article

09.15.11

Forced to Cheer for Her Attacker

A Texas girl accused her school's star athlete of rape—and was kicked off her squad for refusing to cheer for him. Jessica Bennett reports from a town still divided three years later.

She was blonde and blue-eyed, captain of her high-school cheer squad, headstrong, but shy at times, too: she made a point not to call undue attention to herself. He was tall and strapping, an outgoing African-American kid, a church-going boy with the swagger of a star athlete. Their paths crossed mostly on the football field where she rooted for him every week, but that changed one night in October 2008 when, Hillaire says, Rakheem Bolton raped her.

The accusation dropped like a bomb in Silsbee, Texas. Rumors flew that Hillaire made up the story, ashamed of a consensual act because Rakheem was black. The footballer insisted the sex was consensual and was cleared of rape—only to plead guilty to simple assault. His lawyer suggested that Hillaire (whose name Newsweek and The Daily Beast has published with her parents’ permission) had been “asking for it.” Hillaire was kicked off the cheer squad for refusing to cheer for Rakheem on the field. A petition was started in her favor, and former NFL cheerleaders spoke out.

The small town became a cauldron of racial and sexual hysteria.

Three years on, the case remains unresolved, the wounds not yet cauterized, the bitterness still palpable. Yes, most of the protagonists have moved on: Rakheem to a local college, according to his lawyer; the school principal out of the district; Hillaire, now 19 and living at home, no longer speaking to the press. (She spoke only through her parents for this article.) Her mother, Christena Soignet, continues to work—albeit somewhat awkwardly, as a teacher in the school district that her family has now sued.

Craig Soignet has not moved on. Hillaire’s father has filed a seemingly endless raft of lawsuits, some of which have been dismissed as “frivilous” actions. He’s even appealed the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. He seeks justice, vindication, peace of mind. But there will be no harmony in Silsbee—population 6,600—anytime soon.


* * * *

It all began on a cool weekend night in October 2008, when, police documents state, 16-year-old Hillaire got drunk at a house party with some classmates—buzzed on Bud Light and vodka shots. According to police reports, Hillaire had kissed a different boy that night, and had been captured on a cellphone camera kissing another girl. Sometime in the early morning hours, records state, she ended up in a dark room with four boys: Bolton, a 17-year-old running back, his wide-receiver teammate, and two minors. The minors told police they fondled Hillaire while she kissed Bolton. They claim she helped them take off her clothes.

Things soon went sour. "They pulled my shirt up and pushed my bra aside," Hillaire told police. "...Hands on my thighs were pushing my legs apart. I felt someone penetrating vaginally." From outside the door, a friend heard Hillaire yell "stop!" and "no!" With the help of two others, he kicked in the locked door, finding Hillaire curled up under a pool table crying, naked from the waist down. Police documents state there was a condom wrapper on the floor, and a broken window: three of the four boys had fled, one leaving behind his pants and cellphone. "They raped me," Hillaire cried, as the owner of the house—the mother of a student--called 911. Hillaire had never had sex before.

There’s a sign-of the-times irony to the whole thing: In the Deep South, the word of a black athlete being taken over that of a white cheerleader. And yet, the legacy of racism runs deep in Silsbee. It is said that the entrance to Hardin County once boasted a street sign that read, “Niggers, don’t let the sun set on your head.” The once-sleepy logging town is about 30 percent black today, but remains profoundly segregated. “If Rakheem Bolton was born a white boy, this case would never have materialized—I’ll go to my death on that,” says the athlete’s lawyer, Stella Morrison. “Come on, this is deep Southeast Texas. Racism runs deep here.”

As multiple civil suits wend their way through the courts—including one that was partially overturned just this week—the case remains volatile. A retired police sergeant who is a longtime sex-crimes lecturer in the local high school tells Newsweek/The Daily Beast that he was fired by the district because he made a passing reference to it in a presentation. “It only shows how much they need it,” the sergeant says. (The Silsbee school superintendent, as well as his lawyer, declined to comment on that or any other matter related to this case.) As David Sheffield, the district attorney who prosecuted the first round of the case, puts it: “It’s become a three-ring circus.”

The fascination with this tale may have less to do with a single accusation and more with what it seems to represent: a window into the often twisted way we view rape victims in America and—in cases that often boil down to “he said, she said”—just how difficult such allegations are to prove. “It’s a hard standard to begin with,” says Ron Sullivan, the chair of the criminal law institute at Harvard Law School. “But we have a long history in this country of refusing to take sexual assault cases seriously—particularly in the so-called date rape context.”

It’s a scenario we’ve seen play out a thousand times. Girl accuses boy of rape. Girl is publicly discredited. If the boy is an athlete, there are all-too-often special efforts made to brush the problem under the rug. There are of course cases where the girl is lying. But more often, she doesn't even come forward: 60 percent of rapes go unreported. “It’s typical,” says Caroline Heldman, a professor of political science at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who has been writing on the Silsbee case for more than a year. “This is the only crime where the victim is consistently treated like a perpetrator. She is mocked, discredited, harassed, and this case is no different.”

Indeed, the rumors flew in Silsbee: Had Hillaire made the story up? She didn’t look like a girl who’d been raped.

Hillaire-cheerleader-rape-bennett
Photo of Hillaire courtesy of Craig Soignet
The fascination with this case may have less to do with a single accusation and more with what it seems to represent: the often twisted way we view rape victims in America.

But the most humiliating moment for the teen came not on the night of the alleged assault, or even on her first day back to school, where shrieks of “slut!” ricocheted in the halls. It came four months later, as she stood on the sidelines of a tournament basketball game, clutching a pompon in each hand.

