published Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Calhoun suspect in sex assault case loses his scholarship

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    Damon Johnson (who goes by Avery Johnson) is a suspect in the alleged Gilmer County sexual assault of young woman.

Three weeks before police say he sexually abused another student, Damon Avery Johnson attended a ceremony dedicated to his future college baseball career.

Johnson signed a letter of intent at that April 21 celebration alongside other high school seniors committed to playing at Georgia Highlands College next year. But when the Chargers take the field come spring, Johnson will not be among them.

On May 28, the day the Gilmer County Sheriff's Office charged Johnson with aggravated sexual battery and underage possession of alcohol, Johnson got a call from Georgia Highlands coach Mike Marra. The coach told Johnson he had broken a school policy: Prospective athletes cannot come to Georgia Highlands if they are charged with a crime.

Johnson agreed to be released from his letter of intent, which is an agreement between a school and an athlete to give that athlete a scholarship. If Johnson had not agreed to be released, school officials would have asked members of the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Junior College Athletic Association to allow the school to end the agreement without Johnson's permission.

The sheriff's office has accused Johnson, Fields Benjamin Chapman and Andrew Isaac Haynes of sexually abusing a female Calhoun High School student on May 10-11 during a post-prom party at a secluded Ellijay, Ga., cabin. Investigators say the men penetrated the victim with a foreign object against her will, "causing tearing and severe trauma."

On Wednesday, Georgia Highlands Chief Advancement Officer Raymond Carnley said Johnson knew about the policy before signing a letter of intent to play at Georgia Highlands. Johnson, who received Calhoun High's "most mischievous" senior superlative, still could attend Georgia Highlands as a regular student, but Carnley said he has not yet submitted an application.

If he is later exonerated, Georgia Highlands could offer him the baseball scholarship again.

"That's not a guarantee," Carnley said. "But he would be eligible."

All three men arrested on May 28 were athletes at Calhoun High School. Chapman and Haynes played quarterback and wide receiver for the powerhouse Yellow Jackets football team, which has competed in the state championship in five of the past six years.

In the weeks between the prom and the arrests of Chapman, Johnson and Haynes, a group began to protest in Calhoun. The group's leaders said all three men came from well-connected families who could try to influence investigators.

The protesters also said the suspects' high school athletic careers might have dissuaded police from investigating them in this small city of 15,000 people.

"The school did try to keep it quiet because they were athletes and very-well-known students," said Dakota Mashburn, one of the protesters. "They tried to keep it quiet because it would hurt the reputation of the Calhoun school system. We didn't want the school to avoid this matter because they were athletes."

Another local athlete with an athletic scholarship is involved in the sexual battery investigation. Rhett Harper, the Southeast Whitfield County High School valedictorian, has signed a letter of intent to play next season at Georgia State University.

Harper's attorney, Sam Sanders, has said his client is not being investigated for sexual assault. However, Gilmer County Sheriff Stacy Nicholson said two weeks ago that Harper still could face charges.

Jerry Trickie, spokesman for the Georgia State athletic department, said the school has not decided whether to take action against Harper. Coaches and officials are keeping track of news related to the investigation, he said.

If high school students are arrested after signing a letter of intent with Georgia State, school officials decide whether to take away their scholarships, Trickie said.

Capt. Frank Copeland, spokesman for the sheriff's office, did not return multiple calls Wednesday, though he said last week that investigators are awaiting results from forensic evidence they sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab. That evidence could lead to an additional rape charge against Chapman, Johnson or Haynes, Nicholson said two weeks ago.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee will seek indictments against Chapman, Johnson and Haynes. She did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, but the Gilmer County Grand Jury is scheduled to meet again June 30.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jet at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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