COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — When diver John-Michael Lander finished eighth at the 1978 Junior Olympics, a lawyer approached his mother in Waynesville offering what seemed to be the chance of a lifetime.
He’d seen the boy in a newspaper article and promised to set up a fund to help with diving costs and medical expenses for the family, which had five children.
Little did Lander’s mother know she was giving a ring of sexual predators access to her 15-year-old son. Now an adult, Lander’s story is part of a report to protect young athletes that was issued in January.
And he’s a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against Ohio State University in the Dr. Richard Strauss case. Lander said he is John Doe 195, his claim dismissed under the statute of limitations. Strauss, who died by suicide in 2005, sexually abused students and others from 1978 to 1998, according to findings by a 2019 independent investigation.
Lander met with NBC4 to talk about how parents are an important line of defense for a child athlete. He explained how predators groom institutions, coaches and parents, plus crucial decisions parents face as they weigh their child’s specialness against red flags.
He’s using his story to help other abused athletes through his organization An Athlete’s Silence and is a board director at The Army of Survivors. He’s also leading a team for Walk Together Columbus 2022 to support the National Federation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (EndCAN). This will take place Oct. 9 at the Columbus Zoo.
If you feel weird about what just happened to you, think you might have been abused, or want to talk about something, contact RAINN, where you can text or speak in privacy.
NBC4: What sorts of things did the predators give your family in exchange for access to you?
Lander: They would pay for my diving expenses, such as travel, pool time, swimsuits, meet entry fees and stuff like that. And then they would also extend that to my parents for helping them with medical bills, doctor’s appointments, eye exams, glasses, as long as they kept this going.
NBC4: What kind of monetary value do you think that might have been worth to your parents?
Lander: It was in a way a godsend to them, because at the time my parents were dealing with financial issues. This was the opportunity to get what they needed to take care of their family. I think that’s where they preyed on, and that’s what they played on. But I want to make sure that everyone understands that predators don’t just sit there and only focus on the people who are not wealthy. They focus on what they like. And I think sometimes our society wants to set it up as “the child was poor” or from a broken family, had low self esteem and all these others issues. That’s not necessarily the case, especially in sports. In sports, the predator goes for what they want.
NBC4: They found a way into your family by paying fees. Do you feel this is something that’s still happening to families?
Lander: It’s one of those things where you don’t believe it’s happening at the time, because you want to believe that there are good people out there that want to help you. But I think that’s where my mother came from. They preyed on her insecurities. She didn’t have the money to send me to the Olympics, and it takes a lot of money. So they started playing on the fact that: “The only way he will go to the Olympics is if we can help him.”
NBC4: What happened to you next?
Lander: There were the professionals — who were one group — there’s the coach, and then there were my parents. The professionals were the money behind everything. They were the ones paying the coach extra money to pay more attention to me, they were also helping my parents.
What the professionals would do is that they would each take turns. They would set up an appointment with my mother. She would have me ready. They would come pick me up, and they would take me to dinner, or a movie, and whatever they wanted to do, and then they would bring me back home. The family would get reimbursed in certain ways if this process was fulfilled.
Then I was taken to the doctor’s house several times and left there for weeks, or a weekend, where they would have a party. And they would have like five boys there. And most of them were from Ohio State. Some of them were from Wittenberg, but they were boys that they were helping.
I was the youngest, and I was the first high school kid that I knew that was a part of this. And they would line us up. As the guests would come in, the guests would come by and check us out and look at us, talk to us, ask us questions, and then they would go in the back room or out on the patio by the pool, and they would have silent bids. And then they would come back and tell us which boy got the highest bid for what guest. And that guest and that boy would go off for the rest of the evening.
NBC4: How long did this go on for?
Lander: This went on throughout my high school years [1978-81].
NBC4: And what did it do to you inside?
Lander: It really confused me. Because parts of it — I knew it was wrong, we shouldn’t be doing this. But then again I was getting to go to Norway, Denmark, Canada, Mexico — all these places to compete. And I was doing really well, and I was moving closer and closer to my goal of becoming an Olympian. But at the same time, it was tearing me apart.
I was confused about my sexual orientation. I never got to experiment to figure out whether I was straight, gay, bi, or whatever I was. This happened to me — my first experience was with a professional. And then after that, I was being passed around to everybody.
I started getting sick. I would have injuries that made no sense, which were red flags of me trying to scream and get attention. I tried to do indicators to my parents to hear me.
When I would be in a situation that was uncomfortable with a professional, I would try to find ways to get out of it as quickly as possible. Some of those things were to turn the tables on them. I started to act like I liked them, and I wanted more from them. I wanted to be with them. And that kind of freaked them out because many of them were married and had children my age. So that kind of scared them.
I learned very quickly that I was a number. I wasn’t a human. I wasn’t a person. I was there just for their benefit to satisfy what they needed.
NBC4 You call them the professionals — what does that mean?
Lander: They were all lawyers, doctors, business owners that made like six figures, so that’s why I called them professionals. The lawyer had created documents and contracts with me, where I had to give 100%, where I had to get good grades, and I was not allowed to let anybody get upset with me. Secretly he would tell me, “if you upset a professional” as I called them, “then they would hear about it.” And I would have to explain why. So it was all about making sure everybody was happy. So I became a people-pleaser throughout the whole time.
NBC4 What is unique about predators who groom athletes?
Lander: I call it the “predator-grooming trifecta.” Basically, what happens is that the predator will groom the institution or the organization first. To make sure that they set themselves up in a way that they are looked as respectable. The organization will protect them, and keep them in good standing with everybody.
After the predator has set that up, then he will look at the team and see who he wants to go after. There are female predators, I just want to make sure that’s clear. Once he’s targeted who he’d like to find more information about, he will start asking the organization questions. Where does he live? What kind of family life does he have? He will start asking the other teammates the same thing. What kind of movies does he like? And then he will go and speak to the parents. And he will groom the parents. And this is a really important step. Because if he can’t get the parents on his side there’s no way to get to the child.
And so that’s what his whole goal is — to set up himself with the organization, and then he gets the parents. And it’s a long process — it’s not something quick. And once he has the parents’ permission, basically, and has the parents basically hand the child over to him, that’s when he starts grooming the child.
He has to get the child to start to trust him, and to believe him. And create this friendship with him. And then he starts slowly moving them away, and isolating them from the other team mates. I remember my coach telling me that “they don’t understand you. They’re jealous of you because you’re going to Norway, Denmark, Canada, and they’re not. So, you’re moving forward and they’re stuck where they are. So don’t listen to them, only listen to me.”
About this series
NBC4 produced a series of stories the week of Aug. 29, 2022, on children, rape and sexual assault.
- Child rape: Numbers paint disturbing picture in Columbus
- Parents: How to find help after a child’s sexual assault or rape
- Boys and sexual assault: What to do, who to call
- What happened to me? Kids can report sexual assault: coming later this week
- What happens for pregnant girls after sexual assault or rape?