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St. John’s suspends 5, expels 1 in basketball team sex scandal

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Less than a week after St. John’s expelled basketball player Grady Reynolds, sophomore guard Elijah Ingram has voluntarily withdrawn from the university and grad student center Abe Keita has been suspended for one year, according to a source close to the program.

The players were among six team members who police said went to a strip club in Pittsburgh after losing a conference game to the University of Pittsburgh and had sex with an Astoria woman who told authorities she had been raped and then hours later recanted her story.

Even after the initial rape allegations were dropped, the scandal rocked the St. John’s campus, the nation’s largest Catholic university and one of Queens’ most prominent institutions. None of the players involved was criminally charged.

But in a show of solidarity, fans, students, alumni, former head coach Lou Carnesecca and Rev. Donald Harrington, the president of the university, went to Madison Square Garden Sunday to publicly support what was left of the team in its matchup against Boston College Sunday.

In an interview with the TimesLedger Monday, Harrington, who had been on a fund-raising trip in Florida when the incident occurred, declined to place blame for the current state of the basketball program on any one person, in particular former head coach Mike Jarvis.

“I’ve been very explicit in saying that we should not assign blame,” Harrington said. “I don’t think anyone should be assigned blame, especially Mike Jarvis.

“A lot of people who know much more about basketball than I do would say that,” he added, “but I emphasize, I don’t know that much about basketball. If St. John’s were really struggling (financially), I don’t point to the finance person because we were in the hole. I would have to take responsibility. First and foremost, I have responsibi­lity.”

Jarvis, who was fired from the head coaching position Dec. 19, also spoke publicly about the controversy.

“It’s not about any one individual, it’s about everybody. A coach is a parent. Take the name ‘coach’ out and substitute ‘parent’ and vice versa. If the kids do well, the kids get the credit. If the kids don’t do well, the parents get the blame.”

The woman, Sherri Ann Urbanek-Bach, a 38-year-old who gave police an Astoria address, has been charged with filing fictitious reports, attempted extortion and prostitution, police said.

“It is public knowledge that these students in question have violated team rules,” said St. John’s athletic director Dave Wegrzyn. “They were in a location where they shouldn’t have been and their actions were inappropri­ate.”

Reynolds, a senior out of Abbeville, Ala., was expelled immediately following the initial allegations. It was not Reynolds’ first brush with the law since joining the beleaguered Red Storm.

The junior college transfer student was arrested last season on charges of assaulting a member of the school’s women’s swim team. He was not suspended from the team for any period of time and as part of a plea bargain agreement, attended an anger-management course.

Ingram, a former high school All-American out of St. Anthony’s High School in East Orange, N.J., decided to leave St. John’s Tuesday and Keita, a native of Ivory Coast by way of Tolland, Conn., received a one-year suspension after going through a disciplinary hearing Tuesday, a school source who asked not to be identified said.

All three were starters on the team, with Ingram the top scorer followed by Reynolds.

“Although Pittsburgh police officials have not filed any charges against any basketball team member, St. John’s has determined that the conduct of three players was inconsistent with the university mission and values as well as a violation of team rules,” the university said in a release last Thursday night. “As the university continues its investigation, more disciplinary action may be taken. St. John’s continues to fully cooperate with the Pittsburgh Police Department.”

School officials have not softened their stance since, even in the wake of learning that the sexual assault allegations had been proven false.

At a news conference Friday, Wegrzyn and interim head coach Kevin Clark said “poor decisions” on the part of the student-athletes to circumvent team rules involving curfew and conduct are what led to the expulsions and suspensions.

“It is important that our student-athletes live up to the standards of St. John’s University for our code of conduct, not only as student athletes but as students of this university,” Wegrzyn said. “I think it’s important to note that this is the result of poor decision-making. The proper policies and procedures ... that we’ve always had at St. John’s University were followed. There was institutional control.”

Harrington agreed, likening this current incident to the infamous 1990 lacrosse scandal at the school, which also centered around rape allegations. No St. John’s student was convicted of a crime, but several were eventually expelled.

