For now, a former coach, athletic director and school principal at Hamilton High School will not face criminal charges in an unsavory sexual assault scandal that escalated from hazing into sex crimes.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced that he has inadequate evidence to file charges against Steve Belles, Ken James and Shawn Rustad.
Montgomery said he has second- and third-hand reports of the three officials’ failing to report sex crimes, but he needs actual witnesses and victims to come forward and cooperate before it is possible to file charges and pursue prosecution.
He described information in a Chandler police report that recommended charges against Belles, James and Rustad as “hearsay” that is often ruled inadmissible in court.
Montgomery said the Chandler police investigation “leaves me fully convinced that these incidents happened,” but without more first-hand statements from players and other potential witnesses and victims, “there is nothing more we can do at this time.”
Because players on the Hamilton football team are juveniles, Montgomery said, he needs the permission of their parents to interview them.
Parents have not made their teenagers available for questioning, making it difficult to establish that additional crimes occurred and that the men failed to report any suspicions of sex crimes occurring, as required by state law, he said.
Montgomery said he does not know the reasons behind the lack of cooperation, but he suspects it might be misplaced loyalty to the Hamilton football program, or fears that cooperation might cost players football scholarships.
He said the focus of parents, instead, should be on making sure traumatized teens receive counseling so that the experience doesn’t haunt them the rest of their lives.
“I can’t get into their head. I can’t get to the point where they think it’s in their best interest not to cooperate with law enforcement,” Montgomery said. “The way these kids were assaulted is not normal. It just ain’t right.”
He said he is still holding out hope that additional victims and witnesses will come forward eventually, perhaps after they graduate from Hamilton, and that the statute of limitations would allow him to file charges up to seven years after a crime occurred.
A May affidavit for a search warrant, written by Chandler police, alludes to a potential cover-up attempt.
“After the investigation received media attention, three current Hamilton High staff members provided statements expressing their lack of trust in the administration holding anyone related to the football program accountable,” the affidavit said.
“After the arrests of several players was reported by the media and head coach Steve Belles was reassigned, the remaining coaches had a team meeting advising the students to come to coaches first with any concerns and stated that if the victim players had done this, the program would not be receiving the negative attention,” the affidavit said.
“They cautioned against providing interviews, specifically toward the media, but alluding to the police investigation as well,” it said.
Montgomery said his decision has no relationship to the pending criminal charges against Nathaniel William Thomas, 17, who is accused of sexual assault, child molestation and other charges. Two other juveniles, who have not been named, had their cases adjudicated in the juvenile division of Maricopa County Superior Court, in August 2017 and in January, said Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for Montgomery.
She said she is not allowed to make further comment on the juveniles because their cases have been sealed.
Police named six victims in the scandal. They said the victims were freshman football players and that as an act of initiation, they had been held down in the locker room and sexually violated.
In a letter sent to parents in the wake of Montgomery’s announcement, Superintendent Camille Casteel, of the Chandler Unified School District, said Belles, James and Rustad were reassigned to avoid distraction. She said Belles has announced that he will not return to the district.
Casteel outlined a series of policies undertaken to protect students, including a redesign of Hamilton’s locker room to make it easier for staff to supervise the behavior of students. An increased level of staff supervision is required to “prevent improper student conduct.”