The embattled coach and substitute teacher charged with serving a glass of wine each to two 17-year-olds at a Westfield restaurant in September pleaded guilty in Westfield Municipal Court on Wednesday to a single count of serving alcohol to a minor.
Judge Brenda Coppola Cuba accepted the recommendation of Town Prosecutor Anthony Prieto and sentenced Scotch Plains resident John Turnbull — the JV soccer coach and a substitute teacher for Scotch Plains-Fawnood High School, and the varsity golf coach for Westfield High School — to an $850 fine and 10 days of community service. In exchange for the guilty plea, the second count against Turnbull — also for serving alcohol to a minor — was dismissed.
Turnbull, 52, was the first defendant to appear before Cuba on Wednesday morning. As about five of his family members looked on from the gallery, he stood before the court and admitted that on Sept. 14, he served wine to a juvenile while dining at the Brick Oven Restaurant on Elm Street. Defense attorney John DeMassi described the student as a “former athlete,” adding, “it was not an eight-ounce glass of wine. It was an ounce or two.”
Since the Sept. 14 incident, Turnbull has been suspended from coaching and teaching in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District. Both the Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Westfield boards of education approve the appointment of coaches on a yearly basis, only several months prior to the coaches’ respective athletic seasons. The contracts for spring sports coaches, including golf, have not yet come before the Westfield Board of Education, Community Coordinator Lorre Korecky said.
“No spring coaches have been hired yet,” she stated. “Those discussions and decisions will take place in January.”
A Westfield Board of Education member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because personnel decisions are private matters, speculated that Turnbull “probably won’t be rehired.”
Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education President Trip Whitehouse, contacted by telephone Wednesday, said he was unsure whether Turnbull could or would have his suspension lifted and be reinstated as a coach and substitute teacher. District administrators will first need to review Turnbull’s contract to determine whether a criminal conviction automatically bars him from teaching or coaching, Whitehouse explained. If Turnbull’s contract does allow him to return to the classroom and soccer pitch, his fate would then be up to the administration and the Board of Education.
“I don’t know if the administration would recommend he be reinstated. And I don’t know if the board would approve it,” Whitehouse said.
In court on Wednesday, DeMassi, the defense attorney, emphasized Turnbull’s role as a community leader in Scotch Plains, Fanwood and Westfield. He submitted to Judge Cuba a sheaf of letters written in support of Turnbull, and acknowledged that although the charges against him “were very serious,” they were the result of “indiscretion” and a single “unthinking” act committed by a man who had "spent eight years living in Europe," where “it’s very common for people, young people, to drink wine.”
Turnbull, he continued, “has spent his entire life coaching and teaching…. I think it’s very important for the court – and the press – to understand what you have here. You have a model citizen. I know it’s trite to say, ‘It’s a lapse of judgment.’ But that’s what you had. Let’s not make this anything more than it was.”
Prieto, the prosecutor, then spoke. “The state’s position is it was a violation of the law. There were juveniles involved. An error in judgment or whatever, it’s a violation of the law.”
Turnbull was the last to speak. Rising before the judge, he said, “The worst part of this whole situation for me is my reputation as a coach or as a role model has been compromised.” His voice breaking, he continued, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to coach again. But it’s my fault. I’m to blame.”
Cuba addressed the court before delivering Turnbull's sentence. “The thread that I see in these letters – and they go back from the ‘80s to today – is that they relate to his generosity, his caring, his kindness, his contribution to society, how he was a mentor, how he was religious. This goes through Fanwood, Scotch Plains and Westfield. This did show me who the man is.”
Nevertheless, she stated that she found the sentence to be “quite adequate and fair…. Even though they were young adults in your eye, they were children in the eyes of the law.”
In dismissing Turnbull, she concluded, “Good luck to you, sir.”