The boys in the cabin and their camp counselors called it “brooming.” Some of the youngsters’ parents say it was sexual abuse. A prosecutor disagreed, pronouncing it “hazing gone wrong.”
Whatever it is called, what happened in the cabin at the Chapel Rock summer camp in Prescott has raised a furor among the parents and led to suspicions of undue political influence in the way prosecutors handled the case.
Last June, investigators say, counselors at the camp abused 18 boys by bending them over and poking them in the rear end with broomsticks, a flashlight and a cane, doing it as punishment or just because they were in a bad mood. Although the boys wore underwear or swim trunks, photos taken by fellow campers show them grimacing in pain.
Two counselors — one of them the son of a powerful Arizona state senator — were charged by the Yavapai County Attorney’s office with 18 counts of kidnapping and 18 of aggravated assault. County Attorney Sheila Polk rejected demands from parents that she press sexual assault charges, saying there was no sexual intent or penetration.
Plea deal for two counselors
Then, last month, she struck a plea bargain with the two counselors that spared them from the possibility of decades in prison. Clifton Bennett, 18, pleaded guilty to one count of assault and could get up to two years in prison at sentencing May 12. Kyle Wheeler, 19, pleaded guilty to two assault counts and could receive up to four years behind bars.
Parents complained that prosecutors told them they wanted just five days in jail for Bennett and 10 for Wheeler. Polk would not confirm that and said her office has not yet made a sentencing recommendation.
Some parents have charged that the counselors were let off the hook, and they have suggested the deal was tied to Bennett’s father, Ken Bennett, president of the Arizona Senate.
“Everything we’ve heard points to shenanigans — to go from 18 counts down to two or one is an insult to the victims and an insult to the criminal justice system,” said the father of one of the victims. The father’s name was withheld to protect his son. “It’s sick. It’s favoritism. If he wasn’t a senator’s son it would not have happened.”
The elder Bennett declared he had “absolutely no influence” on the case.
“There’s not a shred of evidence that there’s been any effort on my part to sway the case. Anyone who says so is making knowingly false statements publicly,” he said last week.
Similarly, the prosecutor denied the plea bargain was the result of political pressure.
“I have the highest integrity, I have no personal relationship with Mr. Bennett and I personally made sure that this case was assigned to one of my most experienced prosecutors,” Polk said.
The victims, junior high school standouts and student council officers from across Arizona, had been hand-picked to attend the weeklong leadership camp at an Episcopal Church conference center in the forest.
Allegedly choked campers
Investigators said that in addition to the brooming, Wheeler had a hazing ritual of his own: He would have the boys bend over and breathe hard, then stand up, and he would choke them until they passed out.
Police in Prescott, about 70 miles from Phoenix, opened an investigation after one of the boys told a teacher about the incidents more than six months later.
A third counselor has been charged in juvenile court. Those proceedings are closed.
A lawyer for two of the victims is suing on their behalf.
“My son personally had it done seven to 10 times,” said the father who spoke to the AP. “For them to say there was not abuse, no sexual abuse, is just wrong.”
He said he wants Bennett and Wheeler to be charged with sex offenses, forced to register as sex offenders and required do real prison time.
Polk said most parents are comfortable with the plea bargain. She noted that the two young men pleaded guilty to felonies, and she said she is required to look at the total circumstances and bring only those charges that are supported by the evidence.
A well-known Phoenix defense attorney unconnected to the case, Larry Debus, agreed that the case has been properly handled.
“The problem today is that society is so oversensitive, and in some instances with good cause,” Debus said, “but this judge and this prosecutor took a practical look at the pranks and hazing activities of some young men and came up with a solution that punished them but doesn’t have life-altering consequences.”
He added: “So my question is: What’s wrong with that? It wasn’t sexual contact.”