PRESCOTT - A state senator’s son walked out of a Prescott courtroom Friday with a 30-day jail sentence for poking broomsticks at the rear ends of 18 teenage boys at a summer camp last year. Clifton Bennett, the 18-year-old son of Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, looked around silently amid the taunts of onlookers outside the historic courthouse.
He left what he had to say in the courtroom.
“I failed these kids,” Clifton Bennett told the judge. “If I want them to know anything, I want them to know I’m truly sorry.”
Clifton Bennett, who will report to jail on June 1, must also serve 200 hours of community service and spend three years on probation. If he obeys the terms of probation, his sentence will not be recorded as a felony.
Co-defendant, Kyle Wheeler, 20, received 45 days in jail, 200 hours of community service and three years probation. Wheeler got a longer term because he also choked the victims.
Some victims and their parents raised doubts about the sincerity of Clifton Bennett’s apology and called the sentences too light.
“Thirty days is nothing,” said 13-year-old Zack Motcheck of Gilbert.
His mother, who gave the media permission to use their names, said the lack of a felony conviction means that Clifton Bennett and Wheeler will eventually be cleared to work again with children. But, overall, she said she was satisfied with the sentences.
“I think it will bring closure for our boys,” she said.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Toole presided over the case because of conflicts of interest among Yavapai County judges. He said he agreed with prosecutors that the crimes were not sexually motivated.
O’Toole said he believed the two assailants were remorseful, but he concluded they had breached their positions of leadership and trust. “The conduct was extremely reckless and dangerous,” he said.
Clifton Bennett pleaded guilty April 3 to one count of aggravated assault, and Wheeler pleaded guilty to two counts of the same charge. They acknowledged they committed the assaults to humiliate and embarrass the campers under their supervision at the Arizona Association of Junior High Student Councils Leadership Camp, which included children from the East Valley and elsewhere.
Under the plea deals, O’Toole could have sentenced Clifton Bennett to two years and Wheeler to four years in prison. Deputy Yavapai County attorney Jim Landis asked for three months in jail for Clifton Bennett and six months for Wheeler.
Defense attorneys stressed the good character of Clifton Bennett and Wheeler. Bennett is an Eagle Scout, a student athlete and has a 3.93 grade point average at the high school he attends, defense attorney Tom Henze said.
Wheeler’s father said his son has volunteered many times over the years for community service and played six years in a bell choir. Wheeler left court without commenting. Civil attorney Lynn Cadigan, representing two of the victims, said the camp was for student leaders, and the campers looked up to their counselors. But they learned a different lesson.
“They were teaching them sexual humiliation is appropriate,” Cadigan said. She also said she believes Ken Bennett’s political status had a part in what she believed was a light sentence. But Lenora Nelson, Clifton Bennett’s aunt, said her brother’s position at the state Capitol might actually have worked against her nephew. Nelson said most of the media attention was given to the victims.