On a recent overcast afternoon, a middle-aged man who hasn't lived in Brighton in 25 years, walked into the Brighton Police Department to report a crime.
His name was Rick Bates and his five o'clock shadow and rumpled appearance betrayed the fact that he hadn't slept well in days. He had driven overnight from Washington, D.C., where he resides with his wife and their two young children, second-guessing himself the entire way.
"I was driving up saying, 'What am I doing? Do I really want to do this?'" Bates said outside the police station. "I have a good life."
In the same breath, he explained that his has also been a tortured life, marked by spells of suicidal thoughts and alcohol dependency, because of what he was about to reveal to police.
Only a handful of people had ever heard what he drove 400 miles to share. But now, at 48 years old, he wanted it on the record and his therapist advised him that talking about it would help him let go of his anger.
Inside the station, an investigator escorted Bates into a small conference room off the lobby, where he proceeded to describe in detail being repeatedly molested as a boy by the man who oversaw his newspaper route. He said he could still smell him.
"He was a short guy, maybe late 40s, early 50s, sort of balding. He had a thick Rochester accent," Bates said. "He walked with a limp, like a shuffle, and he smelled like English Leather."
- PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
- Rick Bates outside his former home on Eastbrooke Lane, Brighton, where he says much of the abuse he allegedly suffered took place.
Bates recounted a series of forced sexual acts he said he endured in 1983, when he was 11 and 12 years old, and a paperboy for the Democrat and Chronicle.
Now, he is suing the newspaper and its parent company, Gannett Co., under a new state law allowing individuals who allege they were sexually abused as children to seek civil damages. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday night.
The complaint, which was provided to CITY in advance of being filed in state Supreme Court, identifies the alleged perpetrator as Jack Lazeroff, a former employee of the Democrat and Chronicle's circulation department. Lazeroff died in 2003 at the age of 74.
The claim is thought to be the first filed under the state's Child Victims Act on behalf of a former paperboy, an all but extinct breed that recalls a bygone era, when newspaper companies relied on children, most of them boys, to deliver their product door-to-door.
"For decades, I was so used to not being able to do anything," Bates said. "The guy was dead. I couldn't wring his neck. I couldn't sue. There was a statute of limitations."
'He made me something different'
The Child Victims Act, which passed the State Legislature early this year, gave victims of child sexual abuse until they turn 55 to file civil lawsuits for damages.
The law is not retroactive, but comes with a so-called "look-back window" that began in August and lasts for a year, allowing people of any age to file a civil suit, regardless of when the alleged abuse took place.
Since then, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed in courts across the state, most of them naming religious and fraternal organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester and the Boy Scouts of America, as defendants.
The lawsuit against Gannett was months in the making.
Bates wrote me in September 2018 when I was a columnist for the Democrat and Chronicle, and described in a gut-wrenching email how the abuse he allegedly endured haunted him still.
"He robbed me of the chance to be me. He made me something different. I hate that he had that power over me. And I hate that he still has that power over me. I truly hate myself for that," Bates wrote.
The email went on: "I am 47 now and some shell of the man I could have been. You see, every time I get to the point of success and happiness in my life – for decades now – memories of Jack Lazeroff, and his work, come flooding back. And I destruct."
Bates had copied an editor on the email, and a human resources officer at Gannett's corporate headquarters in McLean, Virginia, telephoned Bates in response.
Another Gannett executive, the chief operating officer of local markets, Michael Kane, followed up a few weeks later with a letter to Bates that commended him for his courage and expressed horror at his story.
The letter went on, though, to say that while there was no reason to doubt Bates's sincerity, the company could not independently verify his claims or locate any complaints of a similar nature against Lazeroff, "despite diligent inquiry."
"We were able to contact several people who worked at the paper during the time when the incidents you describe allegedly occurred, including circulation department managers," the letter read. "However, none of these individuals recalls any complaints or allegations of the kind that you describe, either against Mr. Lazeroff, or any other person."
