‘This Is Not Hazing. This Is Rape’: Inside a Texas Town’s Football Nightmare
How a varsity sex-abuse scandal threatened to tear apart Small Town, U.S.A.
LA VERNIA, Texas—When Jennifer’s* son made varsity—as a freshman, no less—it should have been cause for celebration.
Here, football is king. The town is one of the oldest communities in the Lone Star State, with a rich history dating back before the Alamo.
It’s lush and green, with farms, donut shops, and about a dozen churches ministering to the population of 1,200. Crosses and bluebonnets dot the tranquil streets, and there’s a historical marker on nearly every block. Neat rows of mini-mansions sit nestled behind the pristine elementary school, and neighbors happily chat over weekend errands at the H-E-B—the only grocery store in city limits.
Jennifer’s sprawling property rests just outside city limits, a two-story butter-yellow home filled with hand-carved wooden crosses. Her kids like to play ball in the front yard as cows graze nearby.
She was home on the day her son learned he was promoted to varsity. But he and his friends were uncharacteristically nervous about leaving the JV team behind to move into the new locker room.
“My son comes home and is like, ‘I heard that there’s something that happens to us,’” Jennifer says.
He’d heard a rumor. Something about an initiation to the team. It involved sodomy.
Jennifer was horrified but skeptical that the—admittedly outrageous—rumor was worth worrying about.
“I looked at him, I was like, ‘You’re lying, that’s not true. That’s a lie,’” she protested, crying as she remembers it now. “We trusted that the coaches were watching them, and, you know, taking care of them.”
Police later told Jennifer that witnesses say her son was raped with a broomstick. He has not corroborated those accounts.
In February of this year, a victim went to La Vernia police with claims of sexual assault by the town’s athletes. As the investigation unfolded, police found at least nine more victims of alleged abuse—spanning a period of at least three years—by football, baseball, and basketball stars.
The varsity players were accused of sodomizing their younger teammates with various instruments, including baseball bats and carbon-dioxide tanks. A total of 13 students so far—six of them adults—have been arrested and charged with either sexual assault or sexual assault of a child.
All of the suspects who have released public statements or spoken through attorneys have denied their involvement in the alleged crimes. None of them have been indicted.
One warm evening in May, Jennifer and Michelle* sat on a back porch in La Vernia, 30 miles southeast of San Antonio, recounting the scandal. They describe themselves as “sports moms” and say their families customarily attend one of the big churches in town. They’ve both lived in the area since before the H-E-B moved in—the typical dividing line that separates longtime residents from outsiders.
“We can guarantee we’ll always be at those football games on Friday nights because our sons play,” said Michelle. “You don’t really see my face around the school much unless somebody’s messing with one of my boys.”
The mothers gush while describing their sons as “above-average athletes,” goofy and popular.
“They like to showboat and stuff, but, you know, they’re teenage boys, and they’re already pre-NFL,” glowed Michelle.
But even as the moms rooted for the La Vernia Bears at Friday-night games, they were unaware their sons were allegedly being raped by their teammates.
Both women shook their heads, as the sun set over the green farm horizon. “We all thought we were living in an awesome little community, you know?”
Then, one day in March, Michelle got a call from the La Vernia Police Department.
Five minutes later, she was sitting in the police station.
“‘I’m not going to sugarcoat it,’” an officer told her, as he allegedly detailed the various items used: deodorant bottles, soda bottles, pipes, and baseball bats.
“What did they use on my son?” she asked, sobbing angrily.
“‘I’d rather not tell you,’” he responded. “‘You don’t want to know.’”
‘Do Not Judge Unless You’re Without Sin’
The 13 suspects facing criminal charges include Colton Weidner, Christian “Brock” Roberts, and John Rutkowski, who are all 18 and members of the school’s basketball team. According to arrest affidavits, Weidner, Rutkowski, and an unnamed juvenile held down a struggling 15-year-old while Roberts raped him with a flashlight.
Also charged were 17-year-old Alejandro Ibarra, 17-year-old Robert Olivarez Jr., and 18-year-old Dustin Norman. They stand accused of holding down a 16-year-old boy on a bed while sodomizing him with the threaded end of a carbon-dioxide tank, according to arrest affidavits.
“The victim struggled to stop the assault, but was overpowered by the four suspects and pinned down where he could not move,” La Vernia Police Sgt. Donald Keil wrote in an affidavit.
Around the time of his arrest, Ibarra took to Facebook to defend himself and his teammates.
On a local reporter’s Facebook post, Ibarra wrote of Olivarez and Norman: “They didn’t do anything... I was with them every day and we were never involved in this stupid shit!... If you don’t know the whole story behind it don’t bother commenting... and yes they are my friends... my brothers.. I was raised with them.”
