Bergen Record Online, May 14, 1998
Jury told of ex-counselor's power over troubled girl, 17
By Christopher Mumma, Staff Writer
He was a counselor to troubled teenagers who faced a final fork in the road before prison. Phoenix Academy in Rockleigh is known as a last resort for teenagers who have failed to quit drugs or alcohol after several stops in traditional programs.
But authorities say Thomas Godbolt took advantage of his position and the vulnerability of a 17-year-old girl in eight separate sexual encounters at the facility in December 1996.
Arguments in Godbolt's trial on sexual assault charges began Wednesday in a Hackensack courtroom with a stark description of the 36-year-old New York man's power over the girl. She was a teenager from Camden County who arrived at Phoenix Academy in September 1996 after a conviction for a juvenile offense.
"She was the perfect victim," Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor Kenneth Ralph told jurors before Superior Court Judge Elijah L. Miller. "She couldn't speak. She couldn't tell anyone, and she couldn't go for help. Given her position, she was in no position to complain."
And the teenager didn't complain, Ralph said, despite a variety of unwanted sexual encounters in the girl's room, a bathroom, a nurse's office, and the commissary. Godbolt took it upon himself to report the matter to his supervisor after he was approached by another teenage girl at the facility in January 1997.
The alleged victim had told the second girl about the sexual encounters. That girl used the information to try to extort money from Godbolt so she could get out of Phoenix Academy, Ralph said.
Assuming his word was better than that of two girls with criminal histories, Godbolt then told his supervisor of the blackmail attempt, Ralph said. A criminal complaint was filed against Godbolt a week later, and the counselor was fired from his job shortly after that.
The charges nearly forced the closing of Phoenix Academy, a 44-bed long-term care facility for teenagers 14 to 18 years old. It is run by Phoenix House, the nation's largest private, non-profit drug-abuse program.
Phoenix Academy receives $800,000 a year in state funds, and two state agencies launched investigations of the facility after the charges were filed.
In July, the state halted new admissions to the facility and required that girls be removed. The program was down to 15 teenagers and in danger of closing when the state Health Department ended the ban late last year. State officials, however, are allowing the facility to admit males only.
Godbolt has steadfastly maintained his innocence and rejected any attempt at a plea bargain before trial. His attorney, Anthony Iacullo, emphasized Wednesday that there is no physical evidence of sex between the former counselor and the girl and there were no witnesses to any of the alleged encounters.
Iacullo said both girls wanted out of Phoenix Academy and concocted the extortion attempt as a means to that end. The second teenager asked Godbolt for $10,000, Iacullo said.
"This case is about extortion," Iacullo said. "It's about this man having the courage to go to his superiors, not mince words, and tell what was said. He has nothing to hide."
Copyright 1998 Bergen Record Corp.