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Scott day care center worker 'surrounded himself with kids'

| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011

Matthew Byars encountered perhaps hundreds of children during the past decade while working at four day care centers in Pittsburgh and the suburbs, mentoring young people and helping with activities for youth at three churches, court records and interviews show.

"He surrounded himself with kids constantly," city police Detective Aprill Campbell said. "His work life, church life, social life all involved a child. He didn't have any adult time."

That ended in July when police filed the first sexual assault charges against Byars, 26, of the North Side, who until then had no criminal record. After waiving four more cases to court last week, he sits in the Allegheny County Jail awaiting trial on 70 charges accusing him of molesting 12 boys, ages 7 to 16.

"I can't even imagine that we found them all," Campbell said. "I'm sure there are children who said nothing happened."

Police say Byars groomed the victims and in some cases photographed or videotaped sexual encounters with them in his home, their homes or a Scott day care center.

The charges leave parents who trusted him and others with whom he worked wondering how he might have abused so many children, over so long a period, without arousing suspicion.

"On a personal level, my greatest struggle through this is I really felt like I missed it and I was so frustrated with how I could've missed it," said David Morgan, senior pastor at Hillside Christian Community in Robinson, where Byars helped supervise youth activities in 2010.

"If everything that's alleged is true, it's inconceivable that I could've been so blind," Morgan said.

Byars has a pretrial conference scheduled next week. His attorney, Todd Hollis, did not return messages seeking comment.

His younger sister, Liz Byars, said the case is too painful for the family to discuss.

"As you can imagine, this is traumatic for us to go through," she said.

'Very calculating'

Court records and investigators provide few details about Byars' childhood. Addresses show up in the West End and North Side. He wrote on his MySpace page that he went to Sewickley Academy. A spokeswoman there declined to comment.

He volunteered summers -- in 2001, 2004 and 2010 -- at Sewickley Academy's Summerbridge program, a mentoring program for teens, before going to work at Children's Paradise day care in Finleyville in 2005. He started working at Tender Care Learning Center in Scott in 2007.

Police first charged Byars on July 7, the day a 9-year-old boy told investigators that his teacher at Tender Care fondled him at the day care and in Byars' apartment. Detectives searched Byars' home on Western Avenue that night and returned with a computer and camera containing explicit images of five children.

County police filed more charges that month when three other victims came forward. In ensuing weeks, more allegations surfaced, including five boys who said Byars touched them at the day care.

"There was a week I did nothing but forensic interviews," said Scott police Sgt. Jeff Skees. "Once he was arrested, the calls just started coming in. The proverbial floodgates opened."

One victim told police Byars threatened to break his arm if he told anyone about the abuse. Other victims said he told them they would both get into trouble or that he would go to jail if they said anything, according to complaints filed in the case.

"He was very calculating in what he did," Skees said.

Lifelong habit

Child sex abuse cases vary, but the person experts consider a "true pedophile" often begins preying on children when he or she hits puberty, and won't stop until caught.

"This is a lifelong issue. It's nothing they can turn off," said Tony Gaskew, director of the criminal justice program and coordinator of criminal forensic studies at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford. "It's the sexual fantasy directed at children that begins at some point to be acted out."

In many cases, the pedophile was himself the victim of some sort of sexual abuse, said Lauren Pettler, intake coordinator with A Child's Place at Mercy, an advocacy center that interviews children who report sexual abuse.

Pittsburgh police said they have no record of any abuse complaint that names Byars as a victim.

"A lot of these guys don't necessarily seek it out in the beginning; they're presented with an opportunity and they take it," Pettler said.

Byars watched wrestling with the alleged victims, played video games with them and took them to church hockey games, police said. Victims told police about Byars' interest in wrestling, which provided him with a seemingly innocent way to escalate encounters, Campbell said.

"There's definitely a common theme," Campbell said. "He was very into wrestling. I think he endeared himself using that. Then it would progress to, 'Pose and let me see your muscles.'"

Byars participated in youth groups and other programs in at least three churches, including Mt. Zion Baptist Church in South Park and Hillside Christian Community in Robinson, police said. A pastor at Mt. Zion declined to comment.

