WILSON -- When the story was told 14 months ago, the accusations were scandalous.
Senior members of the Wilson High School baseball team had taken some younger players to the back of a school bus and forced objects into their rectums -- all while the two adult coaches sat at the front of the bus oblivious to what was happening.
Worse, "similar" behavior had been going on for years as part of an initiation for the baseball team, accusers said.
The scandal received national media attention because of the alleged abuse.
But more than a year later, the accusations about what happened on the bus pale in comparison to what was first believed, according to a review of court documents and interviews with key figures in the case.
Nobody pulled down anyone's pants.
Nothing was shoved up the rectum of a team member.
And while some initiation had taken place on the baseball teams in prior years, it was never sexual in nature, but rather involved players being punched in the legs.
Evidence and court papers that have come to light in recent months suggest that at least one of the defendants tried to place a cell phone into or onto the rear end of one or more players, from outside the pants.
"I've talked to doctors who say it's impossible to get a cell phone into the rectum in that situation," said Kevin P. Shelby, attorney for one of the three teenagers charged in the case.
"No one ever said the pants were pulled down."
There is no question that something did happen on the bus, but not anything as severe as what was originally charged.
When the case first broke, in April 2008, three varsity players were charged with felony aggravated sexual abuse. The charges have since been reduced to misdemeanors.
One of the three accused players pleaded guilty June 10 behind closed doors to what is believed to have been a Class A misdemeanor of endangering the welfare of a child. The plea was taken in secret because a misdemeanor or violation plea in a local court for a juvenile with no prior criminal record means automatic youthful-offender status.
The other two players are scheduled to go to trial Saturday on charges of forcible touching and first- and second-degree hazing. The first two charges are misdemeanors, the third a violation.
Both coaches, William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia, are due in Town Court on July 6 for a jury trial on charges of endangering the welfare of a child. They are accused of not stopping whatever was happening on the bus. Their attorneys assert that the coaches never saw anything, and testimony will emphasize what the coaches did, not what the players did.
"The proof is, they didn't see anything," said Robert Viola, Baia's attorney.
As the cases against those charged have fizzled in the last year, many in Wilson are left feeling that the image of the community and its residents has been unfairly tarnished.
Despite the evolution of the cases, Terrence M. Connors, a Buffalo attorney representing one of the boys who says he was assaulted, insisted that his client has not changed his story one bit.
"They reported what happened. They didn't choose the charges. They should get some credit for stopping this bullying," Connors told The Buffalo News.
The News has not published the names of the 19-year-old who pleaded guilty or the two 17-year-olds headed to trial, a proceeding that will be closed to the public because it's considered a youthful-offender case.
On April 17, 2008, members of the varsity and junior varsity baseball teams were on a bus returning from games in Niagara Falls when three junior varsity players were pulled one by one to the back of the bus, police have said.
Reports about what happened to each while they were back there have stirred the most controversy, and, the day after the incident became public, the State Police said the incident involved criminal sexual acts.
Not so, according to attorneys for the three teen defendants. Evidence is lacking that the three -- originally accused of inserting an object into the body parts of junior varsity players -- did so.
Shelby said that if there's a trial, he will call an eyewitness who will testify that "the worst he saw was a charley horse."
He said he obtained that information from the closed-door suspension hearing the school conducted before barring the defendants from the campus for several months.
Shelby said a lack of physical evidence of sexual assault forced the prosecution to drop the felony charges. He also said he thinks that's why the State Police recently began an internal investigation into how the case has been handled.
"If you're going to bring those high-level felonies, you have to have proof," Shelby said.
Assistant District Attorney Robert A. Zucco said he would have needed to prove penetration. "I don't say we couldn't prove it," he said. "There was a lot of discussion of that in the office."
One of the complaining JV players is wavering on his story, the prosecutor added.
Shelby said, "If the versions of events never changed, I'd be very surprised that they'd reduce felonies to misdemeanors."
The now-19-year-old former player is the one who pleaded guilty to reduced charges. The attorneys for the two 17-year-olds have vowed not to let their clients plead guilty unless prosecutors offer pleas to violations. That hasn't happened so far.
"Whatever they plead to, it confirms that something happened that was wrong," Connors said.
In announcing the arrest of the players last year, police also said that there were previous incidents similar to what was alleged to have happened April 17, 2008. Those previous incidents laid the foundation for the child-endangerment charges filed against coaches Baia and Atlas.
However, a court motion by Zucco, who sought unsuccessfully to have those earlier incidents included as evidence in the coaches' trial, shows they were similar only in the sense that there was physical contact. The incidents were not sexual.