Since the arrests, all 13 boys are walking free on bail until the investigation makes its way into a courthouse. “What’s bugging me is that these perpetrators are still running around La Vernia,” groaned Michelle. She’d waited outside the school to watch on the day her son’s alleged tormentors were hauled out of class and arrested.
“They’re still out and about and they’re posting pictures on Instagram and Facebook and having a good old time while they’re out on bond or whatever.”
Several of the accused seniors even joined in on the prom festivities this past spring, despite being barred from the actual dance. They dressed up, took pictures together, went to a group dinner, and rode in the limo with their friends, according to photos viewed by The Daily Beast.
“They took pictures and went out to dinner for a night on the town and all that,” Michelle said. “It’s like their parents are rewarding them. If that was my kid who had just sexually assaulted another child, he would not be going to prom.”
Not everyone in La Vernia is bothered by it, though. A very large section of the community is emphasizing mercy and forgiveness for the accused. “They’re very quick to defend the perpetrators,” said Jennifer. “There’s a sense of entitlement for some of these families, that they deserve ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
“They’re very quick in our community to quote the Bible,” she continued. “Oh yeah, ‘Do not judge unless you’re without sin.’”
Both women believe the same community members preaching compassion aren’t extending it to their sons and the other alleged victims. The suspects “were grabbing [the younger boys] in headlocks and hitting them with belts,” Jennifer said. “They’re threatening [my son] while he’s taking a shower with no clothes on.
“I think a lot of these perpetrators think that they’re going to get away with it because they’ve never been held accountable,” she continued.
One day, Michelle and her son were shopping in H-E-B when they saw 18-year-old Dustin Norman grabbing a bag of dog food in an aisle nearby. (Norman is accused of holding down the 16-year-old boy as others sodomized him with a carbon-dioxide tank.)
When her son pointed him out, Michelle could only mumble curses under her breath. They soon saw him again in AutoZone.
She said she stopped herself from doing anything more because she’s a Christian woman and because he “should be treated or punished as an adult,” not by a victim’s mother, she says now.
“He’s vile,” she sighed.
Jennifer said she believes the suspects and their families have fallen into a habit of “playing victim” in the aftermath of the scandal and that others in town are letting them. All of the suspects reached by The Daily Beast declined to comment, with the exception of Norman, whose attorney maintains his innocence.
“You know, if this had been done to a bunch of females,” Jennifer said, “it would’ve been rape straight up and there would’ve been no way around that.”
Even though police told Jennifer that five or six witnesses came forward to report assaults on Jennifer’s son, he—like many other victims—doesn’t want to talk about the alleged abuse.
“At the beginning, both boys felt sorry for the perpetrators,” said Michelle. “They didn’t want them to go to jail and lose their scholarships and lose everything they had going for them.”
“He doesn’t want to see his coaches lose their jobs,” said Jennifer. “They feel very indebted to them.”
Jennifer believes her son is holding back for similar reasons and “because he feels so loyal” to his coaches and teammates, who have been his longtime friends.
“When you’ve got all of that happening, it’s no surprise to me that no one would come forward,” said Alesha Istvan, the director of community initiatives at Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit that works with teens to prevent sexual assault.
“The stigma associated with being a victim of sexual assault period, whether or not homosexuality comes into play, just creates this whole culture of silence,” she noted, emphasizing that the dynamics of a small town and a football team only contribute to that culture.
“In certain communities, it is not what you talk about,” she explained. “You assume it’s not happening. So when it does, it rocks you to your core. For some, it might be easier to stay in denial about it.”
Jennifer and Michelle both expressed confusion at what to do next for their sons.
“I tried to take him to counseling today, and he said he didn’t want to go back,” Michelle said. When he told her he just wanted to “forget about it,” she replied, “Baby, you’re not going to forget about it anytime soon. This is just starting.”
“It’s very painful. For some of the freshmen and sophomores, this was their first sexual experience. And it was violent,” wept Jennifer. “That breaks my heart.”
Both women say they believe that their sons felt the alleged assaults were part of routine varsity initiation. “They thought it was a rite of passage,” said Jennifer, the conversation visibly wearing on her. “They were so desperate to play football. They thought it was normal.”
After the accusations came to light, Jennifer said that other students harassed the alleged victims in the halls, calling them “rats” and “snitches.”
Inside the school’s blue and white halls, an 18-year-old student, Joshua*—who spoke to The Daily Beast with the permission of his parents—said high-schoolers were largely instructed by teachers to keep quiet about the allegations. He said, in April, that school officials told kids over the intercom, “Don’t let it define us as a community.” School officials stressed that remaining quiet about the alleged assaults should be part of “the healing process,” he said.
Still, he said then, “everyone is talking about it.”
