October 2008

Tennis coach to the stars jailed after indecently assaulting young girls

A tennis coach who sexually assaulted two promising girl players has been jailed for five-and-a-half years. 

Barry ‘Butch’ Heffernan, who claims to have taught legends such as Martina Navratilova and Bjorn Borg, made crude comments to the 14-year-olds and showered them with gifts. 

The twice-married Australian then started touching them on the courts at the £10,000-a-year Down Under tennis academy he ran near Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, and took one of them back his flat to carry out sex acts on her. 

The girls allowed the abuse to continue for years because they feared their dreams of becoming tennis stars would be shattered if they reported him, St Albans Crown Court heard. 

One girl later developed psychological problems, including anorexia, anxiety and depression, the court was told. 

It wasn’t until the end of 2007 that his secret came out and he was arrested.

The silver haired coach sat head bowed in the dock as his crimes against the girls were outlined to Judge Stephen Warner.

After the case the police officer who investigated Heffernan said inquiries had led officers to Australia to interview previous victims and further victims were interviewed by FBI agents in America.

Detective Constable Duncan Prior, from Hertfordshire Constabulary’s Child Abuse Investigation Unit, said: ‘We believe there may be other females out there who may have been victims in the past and I would urge those girls and women to come forward and they will be dealt with sensitively and in the strictest confidence.’

Prosecutor Jane Bickerstaff said the girls had gone to Heffernan for lessons when they were around 14 and were promising young players.

Heffernan, 47, who has a conviction for deception in Australia, admitted ten offences of indecent assault and sexual activity with a child. 

Judge Warner described him as ‘ controlling and predatory’. 

Assault:

Miss Bickerstaff said the defendant had run a tennis club in Hemel Hempstead, known as The Down Under Tennis Academy, with his wife Angela since July 2003.

He also gave lessons to children from the area and began coaching one 14 year old girl on a regular basis.

‘She says he was very hands on and it was this hands on approach that led to the offences.

‘He would place his hands on her and stand behind her and when he pulled her back, he would push his erect penis through his tracksuit into her bottom’ said Miss Bickerstaff.

She went on ‘The girl said it happened for the next two years week in and week out.’  The court heard that Heffernan would also hug the girl as he stood in front of her, again pushing himself into her tummy.

The prosecutor said he also began making ‘completely innappropriate comments’ to her. They included him telling her she had a ‘nice arse.’  On another occasion, I can’t wait until you are legal, I can’t wait until you are sixteen.’  The court heard he began brushing past her breasts and would comment ‘Keep them bouncing.’  Miss Bickerstaff said Heffernan also showered the girl with gifts, including sunglasses, rackets and a tennis bag.

As the abuse continued, said the prosecutor, the girl began exhibiting psychological problems when she was 15, which included anorexia, anxiety and depression.

She said there were other problems in the girl’s life, but it was clear that what was happening to her at the hands of Heffernan was contributing to her problems.

The court heard when the girl was 16 she eventually found the courage to stand up to Heffernan and told him to stop what he was doing.

Miss Bickerstaff said as the abuse stopped on the first girl, Heffernan turned his attentions to another 14 year old girl who was coming to him for lessons.

On one occasion, he put his hands up her top and touched her breasts.

A few days later he did the same again and it became a regular feature whenever she came to him for lessons.

The court heard in 2005 he took the girl on a trip to France where he indecently touched her while they were sitting in a car together.

As the girl turned 15, Heffernan began taking her to his flat, where he would get her to remove her trousers and underwear before carrying out sex acts on her.

Miss Bickerstaff said ‘Clearly in both cases it’s the crown’s case that the defendant abused the position of trust he was in in relation to both girls. They were both promising tennis players.

‘He was able to get away with what he did for so long because they wanted to be better players and achieve their ambitions.’  Miss Bickerstaff said that both feared that if they said anything he would stop coaching them and their ‘dreams would be shattered.’  The court heard the second girl told her mother about the abuse in the Autum of 2005 and the police were called in but, because the youngster ‘clammed up,’ the matter was not proceeded with.

It wasn’t until 2007 that she made her complaint again and this time spoke to the police.

He was arrested last September and then, weeks later, the first victim came forward.

Miss Bickerstaff said the defendant was a man of good character in this country but between 1979 and 1999 in Australia, he had been convicted of matters of dishonesty and deception.

Defending, Tom Kark said, having grown up in Australia he had gone to the USA on a tennis scholarship where he had studied international business management.

His passion had always been for tennis and in 1983 he qualified as a professional tennis coach.

Mr Kark said working in America Heffernan had coached a number of players who had gone on to become household names.

In 2001 he had arrived in the UK and after raising £20,000 for a charity tennis event, which ended up in the Guiness Book of Records, he took over the Down Under Tennis Club in 2003.

Mr Kark asked Judge Warner to accept that his client was ‘verbally abusive to everyone’ and it was his style.

The barrister said Heffernan now realised that, with his conviction, he would never be able to coach children again.

The court was told the coach is now ‘genuinely ashamed’ for what he did and realises he has brought the coaching of tennis into disrepute.

Mr Kark said Heffernan’s wife Angela was standing by him.

Passing sentence, Judge Warner told Heffernan ‘You were in a position of trust as a tennis coach and used that opportunity to commit these offences against these girls. You were trusted by them, you were trusted by their parents.’  He added ‘It’s clear you were attracted to girls of this age and there is an element of grooming displayed here.’  The judge said the offences concerning the second girl had been the more serious and represented an escalation in his offending.

‘You controlled her by using her ambitions as a means of exercising that control.’  Referring to the pre-sentence report that had been prepared, the judge said that his behaviour had been described as ‘controlling, grooming and predatory.’  In addition to the five and a half year jail sentence, the judge disqualified him from working from children indefinitely and said his name must now go on the sexual offenders register.

The judge also made a sexual offences prevention order to run for seven years.