When a teammate held out his arms after football practice in their high school locker room, the student thought he was about to get a hug.
The Oct. 23, 2015, incident has rocked the tiny town of Dietrich, Idaho. This spring, after several months of investigation, the state attorney general’s office filed sexual assault charges against the three. Two of the teenagers are being charged as adults and could face life in prison, under Idaho law.
Earlier this month, the victim’s family filed a $10 million lawsuit against Dietrich High School. According to the lawsuit, the attack wasn’t a one-off, but rather the culmination of months of racist abuse by white students against the victim, who is black.
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 alleges.
The civil complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Idaho also claims that one of the students charged with sexual assault displayed a Confederate flag and demanded the victim recite a racist song titled “Notorious KKK.”
All three of the attackers were white, the suit says.
The suit, which names the 18-year-old victim, was provided to The Washington Post by his attorney. However, The Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault.
In addition to Dietrich High School, the lawsuit also names 11 employees as defendants. It claims school administrators and coaches did nothing to stop the racial and physical abuse toward the victim, who was especially vulnerable due to “mental disorders including learning disabilities.”
The suit claims that Dietrich football coaches encouraged other players to fight the victim, allowing a much larger student to knock him unconscious as other students shouted “catcalls, taunts and racial epithets.”
Dietrich High School did not respond to a request for comment.
Against the allegation of widespread racial abuse at Dietrich, one individual stands out: John R.K. Howard.
Howard, 18, is one of the three accused. He is charged as an adult with one count of forcible penetration by use of force or a foreign object, according to the criminal complaint. Howard, who is finishing high school in Texas, has a preliminary hearing set for June 10 and has not yet entered a plea.
The civil suit paints Howard as the ringleader of the racist abuse against the victim, who was adopted at age 4 by white parents living in the predominantly white town of 334 people.
“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. With deliberate indifference, the Defendants did nothing to curb the vicious acts of Mr. Howard who brought with him from Texas a culture of racial hatred towards the Plaintiff.”
The victim, one of the few black students at Dietrich, let alone on his football team, was subjected to frequent abuse by Howard and his fellow teammates, including “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 naked 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.
It was Howard, however, who the suit alleges was behind the worst abuse.
It was Howard who forced the victim to recite the words to “Notorious KKK,” a bitterly 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 bare fists, knocked out the victim, who was made to wear boxing gloves, as teammates and coaches formed a circle around them, the suit says.
And it was Howard who kicked the coat hanger five or six times, causing the victim “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 with forcible penetration, according to local news website MagicValley.com. According to the lawsuit, Ward, “physically forced a coat hanger into the Plaintiff’s rectum” before Howard kicked it.
A lawyer representing Ward did not return requests for comment.
A third football player, age 16, has been charged as a juvenile. His name has not been released.
Last month, during a preliminary hearing in the case against Ward, the victim testified how he had been tricked with kindness moments before the cruel attack:
He said Howard and Ward started harassing him before practice on Oct. 22, giving him a “power wedgie” so violent it tore his boxers.
That was nothing compared with what would come after practice, however.
When the third teammate asked the victim for a hug, he agreed, only for the teammate to restrain him and signal for the others to attack, the victim said.
“I screamed,” he testified, according to MagicValley.com. “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.”
Ward’s attorney argued that the victim’s testimony conflicted with that of another witness, but Judge Mark Ingram allowed the case to continue. Ward’s trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 26. The Lincoln County Clerk’s Office could not say Tuesday whether he had filed a plea.
Correction: The original version of this story said described the charges as rape. Under Idaho law, the alleged sex crime offense in this case is forcible sexual penetration by use of a foreign object.
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