I traveled to Silsbee, Texas five times in the past six months, with conservative blogger Brandon Darby, to investigate why, despite the volume of evidence, a grand jury did not indict two football players accused of raping a high school cheerleader (who was later kicked off the squad for refusing to cheer for one of them). I discovered that it was more complex than simply the town’s glorification of male athletes. I found a rising tide of skepticism toward the victim from law enforcement, the town and the local newspaper–complicated and fueled by sexual shaming and racial politics. This is the second installment of a two-part series; read part I here.
This is a slam dunk case. There’s more evidence than we see in most sexual assault cases, and we’ve got lots of witnesses.
That’s what Hillaire S.’s father Craig remembers the case detective saying on the day Hillaire, a high school cheerleader, reported being raped by members of the football team.
So why, three months after the rape, did a grand jury issue a “no bill”–meaning they didn’t think there was enough evidence to indict?
The testimony the grand jury heard is sealed, but we do have access to what the grand jury saw, including all of the police reports. In them, multiple witnesses verify the following facts:
— A heavily intoxicated Hillaire was was brought into a dark, locked room by four high school athletes
— Young men outside who heard her repeatedly saying “stop” broke through the locked door
— Three of the athletes in the room fled through the window, including a naked Rakheem Bolton, the man Hillaire identified as her rapist
— Bolton threatened to kill everyone in the house
There’s more in the grand jury file. When police asked Bolton if his DNA would be found on a condom at the scene, he nodded “yes.” We also know from the medical report that Hillaire had internal bruising, and from her mother that her right thigh had a full handprint bruise.
Given these facts, which were enough for a judge to issue warrants, how could a grand jury possibly issue a “no bill,” letting her attackers return to school and putting Hillaire in a position to have to cheer for her rapist a few weeks later?
Perhaps one clue can be found in the grand jury file, where jurists could read a surprising amount of information that detectives entered about Hillaire’s sexual behavior. The case detective added this note at the bottom of Hillaire’s sworn statement:
After taking the statement I talked with the victim at length in reference to her statement about never having sex before. She related she had never had oral sex either given or received. She has never had heavy petting where there was fondling of the breasts and genitalia.
The detective also entered into evidence a cell-phone video of Hillaire and another girl kissing at the party in question.
Furthermore, the detective inserted a comment at the end of one witness’s sworn statement, noting that the witness “thought that Hillaire was acting aggressive in her behavior towards Pat Steed [the young man Hillaire kissed at the party] and the majority of what transpired was consensual.”
It’s not the job of a police officer to add comments to the end of a sworn police statement, says Brandon Perron, national director of The Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council. He told me,
This is poor procedure. It’s awful. What they did was alter evidence after it was signed and attested to.
We know, then, that Hillaire’s sexual behavior was spotlighted by investigators. We can’t know, however, what they said before the grand jury.
But by the time I interviewed the case detective for nearly three hours last December, he did not seem to think the case was a “slam dunk,” as Craig remembers him saying on the day of the rape. Instead, the detective claimed that witnesses were unsure whether the accused broke the window as they fled–despite several confident witness statements in the police file taken directly after the fact. And when asked why the two accused fled if they didn’t commit a crime, the detective replied, “Where in the books can you tell me that running is a crime?” The chief of police, also present at my interview, described Hillaire’s sexual activities earlier in the night as “corroborating evidence” for the no bill.
The rest of what we know about the grand jury proceedings comes from the district attorney prosecuting the case, David Sheffield. At a press conference afterward he said, “I’m not surprised by the decision after seeing the evidence I’ve been privy to.”
But what about the evidence that Sheffield did not put in front of the grand jury?
From a recorded conversation between Sheffield and Hillaire’s father, we know that Sheffield did not call as witnesses any of the three young men who heard Hillaire say “stop” and broke through the door. Sheffield also did not offer any witnesses to testify that Hillaire was highly intoxicated–even though Texas law considers it rape to have sex with a person too intoxicated to consent. Witnesses had given statements that Hillaire had two beers, five shots of vodka and a shot of Crown Royal–yet Craig learned (from the daughter of a local attorney to whom Sheffield had confided details of the case) that Silsbee police testified to the grand jury that Hillaire was not impaired by alcohol.
