family, his friends and his former players.
“It’s been very hard,” Divincenzo said. “I’m just really appreciative I have such great people behind me.”
Those people hugged and surrounded Divincenzo after prosecutors failed to convict him for misdemeanor battery, hazing and failure to report abuse. Prosecutors have conceded in the past that their case was unique and difficult to prove. But it didn’t help them that Divincenzo also secured in Tom Breen and Todd Pugh two of Chicago’s most successful defense attorneys.
Nor did prosecutors have an easy time with teenage witnesses who often weren’t thrilled to be on the stand. One even testified his hazing felt like “a normal thing” that made him feel “closer to the family.”
But now that it’s all over, Divincenzo said he’ll take a few weeks to relax and think about what comes next. Sixteen months ago, he was a celebrated varsity soccer coach known at the Des Plaines school as “Divo.” Now, he’s lost that job — voluntarily giving up a fight to keep it — and he still faces a lawsuit brought by five unnamed players he once coached.
The lawyer leading that lawsuit, Tony Romanucci, called Wednesday’s verdict “a slap in the face.”
“But regardless of [the] verdict today, the victims of these despicable acts still have a chance to see justice done via the civil lawsuit,” Romanucci said in a statement.
Breen, though, said the evidence at Divincenzo’s trial shows neither the former coach nor Maine West High School is responsible for the allegations made by Romanucci’s clients.
“Even after an acquittal it is almost impossible to get your reputation back,” Breen said. “And Coach Divo had a wonderful reputation.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez charged Divincenzo after a five-month review of hazing allegations among Maine West soccer players. Generally, the “initiations” would involve tackling a player, giving him a wedgie and sodomizing him with fingers or sticks, according to trial testimony.
Cook County Judge Jeffrey L. Warnick made separate rulings in a stop-and-start hearing Wednesday that chipped away at the prosecutors’ theories, and ultimately led to an acquittal of the former coach.
He said the abused and neglected child law used to prosecute Divincenzo doesn’t apply to student-on-student conduct. Nor, he said, does the law require people to report their own alleged wrongdoing.
That would violate the constitutional protection against self-incrimination, he said.
Finally, the judge said he didn’t see evidence that Divincenzo should be held accountable for the actions of his students. It not only wasn’t clear if Divincenzo knew the extent of what was going on, but the judge said the coach disciplined his varsity players in September 2012 when he first heard of possibly inappropriate behavior.
“He made them apologize and punished them,” Warnick said.
The judge ruled after lawyers for both sides briefly rehashed arguments made last month. Prosecutors said Divincenzo seemed to know what was happening to his players, while Breen said the coach didn’t approve of the hazing.
Breen also said “every coach in the world, of every team, even women’s lacrosse” could be criminally charged under the prosecutors’ theory.
Alvarez stood by the case after the verdict, telling reporters, “I’m not going to stand up here and apologize for bringing these charges.”
“Someone needs to be the adult in the room to make sure that children aren’t being hazed, aren’t being initiated,” she said. “There’s no need for that to play a sport in high school.”