Two 17-year-old Wilson High School baseball players and their former coaches have been acquitted on all charges in the controversial case of alleged horseplay on the team bus last year -- but that doesn't mean it will be the last time they see the inside of a courtroom.
Two of the top lawyers in the region on Thursday vowed to press forward with civil lawsuits against the school district -- a process that may yet clear up what really happened on a baseball team bus ride from Niagara Falls to Wilson April 17, 2008.
Town Justice George R. Berger, who presided over the case in closed-door session because it involved possible youthful offenders, notified lawyers by mail Thursday that he found the two players not guilty of forcible touching, child endangerment and first- and second-degree hazing. He did not explain his decision, nor is he required to do so.
"It's a sealed case. I can't comment," Berger said when reached at home.
Defense attorneys for the boys didn't hesitate to speak out.
"We're very happy, obviously," said Kevin P. Shelby, attorney for one of the players. He said he had some jitters that the judge might convict on the least of the counts, second-degree hazing.
"After having gone through the trial, I think it's the appropriate verdict," said the other defense attorney, P. Andrew Vona. "We believe we deserved it."
"All through this, the childhood story of 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' kept going through my head," the father of Shelby's client said.
The father of Vona's client told The Buffalo News, "I was running through the house yelling, 'Not guilty!' "
As for his son, "He said that he felt the weight of the world was off his shoulders," the father said.
A third defendant, now 19, previously pleaded guilty to child endangerment and will be sentenced by Berger on Aug. 18.
Assistant District Attorney Robert A. Zucco, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment Thursday. On Monday, the day their trial was to start, he dropped child endangerment charges against coaches William M. Atlas and Thomas J. Baia.
>Shift in focus
Three varsity players originally were charged with abusing three junior varsity players in a case that took on sexual overtones. Baia and Atlas were accused of failing to intervene during the alleged incident, and there were allegations that similar incidents had occurred in the past.
"I have no doubt there was some noise and chaos in the back of the bus, as would typically be the case in a school bus full of teenagers, but I think there was no evidence of anything beyond horseplay, because nothing beyond horseplay ever happened, and I don't think many of the witnesses saw what did happen," Vona said.
The action is now expected to shift to State Supreme Court, where parents of three junior varsity players who were allegedly victimized will pursue legal action -- but against the school district, not the players or their coaches.
Christopher O'Brien, of the O'Brien and Boyd firm, said he represents one of the JV players and has filed court paperwork, although the case has yet to be assigned to a judge.
"Our case was never against the boys. Our case was always against the school district for failing in their primary responsibility, which is to protect the children," O'Brien said.
Terrence M. Connors, who is representing two other complainants, said he will file by the end of the month. He said Thursday's verdicts won't deter his clients.
The threshold of evidence in the civil cases will be different than in the criminal cases. Unlike Zucco, Connors and O'Brien don't have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who did what during a chaotic few moments on the bus.
"We have to show the school district has a duty to protect the welfare of the children, which is the statute," O'Brien said. "It's less critical to point the finger: this boy did this, that boy did that."
O'Brien charges that his client, who was not one of the complainants in the criminal case, was bullied repeatedly over a lengthy period, but not on the now-infamous bus trip from Niagara Falls to Wilson.
O'Brien said his client got in trouble with the older players when he allegedly tried to prevent them from dragging a JV teammate to the back of the team bus. On April 17, 2008, "My client was not in the back of the bus," he said.
O'Brien asserted that his client, who did not testify at the players' trial, could have helped the prosecution.
His court papers assert that during the spring of 2008, the boy was "injured" both on school grounds and on the team bus.
"He was assaulted and/or abused by students, [which] took place on a repeated basis during the school day, during baseball practice and/or while the students were being transported to and from baseball games," the papers say.
The suit demands damages to compensate for "severe emotional, mental and psychological injuries," and the cost of counseling for the boy. "We want a jury of six people from Niagara County, and they'll tell us what justice is," O'Brien said when asked if he had a figure in mind for settling the case.
The papers charged that the alleged injuries were caused by "the negligence, carelessness and lack of appropriate policies of the school district, together with the school district's inadequate response to prior complaints about similar behavior preceding these incidents."
School Superintendent Michael S. Wendt said this of the verdict: "It didn't surprise me, because it was in line with similar findings we had when we readmitted the kids to school." The 17-year-olds were suspended after their arrests last year but were reinstated last Dec. 1 after a hearing by the school's attorney.
Regarding the allegations in O'Brien's lawsuit, Wendt said, "I certainly haven't heard anything that would lend credit to what he says."
As for "prior complaints," O'Brien said he was relying on a statement from one of the defendants to state police. The statement said that in 2006, he was a victim of an assault by older players, who struck him in the legs and were punished by having to run laps of the field.
That defendant's father confirmed Thursday that his son "was slapped around on the back of the bus" in 2006.
Meanwhile, Wendt said that when Baia and Atlas go before the Board of Education on Tuesday for reinstatement to their teaching jobs, the topic of returning to coaching may not be settled.
"If the teachers are reinstated, then they would likely to be able to coach, but that still remains to be seen," the superintendent said.
Asked Thursday if the two players would be welcome back on his team if he's returned to coaching, Baia said, "I would guess that would be a decision up to the school. From my point of view, of course I would."e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org