SARNIA, Ont. – A former high-ranking gymnastics coach was acquitted of sexual assault and sexual exploitation Wednesday after a judge found the testimony of the complainant sincere but said the police investigation into the case was severely flawed.
Dave Brubaker, the former head coach of the women’s national team, was accused of sexually assaulting a young gymnast years ago and had vehemently denied the allegations against him.
The trial heard that the sole investigating officer was related to the complainant and made her the godmother of his child during the course of the probe. Court also heard that the officer shared details of Brubaker’s police interview with the woman, who cannot be identified.
Justice Deborah Austin said the Crown’s case was damaged by the relationship between the complainant and the officer, who she said abandoned both his oath of impartiality and his oath of secrecy.
“I don’t criticize him for being a good friend … I do criticize the decision to also at the same time take on the role of sole investigating officer in the case,” she said. “These things do affect the reliability of the Crown’s case. These issues cannot be ignored.”
Austin said, however, that none of her critique of the officer should be interpreted as an indictment of the complainant.
“She was forthright and appeared to be doing her best, generally,” the judge said. “It was sincere and genuine.”
At the beginning of the trial in October, the complainant, who is now in her 30s, testified that Brubaker would kiss her on the lips to say hello and goodbye starting when she was 12 years old.
She also said he touched her inappropriately during sports massages and spooned her in bed while taking naps before practice – allegations Brubaker strongly denied.
The former coach testified that while he did kiss the complainant on the lips, it was meant as a fatherly gesture. He also said he never took naps with the woman, and that the massages were necessary to alleviate the aches and injuries that come with being an advanced gymnast.
Brubaker hugged his wife after the judge’s decision while his supporters applauded in court.
He was arrested in December 2017 and was interviewed by the lone officer on the case – a procedure the judge found was conducted in a particularly concerning way.
“The statement contains unusually long commentary and monologue by the investigating officer and the questions were broad and wide-ranging,” Austin said, suggesting the officer acted as a “conduit” for the complainant.
The most damning part of the statement, she said, was that Brubaker said he was “guilty of crossing a line.” The officer, however, did not ask Brubaker to clarify what “line” he crossed or in what ways he crossed it, Austin said.
She also noted that the officer read aloud to the complainant a letter of apology that Brubaker wrote during the interview to the woman, another gymnast and his wife. The officer told the trial he assumed it would be fine to share the letter, because the apology was “ambiguous” in nature.
“This was a curious explanation when he had to have known it was part of the evidence he was gathering,” Austin said, noting that it was all the more odd because of the officer’s good reputation.
Outside court, Brubaker’s defence lawyer argued that the officer should be investigated for the way the probe was carried out.
“He owes (Brubaker) more than (an apology). He turned his life upside down,” Patrick Ducharme said. “This is not over … We’ll try to clear (Brubaker’s) name in every respect.”
Sarnia police did not respond to request for comment on the judge’s criticism of the investigating officer or Ducharme’s call for a probe into his conduct.
Brubaker was placed on administrative leave by Gymnastics Canada following his arrest.
The organization is now embarking on its own internal investigation into the allegations levelled against Brubaker, Gymnastics Canada CEO Ian Moss said after Wednesday’s judgement.
“We’re focused on what our codes of conduct require from our members,” Moss said. “If we feel there is a concern about possible violation of codes, then we have the right to start an investigation.”
Moss noted that Brubaker has allowed his membership in Gymnastics Canada to lapse since he was charged.
A concurrent Gymnastics Canada investigation is ongoing into Brubaker’s wife, Elizabeth Brubaker, who was suspended from coaching last month. Moss said some of the allegations against her are related to those against her husband.
One observer said a recent string of high-profile cases involving coaches in Canada and the U.S. has helped change the discussion around allegations of sexual abuse in sports.
Other factors, such as the Me Too movement and scrutiny from the federal minister of sports, have also played a role, said Gretchen Kerr, a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of kinesiology and physical education.
Still, the discussion needs to be pushed further, to critically examine the authority afforded to coaches and to tackle potential psychological abuse, Kerr said.
“One of the outcomes of these cases is more people are questioning sports practices,” she said. “Hopefully it will extend to questioning all sports practices.”