Two more suspects will avoid jail time in the mass sexual assault and hazing case involving a high school football team that has for years roiled the 1,200-person town of La Vernia, Texas.
Dustin Norman, 21, and John Rutkowski, 20, accepted plea deals on Monday in the case that victimized at least 10—and up to 35—younger boys at their school just 30 miles southeast of San Antonio. They are the eighth and ninth defendants to avoid jail time and be given the option of expunging the case from their records at the end of their community service and probationary sentences. Attorneys have said the violence irreparably altered the victims’ lives.
Norman pleaded no contest—not an admission of guilt, but an acceptance of the court’s punishment—to a felony charge of unlawful restraint. Norman’s attorney, Alfonso Cabañas, told The Daily Beast on Monday that his client was sentenced to three years deferred adjudication, 300 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. Norman will avoid jail time as long as he follows his probation conditions, said Cabañas.
Rutkowski, meanwhile, was the first defendant in the case to plead no contest to hazing, a class B misdemeanor, in exchange for one year of deferred adjudication, reported The San Antonio Express-News.
In March 2017, 13 students were arrested in the case for allegedly sodomizing their younger teammates on the basketball, football, and baseball teams with foreign instruments like cardboard rods, Gatorade bottles, and flashlights. The subsequent investigation infused the church-filled town with tension and led to legal fights. Eventually, officials from the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety took over the investigation. (Both agencies have repeatedly declined comment to The Daily Beast on details of the case, citing the still-open investigation.)
According to his 2017 arrest affidavit, Rutkowski and two others were accused of holding down a 15-year-old while Christian “Brock” Roberts—who already accepted a plea deal in the case earlier this fall—sodomized him with a flashlight.
Norman’s indictment alleged that he held down a boy on Aug. 15, 2016, sodomizing him with a cardboard rod. He was accused of holding down the same boy on Sept. 30 and raping him with a shampoo bottle. He allegedly held down another boy on Nov. 15 and sodomized him with a CO2 air bottle.
Cabañas said after the hearings on Monday that Norman’s family is just “happy that Dustin can move forward with his life.”
“Although he wanted to continue to fight these allegations against him, the sacrifice and burden on him and his family was too much to continue for another two to three years,” Cabañas said.
Norman and Alejandro Ibarra, now 20—and two others who have already accepted plea deals—were indicted in June on charges of engaging in organized criminal activity. Ibarra’s indictment identifies the same dates, same objects, and same purported victims as Norman’s does. The boys are named in the documents as juvenile #57 and juvenile #65. Ibarra and Norman both initially pleaded not guilty and until Monday had both denied any involvement in the alleged crimes.
Ibarra also appeared in court on Monday but refused a plea deal offered by the Texas Attorney General’s Office despite reported pleas from his attorney to give him more time to decide. According to the Express-News, Ibarra was offered three years of deferred adjudication probation and a chance at early release if he agreed to plead to the state jail felony of unlawful restraint. After he declined, the prosecutor again offered 30 days in the county jail and a plea on a misdemeanor level of unlawful restraint, but Ibarra rejected that too. Ibarra will now be the first defendant expected to face a criminal trial in the case.
Ibarra’s attorney told a reporter that “frankly, I might not even know” why his client didn’t take the deal. He later apologized to Assistant Attorney General Sharon Pruitt for a scheduling conflict last month over a set of hearings.
“That’s OK. I have strong witnesses,” Pruitt reportedly responded.
The state’s case against Ibarra is set to go to trial on July 13.
It is not yet clear if the other three defendants who were charged will plead out in the case.
As The Daily Beast reported in 2017, Ibarra publicly supported his accused teammates on Facebook, both before and after his arrest, commenting on several community threads and on one local reporter’s Facebook post about the case.
“These two didn’t take apart of it [sic],” Ibarra wrote at the time, referring to Norman and Robert Olivarez, Jr., who accepted a plea deal in October. “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.”
Olivarez was accused of holding down a 16-year-old while raping him with the threaded end of a carbon-dioxide tank, according to an affidavit filed at the time of his arrest. Before Olivarez, four boys who were juveniles at the time of the alleged assaults also pleaded no-contest but have had their identities protected by the courts.
Last month, Colton Weidner, 20, and Roberts, 21, also pleaded no-contest to the same charges and also avoided jail time. Weidner’s lawyer, Stephen Barrera, reportedly defended the light sentences, saying, “A lot of the guys that were accused are also victims.”
The Daily Beast reported last month that the nine defendants who have avoided jail time are the only ones to face consequences for the alleged crimes despite a host of other accused enablers, including the boys’ former coaches and teachers.
At least five coaches, who were by law responsible for the boys’ safety, have been accused in federal lawsuits of at best turning “a blind eye toward the abuse—even after the abuse was reported to them”—and at worst ignoring at least one assault. Four of the five coaches who were named as defendants—Brandon Layne, Chris Taber, Richard Hinojosa, Keith Barnes, and Scott Grubb—are still coaching in La Vernia and elsewhere in Texas.
The coaches were eventually dropped as defendants from the lawsuits against the school district. The suits are scheduled for court in February 2020.