Manti • He was in the eighth grade and at a wrestling practice when it happened, what he describes as the “worst of it all.”
He had been held down by a teammate in the past and had his testicles grabbed. It was painful — but he felt like he just had to wait it out. But this time, the classmate had squeezed so hard that he ended up staying in bed for three days, and had started peeing blood. His parents took him to the hospital, but the boy didn’t tell the truth: He had been sexually assaulted.
“I knew I needed help,” the teen recalled in a Manti courtroom Tuesday. “But I was too scared to admit what really happened.”
He feared the student who had assaulted him — a star athlete at their high school in the small town of Gunnison — would get away with it. And it would make things harder for him at school. So he told no one. Just as so many other teens at Gunnison Valley High School did for two years, as this now-16-year-old boy perpetrated what officials estimate to be at least 25 incidents of sexual assault against a dozen students.
It didn’t stop until one 14-year-old boy, Greg, told a school resource officer last September about how his fellow student had tackled him and had two other boys hold him down as he rubbed his genitals in his face.
From there, the floodgates opened.
More than a dozen students would come forward to say that they, too, were sexually abused by this one 16-year-old. He had squeezed their testicles as they yelled, and sometimes put his finger in their buttocks. He had laughed about it.
The 16-year-old boy was charged last September with nearly a dozen crimes in juvenile court, and eventually admitted to eight counts of forcible sexual abuse.
In the courtroom Tuesday, his victims and their parents tearfully spoke to a judge, recalling the trauma they’ve experienced and how it has rippled through their community, adding a tension to the Gunnison Valley that in some cases severed old friendships. Some of the boys who were victimized had known the teen their whole lives.
One boy cried as he told the judge that he had been a “little bit of an outcast” at school, and said he was bullied by the teen defendant for as long as he could remember. During his freshman year, he had joined the wrestling team. He recalled the teen approaching him one day. They began to wrestle, but it devolved into a painful sexual assault. He begged the other boy to stop.
“After, I laid there in shock,” the boy cried. “Why was he doing this to me?”
The victim credited his fellow classmate, Greg, for coming forward. It gave him the strength to also say he was abused.
Another teen who spoke Tuesday said he had initially hid what happened to him, and even minimized it when a police officer asked him about it. He felt like he had been weak, like he could have done more to ward off the other teen’s assault. He also credited Greg with giving him the strength to come forward.
“I am just glad there was someone braver than me who went to the police,” he said, “so me and others could get justice.”
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Greg has agreed to be identified by his first name. The newspaper also does not name youth defendants unless their cases are moved to the adult court system.
The teen defendant did not speak during Tuesday’s hearing, and showed little emotion as his classmates and their parents tearfully told 6th District Juvenile Court Judge Brody Keisel about how the abuse had affected their families.
Defense attorney Greg Smith told the judge that the teen had remorse, and said the boy would be “the first one to tell you” he needs therapy and treatment. But Smith also said his client believed the sexual assaults were horseplay or hazing — saying similar conduct had happened to him in the past and the boy was not aware that what he was doing was sexual assault.
Keisel, the judge, ultimately ordered the boy to complete therapy and move out of Sanpete County to live with his grandparents in St. George. There, the boy is expected to attend an alternative high school. The judge also ordered the boy to complete community service and write apology letters to his victims.
Keisel also set a review hearing three months from now, telling the teen that he won’t hesitate to put him in secure care — the juvenile court equivalent to jail — if he messes up.
That order was a relief to many in this small central Utah town, including Greg’s mother, Misty Cox. She said after the hearing that they are happy with what the judge decided.
“For the safety of my son and all of the other victims,” she said, “we are satisfied with him being removed from the Gunnison Valley.”
The cases shined a spotlight on Gunnison Valley High School’s athletic teams, where the boy found many of his victims. He played baseball, wrestling and football at the small high school — but prosecutors have said his victims went beyond his fellow athletes.
It’s a situation that has also torn this small community apart. Not only did the young victims describe how they feared being ostracized at their school or their church, their parents said it’s something that has affected their interactions with neighbors as well.
One father said he had lost friends over the situation, that people have told him it’s just boys “having fun.”
“Well, it isn’t just fun,” the father said as he described the pain it caused his family.
Another father described being a lifelong Gunnison resident. Now he has friends who won’t even acknowledge him anymore.
“I am not afraid and I’m trying to help people understand the magnitude [of what] these kids have faced,” he said. “And the trials and the pain and the trauma they have experienced. I am just saddened that our community has to be divided in this way.”
Cox and her son, Greg, have filed a civil lawsuit against the South Sanpete School District and administrators. The lawsuit contends administrators had prior reports of the boy’s behavior and dismissed them as horseplay.
The school district is asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing in court papers that Cox and her son cannot show “deliberate indifference,” a standard for successfully suing the government.