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Hastert indictment has Illinois hometown sifting memories

In this April 20, 2005 file photo, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, center, attends the dedication ceremony for the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill. Also on the stage are, from left, former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, Julie Cellini, U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, former Illinois Congressman Ray Lahood, museum director Richard Norton Smith, First Lady Laura Bush and President George W. Bush. A newly unveiled indictment against Hastert released Thursday, May 28, 2015, accuses the Republican of agreeing to pay $3.5 million in hush money to keep a person from the town where he was a longtime schoolteacher silent about "prior misconduct." (File/The State Journal-Register via AP)

YORKVILLE, Ill. (AP) — Before he was U.S. House speaker and second in line to the president, Dennis Hastert was known around Yorkville, Illinois, as Denny the coach, a beloved mentor to youths on the high school wrestling team and in local Scouting groups who organized trips to broaden the students’ experiences.

This week’s indictment accusing Hastert of manipulating bank accounts and lying to the FBI to allegedly cover up past “misconduct” has left hometown admirers searching back through fond memories and struggling to understand how alleged sexual abuse and extortion could have emerged from that period.

Many former wrestlers and Yorkville-area residents who spoke to The Associated Press since the indictment on Thursday spoke only warmly of Hastert, some athletes saying Hastert was a father figure as he guided them to championships. They couldn’t recall anything suspicious about the trips, including ones to the Bahamas and Canada. And none had a clue about who could have made such accusations against the coach.

“Now everybody is guessing who it is,” said Bob Evans, Hastert’s assistant wrestling coach, who joined him in taking Boy Scouts camping and fishing in northern Minnesota. “This puts a cloud over what was a pretty special time for people.”

Evans said there was never a hint of wrongdoing and that he was angry that someone would accuse Hastert without coming forward publicly.

Hastert’s legacy is visible in this small Fox River town about 45 miles southwest of Chicago. There’s the renovated historic courthouse and a forest preserve that both received money Hastert helped bring back from Washington.

Former students say he left an intangible imprint, too, on their lives. Mindful of that record, residents expressed disbelief and confusion at the claims.

Neal Ament, 66, was a senior at Yorkville High School when Hastert arrived in 1965 from nearby Plano to teach history and economics and coach the wrestling team. Ament said the team won the conference in his first season as head coach.

“Our team was just a bunch of floundering farm boys. He came and whipped us into shape,” Ament recalled in a phone interview Friday. “He taught us moves and the science behind wrestling that we never knew before.”

He was as memorable in the classroom, said Ament, who still lives in the Yorkville area and has occasionally run into Hastert at a local hardware store.

“Hopefully this will end up being a big misunderstanding,” he said.

The federal indictment announced Thursday accused Hastert of agreeing to pay $3.5 million to keep a person from the suburban Chicago town silent about “prior misconduct,” but the court papers did not detail the wrongdoing. A person familiar with the allegations said Friday that the Illinois Republican is accused of sexually molesting someone decades ago.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing and those specific allegations are not contained in the indictment.

Hastert has not responded to phone calls and emails from the AP seeking comment. No lawyer had come forward publicly by Saturday afternoon to represent him.

He currently lives in Plano. He and his wife, Jean, have two sons.

Hastert taught and coached in Yorkville until 1981 and was a Boy Scouts of America volunteer for 17 years over that period, leading what was then called Explorer Post 540.

Bob Corwin, a close friend, was one of the other adults accompanying Hastert and the teens on some of the Scout trips, including to the Grand Canyon.

He said when they were in the Bahamas they all stayed in the same cabin.

“We were all in there together,” he said Saturday at the judo club where he has taught for decades. “I never knew nothing about anything going on” that was improper.

Evans, Hastert’s fellow coach, recalled one trip where he, Hastert and a Japanese exchange student shared a tent.

“The only thing he did was snore like a gorilla,” he said of Hastert. “We were always all together. There was no sneaking around from tent to tent.”

Daniel Zedan, council commissioner for the St. Charles, Illinois-based Boy Scout Council 127, said national Boys Scout officials have asked the local council to look for records associated with Hastert’s tenure as a volunteer in Yorkville. But no complaints have been brought to their attention, he said.

Zedan said the councils that oversaw the Explorer post in Yorkville have merged with others over the years.

“Each time there’s a merger, stuff is boxed up and put away.”

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Keyser reported from Chicago and Kunzelman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Hannah Cushman in Chicago contributed to this report.

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