The letter closed by saying the company was "deeply sympathetic" but that there was nothing more it could do.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Rick Bates, of Washington, D.C., claims in a lawsuit filed under the Child Victims Act that he was sexually abused as a paperboy for the Democrat and Chronicle in 1983.
But two former employees of the Democrat and Chronicle circulation department described in separate interviews incidents that suggested Lazeroff may have acted inappropriately, to some extent, with paperboys.
And court records show Lazeroff was charged in 1988 with sexual abuse in the second degree, a misdemeanor defined as having sexual contact with a person who is either less than 14 years old or incapable of consent. He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
Neither Gannett nor the Democrat and Chronicle responded to email messages from CITY seeking comment on Lazeroff and the lawsuit.
Paperboys were vulnerable
Paperboys are a foreign concept nowadays. But until the early 1990s, home delivery of daily newspapers was handled mostly by young people, particularly boys under the age of 16, who woke up in the pre-dawn hours and walked or biked their routes before school.
Their vulnerability, and more stringent labor practices, contributed to the decline of their ranks.
Indeed, a man who supervised paperboys for the Des Moines Register was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1985 on charges that he molested two of his carriers. A few years ago, the weekly newspaper Cleveland Scene published an account by a paperboy who claimed he was sexually abused by a customer on his route.
"This (case) is qualitatively different than a lot of the stuff we see, which is big institutions like the Catholic church," said James Marsh, a lawyer who is representing Bates and dozens of other clients filing lawsuits under the Child Victims Act. "But it hit me that, of course, paperboys were equally as vulnerable as a lot of these other populations that we've been hearing about."
Bates recalled earning between $15 and $20 a week for his route, which covered the Townhomes of Eastbrooke, a complex of low-slung condominiums off French Road in Brighton, where Bates lived with his mother and older brother.
Lazeroff was a district manager, which meant he oversaw carriers in a specific geographic area. Former circulation employees who worked with Lazeroff, including his supervisor, recalled that Lazeroff was responsible for carriers in Brighton as well as Irondequoit and Charlotte.
The job was a mid-life career change for Lazeroff, a married father of three sons who lived with his family in Penfield. Prior to entering the newspaper business, according to public records and people who knew him, he worked in banking most of his young adult life.
Newspaper archives show he had worked his way up to assistant vice president at First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Rochester by the time he was 38 years old, and had stayed in that position at least into his 40s in the early 1970s.
District managers interacted with carriers frequently. It was not unusual, for instance, for a district manager to meet paperboys before or after school or on weekends to collect money the boys had received from customers, or to help with deliveries in a pinch.
Bates recalled Lazeroff visiting his home after school about once a week, usually when his mother was working and his older brother was playing after-school sports. Bates's parents were divorced and his father wasn't a presence in his life.
These appointments were ostensibly for Lazeroff to review accounts and collect money. In time, though, they assumed a more sinister function, Bates said.
"He would have these printouts on green and white paper with the addresses of my customers and how much they owed," Bates said, trembling. "We would sit on the couch in the living room and he would put it on my lap, then reach around and start fondling me.
"I didn't do anything. I didn't know what to do."
Bates said he was abused on an almost weekly basis over several months – in his basement laundry room, in Lazeroff's car, in a utility shed on Eastbrooke Lane where the newspapers Bates was to deliver were dropped off in the wee hours of each morning.
"He called it 'our arrangement,' and he paid me an extra $5 a week," Bates said, recalling that Lazeroff offered to tip him more if Bates could recruit other boys "like me."
"I knew what that meant," he said.
'He was molesting paperboys'
Mark Adamski was in his 20s when he took on a paper route in Irondequoit overseen by Lazeroff in the mid-1980s.
He recalled Lazeroff pulling up to his home early one morning to collect money with a young paperboy in the passenger seat. The seat was reclined and the boy laying in it seemed distraught.
"He didn't look right, he looked afraid," Adamski said. "I said, 'Are you okay?' He just turned away and looked like he was either crying or ready to cry. Jack got out of that car in a hell of a hurry. He was like, 'Give me the money,' and – boom – he was gone."
