Parents outraged by deal in camp-sodomy case
The son of Arizona's Senate president confessed that he and another counselor shoved broomsticks and flashlights into the rectums of 18 boys in at least 40 incidents at a youth camp in June.
Now Yavapai County prosecutors say they will drop all but one assault charge and likely recommend little or no jail time if 18-year-old Clifton Bennett agrees to plead guilty.
A similar agreement has been offered to co-defendant Kyle Wheeler, 19, who faces an additional assault charge for choking three of the boys until they passed out.
The plea agreements were first presented in court last week and could be completed at a hearing Monday.
Prosecuting attorney James Landis explained the plea agreement in court, saying the ''broomsticking'' was a hazing ritual and a punishment, not sexual assault.
But legal experts, sex-crimes prosecutors and victims'-rights lawyers say the acts clearly fit the definition of sexual assault.
The pleas, which describe the assault charge as ''a non-dangerous, non-repetitive offense,'' have outraged parents who say their sons were victims of violent sexual attacks. The boys, who were 11 to 14 years old at the time, have had trouble going to the bathroom, sleep with clothes on, are afraid at night, and have undergone sexual-assault counseling.
The parents want Bennett and Wheeler to face sexual-assault charges, undergo psychosexual evaluations and spend several days in jail per victim.
''Our biggest concern is that these kids are going to do it again,'' said the mother of an 11-year-old Tucson boy.
Landis said in court that the case was never viewed as ''sexual in nature,'' in part because prosecutors could not prove Bennett and Wheeler had sexual intent.
''We would certainly start from a different perspective if it was girls [as victims],'' he said in court.
Victims are victims: Bennett and Wheeler were arrested in January and charged with 18 counts of aggravated assault and 18 counts of kidnapping because the victims were held down.
Experts who specialize in sex crimes say sexual intent is rarely a factor in charging sexual assault; and sexual orientation has nothing to do with it.
''They could have been charged with sexual assault,'' said Sue Eazer, supervisor of the Pima County Attorney's Special Victims Unit. ''Sexual assault is oftentimes not motivated by sexual desire.''
Eazer said she has prosecuted several sexual-assault cases involving objects being shoved into children's body cavities.
''It makes no difference to me if it is a male or female [victim],'' she said.
The Yavapai County case has national implications for the legal system, said Andrew Vachss, a lawyer specializing in child cases and a best-selling author who uses profits from his books to fund legal work for abused kids.
''This is a theory of prosecution that is based on taking the word of the perpetrators,'' Vachss said. ''That's what you have juries for. Let the perps tell a jury, 'I inserted a foreign object into the rectums of little boys, but I had no sexual intent.'
In court last week, Bennett apologized for his role.
''The actions that occurred there, none of us considered the consequences that would follow,'' Bennett said. ''The next time I saw these boys, I never expected to see them here.''
Bennett said he was ''trying every way he can to rectify the situation.''
Parents of the victims described Bennett's remarks as self-serving.
Bennett's father, Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, sat behind his son in court. A Prescott native and influential businessman, he has said little publicly about the case.
Mission in jeopardy: Lawyers described Bennett as an honor student and active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, planning to go on a mission in September. ''A felony conviction for assault will make his desire to complete his mission impossible,'' they wrote.
Under the plea agreements Bennett and Wheeler could face a maximum two years in prison. But the court could reduce the charges to a misdemeanor and no jail time.