Are there some breaches of trust one can never come back from? Or is there a point when the stigma associated with a crime does more harm than good?
These questions have renewed attention as our society scrutinizes its relationship with the criminal justice system. For the Phoenix high school basketball community, they are concrete ones.
Justin Vargas, 36, is a fixture in the world of Phoenix high school boys basketball. As a scout, he connects teen athletes with college coaches, writes profiles on their backgrounds, and reports from the sidelines of games. He’s one of two members of the “The Show Basketball” company, under which label he organizes tournaments where up-and-coming players can show off their skills. Local high school teams and private clubs, including one run by Phoenix police, are regular participants.
Vargas has been a scout for about three years and performs a very important role for teen players: Being scouted can lead to college scholarships, putting someone on the path to the NBA and, for some, a better future for their family. In an Arizona Republic article last year, he boasted about his close relationship with three players who have since accepted offers to play at college basketball’s highest level.
However, under his legal name, Justin Allen Lee, he has a serious criminal history that includes a conviction for having sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl when he was 23, and which requires him to register as a sex offender.
Parents have raised concerns. He’s had personal confrontations with some of them, and people have posted about his past on social media. Some have called the police to report him.
One parent reached out to Phoenix New Times with his concerns this week.
“Why is he around children with a rap sheet like that?” asked the parent, who wished to remain anonymous. He was upset that Lee had messaged his kid on Instagram about tournaments he was running.
When reached by New Times, Lee was upfront about his past.
“If I didn’t know me, I would do the same thing,” he said of the parent’s concerns.
Lee said he “made a huge mistake” 13 years ago and has totally changed his life and who he is since the sex crime and other convictions. Many people in the high school basketball community are aware of his past and he’s shown he can be trusted, he said.
“If a parent knows me… it generally never becomes an issue,” he said.
If a parent doesn’t know him though, they won’t find his record under the name he uses for work, but under Lee, instead.
Lee said there was no deception intended in using a different last name, which he’s done for years. Vargas is his dad’s last name, he said, and he has wanted to change it legally but didn’t believe he could because he was on probation until this year, he said. While Arizona’s name change statute doesn’t explicitly refer to probation, it does require applicants to list any felonies. Both of Lee’s names are registered with the state’s sex offender-registry.
Gregg Rosenberg, a West Coast scout who has hosted events with Lee, said Lee had sent a write-up about his past to a couple hundred parents a few years ago and has received tons of support in return.
“When you’re with him and the whole community’s with him, the last thing you think about is the past,” he said, adding it took about five minutes for him to realize Lee was a quality person who was making a difference for kids in the community.
At this point, Lee said, his past is an open secret. Someone posted his mug shot on Twitter a few years back, and he’s had to justify his involvement in teen sports to authorities — from local police to state sex offender managers — at least 10 times, sometimes because of parent complaints. He tries to be transparent about what he did and show that he’s changed, but the stigma of registering as a sex offender sticks with him.
“You fucked up. Be accountable. That’s all it is,” he said.
Crime and Basketball
Lee’s path into trouble began when he was 16, he said. He was partying a lot and met people who helped introduce him to a criminal lifestyle. At some point in his late teens his car was shot up.
“You get to the point where you don’t feel safe going anywhere without a gun,” he said. “You think… I’m not supposed to be alive past 25 anyways.”
Lee’s first criminal conviction came when he was 19 and a senior in high school. In a 2004 case, he pleaded guilty to trying to cash a forged cashier’s check for $5,000. Lee claimed he was trying to get ahead on bills. He was sentenced to probation and 80 hours of community service.
Letters to the court note that he was hardworking and volunteered as the assistant coach of a Litchfield Park basketball team.
In 2007, he was convicted on a federal felony charge as an accessory to an armed robbery. While he was still on probation for that crime, he was indicted by a grand jury in October 2008 on three counts of sexual contact with a minor, a felony.
According to a Chandler police report summarized in court documents, in July 2008 a man caught Lee half-naked in his 15-year-old daughter’s room. The daughter told police they had sex; a condom was found in the trash.
Lee would later tell a probation officer that he met the girl at a basketball camp he was hosting and they began talking after she contacted him on MySpace, court records state. He said he never asked her age but told police that while he knew she was young he thought she was 17, according to a 2008 East Valley Tribune article.
Before Lee could face trial though, he fled to Japan for two years.
“At the time I guess I never felt like I was doing anything wrong,” Lee said. He grew up in an environment where you didn’t ask someone’s age and there were no boundaries, he said.
“I didn’t really get to see it [until] later in life that ‘you fucked up,’” he said.
New Times reached out to the family involved in the case but received no response.
Lee eventually returned to Arizona and pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual contact with a minor. He received a suspended sentence, and was required to register as a sex offender and stay away from people under 18 for 10 years as a condition of probation.
He became more reckless criminally after that, knowing he had something on his record that would make it difficult to resume normal life.
“That’s the biggest thing: “How do you make a life for yourself?’” he said.
In November 2010, he drove a group of men he met at a strip club to a south Phoenix home. He sat in the car watching out for police while they committed a home-invasion robbery. During the robbery a 10-year-old was held at gunpoint and a man was pistol-whipped, according to court documents.
