One by one, he charmed them.
Three middle school girls, two of them only 12 years old, totally smitten with the high school lacrosse player who was paying attention to them and wanted to be their friend.
During his freshman and sophomore years, the Brighton High School student Snapchatted the girls, used terms like "baby girl" and "princess," listened to their problems and played the trusting, big brother. As one of the girls’ parents noted, “He seemed like a polite young man.”
He manipulated them all.
In Livingston County Juvenile Court last spring, the bushy-haired, 6-foot-tall athlete was charged with 20 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct on charges of raping the three girls on multiple occasions when he was 14 and 15 years old. Prosecutors said he used his size to overcome them and manipulated events and the girls to get what he wanted.
A 12-year-old girl was raped in a ditch behind a Brighton movie theater, they said. Another 12-year-old ran barefoot in the snow to a neighbor's house to escape him when he tried to rape her a third time.
And he used the same scheme with each girl: He sexually assaulted them, returned to their houses days later to apologize, then raped them again, prosecutors said. One victim said he threatened to kill himself if she told anyone what happened. Another said he threatened suicide if she refused to see him.
Rumors quickly spread at school. The girls were called sluts and liars. One attempted suicide. Another dropped out of school for a while.
But after months of enduring name-calling and judgmental stares — including taunting by the boy's mother — the young victims are speaking up, especially given the latest turn of events in the criminal case.
Last month, the now-16-year-old boy was sentenced by a juvenile court referee to 45 days in a youth facility after pleading guilty to one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct as part of a plea agreement. Had he been charged as an adult, he would have faced up to life in prison.
His punishment has the victims reeling. They had hoped he would be placed in a lockdown, residential treatment center for sex offenders for a year — with a follow-up evaluation — as was stipulated in his plea agreement.
Perhaps more alarming, the victims and their parents say, is that the now-16-year-old boy could return to school as early as this week. He has an evaluation hearing on Monday in juvenile court, though the girls pleaded with the Brighton School Board last month to expel him.
Adding to their frustration is the fact that his name will not be added to the public sex offender registry list because he was charged as a juvenile, which means no one but police will know about his rape conviction.
None of this makes sense to the victims and their families, who believe the criminal justice system has let them down over and and over again.
“I feel betrayed,” one of the victims told the Free Press last week, stressing she feels as if her attacker “has more rights than we do.”
“I’m hurt,” she said. “He made me question myself. He made me hate myself. But now I know that I’m strong. … I know I’m not to blame for this.”
And she refuses to hide in the dark. So do the others.
Bolstered by the recent explosion of sexual harassment complaints against celebrities and politicians, the three girls and their mothers are taking a stand and publicly speaking out about their painful experiences. They want their faces seen. They want their stories told.
"It's gone faceless for so long and it's easy to forget about," one victim's mother, Ashley, said of sexual assault. "When you put a face to it — it's real."
The Free Press agreed to use the mothers' first names, but is not using other identifying information for the victims or the assailant because of their ages.
'I blamed myself for everything'
In court documents, prosecutors portrayed the boy as a teen sexual predator who bullied, manipulated and coerced younger girls into having sex. A police report said he is alleged to have assaulted up to seven girls, though he was only charged with assaulting three. He pleaded guilty to raping one.
This is her story.
She was 13 when she lost her virginity in a neighbor’s basement, pinned to the floor by the then-15-year-old boy.
It was March 2.. The eighth-grader had come home sick from Scranton Middle School and headed to her neighbor's house to take care of a cat. The older boy had been Snapchatting her nonstop that day, insisting he see her because he was stressed out about something.
So the two met at the neighbor's house to hang out.
At some point, the girl headed to the basement to check on laundry. It was dark and scary, so the boy went with her. As they walked down the basement stairs, he said, "'Boo!" It made her laugh.
Once downstairs, he plopped down on a couch and said he was stressed. She sat down at the other end. He scooted closer to her, lifted her feet up and said, "Kiss me."
She said no.
"Please, just kiss me," he pleaded. Then, he told her that his girlfriend had cheated on him, that he was sad and hadn't slept all night. He asked again, "Please, just kiss me, once."
So she did. But things escalated fast. He shoved his tongue into her mouth. Then he grabbed her hips and started pulling her pants down.
"Are you crazy?," she recalled telling him. "You don't need to do this."
