Victims, parents tell stories in four-hour hearing in abuse case
Youth sentenced to move to St. George, complete therapy and community service
By Suzanne Dean
MANTI—A case both sensational and tragic that has absorbed the Gunnison Valley for five months appears to be over.
It came to an end Tuesday, Feb. 26 in a packed courtroom at the Sanpete County Courthouse at the end of a hearing that lasted four hours.
During the hearing seven Gunnison Valley High School students (six boys and one girl), seven of their parents and a grandparent who is raising one of the youths described how the actions of a 16-year-old sophomore had affected them and their families.
The sentencing hearing “was longer than anything in my career,” said Wes Mangum, deputy county attorney, who prosecuted the case. ‘It was an emotional hearing. It was difficult to listen to at times.”
Judge Brody Keisel said some of the victim statements “made me queasy.” Fox 13 News said some details in victim accounts were “too graphic to broadcast.”
In the end, the judge handed down what, in written form, was a four-page sentence for the 16-year-old, who victims said repeatedly squeezed and twisted their genitals, causing severe pain; put his finger in their anuses; and then laughed about his actions, and taunted and threatened them.
The youth being sentenced didn’t speak during the hearing. But his defense attorney, Greg Smith of Murray, said of his client, “He feels bad. He specifically apologizes to the people he has hurt.” Later Smith said, “There’s trauma we’re not going to get into right now that he’s been through.”
Mangum originally charged the youth, who the Sanpete Messenger has never named because he is a juvenile, with six counts of object rape, all first-degree felonies, and five counts of forcible sexual abuse, all second-degree felonies.
The youth ultimately admitted to reduced charges of eight counts of forcible sexual abuse, all second-degree felonies.
Mangum has said that during an investigation, about 15 students told the investigating officer they had been sexually abused. The prosecutor has said charges actually filed against the 16-year-old and two accomplices reflected 12 of those victims.
Judge Keisel ordered the 16-year-old to move to his grandparents’ home in St. George, to attend an alternative school and to complete 288 hours of community service in the next six months.
The youth was ordered to complete the Level 5 program outlined by the Utah Network on Juveniles Offending Sexually (NOJOS). Level 5 requires intensive therapy in a group home with 24-hour supervision.
However, Keisel suspended the Level 5 sentence and instead ordered the 16-year-old to complete Level 2, which requires individual, group and family therapy. The therapy can be administered on an outpatient basis if supportive family is available.
Keisel set a review in 90 days to determine if the youth was making adequate progress in Level 2. If he isn’t, Keisel said he would impose the Level 5 sentence, which would result in placement in a group home.
“This is not over,” the judge told the young defendant. “It’s now up to you.”
Keisel also ordered the youth not to go on the Gunnison Valley High School campus; to have no contact with any of his victims or their families; to write an apology letter; to submit a “safety plan” for avoiding any more incidents to the court within one month; and to pay a $150 fee for processing a DNA sample, with the first payment due in a month. The judge also placed the youth on probation for an indeterminate period.
Seven Gunnison Valley students, six boys and one girl, made statements during the hearing. Six parents and one grandparent who is raising one of victims, also addressed the court. The majority the students and parents cried during their statements.
Perhaps the most dramatic victim statement came from a young man who said he had been sitting on a mat in wrestling practice when the defendant held him down and squeezed and twisted his testicles.
“I have never felt so much pain in my life,” he said. “I begged him to stop but he wouldn’t. I kind of knew he would eventually let go because I’d seen him do the same thing on the bus.”
The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed and was urinating blood. His parents took him to Primary Children’s. When he doctor there asked if there had been any trauma to his testicles, he said “no.”
“I knew I needed help but was too scared to admit what really happened,” he said. “Kids had told on (he named the defendant) in the past, but he would always get away with it, so I knew there was no point telling what he had one to me. It would only make life harder for me in school.”
The boy’s mother said the 16-year-old youth “took our son’s innocence” and she feared the attack could affect his fertility.
Since last fall, when the defendant was arrested and placed in home confinement, “my son has blossomed,” the mother said. “His moods have drastically improved. He’s liking school again. He’s back to getting A’s. He’s looking forward to his future high school years on the football and wresting teams.”
Another youth said he had been a victim of the boy being sentenced “for as long as I can remember.”
