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Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announces that there will be no charges for Hamilton High staff in a football hazing case that rocked the school community. David Wallace/The Republic

Five former Hamilton High School football players and their parents filed a civil lawsuit against school officials, former teammates and their parents, claiming some in the football program failed to report sexual abuse committed by other players to police.

The lawsuit, which is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, was filed in federal court on behalf of the former students and their parents by attorney Daniel Raynak. 

The claim, dated May 16, comes three months after Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced he would not file charges against any of the school administrators, even after police had said there was evidence people reported to staff that some football players were sexually abused.

Chandler police had recommended three school administrators be charged with child abuse in connection to the hazing incidents.

Montgomery said at a press conference in February that he would not file charges against former Principal Ken James, former Athletic Director Shawn Rustad and former head football coach Steve Belles because there were not enough victims that came forward to make a strong case against school administrators. If more victims came forward, he could reopen the case, Montgomery said at the time.

Meanwhile, the county attorney filed charges against Nathaniel Thomas, 17, and two other unidentified minors in connection to the alleged sexual abuse.

Civil vs. criminal trial

Thomas’ case is still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court, where he is being prosecuted as an adult. But the two other cases, which have been adjudicated, are sealed; a judge denied The Arizona Republic’s request to view the outcome of those cases.

Raynak declined further comment Wednesday because he said he wants to focus on the civil lawsuit, which asks for a jury trial.

Still, the civil lawsuit could provide a platform for the five former players and students, who cooperated with Chandler police and the County Attorney’s Office, to have their stories be heard in court.

Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for the County Attorney’s Office, said there is nothing new in the case but added that a criminal investigation has a higher standard of proof than a civil trial.

“It is important to remember that the evidence needed for law enforcement to submit a case for review for charging does not necessarily mean it is sufficient to establish a reasonable likelihood of conviction and to charge someone,” Jacinto said in an email. “Also, the civil standard of proof, mere preponderance of the evidence, is much different than beyond a reasonable doubt for a criminal case.”

Reports of abuse detailed

The lawsuit says that James, Rustad and Belles conspired to not report the sexual abuse reports to police, did nothing to stop further abuse, didn’t punish the abusers and didn’t protect the victims.

The abuse, according to the lawsuit, happened between the school years of 2015 to 2017 by other players identified in the lawsuit as John Does.

The lawsuit also names Rustad’s and Belles’ wives; former assistant coach Manuel Palomarez and his wife; the Chandler Unified School District and Hamilton High School. 

Among the claims the lawsuit makes is that Palomarez, who is a current Hamilton school teacher, “admitted to law enforcement that he was aware of allegations of sexual attacks of the type described above by members of his football team as early as May 2016.”

It also says Belles “told his players not to ‘do sexual things to each other’.”

According to the lawsuit, Rustad received an anonymous voicemail message from someone who made allegations of sexual attacks against football players. But Rustad didn’t report this voicemail to police, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also detailed at least five instances in which players say they were sexually assaulted and sexually abused. In one case in January 2017, Palomarez walked into a locker room when players tried to sexually assault a teammate while someone recorded some of the attack and uploaded it to a social-media site, the lawsuit says.

MORE: Hamilton High officials linked to sex abuse scandal will stay with district

The suit also says the five teens have suffered severe emotional distress, shock, horror and psychological trauma, as well as sleepless nights, nausea and headaches as a result.

Terry Locke, a spokesman for the school district, said in an email: “We don’t comment in cases of pending litigation.” 

Steve Weiss, a lawyer for James who represented him in the criminal investigation, said he has not seen a copy of the lawsuit and would refrain from commenting until he has reviewed it. 

“I’m going to obtain a copy of the lawsuit and discuss it with my client,” he said.

Dennis Wilenchik, a lawyer who represented Belles in the criminal investigation, said that his client hasn’t done anything wrong and expects the lawsuit would be unsuccessful. 

“We’ve dealt with those issues in the criminal matter and (Maricopa County Attorney) Bill Montgomery declined to file charges,” Wilenchik said. “I doubt there’s any legs to it at all, and I don’t know of any facts that (Belles) did anything wrong. I don’t think they have a case.”

As of September 2017, there were five notices of claim by six students’ families seeking a total of $44 million from the Chandler Unified School District. A notice of claim typically is a precursor to a lawsuit against a government entity.

Raynak said he is representing five  of the students and their families. 

Reach the reporter at uriel.garcia@azcentral.com or on Twitter: @ujohnnyg.

 

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