The dark cloud that has lingered over the small town of La Vernia, Texas, for more than two years may finally be lifting.
Four teens each pleaded no contest to the felony charge of unlawful restraint on Friday, reported KENS5-TV, in the years-long sexual-assault and bullying case that victimized at least 10 boys on high-school sports teams in Texas and ripped apart the 1,200-person town. A no-contest plea, unlike a guilty plea, is an acceptance of the court's punishment without an admission of guilt.
The defendants were juveniles at the time of the alleged crimes, and their names have not been publicly released, said the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
As The Daily Beast reported two years ago, the case began in March 2017, when 13 La Vernia High School students—many of them varsity athletes on the football, baseball, and basketball teams—were arrested in the alleged sexual abuse of at least 10 victims. Authorities have said they used deodorant bottles, cardboard rods, flashlights, soda bottles, pipes, and baseball bats to sodomize their younger teammates.
In the 30 months since, most of the 13 accused boys—many of them now men—have walked free on bail during the investigation, gassing up their trucks at the local H-E-B grocery and grabbing food at Whataburger, while still living near their alleged victims.
The judge, who reportedly called the case “a tragedy of society,” approved each of the plea deals Friday, which will include five years of probation. One of defendants was ordered to serve 100 hours of community service, and three others were ordered to serve 200 hours each. Some of the defendants were also fined, KENS5-TV reported.
An attorney for one of the teens told a reporter on Friday that his client was just “happy to put this behind us.”
More plea hearings in the case are scheduled for Oct. 21 and Nov. 26.
The rape scandal rocked La Vernia, a lush, green town just 30 miles southeast of San Antonio, spackled with farms, historical markers, donut shops, and about a dozen churches. Trailer homes and pristine mini-mansions alike populate the area, and most drama still takes place under the Friday Night Lights at football games.
But in March 2017, officers informed the parents of at least 10 players that their sons had been sodomized by their teammates.
When a La Vernia police officer told Michelle* that her son, a gifted player on the high-school football team, had been among the victims, she sobbed angrily:
“What did they use on my son?” she asked.
“‘I’d rather not tell you,’” the officer allegedly responded. “‘You don’t want to know.’”
About six months after the scandal broke, Michelle and her family moved out of town. The self-described “sports mom” lived in La Vernia for years, attending one of the big churches within city limits before the area even acquired an H-E-B—that typical Texan symbol that town residents claim separates longtime residents from newcomers.
After the arrests, and several angry school board meetings, the case was taken up by the Texas Rangers and the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Updates for the victims and their families were rare. Michelle even ran into some of the suspects in the grocery store.
It’s “typical for La Vernia,” Michelle said in 2017, to “sweep it all under the rug.”
Now, she’s relieved that someone is finally facing consequences, Michelle told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
“I’m still angry about the whole thing and I want them to pay for what they did,” she said.
“It was very upsetting to me that everything seemed to disappear and was forgotten,” Michelle said. “There’s so much corruption and drama there.”
As for her son, “He doesn’t like to talk about it,” Michelle said.
In addition to the criminal cases, two families filed civil lawsuits against the school district, including one in Jan. 2018 that claimed a teenage basketball player was raped more than 30 times in just five months at teammates’ homes, during basketball practice, in the La Vernia High School locker room, in a shower at the school, at other schools’ gyms, and elsewhere. That lawsuit claimed that a La Vernia coach witnessed and ignored at least two violent assaults that traumatized their son, despite the boy “screaming and yelling as loud as he could.”
According to multiple interviews with mothers of purported victims and claims in the lawsuit, boys who were promoted to varsity teams began showering with underwear on in hopes that it would deter their assailants. The ripped, bloody underwear was shoved down drains, clogging the pipes in the locker room, the La Vernia mothers told The Daily Beast in 2017.
Another civil lawsuit in April 2017 claimed that school’s coaches “sanctioned these rituals” and “turned a blind eye toward the abuse.” The two cases have since been consolidated, and they are set to go to trial against the school district in February 2020.
San Antonio-based Attorney Fidel Rodriguez, Jr., who represents one of the victims bringing legal action, said on Friday that his client “is finally vindicated for having the courage to come forth and report these inhumane actions.”
“Our client is relieved that the truth has finally surfaced and that the community can begin the healing process,“ said Rodriguez. “These past two years have been very difficult for our client, who was ostracized by his classmates at the high school and considered to be a ‘snitch’ for standing up against the misplaced culture to the point that he had to transfer schools.”
In addition to the pleas this week, four other former players were indicted by a Wilson County grand jury in June. Alejandro Ibarra, Dustin Norman, Colton Weidner, and Christian “Brock” Roberts, all now 20 years old, were formally charged with engaging in organized criminal activity in the case.
The June indictments allege that Norman held down a boy in Aug. 2016 and sodomized him with a cardboard rod; that he held down the same boy in September and raped him with a shampoo bottle; and that he held down another boy in November and sodomized him with a CO2 air bottle. Meanwhile, Ibarra’s indictment lists the same dates and objects allegedly used to assault the same boys, who are identified in the documents only as juvenile #57 and juvenile #65.
Roberts’ indictment alleges that in five different instances he used his finger to assault four different boys between Nov. 2016 and Feb. 2017. On another occasion, he allegedly used a flashlight. Lastly, Weidner’s indictment lists the same five occasions and instruments of assault as Roberts, involving the same victims, who are identified in the paperwork only as juveniles #119, #97, #39, and #112.
All four of the men who were indicted have consistently denied their involvement in the case. Dustin Norman’s attorney, Alfonso Cabanas, told The Daily Beast in June that the allegations against his client “have no merit and have done nothing more than continue to ruin an innocent person’s life.”
Former Superintendent Jose Moreno was heavily criticized for his handling of the alleged crimes and resigned in Nov. 2017, taking a job soon afterward as superintendent of Robstown Independent School District.
But the embattled district has remained mired in scandal, even after Moreno’s departure. His replacement, Trent Lovette, was accused of inappropriately touching a high-school cheerleader at a football game in August, an incident which police are still investigating. Meanwhile, other accusations against the new superintendent have surfaced, including claims from a female employee who said she saw sexual content on Lovette’s work computer.
Lovette said the past several months of allegations against him have taken a toll on his health, and he went on an indefinite medical leave of absence earlier this week.
“My leave will be effective immediately,” Lovette said. “At present, I am not in condition to be the effective leader this district needs and deserves. During this time away I will focus on restoring my health and working to heal my family of the deep wounds from the allegations and attacks against me,” Lovette said on Monday.
*Michelle’s identity has been concealed to protect the identity of her son, an alleged sexual-assault victim.