September 21, 2017
Five senior members of the Wheaton College Football team were issued arrest warrants for felony counts of aggravated battery, unlawful restraint and mob action on Monday Sept. 19. The five students — James Cooksey, Kyler Kregel, Benjamin Pettway, Noah Spielman and Samuel TeBos — allegedly kidnapped a freshman team member from his dorm room on March 19, 2016, bound him with duct tape and drove him to a baseball diamond. They left him half-naked and without a cell phone, according to the Chicago Tribune, as a part of the hazing.
All five players remain on the team, and three played in last Saturday’s game against Carthage. After the charges, the players were suspended from the team’s games and practices starting on Tuesday.
The coaches of the football team and over 20 team members contacted by the Record declined to comment, but multiple sources close to the team — including former roommates of football players — claimed the students were participating in a team tradition of duct-taping another player and leaving him on a baseball field. A second player was left on the field ten minutes later, according to the Chicago Tribune. While the first player left Wheaton shortly after the hazing, the second player remains on the team.
In a letter sent to the college community by the President’s Office Monday evening, the college said that it was unable to disclose information to the community due to federal student privacy protections shortly after the Tribune article was released.
“When this incident was brought to our attention by members of the football team and coaching staff in March 2016, the college took swift action to initiate a thorough investigation, including engaging an independent external investigator to conduct a timely and impartial third-party investigation into the incident,” wrote president Philip Ryken in his letter.
All of the Record’s requests for comments from administrators and coaching staff were redirected to the college’s official statement, the student handbook and Director of Media Communications LaTonya Taylor.
The Wheaton Police Department held a separate investigation from that of the college. Wheaton College’s Discrimination, Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy explains the difference in punishments and investigation timelines: “Because the standards for finding a violation of criminal law are different than the standards for finding a violation of [the college’s] policy, criminal investigations or reports are not determinative of whether a violation of this policy has occurred.”
According to Wheaton Police Chief James Volpe, it took the police a year and half to file charges for multiple reasons, including the number of interviews that needed to be conducted, the students’ absence during the summer, the requirement that felonies must be filed with a state attorney and the fact that the victim left Wheaton almost immediately.
“It is not uncommon for serious investigations like this [one], with several offenders, to take any number of months or years to complete. They take quite a bit of time,” Volpe told the Record. In Illinois, felony charges may be filed up to three years after an incident.
“I would always rather [the police department conducting the investigation] take longer and be more thorough than rush to judgement,” Terry Ekl, the attorney representing the victim, told the Record. “With this one though, having said that, it did take longer than you’d expect. But in terms of the outcome, I think they reached the right decisions and made the right recommendations.”
In an interview with CBS Morning News, Ekl said the students “threw [the victim] on a baseball field, threw dirt on him and left him there after pulling his pants down.” The Tribune article published late Monday afternoon included the victim’s statements about attempted sodomy during the incident, but charges against the accused students excluded sodomy or other sexual charges.
According to Ekl’s “understanding of the evidence,” none of the five students denied their involvement in the incident. “It’s not a he-said she-said situation where you’ve got two different versions. Apparently, all the boys all admitted what they did, and I can’t believe under that circumstance the school wouldn’t take full disciplinary action, and they didn’t.”
Wheaton’s student handbook outlines the disciplinary process, highlighting that the response to misconduct depends on the circumstances of each situation, “including but not limited to the seriousness of the alleged offense, the student’s willingness to take responsibility for his or her actions and the student’s conduct history.”
According to the letter from the President’s Office, the college’s investigation “resulted in a range of corrective actions.” Although the college said that it was unable to disclose these actions due to “federal student privacy protections,” the Chicago Tribune reported that several players were required to complete 50 hours of community service and write an eight-page paper about their actions.
It also appears that the five accused players did not play in the 2016 season opener against Benedictine as there were no statistics for them on the football team’s webpage for that game; however, the Record is unable to confirm whether this, in addition to the paper and community service, were the only disciplinary actions taken by the college. As of Tuesday, the accused players were suspended from the team, but some of them continued to go to class, attend labs and work out in the Chrouser Sports Complex on Tuesday.
In an official statement, Taylor stated that the college revised the anti-hazing policy in 2014 and now reviews the policy annually with student athletes and resident assistants, requiring student athletes to sign the policy every year. Athletes must agree to refrain from activities such as kidnapping, “dangerous or harmful” physical activity, “nudity or forcing students to dress in a degrading or inappropriate manner” and any activity “that threatens and intimidates or endangers the health, physical or emotional well-being of a student.”
