CAPITAL REGION — Frank Popolizio Jr., founder and director of Journeymen Wrestling, this week filed a Child Victims Act lawsuit alleging he was abused by a wrestling coach when he was 12 years old.
Popolizio filed suit against Dennis J. Todd, alleging while on an overnight Niskayuna wrestling trip in the mid-1980s, Todd sexually assaulted him while he was sleeping in a hotel room with other athletes and coaches.
Todd, who according to the complaint left the wrestling team after Popolizio reported the alleged assault to other coaches, in 2013 pleaded guilty to having sexual contact with a minor boy in a separate case. While Todd, who owned and rented property in Fort Plain, was conditionally released in July 2019, he has since violated parole and was again incarcerated at state prison in Elmira last month, according to state prison records.
In the complaint, Popolizio details an overnight trip to Long Island he took as part of the Niskayuna Central School District’s youth wrestling program. The trip was sometime in 1983 or 1984, according to the complaint. Todd worked as a volunteer assistant coach in the wrestling program at the time and joined the trip.
While Popolizio was sleeping in a hotel room with teammates and other coaches, the complaint alleges, Todd got on top of him, kissed him, groped him and sexually assaulted him. Popolizio woke up to the alleged assault and attempted to fight back. The complaint alleges Todd continued to pursue Popolizio as Popolizio, who weighed less than 100 pounds at the time, attempted to get away from Todd. Popolizio reported the abuse to the program’s coach, and Todd was asked to leave the trip and his coaching position, according to the complaint.
Popolizio’s attorney, Thomas Mortati, said Popolizio wanted to put his name on the lawsuit – rather than file as a John Doe – and come forward to help raise more awarness about child sexual abuse; Popolizio discussed the alleged assault in a YouTube video posted by Mortati’s law firm, Martin, Harding & Mazzotti, in April. (Mortati said filing the complaint was delayed due to court closures.)
“That started a journey for me at that point,” Popolizio said in the video. “Being so young and you’re defenseless. Yeah, I’m in the fight game, but I’m still a little guy, and you’re still not mentally mature enough to necessarily metabolize something like that.”
He said it was difficult to deal with emotionally, because issues of sexual abuse weren’t discussed openly and there were concerns that people might look down on him for what had happened. He said he feared other adults would not believe him and that he felt embarrassed and ashamed about the incident.
In the video, Popolizio said he thinks it’s important for young people to learn about sexual assault and to be able to recognize abusers who may be grooming them for future abuse. He called the Child Victims Act, which established a one-year window for victims of sexual abuse to sue their abusers over incidents that occurred in many cases decades ago, a “breath of fresh air” that gave him a new chance to speak out and hold his alleged abuser to account.
“If I could give advice to others who have had a similar situation, I would encourage them to be outspoken, I would encourage them to be fearless, courageous,” Popolizio said in the video. “I think it’s important that you fight. You know you gotta fight.”
For decades Popolizio has played a key role in youth wrestling across the Capital Region, serving as an assistant coach at Shenendehowa High School for multiple state championships and leading the Journeymen program since 1999. He returned to his alma mater and worked as an assistant in Niskayuna from 1995-2003 and was named the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s New York State Assistant Coach of the Year in 2009 while at Shenendehowa. In 2018, Popolizio was named one of the Upstate New York Chapter honorees of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Todd did not face criminal charges after his alleged abuse against Popolizio, who indicated he did not pursue the assault with police. Todd lived in Fort Plain prior to his 2013 conviction, where he owned and rented properties, including one that held the town’s Save-A-Lot store. In March 2013, Todd pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree criminal sexual act; he was accused of having sexual contact with a 13-year-old male on 11 separate occassions.