Wayne Merino, who guided the Lakewood Artesia High boys' basketball team to three state championships and national prominence, will not return as coach of the Pioneers, and Artesia will forfeit all games and championships for the 1997-98 and 1999-2000 school years, the superintendent of the ABC Unified School District said Thursday.
Ronald Barnes said the actions were taken after the school board reviewed a report submitted by an independent committee that found misconduct within the Artesia program.
The report concluded that Artesia personnel and others connected with the program violated California Interscholastic Federation bylaws regarding eligibility, undue influence and finances.
The investigation was launched in March after the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported that Artesia basketball players Jack Martinez, a junior from the Dominican Republic, and Jon Stefansson, a sophomore from Iceland, allegedly had false information on their student visas and that Martinez was in his fifth year of high school.
Under Merino, Artesia produced such players as Ed and Charles O'Bannon and Jason Kapono. The Pioneers won state Division II championships in 1990, '92 and '93 and played in Southern Section championship games 10 times in Merino's 13 seasons as coach, winning six. The Pioneers won the section Division I-AA title in 1997-98 and the Division II-A championship this year. They also won the 1998-99 I-AA title, but Barnes said, "we don't think there is clarity" that season in regard to sanctions.
Merino said in a statement that the committee's findings are "unsupported by the facts and are the product of a highly partisan committee engaged in a lawless process."
Merino said it was "a secret proceeding, conducted in secret by a committee which failed to disclose information to my lawyers to enable us to refute any specific charges. . . . This was a lynch mob from the beginning and it was only thinly disguised as a lawful board of inquiry."
The investigative committee, formed to examine issues related to the eligibility of four Artesia players, included Thomas Byrnes, a former CIF State and Southern Section commissioner; Dennis Collier, former principal at Bellflower High; and Norman Gordon, a retired L.A. Superior Court judge.
The committee gave Barnes its report last week and it was reviewed last Friday by the seven-member school board at a closed-door session special meeting, Barnes said.
All names were omitted from the edited version of the report released to the media because of privacy issues, Barnes said.
Among the investigating committee's findings, according to the report:
* Two players used forged/fraudulent documents to apply for non-immigrant student status through Santa Ana Mater Dei High.
* A student who competed last season had completed the maximum eight consecutive semesters of athletic eligibility at the end of the 1998-99 school year.
* The school neglected to determine initial scholastic eligibility for the four players.
* A student violated residential eligibility upon enrollment in 1995.
* A student violated transfer eligibility upon enrollment in 1997 after starting the ninth grade outside the United States in the 1995-96 school year.
* The principal had not exercised "prudent oversight" over the athletic eligibility of student athletes.
* The school "did not manage and control all finances connected with the CIF-sanctioned basketball tournaments sponsored by Artesia High School over the past several years. The [omitted] did not provide the school with all finances connected with these activities."
Yvonne Contreras, Artesia's principal, said in a statement: "I believe the report has clearly identified issues that need correction in our basketball program."