Some of the accused players were involved in extracurricular activities either on or off campus. Spielman volunteered as a Young Life leader at Naperville North for three years, according to Matt Margaron, Metro Director of Young Life Naperville and Aurora. “As an organization committed to the safety of all kids, we are troubled by these accusations. We continue to pray for healing and resolution for all involved,” Margaron told the Record.
Cooksey is a member of ROTC, and Kregel is a dispatcher for public safety. Although Kregel’s LinkedIn account states that he was employed as a dispatcher in Jan. 2017 by Wheaton College Public Safety, Public Safety would not comment.
On Sept. 19, Kregel turned himself in to the Wheaton Police department. He posted $5,000 bail, and his arraignment is set for Oct. 23. According to Kregel’s lawyer, Christine Field, he will plead not guilty. “There’s always more to the story,” she told Chicago Tribune reporters on Tuesday afternoon.
Spielman also turned himself in and posted bail Tuesday night. The Chicago Tribune reported that his attorney, Mark Sutter, issued a statement saying “Spielman was shocked to hear of these charges after an investigation by Wheaton College exonerated him over one year ago” and that Spielman intends to plead not guilty. Spielman will cooperate with law enforcement and has “full faith and confidence in the legal process and the DuPage County criminal justice system,” according to Sutter, who added that the family has faith that Spielman’s name will be cleared.
Wheaton students and the broader community have responded in a number of ways on campus and over social media. Some students gathered outside of football practice Wednesday evening in protest. Other students have changed their profile pictures to photos that include the accused players in a display of support. Junior Sarah Herning and sophomore Tirzah Montanye organized a day of prayer and fasting in response to the news of the hazing incident.
Junior Jill Dowdy observed, “We as a campus community must seriously consider whether or not we are promoting an atmosphere that fosters this sort of behavior. If so, we need to acknowledge it, have an open conversation about it and effect changes.”
“I have had the privilege of being exposed to both the deep brokenness and beauty of Wheaton College, but I lament that Christians adhere to strict binaries,” said senior Tramaine Kaleebu. “I ask that all minority students practice self-care. I ask that we be hospitable to our assault survivors on campus in our words and actions, including the student pressing charges. I ask that we abandon the privilege of indifference and apathy as a student body.”
Junior Michael Herr told the Record that he is “very concerned about how the administration has handled their hazing policy in the past and present.”
“I had heard, through a conversation with one of the five accused guys, that the football team has various hazing traditions that have been going [on] for many years. That being the case, it seems that either the administration did not know about hazing which had been going on for many years. That’s really unsettling to me. Or, the administration did know about this hazing and looked the other way. That’s even more unsettling to me.” Herr said he wants to know how the college has been enforcing the zero-tolerance hazing policy and whether this will become more strictly monitored in the future.
“One thing that is really disconcerting is to see the tendency to completely distrust the Wheaton administration,” said senior Nathan Houlihan. “I think there are a number of students that hear something like this and have a faith in the integrity of the administration, but on the other side, some hear this and it confirms their existing bias that the administration is corrupt.”
Senior Caitlin Post told the Record that she felt there is more to the story than what the media depicted. “I am close friends with one of the players accused and have watched this event unfold over the last 18 months. I remember hearing about the consequences that these five players were subjected to at the time that this happened. You heard 50 hours of community service and eight pages, but the consequences — which are confidential for both the victim and the five players’ sake — were pretty harsh.”
In the 48 hours after the story broke on Monday, over 100 Facebook users, both those with and without connections to Wheaton College, left one-star reviews on the college’s Facebook page. Many posts across Facebook and Twitter have criticized Wheaton College for creating a “cover-up” of the hazing incident.
Meanwhile, a Facebook post allegedly authored by the parent of a Wheaton College football player has been circulated widely across student and alumni Facebook accounts. The post claims the article published in the Chicago Tribune was “full of fabrication” and purports to have additional information from unidentified “reliable sources” debunking certain claims of the victim.
During Wednesday morning’s chapel, Chaplain Tim Blackmon addressed the incident and led campus in a time of reflection and prayer. Despite being on sabbatical, Ryken also attended chapel and closed the service in prayer.
On Wednesday night, Student Government hosted an open mic event open only to Wheaton students in which Student Body President Binny Seo and Vice President Brielle Lisa listened to concerns and questions. Students presented a wide range of opinions, some expressing anger and frustration toward the football team and the administration and others defending the accused players. Many students brought up issues of how Wheaton handles topics regarding race and ethnicity, asking how people would respond if the accused players were not white and urging the student body to think about the situation from the perspective of students of color.
Although Seo and Lisa could not answer any questions, they promised to relay the students’ concerns to the administration.