Only two events can empty out the single grocery store in the tiny town of La Vernia, Texas: church on Sunday or a Friday night football game at the local high school.
“It’s all about the Bears,” one parent said.
But it wasn’t Homecoming or the upcoming Powder Puff game that had the town talking this week. Instead, its 1,200 residents were left reeling after more than 10 boys came forward with sexual-assault allegations against athletes in the beloved La Vernia High School football program—claims that have led to the arrests of nine students, including seven juveniles and two adults, and threaten to tear this San Antonio bedroom community apart.
Details are few where minors are involved, but one mother speaking to local media described the alleged assaults: “Kids were holding them down in the locker rooms, there was a lookout at the door watching for coaches not to come. They hold them down and stick various items up their rectum… including Coke bottles, deodorant bottles, steel pipes, baseball bats, and broomsticks.”
The seven arrested juveniles were taken into custody Thursday and immediately released to their parents. Two 18-year-old suspects were arrested Monday and booked in at the Wilson County Jail on charges of sexual assault of a child. The Daily Beast has chosen not to name them because they are still students at La Vernia High School.
According to affidavits filed in the arrests of the two 18-year-olds, the men are accused of holding down a 16-year-old who was moving from Junior Varsity to Varsity football, and sexually assaulting the teen as part of an initiation in November 2016. The four involved players, who were at a home off-campus, allegedly shouted “Get him!” and held the 16-year-old victim face down on a bed while sodomizing him with the threaded end of a carbon-dioxide tank.
“The victim struggled to stop the assault, but was overpowered by the four suspects and pinned down where he could not move,” wrote La Vernia police Sgt. Donald Keil, in the affidavit.
According to La Vernia πolice Chief Bruce Ritchey, it was “a hazing gone bad,” and it’s shaken the picturesque high school on Bluebonnet Road.
“These kids were stupid,” Ritchey told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Hazing is common in high schools and colleges, but not to this extent.”
Ritchey said the investigation started when alleged victims came forward during the first week of March. They were given forensic interviews at the child-advocacy center, and soon Ritchey knew it would be too much for his department of seven full-time officers to handle alone. The Texas Rangers and the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office were both brought in to assist.
Wilson County District Attorney Audrey Gossett Louis said in a press release that her office is also involved in the probe and that the “allegations of child sexual abuse will be taken seriously.”
“It’s gonna take a long time,” Ritchey said. “Every time we turn around, we find another suspect, more victims. We anticipate more arrests in the future.”
The San Antonio Express-Newsreports that the assaults involved the basketball and baseball programs—in addition to the football program—in the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic school years. Police believe the alleged crimes could date back as far as 2014.
Ritchey told The Daily Beast “several” other victims had come forward following Thursday’s arrests.
Chris Taber, the school district’s head football coach and boys’ athletic director, said in a statement that he met with all male athletes at the school and informed them that “measures are being taken by the athletic department to ensure students are participating in a safe environment.” Students, he said, will be supervised “at all times” while in athletic facilities.
Inside the school, a student who spoke to The Daily Beast with the permission of his parents said high-schoolers are being instructed to keep quiet about the allegations, but that “everyone is talking about it” anyway. Meanwhile, the senior said, many students are siding with the accused athletes.
“Some kids, mostly athletes, are calling the victims ‘rats and snitches,’” he said, noting that most of the alleged victims have remained anonymous. “A lot of people are saying they feel bad for [the accused], that they didn’t do anything too extreme.”
On Tuesday, at least one student, he said, was wearing a shirt adorned with a photo of one suspect’s face. The shirts were made for a playoff game last year.
“I know a lot of these boys and they’re good people,” the student continued. “I grew up with them. They wouldn’t have done this individually. But once you put them in a group with others, it’s like peer pressure.”
While the authorities investigate, and students take sides, the neighbors are talking—outside the school gates, and in private Facebook groups.
“The community appears divided if you ask me,” one parent told The Daily Beast. “Some just pretend it didn’t happen and don’t want to discuss the reality. Some are outraged and essentially aren’t surprised and feel like the district is covering up as much as they can.”
Parents and students who spoke to The Daily Beast asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “It’s a small town, and people talk,” one mother of two boys in the school district explained.
Parents in La Vernia said the athletes’ arrests are only the most recent scandal to rock the small school district—and just another example of the town’s penchant for secrecy.
“What the boys did was disgusting and terrible, but none of this would be allowed to happen if these kids were better monitored. I guess the teachers are too busy stealing money, having sex with students, and looking at child porn to watch the kids,” one mother said.
“People forget, don’t they?” she said, echoing other parents who pointed to the La Vernia School District’s record of scandal:
In January 2016, a math teacher quietly resigned amid an FBI investigation—child-pornography charges followed months later. (He pleaded guilty to one felony and is due to be sentenced in May, according to court records.) In 2015, a 26-year-old physics teacher was arrested for the alleged sexual assault of a student. Then there were the allegations of theft and embezzlement, the suicide of a vice principal at the junior high school, and that time a seventh-grade teacher (and niece of a local sheriff) led police on high-speed chase and was jailed for possession of methamphetamine and assault on a public servant. She served five years’ probation after a stint in rehab.
“This is Small Town USA and this town wants to keep it hush-hush,” a parent of two children in the district told The Daily Beast. “I won’t stand for that.”
Administrators are hoping the district will overcome the allegations and be known for its more positive accomplishments.
“The travesty of the events occurring at the La Vernia High School has crushed the spirit of our community,” Superintendent José H. Moreno said in a Facebook post this week. “Our most valued beings, our children, are the reason that we live and serve in La Vernia.”
He continued: “The district is under strict guidelines and is not able to comment on the complaint at this time.”
One parent of an alleged victim explained the administration had been instructed by law-enforcement agencies to withhold further comment so as “not to compromise the investigation.”
In the meantime, local churches and community leaders have already planned events to raise residents’ spirits.
The La Vernia Ministerial Alliance and the La Vernia News are hosting a community service in cooperation with 10 local churches to encourage “hope and healing” in the wake of the scandal. The event will feature prayer and music in the park Tuesday, and participants have been invited to fill plastic Easter eggs with messages of hope that will be exchanged during the service, according to a flier posted to Facebook.
Pastor Steve Curry, of the La Vernia United Methodist Church, told local media that the service was intended to “lament what’s happened: the loss of innocence, the crimes that have taken place.”
Athletic Director Taber also stressed the importance of community in his post.
“I know this is a very troubling time for our students, staff and our community. It is very important that we stick together,” Taber wrote. “We will be strong and get through this together.”