On top of all this, one member of the grand jury was Rakheem Bolton’s family pastor. I confirmed this fact with the pastor in a brief phone conversation on April 7, 2011, about the spiritual guidance he provided to Bolton during this ordeal.
Once the grand jury dismissed the case, Bolton and Christian Rountree–the football player accused of holding Hillaire down–returned to Silsbee High School. Superintendent Richard Bain told The Silsbee Bee that there would be no further punishment for the two young men, in spite of the school district’s policy to investigate and take action when students are accused of crimes, even if they have been cleared in court, as long as there is a “reasonable belief” something occurred.
In addition to being a star football player, Bolton also played basketball, and his return to school and the team led to Hillaire’s refusal to cheer for him and her subsequent dismissal from the cheer squad. Devastated, Hillaire told HLN,
I felt very upset because cheerleading was my high school career. [But] when they told me I had to choose between cheering for him or not cheering at all, for me it was worth giving up cheerleading to not cheer for him.
Throughout these events, the case was tried in the court of public opinion.
Hillaire’s story gained widespread attention, especially after stories in the Ms. Blog and on Fox News. Change.org organized an online petition calling for the high school to apologize to Hillaire, receiving more than 70,000 signatures to date–many times the population of Silsbee. Outside of her town, Hillaire was a hero.
The local Silsbee Bee, however, downplayed the national attention. In one article, editor Gerry Dickert writes “The national outrage stems in part from incomplete information being published and broadcast by television, web blogs and magazines.” At the same time, Dickert ran frequent quotes from the accused and their families , but never published an interview with Hillaire or her family. Nor did The Silsbee Bee publish details from witness accounts , although the grand jury file has been publicly accessible for over a year.
In the brief moments I spent in Dickert’s office before he skipped an interview appointment and stopped taking my calls, he laid bare his stance: “Everyone in the case is a victim.”
Recently, The Silsbee Bee published an article titled, “Sexual Assault Prosecutions Cost County Nearly $20,000: Ends with Misdemeanor Plea, Dropped Charges.” It is hard to miss the implication that this was money ill spent.
Justice in Hillaire’s eyes was simple. “I just want somebody to admit they did something wrong.”
Even as the “no bill” was being read in January of 2009, another grand jury had already expressed interest in hearing the case. Since Sheffield was named as a defendant in Hillaire’s civil case for possible ethics violations, a district judge assigned another prosecutor. But the second grand jury was dismissed when jury members received documents in a questionable way.
A third grand jury was then convened. The jurors did not request testimony from the Silsbee police this time, and Bolton and Rountree were finally indicted on November 24, 2009–more than a year after the alleged rape.
A week after the indictment, race took center stage in the ongoing Silsbee saga. Reverend Billy Ray Robinson, president of the local NAACP, staged a press conference challenging the indictment. Hillaire is white and her alleged rapists are black, in a part of the country with longstanding racial tensions.
It’s easy to understand the trepidation surrounding an interracial rape accusation: Older residents can remember a time when black men were lynched in this part of the country for just such an accusation, whether proven or not. A local black reverend in Silsbee told me that if four black men had been accused of raping a white girl in the town 50 years ago, they “would not have made it to trial.” Even today, he added, “This area is very bad with racial tensions. You don’t see the white sheets anymore. They wear three-piece suits now.”
Hillaire’s attorney, Larry Watts, affirms that “Silsbee isn’t the happy valley of race relations,” but some white residents I spoke with want to ignore that reality. As one put it to me, “We don’t have a racial problem. The town is segregated, but that’s not a problem.”
The area’s historical and contemporary racism might have made the local NAACP feel compelled to take the stance it did, says Lester Spence, an Africana studies and political science professor at Johns Hopkins. This is not the first time the NAACP has advocated for black men accused of sex crimes. The organization came under fire in 2008 for rallying around a group of black teens who gang-raped a black woman and forced her to have sex with her 12-year-old son at the Dunbar Village apartment complex in South Florida. The NAACP held a rally supporting the accused that included fliers labeling the men “victims.” They were later convicted, and the main assailant received eight life sentences. The state NAACP issued an apology, but the national NAACP stood by its original stance.
