Six Sayreville High School football players, all juveniles aged 15 to 17, were arrested and a seventh was expected to be taken into custody on Friday night in connection with the alleged sexual attacks upon four juvenile victims in four separate incidents inside the team’s locker room.
The arrests came just five days after Schools Superintendent Rich Labbe announced that the football team’s season had been canceled in response to the alleged assaults, a decision that brought national attention to the high school and polarized the working-class community as many players and their parents vehemently protested his decision.
Three of the players are charged with aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration upon one of the victims, according to Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey and Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski.
One of those players and the remaining four teammates were charged with various counts including aggravated assault, conspiracy, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hazing and riot by participating in the attack of the remaining victims, Carey and Zebrowski said.
“It’s rape,” Woodbridge-based attorney Ray Gill, who is scheduled to meet next week with the family of one of the victims, told MyCentralJersey.com of the allegations.
The complaints charge that on various dates between September 19 and September 29 one or more of the players either held the victims against their will, while others improperly touched the victims in a sexual manner.
It also is charged that in one instance, one of the victims was kicked during an attack.
Legal experts, including a former assistant county prosecutor and a former assistant district attorney, told MyCentralJersey.com that the juveniles could be tried as adults because aggravated sexual assault is a first-degree criminal offense. Some charged could face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Sayreville head football coach George Najjar was not criminally charged, nor were any of his assistant coaches, all of who would have been responsible for the supervision of their players inside the lockerroom.
“In the ensuing days, weeks, and months, we will come together as a school district and greater community to harness the strength required to support the young men who may have been victimized and then to begin the healing process for our beloved community,” Labbe said in a statement following the arrests.
“As should be evident by now, the Sayreville Board of Education takes this matter extremely seriously and thus will continue to make the safety and welfare of our students, particularly the victims of these horrendous alleged acts, our highest priority.”
Reached on his cell phone, Labbe declined to comment beyond his statement.
The six players are being detained by law enforcement pending a Family Court decision on whether the youths will be held at a detention facility, or will be released to the custody of their parents or guardians pending the hearing.
The seventh Sayreville player to be charged in the attacks, as of late Friday night, was still being sought, according to law enforcement officials.
Carey said identities of the players who have been charged are being withheld because all are minors. Under state law, complaints signed against juveniles are not public records and cannot be released.
According to NJ Advance Media, police were seen arriving at the homes of Sayreville senior team captains Myles Hartsfield, a star running back and safety who is committed to Penn State University, and Dylan Thillet, who played on the offensive and defensive lines. It is not known if either player was charged.
Thillet’s mother, Madeline, said during a contentious school board meeting on Tuesday night, during which dozens of players and their parents protested Labbe’s decision to shut down the football program, “I was at the police station with him when they were questioning him. They were talking about a butt being grabbed. That’s about it. No one was hurt. No one died. I don’t understand why they’re being punished.”
The defendants will be required to appear before a Superior Court Judge in Family Court, but the hearing date has not been determined. Juvenile hearings are not open to the public. No other court hearings have been scheduled.
Gov. Chris Christie earlier this week called the allegations surrounding the Sayreville football program “extraordinarily disturbing” and “a nightmare for the parents of those young men.”
A vigil to support the victims will be held 6 p.m. Sunday at Kennedy Park on Washington Road, located across the street from the high school. The event, which Maureen Jenkins of the borough’s Parlin section organized, is also designed to send an anti-bullying message and to show support for the district’s decision to put the safety of children ahead of football.
“Our community is so divided and broken and we don’t need that,” Jenkins said. “We need to come together.”
F. Clark Power, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Notre Dame who presents workshops on hazing nationally through his Play Like A Champion program, said he believes the victims could be psychologically scarred from the alleged abuse.
“People who have been abused often blame themselves or feel inadequate, so there are all kinds of outcomes with this sort of thing,” Power said. “You are talking about what is this child’s upbringing, where is the child in terms of his sexual identity, is this child at a point where he can get help to process this? This is a pretty serious thing.”
