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.
In their July 2003 marital settlement agreement, Clash was ordered to make $2,000 monthly child support payments and tuition payments for their daughter, as well as alimony payments of $7,500 a month until Dec. 31 of this year unless Loving-Clash remarried or either party died.
Records don't indicate why the couple divorced. Clash's former wife did not return messages seeking comment. A woman who answered the phone at Clash's parents' home declined to talk about him.
On Nov. 12 the celebrity news website TMZ.com reportedthat a man later identified as Sheldon Stevens, 23, claimed a sexual relationship with Clash when Stevens was 16. Clash rejected the allegation but acknowledged having an adult relationship with him. He also disclosed his sexual orientation for the first time.
"I am a gay man," he said in a widely reported statement. "I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter."
Stevens soon retracted his claim, calling his relationship with Clash adult and consensual. A call to his lawyers, Andreozzi & Associates of Harrisburg, Pa., was not returned.
But the allegations pushed Singleton to step forward — partly, he said, to defend the criticism Stevens was fielding. Singleton, a college student who grew up in Harlem and still lives in New York City, alleged in his complaint that he was 15 when he met Clash through a local gay telephone chat line. Singleton said it was called "City Chat." The line allowed callers to create an introduction people could listen to and decide whether to press 3 to chat live with someone or press 2 to leave a message, Singleton said.
During the 2003 chat line conversations, Singleton's lawsuit alleges, Clash "persuaded, induced, coerced or enticed" him to meet for sexual encounters.
The first hourlong conversation led to Clash's inviting Singleton to dinner on the Upper West Side, Singleton said in the interview. Singleton said Clash paid for his cab.
"It was nothing aggressive or nothing inappropriate about it," Singleton said. "He was nice."
The relationship became sexual, Singleton's lawsuit claims. It acknowledges that Singleton was compliant in the sexual activity, but claims he was unaware of the harm being caused.
Clash never told Singleton he was the voice of Elmo but said he was a divorced, traveling school official, Singleton said in the interview. They met for a few weeks until, Singleton said, he ended the relationship because he wasn't comfortable with their age gap. But through the chat line, Singleton said, they reconnected when he was 17 and again when he was 19 or 20.
His lawsuit alleges they engaged in sexual activity on numerous occasions "over a period of years." It also claimed Clash "groomed" him with nice dinners and money and "coerced or enticed" him to meet for sexual encounters.
Singleton's lawsuit was filed by Herman; Singleton says a friend pointed him to the attorney whose Miami-based law firm focuses solely on sexual-abuse litigation.
Since 1997, when Herman successfully represented a 5-year-old autistic boy abused by a convicted pedophile, the Miami lawyer said it has been his goal to listen to sexual-abuse victims and give them a voice.
"I strongly believe that victims do not heal until they make a full disclosure," he said.
The father of four has more than 150 open sexual-abuse cases at his five-lawyer firm and has filed more than 100 cases against the Archdiocese of Miami. One prominent case involved sexual-abuse allegations against the Rev. Neil Doherty; his client won a $100 million civil verdict in November 2011. Doherty is named in more than two dozen civil suits and is in jail awaiting trial on a criminal charge of sexual assault on a minor, according to records in Broward County, Fla.
Unlike many other lawyers, Herman said, he prefers to put his clients on the stand, even small children, because he believes it empowers them.
"Jeff is the best," said Michael Dolce, a West Palm Beach, Fla., attorney who has battled the Catholic Church in Florida to eliminate time limits for filing criminal and civil cases in sex crimes involving children. "He has a proven track record and knows exactly what he's doing in this area of law. He understands what survivors go through. He understands liability issues."
Herman said taking on institutions has earned him reams of hate mail but also prepared him for the criticism from some who believe he and his clients are opportunists.
People don't want to believe institutions they love — "whether it's Elmo or the Catholic Church" — are responsible for abuse, Herman said. "I just think I'm protecting kids."
After taking Singleton's case, Herman became involved with two more clients whose names he won't disclose and whose suits against Clash were filed under initials.
Plaintiff "D.O.," a Florida resident, claims in a lawsuit that he was 16 when he traveled to the New York area in 2000 for modeling opportunities and met Clash on a gay chat line. The lawsuit said Clash identified himself as "Craig," who was 30.
"D.O." alleges that Clash gave him alcohol and "groomed him" before the pair engaged in sexual contact, according to the suit. Over the next year, it said, Clash kept in contact and engaged in a sexual relationship with "D.O." after he had moved to New York and had turned 18.
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In another lawsuit, plaintiff "S.M.," also a Florida resident, alleges that he was 16 or 17 and in Miami Beach, Fla., in late 1995 or early 1996 looking for a job when Clash approached him and complimented him on his looks. Having been molested by a teacher at 15, the teen was nervous but said Clash put him at ease, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit stated that Clash returned to New York, kept contact over the phone, promised to be a "dad" to the teen and pay for a plane ticket for a visit. He flew him from Miami to New York in 1996, according to court records. The teen stayed at Clash's apartment for about four days; the lawsuit described multiple occasions of sexual contact.
The age of consent in New York is 17; it's 18 in Florida.
"The pattern that these clients are alleging, all vulnerable teen boys looking for a father figure in their life," Herman said. "Kevin presents himself as a comforting loving man to them which turns into a sexual relationship."
Herman points out that his clients are not without fault. Singleton, he said, sought sex with older men as a teen. "So are his damages going to be like a little kid sexually abused by a teacher?" Herman said. "No. But there are damages."