But he kept going. He pushed her to the floor. He ripped her underwear, all while she kept telling him, "You don't want to do this."
After it was done, he said he had to go and asked, "Can I have a hug at least?"
She ran home. He ran in another direction.
Once home, she went to her bedroom. "I looked at myself in the mirror and bawled," she recalled. "I covered my mouth so that one would hear."
Later that night, he texted her: 'This is just between us, right?' Then he blamed her.
"He told me that it was all my fault, and that if I told anyone he would kill himself. I was a a mess. I kept telling him, 'don't kill yourself. You'll be OK.' "
Within days, the incident was all over the school. She told a friend, who told someone else. And eventually the incident wound up on Snapchat. The boy blocked her on social media. The kids called her a slut, a liar.
"I blamed myself for everything," she said. "He was a saint in everyone's eyes. And I was a whore."
He apologized, then raped again
Nearly three weeks after the basement incident, the boy showed up on her front steps.
It was March 21. She had just gotten off the school bus and walked home when she heard pounding on the front door. She thought it was her mom coming home from grocery shopping. But it was him.
" 'I need to apologize to you. Can we talk?' " she recalled him saying.
She opened the door and let him in. He walked her to her bedroom and sat on her vanity chair. She sat on her bed.
" 'Why did you do this to me?' " she asked him. " 'Why me?' "
"I'm so sorry," he responded.
But it happened again. After apologizing, he grabbed her face, shoved his tongue down her throat and climbed on top of her. He unzipped her sweatshirt.
" 'Are you seriously going to do this to me again?' " she recalled telling him. "I kept saying, 'No.' I kept pushing. I kept kicking. Finally, I gave up."
He raped her, again.
As he left, he asked for a hug.
"I hate you,' " she said.
There were others
The day after being raped in her bedroom, the 13-year-old girl was sitting in class at Scranton Middle School when two girls went to the bathroom. One of them was crying.
The 13-year-old followed them and a heated argument broke out. One of the girls was upset because she heard about the 13-year-old girl having sex with the lacrosse player. The 13-year-old explained that it wasn't consensual, that she didn't want to have sex with him, and that he had come over to say he was sorry.
That's when red flags went up.
Turned out, all three girls in the bathroom had been sexually pursued by the same boy; one of them shared the exact same experience as the 13-year-old: He raped her, went over to apologize, then raped her again.
This, the victims have said, was his MO — his method of operation.
As the three girls cried and conversed loudly in the bathroom, three school officials — the principal, a secretary and a counselor — came inside to see what the commotion was about.
"We all froze," the 13-year-old recalled this past week.
But the girls opened up and the secret was out. The next day, their parents were summoned to the school office by a counselor.
"I was not prepared to hear what I heard," said Ashley, the mother of the 13-year-old girl. "My entire world just crashed at that moment."
That same night, two of the girls and their parents went to the Brighton Police Department and filed complaints against the high school boy.
According to police reports and interviews with the families, the boy had raped one of the girls four times when she was 12. He had met her at his younger sister's cheer competitions and reached out to her over Snapchat, where the two forged a friendship.
But over time, the girl's mother said, he manipulated her 12-year-old daughter and forced himself on her sexually — in one case bruising a shoulder by holding her down.
"Her shoulder hurt really bad one night. I had no idea why — I thought it was from cheerleading so I told her to take some Advil and go to bed. ... I had no idea it was from him holding her down," said the mother, Jackie, who struggles to contain her anger when talking about the case.
Jackie said that on one occasion last year, the boy had let himself into their home and tried to sexually assault her daughter a third time, ripping her shirt and bra off and stuffing them into a couch cushion. Her daughter locked herself in her bedroom before running out the door, barefoot in the snow.
Jackie described her daughter as a typical 12-year-old girl who wanted to be accepted, and developed a crush on an older boy who lived near them and was paying attention to her. He was likable, she said, noting she and her husband sometimes had him over for family dinner and took him on on outings, once to an apple orchard.
"He's twisted, manipulative and calculating," Jackie said.
The 45-day sentence has her blood boiling.
"I want to see the courts do what they're supposed to do and put this individual into long-term treatment if he is to have any chance at rehabilitation," Jackie said. "I don't want him to be loose in our community at this point. I don't believe he can function in a healthy manner."