Labbe said earlier this week that the school district remains on stand-by with crisis counselors, guidance counselors, a school psychologist and an outside agency for any students that might need any form of counseling, whether they were victims or impacted in another way regarding the situation.
No other incidents of similar alleged sexual assault among New Jersey high school football players have been publicly reported since 1988, when players on the Lyndhurst team allegedly forced a sophomore to sodomize a teammate with his finger while dozens of upperclassmen gawked, according to published reports that said two upperclassmen were kicked off that squad but no coaches were disciplined.
“Let us hope as a result of this outrageous, unacceptable reprehensible situation that took place in Sayreville that we don’t need to legislate common sense that every coach, if they aren’t already aware, should be aware that supervision is needed in the locker room area,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, who chairs the Assembly’s Education Committee.
According to Matt Hammond, who was part of the Sayreville program for the 2003 season, the team’s coaching staff during his time there rarely supervised players in the locker room on practice or game days.
“I can count on two hands the number of times that George or any other assistant coaches were in the locker room,” he said. “Actually, I don’t remember another assistant coach being in the locker room for practices, games, everything. The only times that George or anyone was ever in the locker room — and it was only ever George — was for the vaguely religious pregame prayer.
Labbe will determine the employment status of Najjar and his staff, as well as what discipline may be imposed upon those Sayreville players that have been charged, once the school district completes its internal investigation into the allegations.
On Oct. 2, the locker room attacks first came to the attention of school officials, who announced at the time that Sayreville’s game for that night against South Brunswick had been postponed due to “serious unforeseen circumstances.”
During a press conference the following day, Labbe announced that Sayreville had forfeited to South Brunswick and that the team’s future would be determined on a “day-to-day” basis because law enforcement was investigating allegations of a “significant and serious nature.”
On Monday, following a two-hour meeting with parents in the high school cafeteria, Labbe announced during another press conference that the team’s season had been canceled.
“We are standing up and making a statement here that we are not tolerating that behavior by any of our student-athletes, and that we take their safety and welfare first and foremost into consideration and that everyone on that team has a responsibility to stand up and protect one another, and that was not done,” Labbe said at the time.
“We need our kids to stop being bystanders and start being upstanders and to report it when someone is harassing, intimidating and bullying one of their peers. We are standing up together as a Board of Education and as a district in saying no to bullying in Sayreville, and we are inviting others to join us in our stance.”
NJ Advance Media’s Matt Stanmyre, citing information from the parent of one of the victims who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported earlier this week in graphic detail how the locker room assaults took place.
“It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off,” Stanmyre reported. “In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker-room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.”
One of the state’s most successful public school programs, Sayreville won New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association championships three of the past four years, but will see its streak of 18 consecutive postseason appearances come to an end this season.
Najjar, who has compiled a 162-49 record at Sayreville, previously coached at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School, where several of his former players, according to a NJ Advance Media report, “recounted initiation rituals during preseason camp that included Animal House-style paddling of underclassmen by upperclassmen.”
One player said Najjar put a stop to the paddling when he became aware of the activity and school officials, including alumni director Fred Newman, who worked at Lincoln during Najjar’s tenure (1983-94), said they were unaware of any impropriety.
On Oct. 2, the same day Sayreville postponed its game against South Brunswick, defensive coordinator Charlie Garcia was arrested for possession of steroids. His arrest was not related to the game’s postponement.
News of the players being arrested on Friday came on the same night that Sayreville was scheduled to play its homecoming game against Monroe.
Penn State University coach James Franklin, whose school has offered Hartsfield a full scholarship, said during a press conference earlier this week that he is monitoring the Sayreville situation closely. Among the state’s best players, Hartsfield has 3,792 all-purpose yards, 88 tackles, seven interceptions and 49 touchdowns for his career.
“We do have a young man that’s committed to us from that school,” Franklin said shortly before Stanmyre told in graphic detail how Sayreville upperclassmen allegedly sexually assaulted freshmen teammates inside the locker room.
Under NCAA rules, coaches are precluded from talking specifically about a player until he has signed a National Letter of Intent.
“You guys know just as much as we do at this point,” Franklin said. “We are waiting to hear.”