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Lawsuit accuses Peabody gym teacher of sexual abuse of students over decades

Thirteen former students who attended two Peabody middle schools in past decades have sued the city and a former gym teacher, alleging he spanked, fondled, and sexually assaulted them in a horrific litany of abuse that began when they were as young as 11.

The 45-page complaint lists the victims as John Does and sought class-action status on behalf of all minor students who were taught or coached by James Toltz during his employment at Higgins Middle School and John F. Kennedy Junior High School, from 1969 to 1996. And in naming the City of Peabody as a defendant, the lawsuit alleges it was negligent in its oversight of Toltz.


The complaint, filed Tuesday in Middlesex Superior Court, alleges Toltz had developed a reputation as an abuser among students and could have sexually abused as many as 150 students while working as a teacher.

“Toltz used his position as a means to groom students whom he wished to sexually abuse,” the lawsuit said. It alleges some of the abuse continued into adulthood.

It was not immediately known if Toltz, 80, who now lives in Winter Garden, Fla., has hired a lawyer. A phone message left with a listing for Toltz was not immediately returned.

In a news conference held online Wednesday, the plaintiffs — all men and now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s — detailed the anguish the alleged abuse wrought over the ensuing years. The wife of one victim read a statement on his behalf.

“I’m writing this missive in support of, and in the company of my peers, to accuse the mutual bogeyman and ultimate humiliator of our adolescence, the child predator known as James Toltz,” she said.

“I live with untold invisible scars from leering voyeurism, sexual violation and the physical assault I suffered at the hands of my gym teacher and coach,” her husband wrote. “I tried to bury it, but it changed the course of my life.”


Her husband is plagued by nightmares and memories of the abuse “along with the very real, almost debilitating floods of emotions, from utter helplessness, to acute terror, and then see-sawing to sheer rage,” she said.

The Essex district attorney’s office said Wednesday that it had no record of criminal charges against Toltz.

The suit, filed by Boston attorney Carmen Durso, lists 120 counts of sexual abuse and negligence, demands a jury trial, and seeks an unspecified amount in damages for severe emotional and physical distress.

“These guys do not take a vacation,” Durso said. “Every time they have an opportunity, they will do something. And Toltz had constant opportunities.”

“Being a gym teacher and a coach, he was in a unique position to have boys undressed,” Durso added.

The statute of limitations for sexual molestation and assault of a minor under state law has not yet expired. If a person is sexually abused as a minor, they have until age 53 to file suit, Durso said. Six of the men in the lawsuit are under 53.

If victims are older than 53, they have seven years from the time they first understood that they were harmed by the perpetrators, he said.

The complaint alleges Peabody was negligent in failing to properly train, supervise, and discipline Toltz over 34 years.

Peabody “should have known Toltz was not a fit person to be placed in charge of children, nor to have unsupervised control of them,” the suit said.


If the city had exercised reasonable care, it would have discovered that Toltz was engaged in illegal and inappropriate sexual conduct with children under his supervision, according to the complaint.

Peabody City Solicitor Donald Conn said Wednesday the city had not yet been served a copy of the complaint. “We’ll be prepared to respond once we’ve received a copy,” Conn said.

The abuse cited in the complaint allegedly occurred from 1971 to 1994. It said Toltz applied creams and lotions to the students’ genitals, and spanked and digitally penetrated them. He sometimes offered cocaine to them as well, the suit said.

One alleged victim, known as John Doe No. 1003, said in the suit he was abused from 1989, when he was 11, to 2003, when he was 25.

On Wednesday, two other alleged victims recounted their abuse and spoke to the trust issues, alcoholism, lack of friends, self-destructive behavior, deep shame, and self loathing that followed.

One man recounted how Toltz put Ben Gay ointment in his underwear when he was a student at JFK Junior High. When he went to Toltz to alert him about the resulting burning sensation, Toltz took him to a remote janitor’s closet and molested him.

When the alleged victim got home, prepared to tell his parents, he found that Toltz had preemptively called them with “a concocted story” about having a discussion about personal hygiene with their son.


Another victim, known as John Doe No. 1011, said he wished he’d had the courage to come forward sooner so he could have saved others.

“I feel bad, I feel partly responsible for this, wondering if there’s more I could have done or should have done back then to get this predator off the street,” he said. “Now I have a chance to rectify my guilt and bring some level of justice and accountability to the situation.”

Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.