Hazing News

Attorney says up to two dozen more should be charged: Wilson

Prosecutors failed to produce evidence of sex abuse, two defense attorneys claim
Lawyers shun plea deal in Wilson hazing
Updated: 07/25/08 7:46 AM

An attorney for one of the teens accused in the Wilson High School baseball hazing case said he is recommending his client turn down a plea offer from the Niagara County district attorney’s office that would “sidestep” a felony charge but not guarantee youthful offender status.

Kevin P. Shelby said such a deal is too severe for what he compared to a fraternity initiation and which, he added, had no sexual overtones.

“I’m not one of these lawyers that runs around and says my client is the Lord and savior, OK?” Shelby said. “There was hazing that went on here. Now to what degree . . . is in dispute.”

The criminal case followed a team bus ride April 17 from Niagara Falls.

At least 30 people were on the bus, he said, and the district attorney’s office has not produced medical evidence suggesting any object, including a cell phone, was used to penetrate a body opening of anyone on the bus, as alleged.

Three varsity baseball players were accused of sexually abusing two junior varsity players. The charges against the accused players, an 18- year-old and two 16-year-olds, included felony third-degree aggravated sexual abuse.

The plea offer, as transmitted in a letter sent to the lawyers of the three players late Thursday afternoon, consists of a charge of forcible touching, a class A misdemeanor, and three counts of second-degree hazing, a violation, Shelby said.

“The original charge [of sexual abuse] was not provable without medical evidence,” said Shelby, who represents one of the 16-year-olds.

Both he and P. Andrew Vona, an attorney representing the other 16- year-old, said they asked the prosecutor’s office for copies of such evidence, but neither has received it.

“My inclination is not to recommend to my client that those terms be accepted as written,” said Vona, who noted he has had an opportunity only for a short conversation with the youth since receiving the letter and that this is only his initial opinion.

District Attorney Michael J. Violante, as well as the attorney for the 18- year-old defendant, could not be reached late Thursday.

Wilson Town Court has been handling the criminal case, but the defense attorneys said the letter they received indicated prosecutors want it moved to Niagara County Court.

At that level — a step above the town court level — granting youthful offender status generally is discretionary, not mandatory.

Shelby said he wouldn’t consider the district attorney’s proposal much of an offer, especially since he believes what happened differs from the original charges.

More than just the three defendants played a role in the incident, both Vona and Shelby said.

“I don’t know how many exactly were involved, but there were a lot more than three boys involved,” Shelby said.

Other players on the bus formed a row along its middle, with the older players hitting the younger victims as they passed toward the back of the bus, Shelby said.

“It’s the new individuals that are becoming part of the brotherhood of the baseball team,” he said, noting he was not condoning the activity.

Vona claims the players’ actions consisted of slapping and possibly punching.

Vona also said he believes the targeted players were wearing a layer of baseball pants, and possibly a second, throughout the episode.

Regardless of how many players were involved, the three charged are being treated unfairly, said Shelby, who added he doesn’t know why the three were singled out.

“I’m of the opinion that the charges should be passed out evenly if there are other offenders,” he said. “If there are five or 25 other offenders, they should be charged.”

He also said he has learned, through his investigation, of similar incidents at the high school.

Vona agreed, saying, “I don’t know that it’s new to anywhere.”

Shelby also claimed his client deserves fairer treatment from prosecutors because he never had faced a criminal charge, was doing well in school and had many friends.

“Should conduct such as this that does not have sexual overtones, that involves initiation rites, should that impact on a 16-year-old’s life for the rest of his life?” asked Shelby, whose client also faces a drug possession count for an incident that occurred after the bus trip. Shelby said he doesn’t think that case “is really going anywhere.”

The three players facing charges have another court date late next month.

William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia, the coaches who were on the bus that day, remain suspended with pay from their teaching positions. Each faces three counts of misdemeanor child endangerment.

Others have been appointed to coach the fall sports that they had coached last year.

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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