A group of Kelly Walsh High School wrestlers allegedly held down and waterboarded a freshman teammate earlier this month in the school’s locker room, according to two people close to the victim’s family.
On Jan. 3, the victim was at practice at the high school. He was being teased by other members of the team, the sources told the Star-Tribune this week, and he responded by winking at them. One of the older wrestlers gathered some other athletes, and together, they decided they would grab the victim in the locker room after practice.
Knowing that the wrestlers were waiting for him, the victim didn’t want to go into the locker room, the sources said. One of his friends offered to walk in and grab his things for him. But when the friend entered the locker room, the waiting upperclassmen refused to let him take the victim’s belongings. They told him that they would hurt him, too, one source said.
The victim walked into the room, and at least three wrestlers grabbed him.
Though he tried to escape, the attackers “yanked him back, and they threw him on a bench,” one of the sources said. “One kid held his legs, two other kids held his arms, they put a towel over his head, and one kid said, ‘Let’s piss in his mouth.’”
The victim struggled harder and the towel fell off, the sources said. Then the attackers put it back over his face and began pouring water over the victim’s mouth and nose.
The victim began to choke, and they let him sit up. They rubbed a cream on him typically used by wrestlers after a match to protect against skin infection, though the source was unsure why. The victim stood up and walked into the showers to wash it off.
No coaches were present in the locker room during the attack, according to the sources. One walked in as the victim was in the showers, but after he left, the attackers warned the victim that if he told anyone, they would waterboard him again.
The Star-Tribune agreed to grant anonymity to the two sources, who requested that their identities be kept secret to avoid repercussions against them, the victim or the victim’s family. The victim’s parents declined to comment. The Star-Tribune has chosen not to name the victim or his parents.
The Star-Tribune has also chosen not to identify the alleged attackers, as sources declined to confirm their names and the school district has refused to provide details.
According to the sources, the waterboarding was recorded on Snapchat, a popular messaging app that allows users to send pictures and videos to each other. Images sent over the app are erased after viewing or after 24 hours.
Waterboarding is an interrogation technique in which individuals have water poured over their mouths and noses, simulating the sensation of drowning. It gained notoriety over the past 15 years after the CIA waterboarded suspected terrorists, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 terror attacks.
District offers little information
Natrona County School District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland has repeatedly refused to give details about the attack, including where and when it happened, what happened, who did it, the age level of the attackers, what school they attended and what consequences they faced. She cited privacy constraints that forbid the district from releasing any information.
The district’s attorney, Kathleen Dixon, said in an email that the district felt it had provided all of the details that it legally could.
However, Southerland did not deny that the district had investigated a report of waterboarding. When asked about another separate allegation, Southerland said the district had heard nothing about the other report. But when asked if that meant they had heard about the alleged waterboarding, Southerland reiterated a previous statement sent to the Star-Tribune.
“NCSD is aware of an isolated incident involving a violation of the student code of conduct,” the district wrote in its original statement, sent on Jan. 16. “Upon receiving information regarding the incident, an investigation was immediately conducted. As a result of the investigation, behavioral and student code of conduct disciplinary consequences were implemented.”
On Friday, the Star-Tribune informed the district that it was preparing a story on the allegations. In an emailed response, Southerland declined to comment beyond stating that district officials believe they cannot lawfully provide additional information.
Kelly Walsh athletic director AJ Nathan declined to comment on whether there had been a case of “extreme bullying” — as Southerland had called it — within the wrestling team.
On Wednesday, he said he had recently been told by the district that administrators would handle the matter. Nathan has two sons on the wrestling team.
The day after the alleged attack, the sources said, the victim and his family went to meet with Nathan and Kelly Walsh principal Brad Diller. They also contacted the police and wanted charges pressed against the assailants. The group — the family, Diller, Nathan and a police officer — met at the school.
Diller and Nathan apologized to the family after the victim recounted what happened to him the night before, one source said. The police officer then arrived, and Nathan and the family met with him in another room. The officer said he would be in touch, and Nathan said he would look into the allegations.
Nathan and the officer established a timeline for the attack, according to one source, and wrestling coach Travis Peak was brought in. He later called the victim’s family and told them the attack couldn’t have happened because the boys weren’t left alone in the showers long enough, one of the sources said.
On Friday, Nathan referred all questions to the district spokeswoman. Diller did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Peak told the Star-Tribune that he was in Colorado with the wrestling team.
“I won’t respond to the email or anything else about that,” he said, adding that he was under “direct orders” not to comment.
Both sources disputed the suggestion that the victim or his friend made up the attack.
“They’re scared not to lose kids off their wrestling team or whatever. I get it,” one source said. “This is a sports town. They could’ve killed him.”
“No kids make up waterboarding,” the source continued. “Kids don’t make that up.”
In an email Peak later sent to a family member of the victim that was shown to the Star-Tribune by a source, the coach apologized repeatedly.
“Hello I’m very sorry that this incident has rocked your family so hard and completely changed your mind about the program,” Peak wrote. “ ... I also want you to know that we are doing our best to raise good young men and not just wrestlers. We value character far above anything else. This is a huge setback for ALL of these young men.”
The attackers were briefly suspended from school and were held out of at least two tournaments, the sources said. The district has declined to describe what punishment was given.
On Thursday, Sgt. Scott Jones of the Casper Police Department told the Star-Tribune that law enforcement had investigated a recent incident of bullying or hazing at Kelly Walsh and had concluded that a crime had occurred.
The initial report received by police indicated a possible assault and battery, said Jones, who declined to provide any more details because of the ages of those involved. The results of the investigation were sent to District Attorney Michael Blonigen.
Blonigen declined to give details about the incident. But he said his office had spoken with the police department about it as recently as Wednesday.
It’s unclear if the report that the police department investigated is the waterboarding attack. The sources who spoke with the Star-Tribune said police were involved. Southerland did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the police investigation.
The family requested a meeting with Superintendent Steve Hopkins, who, through a school board member, declined, saying that he wanted to let Kelly Walsh determine what happened, one of the sources said. He said he would be willing to meet with the parents after the school completed its investigation, but the family has apparently not heard from him yet, the source said.
Hopkins did not return an email seeking comment Friday morning.
The victim has withdrawn from Kelly Walsh. His family had previously planned on moving away from Casper and the victim was going to stay behind and finish the wrestling season.
Star-Tribune staff writers Brady Oltmans and Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.