Robert Burzee was 15 years old when he met Kevin Ricks at an exclusive Atlanta-area private boarding school. A teenager who had just left his home in Florida for the first time, Burzee was looking for guidance, support, and a role model.
“He was really sharp, he dressed really nice, he was someone you wanted to take seriously,” Burzee said, remembering Ricks — then 25 years old — in 1985. “I had been ripped from my family. I was very, very fragile. I felt like he cared about me.”
Burzee, 41, is the latest victim in Ricks’s 30-year trail of abuse to come forward publicly. He has lived – and suffered — with his secret for more than two decades.
The sexual molestation he suffered at Ricks’s hands was life-altering. The teenager’s path spiraled into drug use, separation from his family and, ultimately, prison in Colorado, where he is now serving a six-year sentence for theft.
Burzee’s detailed story of abuse at the hands of a now-convicted sex offender provides an instructive look at how Ricks operated, gained boys’ trust, plied them with alcohol, and then took advantage of them.
It also shows how private and public schools either failed to see what Ricks was doing — or turned a blind eye to it. And Burzee said the same thing happened to other boys under Ricks’s watch in Georgia.
“It started incrementally, with extra food, some extra money, a lot of extra attention,” Burzee said. “Then he became more and more controlling about it. Then there was the sexual contact. I was very uncomfortable with it but felt powerless to stop it.”
First known case of Ricks abusing a student
In Burzee’s case, the abuse happened 26 years ago in Ricks’s dorm room, in a bathroom, and in a place known as “the round room” – all under the roof of the Brandon Hall School in Dunwoody, Ga., where Ricks taught and supervised teenagers.
It is the earliest known case of Ricks abusing a student of his. It came just a few years after Ricks abused two young boys in his care, one a boy he met at a summer camp and the other a boy he watched while a student at the University of North Carolina. Ricks has admitted molesting nine boys, and prosecutors believe there could be numerous others.
Ricks worked at two other private schools prior to Brandon Hall – one in Hampton Roads and the other in North Carolina – and despite allegations that he stalked at least one student at the Virginia school and was ultimately fired, no evidence has yet surfaced of any sexual abuse there.
Burzee’s abuse came to light in the days prior to Ricks’s sentencing in Alexandria federal court: He is listed by the initials “R.B” in court documents prosecutors filed. Ricks admitted to performing sex acts on Burzee in interviews with the FBI and local investigators. In those interviews, pursuant to a plea agreement, Ricks had to come clean about prior abuse lest he face further charges.
As described in court documents, Ricks said Burzee came to his dorm room and willingly participated in sex acts with him there. In a journal entry authorities found among Ricks’s belongings, he wrote in 2000 that he had performed a sex act on Burzee and “could’ve done anything with him at one brief point.”
In a telephone interview last week, Ricks said he did have sexual contact with Burzee but characterized it as being at Burzee’s insistence. Ricks said he was confused at the time, did things he never had done before, and was taken by surprise.
“He came into my room, it got emotional on his part, and I was trying to be understanding of it,” Ricks said. “He very much wanted me to do it, and I did.”
Burzee’s memory of what happened is quite different, calling Ricks’s version “insane” and “a lie.” He said he was coerced into being molested, in part because of Ricks’s “friendship” with him but also because he was afraid of Ricks at the time. He said the sexual contact was entirely unwanted – and that he tried to stop it in each instance – but that because Ricks supervised him he felt he had no choice.
Ricks started by allowing Burzee and other boys to congregate in his dorm room after hours, at times bringing in pre-mixed alcoholic beverages in fruit juice containers. Burzee said boys would occasionally pass out on Ricks’s bed.
During trips to the mall, Ricks would share extra cash with Burzee, treat him to gifts, and buy him concessions at movies such as “Back to the Future.” They were the same things Ricks would do for decades with other boys, according to interviews with victims, parents, teachers, friends and Ricks himself.
Burzee was wary of Ricks -- who also taught him English one-on-one per the school’s unique curriculum – but he endured at least three molestations. In one, Ricks took Burzee to a room, undressed him, and performed sex acts. In another, Ricks repeated the same scenario in a bathroom.
“There was increased pressure, and I was trying to avoid him,” Burzee said. “Then he started causing me problems, trying to get me in trouble.”
Abuse was reported to school
Burzee said he went to school officials to report the abuse. He said they didn’t believe him, leading to his being ostracized, sent home to Florida and ultimately labeled a liar by family members who also did not believe his story.
“They said to keep my mouth shut, mind my own business,” Burzee said. “Then they kicked me out of school. They put me on a bus and sent me home. My complaints went with me.”
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Harrison W. Kimbrell, who was president of the school at the time, said he had no specific memory of Ricks or the circumstances surrounding his departure 26 years ago.
“I never would have dismissed an accusation like that, and I don’t have any recollection of it,” Kimbrell said. “If anyone came to me with that kind of accusation, it would have been investigated thoroughly. It is inconceivable that no action would be taken.”
Ricks was admonished in writing for hosting boys in his room for late-night gatherings – a violation of school policy – but Ricks said it was not for Burzee but for contacts with another boy. Ricks ultimately was forced out of the school.
Burzee said he knows of at least one other boy at Brandon Hall who Ricks sexually abused and said he has strong suspicions that at least two others might have been abused as well. He said Ricks regularly watched them while they showered to “supervise” them and hosted many boys in his room.
The report was an opportunity to stop Ricks in his tracks, but Ricks picked up and moved on. He later lived in Japan, where he molested at least two boys, then moved back to Virginia and Maryland, where he admits to molesting foreign exchange students and a high school student in Manassas.
Neil H. MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said last week that Ricks is every parent’s worst nightmare: a child predator hiding behind the veneer of trusted teacher. James McJunkin, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said authorities need to work harder to identify and stop people like Ricks.
“We urge parents and others to be more vigilant in protecting our most innocent of citizens, our children,” McJunkin said. “It’s easy sometimes not to hear or believe our children because their statements are too vague or too few.”
Disbelief was ‘devastating’
Not being believed is what hurt Burzee the most, he said.
“It was more devastating than anything,” he said. “Just the fact that no one wanted to acknowledge it, that no one would believe me.”
His life derailed. He got caught up in drugs, moved to Colorado to get away from his family, and fell into criminal activity. On Nov. 7, 2005, the day he was convicted of theft by receiving stolen goods, Burzee escaped from custody because he was afraid of being sexually assaulted in prison: His mind immediately went to his experiences with Ricks, he says.
He was caught four days later and has been behind bars since.
Though Burzee had thought of Ricks at times throughout his life, he had heard nothing of him until last week, when I contacted him about Ricks’s sentencing. Burzee said he was elated to hear from me, because it allows him to finally put the episode to rest. He felt vindicated.
“I don’t think I could fully express how this has impacted my life, and to know that he will never be able to hurt others is a big relief,” Burzee wrote in a letter I received this week.
In a series of telephone interviews, Burzee said he has achieved a certain calmness about the whole situation and wishes no one any ill, especially knowing what Ricks will face in prison.
Burzee, who has dated women throughout his life, has lived as an openly gay man while incarcerated, even appearing on an MSNBC documentary about relationships in prison. He said he knows what Ricks has in his future.
“I’ve been raped, I’ve been beaten within an inch of my life,” Burzee said. “Me being a compassionate person, I don’t forgive him, but I know for a fact what he’s going to go through and I can’t wish horrible things on people. He’s going to pay it all back.”