Return to Heidi Gilbert v USA Taekwondo

At What Price Glory?

taekwondo trafficking

May 21, 2019
Sheilla Dingus

It wasn’t so long ago the nation and perhaps much of the world watched in horror as gymnast after gymnast testified of abominable sexual abuse at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar, whose appalling sexual assaults of young gymnasts were allowed to continue for decades as those who dared to question his “treatments” were summarily marginalized, and their complaints dismissed.

Nassar was eventually sentenced to 60 years in a federal case and another 40 to 175 years in Ingham County Michigan, effectively ensuring that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.  Numerous other lawsuits against Michigan State and USA Gymnastics are being waged in various courts as the gymnasts seek to hold those who permitted the heinous abuse accountable.

The potential for and actuality of sexual abuse of young athletes is rampant as awareness increases of abuses in swimming, wrestling, weightlifting, figure skating, and numerous other sports. In all, Washington Post reports that over 290 coaches and officials in Olympic sports have been implicated in sexual abuse of the athletes in their charge.  Additionally, the abuse is accompanied by a consistent barrage of cover-ups protecting the assailants with little if any regard for the victims.

A particularly heinous example is brought out in a disturbing lawsuit filed by multiple women against two of taekwondo’s most celebrated athletes, Steven and Jean Lopez, who are accused of rape, forced labor and sex trafficking of numerous young taekwondo athletes, many of them minors between 1997 and 2018.

The US Olympic Committee and USA Taekwondo are also listed as defendants for their role in the cover-up of misconduct, and the lawsuit filed in April 2018 charges with “fraudulent concealment, obstruction, interference, and corrupting and false statements made to Congress.”

The lawsuit initially charged SafeSport with failure to protect the athletes, but on March 6, Michael E Hegarty, Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Colorado dismissed SafeSport from the lawsuit though his reasons seem dubious at best when examining the allegations.

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The allegations against all defendants are graphic and repulsive and the harms suffered by the plaintiffs tragic and severe.

Sexual Abuse, Exploitation, and Trafficking of Mandy Meloon

Mandy was born in Germany in 1981 to a German mother and American father.  The USOC recruited her for Team USA and offered her residency at the USOC owned Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.  In 1994, at age 13, Mandy forfeited her German citizenship and moved to the U.S. based on USOC’s assurances to her parents that she would be safe.

 According to the lawsuit, when she arrived, 21-year-old Jean Lopez, who was captain of the Men’s National Taekwondo team soon began engaging in sexual conversations with Mandy and started referring to the 14-year-old as his girlfriend.  In the fall of that year, when the team traveled to a meet in Korea Jean insisted that Mandy sit with him, sit on his lap, give him massages, and massaged her in front of the other team members, telling them that Mandy was pregnant with his baby.

Months later, in 1995, Mandy became the youngest member of the USOC’s Junior National Team, and then later in 1995, was elevated to the USOC Senior team, which meant fulltime training at the USOC training center in Colorado Springs.

In November 1995, the team traveled to the Philippines for the World Championships, and in March 1996 they headed to Brazil for the World Cup.  The trips paid for by USOC and USAT sent the minors unchaperoned, despite common knowledge of Jean Lopez’s sexual escapes with underage girls, which, according to the complaint, the USOC took no action to stop.

USOC employees were responsible for taking the minor athletes to school, but on numerous occasions there was no one available, leading Mandy to drop out of school in 1996.  The complaint alleges that the adults often found time to take the underage girls to bars, however.

Later in 1996, Danny Kim, an adult member of the men’s team raped Mandy, and throughout that year, “would come to Mandy’s room and ‘teach’ her things about sex.”  He started giving her rides to school between December 1996 and April 1997 and often demanded oral sex from her in the car.

In June 1997, the team traveled to Cairo Egypt for the World Cup, and Mandy was assigned a room with teammate Kay Poe.  Mandy and Kay pushed their beds together slumber party style, and while they were sleeping Jean Lopez entered their room and climbed into their beds.  He digitally penetrated Mandy’s vagina for about 5 minutes while she pretended to be asleep.

When the team traveled to Oakland, California for the 1997 Senior U.S. Nationals, Danny Kim forced sexual intercourse with Mandy in her hotel room.  At least twice in 1997, while Mandy was 16, Kim filmed the two of them having sex, and ultimately, in the winter of 1997-1998, now 17-year-old Mandy became pregnant by Kim and returned home to Germany to have an abortion.

When she returned to the training center, she began voicing verbal complaints regarding the rape and ongoing sexual abuse, no one seemed interested and she was passed from one predator to another.

Mandy moved out of the Colorado Springs training center in 1998. After she turned 18, and in 2000 she relocated to Texas to train at Elite Taekwondo, a facility owned by Jean Lopez and afterward, began a sexual relationship with his brother Steven.  All of the training was financed by USOC in exchange for coaching, training, and participation in competitions.

