Wheaton College doubted football player’s story of alleged hazing: Documents

College concluded alleged attackers' statements were credible: document shows.

ByJames Hill, Andy Fies and Alex Perez
September 22, 2017, 4:22 PM

— -- Eight months after a freshman athlete at Wheaton College was allegedly abducted from a dormitory - physically assaulted and threatened with sexual assault in an alleged hazing incident – administrators at the Christian school in Illinois concluded that the statements of the alleged attackers about the incident were “more credible” than those of the alleged victim, according to a confidential document obtained by ABC News.

Citing the report of an outside firm hired to investigate the incident – the college faults the alleged victim for “not being forthright,” while crediting the alleged assailants for their “consistent” denials of any attempts at sexual assault and for taking steps “to ensure [the alleged victim] was not harmed,” according to a “Letter of Decision” sent by the college to the alleged victim last November.

An attorney for the alleged victim - asked about the school’s letter – called it “nothing short of an attempt to sweep this incident involving football players under the rug. To conclude that these attackers were more credible than the victim is demonstrative of the way the college has handled the incident,” the attorney, Terry Ekl, told ABC News via email.

The school’s letter – signed by the college’s associate director of human resources and its director of auxiliary services - focuses primarily on the allegations of sexual misconduct. It offers the first glimpse into the college’s handling of the incident, which had not been publicly reported until local police issued arrest warrants this week for five players on the school’s nationally-ranked NCAA Division III football team.

James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Samuel TeBos and Noah Spielman are each facing felony charges of aggravated battery, mob action and unlawful restraint.

PHOTO: Five Wheaton College football players charged with hazing; from left, James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Noah Spielman and Samuel TeBos.
Five Wheaton College football players charged with hazing; from left, James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Noah Spielman and Samuel TeBos.
Lou Foglia/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Newscom

The accused players, all seniors, had been listed on the active roster of the team until this week. Following the announcement of the criminal charges, the college deemed them inactive for practice or competition.

The alleged victim of the assault – then a 19-year-old freshman at Wheaton - claims he was taken forcefully out of the dorm room by a group of five to seven men, some of whom he recognized as his teammates, according to a preliminary investigative report on the March 2016 incident commissioned by the school and obtained by ABC News.

He claims he was restrained with duct tape on his ankles and wrists, had a pillow-case placed over his head and secured with duct tape, and had his arms pulled violently behind his back, resulting in cartilage tears in both shoulders that he says required multiple surgeries.

He told a school investigator last year that his attackers put him in a car, punched and slapped him, pulled down his shorts and repeatedly attempted – unsuccessfully - to sexually assault him with an object. He said he resisted, yelling “stop,” moving around, and kicking at his assailants. Ultimately, he said, the alleged assailants dumped him out of the car onto a baseball field, throwing dirt on top of him and leaving him partially naked with a pillowcase over his head.

“I don’t see how the college can possibly advance the argument that the defendants attempted to make sure that the victim was not injured,” Ekl said. “I don’t know how they can make that statement with a straight face.”

But according to the college administrators’ letter to the alleged victim obtained by ABC News, his statements about the onset and aftermath of the incident were, in their view, “inconsistent” with the account of a witness in the dormitory who claimed the student was “laughing and joking” as he wrestled with the alleged perpetrators and “was joking after the incident.”

Asked to respond to this account of his client's behavior, Ekl said, "At no time during or after this attack was the victim laughing or joking about what was being done to him. Does it make sense that he would think it was funny to be left in a field, half naked with his legs and arms taped behind him?”

The letter also asserted that the alleged victim had failed to disclose an earlier high school shoulder injury – which the college says was reported to investigators by his former roommate. That “omission,” the administrators wrote, resulted in “significant concern about [the alleged victim’s] credibility…and led us to wonder if other parts of the….story were exaggerated.”

“The victim did not have an existing shoulder injury the night of the attack,” counters Ekl, who says the young man was participating in football drills and weight training around the time of the incident. He says the alleged victim had never suffered a shoulder injury prior to the attack and his entire medical file was provided to police before the criminal charges were approved.

“The victim suffered two labrum tears – one in each shoulder,” Ekl said. “This does not occur from playing around and incidental contact. While the victim had his arms taped behind his back, he was drug around by the defendants which caused the tears to the labrum. No other possible explanation exists.”

The alleged victim – who left Wheaton College the day after the incident and now attends another college in Indiana – said in a statement this week that the incident “had a devastating effect on my life. What was done to me should never occur in connection with participation in a football program or any other activity.”

Ultimately, according to the college’s letter, the administrators concluded that no sexual misconduct had occurred. But one of the players, Noah Spielman, was found in violation of the school’s sexual harassment policy for “sexualized” comments he made while the alleged victim was “bound and blindfolded.” For that – the letter says - Spielman was given an official warning, and a note was placed in his permanent file.

The letter also notes – without specifics - that “sanctions and corrective actions [were] levied in connection with the hazing component of the incident.”

LaTonya Taylor, the Director of Media Relations for Wheaton College, confirmed that the Letter of Decision was provided to the victim “to summarize the official findings of the College,” but declined to provide further information, citing student privacy protections.

The college released a statement earlier this week saying the school had investigated the incident and found it “entirely unacceptable and inconsistent with the values we share as human beings.” The statement said the school had taken “a range of corrective actions,” but disclosed no details.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, several players allegedly involved in the incident were required to write an essay reflecting on their behavior and to perform 50 hours of community service.

Law enforcement authorities have allowed the players to turn themselves in, citing their cooperation with the investigation. So far, Kregel and Spielman have posted bond and are due to appear in court for the first time next month. Attorneys for both men have indicated that their clients intend to plead not guilty.

Christine Field, an attorney for Kregel, told ABC News in a statement that the case “has been especially challenging due to the nearly [one-and-a-half year] intervening time since the occurrence as well as the investigations already performed by others. The family is shocked the charges were even brought and are dismayed by the rumors and misinformation circulating about the case. We look forward to Mr. Kregel's day in court and are confident he will be exonerated.”

Mark Sutter, a lawyer for Spielman, told ABC News his client is “frustrated and saddened” by the criminal charges.

“He thought it was done once it was investigated by Wheaton College,” Sutter said. “And their investigation went forward and he was reprimanded and punished internally. The family and him had already moved on from that. Now these charges have come forward and he’s frustrated and saddened by it.”

UPDATE: As of Friday afternoon, Wheaton Police say all five of the accused players have turned themselves in and posted bond. Arraignments are set for Oct. 23.

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