During a wrestling practice his freshman year, the youth said the defendant “got in a position where he could put his finger, my underwear and my shorts in my butt. There was not much I could do but beg him to stop. This incident lasted for what seemed to be minutes as I struggled with him thinking to myself what was this happening to me.”
Later in the wrestling season, he said, he was again sitting in the wrestling gym when he said the 16-year-old began to squeeze his genitals and said, “’Whistle and I’ll stop.’”
“I wondered why another person would do this to somebody they had grown up with, wrestled with, played football with. He added, “The emotional distress that (the defendant) caused is much more than what he could ever do to me physically.”
Another student began his statement by saying, “This whole mess is affecting me more than I knew it could.”
He said when the investigating officer called him in and asked about his experiences, he sugar coated the incidents. Then he met with a counselor at the Children’s Justice Center. “It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, but I told everything that had happened,” he said.
In the wake of the assaults, he said, “I hated myself every day because I feel like I didn’t fight hard enough to get (the defendant) to stop. It made me feel weak.” He after his revelations came out, said he no longer wanted to play football, wrestle or play baseball because the 16-year-old was on all of those teams.
The girl said the 16-year-old sneaked up on her from behind “and squeezed my sides until I fell down to the ground. He used to tell me he would kill himself if I didn’t do what he wanted…He made me feel worthless. When I head other people were talking about this stiff, then I knew I wasn’t crazy.”
The parents said the incidents had, as one put it, “devastated” their families. They said they had been ostracized in the community for telling what happened. They described children who loved school and got A’s and B’s dropping to D’s and F’s or asking to be home schooled. One youth told his father he felt suicidal.
Misty Cox, the mother of the first boy to report an attack, said, “This has been incredibly difficult for our family. The amount of tears shed (for her son) has been immeasurable. The time spent in counseling, the harassment we have all been put through, including in the halls of this very courthouse, after court hearings, in our own home, on social media, we’ve been called liars, we’ve been called racists.”
“We’re struggling to find a new normal,” one mother said. “I feel the victims have been ignored until this point. I hope this is the time their voices will be heard.”
The father of one victim said he was a lifelong resident of the Gunnison Valley who, as a teenager, was a neighbor of the defendant’s grandparents.
“There are friends who we’ve had before who will not acknowledge you as a person anymore. They avoid you. They turn from you.”
He said he has been explaining what happened to his son whenever he gets the chance because people need to understand the magnitude of what the victims have been through.
“People in this community have not been told the truth when the story’s been told by others. I won’t speculate on who’s telling what or where, but there are misconceptions out there that are tearing our community apart.”
He said he hoped justice would be served and that friendships would not permanently destroyed.
Another mother talked how her son came back from summer football camp saying he didn’t want to play football anymore. “He still doesn’t want to talk about anything that happened to him,” she said.
“I hope he’ll never be put in a public school again where he can assault another student or devastate another family the way he has us,” she added.
The mother of the girl who testified described the lengths her daughter had gone through to avoid the defendant. She transferred out of classes three times to avoid being in the same class with him, she said.
“The manipulation, the mind games, she’s (been) scared to go to schools, scared to see him in the hallways,” the mother said. She said her daughter had transferred out of classes three times to avoid being in the same class with the defendant.
Now that the case is over, she said she hoped her daughter could start sleeping again “and finally be able to have some peace.”
Mangum, the prosecutor, said the 16-year-old and his family had minimized the severity of the assaults. He said the defendant had told an investigator, “I feel like people are trying to make me out worse and get me to not participate in sports so their child can have all the glory.”
At one point, Judge Keisel said he was concerned by the youth’s lack of empathy and lack of full disclosure about some of his actions.
In an interview a few days after the hearing, Mangum said, “My argument was that he be removed to a treatment program for such offenders. The defense argued for him remaining at home The judge went for the middle between the two options.”\
Mangum noted that both a state Sexual Behavior Risk Analysis and a pychosexual evaluation by a psychologist recommended the NOJOS Level 2 placement. He said new statutory guidelines state tell judges youth can’t be put in 24-hour, secure confinement until all other remedies have been exhausted.
In light of the considerations Judge Keisel faced, Mangum said of the sentence, “I respect it completely.”