A judge Monday sentenced a former Riverton High School wrestler to eight days in jail for attacking younger teammates on a bus.
Before the sentence was handed down, a defense attorney for Peyton Rees, 18, said coaches were aware of the "hazing initiation," which the lawyer said happened routinely. The attorney's statements echo those made by two other lawyers representing former Riverton wrestlers who were sentenced last week in connection to the same incident.
However, the head of Riverton's school district disputed the actions were part of an initiation and said the criminal behavior was isolated to that incident.
Rees, who was 17 at the time of the crime, also received one year of supervised probation and 100 hours of community service. He previously pleaded guilty to two charges of unlawful contact.
The attack took place Jan. 4 on a school bus heading to a wrestling tournament in Douglas. Authorities say older wrestlers dragged younger teammates to the back of the bus, covered their mouths, held them down and then forced their hands between their buttocks.
Rees told the judge Monday that he never intended to harm anyone.
“I feel really bad … I am ready to accept any punishment,” he said.
Defense attorney Vance Countryman told the court that the practice was known as “credit carding” because wrestlers slide their hands through another teammate's buttocks, like sliding a credit card to make a payment.
Countryman said it was intended to be a form of initiation, not an attack. He explained that this same ritual had happened to the defendant when he was a new team member.
“It is routine and it happens constantly,” he said.
The coaches were well-aware of the practice and had never instructed students to stop, according to Countryman.
"School coaches knew full well about this hazing initiation," the attorney said.
Details in dispute
Fremont County School District No. 25 Superintendent Terry Snyder told the Star-Tribune that the coaches at the time of the incident were not aware of the behavior. He said that the district had discovered there had been roughhousing and horseplay — including wrestlers pulling leg hair and rubbing knuckles into each other's heads — but that the behavior that occurred on the bus in January was not what had been exhibited in previous years.
Snyder told the Star-Tribune no coaches participated in the behavior before, and he said he "wouldn't call it an 'initiation.'"
"They brought their side of the story only to these proceedings and we couldn't, we didn't," Snyder said. "That's the frustration on my part."
Jeffrey Stanbury, a Riverton attorney who represents a former Riverton wrestler who was sentenced last week, said he stood by previous statements made in court that the hazing was common practice and was known to authority figures. He added that his "client never inserted his fingers into anybody's anus," as a police report indicated.
He said he had surveillance video and 11 affidavits from "current wrestlers who were on the bus that day, a wrestling manager who was on the bus that day, former wrestlers and parents" to prove it.
"Everything that my client was expelled for happened to him when he was a freshman," Stanbury said Monday. "Nonetheless, hazing and initiation rituals are wrong. My client takes full responsibility and has taken full responsibility for everything that he did on that bus."
Asked why police reports stated that the wrestlers inserted their hands into younger students' anuses if Stanbury contends they hadn't, the attorney said he could "point you to a number of cases over the years where reckless interviewing techniques yielded false statements."
In court Monday, the defense called six character witnesses, including Kelly Rees, the defendant’s mother.
Kelly said her son told her years ago about his own experience undergoing a similar initiation ritual as a new team member. She said she was initially shocked, but that Peyton assured her it was a sign that his teammates accepted him.
“He has never been in trouble like this before,” said Kelly, adding that her son regularly gave his classmates rides and once donated his own shoes to a student who couldn’t afford his own.
As she blinked back tears, Kelly asked the judge to remember that her son is more than this one incident.
Another student who was on the bus and witnessed the Jan. 4 incident told the court that he didn’t intervene because he didn’t “feel like anybody was being hurt.”
The student said he personally experienced the “credit card” during a different trip and considered it an initiation ritual that made teammates feel closer.
The wrestlers were “cool with each other” after the initiation was done, he said.
The student added that he had intervened on other occasions when he saw inappropriate behavior on the bus, such as when he told another teammate to stop masturbating.
More than horseplay
Prosecutor Dan Itzen told the court that the defendant's actions were more than harmless horseplay. He argued that the offenders clearly knew their behavior was wrong because they covered the victims' mouths to prevent them from crying out for help.
"That's not an initiation, that's a crime," said the prosecutor.
The defendant should be held accountable regardless of whether the coaches knew about this hazing, Itzen said. The prosecutor said it was also unacceptable to defend Peyton's behavior because he experienced the same treatment.
"That's looking for the easy way out," he said.
Before handing down the sentence, Judge Michael Patchen said he did not accept the argument that a behavior should be excused just because it is routine.
“Just because it's common doesn’t make it right,” he said.
The judge said he was "extremely concerned" that coaches had not stopped the hazing. He urged those involved in the Riverton athletic community to speak out against it.
Patchen also questioned how many students may have avoided joining athletic teams due to a fear of being hazed.
Last week, two other former Riverton High School wrestlers were sentenced to 20 days in jail for their roles in the attack.
Hayden Wempen and James Hampton, both now of Colorado, each pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful contact.
After they serve their jail time, Wempen and Hampton will be placed on six months of unsupervised probation. If either Wempen or Hampton violates probation, they could serve up to six months of jail time.
Prosecutor Kevin Taheri said the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office could have charged both Wempen and Hampton with sex crimes but decided not to so they would not have to register as sex offenders.
“They’ve been given a break here and they need to realize that,” Taheri said.
The Jan. 4 bus attack led to three wrestlers’ expulsion from Riverton High School for one year. The Fremont County School District No. 25 school board voted to expel the students in July, after a 13-hour hearing in late June. The students will be eligible to return in January.
School officials haven't said whether the wrestlers who were expelled were the same that were charged in connection with the school bus attack.
Snyder told the Star-Tribune earlier this year that a school-level investigation recommended expulsion after a two-day investigation. He said he agreed with this conclusion.
District officials have said they learned of the allegations on Jan. 23 after being informed by parents of freshman wrestlers who no longer wanted to wrestle because of the attacks.