SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — Parents of victims wiped tears from their faces Tuesday afternoon as a Sevier County judge announced that the former Ooltewah High School senior who allegedly assaulted their sons would be tried as a juvenile.
Just hours before the announcement, three former Ooltewah freshmen took the stand and testified about being assaulted by their former basketball teammate, who sat before them in an orange jumpsuit. One 15-year-old told the packed courtroom he was held down by two teammates while the defendant penetrated him with a pool cue, rupturing his bladder, despite his screams to stop.
The now-18-year-old defendant faces charges of aggravated rape and aggravated assault in the incident. He will not be transferred to adult court, where he would have faced much steeper penalties.
The defendant was 17 on Dec. 22 when he allegedly committed the crime. Sevier County Juvenile Court Judge Dwight Stokes ruled Tuesday that the juvenile system has adequate time and resources to reform him before he turns 19, in about 10 months.
"Outcomes are poor for young people in adult court," Stokes told the courtroom. "The likelihood of adult court being anything but negative to this defendant is a done deal."
Stokes said testimony put on by the defense showed the defendant is remorseful for what he did, adding that the 18-year-old does not have a criminal record. A psychological evaluation found the defendant to be of sound mind and at a "very low risk" of committing another sexual offense, which contributed to the decision, Stokes said, adding that counseling or therapy could be helpful.
Stokes said he thinks it is best for the defendant and the community if the case remains in the juvenile system where the court is designed to reform and not punish.
Looking at the three alleged victims sitting in the back of the courtroom, Stokes said he is proud of them for moving forward despite what happened and they should "bounce back with the proper support."
After the hearing, moms of the teens said they were outraged by the ruling.
"I'm disgusted they're going to leave this in juvenile court, considering [the defendant's] age and what he has done," one mom said.
The alleged victims and their family members will not be named by the Times Free Press to protect their identities.
Another mom said she is proud of her son for giving his testimony but said he was taught the wrong lesson by the judge about standing up.
"This is why people don't tell," she said. "They don't tell because nothing is going to happen if they do."
Several members of the defendant's family declined comment after the hearing. Stokes said a bond hearing and trial will be scheduled.
During Tuesday's hearing, Assistant District Attorney Rolfe Straussfogel called the rape of the boy, which occurred in a cabin during the basketball team's trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., an "aggressive premeditated attack that resulted in horrific injuries."
Straussfogel said the 15-year-old victim was raped, and rape had nothing to do with sexual gratification.
"Rape usually has little to do about sex, it's about control," he said. "This was about domination. It was about establishing control."
Straussfogel argued there is not enough time to reform the defendant, arguing his actions were premeditated when he raped the 15-year-old because he had already had two "practice runs" when he assaulted the other two boys with a pool cue the day before.
The boys all said things were fine on the basketball team at the beginning of the season until the defendant and two others joined after their football season ended.
The victims said once the defendant joined the team "freshman racks" began, where the boys would be beaten and punched in the locker room. The behavior escalated once the team arrived in Gatlinburg, just days before Christmas, the boys said.
When questioned why they didn't tell their coaches about the pool cue attacks, the victims said they were embarrassed and feared retaliation.
The boy who was raped said he and two of his freshman teammates hid in the bathroom for 15 to 20 minutes from the older boys. And at one point, they slept with their bedroom door locked in the cabin because they were afraid of them.
The victim remained composed on the stand as he talked about the attack and the following days in the hospital. He said his stomach still hurts at times, but he has mostly healed.
After his testimony his mother took the stand and told the judge how worried she was as she drove to Knoxville to be at the hospital when her son woke up from emergency surgery to repair his ruptured bladder and torn rectum. She also talked about the weeks following his release from the hospital and how she had to provide her son with around-the-clock care.
She said her son is going to therapy and continued doctor's appointments, and he doesn't want to be a victim. However, his manhood was attacked and he is embarrassed, she said.
"Mentally, he doesn't want to be a victim," she testified. "He's trying to be like he's not hurt, but he's hurt."
The defendant's attorney, Jeff Stern, said the hazing "was just meant to be a welcoming of sorts."
Stern called what happened in Gatlinburg an accident, saying it was "unfortunate."
He said that, since the incident, his client has cooperated with the investigation and is remorseful for how his actions hurt the victims, his family and Ooltewah High School.
The defense called several witnesses to talk about the defendant's character. An aunt, a family friend, the defendant's girlfriend's mother and a pastor he met since being in detention all said they didn't believe it was the defendant's intent to cause harm, saying it wasn't in his character and was a one-time incident.
Scott Carter, a youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Sevierville, said he met the defendant during a service they did at the detention center and they have talked several times. He said the defendant told him Thursday what he had done.
"He has a lot of remorse and a lot of hurt," Carter said. "He's been a gentleman in every respect."
Gatlinburg Police Detective Rodney Burns also took the stand Tuesday, and his testimony was cited frequently in Stokes' decision not to transfer the defendant to adult court.
Burns recounted his investigation and testified that the defendant was helpful during his investigation. He said the defendant told him his hand slipped on the pool cue, which caused it to penetrate the victim more severely than the other freshmen.
When questioned by Stern, Burns said the boy's injuries were different than he originally recorded.
Burns had previously written in a petition that the boy's colon and prostate were ruptured along with his bladder, but he later learned just his bladder was penetrated, he said. He also said a tip of the pool cue did not break off inside the boy, it was a piece of his shorts found inside of him, and that doctors gave him incorrect information.
Burns' testimony Tuesday was more reserved than his previous testimony in Hamilton County Juvenile Court in the preliminary hearing of the three adults charged in connection with this case for failing to report abuse or suspected sexual abuse to the proper authorities in Hamilton County.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston accused Burns of downplaying what happened to the boy who was raped during that testimony, as Burns said the boy wasn't raped because the defendants did not receive sexual gratification from the act.
After that testimony, Pinkston asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into Burns for perjury, as Pinkston said Burns' testimony on the stand differed from his previous reports. Burns has since filed a lawsuit against Pinkston for defamation.
The cases of the two other boys charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault in connection with this case — both 16 and said to have held the victim down during the alleged rape — also remain in juvenile court.
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.