Mothers of Ooltewah assault victims upset over judge's decision - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Mothers of Ooltewah assault victims upset over judge's decision

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SEVIERVILLE, TN (WRCB) -

The story below contains graphic testimony from Tuesday's hearing and may not be suitable for some viewers.

A Sevier County judge decided one of the Ooltewah High School basketball players charged with aggravated rape and assault of a teammate will stay in juvenile court to face his charges.

The primary suspect, a senior basketball player, was brought into the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. The suspect was 17 during the December trip to Gatlinburg, but has since turned 18 while in juvenile custody. His lawyer, Jeff Stern from Sevierville, said he has been in the Sevier County Juvenile Detention facility since his December arrest and has not asked for bond.

Channel 3 is not using the names of any suspects or victims, or the names of their family members, to protect their identity. No cameras or phones were allowed in the courtroom.

READ MORE | Continuing coverage of Ooltewah Assault

Judge Dwight Stokes listed several factors of the case that support his decision to keep the defendant in juvenile court. He said the defendant did not have any prior arrests or troubles with the law and the results of his psychological evaluation shows there is “very low risk” the defendant will re-offend or engage in any other sexual crimes.

Before the judge finished telling the court his decision in a transfer hearing on Tuesday, one mother of the Ooltewah assault victims stood up and left the courtroom with her son.

"I'm a loss for words. There aren't even words that could explain how I feel," said the mother of the victim who says he was raped with a pool cue.

The Victims’ Untold Stories

Three freshman victims testified against the suspect, telling stories of an ongoing hazing and bullying problems with the Ooltewah High School basketball team.

The freshman victim who was raped with a pool cue was the first witness called to the stand. 

The former Ooltewah student told the judge the start of this year’s basketball season was enjoyable, the team got along up until November. That’s when the three suspects (and other upperclassmen) joined the team once their varsity football season ended.

Once they joined, the victim says the senior and other upperclassmen started bullying, hazing, and becoming aggressive with the freshman when the adults and coaches weren't around.

One victim testified, “When you leave a freshman by himself, they’re going to do something to him.”

The victim said "The team dynamic changed. He (suspect) became empowered because he was the senior." All three victims described an ongoing form of bullying called the "freshman rack," which is described as circling around a freshman and beating him up.

All three freshmen testified the upperclassmen told them about the “freshman rack” once they got to OHS, and they seem to believe it is exclusive to that school. They told Detective Rodney Burns freshman had to get “racked in” to the team.

The victim said those issues were happening around the time of the holiday tournament in Gatlinburg. Inside the rented cabin, the four freshmen all stayed in the basement area. That area included a game room with a pool table.

The Hamilton County District Attorney’s office says there are four total victims who were assaulted by a pool cue. Only three of those victims testified in court on Tuesday.

The first victim to testify said he watched his freshman teammates all get assaulted with a pool cue first during different days of their Gatlinburg trip. In their assaults, he said the pool stick never tore through their clothing, it was pressed up against their rear ends while the freshman was being held down against his will and screaming to be let go.

The freshman who was raped believes he got a more aggressive "hazing" because he would "not back down" from the senior. 

He told the judge after seeing the assault happen to his teammates, he knew he would be next. He said because he didn't want it to happen to him, the freshmen would sleep with their bedroom door locked and hide inside the bathroom to avoid their older teammates.

The victims all told the judge they did not tell their coaches or family members what was happening to them by their teammates. They said part of the reason they didn’t tell any adults was fear for retaliation.

Another reason, one victim said, “How could a person or a man tell another man someone had been playing with your butt?”

***

On the last night of their trip, the victim says he was downstairs alone when his older teammates found him, he heard the senior say, “Oh, we got him.”

The victim said he tried to get away but the three older players held him down on the bed on his stomach. He said he tried to fight them off and screamed “No” repeatedly. He said two players held him down while the senior player raped him with a pool cue. He told the judge the entire incident lasted “for about 30 seconds,” and he describes it as “no feeling he would ever want to feel again.”

After the victim screamed out in pain, he said the older teammates dropped the pool stick and ran upstairs. He told another teammate to “Go get coach.”

The victim was taken to LeConte Hospital for an examination and x-rays and while he was there the medical staff called police. The victim was released from the hospital and Gatlinburg Detective Rodney Burns took him back to the cabin to talk with the other teammates and so the victim could get his belongings.

Once back at the cabin, the victim said he collapsed in pain and had to have emergency surgery to repair his torn bladder.

The victim’s mother also took the witness stand to describe her son’s injuries to the court. She said he was in surgery for about five hours and when she was first told what happened to her son by his coaches, she believes it was “downplayed” to her.

His mother said he stayed in the hospital for six days and is still making regular trips back to Knoxville for check-ups. In the weeks after his injuries she could not return to work and was giving him around the clock care.

She told the judge she believes her son is about 90 percent healed physically, but mentally, he is still struggling with being identified as a victim, he doesn’t want people to know what happened to him and he is in therapy.

"He has some mental issues that we're dealing with," his mother said, "We're just trying to get him back to a positive place."

***

Detective Burns testified about his role in the investigation and the evidence gathered at the Gatlinburg cabin. On the night of the assault he said he interviewed all three suspects involved. The oldest suspect told Burns it he never intended to penetrate the victim with the pool cue. Another suspect was holding the pool cue with him, he "lost his grip and it busted inside of him."

The defense asked Det. Burns what a possible motive could be.

Burns said he believes "It was kind of an accident," then goes on to say, "It started out as horseplay but the end result is aggravated rape and aggravated assault."

Burns also testified the suspect showed remorse. He cooperated with police from the start of their investigation and said the suspect apologized to the victim the night of the assault.

The Suspect’s Case Against the State

The defense called four witnesses to testify on behalf of the suspect’s character. Three of them were family or friends of the suspect.

They all told the judge the suspect was a respectful person and he felt sorry for what he did. The suspect has not been in trouble with the law before. His aunt testified he has a strong support system with his family and faith.

The suspect’s aunt also said she believes the team got along, even during the Gatlinburg trip. She said her nephew gave the victim a haircut while on the trip. The aunt said she was shocked when she was told what happened and surprised “boys would be so silly and stupid.”

Another defense witness was Scott Carter, a youth pastor from First Baptist Church in Sevier County. Carter has had several talks with the suspect since his time in the juvenile detention facility. Carter said he’s always presented himself as a gentleman.

Carter said he was subpoenaed to testify by the defense and the defendant told him what he had done on Thursday. Carter said he shows "great remorse over the pain he caused for his family, for his team, he has a lot of regret."

Judge Stokes believes there is still a chance the juvenile court system can offer the defendant the rehabilitation services he needs. The Judge mentioned counseling services to “deal with the issues that lead to bullying and acting out” that the adult court does not offer.

The judge believes it’s a better outcome for society if the defendant is tried in juvenile court because in adult court there is no chance for the defendant to change.

Judge Stokes also said if the defendant endured similar hazing treatments during his time as a freshman at Ooltewah High School, moving him to adult court will not benefit him or society.

The mother of the most recent victim says the problems at Ooltewah High School need to be stopped.

"I don't want things to be continually swept under the rug, I mean, this was downplayed and it was a serious matter," she said.

The suspect’s family has now requested for the defendant to be offered bond.

He will now have a trial date scheduled in juvenile court, along with the two other juvenile suspects in the Ooltewah assault case.

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