On Facebook, someone created a page publicly outing the boy with his name and photo and calling for the courts to "protect our daughters" from him. The victims' families said they do not know who created the page. On Monday, a rally supporting the victims is planned at noon outside the juvenile court for the boy's evaluation hearing.
A plea to school board
The boy lives with his mother and grandparents in a $448,000, nearly 3,000-square-foot home tucked in the woods on a charming country road dotted with well-maintained homes in Brighton Township. His family declined comment for this article. His lawyer did not return multiple calls.
An older woman who answered the door at his home last week questioned why the news media was covering the case.
"They're liars," she said, presumably of the accusers. "There are two sides to every story."
When asked to explain the other side, she declined to elaborate beyond saying the case was disruptive to her family and that "there are children here."
Brighton school officials have been evasive as well.
School board President Andy Burchfield declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing school policy not to discuss student matters.
When asked repeatedly whether a decision had been made to allow the boy back to school, he declined to answer and deferred to this statement:
"It is important for our community to know we are listening and safety and security is paramount for all students and staff. As discussed during (our) last board meeting, we will continue to review district policies in an effort to enhance our already safe and successful school district. Our goal is to be leaders in policy and educational programming as it relates to safety and security matters."
The school district's silence has drawn public scrutiny as many in Brighton have joined the victims and their families at school board meetings, demanding the boy be expelled.
One of the victims spent her 14th birthday at a podium, pleading with the school board to expel her attacker so that she can resume some normalcy in her life and not fear running into him in the hallway.
Under state law, school officials are required to expel students convicted of certain crimes, including criminal sexual conduct. However, the statute only mentions criminal sexual conduct that occurs on school grounds or in school buildings.
There’s also Michigan’s sex offender registry law, which prohibits convicted sex offenders from being within 1,000 feet of the school.
Brighton school officials have said that Brighton typically has fewer than five students expelled each year, for reasons ranging from drug possession to having multiple offenses. And the expulsions usually involve something that was done on school time.
Critics have noted that under the school district's policy guidelines, sexual misconduct is mentioned as grounds for expulsion. Students can also face strict discipline for drinking or doing drugs.
A Free Press reporter posed this question to the school board president: If a football player can be kicked off the team for getting drunk, shouldn't a convicted rapist be banned from school grounds?
He declined to answer.
"It was confirmed'
A day after the girls went to the police with their parents, the boy and his girlfriend texted one another. The texts read:
"I just hope I'm going to be OK. ... I don't want to get F----- over. ... I just hate how they have to lie about everything."
Weeks later, in an April 6 interview with police, the boy denied sexually assaulting the 13-year-old girl in her bedroom and the neighbor's basement. He told police that he had never been inside her house and that he had only been to the neighbor's once — not on the day in question.
An officer then showed the boy and his mother surveillance images of him walking toward her house. He also told them that police had obtained a towel from the girl's room with bodily fluids on it. And that it was being tested.
The boy changed his story. He admitted that he was at the girl's home on March 21, the day she said he raped her in her bedroom. He told police she invited him over through Snapchat and that she offered oral sex. He agreed and said he ejaculated in a towel. He denied having sexual intercourse with her.
Five months later, he stood in a courtroom and pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct, admitting he had sex with the 13-year-old even though she said no. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges for his actions involving the two 12-year-old girls. In one case, he pleaded guilty to accosting a minor for immoral purposes. In the case of the 12-year-old who said she was raped outside the movie theater, he pleaded guilty to four counts of possessing child sexually explicit material — nude photos of multiple other victims.
His guilty pleas were a punch to the gut for the mothers.
"Hearing this come from his own mouth killed a little piece of me," Ashley wrote in a letter to the judge. "One, I had never heard him speak. And two, even though this has all been very real, it was confirmed."
On Oct. 19, Livingston County Juvenile Court Referee Chelsea Thomason handed down the 45-day sentence, concluding that was the appropriate punishment for this case.
Here's how she came to that conclusion, according to court records:
Prosecutors had argued that the teen belonged in a residential treatment center for juvenile sex offenders for a year, with an evaluation to follow to make sure he was safe to return to the community. They also wanted him to be named a ward of the state.
The victims also had given impact statements, stressing they wanted him to get long-term help with the goal of rehabilitation.