According to that document, a Wilson player said that during the 2006 and 2007 baseball seasons, older players would lure younger ones to the back of the team bus and punch them in the legs. One player quoted in the document called this "a long-standing tradition."
In another incident, Zucco's motion said, a father said his son was assaulted on the bus in a season before 2008; details about the form of that assault are not mentioned. The father said players were punished by running laps.
That assault victim was one of the students charged in the case last year on the school bus.
At any rate, Town Justice George R. Berger has barred all use of that material at trial, unless the defense were to bring it up for some reason.
Zucco said that there was a pattern of "assaultive, abusive, harassing behavior by older kids toward younger kids, most of which happened on the bus. We wanted to show there were problems on the bus in the past, and the coaches knew about it."
Twelve days after the alleged incident, Baia and Atlas were arrested and suspended from their coaching positions. The next day, they were suspended from their teaching jobs.
Since then, each has been on paid leave, under the terms of the teachers contract.
The school district has paid for their legal defense, as stipulated by the union contract. Through May 27, the district has paid nearly $48,000 to the coaches' defense attorneys, according to records obtained by The News under the state's Freedom of Information Law.
The lawyers aren't the only professionals working on behalf of Baia and Atlas.
A Manhattan public relations firm and a Web site called reputationdoctor.com have been working behind the scenes to paint the coaches in a more favorable light.
"The only reason why I'm involved in this case is because reputations have been damaged," said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates, a Manhattan PR firm.
"For over a year, not only the coaches, who are my clients, have been damaged by the positioning of this case, using toxic terms like 'sexual hazing,' . . . the truth comes out, and those charges get dropped because it never happened," Paul said. "There is no sexual hazing happening in Wilson, N.Y. There never was any sexual hazing that happened."
Paul, who attended Cortland State College with Atlas, said his clients believe that the case should have never made it to court. He also pointed to the internal investigation by the State Police into how the matter was handled.
"Based on what I've read in the newspaper, my clients are not the issue," Paul said. "Law enforcement is the issue."
The lawyer in the case brought by the families of the alleged victims disagrees.
Connors expects to file a civil suit against the Wilson Central School District by the end of July. If that case ever goes to trial, it holds out the best chance for the public to find out what really happened.
The criminal trial will be conducted behind closed doors, and no spectators will be allowed. But for a case in civil court, they would be.
Wilson High School hazing case
The most serious charges have been dropped in the case involving three players and two coaches.
Here's how the case has evolved:
*April 17: Incident occurs on bus ride back from games in Niagara Falls.
*April 24: Alleged second attack on one of the April 17 victims on ride back from Albion.
*April 25: Three players arrested, charged with felony aggravated sexual abuse.
*April 29: Two coaches charged with child endangerment, suspended from coaching jobs.
*April 30: The two coaches suspended from teaching jobs.
*May 6: Wilson School Board approves continued suspension of teacher-coaches; interim JV coach hired.
*May 7: One of three players charged arrested on an unrelated drug-possession count.
*May 13: Coaches plead not guilty in Wilson Town Court.
*July 24: Players offered pleas to lesser charges.
*Aug. 29: Niagara County DA Michael J. Violante confirms felony charges against players are being dropped; players rearraigned on misdemeanor hazing charges 10 days later.
*Dec. 2: Town Judge George R. Berger refuses to dismiss charges against coaches.
*Jan. 24: Father of one of the players says State Police told him coaches were the target.
*Jan. 26: The Buffalo News reports two volunteer coaches who were on bus at time of alleged incident are being considered for coaching positions. Different coaches with no connection to the incident are later hired.
*Feb. 17: Judge dismisses some charges against two of the three players: both 17-year-olds still face one count each of firstand second-degree hazing and forcible touching, but one hazing count is dropped against one of the 17-year-olds; the 19- year-old now faces only one first-degree hazing charge (two other counts dismissed because of failure to demonstrate evidence of physical injury).
*April 23: Berger rules evidence of alleged prior improper acts of coaches inadmissible; potential juror questionnaire discussed.
*May 19: Story breaks on State Police internal investigation into how Wilson case was handled.
*June 9: 19-year-old accepts plea agreement with youthfuloffender status; admits to no sexual contact or injury, lawyer says.
*June 27: Trial for the two remaining players is scheduled to start, and run at least three or four Saturdays. It will be behind closed doors because it is a youthful offender case.
*July 6: Coaches' trial set to begin.Source: Buffalo News archives