In January 2002 Mandy became aware that Steven was engaged in a sexual relationship with a Texas high school student, as well as some other underage girls, and when she confronted him, he became physically abusive, punching her in the face.  Although USOC and USAT coaches and officials, including Jean Lopez were aware of the incident, nothing was done to intervene.

She moved out, but Steven persisted in the abuse.  In 2004, following detainment for a previous incident, Steven broke into Mandy’s rental house in Sugar Land, Texas, where he brutally raped and physically assaulted her.  In the winter of 2005, Steven again beat and raped Mandy in her home, causing her to flee from her house in a state of undress while Steven chased her down the street.

In April of that year, while Steven and Mandy were traveling as part of the USOC Taekwondo delegation to the World Championships in Madrid, Steven brutally assaulted her at the hotel, breaking her ribs after she captured a bronze medal in the women’s finweight division.

Jean Lopez, who was the USOC Coach and a silver medalist at the competition was aware of the assault but did nothing, while Steven won gold in the welterweight division and their siblings Mark and Diana claimed gold in the men’s and women’s featherweight divisions.

Upon returning home from Madrid, Mandy started dating men outside the taekwondo circle and was soon dropped from the national team despite winning bronze and the World Championship.  Sadly, her troubles were far from over.

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Askinas told Mandy that she could be added to the 2008 Olympic team if she would withdraw her complaint against Jean Lopez and sign a statement saying that she’d fabricated the allegations, but she refused.

The lawsuit states that “In retaliation, Jean selected Charlotte Craig, a minor with whom one or more of the Lopez brothers was having sexual relation with, in place of Mandy Meloon to the USOC Taekwondo team in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.”  Mandy appealed her dismissal and a hearing was scheduled, but the night before the hearing, USAT convened an emergency meeting and revoked her membership for violating its code of conduct, preventing her from competing in sanctioned events.  Her crime?  She had made derogatory comments about USA Taekwondo leadership.

Mandy reached out to John Rueger at USOC for help in dealing with her expulsion from USAT and reinstatement of her medical insurance through USOC to no avail.

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Mandy refused to recant.  Afterward, Steven Lopez stalked her on several occasions, near domestic violence shelters and other places where now transient, she drifted and though she continued to report the incidents to USOC no one would listen.

In 2009 she gave up on trying to have her health insurance restored despite suffering from severe mental health harms including PTSD from her repeated abuse and exploitation.

According to a 2016 San Angelo Live article, she left the Houston area for Austin, where for a time she lived on the streets.  In 2014 she gave birth to a daughter and returned to live with her family in San Angelo in early 2015 attempting to put her life back together.

In September of that year, she was apparently intoxicated and asked to leave a bar and then returned.  An off-duty police officer tried to physically remove her, and she became combative, likely from instinct, and struck him in the face. For this, she was sentenced to two years in prison.

By this time other complaints on the Lopez brothers had surfaced and in 2013 USAT CEO Keith Furguson contacted Mandy and said he was interested in speaking with her about her experiences because USAT was considering suspending Jean Lopez from coaching, but he never followed up.

Two years later, in 2015, while in prison, she was contacted by Donald Alperstein, an outside attorney hired by USAT, who told her he was investigating the Lopez brothers, but the investigation was placed on hold so as not to interfere with the Lopez brothers’ participation in the Rio Olympics.

Once again Mandy’s allegations were branded as untrue as the brothers went on to compete.  After the Olympics had concluded, Alperstein resumed communication with her, along with Kathleen Smith from SafeSport.

Though USA Today ran numerous stories on the allegations of Mandy and others who came forward, no action was taken against the Lopez brothers by USAT, USOC or SafeSport until 2017.

Mandy was released from prison in January 2018, and states through her attorney’s website:

“I take full responsibility for my actions, but these guys should be held accountable,” she said. “What they did to me is criminal. And the people who were supposed to protect me turned me away when I asked for help.”

From the lawsuit:

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On his website athleteabuse.com, Mandy’s attorney Steve Estey writes:

USOC forced Mandy to train with Lopez if she wanted to land a spot on the US Olympic team. “It’s clear that that Olympic gold was more important than athlete safety, and the money generated by medals resulted in the USOC turning a blind eye to Lopez’ criminal behavior.

Sadly, Mandy isn’t the only Taekwondo athlete to allege abuse.  Heidi Gilbert, Amber Means, Gabriela Joslin, Kay Poe, and 50 Jane Does are also listed on the amended complaint, all of whom claim to have been subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking at the hands of the Lopez brothers while USA Taekwondo and the USOC stood idly by, valuing the medals and money delivered by the brothers Lopez over their physical and mental wellbeing.

