Girl basketball players in Lakewood told police 'creepy' referee kept groping them in games

Stephen Amador, 52, arrested on Monday

LAKEWOOD, Colo. - Girl basketball players told Lakewood police the first time the referee groped them during a game they didn't pay much attention, dismissing it as an unintentional mistake.

Then the referee would, again, brush a teen player across her breasts with both hands after handing her the ball for an inbounds pass. Or he would grab a player's buttocks, according to police records obtained by 7NEWS.

"Okay, this is getting weird," one girl recalled thinking to herself when she spoke with police detectives.

Then, in the same game, while another player was shooting free throws, the girl said she was standing in the back court when she felt the referee "grab my right butt cheek" and squeeze for about a second, the report said.   

The girl told police she was shocked and thought to herself, "Oh my God, did that just happen?" according to an arrest affidavit.

Teammates began asking each other if the "creepy" ref had groped them, too. A father overheard his daughter and her teammates complaining about the referee's sexual groping after a game. The dad called the school principal.

Jefferson County Public Schools officials contacted police in January.

After a detailed, three-month investigation, Lakewood police on Monday arrested Stephen Amador, 52. For seven years, he has refereed youth basketball games as an independent contractor for the Colorado High School Athletic Association (CHSAA). He has officiated games for metro area athletic leagues and school districts, including JeffCo Public Schools and Denver Public Schools.

Amador appeared Tuesday in Jefferson County Court, where he was advised he faces nine counts of unlawful sexual contact.  

He is accused of groping four juvenile female basketball players while refereeing games over a three-month period, starting in December.

To protect the victims' identities, police have not identified their schools -- only saying the alleged groping incidents happened during games at different high schools in Lakewood.

The arrest affidavit is so heavily redacted to protect the victims' identities, that it's difficult to tell when these games occurred.

-- Girls recount incidents of Amador groping them --

According to the arrest affidavit, several girls said a short, chubby referee with buzz-cut hair and glasses brazenly groped them while their parents and friends watched games from the stands.

The girls described to police how Amador would -- without drawing attention -- swiftly sweep both hands across their breasts after handing them the ball before an inbounds pass, the affidavit said.

One girl said she was running down the court, behind a group of players, when the referee ran up and "touched her butt," the affidavit said.

"I wasn’t sure if he had run into me or what happened, so I just kind of brushed it off," the girl told police.

But, later in the game, it happened again.

The girl said the ref had handed her the ball on the sideline and then he "cupped her butt," according to the affidavit.

The girl said she thought to herself, "Well, this is strange," according to the affidavit.

The player later complained to her coach.

The coach told detectives the girl came out of the game and said, "Every time he [Amador] hands me the ball, he's touching my butt."

The coach told the girl she would bring up the complaint with officials after the game.

But once the game ended, the coach said, "She learned about the inappropriate touching that occurred to (girls on) both teams. The incidents were subsequently reported to authorities," the affidavit said.

After questioning players, coaches and athletic directors, detectives said they used video of games to confirm several of the girls' accounts of how Amador had groped them.

-- Amador denies improperly touching girls --

During a police interview, Amador denied improperly touching the girls.

"We're trained not to do that. I mean, I do this with pride and honor," the referee told detectives, according to the affidavit. "I feel privileged to be able to do this, and there's no way I would jeopardize that for something stupid, you know?"

Lakewood Police Detective Anthony Gherardini asked Amador to help him understand where his accusers were coming from and "how they can remember specific touches and grabs."

"Stephen (Amador) replied, 'I don't recall anything, because like I say, there are a thousand things going through my mind (during games)," Gherardini noted in the affidavit. The referee said he's watching multiple players, while counting and managing the clock.

"At that point, I informed Stephen that, based on the (girls') outcries and the video evidence, his explanation was not matching the evidence we had," Gherardini wrote in the affidavit.

Amador asked if he could see the video, but the detective told him it was evidence in the case. Gherardini added that Amador would be able to review the video evidence prior to a trial.

Amador asked if he was going to be charged. The detective replied a decision had not been made at that point.

Gherardini told Amador, "If he was simply caught in a moment of weakness, then it would be an understandable rationale for what occurred, rather than an outright denial of the facts," according to the affidavit.

"Stephen replied, 'I mean, if that did happen, then it's totally unintentional. I mean, I would never jeopardize anything. Plus, there's the parents and everybody watching, I know it's being filmed. I mean, I would never jeopardize…what I live to do…for something like that," the affidavit states.

-- CHSAA does not conduct background checks on referees --

Amador's arrest has sparked controversy, because he had a criminal history before he began working as a referee for CHSAA.

Amador was arrested in Denver in 1991 on a felony sexual assault charge, but pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of misdemeanor assault, according to court records. In a separate case, he pleaded guilty to harassment in Douglas County later in 1991.  

In 1995, Amador was arrested on investigation of assault in Lakewood, according to a state arrest report. But there is no record of him being prosecuted for that case.

Yet, CHSAA didn't know of those criminal convictions. Neither did JeffCo Public Schools, the district for the Lakewood schools where the basketball players were allegedly groped.

That's because neither CHSAA -- which has 4,000 to 5,000 referees working as independent contractors statewide --  nor JeffCo Public Schools performs background checks on independent contractors.

Erin Jensen of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault said she was horrified to learn nobody checked Amador's background.

"If (CHSAA officials) are putting out lists that say these are the refs that you, the school district, can go contact, then I think that a background check is just as important as any kind of certification," Jensen told 7NEWS.

7NEWS found that other state athletic associations -- in Arizona, South Carolina and Florida -- do conduct criminal background checks on all referees officiating school games. Some states even require fingerprint checks.

CHSAA Assistant Commissioner Bert Borgmann said Amador lied on his application to work as a referee, failing to disclose his criminal history.

7NEWS asked Borgmann whether CHSAA planned to change its background check policy.

"Well, we would certainly like to look and see what kind of details we can get as this case moves forward, to see if we can strengthen our process," Borgmann said.

JeffCo Public Schools issued this statement: "As soon as Jeffco Public Schools was notified of the complaint about Mr. Amador, the district turned the information over to law enforcement to determine if a crime had occurred. While the police investigation was pending, the district did not use Mr. Amador as a referee in any games."

Borgmann said CHSAA learned of the police investigation in January and told school districts not to use Amador as a referee any more.

But Denver Public Schools spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong told 7NEWS on Wednesday that neither CHSAA nor anyone else notified the district that police were investigating Amador.

Armstrong said Amador last officiated a DPS game on Feb. 22 -- more than a month after the criminal investigation began. He only stopped refereeing games because the basketball season ended.

Armstrong said DPS has not received any complaints about Amador.