There’s a difference between Silsbee and Dunbar Village, however, points out lawyer-turned-blogger Gina McCauley, who led the black feminist critique of the NAACP’s Dunbar Village stance:
[Hillaire], a young White woman, has infrastructure in place to advocate on her behalf, but the majority of the time when the NAACP is running around coddling and defending violent predators, the victims are Black women and girls who don’t have such support.
Indeed, Hillaire had a network of advocates not available to less privileged women. But working against her in Silsbee was the old stigma around interracial sex. As sociologist Lisa Wade explains, “Negative stereotypes about Black men intersect with the imperative that White women obey strict sexual rules; if having sex ‘dirties’ White women, then having sex with a Black man is the most contaminating of all.”
In a new incarnation of that longheld stigma that made a black man accused of raping a white woman vulnerable to violence, now Silsbee residents tend to question Hillaire’s conduct. As Sara, a white student, told me, “A lot of people blame it on [the fact that] he was black and she was white and she got caught having sex with a black person, so she didn’t want her parents to know.”
In September 2010, Rakheem Bolton pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assault, receiving a $2,500 fine, community service, a requirement to take an anger management course and a suspended one-year jail sentence. When asked how his actions affected Hillaire, Bolton replied only, “I have no hard feelings. I never have and I feel like it was just a misunderstanding.”
Hillaire was satisfied with the plea, believing that at least everyone would finally know Bolton had done everything he was accused of.
On January 26, 2011, the charges against Rountree were quietly dismissed. According to Special Prosecutor Barlow, a conviction would have been difficult. Rountree still maintains that he was not in the pool room during the assault, even though witnesses put him there and Hillaire insists that he fondled her and held her down during the rape.
Meanwhile, Hillaire’s parents sued the school for violating her right to free speech, but an appeals court affirmed a lower courts’ dismissal of her case on September 16, 2010. Her lawyer filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, but this May it declined to hear the case.
To add insult to the injury Hillaire has sustained from her peers, people in town, the school, the police, the district attorney and the grand jury, the court is now requiring her family to pay more than $35,000 in legal fees from her civil case against the school.
Two and a half years after the rape, the house at 324 Pinewood where Hillaire was assaulted sits dark. The homeowner is doing jail time for unrelated charges, and neighbors say the pool table was repossessed this past February. Many Silsbee residents just want the case to go away. The detective says it is “like a sore. It’s healing and something comes around and knocks the scab off again.”
Hillaire is no longer the carefree livewire she was once was. She is still harassed by some in town, including students who recently threw ice at her car as she dropped her younger sister off at school. She went from A/B grades to barely passing high school. She received counseling until her therapist passed away from breast cancer last year. In remembrance, she got a tattoo on her right hip of two ribbons–one for sexual-assault prevention and the other for breast-cancer awareness–along with a Bible quotation she heard from her therapist: “Perfect love casts out fear.”
“She’s broken,” says her father. “I think she’s still fighting on some levels, but I don’t think she has the determination that she used to have. Just don’t see that fire, that ambition in her anymore.”
Craig lost his refinery job last year and spends his time building the family business and working on the case. Larry Watts is working pro bono on the case because Craig can no longer able to afford legal fees. Nonetheless, Craig insists that the case “hasn’t destroyed our business, It hasn’t destroyed the family. We’ve gotten closer as a family.”
The family is divided about whether to leave Silsbee, but, despite everything, Craig and Hillaire both want to stay.
“I live in the best town in the perfect part of Texas,” he says.
Change.org has started a campaign urging the school to “forgive” the legal fees:
[iframe http://www.msmagazine.com/blog_change_widget1.asp 650 300]
Journalist Scott Rose encourages people to mail one penny to the Silsbee School District in protest:
Richard Bain Jr.
Silsbee Independent School District
415 Highway 327 West
Silsbee, TX, 77656
Stay tuned to the author’s blog for more details and reporting from her trips to Silsbee.
Photo of Hillaire S. courtesy of her father.