James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Noah Spielman and Samuel TeBos are accused of a hazing incident in which authorities said a freshman teammate was restrained with duct tape, hit and left half naked and covered in dirt on a baseball field.
Most of the charges are felonies, but one count of mob action is a misdemeanor. If convicted of the most serious allegation, the five face a minimum of probation or two to five years in prison.
Given the players’ backgrounds, several legal experts expressed doubts that they would be convicted of felonies.
“I’m betting no one wants to ruin lives over a hazing case,” defense attorney Steven Greenberg said. “I suspect that at the end of the day, people will see this as an unlawful, but still youthful, indiscretion, and it will be resolved as a misdemeanor.”
Indeed, other high-profile cases in recent years — including those involving Northern Illinois University and Glenbrook North High School — have been resolved with deals that allowed the students involved to plead guilty to misdemeanor crimes, which do not carry the same stigmas — or job limitations — as afelony convictions.
In the Glenbrook North case, 16 students were found guilty of criminal battery or alcohol-related charges following a hazing incident in which seniors at the Northbrook school were videotaped beating and throwing filth on juniors at a forest preserve in May 2003. All the cases were wrapped up by year’s end.
“I would expect the Wheaton College case to end much the same way,” said Chicago-area defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., who represented one of the students.
At Northern Illinois University, 22 fraternity members pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2012 hazing incident in which a pledge died of alcohol poisoning. All were ordered to pay a fine of either $500 or $1,000, perform 100 hours of community service and spend 24 months on either supervision or conditional discharge.
At the time, it was considered the largest hazing prosecution in the United States.
Richard Schmack, the former DeKalb County state’s attorney who prosecuted, said the Wheaton College allegations go beyond the legal definition of hazing, which requires the victim to perform an act for the purpose of admission into a group, organization or society associated with a particular affiliated institution.
“Sure, there are elements of hazing, but the facts as alleged are a straight-out aggravated battery and unlawful restraint, which is a simple and more straightforward charge,” he said.
The players’ attorneys repeatedly have suggested there’s more to the story, with some pointing to an internal investigation in which school officials found the accused men’s explanation “more credible” than their accuser’s account. They also have raised doubts about the police investigation, which took about 18 months.
Attorneys Paul De Luca and Paul Moreschi, who represent Kregel, issued a statement to the Tribune saying the allegations are not in keeping with their client’s character.
“This appears to be nothing more than an unfortunate college incident,” the statement read. “We know our client to be an incredible young man from a wonderful family. We intend to conduct a thorough investigation to gather all of the facts.”
But former Cook County prosecutor Frank Himel believes the investigation’s length could work in the prosecution’s favor because it could eliminate any arguments about whether it was a rash decision. Charges were filed just before the statute of limitations expired to bring a misdemeanor charge, though authorities still had another year to bring felony charges.
“From a prosecutor’s perspective, it’s a good thing because the defense cannot argue that there was a rush to judgment or that you didn’t run out all the ground balls,” said Himel, who is now in private practice. “If you leave a stone unturned, someone will point to it as a shortcoming in your case.”
In the Wheaton College case, the freshman player who complained told investigators that he was watching the NCAA basketball tournament in a dorm room on March 19, 2016, when several teammates entered the room and tackled him, according to investigative records obtained by the Tribune. The freshman kicked his legs and yelled at them to stop, only to be punched and have his bare legs and wrists wrapped in duct tape, he said.
The players put a pillowcase over the 19-year-old’s head and took him from the residence hall. The freshman told investigators that he was held down, hit and taunted sexually — despite his demands to stop — during the ride with his teammates, who he said ultimately left him nearly nude, injured and covered in dirt on a baseball diamond.
The victim, who went alone to the hospital and spoke with police the night of the incident, suffered two shoulder labrum tears that required surgeries, authorities said. He left the college that next day and withdrew a short time later.
A second football player also was targeted that night, but he was not injured and did not file a complaint. He is still on the team. Besides the five accused men, a few other players were present during the hazing but they were not charged with any wrongdoing.
An attorney involved in the case, along with several students and parents, told the Tribune that the incident is a team tradition dating back as far as 20 years. The school has an anti-hazing policy that prohibits athletes from humiliating, degrading, abusing and endangering another person when they join a campus team or organization.
None of the charges against the five players allege sexual misconduct, but the victim did state that he believed someone tried to insert an object into his rectum during the ride. College officials, who hired a third-party Title IX investigator to review that specific allegation, told him in a letter last November that they found the players’ account “more credible” than his, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Tribune.
Kregel’s attorneys denied the player who filed the complaint was ever harmed sexually, as alleged in his statement.
“The uncharged, false allegations of sexual misconduct have been completely manufactured to sensationalize the incident, likely to pressure Wheaton College into a large financial settlement,” their statement read. “The allegations of sexual misconduct were found to be unsupported on the evening of the incident and ever since then. Those promoting (it) should be ashamed of themselves because they have severely and maybe forever prejudiced the reputations of five collegiate athletes.”
One player also was found in violation of the school’s sexual harassment policy for comments he made during the incident. A note was placed in his file, according to the letter, which was dated November 2016.
The letter also indicted the college had taken “corrective action” in connection with the allegation’s hazing component.
College officials, however, have taken a harsher stance since the criminal charges were levied. In a statement released last week, officials called the incident “entirely unacceptable” and contrary to the school’s religious values and “values we share as human beings.”
In an email to alumni late Friday, Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said the board of trustees has hired consultants to oversee a review of the nearly 160-year-old college’s anti-hazing policy and the “culture around how students treat one another in campus communities and organizations, including our athletic teams.”
“We are working to ensure the total well-being of every person on campus and to live out all that we value as a Christ-centered learning community,” Ryken wrote.
Wheaton College suspended the accused players from practice and competition following the criminal charges. Each is still listed on the team’s roster.
The Thunder, a perennial Division III powerhouse, currently are ranked fifth in the nation.
Longtime head coach Mike Swider did not speak directly about the scandal after Saturday’s win at Elmhurst College — the team’s first game since the charges were made public. He acknowledged it had been an emotional week for “obvious reasons” but that his players responded like champions.