The whispers began last fall in Dietrich — allegations that white students on the high school football team had sexually assaulted a black teammate with a coat hanger.
But no one in this rural Idaho town of 330 really knew the horrific details of the case until the victim’s family filed a lawsuit this month against the school.
Now, the lawsuit has sparked recriminations, debate over racism and hand-wringing bewilderment over how something like this may have happened in a town so small that its children attend the lone school in Dietrich from kindergarten through high school graduation.
“A few years ago, some kids broke into the one little store we have in town; that was our big crime wave in Dietrich,” said Mayor Don Heiken. “We’ve never seen anything like this. No one knows how to deal with it, what to make of it.”
Two teammates were expelled from school in November, and in March, after a lengthy investigation, three were criminally charged with sexual assault. A judge sealed records in the case at the request of the state attorney general’s office.
The assault allegedly began with a hug.
When a teammate held out his arms after football practice on Oct. 22, 2015, in their high school locker room, the victim thought he just wanted a hug, according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Idaho.
Instead, the teammate used the hug to bend the victim over while another football player allegedly thrust a coat hanger into the victim’s rectum. A third teammate kicked the coat hanger deeper, according to the criminal complaint.
The attack came after months of racist abuse and bullying by white students against the victim, the lawsuit alleges. The victim “was taunted and called racist names by other members of the team which names included ‘Kool-Aid’ ‘chicken eater’ ‘watermelon’ and [the N-word],” the suit said.
The victim in the school assault was a black student who was adopted at age 4 by two white parents.
The student and his adoptive siblings are the only black people in Dietrich, said Heiken, aside from a second set of white parents who also adopted a few black children several years ago. The Post does not identify victims in sexual assault cases.
The 18-year-old was especially vulnerable because of mental disabilities, said his attorney, R. Keith Roark.
“It’s been difficult for him to fully understand what happened, why they did this to him,” said Roark. During a preliminary hearing last month, the victim was asked to describe the assault and at one point called the defendants his friends, Roark said.
The graphic details of the assault and allegations of racism have stunned the town’s residents. The lawsuit — which alleges that district officials and staff were aware of the abuse and took no action — seeks $10 million in damages. It has created a rift in Dietrich and its school, which last year had an operating budget of only $2.4 million.
About 100 families live in Dietrich, and most residents farm fields and raise cattle on the city’s outskirts or work for the school. There are no stoplights and almost no businesses except for a small general store and a bar. “The town’s too small to even have a police department,” said Tom Young, the town’s public works director.
As a result, the high school’s football and basketball teams serve as a passionate source of entertainment and pride.
Racial tensions are nonexistent largely because the town is almost all white, residents say. Of the 788 people counted in 2010 in the Zip code to which Dietrich belongs, only 16 were black.
A support website for parents adopting children with special needs profiled the victim’s parents, calling their adoption of 21 children along with their three biological children “extraordinary.” In several instances, the website said, the parents adopted only one child, but when siblings came to visit, they asked if they could stay, too, which led to their adoptions.
One of the advantages of being in such a large family, the parents told the website, is that if one child is bullied, the others can offer protection.
The victims’ father teaches at the school, and his mother has worked there in the past, Roark said.
“Whenever something like this happens, people just want to wish it away. There’s been a good deal of resentment toward the entire family,” Roark said. “And it’s been hard on [the victim]. He sees himself forced between choosing between his family and friends.”
The lawsuit names 11 school employees as defendants. It claims that school administrators and coaches did nothing to stop the racial and physical abuse toward the victim.
The suit alleges that Dietrich football coaches encouraged other players to fight the victim, allowing one of the accused, in an earlier incident, to knock him unconscious as other students shouted “catcalls, taunts and racial epithets.”
In the charging documents and lawsuit, the actions of one in particular stand out: John R.K. Howard.
The victim’s torment began soon after Howard, 18, moved into town, according to the civil lawsuit, which paints Howard as the ringleader.
“Mr. Howard is a large and aggressive male who had been sent to live with his relatives in Idaho due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Howard is a relative of prominent individuals in the community and, at least in part due to his athletic ability and community connections, the Defendants ignored or were deliberately indifferent to the behavior of Mr. Howard which included aggression, taunting and bullying of The Plaintiff and other students in the District.”
It was Howard, the lawsuit said, “who brought with him from Texas a culture of racial hatred towards the Plaintiff.”
Howard, who is finishing high school in Texas, has a preliminary hearing set for June 10 and has not yet entered a plea. His lawyer and lawyers for the other two accused did not answer calls for comment.
Some residents have responded to allegations of racism in Dietrich by pointing to Howard’s status as an outsider. “If he hadn’t come in, it might not have happened the way it did,” said one lifelong resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of offending the family of the victim.
The abuse inflicted by Howard and other teammates included “aggressive ‘humping’, jumping on him from the back and simulating anal sex,” according to the suit. His fellow football players allegedly gave him painful wedgies, stripped him of his clothes and took photos of him in the locker room. One student drew a picture of the victim sitting in the back of the bus on a classroom chalkboard.
Howard, at one point, forced the victim to recite the words to “Notorious KKK,” a racist and violent rap song set to the tune of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Can’t You See,” the suit alleges.
It was Howard who, with his fists, knocked out the victim during a football camp as teammates and coaches formed a circle around them, the suit says.
And it was Howard who kicked the coat hanger several times during the October assault, causing “rectal injuries” that required hospital treatment, the lawsuit claims.
Another player, 17-year-old wide receiver Tanner Ward, has been also been charged as an adult for allegations that he forced the coat hanger into the victim’s rectum before Howard kicked it.
A third football player, age 16, has been charged as a juvenile, and his name has not been released.
Testifying about the assault last month, during a preliminary hearing for the criminal charges against Ward, the victim said the harassment started before practice when Howard and Ward gave him a “power wedgie” so violent it tore his boxers.
Then, after practice in the locker room, came the assault with the coat hanger.
“I screamed,” he testified, according to the Times-News newspaper in Twin Falls. “I was pretty upset. I felt really bad. A little bit betrayed and confused at the same time. It was terrible — a pain I’ve never felt.”
Emma Brown and Alice Crites contributed to this report.