Kay Poe

Kay Poe was Mandy’s roommate at the 1997 World Cup in Cairo, Egypt.  As you recall, the two girls had pushed their beds together slumber party style when Jean Lopez entered their room and sexually assaulted Mandy.  Kay joined USA Taekwondo in 1996 at the age of 14, becoming the youngest ever member of the Taekwondo team.  She was barely 15 when she witnessed Mandy’s assault.  At the training camp preparing for the World Championships, a 22-year-old male competitor began pursuing her and enticing her into a sexual relationship. She alleges that the relationship was no secret, but no one intervened despite the fact she was only 15 years old.

By 1999, while she was still only 17, Jean Lopez had begun sexually exploiting her and forcing her to have intercourse with him.  This continued through several competitions including a forced hand-job while on the plane headed to Croatia.  His behavior persisted through the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where they were both competitors.  Shortly after the Olympics, she began to evade him and the abused stopped until 2002.

Then at the US Open in Orlando, Jean Lopez followed Kay to her hotel room and despite her protests, mounted her, pinned her, and “dry humped” until he ejaculated. She left the sport shortly thereafter.

Heidi Gilbert

Heidi Gilbert’s abuse began in 2002.  After flexing in front of a mirror with Diana Lopez, who is Jean and Steven Lopez’s sister, Jean entered the room.  He waited until his sister left and then wrestled Heidi to the bed.

At first, she thought he was play-wrestling and wanted to show him how strong she was, but he wasn’t playing.  He pinned her to a fetal position and started “dry humping” her, ejaculating in his pants.  When she reported Jean’s conduct she was ejected from the resident athlete program and had to hire an attorney for her status to be restored.  Even at that, she was humiliated and shamed when the team coach refused to coach her at the 2002 Pan-Am Games in Ecuador.

The next year, in 2003, Heidi moved to Texas to train with Jean Lopez.  The team traveled to a competition in Germany that year and after the party, Jean was sexually aggressive toward her.  He grabbed her, grinding his body into hers while making inappropriate sexual comments.  Around that time, or slightly before, Jean had mixed a drink for Heidi and she believes, put something in it that caused her to almost pass out.

The lawsuit says she was awake but unable to move.  Jean put Heidi in a taxi where they were the only passengers and began touching her breasts.  When they reached the hotel, he dragged her limp body inside to a lobby area in the back of the hotel and began slapping her face and choking her.  When she was unable to respond, she says that he pulled down her pants and began digitally penetrating her vagina.  He then began performing oral sex.

Heidi passed out while Jean was molesting her and later awoke on the floor of a common area of the hotel in a state of undress.  On the plane ride back to the US, he told her that he regretted marrying his wife and wanted to have “Olympic babies” with Heidi.

In April 2003, when Heidi landed at the Houston airport after a trip to Seattle, the other Lopez brother, Steven came to pick her up, but he refused to drive her home until she gave him a blow job.

In October, another USOC athlete, Peter Lopez, who is not related to Jean and Steven came to Heidi’s room at the home owned by Jean and Steven Lopez’s parents, where she was living.  Peter forced her to fellate him, leaving her in tears.

Heidi left Texas after that, but she didn’t report the behavior, assuming that she’d be ridiculed and retaliated against as was happening to Mandy, and as had happened to her in 2002.  She returned to Seattle and continued participation in taekwondo.  In 2006, she says she was warned by David Askinas, who was CEO of USA Taekwondo, not to tell anyone about Jean Lopez’s sexual assaults.

Gaby Joslin

Gabriela “Gaby” Joslin grew up in Houston, Texas, where the Lopez brothers’ taekwondo training center was located and had known the brothers since she was a young child.

In 2006, Jean Lopez began coaching Gaby; she was hoping to compete in the 2006 German Open in Bonn, as an Olympic hopeful.  Jean told her to lose 20 pounds so that she could drop to the bantamweight competition instead of a heavier weight class in which Jean and Diana Lopez fought.  She complied, but at the last minute, Jean backed out of the trip leaving her without a coach.  She had planned on making the trip alone and competing anyway in order to gain experience, but then Steven Lopez, who was competing in Bonn offered to coach her.

Numerous times in the days leading up to her matches, she attempted to talk with Steven, being nervous about competing in a different weight class, and after putting her off, when he did agree to speak with her, he pushed Gaby against the wall of the hotel elevator and pinned her as he ran his hands along her body, telling her how good she looked as a bantamweight.

The night before her match Steven knocked on the door to her hotel room and said he wanted to discuss her match the next day. When he entered, he sat down on the bed and flipped channels until he found a pornographic movie.  He did not discuss the upcoming match. Instead, he told her she was “too tense”.  He grabbed her hips from the front, turned her around and began rubbing her glutes while she was standing up.  He then pinned Gaby to the bed, face down and pulled her pants down, all the while continuing to rub her glutes.