Adamski added that some time later, after he had given up his paper route, he had breakfast with a circulation executive with whom he remained friendly.
"He said, 'Oh by the way, Lazeroff got fired. He was molesting the paperboys," Adamski, who is now an accountant, recalled. "But then he told me they're going to put in his file that he was stealing funds from the newspaper. I wish I had done more."
Patricia Buttaro delivered bundled stacks of newspapers to carriers' homes on Lazeroff's routes in the mid-1980s. She recalled an incident in which a paperboy's father confronted her in a rage outside his duplex on Lake Avenue in Charlotte.
"As I dropped them off, this father, he came flying out the door out in a bathrobe loaded for bear," Buttaro said. "He said, 'Where is that bleepin', bleepin', bleepin' Jack Lazeroff?'"
She recalled the man telling her that he didn't want Lazeroff near his son anymore. "He said, 'Don't ever leave those papers here again or I will kill him,'" Buttaro said.
Buttaro said the man never explained specifically why he wanted Lazeroff kept away. She said she reported the incident to her supervisor, and that, soon afterward, Lazeroff was fired.
Her supervisor, Tony Mammano, was a circulation manager – a step above district managers in the circulation department chain. He recalled Lazeroff having been transferred into his territory from Brighton, and letting him go in the mid- to late-1980s.
"I had to get rid of him," Mammano said. "He was there for a short period of time, then we made him go away."
Mammano remembered Buttaro "saying something" about her confrontation with an angry father in Charlotte, but said he never confronted Lazeroff about it before firing him.
"I just didn't like his mannerisms," Mammano said. "Did you ever meet someone who you got a bad feeling for? That's him."
It was around that period of time that Lazeroff was charged with sexual abuse.
He was arrested on August 11, 1988, and arraigned in Penfield Town Court. Like many courts, Penfield destroys its case files after 25 years, but there remains a perfunctory record of the proceeding. The record shows Lazeroff pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct violation on April 26, 1989.
'Do you still like little boys?'
Reached at home in Fairport, one of Lazeroff's sons declined to comment when told that his father was being accused of sexually abusing a paperboy, other than to say the allegation was not in keeping with his father's character.
Bates, on the other hand, said it was the only side of Lazeroff he knew.
"My house faced the street and I remember standing in the door of my mom's bedroom watching through the window as he'd walk by," Bates said. "I would get this intense heat, this heat in the pit of my stomach that I haven't had since because I knew what was coming."
Years later, when Bates was in his late 20s, he said he called Lazeroff at home.
"He answered and I asked him, 'Do you still like little boys?'" Bates recalled. "I didn't realize his wife was on the extension. He didn't say anything, but she began screaming, 'Why are you asking him that? Why are you asking him that?' I hung up. I wasn't ready for that."
Bates said he never told his mother, who has since died, of his alleged abuse. He said he told no one until he was an adult, when he revealed his secret to the woman who would become his wife.
Years later, Bates said, he confided in his father-in-law, who was a lawyer. Bates provided a letter he said he sent to his father-in-law in 2002 that asked for his help in holding Lazeroff accountable. Bates said his father-in-law, who has since died, told him nothing could be done.
- PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
- Rick Bates driving around his old neighborhood in his Lincoln Navigator. He says of his lawsuit that he wants vindication and to help other victims speak out.
Bates today makes a good living as a consultant for nonprofit organizations. His wife is a corporate lawyer. They have a side business flipping houses around Washington. They own a vacation home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He drives a Lincoln Navigator.
He said he doesn't need whatever money a judge might order Gannett to pay. His lawsuit, he said, is about vindication and encouraging others whom he suspects were victimized by Lazeroff to speak up and let go of their anger and shame.
"I've been so angry with myself for not fighting back," he said. "When he had me in the basement, there were tools there. Why didn't I just grab a hammer or a screwdriver or something and just kill him?"
"I'm trying to figure that out," he said, "and let that little kid at the time be okay with not having done anything."
David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.