The severe nature of the punishment dished out by the school, Harrington said, is in line with the 1990 incident as well as others.

“Some young men made some bad decisions,” Harrington said. “I was involved. I was directly involved. I was very much a part of that decision and completely and fully support it. The behavior that they admitted to was not acceptable for a St. John’s student.”

The incident took place at the Westin Convention Center Hotel in Pittsburgh not long after the team was defeated by the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, 71-51, on Feb. 4.

According to Pittsburgh police, Urbanek-Bach claimed to have met the players at Club Erotica, a strip club in the McKees Rocks suburb of Pittsburgh, and accompanied the group, which included as many as six team members, back to their hotel in the downtown area.

Urbanek-Bach later called police at about 4 a.m. Thursday, claiming she had been raped by members of the St. John’s team, police said.

According to sources close to the team, Reynolds, Keita and Ingram were questioned by police and subsequently released after a recording from one of the players’ cell phones confirmed that no rape had taken place.

Some have speculated whether Clark and his small staff of assistants, which include Dermond Player and Alex Evans, were capable of completely keeping tabs on the team, something the university strongly denied.

St. John’s announced Monday that former assistant coach Ron Rutledge, who worked under Carnesecca for 17 seasons and was part of the 1985 Final Four team, would be coming out of retirement to rejoin the staff for the remainder of the season.

“This is not a situation that’s related to university staffing,” Wegrzyn said. “Decisions were made by student-athletes not to adhere to policy, not to adhere to university rules and regulations, to be in an inappropriate location and engage in activity that was not in concert with the code of conduct.”

“We do have the policies and procedures in place,” Clark said. “This is just unfortunate. I still think our policies and procedures are appropriate.”

In addition to taking disciplinary action against Reynolds, Keita and Ingram, the school also suspended senior Mohammed Diakite and freshman Lamont Hamilton, who were allegedly in the hotel room during the reported incident. Both are likely to be suspended for the remainder of the season, a source close to the team said. The university will decide their ultimate fate later this week.

A sixth player, freshman Tyler Jones, is alleged to have been at the strip club but not the hotel room and was suspended for the team’s Big East Conference loss to Boston College Sunday afternoon. Jones is expected to be in the lineup for the remainder of the season.

The team played Sunday’s contest against Boston College with just four scholarship players available, graduate student Andre Stanley, seniors Kyle Cuffe and Curtis Johnson and sophomore Daryll Hill, a borough native who attended Cardozo High School. Clark was forced to start walk-on Phil Missere, who had played just one minute all season before Sunday, and give extended minutes to fellow walk-ons Nygel Roach, Joe McDonald and Devin Mayo.

“We’ll do the best job that we can to prepare,” Clark said of the team. “If it means that we have to practice five against three, we’ll do that. We’ll take all the appropriate steps. Obviously I’m upset with all the things that happened, but I look forward to the challenge of coaching the rest of the season.”

Harrington quickly flew back to New York to address the media and show his support for the team.

“We will move it forward as positively and as quickly as we can to bring (the program) back to where we want it to be,” Harrington said in one published report. “How long it is going to be? I really hope it’s short, but realistically ... it’s going to take a while.”

St. John’s lost to Boston College, 89-61.

This has been a season rife with controversy for the St. John’s team. Senior guard Willie Shaw was permanently removed from the team after being arrested along with former teammate Marcus Hatten on a Jamaica street corner for allegedly smoking marijuana. It was Shaw’s second drug-related suspension from the team.

And just six games removed from a National Invitation Tournament victory and a 2-4 start to the season, Jarvis was fired as head coach on Dec. 19, placing Clark in his stead for the remainder of the season.

In addition, former St. John’s star Jayson Williams is on trial in the shooting death of limousine driver Costas Christofi at his New Jersey estate and another former team member, Sharif Fordham, was arrested for dealing crack in Georgia, where he is currently serving a five-year prison term.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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