But the boy's attorney, Edwin Literski, convinced the court referee that 45 days in a youth center was a better option. He said his client and his mother had been cooperative, and that results from two separate sex offender assessments convinced experts that placing the boy in a treatment facility was not the best option. He also noted that the boy's probation officer recommended against the residential treatment center.
The probation officer had testified that 45 days in a youth center was a better fit for the teenager, noting the boy was having a hard time during his two weeks at the juvenile detention center.
Literski also said the prosecution "dramatically spun" the girls' stories.
"He'd like to go home today," Literski said in court that day. "The experts say there's no reason he shouldn't."
When the 45-day sentence was read, one of the victims collapsed in the other girls' arms. One dug her nails into her dad's arm. The mothers struggled to breathe, fearing the light sentence would cast doubt on their daughters' allegations.
"I felt like someone yanked my lungs out of me," said Debra, whose daughter was sexually assaulted in the ditch near the movie theater when she was 12. She did not know the other victims and goes to a different school, but attends all court hearings and school meetings with the other two girls in a show of solidarity.
Debra, a sexual abuse survivor herself, said she has encouraged all the girls to keep their heads up in court, telling them: " 'Never look at the floor. You don't have to stare him down, but you walk with your head high. You have nothing to be ashamed of.' "
'How did that happen?'
Livingston County Prosecutor William Vailliencourt also has expressed frustration with the 45-day sentence, saying he was "very disheartened by it" and that it wasn't "appropriate."
"I share the outrage of many people about the sentence that was imposed," he told the Free Press, noting the referee had the final say on punishment, not him. Vailliencourt challenged the sentence, but to no avail.
On Oct. 25, the prosecution requested a review of the sentence and asked the court to reconsider its recommendation that he be placed in a long-term residential center.
The next day, Livingston County Circuit Judge David Reader denied the request, saying it was untimely and that the 45-day sentence stands.
Joshua Marquis, who sits on the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association and lectures nationally on sentencing and criminal justice issues, was surprised when told of the case and the sentence.
"That’s it?," Marquis said when told of the 45 days. "That seems like an inappropriate sentence. It's really dangerous. What we know is that teenage boys who aggressively sexually act out on girls that age are at an extremely high risk to re-offend."
Marquis, who has been a district attorney inClatsop County, Ore., for more than two decades, said he also is surprised the boy wasn't charged as an adult.
"The conduct is really, really egregious. I’m just kind of surprised that someone wouldn’t’ take that more seriously," Marquis said. "If that case presented itself in my office, he would probably do six to eight years in a youth facility."
Vailliencourt defended his office's decision not to charge the boy as an adult, noting the goal in the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate young offenders. He also noted that the victims and their families didn't want the defendant to go to prison, but rather they pushed for rehabilitation.
"This was something we talked to the victims about," he said, noting the families also opted to accept the plea deal rather than go through the trauma of a trial.
Marquis said if the families wanted rehabilitation, "You’re not going to do that in 45 days."
The sentence also stunned Janis Whitlock, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University who focuses on adolescent and young adult mental health and sexual violence prevention.
"That just blew my mind. How did that happen?" Whitlock said of the 45-day sentence.
Legal and psychological experts note that the definition of rape has changed over the years against the backdrop of a growing women's right movement, which has emphasized that there doesn't need to be actual force to be rape. There doesn't need to be cuts and bruises, they say. Coercion is typically enough, particularly in cases involving minors who are easily manipulated and who aren't mature enough to consent.
In the Brighton case, prosecutors said there was coercion and force.
Whitlock explained that 12- and 13-year-old girls are not mature enough to know how to react in a situation in which a "high-status male in their world" is pursuing them and trying to manipulate them into having sex. She said that adolescent girls have a fundamental desire to connect with boys, to help them and nurture them. So when a troubled young boy hits on an adolescent girl and things escalate, she said, there's a part of the girl that wants to believe he is caring, and that he's remorseful when he apologizes for going too far.
"They are easy prey for coercive activities," Whitlock said. "They can't think straight. The planning centers of the brain just become inaccessible when they are in a state of high emotions."
That makes it easier for the sexual predator to have his way.
As Whitlock noted, a girl may struggle or fight back. But when the boy won't back down and fear and confusion abound, the girl gives up.
"Her struggles are doing nothing. That's a sense of powerlessness," Whitlock said. "It's like, 'lets get this over with.' "
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