She said, through the lawsuit, it was clear that Steven required sex before he would address his responsibilities as a coach.  He penetrated her and ejaculated, and then left the room with no pretense of fulfilling his obligations despite forcing her to have sex.

According to the complaint, Gaby continued to allow Steven to have sexual intercourse with her for the remainder of her career in taekwondo, out of fear of the Lopez brothers and in particular, to Jean, who made it clear to her that she was to “cater to Steven.”  Gaby was groomed, conditioned, and trained to trust her coaches and, in particular, Steven who was a “demigod” in taekwondo; Gaby felt she could “not say ‘no’ to him.”  She last had sex with Steven Lopez in 2010.

After retiring from taekwondo competition, Gaby began teaching Taekwondo and establishing herself as a coach.  It was during this time Jean Lopez began pursuing her.  Though he was married at the time, he told her that he was separated and they began a consensual relationship, which Gaby believed was exclusive.  She even helped him with furnishings for his apartment and some travel expense, but in late 2011, Jean violently raped Gaby.  She became pregnant as a result of the rape and discovered it was an ectopic pregnancy.  She had to have an abortion as a result.

Realizing that many women in taekwondo had been raped by their coaches, she assumed that either the USOC or USA Taekwondo would have counseling resources available.  When she reported the rape and requested help her pleas were completely ignored.

Amber Means

In 2003, when Amber Means was 13 years old, she attended a taekwondo camp by the Lopez brothers.  At the camp, Steven seemed to take a special interest in her.

After she returned home Jean Lopez contacted Amber’s parents and convinced them to move from Washington to Texas, saying that Amber had tremendous potential. Jean wanted Amber to train at Steven’s facility in Houston.  Just prior to the move, Amber’s coaches in Washington told her to be careful since the Lopez brothers had been known to take a sexual interest in the children they coached.

Amber began training with Steven Lopez in 2004 at the age of 14 and continued training through 2007.  As a result of the warnings from Amber’s coaches in Washington, Amber’s parents always accompanied her and as a result, the Lopez brothers did nothing inappropriate, though it was common knowledge to Amber and others that Jean and Steven Lopez would have sex with young girls from other countries’ national teams who visited the Lopez’s Elite Taekwondo School in Houston.

In apparent retaliation for her lack of sexual availability Jean Lopez often forced her to fight male athletes without protective gear, leaving her with bruises and black eyes.

At the 2006 USAT Nationals in Cleveland Ohio, Steven finally got his chance.  He began engaging in grooming behaviors, brushing up against Amber and rubbing her arms.  He paid an extreme amount of attention to her, making her feel special.  When she turned 17 in 2007, Steven, who was 28 or 29 at the tie, began dating her.  They continued to date and Amber lost her virginity to Steven in 2008, when she was still 17 years old. At the same time, he was pursuing a sexual relationship with at least two other teenage athletes, N. Doe and C. Doe, who have also joined the lawsuit.

Around this time, Tabitha Lopez, Jean’s wife became suspicious of Amber.  She believed her husband was cheating on her, but it wasn’t with Amber, but C. Doe, who was forced into a sexual relationship with both brothers.

In 2010 Jean apparently wanted to knock out two birds with one stone and had Amber disqualified from the competition since her skills were improving to the degree he didn’t want her in the same weight class with his sister Diana.

Like the other women, Amber felt that if she angered the Lopez brothers, she would face retaliation and that it was pay-to-play and she had to service the Lopez brothers with her body in order to compete in USA Taekwondo and reach the Olympics.  When she finally did rebuff Steven Lopez’s advances, she did face retaliation which effectively ended her career.

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In the martial arts teachers are referred to as sensei or “master” and according to the many complaints the Lopez brothers abused their position of power.  Just as observed in the gymnastics abuse inflicted by Larry Nassar, the young women claim that their pleas went unheard, and their needs ignored in order to cover for the Lopez brothers.  Also, parallel with the gymnastics scandal, it took media reporting to push USA Taekwondo, USOC, and even Safe Sport to take any action and as of yet, have not permanently banned the Lopez brothers. Just as in the gymnastics case, even the FBI failed to pursue an investigation until media reports began to surface in 2017.  It seems ludicrous that the DOJ would rather spend its time pursuing sneaker execs who had the audacity to pay amateur basketball players while young athletes are being molested, raped and trafficked.  It’s also an indictment of a society that feels that depriving a sports association of perceived value is preferred to dismantling the sports associations that allow real abuse to thrive. I ask again, “at what price glory?” What will it take to place a higher value on human lives and dignity than medals and trophies?  I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s a question we need to keep asking until there’s no longer a way for the authorities to evade.

Editor at Advocacy for Fairness in Sports | Website

Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.

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