Joshua—who has since graduated—said a lot of students were siding with the accused athletes. Some of the teens, mostly athletes, were calling the victims “rats and snitches,” he said, echoing Michelle and Jennifer’s accounts.
“A lot of the athletes are saying there’s no real victim here,” he said.
At least one teen even expressed his support for the accused boys by wearing a T-shirt to school with Robert Olivarez Jr.’s face on it. The shirt was made for a playoff game last year. (Olivarez Jr. was the one who allegedly raped the 16-year-old with the carbon-dioxide tank.)
“The football team means more than anything around here,” Joshua added. “The football team is what means the most to the community and the administration.”
But for Joshua and some other students, “this [scandal] has to be seen” instead of hidden because the “school has gotten away with so much… it’s so incredibly sickening and we all want justice for [the victims].
“It’s shocking that no one died,” he added. “With how brutal it was.”
‘New Year, New Initiation’
“This is taking place in the locker rooms during the day on school property,” Michelle said. “In the buses, at the little team parties. Anywhere they could do it, they were doing it.”
The mothers say there were even assaults in the locker-room showers and that boys began keeping on their underwear while bathing because they were terrified of being targeted.
According to their sons, once enough pairs of underwear were allegedly ripped off and stuffed down the drains, it clogged the pipes in the school.
La Vernia Independent School District Superintendent José Moreno, through a representative, “politely declined” to comment on this story—and the allegations herein—when reached last week. (Note: This story previously identified Pascual Gonzalez, who has been assisting the district with media requests, as a “spokesman” for Moreno. He is not an official spokesperson for the district.)
In April, a civil lawsuit was filed in Texas’ Western District Court, claiming that school coaches “sanctioned these rituals” and that other school officials “turned a blind eye toward the abuse, even after the abuse was reported to them.”
The 19-page complaint—filed on behalf of an alleged victim, Child Doe—names the school district, Superintendent Moreno, Principal Kimberley Martin, and Coaches Brandon Layne, Richard Hinojosa, Chris Taber, Keith Barnes, and Scott Grub, as co-defendants in the case.
According to Doe’s lawsuit, as a 15-year-old freshman, he was promoted onto the varsity football team. During an away game in fall 2015, three upperclassmen allegedly forced Doe onto the locker room floor and raped him using a Gatorade bottle.
The suit alleges that the whole school quickly knew about the attack, including a teacher who reached out to Layne, the school’s athletic director. According to the complaint, that teacher told Doe—in front of her class full of students—that the alleged assault was “wrong” and that she was sorry. She urged the other students to “cut it out,” according to the suit, and emailed Layne about it. She allegedly told Doe that “it would be taken care of.”
The complaint claims that Layne—who left the school before the scandal broke—told his varsity players to quit abusing one another.
“You won’t be able to get a job, no girl will want to date you, and you could go to prison,” the complaint says Layne told the players. (Reached by email last week, Layne said, “Due to there still being open cases, I don’t feel it appropriate to comment at this time.”)
Despite this alleged deterrent, Doe claims that his teammates repeatedly attempted to assault him over the next year. Doe’s complaint says that at one point a senior grabbed him at an indoor practice facility in the school while holding a metal pipe—and flipped him over, threatening to rape him with the instrument. When a coach walked in, the senior dropped the pipe and walked away.
During another attempt just two weeks after the first attack, according to the complaint, Doe was “punched and fondled” before fighting off his alleged assailants.
But he wasn’t able to escape every time, and Doe alleges that he was raped again with a cardboard tube stripped from a coat hanger. Doe said the players who attacked him laughed during the assault, chortling, “New year, new initiation.”
Doe’s lawsuit sought damages for mental anguish, physical pain, medical expenses, and punitive damages—and his family was hoping to censure the district’s employees. He withdrew from the school after the alleged assaults.
But the suit, which was filed by San Antonio attorney John Kemmerer “J.K.” Ivey, was dismissed in July, citing Ivey’s recent decline in health. The alleged victim’s family may later reopen the case if they so choose.
(Before the case was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice by the Doe family, the defendants filed several motions to dismiss the case.)
Ivey told The Daily Beast in April that the case was likely “just the first shot” and that he “would not be surprised if this was just the first of what will be many lawsuits,” though no other civil suits have been filed.
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story—on either side of the allegations—placed blame for the abuse scandal squarely on La Vernia High School and the La Vernia Independent School District.
“What those boys did was sickening, but, at the core, the school is at fault,” Joshua’s mother told The Daily Beast in April. “We send our kids there every day. It all boils down to the school.”
Jennifer echoed that point, observing that Superintendent Moreno was far “too worried about the school and the football program” to handle the abuse claims with any compassion.
