Norfolk prosecutors notified some two dozen alleged victims of accused sexual predator William E. Sheehan this week that the former Foxborough teacher and Boy Scout leader will not be prosecuted because his advanced dementia makes him unable to stand trial.
The decision, after a psychological examination commissioned by prosecutors, brings an end to the state’s criminal investigation of a set of allegations that date back four decades.
Sheehan, 74, is now in a Florida nursing home. Under the law, defendants must be able to meaningfully participate in their own cases.
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey called Sheehan’s alleged crimes “predatory and disturbing” and their scope “shocking.” In a statement Friday, he praised the alleged victims who came forward to report their stories.
“We are grateful for their courage,’’ Morrissey said. “Speaking out today, even decades later, will hopefully make it safer for other victims to step forward and maybe even help prevent such a terrible thing from happening to other children.”
After receiving the pyschological report, prosecutors in Morrissey’s office spent the week delivering the disappointing news in personal phone calls to the men, who have been waiting a year for a decision.
“I feel badly victims have no sense of justice,’’ said Foxborough Police Chief Ed O’Leary, adding that there are no more current leads to follow.
Foxborough was rocked in September 2012 when O’Leary announced that eight men reported that Sheehan repeatedly fondled, sexually abused, and raped them over a period of almost 20 years when they were children.
Incidents occurred at his home, on school property, and at the former Cocasset River Park, among other locations, according to the men, who range in age from mid-40s to 59. Over the months, that number rose to 22 men. At least six have retained Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian for a possible civil case.
“They feel cheated,’’ Garabedian said this week, after learning of the prosecutors’ decision. “A guilty verdict helps victims heal and gain a degree of closure.”
Allegations against Sheehan were initially reported to police in 1998, but barred by the statute of limitations. Last fall, new information caused town police investigators and prosecutors to travel south with an arrest warrant, only to find Sheehan unresponsive in a wheelchair.
Sheehan taught elementary and middle-school students in Foxborough from the early 1960s to 1981 when he left for a teaching job in Fort Myers, Fla. In 1990, that state’s Education Practices Commission revoked Sheehan’s teaching license after a credible allegation that he molested a minor employee at a scouting camp in nearby Punta Gorda.
Allegations that school and town officials at the time may have covered up Sheehan’s actions have also gone nowhere, said O’Leary, the Foxborough police chief. However, Sheehan’s arrest warrant will remain active if his condition changes, so “people would be aware and keep him in a locked facility,” the chief said.
Danny Smith, now of Middleborough, was 11 when he said Sheehan, his sixth-grade teacher, first abused him. The cycle lasted two years. “Justice would have helped cleanse the town,” said Smith, 47.
Smith has testified before the state Joint Committee on the Judiciary advocating for tighter sex offender laws. He credits his wife and family for the support that helps with strength and healing.
“The fear that he put in me 36 years ago is still here, but I want to lead by example and out front,’’ said Smith, using his name publicly for the first time.
Serial pedophiles can brilliantly manipulate situations to their favor, Smith said. “They are thinking two steps ahead at all times, and it is impossible for kids to escape.”
Sheehan lured him to a backyard Boy Scout camp-out when he was a year too young to join the troop, he said. Smith said he was isolated with a group of older scouts who later ditched him, leaving him alone all night in a tiny, unheated, A-frame hut.
When Smith emerged half frozen the next morning, he said he sought Sheehan’s help and was ambushed. Sheehan used subtle threats to keep his victims in line, Smith said, like “don’t let anyone know,” “they will think you are gay,” or “they will blame you.”
Sheehan also perfected a technique of pressing on the throat to make someone pass out, Smith said, which was terrifying.
Selectman James DeVellis said the town’s investigation is not over. He declined to provide details but said detectives are pursuing “a slightly different path” to get to the truth. “If there was something we could report right now, we would be getting information out as loud as we could to the victims,’’ DeVellis said.
Meanwhile, Foxborough School Superintendent Debra Spinelli has trained more than 390 staff members, from teachers to crossing guards, in the Darkness to Light child protection program through the Hockomock Area YMCA.
That training began a year before allegations against Sheehan were raised, she said, because school officials did not feel adequately prepared to recognize signs of child sexual abuse and to address concerns proactively.
Members of a Sheehan Survivors support group have also asked the town to form a committee to help formulate a municipal training plan.