DIETRICH, Idaho — The first child they adopted was a 2-year-old from the Marshall Islands who had rotten teeth and a large abscess covering the side of his face.
At the time, the family of Tim and Shelly McDaniel was still passably conventional in this no-stoplight town of 330, surrounded by high desert dotted with sagebrush and cattle.
But since that first adoption in 2000, the couple have brought into their fold 19 more castaway kids from all over the country — most from troubled families, and half of them black. The McDaniels now provide their town, in Idaho’s conservative Mormon country, with the entirety of its black population, save one mixed-race child from another family.
It is a town in turmoil, thrust into national headlines by a tale of racially charged violence and negligence graphically detailed in a $10 million lawsuit the McDaniels filed last week against the 230-student school district. The suit claims that three players on the high school football team sexually assaulted a mentally disabled teammate — a son of the McDaniels — with a coat hanger, which they kicked deep into his rectum. The three alleged assailants are white; the McDaniels’ son is black.
The McDaniels sought legal help soon after the alleged Oct. 22 assault, which the lawsuit says followed months of escalating race-based bullying that coaches and administrators allegedly ignored.
“I needed to know how to keep him safe,” Shelly McDaniel said of her son, who was a senior. “And we were just shunned.”
The alleged assault and the lawsuit’s contentions have torn apart the once tight-knit community, revealing the challenges of raising an unconventional family in a rural small town and sparking the resentment of people who feel unfairly branded as racists.
“It’s a community on edge,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Kevin Ellis. “I think the way to put it is everybody feels targeted.”
The tormenters, allegedly led by football star John R.K. Howard, a transplant from Texas with ties to a prominent Dietrich family, forced the victim to recite the words to a racist song, called him racist names and, in full view of coaches, physically fought him as part of a “toughening up” program until he fell down unconscious, the lawsuit claims. The players were expelled in November and criminally charged in March.
Howard and an alleged accomplice, 17-year-old Tanner Ward, have been charged as adults with felony sexual assault for forcible penetration with a foreign object. Ward was bound for trial at a preliminary hearing in April; Howard is due in court June 10. A third defendant, 16, will be tried in juvenile court. No one has entered a plea yet.
“They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do,” said Hubert Shaw, who owns the town’s feed lot and whose daughter-in-law is Howard’s aunt.
The McDaniel family began as a “Brady Bunch” unit — Tim and Shelly and their five biological children from previous marriages.
They moved here from Boise, Idaho, two decades ago, as newlyweds. Tim, tired of selling cars, decided to make use of his education degree and accepted a job teaching science at Dietrich High School.
Fifteen years ago, the McDaniels started adopting children. The house felt empty to Shelly when her own children were off with her ex-husband.
“I told her to start saving up,” laughed Tim. “Adopting kids is expensive.”
Tim, 60, and Shelly, 51, now have 25 children in total. To accommodate the outsize brood, they purchased a fitting building: the town’s former elementary school, right across the street from Dietrich High, now a K-12 school. They remodeled it into a high-ceilinged homestead that has housed as many as 33 people. Right now, nine of the children live at home. Outside, the family keeps eight goats, 100 chickens, 12 dogs and five turkeys. Baskets of fresh eggs sit in the former cafeteria.
The McDaniels get state assistance for some of the kids they adopt. The amount depends on the child and the circumstances but caps out at $400 a month. Three of the children are subsidized (by the state of Texas) for that amount.
The family didn’t set out to become so teeming. After adopting several children with severe needs, the couple developed a good reputation with adoption agencies, they said, and people began seeking them out.
“They will take kids no other family will take,” said Marti Wiser, executive director of SNAPS, an adoption advocacy organization in Idaho. “A lot of people might assume they are doing it to make tons of money off each child, but not in that family. I think it just began with a few children, and they just have big hearts and take them in.”
That is how their first adoptee led to two. When the mother of Ladre, the Marshallese boy, came to Idaho to drop the toddler off, she was seven months pregnant. She asked the couple to take her unborn child as well. Five weeks later, Neilani joined the family. Now 18 and 15, both still live at the house.
The family adopted their last pair of siblings eight years ago — a 9-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl who was out of control, punching herself, banging her head, hiding beneath tables at school. Another parent in Dietrich had adopted the children but was struggling and sought help from the school. So Tim McDaniel offered to take the children in for a while.
Among the 16 kids adopted in the years between those bookends is the son allegedly assaulted in the locker room last fall. The Washington Post does not name victims in sexual assault cases.
Exposed to drugs and alcohol in utero and diagnosed with disorganized schizophrenia, he struggles to carry out tasks that involve a sequence. When writing the first sentence of an essay, for instance, he may forget the point of the project. “He carries this huge backpack” full of all his books so he can be sure to have the one he needs, said Shelly McDaniel, herself adopted and raised in Boise.
