Judge in Ooltewah teammate rape case says he closed the trial to protect juvenile defendants

The exterior of Ooltewah High School photographed on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Staff file photo by Maura Friedman)

The Sevier County Judge hearing the case of the three former Ooltewah High School basketball players charged with raping a freshman teammate in December, released his reasoning for keeping the courtroom closed to the public.

"The hearing in this matter involves juvenile defendants who have been charged with some of the most serious crimes set forth in Tennessee law, notably Aggravated Rape," Sevier County Judge Jeff Rader wrote. "Should the defendant juveniles prevail in this hearing, the public availability of the content of the hearing could result in irreparable harm to the juvenile defendants."

Rader issued this order today in response to the Times Free Press' third written request to be allowed into the courtroom.

Rader originally denied the first two requests with little explanation, just saying that two defendants in the case objected to the media being present for the hearing.

Under Tennessee law, a judge in a case like this has full-discretion whether or not to open the courtroom. But the judge must provide reasoning why public access to the hearing would result in "particularized prejudice," if they prevent the media or public from attending.

The judge must also consider reasonable alternatives to closing the hearing, and make adequate written findings to support the closure, according to the law.

In his response, Rader said there is "no reasonably alternative" to opening the courtroom, citing the need to protect both the victims' and the defendants' identities.

Rader also notes the pending charges in Hamilton County Criminal Court against Gatlinburg Police Detective Rodney Burns and former Ooltewah High School basketball head coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery as a reason to close the courtroom. He says since Burns and Montgomery cannot testify due to the pending charges, police investigative records and Department of Children's Services records, which are confidential, will be used instead.

Two of the defendants in this case were 16 at the time of the assault, and the other was 17, and all three were charged in December with aggravated rape and aggravated assault in Sevier County. The rape took place at a cabin in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the team stayed just days before Christmas, while playing in a basketball tournament.

The then 17-year-old turned 18 while in custody early this year, but Sevier County Juvenile Court Judge Dwight Stokes decided in March not to transfer the defendant to adult court where he would face much steeper penalties. He said the Juvenile Court system was better equipped to rehabilitate all three boys.

During this hearing, Stokes allowed the public and media into the courtroom, and ordered that the names of the victims, defendants or their families not be used.

Rader is now handling the case.

Three other Ooltewah High School freshman were also assaulted during the trip, though their injuries were not as severe as the main victim, who was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, according to court records and testimony.

Three of the four victims are here today and went into the courtroom to testify.

At least one of the defendants also testified today, according to someone inside the courtroom.

According to a report released earlier this month, a culture of bullying and hazing existed on the Ooltewah High School boy's basketball team for months, maybe even years, before the trip to Gatlinburg. The coaches also knew that "excessive horseplay" was taking place on the team, according to a private attorney who conducted the investigation on behalf of the Hamilton County Board of Education.

Stay with the Times Free Press for new details in this developing story.