This report includes graphic descriptions.
A former high school football player from Fort Worth accused of sexually assaulting a mentally disabled teammate with a coat hanger while living in Idaho will not go to prison.
John R.K. Howard, 19, reached a plea agreement last week with the Idaho attorney general’s office. He pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child and will receive two to three years of probation and likely 300 hours of community service, according to media reports. The sentence will be finalized in February.
Howard was initially charged with sexual penetration by use of foreign object. On the lesser charge, he entered an Alford plea, meaning he maintained his innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to win a conviction.
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The Twin Falls Times-News reported that Deputy Attorney General Casey Hemmers said prosecutors would have proved at trial that Howard kicked the coat hanger into the victim’s rectum after another player put it there. But Hemmers, after interviewing witnesses, said he did not believe it was a sex crime.
“It was egregious behavior, it caused this victim a lot of suffering, but it is not, in my view, a sex crime, which is why the state has amended this charge,” Hemmer said in court, the newspaper reported. “We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Mr. Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender, but he still needs to be held accountable.”
Howard’s attorney, Brad Calbo, agreed with Hemmer but emphasized in court that the victim “was not at any time pinned down, raped, or pinned down and subjected to any sort of forcible penetration,” the newspaper reported.
The victim’s family has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Dietrich school district, alleging that Howard and other football players also taunted the teen, who is black, with racist nicknames like “chicken eater” and “watermelon” and that school staffers failed to intervene.
Howard joined the Dietrich High football team before the 2015 season after moving there from the Fort Worth area. He was sent to live with relatives in Idaho because he couldn’t stay out of trouble in Texas, according to the lawsuit.
The coat hanger incident allegedly happened after practice Oct. 23, 2015, in the team’s locker room.
One player “physically forced a coat hanger into the [victim’s] rectum,” the lawsuit says. Howard then kicked the hanger several times, “forcing it further into [victim’s] rectum.”
The victim “screamed and cried out but no staff member came to his assistance or even attempted to investigate the clamor from within the locker room.”
The victim was hospitalized for rectal injuries.
The lawsuit described the assault as the culmination of weeks of “humiliating mental abuse” and “brutal physical violence” by Howard and other players.
R. Keith Roark, the attorney who is representing the victim’s family, told The Washington Post this week that Howard’s punishment was met with “bitter disappointment and outrage” from the victim’s family.
“It’s absolutely preposterous that this kid should walk away with apparently no punishment whatsoever,” Roark said. “Everyone is more concerned with these young sociopaths than the victim of their violence.”
The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence posted a message on Facebook over the weekend, demanding that the attorney general’s office address Hemmer’s decision to lessen the charge against Howard.
Hemmer’s “actions and statements dehumanizes the young man who was heinously penetrated,” the post said.
At some point after the incident, Howard came back to North Texas. He arrested by the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department and returned to Idaho on March 22, according to court records. He posted $75,000 bail two days later.
At the time of his arrest, his address was listed within the Keller school district, though a district spokeswoman could not confirm whether he was a student there, citing student confidentiality rules. A phone number tied to that address was no longer in service Wednesday.
A Washington Post article in May noted that Howard was expelled from the Idaho school after the alleged coat hanger incident.
The same report said the tiny town was torn apart over the incident. Two other teens were charged as juveniles in the case.
“I would guarantee that those boys had no criminal intent to do anything or any harm to anyone,” said one resident, Hubert Shaw.
The town’s mayor, Don Heiken, said “everybody just swept it under the rug” when the incident happened.
Two of those charged in the case “were the top football players on the football team,” Heiken told the Post. “[The coaches] didn’t want to rock the boat. They were having such a good season.”