Cecil Singleton had settled in to watch an episode of "Parenthood" when he caught a TV news teaser featuring the words "Elmo sex scandal." A man had accused puppeteer Kevin Clash — the man behind the world's most popular Sesame Street puppet — of having a relationship with him when he was 16.
Sitting at his New York apartment, Singleton, 24, had a sick feeling and began researching the claims against Clash. He, too, claims he had an underage but consensual relationship with the Baltimore County native — one he thought was an exception.
"It was one thing if I felt it was just me," Singleton said in a recent interview, explaining why he leveled similar allegations in one of three civil suits that have been filed against Clash, 52. "Over the years, I felt our relationship was inappropriate because of our age difference. But in no way did I think ... there were others."
Clash has rejected all accusations that he had an inappropriate relationship with any of four men who've come forward since last month, including the three who have filed lawsuits. Clash faces no criminal accusations. But the allegations created a tabloid storm that prompted him to resign as the voice and soul behind the high-pitched, huggable Elmo.
In a matter of weeks, Clash's image has morphed dramatically. Once known as a success story born from humble roots in Turners Station, he now sees his sexual history as the subject of celebrity news sites. The claims in court papers date as far back as 1995 and involve meetings in New York and Florida.
All three accusers say the sex was consensual but claim that they were not old enough to legally consent or comprehend the relationships. They're seeking damages ranging from upwards of $75,000 to more than $5 million.
Singleton called Jeff Herman, a Florida lawyer who won a $100 million sex abuse case against a former Roman Catholic priest last year, and he took the case. Herman has since taken on two other clients who make similar claims in court papers of meeting Clash and developing relationships that were both paternal and sexual. The accuser whose story motivated Singleton has not filed suit — and has publicly retracted his allegations.
Clash's attorney disputes the allegations.
"As I have said before, these claims have no merit," attorney Michael Berger said. "There is no merit and they'll be defended vigorously as will Mr. Clash's reputation."
Berger and Clash's New York publicist declined to make Clash available to The Baltimore Sun.
Fran Brill, a Sesame Street puppeteer who has worked closely with Clash since at least 1993, said his departure has left many cast members feeling empty and angry.
"He has a very deep profound heart and love for children," she said. "We're all concerned. This is all completely outrageous. These guys are coming out of the woodwork. … We all think this is bogus and money-grabbing while Kevin's reputation is dragged in the mud."
From the age of 9, Clash has said, puppets fascinated him. He often fantasized about living at a Disney theme park after watching "Wonderful World of Disney" programs.
He made his first puppet from the lining of his father's coat and was surprised when his parents didn't admonish him but encouraged his talents. Middle school classmate Ianthan McCallum recalls that teachers allowed him to perform puppet shows in front of class. She also recalls him telling her that she was the object of his affection.
"He wanted me to be his girlfriend," she said. "But I had my eyes on someone else."
His puppeteer act caught the eye of local television host Stu Kerr, who put Clash on his kids' show "Caboose." That led to performances on nationally broadcast children's shows "Captain Kangaroo" and "Sesame Street," which Clash was involved with for 28 years.
"Sesame Street" was where Clash took an overlooked pink puppet and made "Elmo" a character that won him more than 10 Emmys and inspired the "Tickle Me Elmo" doll craze of the 1990s.
As Clash's stature rose, his personal life remained private. He was married to Alice Eugenia-Loving Clash for 17 years; they had one daughter. The couple divorced in 2003. Records show Loving-Clash living in Catonsville at the time, while Clash listed his home in New York.
Court records show that the separation was mutual and voluntary and that the Clashes had been living apart for at least a year.