published Thursday, May 29th, 2014

3 charged: Sheriff says others knew of assault at after-prom party, didn’t stop it

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    Gilmer County Sheriff Stacy Nicholson speaks at a news conference about the arrest of three men on sexual battery and aggravated sexual battery charges following an incident after the Calhoun High School prom. Standing with him are detectives Kirk Champion and Scott Camp.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Fields Chapman is a suspect in the alleged Gilmer County sexual assault of young woman.

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    Andrew Haynes is a suspect in the alleged Gilmer County sexual assault of young woman.

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

ELLIJAY, Ga. — The high school party grew too big, too out of control in this small Northwest Georgia town.

Parents thought only about a half dozen girls would go to an Ellijay cabin after Calhoun High School's prom the night of May 10. But word got out.

"It spreads," Gilmer County Sheriff Stacy Nicholson said. "And the next thing you know, 27 underage kids are at a party, drinking."

Nobody was older than 20, but the students brought gallons of liquor and cases of beer. Some drank for five hours. At one point, Nicholson said, four men ended up in a bedroom with an 18-year-old woman.

Police say three of those men sexually battered the woman. They allegedly inserted a foreign object into her against her will, "causing tearing and severe trauma." The role of the fourth man is unclear. Though other students were aware of what was happening, no one tried to stop it, the sheriff said.

More than two weeks after the party, the Gilmer County Sheriff's Office arrested the three 18-year-old men accused of hurting the woman: Fields Benjamin Chapman, of 609 Shenandoah Drive, and Andrew Isaac Haynes, of 263 Thornwood Drive, both of Calhoun; and Damon Avery Johnson, of 1108 Sunset Drive in Dalton, Ga.

All three men turned themselves in at the Gilmer County Jail on Wednesday morning on charges of aggravated sexual battery and underage possession of alcohol. All three later left the jail on bonds of $51,000.

"Teenagers and alcohol just do not mix," Nicholson said Wednesday. "Nothing good can come out of it. It's not just a little innocent fun."

Like the party itself, Nicholson said, the criminal charges start with a small group and will spread. Investigators interviewed every person who attended the party, and Nicholson said they will arrest those who drank alcohol.

The three men arrested Wednesday may also face another serious charge: rape. They were arrested for sexual battery, meaning they allegedly penetrated the victim with a foreign object. Nicholson said investigators don't yet have proof about whether the men also had sex with the victim; they are waiting for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to analyze forensic evidence.

The sheriff's office began investigating the case on May 11. After riding home with other people from the party, the victim went to the hospital with her family. There, she told investigators that she had been raped by multiple men and passed out in a bathroom.

Within days, rumors about the events at the party began to circulate on Facebook and Twitter. In this town of about 15,000 people, those tales spread fast, to the point where they became common knowledge, even if they weren't true.

The suspects wouldn't be arrested, some said. All three men played sports at Calhoun High. Chapman was a quarterback and Haynes was a wide receiver for the Yellowjackets' powerhouse football program -- state champs in 2011, state finalists four of the other five years since 2008.

Johnson, meanwhile, was an infielder and pitcher on the baseball team, and he committed to play ball at Georgia Highlands College next year.

Eventually, the rumors about the case turned to threats, and Calhoun City Schools banned the three students from attending their graduation last Friday because their presence "would likely cause a substantial disruption."

Brent Davis, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, has lived in Calhoun for almost his entire life. And in those 45 years, he said, he has never seen an event consume his town like this one has.

"Ninety-nine percent of conversations are about this," he said. "You can't go five minutes without hearing about it."

On Wednesday night, Heritage Baptist Church hosted an event for citizens who wanted to pray for their city. Davis said he doesn't want to choose sides. He just wants the gossip to stop.

"It's a generational town," he said of Calhoun. "People are here, and their kids are here, and their grandkids are here. ... As small as this town is, you can start a rumor and it will be across town in 30 minutes."

On Wednesday, attorneys for two of the defendants said their clients should not have had to go to jail.

"This was a situation of poor judgment by 25 people," said Steve Williams, Haynes' attorney, "but no crime occurred."

WHAT IS AGGRAVATED SEXUAL BATTERY?

A person commits aggravated sexual battery by intentionally using a foreign object — any article or instrument other their own sexual organ— to penetrate another person without consent.

Rape, by contrast, is committed when when a man forcibly uses a male sex organ to penetrate the female forcibly and against her will.

The prison sentence for a aggravated sexual battery conviction can be up to 25 years.

Source: Georgia Code Annotated

He and attorney Jesse Vaughn, who is representing Johnson, said the firestorm of rumors on the Internet have only propagated untruths about what happened that night.

"[Johnson] will have his opportunity to give his positions in court, and we look forward to that day," Vaughn said. "We do not believe he has committed any crime. The sheriff's department will say what they want to say, but we will have our side as well."

Williams said the amount of alcohol consumed at the party creates doubt about the statements others in attendance since have given to the sheriff's office.

"Everyone in that building -- from top to bottom, front to back -- was intoxicated," Williams said. "Twenty-five different people have 25 stories about what happened."

Williams said that "anything Andrew knows about or saw was consensual," and he said that Haynes left the room when "consensual" acts were going on.

On the morning after the party, Williams said, the victim asked Haynes for a ride back to Calhoun. He said Haynes did not know of any injuries suffered by the young woman.

"These allegations are terrible," Williams said. "I wish it could have been handled a different way, but it's not. Their lives are changed forever."

Staff writer Kate Harrison contributed to this story.

Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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