It’s “typical for La Vernia,” Michelle added, to “sweep it all under the rug.”
Both of the moms want to see the entire school cleaned out: “All the coaches, the superintendent, the school board, the vice principal, the principal.”
When the scandal broke, the first email sent out to parents following the arrests was titled “HS Athletics Letter March 23, 2017.”
“The title of the attachment was deceiving and the body of the letter said nothing,” seethed one concerned parent, Stephen McNeill, at a May school board meeting. “It leads me to believe that title was intentionally written that way in order to mislead. Maybe to hide the fact that Mr. Moreno has finally admitted that there has been a problem in one of his schools.”
The meeting that day took place inside the picturesque high school, awash with evening sunlight on Bluebonnet Road. The glass doors were spray-painted with colorful messages of support: “We <3 our town” and “Go Bears, Go!” Pickup trucks and SUVs thronged the parking lot, where trees peacefully rustled.
What started out as a routine Monday-night event—handing out ribbons to gifted students, issuing bland announcements about upcoming events—became charged and hostile when McNeill rose to speak.
“For over a month, you could not even bring yourselves to say the words ‘alleged sexual assault,’” fumed McNeill, admonishing Moreno. “To the victims, this says that you do not believe the accusations and are just protecting the perpetrators, the [La Vernia School District] administration, and the board.”
As McNeill hollered at the administrators, La Vernia Police Chief Bruce Ritchey—who is no longer leading the investigation into the assaults—hid behind a column in the very back of the room, where extra chairs were stacked, where no parents or reporters could see him.
Ritchey did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, and he refused to answer questions when approached at the school board meeting in La Vernia. But in March, he told The Daily Beast that the assaults were “a hazing gone bad,” adding, “these kids were stupid.”
Moreno, too, has been largely unwilling to give one-on-one interviews to reporters or to answer questions in a public forum. Instead, he typically pulls reporters into a private room during the school board meetings, where he reads from a prepared statement and will only discuss positive changes being made in his administration.
His first public comments on the scandal came in the form of a Facebook post encouraging the community to “tell our story before someone tells it for us.”
He wrote, “Let others know that we as a community will not be defined by the negative press outside of our community and various social media outlets. Be proud to let them know that just this past week our Bears and Lady Bears soccer teams defeated their opponents in the first round of playoffs.”
At the May school board meeting, Moreno read aloud from another prepared statement. “I realize the allegations have impacted our entire community,” he read. “Our hearts go out to our students and our families as well as our teachers and our administrators. I ask that we continue to reach out and support one another. Let’s hold strong to our La Vernia family values and not allow for news headlines, social media, or gossip to negatively influence who we are or the success of our students and who they will become. Thank you.”
This circle-the-wagons tone was echoed by Taber, the school district’s head football coach, who claimed in a March statement that he informed all male athletes at the school that “measures are being taken by the athletic department to ensure students are participating in a safe environment.”
Students, he emphasized, will be supervised “at all times” while in athletic facilities.
“I know this is a very troubling time for our students, staff, and our community,” he wrote. “It is very important that we stick together. We will be strong and get through this together.”
Then he added, “Go Bears!!!”
‘It Ain’t No Damn Tradition’
The varsity sexual-abuse scandal may be the largest to engulf the La Vernia school district, but the town has weathered a shocking number of school-related problems over the years—including the alleged rape of a middle-schooler on campus last year. The school district never announced the rape to parents, according to multiple sources, but it was widely known around the small town. (Neither the school district nor the police department responded to questions from The Daily Beast about the alleged rape.)
Then, this past May, a La Vernia High School student was charged with possession of child pornography after a fellow student told police that she was assaulted and that her attack was filmed on the suspect’s phone. According to the victim’s account, the assaults happened on campus—in a school hallway—in November 2016. During an interview with police, the suspect allegedly admitted to having other images on his phone. According to police records obtained by News 4 San Antonio, officials found at least 20 photos of nude children between the ages of 8 and 14. Superintendent Moreno issued a statement after news broke of the arrest, noting that disciplinary action was being taken and that the suspect, who was never identified, was expelled from the school on Dec. 1.
It isn’t clear if the suspect was involved in any of the alleged athletic team assaults or if the child-pornography case ever went to trial. Ritchey never returned phone messages seeking comment on the case.
There have also been allegations of theft and embezzlement within the district, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 2011, a seventh-grade teacher led police on a high-speed chase and was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and assault on a public servant. That same year, a vice principal at the middle school committed suicide. A local story about that case was appropriately titled, “La Vernia Parents Left to Speculate About School Board Secrecy and Turmoil.”
