Five former high school football players from Milton, Vermont denied allegations they assaulted their younger teammates in 2011 and 2012.
Ryan Carlson, 20, Brandon Beliveau, 20, Brian Lasell, 19, William Jenkins, 18, and Colby Darling, 18, were cited into court in Burlington on simple assault charges. Lawyers for each of the men entered not guilty pleas on their behalf.
The former high school players allegedly participated in sodomizing younger players, or attempting to sodomize them over the clothes, with broomsticks or pool cues, according to investigators' paperwork filed with the court. The alleged assaults happened both on and off school grounds, and in some cases, the alleged victims were held down, the police documents said.
"I think it's fair to say this was a culture that existed within the Milton football team," Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan told reporters after the arraignments Tuesday. "We're not going to minimize this by saying, 'This is what happens in locker rooms.' The fact of the matter is that this stuff severely damages young people."
The alleged assaults were not fully disclosed until this spring, Donovan said, after taunting on the school bus led a parent to call Vermont's Department for Children and Families, which referred the case to the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations. That unit, known as CUSI, investigates sex crimes and crimes involving young victims.
Donovan noted that while the simple assault charges filed against Carlson, Beliveau, Lasell, Jenkins, and Darling were misdemeanors, he could have filed more serious felony charges. Donovan explained the young age of the suspects at the time of the alleged assaults and the amount of time that has passed since the alleged assaults occurred were part of his decision to go with misdemeanor charges.
The CUSI paperwork said there were several alleged victims in this case, and indicate that one young man, identified as Victim No. 4, took his own life. Investigators described in the court documents that Victim No. 4 was very distraught over the broomstick incident, but did not directly say if it contributed to the suicide, which occurred quite a bit after the alleged assaults.
Another of the alleged victims, identified as Victim No. 1, theorized in a police interview that treatment by other members of the football team did contribute to Victim No. 4's suicide, the CUSI paperwork showed.
"It may not be the physical harm; it is the emotional harm that destroys kids' lives," Donovan said.
John Barone, the superintendent of schools for the Milton, Vermont School District, told reporters that school officials take the allegations very seriously. He added that school officials were unaware of the disturbing nature of the allegations until Tuesday's court hearing, after which investigative documents were made public.
He acknowledged that some school officials had looked into rumblings about misbehavior among some members of the football team, but they were unaware of the seriousness of the alleged repeated jabbing surprise assaults described in the police documents.
"It's regretful that athletes, former athletes, for the Milton town school district chose to act the way that they did," Barone said. "We will make sure that students are supervised and that students, to the best of our ability, are safe."
In response to a question by New England Cable News, Barone said canceling this fall's football season is not off the table, pending the results of further investigations and discussions with other school officials, police, and the state's attorney's office.
"I don't want to have to go to that level," Barone told NECN. "But as we do our own investigation, if I find out that this is a widespread practice and this is a common practice, then I would have no problem canceling not only football, but any sports where this type of behavior was prevalent."
Donovan said the case should focus communities' attention on the culture around youth sports, to try to avoid a repeat of this in the future. "We have to make sure that this doesn't happen to any other kid in any other school on any other team in the state of Vermont," Donovan said.
Simple assault charges bring the possibility of a year in prison or a $1,000 fine or both, court paperwork showed. Donovan indicated that the investigation is ongoing, so if additional victims are identified, or if more assaults are brought to his attention, he may bring additional charges, or charge additional suspects.