FOXBOROUGH — William E. Sheehan was born in Mansfield but had deep roots in neighboring Foxborough even before he became a teacher there in 1962.
His grandfather, George Jones, founded the local Grange organization, while his uncle, Ernest Jones, was the town’s first Eagle Scout. Sheehan’s father, Edward, operated the town’s first taxi. And William Sheehan established himself in Foxborough as a teacher, a Boy Scout leader, and a recreational swim program coordinator.
But in those deep ties is a terrible truth hidden away for decades: William Sheehan, authorities say, was a serial child sex abuser who has forever changed the town’s psychic landscape.
In September, the town was rocked when the local police chief announced that eight men had reported they were repeatedly fondled, sexually abused, and raped over a period of almost 20 years by Sheehan when they were children.
By last week, that number had risen to 23 local allegations, as well as one in Florida at a Lee County Boy Scout camp that caused that state’s Education Practices Commission to revoke Sheehan’s teaching license there in 1990.
No criminal charges were filed against Sheehan in the Florida case. Foxborough police have charged him with nine felony counts of indecent assault on a child under age 14 and two felony counts of indecent assault on a child age 14 or older in cases involving four of the eight men who reported attacks. David Traub, a spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, said the Massachusetts investigation of Sheehan is ongoing.
But justice may never be fully served because prosecutors say Sheehan, who moved to Florida in 1981 with his wife and two sons, may be too ill now to face any of the charges that could be brought against him. Sheehan is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and may never be deemed cogent enough to be prosecuted, authorities say.
His son, Steven Sheehan, of Fort Myers, said he knew nothing about the allegations against his father.
“I have no prior knowledge,’’ the son said. “I never witnessed anything like that or walked in on anything like that.”
He declined to respond when asked whether his father has a lawyer.
The statute of limitations has run out for prosecuting a number of the allegations. The alleged victims, if they want to pursue a case against Sheehan, may have no choice but to file a civil lawsuit.
As the case unfolds, Foxborough police Detective Timothy O’Leary says he believes it could grow to include as many as 100 victims, maybe more.
Police have heard allegations from the time when Sheehan first came to town, and closer to when he left, but in the middle there’s a big gap yet to be revealed, he said.
Armed with a warrant based on four of the eight cases for which the criminal statute had not expired, prosecutors and O’Leary traveled to Florida in early September to arrest Sheehan. But when they arrived at the Fort Myers nursing home where Sheehan lives, O’Leary said, they found him unresponsive in a wheelchair.
By law, a defendant has to be able to participate in his case for it to go forward.
“We got a warrant to gather intelligence and place him in custody and then discovered he was ill,’’ said O’Leary. “We had no idea. And yes, it was disappointing.”
O’Leary said the mounting evidence against Sheehan is clear.
“This guy was a monster, there is absolutely no sugar-coating that,’’ he said. “It’s Foxborough’s version of [Jerry] Sandusky,’’ the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach recently sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
O’Leary questions why Sheehan’s name was not included in the Boy Scouts’ list of ineligible volunteers and in the “perversion files” the Scouts made public last month about potential child molesters, since Florida’s case for revocation of Sheehan’s teaching license in 1990 was clear-cut.
Sheehan’s registration with the Boy Scouts was suspended in 1989, after he was accused of molesting a minor employee at Camp Miles, a Boy Scout camp in Punta Gorda, during the summers of 1986 to 1989 by hugging him and rubbing up against him in the boy’s bed, and while swimming and promising special benefits like a pay hike and a promotion.
Sheehan denied those allegations in Florida news reports at the time, and spokesman Robert Carpenter of the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department in Punta Gorda said recently that any records of the case are long destroyed because there was no arrest.
Deron Smith, a Boy Scouts of America spokesman, declined specific comment about the case, but said, in an e-mail, “I can confirm that this individual is barred from participating in Scouting.”
In Massachusetts, the first allegation against Sheehan, who turned 74 on Nov. 19, was disclosed to Foxborough police in 1998, but at the time officials said the statute of limitations — which is 27 years from reporting, or from a victim turning 16 — had expired, according to O’Leary. Since then, the time frame to bring criminal charges has been frozen in cases where an alleged abuser leaves the state, giving authorities a better chance to investigate, locate the suspect, and file charges.
Sheehan taught at the former Lewis Elementary School, the Igo Administrative Center, Burrell Elementary School, and Ahern Middle School, all in Foxborough, from about 1962 to 1981. He was the swimming director at the former Cocasset River Park, and led Boy Scout Troop 70, now defunct.
O’Leary said Sheehan abused children at various locations including Cocasset River Park, the Ahern Middle School, the Burrell School, and at the Lakeview Road swimming hole.
“They have nightmares about him chasing them around and brutally raping them,’’ he said. “It wasn’t just touching. Those were the mild cases.”
Sheehan also abused children in his home while his wife was in the house, O’Leary said. Catherine Sheehan died in 2009 in Fort Myers.
O’Leary, a policeman for 26 years, said he knows many of the alleged victims and is determined to “tear away the veil of secrecy’’ that has cloaked Sheehan, at the very least.
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian represents four of Sheehan’s alleged victims, now ages 53 to 59, and is investigating a fifth case. He said his clients were sexually abused between 1966 and 1979 when they were between ages 8 and 13. Crimes included repeated fondling, sexual exposure, and rape, he said. One victim was sexually abused on a scouting trip to England in 1969, he said.
“Some were molested for years, and two were molested 20 times each,’’ said Garabedian. “In any capacity that he could sexually molest, he would. He knew no bounds. And I have no doubt the number of children he molested is in the hundreds, because pedophiles don’t stop until they are caught, or become infirm.”
Garabedian said he is still exploring whether civil charges can be brought.
“Where were the supervisors, and why didn’t they prevent William Sheehan from molesting children?” he said.
One of Garabedian’s clients, Kevin Corliss, 56, of Norfolk, a 30-year Foxborough school maintenance employee, said Sheehan abused him from ages 8 to 13 in the schools, at Cocasset Park, the Lakeview Road swimming hole, and on scouting camp-outs.
“It happened to me too many times to count,’’ he said. “But I’m moving forward now and there’s no stopping me.”
Foxborough Schools Superintendent Debra Spinelli, who is mandated by state law to report allegations of crime, disclosed Corliss’s allegations to Police Chief Edward O’Leary after Corliss met with her in August and told her what had happened. Long before then, she said, the school district had been working on training to spot sex abuse.
“We have always believed that training is important, because as adults we are more confident in our ability to recognize signs of physical abuse and neglect and less confident on our ability to recognize signs of child sexual abuse,’’ she said.
Detective O’Leary, who is not related to the chief, said Sheehan’s former neighbors talk of an “abrupt” decision by Sheehan to move his family to Florida in 1981 that he attributed to job security under the then-new Proposition 2½ tax limit legislation.
But police suspect someone exerted pressure for him to leave, he said.
“In my opinion, he would have spent the rest of his life in jail on this,’’ O’Leary said.
But Sheehan apparently left town in good standing. In his personnel file, former superintendent of schools Robert F. Weiss praised the 18-year teacher.
“Bill has made a great contribution to the youth of Foxboro, Mass., through his school work, Boy Scouting, and as a Director of the local swimming facility,” Weiss wrote in a reference.
He could not be located for comment on this story.