In 2015, a physics and anatomy teacher at the school was arrested and eventually convicted of an “improper relationship” with a 16-year-old student. He is now serving 10 years of probation as a registered sex offender, according to Texas Department of Public Safety online records. The next year, in 2016, a La Vernia math teacher quietly resigned during an FBI investigation that later resulted in child-pornography charges. Theodore De Aubrey, 57, pleaded guilty to one felony in that case.
Twenty-eight employees have so far resigned or retired from the La Vernia Independent School District in 2017, local TV station KENS5 reported this month. The year before, 37 people reportedly stepped down from the district. There are four schools in the district.
“In my position there, where I had an insight into just how many people resigned and how many new hires there were each year, the amount of turnover was surprising to me,” Brian*, a former employee at the school district, told The Daily Beast last week.
According to KENS5, one former teacher wrote in a 2013 exit letter that they quit because “psychological working conditions are very poor” in the district. The unidentified teacher continued, “I began to feel very professionally vulnerable, as I realized that my supervisor was, in my opinion based on my observations, more interested in keeping things quiet and peaceful, than doing what was professionally responsible and ethical.”
Brian said he was surprised anyone was so explicit about their reasons for leaving.
“I certainly didn’t detail all of the reasons for my departure when I resigned, but if I had been truly happy with my work environment, I wouldn’t have been looking in the first place,” he said.
Moreno, unsurprisingly, responded to the KENS5 story in a prepared statement, “The investigation led by the Texas Rangers as well as the one led by the school district continue. No reports have been issued yet. As is common with any school system, a certain percentage of the employee work-force retires or resigns at the end of a school year. La Vernia ISD experienced the same. People choose to leave for a variety of reasons, mostly personal like new jobs, moving, or retirement.”
“The level of scandal and stuff that happens in La Vernia is very unusual” for the town’s size, Brian said in May, over coffee in San Antonio. He asked not to be identified for fear of losing future work opportunities in Texas education.
“La Vernia Independent School District is the biggest employer in town,” he said. People won’t speak out because they’re “afraid for their jobs.”
Brian said that after the hazing arrests, Superintendent Moreno “completely missed the mark” when it came to showing concern for the alleged victims or parents whose children could have been affected.
“I think all he can see is what’s best for the district,” Brian explained. “With him you’ll get moments, moments, of genuine, and then it’s back to business.
“The people who work there can only follow the lead of their leader. When you have someone who isn’t concerned with the welfare of his own employees and only concerned about how the district looks to the outside, everyone else’s hands are tied,” he said.
“That’s the way Moreno operates,” he elaborated. “It’s all about how things look. It’s always been that way.”
The abuse scandal has been hard for La Vernia—which likes to think of itself as “exceptional,” Brian said. People in town want to believe,“‘We’re a community of God, we’re holier than thou, we don’t have things going on like that in our community. We don’t want to possibly think that any of our star athletes, boys, are doing things like this to other boys.’
“They don’t want to think that kind of thing would happen in their town,” he said.
Angela*, the parent of a student on the football team, told The Daily Beast that the shroud of secrecy and the lack of transparency from the administration has only made the community more tense.
One night in March, the father of a suspect walked into a restaurant in town and—referencing the assaults—yelled, “It’s a lie! It’s bullshit! It never happened!”
“I think everyone is just really embarrassed,” Angela said. “We’re all praying very hard that the truth will come.”
She implored: “Every instance—whether it’s bullying or sexual assault—it should all be public knowledge.”
Police say the alleged varsity sex abuse may have been going on since at least 2014. But one former football player, a quarterback on the team more than 20 years ago, told The Daily Beast that he never experienced anything so violent while in school.
Adrian Guilbeau, a 37-year-old former homecoming king who still sports a La Vernia tattoo, comes from a family that has lived in the historic town since the 1800s. They were one of the first black families to move to La Vernia, and Adrian says he was the only black student enrolled when he attended the school.
On a Sunday afternoon this past spring, he sat with his mother, 62-year-old Audrey Calhoun, inside of her white mobile home. The house is decorated with a neat green trim; there were wind-chimes on the porch and cigarettes on the coffee table.
When Adrian was on the varsity team, initiations typically involved carrying other players’ books to class or being knocked to the end of the lunch line. “We poured oil in [a teammate’s] car one time,” he said, laughing. “On the seats and stuff, on the windshield. Dumb stuff like that.
“One time, we turned the lights off in the weight room and threw weights—now that was dumb. But physically assaulting somebody like that?… This to me is not hazing. This is rape.”
His mother interjected, “It ain’t no damn tradition.”
“This is city shit,” Adrian said, referring to the sexual assaults. “It’s what they do out there and it’s wild and crazy. People from the country don’t do that.
“I’m not saying it’s the H-E-B’s fault, but when the H-E-B came in it changed everything,” he added. “La Vernia was a small town, there was a grocery store, we had a wood store, a mini mart, there was one Dairy Queen.”
