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
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced Wednesday his office won’t file charges against school administrators in connection with the Hamilton High School hazing investigation.
Montgomery said at a press conference that witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the sexual assaults, which are suspected of taking place among high-school football players, didn’t cooperate with investigators.
Because his office couldn’t get those witnesses to give statements to help gather evidence, he couldn’t file charges against the three adults, who Chandler police have said knew of the sex assaults or other players, he said. Police had sought the charges as part of their investigation.
“I know there are more victims, I know there are more witnesses, I know there were players who were abused,” Montgomery said. “And without the cooperation of those who have the information, we can’t do anything else.”
Case rocked Chandler football program
When the allegations first came to light nearly a year ago, the case sent shock waves through the school and rocked a football program that has been among the state’s most successful over the past 15 years.
In October, after at least five victims had come forward, Montgomery made a public plea for more witnesses, but none came forward, he said on Wednesday.
Three teen football players were charged. The cases of two 16-year-old boys have been resolved in August and January, but because they were prosecuted as minors, their cases have been sealed.
The third case involved Nathaniel Thomas, who was 17 when arrested but charged as an adult in the case, which is pending in Maricopa County Superior Court. He could enter into a plea agreement after a settlement conference hearing scheduled for Feb. 21.
In July, Chandler police, which investigated the case, had recommended charging Principal Ken James, Athletic Director Shawn Rustad and former head football coach Steve Belles with child abuse and failing to report the alleged sexual abuse of five players suspected of being assaulted by fellow teammates in a hazing initiation.
Police alleged the three school officials knew about the allegations, but did not report them to authorities as required by law, instead opting to handle the matter in-house. Police suggested that had school officials come forward, it might have prevented further attacks, which police said involved older players preying on younger students in the program.
Montgomery said it’s possible those school officials may have violated the state’s mandatory reporting laws. But in order to hold them accountable, his office had to get the statements from more victims and cooperation from witnesses who knew about the sex assaults, he said.
However, Corwin Townsend, a Phoenix attorney not involved in the case, questioned Montgomery’s analysis of the state’s mandatory reporting laws.
Townsend said if Montgomery has evidence school administrators knew about the sex assault cases within the football program, the county attorney could still charge them with failing to report the assaults.
He said the adults have a duty to report child abuse or sex abuse to the police and it’s not up to them to decide how strong a case is for the prosecutor.
“This is what you present to a jury: Here’s what they knew and here’s when they knew it and they failed to report it,” Townsend said. “If the underlying case falls apart, that has nothing to do with the school administrators’ duty to report.”
Montogomery’s announcement was used by Thomas’ lawyer, Cindy Castillo, to defend her client, saying this underscores her argument that the county attorney rushed to file charges against the teen.
“On numerous occasions, Mr. Montgomery stated that they just did not have evidence to go forward with charges against additional people involved,” she said in a statement. “This statement was not surprising. The failure to find any ‘additional victims’ despite numerous pleas by law enforcement and the County Attorney’s Office demonstrates that there was a rush to judgment to charge Mr. Thomas before the investigation was complete.”
Montgomery said that it’s possible some parents didn’t come forward because some football players were worried about how their involvement in a criminal case could negatively affect their potential football careers at the college level or professionally.
But Castillo disputed that.
“What’s more is that the evidence actually suggests that many of the players involved were both victims and perpetrators,” she said. “I’d offer to you that this may be the reason for players not wanting to come forward, not because their parents are preventing them from doing so.”
The statute of limitations runs out in seven years, Montgomery said, so it’s possible that charges could be filed in the future if witnesses come forward.
He said that if anyone decides to come forward later, they won’t face repercussions for waiting.
“We’re not walking away from this,” he said. “Chandler Police Department will continue to take information as it comes in. My office will review the case as often as necessary to see if and when we can move forward with a criminal prosecution.”
Detective Seth Tyler, a spokesman for the Chandler Police Department, said additional victims and witnesses can still give statements to police investigators.
“We are committed to diligently investigating any additional leads in this case as they become available,” Tyler said. “We continue to encourage potential victims, witnesses, and their parents to come forward with any additional information pertaining to the Hamilton High School case.”
Repeated attacks reported
According to a police report, administrators knew of multiple allegations of sexual assault involving the Chandler school’s football players and repeatedly failed to notify authorities.
“Had these offenses been properly reported it is possible that many of the sexual assaults would not have occurred,” Amanda Janssen, the Chandler Police Department’s lead investigator on the case, wrote in a report.
Police recovered a white binder from James’ office that included items “all related to the investigation,” according to documents that were part of the police report.
The items recovered through that search warrant included handwritten notes alluding to multiple instances of coaches and administrators trying to internally address alleged hazing incidents.
The notes mention “Rape Squad” and say that “incidents have been going on for years and (football coach Steve) Belles is aware,” according to documents.
Police and court records also say that Rustad had a meeting with a victim who told the athletic director about teammates holding him down and pulling his shorts down. Rustad later told the victim’s parents the details, records say.
Belles, who led Hamilton to five state football championships, was removed from his coaching duties and has spent this school year on administrative duties at the Chandler Unified School District, as the investigation continued.
“I always thought that this would be the result because I didn’t think we did anything wrong,” Belles said on Wednesday. “I’m very happy about the outcome without question.”
Terry Locke, a spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District, said James, Rustad and Belles remain reassigned at the district office.
Belles said he wouldn’t be returning next year.
Locke said, “No determination on a return to campus for Ken James or Shawn Rustad has been made.”
James and Rustad did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Camille Casteel, the Chandler Unified School District superintendent, said in a letter to parents that school officials will focus their time and resources to move the high school forward and create a safe environment for the high school students.
“Please know that we recognize that students, parents, staff and the community at large have been affected by the events that have occurred,” the letter says. “You should be proud to know that the HHS staff members continue to excel at their profession and the students continue to achieve at the top of every category when compared to other high schools in the state and nation.”
The letter also details some changes and training the school will do. For example, the school remodeled the facility’s locker rooms so staff can help supervise the students.
The district has also increased training material for students, athletic staff and parents on preventing bullying and hazing, as well as allowing the county attorney’s office to provide training to administrators, faculty and coaches on reporting requirements.
At least six families of alleged victims have filed claims with the school district. The total being sought by all of the families is $44 million.
Ex-Hamilton High School coach Steve Belles talked with Brad Cesmat about hazing, the criminal investigation and his future in coaching.
Read or Share this story: http://azc.cc/2oaiz6X