By Grant Fleming
STRATFORD, ONTARIO – A senior executive for a junior hockey team says he did not know one of his hockey players was a rapist.
Don MacArthur, an executive board member for the Stratford Cullitons, said he was “surprised” to learn one of his players was a recently convicted sex offender.
In July 2013, Mitchell Vandergunst, of Exeter, Ontario, was charged with three counts of sexually assaulting a young woman. The attacks happened in South Huron, Ontario. The woman’s identity is protected by a court-imposed publication ban.
On October 3, 2014, Vandergunst, who was 18 years old when he assaulted the woman, was convicted on two of the counts — sexual groping and unwanted sexual intercourse. The judge described his crime as “predatory in nature.”
Vandergunst was sentenced to one year in jail plus two years of probation in early February of this year. He is appealing the decision.
Vandergunst stayed on the team for four months before finally being dismissed on February 5th of this year, the day after he was sentenced.
“I did not know anything thing about it,” MacArthur said, when asked how Vandergunst’s sex crimes managed to escape the board’s notice.
Vandergunst played a full season last year, even though criminal charges had been laid.
Last summer, while his trial was going on, the team appointed him as an assistant captain. His duties included serving as a team ambassador at community events.
MacArthur has been a director with the Cullitons for 33 years. He has been a two-term president as well as the treasurer. He also broadcasts the team’s games on radio, sells tickets, and attends all home and away games. Currently, he is the past president of the community-owned team.
MacArthur admitted that many people may not accept that Vandergunst’s rape conviction went undetected by team officials.
“I know it may be hard to believe,” he said, “but to the best of my knowledge that is the truth. I know for a fact that I was not one who knew until it all came to light.”
MacArthur is a respected member in junior hockey circles. Last November, the Ontario Hockey Association presented him with the prestigious Crystal Puck award for his many years of service to the club.
When asked if he believed all other members of the team were unaware of Vandergunst’s sex crimes, MacArthur said, “If anybody knew, nobody said anything.”
When pressed to offer an explanation for how it was possible that the people in charge of the team didn’t know about a sexual offender playing on the team, MacArthur asked, “How would it be possible that we would know?
“If it was such a big story and we could have possibly known, how come nobody else knew until somebody leaked all the information to the press?”
MacArthur was referring to the father of the victim. He contacted a local newspaper editor, in late January, to find out why club officials hadn’t dismissed Vandergunst.
MacArthur added, “Nobody else in town knew about [Vandergunst’s crimes].”
When reminded that that the team’s head coach, Phil Westman, was forced to resign because of the scandal, MacArthur said, “That’s your say-so.”
On the same day the Cullitons cut Vandergunst from the team, the club’s president, Dan Mathieson, announced that Westman was stepping down.
Mathieson, who is also the mayor of Stratford, told reporters that Westman admitted he knew about Vandergunst’s rape conviction but failed to act. Mathieson described Westman’s decision to do nothing as “an error in judgement.”
For his part, Mathieson says he didn’t know about Vandergunst until the newspaper editor called him on January 30th of this year.
In addition to being the team’s boss, Mathieson is the mayor of Stratford.
MacArthur admitted to the possibility that some team officials may have known about Vandergunst’s rape convictions but, “[N]ot being conversant with all the laws, a publication ban is a publication ban [and] nothing’s to be said.”
MacArthur wasn’t the only team official to comment on the publication ban used to protect the woman’s identity.
Mathieson told reporters that the coach didn’t know if he could tell anyone about Vandergunst because of the ban.
Westman has not spoken publicly about what he knew or didn’t know about the publication ban that was in place before, during and after Vandergunst’s criminal trial.
Vandergunst’s identity and the description of the charges laid against him were not covered by the ban.
Last month, Mathieson promised an open investigation of the scandal. He wouldn’t give a release date for the findings.
The probe will be conducted by the team’s lawyer, Andrew Phillips, as well as Michael Robinson.
Robinson is a city police officer in Stratford. He has has his own close tie to the club, serving as its prevention services coordinator. He did not respond to an interview request.
Stratford, with a population of 32,000 people, is located 150 kilometers west of Toronto. It is best known for hosting an annual Shakespeare festival as well being the hometown of pop superstar Justin Bieber. The Cullitons team, which has operated for 40 years, plays in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.