4 police departments investigating former Northeast Ohio dance instructor for sexually assaulting students and sending nude photos to underage girls

4 police departments investigating former Northeast Ohio dance teacher for sexual assault (part 1)

CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio (WOIO) - A once revered and respected Northeast Ohio dance teacher is facing alarming allegations.

19 Investigates has confirmed at least four police departments across Ohio are investigating a former dance instructor for sexually assaulting students. We are not identifying him because he has not been charged.

NEO dance teacher under fire after ex-students come forward with sex assault allegations (part 2)

19 News rarely identifies victims of sexual assault, but Cassie Cotter wanted to share her story. She said when she saw our recent unrelated investigation of a former dance teacher now charged with sex crimes, she had to step forward and report what happened to her to police. She says she couldn’t bear the thought of thinking that her dance teacher could continue to get away with virtually the same thing.

Cotter, 21, said dancing was her life. She started taking lessons at just 3 years old.

“I was at the studio nearly every day of the week and it was my outlet,” Cotter explained. “It was my safe space. It was my happy place.”

All of that changed three years ago.

“I won’t lie, even since the assault occurred; I haven’t been able to get back into the studio,” Cotter admitted.

When Cotter was 10 years old, she met the man that would change her life; her dance instructor at Dance Dance Dance in Parma.

“Everyone could trust him, everyone loved him,” Cotter said. “He was near and dear to everyone.”

When Cotter started her freshman year of high school, things changed. She said her hip-hop dance teacher -- who was in his late 20′s at the time, sent her a message on Snapchat, a message that displayed a black screen. He then sent her a text that said, “don’t open that message. I sent it to you by mistake.” Cotter was suspicious.

“From there he would see how us young ladies would react to that, and if we weren’t off-putting of it he would then go forth and start sending complete nude photographs of himself to us and this went on for a long time and it was always every time, ’Oh, that was a mistake or I’m a little too drunk, I’m so sorry,’” Cotter said.

Cotter said at the time she was not sure what to do.

“At the time I was completely shocked. I really didn’t know what to think because this was a superior in my life, somebody who I really looked up to as well but at the same time I didn’t wanna say anything about it because, like I said, everyone cherished this man, put him on a pedestal almost. I didn’t wanna get him in trouble first of all, and you know I was honestly embarrassed because it’s like here’s this almost 30-year-old man sending a 15-year-old nude photographs of himself.”

19 News went by Dance Dance Dance in Parma – the dance studio where Cotter met that dance teacher. No one was there, but the owner of the dance studio did call us back. She said nobody knew anything about his alleged inappropriate behavior until after he left in 2017.

She said Cotter told her about a year ago. She told 19 News that dance teacher was well-loved by students, parents, and staff, and she was shocked when she found out. She said she believes the girls and that his alleged behavior is inexcusable.

19 News also went by Studio 82 in North Royalton where that dance teacher used to work to get their side of the story.

“I really don’t know anything, and anything that I’ve ever known about I already said something to police, but he’s been gone for quite a while,” said Clare Gales, owner of Studio 82. “We all thought he was a nice guy, but he pulled the wool over our eyes.”

Gales told 19 News she believes she handled the situation the best way that she could and says she fired that teacher as soon as she heard about the accusations of inappropriate behavior. She said that was around five years ago.

Unfortunately for Cotter, that dance teacher’s behavior escalated into what she says was a violent assault her freshman year of college.

“At first, I blamed myself a lot,” said Cotter. “I thought I let it happen. I told myself I enabled this, but at the end of the day, he was grooming me, he was making me OK to his ways by the young age of 10.”

When Cotter was in her junior year of high school, her dance teacher began a new career in photography.

“Then he would soon start buying me things to wear, making me take my clothes off more,” she said.

Cotter became his so-called muse. She says they would do shoots almost weekly. She was 16 at the time.

“He was helping me send my pictures out to different modeling agencies in Cleveland and Chicago and New York, and I never wanted to tell him ’no’ because he was helping me achieve that dream,” explained Cotter.

On Sept. 21, 2017, that dream fell apart. It is a day she remembers vividly. She had just begun her freshman year at Ohio University in Athens, and her dance teacher came to visit. They did a photo shoot uptown and everything seemed fine.

“Then he asked me to come back to his hotel room that he had a surprise for me before we would go to meet up with some of his other former students, and he brought out a bottle of moonshine which is something at the time a freshman in college, 18 years old, I had never drank before and he just kept pouring me shot after shot,” Cotter recalled.

What happened next has haunted Cotter every day for the past three years.

“Him just undressing me, and groping next, and no matter how many times I asked him to stop, to get off of me, he would constantly keep telling me to be quiet and that he did this with all of his girlfriends,” she said.

Cotter said she was eventually able to kick him in the stomach and run away.

“I ran a mile and a half back home to my dorm room.”

Cotter believes her dance teacher used his position of power to gain her trust.

“He made me feel very safe and he made me feel like we were such good friends,” she said. “I mean, there was times that I would get out of work and I would have a bouquet of flowers sitting on the hood of my car with a little note from him saying, ‘I hope your day was good, I hope these will brighten your day up even more.’ Like, he made me feel very special at a time where I was really trying to find myself.”

Cotter didn’t tell anyone for nearly a year. Eventually she confided in a close friend. Then she started therapy.

“I kept seeing so many of my really close friends from the dance studio posting their pictures with him, some of them a little provocative and my stomach would drop,” Cotter said. “I couldn’t stand the feeling anymore of wondering if this was still happening, if he was still hurting other girls.”

Around that time Cotter made the decision to tell her dance studio owner at Dance Dance Dance what happened. The word quickly spread across the dance community and that is when that dance teacher went missing.

Garfield Heights police searched for the former dance instructor and eventually found him in Pittsburgh. Cotter had reported what happened to police at the time, but decided she didn’t want to press charges.

“He manipulated me, and he was an authority figure over me and should have never had that power to begin with,” Cotter said.

19 News asked Cotter what prompted her to go public with her story now.

“It was actually that Cleveland dance teacher. The story of him getting arrested for two decades worth of abuse to these children it was on that day that I decided to make my social media post because I was tired of being quiet because we need justice,” she said. “There are so many voices. There’s so many victims of this same man and it shows a pattern of misconduct with instructors and people of authority with children.”

Cotter also shared a message for her former dance teacher.

“He really took a lot away from me, has left a lot of people heartbroken,” she said. “He was such a big person in so many people’s lives. So many people looked up to him and he has just broken the hearts of so many young ladies and I just hope he knows that.”

This story of abuse does not end in Athens. Cotter also reported the assault and the nude messages she received from her dance teacher to Garfield Heights police.

Police are also investigating another complaint from a young woman who claims the same teacher photographed her nude when she was underage. The detective on the case told 19 News he still has 12 more potential victims to interview.

In Parma, police are also investigating an alleged sexual assault by the same man.

In Berea, police received a report from a woman about an incident that happened six years ago. The woman told police she was just 16 years old when she received a Snapchat of that same adult dance teacher completely nude.

Cotter hopes one day she will get back into the studio again.

Some other former dance students shared messages that they say they received from that dance teacher. They did not want to speak on camera.

“I blamed myself for so long,” admitted Cotter. “It wasn’t until I reached out for help it made me realize that none of this was my fault.”

At least four police department in Ohio are investigating this man. Detectives expect more reports in the coming weeks.

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