Jeff Benedict: The making of a Sports Illustrated cover story: The investigation comes to Utah and Bingham High School
Then we tracked down the prosecutor in a parking lot. He didn't want to talk to us. But we wanted him to explain why he supported transferring Fauonuku's case from adult court to juvenile court — a move that would ultimately clear the way for Fauonuku to sign a scholarship with the University of Utah. The prosecutor told us that the football scholarship was a factor; Utah can't award scholarships to felons. By putting the case in juvenile court, the crime would ultimately be classified as a "delinquent act," not a crime.
It was dark by the time we went to Fauonuku's house and knocked on the door. His mother answered and invited us in after we stated our names and our purpose for being there. Inside, Viliseni emerged from a hallway and joined his mother on a couch facing us. For the next 45 minutes we asked them a series of difficult-but-candid questions about the crime, the gun, the alleged death threat, the aftermath and how it might impact Viliseni's scholarship offer from Utah. At one point we asked him if he thought the victims were scared during the robbery. He said he knew they were scared. When we asked how he knew, he said he could see it in their eyes.
It wasn't something he was proud of. And that leads me to the second thing I took away from our meeting with Viliseni — a sense of remorse. That's what makes this story so compelling. It raises the question of whether a star high school athlete should be denied a scholarship for committing a serious crime as a juvenile. His mother admitted that football was probably his only chance for a shot at college.
As we stood up to leave, I noticed a picture of the leader of the Mormon Church on the mantle. I asked Viliseni's mother if they were Mormons. "We are," she said, her voice trailing off, before saying they had been away from the faith but were looking to return to it. Yet another layer to this complicated story of second chances and redemption.
It was 6 p.m. by the time we left the Fauonuku residence. That's Utah time. But we were operating on Eastern Time. We'd been at it for 16 hours at that point. We had not eaten since breakfast. Still, we pushed further, going to the home of some parents whose son was one of the victims. They were afraid to talk to us. Yet they invited us to sit with them at their dining room table. You learn a lot about a family at the place where they eat.
While we took notes, the mother's hands shook and her lips quivered as she described what it was like having their son held up at gunpoint. The crime was bad enough. But the aftermath brought fear to the entire family. You can't fake shakes and quivers, either.
The prosecutors did not consult with them before offering Viliseni a plea deal. Nor did anyone explain why a pending football scholarship should factor into the decision to treat an armed robbery as a "delinquent act." All these parents knew was that someone had aimed a gun at their son, taken his wallet and used the stolen debit card to make purchases.
At our request, the parents telephoned their son, who joined our interview from a remote location via speakerphone. He was too scared to meet with us face-to-face. Reluctantly, he recounted the crime for us. After he hung up, we telephoned another victim and put him on speaker phone. He corroborated the account of the other victim.
It was 8 p.m. by the time we reached our hotel. We ate, got a few hours of sleep and got up for early flights back East. Leaving Utah, I felt grateful for a coach, a cop, a prosecutor, a witness, two victims, a defendant and two mothers who told us their very different stories. A journalist is only as good as his sources. Of course, it helps to have talented colleagues.
To read more of Jeff's work, visit www.jeffbenedict.com.