As a lineman with the football team, the teen could seldom avoid jumping offside; the quarterback’s play calls confounded him.
Shelly says she first learned of the bullying in August through another son, 17-year-old Rasaan, the team’s manager. He told her some of the players would “hump” the backsides of him and his brother and other boys.
Then her son came home in October with his underwear torn by a “wedgie” that he said his teammates had given him in the locker room. Incensed, McDaniel said, she marched across the street the next day to confront the principal, Stephanie Shaw. McDaniel said Shaw instructed her to call the coach, Michael Torgerson. Shaw could not be reached for comment; Ben Hardcastle, the superintendent, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. The three are among the defendants named in the lawsuit.
When Shelly asked Rasaan if he had been targeted as well, he told her about the alleged hanger assault on his brother. The couple took their son to the emergency room for treatment, and hospital staff reported the alleged sexual assault to the police.
The town of Dietrich was founded in 1909 along a railway whose cargo trains still announce their presence with a blast of the horn while disappearing into the desert expanse.
Ernest Hemingway used to hunt pheasant here, and townsfolk have a photo to prove it.
Back then, most of the inhabitants were homesteaders or rail workers. Now many of the residents either work in neighboring communities or for one of the two largest employers in town, the school district and the cattle feedlot owned by Hubert Shaw.
His son, Acey, is much beloved as one of the winningest girls’ basketball coaches in the state. Acey Shaw caught a rare bovine disease that nearly killed him and left him wheelchair-bound. But he still coaches, as an ESPN segment on him noted last year, even though “he can’t walk, and can barely talk.”
Acey and his wife, Jalyn, took Howard in last year. He had moved “due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas,” according to the lawsuit. He has since moved back to Texas, where his mother declined an interview request.
Hubert Shaw said he didn’t know Howard well.
“I would guarantee that those boys had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone,” Shaw said. “Boys are boys and sometimes they get carried away. . . . Have you ever been popped on the butt with a towel when you was in sports?
“But I know all the coaches,” he said, “and they are high-integrity people, and they are not going to let anything happen.”
The town’s mayor, Don Heiken, said sports are everything in Dietrich — to an unhealthy extent.
“My son and daughter went to school here in the late ’80s,” he said. “Neither wanted to take sports. Well, the kids ridiculed them. My son went out for football one year because he got tired of being teased.”
Heiken does not sugarcoat his opinion on the matter.
“I think they oughta fire them all,” he said, referring to the long list of defendants in the civil case. “When this happened, everybody just swept it under the rug. . . . These two boys were the top players on the football team. [The coaches] didn’t want to rock the boat. They were having such a good season.”
But Heiken also said the entire town has been besmirched for the alleged actions of outsiders. (Ward is from the nearby town of Richfield.)
Heiken has gotten a few blistering emails from around the country, “something to the effect of, ‘Dietrich looks like great scenery, but you guys are a bunch of . . . ,’ ” he said, his voice trailing off. “Critics, I guess you’d call them, that were appalled about this whole thing. Well, I was appalled myself.”
The McDaniels, Mormons who worship at the town’s meeting house, said the local bishop has reached out to offer advice on training and support for their son, who just graduated from high school.
“The church asked the people here to love everyone, not take sides, and to say less rather than more,” Shelly McDaniel said. “This is consistent with their stand on being kind to everyone.”
And Ellis, the sheriff, is a family friend the couple has called on to back them up on discipline, they said.
But the McDaniels are looking to move. They had considered it a few years ago, when the state Board of Education investigated Tim McDaniel after some students and parents objected to him using the word “vagina” when teaching reproductive biology. But the dispute made national headlines, the investigation was dropped, and the family decided to stay put.
Now, the McDaniels say, the town feels hostile.
At the Eagle’s Nest, the lone bar and restaurant, barkeep and waitress Felicia Rollyson said she doesn’t understand why the McDaniel family stays.
“Me being a parent, I’d probably do everything in my power to get the f--- out of town,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be here.”
Amid the bitterness and confusion brought by the lawsuit — at one point, all students were evacuated from the school when a McDaniels daughter came to visit a former teacher, her father, without stopping by the office — Rollyson is taken aback by how the town can look like all is in order.
“I was on my front porch drinking my coffee and I thought, ‘This is so amazing, how there are kids playing, people mowing lawns,’ ” she said. “Shoot, there was a boy walking a sheep down the street. You know, everything back to normal.”
But she doesn’t believe it’s really over.
“I think the storm’s just begun,” she said.