Idaho town braces for sentencing after alleged high school racism and rape

Three football players were accused of assaulting a black, disabled team-mate with a coat hanger, and the aftermath has torn apart this mostly white town

John RK Howard and two other football players allegedly raped the young man with a coat hanger.



John RK Howard and two other football players allegedly raped the young man with a coat hanger.
Photograph: Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office

The young black man sat in a big leather chair in his lawyer’s office, recounting the song that one of his team-mates on the Dietrich high school football team had taught him. He sang it, the lawyer said, “like it was the Star-Spangled Banner. He didn’t know what it meant.”

“Moon man, moon man, can’t you see,” he sang, “Spics and niggers need to hang from trees.”

The song disparaged black people, Latinos, Jews and gay men, and glorified anal rape and the KKK.

The young man, who is developmentally disabled, was allegedly raped with a coat hanger 18 months ago by John RK Howard, the white team-mate who taught him the song, and two other football players.

On Friday, Howard will be sentenced – but after agreeing to a plea bargain designed to limit his punishment, he will avoid prison. The prosecutor in the case claimed the attack, which occurred after months of racial abuse and bullying, was not racially motivated and did not constitute a sex crime.

He agreed that Howard could sign a so-called Alford plea, in which he maintains his innocence but, according to court documents, agrees that “there is sufficient evidence for a jury to convict me”. Details of Howard’s punishment will not be unveiled until Friday, but he is potentially facing little more than probation, 300 hours of community service and classes in racial sensitivity.

The case has prompted comparisons with the notorious Brock Turner case, in which the 20-year-old former Stanford swimmer was convicted of multiple felonies for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Turner was sentenced to just six months in prison and served only three, a punishment that sparked a global firestorm from critics who argued it was overly lenient.

Judge Aaron Persky, who sentenced Turner, was the subject of petitions, complaints and a recall effort. The California agency that oversees judicial discipline eventually cleared Persky of misconduct, but the well-funded recall effort is ongoing.

In Howard’s case, nearly 150,000 people have signed a change.org petition to have Judge Randy Stoker removed from the bench in Idaho.

The plea bargain was crafted by prosecutors and Howard’s defense attorney. Stoker signed off on it in December.

Stoker made headlines earlier this month when he ruled that a man convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl could eventually be released on probation if he agreed not to have sex outside of wedlock. The district judge linked that case to a breakdown of morality in the social media age, adding: “If I had my way, I would eliminate the internet.”

The Howard case garnered wider attention only after the victim’s adoptive parents sued the school district and its officials in this rural Idaho town and details of the gruesome assault became public.

The victim, who was 17 at the time of the attack, described the assault during the April preliminary hearing for another alleged attacker, Tanner Ward, who was initially charged as an adult in the attack but whose case was later remanded to juvenile court.

“After practice I was in the locker room, and one of my friends, he told me to come here, and I went over to him and gave him a hug,” the victim said, according to a transcript obtained by the Guardian. “He told me to give him a hug. He had his hands out like he was going to give me a hug. And I gave him a hug, and he signaled for one of my other friends to come over.”

What followed was a detailed description from the victim of a harrowing anal rape in which the victim’s attackers appeared determined to inflict maximum pain.

The victim was asked how he felt during the attack. “Pain that I have never felt took over my body,” he replied. “I screamed, but afterwards, I kept it to myself.”

The crime and its aftermath have torn apart this conservative, mostly white ranching town. Dietrich is home to just over 330 people, so everyone knows the victim and the assailants. The school where the attack occurred is the town’s biggest employer – the victim’s father was a science teacher at the school but has since resigned.

Dietrich residents love their small town, which has one restaurant – the Eagle’s Nest, best known for its chicken fried steak – and one store, Shaw Merc. They defend their home as a great place to raise children.

Two of the three attackers were not from Dietrich, and many here believe the troubles were imported. Ward was from nearby Richfield. Howard, according to court documents in the civil case, was sent to live with family members in Dietrich after getting in trouble in his home state of Texas.

Ward and Howard “weren’t even local kids”, said Lytle Gaskill, who is retired from the Idaho transportation department and was relaxing at the Eagle’s Nest earlier this week. “Their morals were formed before they even got here.”

Eagle’s Nest owner Shirley Bingham nodded in agreement. “And it throws a cast on all of us,” she said. “It makes us kind of all look bad … It’s made it hard for the other kids. They don’t want to be known for that. They shouldn’t be.”

If the assault roiled Dietrich, the plea deal has further stoked the fires. The victim’s parents, who adopted the victim when he was four years old, have declined to comment but are said to be furious about the deal.

“They did not approve it,” said their attorney, E Lee Schlender. “They’re outraged.”

The mayor of Dietrich is equally unhappy with Howard’s proposed sentence. “I am not satisfied with the plea deal,” Donald Heiken said in an email. “I think that he should be punished for his crime. I feel that he got a slap on the wrist and that isn’t enough.”

Howard was 18 at the time of the attack, the only adult of the three assailants. (The two minors’ cases concluded in juvenile court, where proceedings are sealed from the public by state statute.)

Howard was originally charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, a major felony under Idaho law. However, by December, following negotiations between defense counsel and the state attorney general’s office, the felony rape charge was dropped and replaced by a charge of felony injury to a child.

Although he was not required to, Stoker gave the plea agreement preliminary acceptance in December. On Friday, he is expected to make a final order sentencing Howard based on the plea deal agreed on two months ago.

The recommended sentence is two or three years’ probation, up to 300 hours of community service, and classes in racial sensitivity and anti-bullying. If he does not violate his probation or commit new crimes, Howard’s conviction will be reduced to a misdemeanor. In addition, the agreement said, “defendant will be free to argue that the guilty plea be set aside and the conviction be dismissed”.

Deputy attorney general Casey Hemmer, who prosecuted the case, said at the time that Howard’s behavior was “egregious” but that he had not committed a sex crime and the attack wasn’t racially based.

“We don’t believe it’s appropriate for Mr Howard to suffer the consequences of a sex offender,” Hemmer told the court in December, according to the Times-News. “But he still needs to be held accountable.” Contacted by the Guardian, Hemmer declined make any further comment on the case.

Howard’s attorney also declined to comment. A trial date in the $10m civil rights case is likely to be set soon. Meanwhile, the victim’s parents, who adopted 25 mostly minority and disabled children including the victim, have moved their big family out of Dietrich.

“I really feel sorry for all that they have had to put up with since the incident at the school,” Heiken said. “They are good people.”

Since the October 2015 attack, the victim has tried to commit suicide multiple times, according to court documents. He has been in and out of hospitalsand currently lives in an assisted living facility.

While hospitalized in June after a suicide attempt, the young man wrote a poem in with a shaky hand. Schlender said a nurse found it and gave it to his mother.

“The worlds not use to people like me, they still have Hitler within their hearts,” he wrote. “… It liks to pound you to the ground, and lock the door for your opportunities, and leave you helpless, without a sound.

“Why lord why does this happen to us, send us to earth to be sent to the back of the bus.”

While hospitalized in June after a suicide attempt, the young man wrote a poem in with a shaky hand. (This picture has been edited to remove the name of the victim.)


While hospitalized in June after a suicide attempt, the young man wrote a poem in with a shaky hand. (This picture has been edited to remove the name of the victim.) Photograph: Family Photo