Audrey said her family found out about the scandal through Facebook comments and the news, like most other families in town.
“I feel like people knew something was going on and they just closed their eyes and dismissed it,” she said. “Like La Vernia does.
“Little people—like I call us, we don’t live in big houses or fancy houses—are dismissed. They don’t listen to us. From what I’ve heard, there’s been complaints in the past, and nothing was done.
“If you’re Mr. So-and-So or whoever with a big name and you have all this money in La Vernia, then you’re protected, something’s done for you, and they listen to you,” she lamented.
In town, both mother and son agree, the school is the hub of social activity and power.
“The school is the main interest,” Adrian said. “If stuff happens with the students, it’s going to cause mass hysteria. You have to keep that quiet because you’re going to lose money.
“For years it’s been like that because football is the biggest attraction,” he said. “La Vernia’s all about football. If you’re not in athletics, you ain’t shit.
“It’s the image,” added Audrey.
“On a Friday night after the game [the players] go to someone’s house, and everyone’s loaded up on beer, alcohol. Win or lose, we’re getting drunk. That’s just how it went. Now I guess they’re touching on boys.”
“Football is everything,” Adrian stressed. “If you’re on the team and you played football, the athletes are sort of shielded.
“I did feel invincible,” he said of his time as quarterback. “I felt like I floated through the motherfucking hallways.
“What are they going to do, kick me off the football team?” he mused. “I’m the shit; they need me.”
‘They’ve Ruined His Life’
“Dustin is innocent,” says his lawyer, Alfonso Cabanas.
That would be 18-year-old Dustin Norman, whom Michelle saw in the H-E-B, the one accused of helping rape a boy with a CO2 tank. Cabanas, who spoke to The Daily Beast from his office in downtown San Antonio, sat perched behind his desk.
He emphasized how much he believed in his client’s innocence.
“He’s had a very hard time,” Cabanas said. “Dustin is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered kid who never had any disciplinary issues… [but] they label him and call him a child molester and a rapist.”
Norman wasn’t allowed to walk the stage during the La Vernia High School graduation, but he did receive his diploma and will attend college in the fall.
“They’ve ruined his life,” Cabanas said of the school district. “He’s ostracized everywhere he goes, including H-E-B and Whataburger.”
The district’s decision to expel Dustin, Cabanas said, was “extremely unfair” and his client has considered legal action as a recourse.
“You can see how or why Dr. Moreno’s inaction has led to this mess,” Cabanas noted. “I think the school reacted without thinking of the consequences.”
Like most others interviewed for this story, the attorney took issue with the lack of communication and transparency by the school district. The spread of the story on its own, via local news and social media, created a “hysteria” that Moreno could have prevented, Cabanas said.
“The school is trying to protect itself,” he said. “If, in fact, this incident did happen, why not go after the teachers, the athletic staff who knew about it and did nothing to resolve it?
“[Moreno] passed judgment right away,” Cabanas added. “He did not have compassion. They violated Dustin’s due-process rights.”
People in town, Cabanas claimed, have turned on the 18-year-old.
“He’s been secluded to his home,” the attorney continued. “It affects his mom, just like it would affect anyone’s mom. They’ve been ostracized by the community and their coworkers. They’re upset. They would ask that people respect their privacy and to not pass judgment on the arrest and mugshot and to wait until the facts come out. It has taken a toll on them.”
It may take some time for all those facts to emerge.
The investigation began in earnest in March, when police began interviewing alleged victims. Within days, at least nine more boys were sitting in forensic interviews at the local child-advocacy center. Police say there are at least 10 victims, but Michelle, Jennifer, and others in town claim there may be more who don’t want to come forward or admit that they were abused.
Before long, the Texas Rangers and the state attorney general’s office swooped in to take the case out of local hands.
That decision was “applauded” by La Vernia’s mayor, Robert Gregory. “It was best that the case moved over for the Rangers to be in the lead role and our [police] department being in the support role,” he told The Daily Beast, over the phone. “We’ve had great support from the state. Once this investigation closes, my role is going to change. My role will then be to bring the community together.”
Even though Gregory has been at his post for five years, not a single family interviewed for this story knew his name. He still has not spoken publicly about the scandal, and a lot of residents want to know why he’s been so absent in the face of serious community hardship.
The mayor said he understands that there’s frustration in the community over the “perceived lack of information” but points back to the ongoing investigation, and he says he’s limited in what he can say.
“Once we start to put some closure to this, I think you’ll see the community realize what did or didn’t take place,” he said. “We’re still a vibrant community and we will get through this.”
Gregory also appears alone in his belief that Moreno has done a “fabulous job” in his role as superintendent.