Lee wasn’t in the home during the robbery and told a probation officer he didn’t agree with the actions involved. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count of kidnapping and one count of armed robbery, and was sentenced to five years in prison, minus the time he was held waiting for trial. Between that and the time he spent in federal prison for violating the probation from his earlier federal charge, he spent a total of six years locked up.
The prison time became the wake-up call he needed, Lee said. His biggest problems all seemed to come from selling weed on the street. The probation officer noted as much in their report, suggesting that a move to California might be beneficial upon his release.
“When I went away, everything had to change,” Lee said.
A New Life
He was released from prison in June 2016 and completed his probation in May of this year without issue.
“While on probation Mr. Lee has maintained a crime free lifestyle,” Maricopa County Super Court Judge Frank Moskowitz wrote in the order discharging him. “Mr. Lee has maintained a stable residence and is currently self employed full-time.”
Lee compared himself to a puzzle. Once he started working on one part of himself “everything else just falls in line,” he said. He’s become a better dad to his son and daughter, and better son to his parents.
“I’ve worked my ass off to become the person I have,” he said.
He got involved in basketball again, initially just as community service to get his driver’s license back, but it soon became a full-time job.
Abraham Mendoza, a graphic designer who created “The Show Basketball” brand, partnered up with Lee a few years ago. He does the design and merchandising; Lee runs tournaments and events.
Mendoza said Lee was upfront about his past when they met.
“Any concerns I would have, he would have a straight-up answer,” he said, describing him as a hard worker who loves to give back. If a teen has talent but comes from a rough background, Lee will help him make sure he gets noticed by coaches and scouts.
“He’s been through a lot so he passes on what he knows,” Mendoza said.
In some ways, Lee has done exactly what society wants of someone in his position. He has a job, he appears to have changed his ways, and he’s making a positive difference in the community.
But the fact remains: he is a registered sex offender and his past felony convictions mean he’s rated at Level Three — the highest level of risk to the community. Concerns about him working with teens are understandable.
Lee knows he’s under a microscope. In addition to the repeated explanations to authorities, he’s also had to explain himself to parents and coaches. As part of his registration, the state keeps all his social media usernames in a database and his photo and address are posted online. The Arizona Republic was planning on doing a story about his past two years ago but ended up killing it, he said.
While Lee doesn’t go out of his way to tell people about his past, he doesn’t shy away from it, and will talk about it if it comes up, he said. He’s also made the conscious decision to only work with boys basketball (Lee acknowledges he still has polite relationships with female players who come to watch games). What surprised him, is the amount of support he’s gotten from families.
“There was a lot of people that didn’t trust me at first,” Lee said, adding that over time he’s won their trust through his actions.
It’s not all positive. Beyond honest concerns, some parents have brought up his past because they are upset their kids aren’t getting enough attention or play time.
“This basketball stuff in Arizona is more cutthroat than the drug game,” Lee said.
Rosenberg, the scout, pointed out the trusting relationship Lee has developed with parents and coaches — including the coach of a team sponsored by the Phoenix police union. Beyond being good at organizing events, he goes out of his way to ensure disadvantaged kids get scholarships and passes on life advice through basketball, Rosenberg said.
“And he obviously knows the ways you could go,” he said. In one case, Lee paid out-of-pocket for some teens to attend a camp they were running together, he said.
However, two coaches who have worked with Lee briefly in the past contacted by New Times said in messages that they were unaware of his convictions.
Jonathan Rother coached a team for one of the event’s Vargas organized, but said he had little contact with him besides occasionally texting him regarding tournaments.
“I’m not aware his [sic] past convictions or anything like that but from my experiences with him he seems like a good guy that wants to give back and help young men in the community,” Rother wrote in an email. “If he does have a prior record I would have never known due to the fact that he never displayed anything but being a high character man around myself and kids in my experiences with him.”
Registering a sex offender in Arizona does not come with any restrictions against interacting with people under the age of 18. Any such restrictions are individually tailored by the court as conditions of probation. In Lee’s case, those restrictions were wiped away when he went to prison for his armed robbery offense. However, there’s no way for him to get off the registry.
That people can end up on the sex offender registry for their entire life for just one offense has led some to call for reform. Even prosecutors have recognized this is an an issue, depending on the offenses. Last year, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office backed a bill that would have expanded who can petition to get off the registry, saying research showed there was no public danger involved.
Jared Keenan, an American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona senior staff attorney, called the bill a slight improvement but said larger reform is needed.
“Generally, sex offender registration does not accomplish what it’s supposed to accomplish,” Keenan said.
Research has shown that besides a small number of people, sex offenders are actually less likely to reoffend than other criminals. Keenan argues that equating together people who made one mistake with people who pose an ongoing danger to society can lead them to commit other crimes since they can’t secure employment.
“I understand that the public is very concerned about these types of crimes… I would urge people to look at the data,” he said. “The type of crimes that justify these registration laws are generally the outliers.”
Lee said all he can do is be as transparent as possible and hope people come around. His message to parents:
“Come have that conversation with me. I’m not uncomfortable with it,” he said.
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