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Democrat and Chronicle faces sexual abuse lawsuit from former paperboy

Oct 15, 2019

Rick Bates is suing Gannett and the Democrat and Chronicle under the Child Victims Act. He claims he was sexually abused in the 1980s as a paperboy for the newspaper.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

A former Brighton resident is suing the Democrat and Chronicle and its parent company, Gannett, claiming he was sexually abused by a supervisor when he was a paperboy.

Rick Bates said he was 11 years old when the alleged incidents started in the early 1980s.                              

"I'm filing a suit against Gannett to hold them accountable for the conditions they created that left me and other paperboys alone," he said. “We got up and worked for them at 5 in the morning and made them money, and they left us alone with a predator."

Bates said he delivered newspapers in Brighton around the apartment complex on Eastbrooke Lane where he lived with his mother and an older brother. He said he took the seven-day-a-week job, which earned him about $20 a week, to help with his family's finances.  

Once a week, Bates said, a district circulation manager from the Democrat and Chronicle came to his apartment to meet with him, checking on the paper route and any overdue subscriber payments.

That manager was Jack Lazeroff, the man who Bates accuses of sexually assaulting him.

"The first time I remember,” Bates said, “he came into the house and it was really quickly after I had started working this job and he have this roll of paper. You remember the sort of dot matrix print paper that had like the tabs you would rip off on the side? It was green and white; I remember that, and it had all the different accounts on it.

"He put it on my lap, and I remember very clearly him putting it on my lap, and then his hand going underneath the paper and him sort of fondling me over my clothes."

Bates said he froze and did nothing to try to stop Lazeroff.

"And I think that did two things,” he said. “It made him feel like he could do whatever he wanted, and he started to, and it was the beginning of me, you know, really sort of hating myself for not doing anything about it and not stopping it. It went on from there and it became a very regular occurrence, and he ended up doing more than that and doing it regularly."

Rick Bates stands outside his former home on Eastbrooke Lane in Brighton, where he says much of the abuse he allegedly suffered took place.
Credit David Andreatta / CITY Newspaper

Bates said he was molested by Lazeroff dozens of times until he quit delivering papers just under a year later. A police report he filed in Brighton in September describes sexual assaults taking place in the living room and basement of Bates' home and in Lazeroff's car.

He claims Lazeroff paid him an extra $5 a week for what Lazeroff called “their arrangement,” and that Lazeroff knew how to find time alone with him when his mother was working.

"There were many nights a week when I was home alone,” said Bates. “My brother would be playing sports and practicing sports up at the high school, and I would be here alone and Lazeroff came to know that very quickly."

Bates' attorney James Marsh filed the lawsuit against the Democrat and Chronicle  Tuesday evening under New York state's Child Victims Act.  The law, enacted earlier this year, temporarily lifts the statute of limitations, giving survivors of childhood sexual abuse one year to seek civil action against their abusers, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.

Thousands of alleged victims have filed lawsuits since August, when the yearlong window began.

Many of the accused are Catholic priests. Some are Boy Scout leaders or school employees. But Bates may be the first to accuse a newspaper of failing to protect a paperboy from an abuser.

The suit claims the Democrat and Chronicle knew or should have known about Lazeroff's alleged actions and protected the paperboys he was supervising. Lazeroff is not here to deny the allegations. He died in 2003 at age 74.

Neither the Democrat and Chronicle nor Gannett have responded to WXXI's request for comment.

Bates, who now lives in Washington, D.C., contacted the Democrat and Chronicle about a year ago. He wrote an email to then-columnist David Andreatta and an editor, commenting on the newspaper's coverage of the abuse claims made against the Rochester Catholic Diocese and detailing his own story. He asked what they thought about having a similar problem in their own company.

Andreatta is now the editor of CITY Newspaper, a subsidiary of WXXI.  

Bates said he was first contacted by a human resources executive at Gannett's corporate offices in Virginia.  He then received an email from Michael Kane, chief operating officer of local markets. In the letter, Kane commended Bates for his courage and expressed his horror over the painful experience he described. Kane wrote that he had no reason to doubt Bates' story, but said given the passage of time and Lazeroff's death, there was no way to independently verify the claims “despite diligent inquiry” with people who worked at the paper at the time, including circulation department managers.

But a former Democrat and Chronicle employee said he remembers an unsettling incident involving Lazeroff. 

Mark Adamski worked with him in the mid-1980s. Adamski, who was in his late 20s at the time, picked up stacks of newspapers at the Democrat and Chronicle each morning and delivered them to the homes of paperboys. He also had a paper route of his own in the city of Rochester.

Adamski recalled what he said happened early one morning when Lazeroff pulled into his driveway to pick up some money that Adamski had collected from the subscribers on his route.

“He had a young boy in his car with him in the passenger seat, and the seat was all the way down,” Adamski recalled. “Like, the boy was prone, he was laying down. And I went over and I said, 'Are you OK?' I had already given Jack the money. And (the boy) turned over, turned away from me, and he had a look on his face like he was really sad or ready to cry or something, and then Jack got the heck out of there. He, like, squealed out of the driveway and left."

Adamski did not know who the boy was, but said he assumed he was a paperboy. It was before sunrise and he said it wasn't unusual for Lazeroff to join newspaper carriers on their routes, especially if they were new to the job.  

But he never reported the incident and he said he now feels guilty about it. 

"I wish I had called the police or called the paper or something, but I did nothing."

CITY has located court records indicating that Lazeroff was charged in Penfield on Aug. 11, 1988, with second-degree sexual abuse, a misdemeanor charge related to the sexual abuse of a person who is younger than 14 or unable to give their consent.  Lazeroff pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct on April 26, 1989.

Rick Bates drives around his old neighborhood in his Lincoln Navigator. He says of his lawsuit that he wants vindication and to help other victims speak out.
Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News

Bates said he never told anyone about what happened to him until he was 19. He confided in his then-girlfriend, who he later married.

He is still haunted by his years of silence. When the abuse was allegedly taking place, he said he felt stuck.

"After the first time it happened, I didn't know how to go, 'This happened once, and I didn't stop it,' " he explained. “Boys are supposed to be tough and supposed to be strong and I wasn't in that moment, or I didn't think I was. I realize now I was just 11 and I didn't have the skills or the ability to do anything. I didn't want to make waves with my mom. It would have been incredibly hard on her."

Bates said the guilt and shame have tormented him for decades. He attempted suicide multiple times, first in high school. He contemplated ending his life as recently as a year ago.  

He said it was a comment from his wife that changed his focus. She asked him why he wasn’t fighting back. When Bates learned about the passage of the Child Victims Act earlier this year, he felt it was finally his chance to seek justice.

His lawsuit is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, but Bates said money is not his motive for taking legal action.

"I want to tell the story of what this company did and didn't do,” he said. “I want to make sure that if there are other companies or other businesses that are in this situation where they have young kids working for them, maybe this can help them understand that you have to be as cautious and focused and concerned about those kids as you can. If there are kids in this situation and they hear this story, maybe it will help them realize, 'I should say something. It's not so bad.' I wish I had at the time.

"And certainly, if there's someone doing this, I hope they hear my story and realize what you're doing ... you may like it in the moment, but the echoes that this has through a lifetime is incredible ... incredibly bad."                          

CITY Newspaper Editor David Andreatta contributed to the reporting on this story.

Here is the lawsuit filed by Rick Bates: 

Richard Bates Complaint v. Democrat and Chronicle and Gannett by WXXI News on Scribd