Rakheem Bolton, charged with sexual assault after the attack but no-billed by a grand jury, headed to the free-throw line—he was a two-sport athlete. The cheer squad began its usual chant: “Two, four, six-eight-ten!” they yelled, bouncing in maroon and white. “Come on, Rakheem, put it in!” Hillaire winced, and stepped quietly out of the cheer line. She couldn’t bring herself to cheer for the person she regarded as her attacker. “As a team, I cheered for them as a whole,” she said later. But “when he stepped up to the line, it didn’t feel right.”

At half time, her coach berated her, and a shouting match erupted. She was told she had to cheer “for everyone,” or go home. She chose the latter. The following Monday, she was kicked off the squad. An irate Craig Soignet appealed to the superintendent; 11 days later, she was reinstated. But a war had begun. 

* * * *

Downtown Silsbee, or what’s left of it since the Super Walmart moved in, sits in the center of Hardin County, less than 30 miles from Louisiana, but very much Texas. Dollar stores and check-cashing stands dot the highway, outnumbered only by churches. The community is deeply religious—and deeply loyal to the sports they call a “second religion.” Bolton, say some locals, had helped put Silsbee on the map.

Craig Soignet has been a football season-ticket holder for more than 25 years. But he hasn’t been to a game since Hillaire graduated from Silsbee High. Bolton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of assault nearly two years after the alleged rape, and was given a suspended one-year jail sentence, pending completion of an anger management course and community service. But it has not assuaged Soignet’s outrage. He won’t let it go.

Soignet keeps a detailed journal documenting every development. He’s got a file cabinet full of recorded conversations with school officials and lawyers. He’s got brochures for a half-launched support group for fathers of women who’ve been sexually assaulted; a stack of file folders full of education programs he hopes to persuade the school district to incorporate into its curriculum.

What kills him is that after all this time, he still feels nobody believes him. “In some ways, we’d all like to just move on from this,” Soignet tells Newsweek/The Daily Beast from the office of his landscape and gardening business. “But if, God forbid, this happens to somebody else…” He trails off. “I just don’t want any other person to have to go through what my daughter has.”

The boys, though, dispute that Hillaire went through anything. They say it was she who pursued Bolton; that he and his friends fled out the window because they were scared—“the only blacks,” as Bolton’s lawyer puts it, “in a house of all whites.” When Bolton returned that night to retrieve his clothes, police documents say, he shouted that, “I didn’t rape no white girl!”

Hillaire spent the early morning hours of that night at a clinic with her mother, having a rape kit administered. The nurse who treated Hillaire, Brenda Garrison, says she found trauma to the vaginal area and bruising to the girl’s hymen—all consistent, according to Silsbee Chief of Police David Allen, with sexual assault. Hillaire’s mother says a bruise in the shape of a handprint would later form on the girl’s upper thigh.

Even so, when Hillaire returned to school the following Tuesday—determined to keep her life as normal as possible—it was amid whispers that she “didn’t look like a girl who’d been raped.” “He could have any girl he wanted,” one commenter wrote of Bolton on a local blog. “He didn’t need to rape no white girl.” Craig Soignet says the school told Hillaire to “keep a low profile,” and she spent more time at home than usual. She went to see a rape counselor weekly.

Under Texas law, a minor can’t legally consent to sex—nor can a person who is intoxicated. But for a jury to believe that, says David Barlow, the special prosecutor on the case, a woman “practically has to be unconscious.” According to police reports, Hillaire was sober enough to recount to officers what she said had happened, and Rakheem was within two years of her age. He would later tell the local press the whole thing was a big “misunderstanding.” He has not spoken publicly since then, and did not respond to requests for comment.

Craig Soignet and his attorney, Larry Watts, have sued—unsuccessfully—everyone they can: the school district, the cheer sponsor, the superintendent and school principal, alleging they violated Hillaire’s right to free speech by forcing her to cheer; the district attorney who first prosecuted the case, alleging he publicly discredited Hillaire when he told reporters that he “wasn’t surprised” when the grand jury did not indict; as well as Bolton and his teammate, Chris Rountree, who allegedly helped hold Hillaire down. Most recently, the Soignets filed a federal Title IX complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, claiming Silsbee school officials had created a hostile educational environment when they allowed the person Hillaire had accused of raping her to remain in school. It was deemed beyond the statute of limitations, but they are appealing.

Soignet says it feels like his daughter was “raped, then raped again by the system.”

The only break, of sorts, for Hillaire’s family came this week, when a U.S. appeals court overturned part of a ruling that had ordered them to reimburse the school district for legal fees. Soignet and his lawyer are pressing on, with appeals.

In the meantime, the youths accused in the case will continue to see their names bandied about on the Internet as “rapists,” Hillaire’s younger sister, a junior, left Silsbee High School last year for another facility, because she too was being harassed on campus. The Soignets say once-friendly neighbors now avoid eye contact.

They’ve thought about moving; making a fresh start. But they also refuse to give up in this town where they have deep roots: Christena’s father was a city manager; her grandfather was a district judge. So they fight on—determined to remind people of a story everybody wants to forget.

“It’s sad, because it feels like there are people all over the world who can sympathize with us, but not in our own community,” says Craig, who wears a purple band around his wrist, in support of victims of sexual assault. “But if we can help one other girl, or one other father, it will all be worth it.”

The question is whether—in a town that regards sports as a religious experience—his quest will ever be seen as more than a minor-league nuisance.