“Everything has been proactive in terms of safety in the school,” he affirmed.
“Every time that we’ve ever had something—like a car accident—take place, this is one community that always comes together,” Gregory said. “We bear that tragedy together. That’s a place I want to live in and be a part of.
“We pray, we raise our kids, and we try to do it to the best of our ability.”
Gregory’s definitely not alone in stressing the need for La Vernia to rally right now. Various civic groups have organized shows of solidarity—including Grandma’s House Childcare, whose owner Sue Coats organized an April 5k walkathon in the city park to fight child abuse and raise awareness. The walk began and ended at a white gazebo in the center of town, covered in blue bows and pinwheels. For the walkers, there were cakes, chili, and face-painting.
“Everyone needs to be prayed for and have the cloud lifted over us,” Coats said, the Saturday of the event. “We need to be united again.”
Only about two dozen people gathered for the walkathon that warm and windy day. Most of those present were not even from La Vernia but instead were members of the San Antonio chapter of Guardians of the Children, a motorcycle group that advocates against child abuse. (“This is still child abuse, even if the actors were minors also,” said chapter President Tom Patterson, 51, who has been in the group for six years. “It’s not too surprising to see teenagers doing this.”)
Despite the low turnout, Coats is hoping she and other La Vernia residents can help “bring our community back together again.”
Coats’ children long-ago graduated from the high school, but she said they were never aware of any assaults when they were students. Her husband, Doug, is a retired football coach. They both lament how the town has changed since the H-E-B opened nearly five years ago.
“You don’t recognize everyone you see anymore,” said Doug, noting that in the two decades his family has lived here, the population has doubled. More and more subdivisions have moved in and taken away some of the city’s trademark serenity, he lamented.
“I used to like the quietness, but now I don’t know.”
Still, the community is more resilient than people are giving it credit for, he said.
“People say [the abuse scandal] destroyed the community. It hasn’t destroyed it. It’s going to be around forever, if Jesus doesn’t come back,” he noted.
“We’ll survive this, believe it or not.”
‘Hope and Healing’
Since the scandal broke, La Vernia’s faith leaders have been encouraging the town to embrace mercy and acceptance for the accused rapists.
Right after the arrests, the La Vernia Ministerial Alliance and the La Vernia News hosted a joint community service with 10 local churches to encourage “hope and healing.” Students and parents spent the evening filling plastic Easter eggs with positive messages of hope and praying together.
Pastor Steve Curry, of the La Vernia United Methodist Church, told local media at the time that the service was intended to “lament what’s happened: the loss of innocence, the crimes that have taken place.”
Over at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, Father Stan Fiuk hosted at least one youth ministry in which he called for forgiveness. (One of the suspects, notably, was a youth leader at the church, according to multiple sources.)
“We want to see only negative, but I am asking where is positive?” Fiuk preached to the congregation. “Not only on the level of La Vernia, but on the level of the state, on the level of the country, we are sick. These children need mercy and we have to learn to be merciful because they are victims of the sick society.”
St. Ann’s director of religious education, Shannon Kosub, also told local media: “I hope that those in our community that are true Christians will show true mercy to everyone involved and will reach out to show love. Because that’s all our duty is, is to love.”
Some people, like Gary Darnell—a bespectacled, ponytail-wearing member of the Baptist church in town, known as “Uncle Gary” to the flock—believe the abuse scandal is part of God’s plan to bring the community closer together.
“It has to,” Gary insisted, as he stood in the grass at the city park. “It has to bring people closer to God because it requires a lot of forgiveness.”
Gary has lived in La Vernia for seven years. He’s a photographer for the La Vernia News and the Wilson County News. Like many La Vernians, he blames the coaches and the administration at the school for the scandal.
“I’m really upset with the coaches and the principal,” he told The Daily Beast in April. “How do you not protect them? The school’s athletic program isn’t that important—not at the expense of some other kid. And that’s what it turned out to be.”
Gary, looking on at the park, said he believes La Vernia is the kind of place where neighbors volunteer to fix one another’s porches, a community where people feel a responsibility and compassion for each other. But “the devil has a way of trying to manipulate the world and create chaos,” he said.
“They’re all kids; they’re still kids,” he continued. “Kids on both sides will suffer their whole lives.”
The town’s youth ministries are particularly consumed with how to address the scandal. On a sleepy Sunday in May, at the 10:30 a.m. youth-led church service at La Vernia United Methodist, the lessons presented by the teens may have seemed unrelated to the abuse allegations, but the messages carried a lot of salient subtext.
“He puts you in a situation for a reason—because He knows you can handle it,” said a 15-year-old freshman at the high school, who spoke nervously before the congregation. Dressed in brown cowboy boots and a white button-up, the teen used Tim Tebow’s switch from the NFL to the MLB as a metaphor for following one’s dreams in difficult moments.
