football

The criminal trial of a former Hamilton High School football player accused of assaulting younger players in the locker room has been delayed until at least January — two months shy of two years since charges were filed.

A Superior Court last week delayed the trial as lawyers seek access to sworn depositions by victims and others in an ongoing federal civil suit filed against the Chandler Unified School District.

Nathaniel William Thomas, now 19, was the only juvenile charged as an adult in the case. Two boys who were charged in juvenile court have already been adjudicated after admitting to the crimes.

The civil case was filed by the parents of five teens who accused Thomas and the two others of sexual assault. 

Chandler police also had recommended criminal charges against three school officials — the coach, athletic director and the then principal — but the County Attorney’s office declined their request.

The civil suit seeks millions in damages from CUSD on grounds that the district was negligent in allowing the assaults to happen and failing to report them to police. That accusation was the basis for Chandler police detectives’ spurned recommendations for charges against the three officials.

Thomas and the two other teens were arrested in March 2017. Thomas was indicted the next month on charges of sexual assault and child molestation involving five underclassmen who told police they were assaulted in the Hamilton locker room after their promotion to the varsity team.

The assaults are alleged to have occurred between 2015-2017 during the course of two school years. 

The controversy around the case eventually cost acclaimed head coach Steve Belles his job.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery concluded in February 2018 that he did not have adequate evidence to criminally charge Belles, former principal Ken James and former Athletic Director Shawn Rusted with failure to report the alleged sex crimes.

Montgomery said at the time that the Chandler police report “leaves me fully convinced that these incidents happened,’’ but that the police report was based on second and third-hand information and that he needed an actual witness to come forward before he could file the charges against the three officials.

James and Rustad were subsequently transferred to other jobs within the district while Belles resigned.

Attorneys in the criminal case are seeking the federal depositions after two of the teens recanted their allegations, according to documents filed by the school district’s defense attorney.

 “Although the district defendants do not bear the burden of proof, there is ample evidence that the victims were not assaulted,’’ said attorney Matthew Wright, who represents the district.

“John Doe G went on camera to deny that the alleged assaults ever took place,’’ Wright wrote. “And in a separate interview with police, John Doe G. told the police that he was not assaulted, and he did not know anyone who was.’’

Wright had filed the document after  Dan Raynak, the victim’s attorney asked the federal judge to rule that the five plaintiffs were sexually assaulted and that district employees failed to protect them.

“The five named plaintiffs have alleged that they were all sexually assaulted while in the school locker room either getting ready for football practice, or after practice concluded,’’ Raynak argued.

“The principal, the athletic director, the head football coach and the assistant football coach were all named as defendants and deposed. None of them can dispute that the sexual assaults occurred as there was a concession that the locker room was not properly supervised, and there was not constant supervision,’’ Raynak wrote.

Wright’s assertion of no evidence of sexual assaults riled Raynak.

 In a separate filing, he said that two minors who were charged in the criminal case with Thomas “have admitted their conduct against three of the five listed minor plaintiffs’’ and noted that they pleaded guilty in juvenile court to amended charges.

Raynak also said there is video evidence of sexual assault involving at least two victims.

“One look at these videos demonstrates that the sexual assaults occurred,’’ Raynak wrote in the July 12 document.

But Raynak’s strategy backfired when U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton rejected his motion, citing a lack of undisputed evidence that the sexual assaults occurred and that the district employees failed to protect the victims.

“Plaintiffs have failed to carry their burden of showing that there are undisputed facts that entitle them to judgment as a matter of law,’’ Bolton wrote in a July 17 order.

 In the criminal case against Thomas, defense attorney Robert McWhirter and prosecutor David Irwin joined in asking for access to the federal court depositions.

Irwin had previously opposed McWhirter’s attempts to depose the victims, arguing that state law protects sex assault victims from harassment.

“It is important to notate that the barrier between the victim and the defendant creates an extra layer of protection for the victim from unsolicited contact from the defendant and the defendant’s representative,’’ Irwin wrote.

“This type of unsolicited contact can further traumatize victims, especially sex crimes victims,’’ he said.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins said he did not have adequate knowledge of the federal civil case to determine if the depositions should be given to the criminal attorneys. 

McWhirter and Irwin wrote that Hopkins should at least review them in advance to determine they are relevant to the criminal case.

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