PROVO A state grand jury has indicted four former Brigham Young University football players on allegations of gang rape, capping an especially embarrassing year for a football program long considered a missionary tool for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The grand jury convened in American Fork on Thursday, the day after BYU head coach Gary Crowton tendered his resignation under pressure. Crowton's final year was marred by a losing season on the field and a spate of problems off it. Over the past year, 14 players have been disciplined for Honor Code violations.
Those indiscretions which ranged from assault and robbery to alleged group sex in January badly sullied the reputation of a school once called "a showcase for Mormonism" by a church leader.
But nothing was as damaging as Friday's bombshell announcement that six freshmen players or former players will face a total of 18 felony charges in connection with the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl in August. Not since 1985, when news surfaced that team doctors were illegally giving players prescription drugs, has the school suffered such public embarrassment.
"This does dredge up some wounds from the past," said associate athletic director Tom Holmoe. "We're going in a new direction with the program. The new head coach we hire will be able to effect change in a lot of ways. It's a new start, and that's one of the reasons we made a change."
B.J. Mathis, Karland Bennett, William Turner Jr. and Ibrahim Rashada are charged with four felonies each two counts of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and one count each of obstruction of justice and dealing in material harmful to a minor.
Provo police launched an investigation after the girl reported that she went to the off-campus apartment of Bennett and Mathis on Aug. 8, watched pornography with a group of players, drank vodka with them and then, after passing out or falling asleep, woke up while being raped by three or four players.
In the case of each player, one sexual assault charge alleges they committed bodily harm during the course of a rape or attempted rape. The second sexual assault charge is for allegedly causing bodily harm during forcible or attempted forcible sodomy.
Two other football players also face criminal charges wide receiver Antwaun Harris, who is alleged to have made a false statement to investigators, a second-degree felony, and defensive back Billy Skinner for allegedly dealing in material harmful to a minor, a third-degree felony. Both players lived on the same floor as Mathis and Bennett at the University Villa apartments.
Bennett, Rashada and Skinner are defensive backs. Turner was listed at linebacker, and Harris is a wide receiver.
Harris was the only one of the six to play for BYU this season. Crowton effectively suspended the other five when he announced just before the season's first game that they would redshirt, or sit out the season.
Harris caught 17 passes for 149 yards. He also gained eight yards on two running plays and returned four kicks for 65 yards.
The news came as a shock to Bennett's mother, who learned Friday afternoon from the Deseret Morning News that police in Texas were looking for her son.
"I haven't heard anything," she said. "They haven't called us. I don't believe it's against my child."
She said her son has never told her his side of the story.
Mathis did not return a message left on his cell phone. Other players could not be reached for comment.
Don Harwell, president of the support group for black Mormons called Genesis, was also surprised when he heard the news. Harwell has talked to several of the players and their families since the allegations surfaced.
"Oh, this is bad," he sighed. "It's frightening. If these kids get found guilty they're gonna be put away for a long time."
The alleged victim's parents released a letter to the media, thanking local law enforcement officials and BYU Honor Code investigators.
"We realize this case is far from over but continue to hope and pray for the truth to be made known and for justice be swift," the statement read. "We look forward to the day when all of this is behind us."
The couple also praised their daughter for her courage to step forward in spite of the public scrutiny she has endured. She testified at Thursday's grand jury proceedings.
It was the first time in 14 years a grand jury has been convened in Utah County. Bryson said his office began considering the use of a grand jury at the onset of the investigation to minimize the number of times the victim would have to testify.
He also said the convening of the grand jury which can take weeks explains why charges weren't filed sooner.
Some local defense attorneys were surprised the state used a grand jury in this case and were skeptical of the indictments.
"You could indict a door bell through a grand jury," attorney Shelden Carter said. "It's so easy; you just give them what they want. And there's nobody there looking out for the defendants at all. So it's a walk-through for the state."
He also said it puts the defense team at a disadvantage because, without a preliminary hearing, they can't see the state's evidence or evaluate their witnesses.
Arrest warrants were issued for Mathis, Bennett and Rashada, and Rashada was arrested Friday and detained in the Utah County Jail. A judge ordered all three men held on $100,000 cash bail.
Mathis and Bennett are now in Texas, where they attended high school together. If arrested there, Bryson will seek extradition.
Turner, 18, was 17 at the time of the alleged incident and will be tried in juvenile court, Bryson said. Turner will be allowed to turn himself in instead of being arrested.
No court dates have been set.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said all six players could face a new round of Honor Code reviews.
"The Honor Code Office in its decision was acting on information available to it at the time," Jenkins said. "We've said all along that if more information became available, we'd consider re-opening these cases."
Some of the players could be permanently expelled.
"Yes," Jenkins said, "that is a possibility, that the suspensions would become dismissals."
BYU administrators and members of the school's board of trustees have been stung by the negative publicity that has overshadowed the football program for the past year. National headlines trumpeted the police investigations in the rape case, and ESPN dedicated its "Outside the Lines" program to BYU's troubles on Sept. 3, the night before the football team's first game, an upset victory over Notre Dame.
"The behavior that those individuals have been charged with is not tolerated at this university," Jenkins said.1 comment on this story
The bad news for BYU is that Friday's announcement doesn't mark the end of the troubles."We're not resting," Bryson said. "There's a lot of work to be done."