Two Riverton High School wrestlers are facing criminal charges in Natrona County alleging they held down teammates and anally penetrated the younger students with their fingers.
The incident took place Jan. 4 on a school bus travelling through Natrona County on the way to a wrestling tournament in Douglas. The students have been charged as adults in Natrona County Circuit Court.
Hayden Wempen and Peyton Rees, both 17 and of Riverton, face two misdemeanor counts each of unlawful contact. They are scheduled to appear in court on July 20 to hear the charges.
Jeffrey Stanbury, the attorney who represents Wempen, said Thursday he had not received charging documents and therefore could not comment. Rees’s attorney, Vance Countryman, did not return a message Wednesday seeking comment.
The allegations have already led to three wrestlers’ expulsion from school for one year. The Fremont County School District No. 25 school board voted to expel the students on Monday, after a 13-hour hearing in late June. The students will be eligible to return in January.
Superintendent Terry Snyder said a school-level investigation recommended expulsion after a two-day investigation. He concurred with that opinion, but the hearing was held up for months as the families of the accused students took the district to court in an attempt to obtain the names of the accusers.
Administrators did not say which students were expelled, and it is not clear from court documents whether the two students charged were among those expelled. Rosters and results show Rees and Wempen did not wrestle after the district began its investigation.
Superintendent Terry Snyder said Wednesday that “the district has exercised its authority in issuing punishment to the maximum level we are allowed. I cannot comment further on the specifics.”
According to court documents filed in the case, the incident was referred to the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 25.
District officials have said they learned of it on Jan. 23 and that it took two days to investigate internally. By Jan. 26, a sheriff’s office investigator obtained notes and recordings of student interviews conducted by high school staff members. In those interviews, students describe upperclassmen holding underclassmen down or putting them in choke holds, covering the younger students’ mouths and forcing fingers into the younger wrestlers’ anuses through their clothes, the documents state.
The practice was known by various names, including “snake pitting” and “bungy poking,” according to the documents.
In a statement to media Tuesday, Snyder said the district discovered the “Snake Pit” during its investigation. He declined to describe the practice but said athletes had characterized as “wrestlers wrestling around and rough housing.” In his statement, Snyder said what happened on the bus was “sexual harassment” and physical assault.
In a Tuesday interview with the Star-Tribune, Snyder said the “attacks” were “well beyond” horse play or roughhousing.
Video footage from security cameras on the bus shows nine different assaults taking place over the course of about 25 minutes, the court documents state. Three of the assaults — against two different victims — allegedly involved Wempen and Rees. At least one more unnamed student also facilitated the assaults, the documents state.
At about 6:40 p.m. Wempen, Rees and the unnamed student dragged another child to the back of the school bus, where Rees held the boy’s mid-section and Wempen held his feet, the documents state, citing the video footage. The two teenagers then forced their hands into the area of the boy’s genitals and anus, according to the documents.
Less than 10 minutes later, Wempen grabbed another boy from his seat and pushed him to the ground, according to the documents. Wempen’s arm can then be seen making a “thrusting motion” near the boy’s waist, the documents state.
Approximately 12 minutes later, Wempen grabbed the same boy from behind. Rees and another student then help Wempen restrain the boy.
Interviews with authorities
The two alleged victims told the sheriff’s investigator that Wempen and Rees had used fingers to penetrate them.
In an interview with the investigator, Wempen said “we” penetrated one of the alleged victims, but he declined to identify who was attacked, the documents state. Rees admitted to holding down alleged victims on the back of the bus eight times, according to the documents.
A Natrona County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Wednesday declined to comment or elaborate on the details in the court documents.
District Attorney Michael Blonigen told the Star-Tribune Wednesday that he is considering bringing charges against other people in connection with the case. He said the potential for sexual assault charges prevented him from commenting further.
Snyder told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday that there were at least three adults sitting near the front of the bus — the head wrestling coach and two assistants. He said they became aware that something was happening on the back when a student made enough noise that it drew their attention.
The coaches apparently did not realize what exactly was happening, Snyder said. They were eventually informed on Jan. 23 by parents of freshman wrestlers, who no longer wanted to wrestle because of the attacks.
The head coach has since stepped down, citing health reasons. Snyder has declined to say whether the January bus incident played a role in the coach’s resignation.
Snyder said that “what had occurred” on the bus “hadn’t occurred previously.” He said the roughhousing had but at a “low level, not a serious level.”
According to the court documents, Rees told an investigator that he had engaged in snake pitting the previous year.