“As we’re struggling to find out what God wants us to do with our lives, I challenge you to find out,” he said, his voice wavering as he read from his lined school notebook.
The chapel shook with guitar-heavy, contemporary Christian music. Teens in bright spring colors sang out, “Through the storm, He is Lord.”
After the service, Pastor Curry said his congregation is shaken by the scandal. “We went through a hard time this spring,” he said. “That’s been traumatic for this community.
“The students seem to be feeling that the adults betrayed them,” Curry observed. “That there was somebody in the school who knew what was going on, didn’t do anything about it, let it fester. I don’t know.”
He continued, “A lot of people will move to a community this size to kind of get away from what they perceive to be big-city problems. But of course, the truth of the matter is we live in a world stained by sin; it happens everywhere.”
Phillip Higginbotham, the youth minister at the church, leaned back onto the chair in his office, which is filled with notes from children, family photos, and football paraphernalia.
“These boys made terrible decisions,” he sighed. “I don’t want to say I’m glad that this came to light, but I’m thankful that we can stop it.
“I don’t know how far we are through this process,” Higginbotham continued. “Are we finished? Are we just starting? Are we somewhere in the middle? We’re still holding our collective breaths.”
As for his students, he said many of them seem disturbingly desensitized to the alleged assaults.
One of the girls in the high school marching band told Higginbotham, “Well, this is my senior year. If we don’t have a football season, I can’t march. I may talk to my parents about going to Floresville.”
(Several students have mentioned moving to the nearby town, he said, if the La Vernia athletics program is permanently depleted by the scandal.)
She then shrugged her shoulders and said she assumed the “same stuff” was going on at the rival school in Floresville, too. “It happens over there, right?” she asked him.
“It’s almost normal on some level to them,” he marveled.
‘It’s One Real Clusterf$&k’
The Texas Rangers have been investigating the La Vernia abuse allegations for five months now, and have been—as the state agency is wont to be—extremely quiet about the progress of the investigation.
Lt. Jason Reyes, of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told The Daily Beast last week that there is still “no timeline” for when the probe will be concluded and that there have been no additional arrests beyond the initial 13. Reyes declined to elaborate on where the probe stands or to say if the Rangers will continue conducting daily interviews on campus, as they were doing at the end of the last school year.
Authorities are allegedly encouraging Michelle’s son to speak about what may have happened, for fear that video footage will surface online of the alleged crimes.
“It’s ongoing, but no sign of any indictments in the near future,” Cabanas, who represents Norman, told The Daily Beast this month. Otherwise, there were no updates.
At least one local news outlet was mired in a legal fight with the school district over access to records, and now that the only civil suit has been dropped, it isn’t clear what will happen next.
As one local defense attorney recently noted, “It’s one real clusterf$&k.”
But Moreno refuses to let the public see a shadow hanging over the impending school year, which began Wednesday.
A letter from the superintendent in the La Vernia News unveiled the district’s new theme for the year: “We Are La Vernia.”
“I think the town is ready to move on; I think the community is ready to move on,” Moreno told San Antonio’s KSAT-TV, in a rare one-on-one interview this month. “We’re going to be OK as we start moving forward.”
When asked by a reporter if the scandal was preventable, Moreno replied that “this was an underground culture among a few students, and those are the students that we still care about, but I think that as soon as we found out what we needed to find out, at that point we did what we needed to do as a school district.”
Moreno also pointed to the changes he tried to implement at the end of the last school year: a full-time police officer to secure the high school’s campus, better training for teachers, and a way to report bullying online.
Meanwhile, Michelle called such efforts by the administration “a band-aid over this huge tumor.”
Football training for the new season began Aug. 7. Most of the suspects were expelled and won’t be at practice until they are either convicted or acquitted—if they haven’t already graduated from high school. The alleged victims are, for the most part, still anonymous.
Jennifer recently told The Daily Beast that her son is back on the varsity team this year. She noted, relieved, that they’ve been moved to a different field house so they aren’t back in the gym where the assaults allegedly occurred.
“The boys are resilient and push forward,” she said last week, adding that there are still “bullies” around at school and on the team—students who support the accused, witnessed the assaults, and even encouraged the abuse.
Coach Chris Taber told La Vernia News in July: “The big thing is how we preach to the kids about right and wrong and the choices we make.
“We have to make sure we stay the course and remember why we’re here—to compete, to create a family atmosphere, and to make lifelong memories.”
*Names have been changed or omitted throughout this story at the request of the participants in order to protect the identity of alleged sexual-assault victims and other minors at La Vernia High School.
—with additional reporting by Brandy Zadrozny