Two former Sevier County (Tenn.) High School basketball players are fighting to re-enroll and rejoin the team after the dismissal of aggravated rape charges filed against them amid controversy over a violent hazing by members of another basketball team.
Attorneys Patrick Looper and Patrick Slaughter have filed legal action in U.S. District Court on behalf of two high school juniors who were charged with aggravated rape last year in what court records suggest was an act of horseplay against another SCHS male student that netted the alleged victim no serious injuries.
The charges came as another rape case involving high school basketball players from Ooltewah, Tenn., was garnering headlines across the nation. The charges were quietly dropped just three months after the SCHS players were kicked out of school and off the team.
The details of the incident between the SCHS players and the alleged victim, who is not identified in any pleadings, remain largely hidden. But a transcript filed in the federal case shows the special judge who presided over the players’ case concluded it was horseplay run amok.
“I don’t think there was any malice intent … you all had suffered for the bad choice that was made,” Special Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. said as he approved the dismissal of the rape charges. “All three (players) and the victim are from good families and this was not indicative of your behavior on a daily basis.”
That transcript shows Sevier County prosecutor Rolfe Straussfogel and Brian Delius, who was representing the two boys in the criminal case, appeared before Bailey in December and announced the charges were being dropped. That proceeding – of which the public was not advised – was one month before an official hearing had been set that, under state law, should have been open to the public because of the nature of the charges. Straussfogel has since said in a sworn deposition that the alleged victim “wanted the case over.”
He made no such statement at the secret December hearing. Bailey acknowledged the presence of the alleged victim and his parents at the hearing and lauded them for being cooperative with the state.
Part of the deal, though, was that the boys would agree to stay away from the alleged victim and to walk away from their studies and team at SCHS, the transcript showed. The Sevier County Board of Education had agreed to allow the boys to enroll at one of the county’s other high schools.
Bailey later ordered all records in the case expunged – a legal scrubbing authorized under the law in certain situations. The players, through their parents, then sought to re-enroll at SCHS, where the victim was still a student.
School officials refused the request. Attorneys Looper and Slaughter filed the federal action against the Sevier County Board of Education and Superintendent Jack Parton in February to force the system to let the boys back in school and on the SCHS team.
As soon as prosecutor Straussfogel heard about the lawsuit, court records show, he told Looper he wanted a signed restraining order barring the boys from reenrolling at SCHS.
Attorneys Looper and Slaughter contend Straussfogel threatened to reinstate the charges if the parents didn’t sign the restraining order, so they did. The pair argued Straussfogel did so at the behest of Sevier County’s school administrators. They filed a copy of a letter in which Straussfogel said he was no longer planning to reinstate the charges since the parents signed the restraining order.
“Plaintiffs contend that the District Attorneys’ Office did indeed secure Plaintiffs’ signatures,” a motion stated. “However, these signatures were obtained by threat of criminal prosecution against their minor Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs contend that the threat of criminal prosecution by the District Attorney was designed to create a chilling effect and thwart the advancement of their civil suit against the Defendants.”
Attorney Chris McCarty, who represents the school system, fired back that the boys and their parents were trying to have their “cake and eat it, too” – agreeing not to re-enroll at SCHS as part of the dismissal of the charges against them and then suing to re-enroll. He and Straussfogel denied the prosecutor colluded with the school system.
“It is clear from the facts and evidence before this court that (prosecutor) Straussfogel has no interest in this lawsuit,” McCarty wrote. “Straussfogel testified his intent in potentially re-filing the criminal charges was solely motivated by the need to memorialize the original agreement.”
Senior Judge Leon Jordan has already held one hearing and has set another one in May. McCarty tried to persuade Jordan to hide records about the juvenile case from the public and to hold hearings in secret, according to federal court records. Jordan refused.