Idaho High School Football Players Accused of Raping Disabled Teammate: Lawsuit

John R.K. Howard is being charged as an adult with forcible sexual penetration and could face life in prison if convicted.
John R.K. Howard is being charged as an adult with forcible sexual penetration and could face life in prison if convicted.via KTVB / Tarrant County Jail

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By Elizabeth Chuck

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details about an alleged sexual assault.

A tiny Idaho town is in turmoil following shocking allegations of racism and a brutal rape ripping apart what many consider the heart of the community: its high school football team.

Three white football players in Dietrich hurled racist epithets for months at their black, mentally disabled teammate, a civil lawsuit filed earlier this month claims. The harassment then turned physical, escalating to the point where the three kicked a coat hanger up the teen's rectum after pretending to offer him a hug last October, it says.

"I've been practicing for over 40 years," co-counsel for the victim's family, R. Keith Roark, told NBC News. "This is the worst I've seen."

John R.K. Howard is being charged as an adult with forcible sexual penetration and could face life in prison if convicted.via KTVB / Tarrant County Jail

The $10 million lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Idaho against the three football players, Dietrich High School, and 11 of its employees. It accuses high school administrators and coaches of not only allowing the abuse, but in some cases, encouraging it.

In addition to the lawsuit, all three players were charged in a criminal case with sexual assault, two of them as adults.

"The district didn't do anything about this," E. Lee Schlender, the family's other attorney, told NBC News. "We think there were coaches and others that were very well aware of how this was starting to foment, and they just didn't do anything."

The case has rocked the mostly white farming community of Dietrich, a town about 40 miles north of Twin Falls whose motto is "A Community With Heart." Its population just barely surpasses 300. Dietrich's official town website describes school as the main "activity" in town, with athletic rivalries between the high school's Blue Devils and their competitors "intense at times."

For months, the suit alleges, members of the football team called the victim racist names, such as "‘Kool-Aid’ ‘chicken eater’ ‘watermelon’ and [the N-word].” One defendant, portrayed as the ringleader of the abuse, pulled up a Confederate flag on his computer while ordering the boy to sing an N-word-laced song called "Notorious KKK."

Dietrich football coaches also allegedly encouraged other players to fight the boy, at one point knocking him unconscious while other students shouted racist catcalls. The boy was also allegedly stripped of his clothing while teammates took naked photos of him.

The alleged abuse culminated on Oct. 23, when one defendant outstretched his arms after practice in the locker room and the victim went in for a hug. The football player then allegedly held down the victim, another shoved a coat hanger up him, and the third — accused ringleader John Howard, 18 — kicked the hanger further in.

The injuries were so bad, the victim needed to go to two hospitals for treatment, lawyers said.

The victim has "mental disorders including learning disabilities" and was adopted by white parents in Dietrich when he was 4, the suit says. His three teammates were charged in March with sexual assault; two are charged as adults and may face life in prison.

Howard, who is 18, is among those two. He's charged with one count of forcible penetration by use of force or a foreign object. He transferred to Dietrich from Texas when the victim was entering his senior year of high school after being sent to live with relatives in Idaho "due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas," the complaint says.

"Mr. Howard is a relative of prominent individuals in the community and, at least in part due to his athletic ability and community connections, the Defendants ignored or were deliberately indifferent to the behavior of Mr. Howard which included aggression, taunting and bullying of The Plaintiff and other students in the District," it added.

Howard is now finishing high school in Texas and has not yet entered a plea. He has a preliminary hearing scheduled for June 10. His lawyer, Brad Calbo, told NBC News he was reviewing the protective order from the judge and had no comment.

The other, Tanner Ward, 17, was arraigned Monday and pleaded not guilty, according to Lincoln County court records. He's also charged as an adult with one felony count of forcible penetration with a foreign object. His lawyer did not immediately return a phone call from NBC News.

A third football player who is 16 has been charged as a juvenile. His name was not made public. It's unclear whether he's made a plea.

The victim is now 18 and graduated Monday, Roark, the lawyer, told NBC News. He continues to struggle physically and mentally.

"He's having a very difficult time," Roark said.

The other family attorney said he hopes for the sake of the rest of the community that the case isn't charged as a hate crime, which would define it as being motivated by race or another prejudice.

"Most of the people in that entire area are farmers, ranchers, and are absolutely not racist. In fact, I'd say just the opposite: very, very inclusive, very peaceful people. Most of them are Mormon and they're exceedingly generous and kind," Schlender said.

Dietrich High School was deluged with threatening phone calls Wednesday after news of the lawsuit broke and was put on lockdown, reported NBC affiliate KTVB. The school district isn't commenting on the case.