Morgan, a pastor at Hillside for 30 years, said Byars attended for about six months in 2010, sometimes with his brother and sister. Byars passed the background checks the church conducts for volunteers, and he supervised youth activities such as floor hockey with other adults.

"I sat in on half a dozen of those Saturday night things just to see what was going on, and I never saw a thing -- an inappropriate look, touch, gesture -- nothing," Morgan said.

'This really wasn't their fault'

The charges against Byars also shocked parents who trusted him, Campbell said.

"Most of the parents -- they thought he was just the greatest," she said.

In four cases, detectives asked parents to identify cropped, still images of children taken from the cache of explicit videos and photographs police said they recovered from Byars' apartment. Campbell said showing one such photo of a boy to his parents was "worse than a death notification."

"Every single parent is blaming themselves," she said. "They're trying to understand how someone so nice could turn around and hurt their family."

Most cases of child abuse involve perpetrators who the family knows and trusts, said Jamie Mesar, supervisor of the child advocacy center at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville.

Abuse can lead to lifelong psychological, emotional and physical health issues for victims, said Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Sexual abuse of children is linked to higher rates of eating disorders, substance abuse and other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.

"It's very easy for children to believe there's something wrong with them that's causing this to happen and they're afraid of telling people ... because they're afraid they're somehow at fault for it," Houser said. "Anytime you have something internalized like that, it can eat you alive."

"They need help processing that this really wasn't their fault and learning how to manage all the different ways this can manifest in their lives," Houser said.

Based on his history, Campbell said Byars may have encountered "hundreds" of children.

"That first child (who made an allegation), I see him as the hero," said Campbell, who called this the biggest child-victim case she's had in her six years with the sex assault squad. "He saved a lot of kids."

Decade with children

Court documents, other records and interviews show Matthew Byars worked for the past decade in roles that gave him access to hundreds of children.

Summer 2001: Matthew Byars volunteers as an apprentice teacher at Sewickley Academy's Summerbridge youth program

Summer 2004: Byars is a Summerbridge mentor supervising the apprentice teachers

2005: Works for Children's Paradise day care in Finleyville; it closes in 2008.

2007: Byars earns associate's degree in general studies from the Community College of Allegheny County

2007: Byars begins working at the Tender Care Learning Center in Scott as a teacher for school-age children

2009: Byars works at Sloan Christian Academy in the West End, and at Community Daycare in the North Side, but police aren't sure when. Both businesses have closed.

Summer 2010: Byars works in the Summerbridge administrative office but rarely is on campus

Summer 2010: The last time Byars takes classes in pursuit of an elementary education degree through a joint program between CCAC and Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Fall 2010: Byars begins attending church at Hillside Christian Community Church in Robinson and works as a volunteer coordinator supervising youth activities

July 7: A 9-year-old boy tells investigators Byars fondled him more than 20 times at Tender Care, beginning in 2010, and abused him at the man's home during a sleepover. Pittsburgh police file charges.

July 15: Scott police file charges on behalf of the 9-year-old and a 10-year-old boy who said Byars abused him at the day care

July 16: Allegheny County police charge Byars with assaulting another 10-year-old boy at the day care. County police charge Byars in the abuse and videotaping of a 14-year-old.

July 22: A boy who first reported abuse in 2008 comes forward and gives an account of the abuse. County police file charges.

Aug. 4: Pittsburgh police charge Byars with additional crimes when another 10-year-old says Byars fondled him multiple times. Police say they find videos of the boy naked at Byars' apartment.

Aug. 8: County police charge Byars when a 7-year-old says Byars touched him at Tender Care. Police file charges when another 10-year-old reports abuse.

Aug. 11: Pittsburgh police file charges after identifying a victim from an explicit video found at Byars' home. In a separate case, city police file charges in the case of a 16-year-old.

Aug. 12: Pittsburgh police file charges after a boy says he was assaulted multiple times at Byars' home during the summer after attending Allegheny Center Alliance Church in the North Side.

Aug. 29: Pittsburgh police file charges after identifying another victim from an explicit video found at Byars' home.

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