For years, Marvin Sharp’s success shielded him from scrutiny.
He was a 49-year-old bachelor who lived by himself; a 49-year-old bachelor whose hobbies allegedly were photographing young children in tight, skimpy clothes and compromising positions, or giving them private sports massages.
But this 49-year-old bachelor also happened to be one of the best gymnastics coaches in the country. He had mentored two Olympians, guiding one girl from obscurity to a silver medal in Beijing. For hundreds of local parents, his training sessions were their child’s ticket to an elite echelon of athletics.
If the warning signs were there, then they were dimmed by the sheer demand for his services.
And so it was that parents kept dropping off their children for two-hour behind-closed-doors sessions at Sharp’s Gymnastics Academy in Indianapolis, entrusting the coach with kids as young as 2 years old despite what one gymnast called consistently “creepy” behavior.
The blinding glare of Olympic glory couldn’t last forever, however, and on Aug. 23, Sharp’s secret life tumbled awkwardly into the spotlight.
That was the day city and state police pulled Sharp from his bachelor’s pad in handcuffs, seized thousands of files of child pornography and charged the gymnastics coach with child pornography, child molesting and sexual misconduct with a minor.
Parents pulled their kids en masse from the academy, saying the news of Sharp’s arrest made them “sick.”
On Saturday, the sick situation came to a sudden end when officials found Sharp dead inside his Marion County Jail cell. The Associated Press called the death “an apparent suicide,” reporting that jail officials did not suspect foul play but would not provide a cause of death.
“A follow-up investigation is being conducted by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Marion County Coroner’s Office,” Marion County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Katie Carlson said.
Like one of his gymnasts tumbling after a flawless routine, Sharp’s apparent suicide provided a quick and spectacular end to a successful career.
According to his Web site, Sharp launched his own gymnastics academy in 2001 after a falling out with his previous boss. At first, Sharp’s upstart academy was housed in the corner of an Indianapolis warehouse.
“We have established a positive ‘happy’ training environment where we teach strong gymnastics fundamentals and progression,” he wrote on his Web site. “If you are not training at Sharp’s Gymnastics, you should be!”
That message gradually caught on, especially as Sharp guided several Indianapolis girls to the peak of international athletics.
Bridget Sloan was the best known of his pupils. Under Sharp’s tutelage, the pint-sized gymnast rose to the top of the sport. In 2008, Sloan was a member of the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team that won a silver medal in Beijing. Sharp went with her to China, and continued to coach her after the Olympics. He soon signed up one of her Olympic teammates: fellow Indianapolis native Samantha Peszek.
Sharp’s own career peaked in 2010, when he was named USA Gymnastics 2010 Coach of the Year. A year later, he moved his academy from the warehouse to a brand new, $1 million facility a mile away, according to the Indianapolis Star.
Sharp’s Olympic credentials — advertised prominently on his Web site — helped to pull in clients.
But Sharp’s gleaming new gymnasium allegedly hid some dirty secrets.
According to a Marion County indictment, Sharp used his academy as an arena for scouting out girls to sexually abuse. He allegedly used “physical therapy” sessions as an excuse to fondle his prepubescent gymnasts. He required some girls to exercise without underwear and stayed in connected rooms with the door open during travel trips.
On one trip, Sharp took a 14-year-old gymnast to an abandoned lot where “he had her sit on his lap and drive around the buildings in circles for approximately a half hour,” according to the indictment.
Sharp also allegedly used a photo studio affiliated with his academy to take inappropriate pictures of underage girls. The 14-year-old told detectives that “Marvin had her sitting on blocks and had her spread her legs, which seemed both inappropriate and creepy to her,” according to the indictment. He allegedly photographed her in lingerie and even a straitjacket, and frequently fondled her while “fixing her underwear.”
Sharp’s alleged gymnastics charade began to crumble in late August, when the 14-year-old came forward after two years of abuse.
Speaking to investigators on Aug. 23, the girl said she wasn’t the only victim. There were others.
Lots of them.
Some as young as 5 years old.
That same day, city and state police swooped on Sharp’s house. They led the Olympic coach out in handcuffs. Just as important, they walked out with what a federal indictment described as thousands of files of child pornography: locked safes full of smut, portable hard drives filled with images and videos of boys and girls being forced to perform sex acts, and file folders divided by gender of the underage victim.
“The files appear to have been accumulated and stored over a very long period of time,” according to the federal indictment, which charged Sharp with knowingly receiving and distributing child porn. In a superseding indictment filed Sept. 14, federal prosecutors also charged Sharp with nine counts of producing child pornography involving six female students as young as 6 or 7 years old dating back to 2002, according to the AP.
Sharp admitted to watching child porn “on a few occasions,” according to the federal indictment. “When the questioning began to focus on child pornography in greater more significant detail, he declined to answer further questions.
“However, before he refused to answer additional questions, Sharp was asked if he was sexually attracted to children. In response, he stated that he liked the human body.”
When asked about the 14-year-old who complained to police, Sharp denied wrongdoing, saying that he was simply taking “muscle pictures” of her in her underwear and said nothing happened while staying in hotels together.
Three days after his arrest, Sharp appeared in court a much different figure than the beaming coach who had once guided his gymnasts to the Olympics.
“This is someone who was very much like a father figure to her,” Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Courtney Curtis said of Sharp and his 14-year-old victim. “He was definitely using that relationship with her to betray her trust.”
On Saturday evening, less than a month after his arrest, Marion County jail guards found Sharp unresponsive in his cell, according to local TV station WTHR.
Sharp’s death came on the same night that his former colleagues were celebrating the 17th annual National Gymnastics Day, the Indianapolis Star reported. The association that once awarded Sharp its top honor didn’t have much to say about the fallen coach.
“USA Gymnastics is aware of the untimely death of Marvin Sharp,” the organization said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all involved in this tragic set of circumstances.”
Sharp is the second Indianapolis resident swept up recently in a child porn sting.
On Aug. 19, just two days before accusations emerged regarding Sharp, celebrity Subway spokesman Jared Fogle was charged with paying for sex with minors and possessing child porn.
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