LYNNFIELD — When Time Magazine reported 18 Gloucester teens got pregnant in an alleged pact in 2008, the local reporter who broke the story wanted to set the record straight.
But little did Kristen Elsworthy know the road to doing so would put her father in the hole for nearly $1 million and tear two Lynnfield families apart.
The drama began in the summer of 2008, when Elsworthy, then a reporter at the Gloucester Times, spotted an item on the School Committee agenda that had page one potential. It referenced a sudden rise in pregnancies at Gloucester High School.
Elsworthy penned a story with the headline: “Spike in Gloucester High pregnancies alarms officials.” The story went viral.
National TV and print journalists invaded the usually quiet fishing community at the northern end of Route 128. The accounts breathlessly reported the number of pregnancies that year was quadruple the usual number. All but one of the girls who become pregnant were 15, the other was 16. Most got pregnant by their boyfriends. One of the fathers is reportedly a 24-year-old homeless man.
But it was then-Principal Joseph Sullivan’s comments to the Time reporter that ramped up the coverage. He said the girls confessed to making a “pact” after the school began investigating a rise in pregnancies.
Sullivan told Time that nearly half of the expecting students were involved in the pact. He said the girls went to school clinic multiple times for pregnancy tests and seemed more upset when they weren’t pregnant than when they were. Some of the girls reacted to the news they were pregnant with high fives and plans for baby showers.
Such comments unnerved Elsworthy, a Lynnfield resident, who doubted they were true.
“At the time, teen pregnancy had experienced a giant increase nationally and it made sense to explore why it was happening,” she said. “Instead, it became a hysterical witch hunt, the girls were vilified in the press by judgemental coverage. I don’t think these girls got together and said, ‘Let’s all get pregnant and raise our kids together.'”
Elsworthy thought it could be a teachable moment for the public and sought advice from her father, Charles Grieco. He suggested she consult longtime family friend and neighbor John Michael Williams.
The Lynnfield musician, children’s book author, filmmaker and director of the Boston Film Festival was the perfect choice, her dad said.
“My family had known John for more than 20 years, he was a family friend, was well-connected and had film credits,” said Elsworthy. “It seemed like the perfect match.”
But the two Lynnfield families were headed for a clash.
Williams told Elsworthy the best solution was to make a documentary about the girls and let them tell their story.
Following a series of conversions between the two old friends, Grieco agreed to finance the film and wired $900,000 to Williams within weeks. Under the terms of the agreement, Grieco would be reimbursed his original investment and 50 percent of any future earnings, according to court documents.
“We trusted him and he made me feel it was a good investment because it would be a commercial success,” Grieco said.
Elsworthy joined the project and the 14-page agreement stipulated she be paid $100,000 as associate producer. She and Williams conducted interviews of the teens and he had the added responsibility of selling the movie to distributors.
Production began on “The Gloucester 18” in the summer of 2008 and was completed 10 months later. But when she saw the movie, Elsworthy recalls saying it sure didn’t look like a $1 million movie.
That’s when things started to unravel for the one-time friends.
While the agreement required Williams to devote 100 percent of his time to the distribution, marketing, and sale of the film, he started work on another film titled “Bridgend.” The documentary explores why dozens of young people hung themselves in South Wales town of Bridgend. At that point, Grieco asked for an accounting of the cash. Because they were friends, Grieco said, he did not insist on a requirement that Williams complete certain production tasks before drawing down the money.
“Of course, that’s the way it’s done in these kind of business deals, but I didn’t even consider it because of our longstanding friendship,” he said. “All I wanted was an accounting of how the money was being spent, and he wouldn’t provide it.”
After repeated requests for monthly updates were ignored, Grieco filed suit.
During the trial, an expert witness, which Williams tried to exclude from the trial,
examined Williams’ Bank of America accounts. He found Williams mingled the film investment money with his personal account and spent most of it on personal expenses.
The witness, Chad Robinson, a CPA, provided evidence that Willams spent $136,000 in automobile expenses including the purchase of several luxury cars, $70,000 in mortgage and debt payments, $56,000 in credit card payments, $41,000 to retailers, and more than $51,000 to Williams family members.
Williams denies any wrongdoing.
“I made a deal with the devil,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, Charlie Grieco is a monster. He’s trying to ruin my life.”
Williams insists he spent all of the $900,000 on the movie and $400,000 of his own money.
His attorney, Anthony Sinapi from Warwick, R.I., said the previous attorneys who represented Williams failed to do their job and created an uphill fight for his client.
“Our hands were tied,” he said. “Our argument is John’s company was paid to do a job and they did it.”
But Judge Kenneth Salinger of the Business Litigation Session of the Superior Court disagreed.
In February, he ruled Williams spent $420,310 on the movie and the rest, nearly $480,000, on himself. With interest, the judge ordered Williams to pay Grieco $1 million. So far, he has not received any of the settlement.
“I am a very private person,” Grieco said. “But I thought this was important enough to warn others to beware.”