Kansas youth weightlifting coach investigated for sexual misconduct

Dennis Espinosa, under investigation for sexual misconduct, recently announced his new youth weightlifting club on Facebook.
Dennis Espinosa, under investigation for sexual misconduct, recently announced his new youth weightlifting club on Facebook. Facebook

For more than 20 years, Dennis Espinosa of Salina, Kansas, has been a name in national and international weightlifting.

He’s coached adults and children, boys and girls, helping them compete at the sport’s highest ranks. He has been an International Weightlifting Federation Category 1 referee.

Now, even as he continues this summer to offer fitness and weightlifting instruction at Salina’s Department of Parks & Recreation, Espinosa is being investigated by the U.S. Center for SafeSport for alleged sexual misconduct.

SafeSport is not a law enforcement agency. It is a nonprofit, chartered initially by the U.S. Olympic Committee, to help prevent and investigate matters of sexual and other types of abuse, assault and misconduct in Olympic sports.

In September, USA Weightlifting, the sport’s governing body, received an allegation of sexual misconduct against Espinosa and, at that time, immediately placed a restriction on him to not interact with minors within USA Weightlifting activities.

USA Weightlifting also immediately referred the case to SafeSport, which specifically investigates allegations of sexual misconduct. In June, SafeSport placed Espinosa on an “interim restriction” while it investigates the allegations. Such a restriction does not imply or indicate guilt.

It does restrict an individual from either having contact with those who made a specific allegation or, perhaps, restricts the individual from taking part in certain aspects of the sport. SafeSport makes all its investigations public on an open website, but does not provide details regarding the nature of any restrictions or specifics regarding allegations.

“I don’t know what the content of that is and where it comes from,” Espinosa told The Star on Thursday. “I suspect it likely has to do with someone that is wanting to retaliate against me as a coach or as a club in weightlifting.” He said a SafeSport representative “has contacted me but I don’t know anything more than that.”

An item posted Monday on Espinosa’s Facebook page announced that two young athletes would anchor Espinosa’s “new AAU Jr Olympic Weightlifting Club.”

The AAU, or Amateur Athletic Union, is one of the nation’s largest amateur athletics organizations but is not under the direction of the U.S. Olympic Committee, SafeSport or USA Weightlifting. A spokeswoman for the AAU, located in Florida, however, said that she checked AAU records and, whatever club Espinosa has started is not part of the AAU or any of its programs.

“We do not have an AAU membership or club affliliation with Mr. Espinosa,” said spokewoman Rachel D’Orazio.

SafeSport and its investigations have received criticism in recent years.

Because the organization is not part of law enforcement, critics question its ability to investigate allegations of sexual or other misconduct fairly and thoroughly. Others say that an investigation by SafeSport ruins reputations and all but brands those accused with a scarlet letter before any determination of guilt is proven.

In January, Kansas City skater John Coughlin, a national pairs champion, took his own life by suicide at age 33 following an investigation by SafeSport, which family members still contend was unfounded. Since then, two nationally ranked athletes who skated with Coughlin — Bridget Namiotka and Olympian Ashley Wagner — have come forward to say that both were sexually assaulted by Coughlin when they were girls in their teens and he was an adult a few years older.

Mike Coughlin and Angela Laune, the father and sister of the late figure skater John Coughlin of Kansas City, are speaking out for the first time about the allegations made by SafeSport against him. John Coughlin took his own life in January.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.