A Hardin teen and former Hardin-Central Student learned his fate Monday morning in a Ray Co. courtroom. Jeffrey Ellis, 18, stood before Judge Larry Harmon as he sentenced the teen to 3 years in the Department of Corrections but suspended execution of sentence, placing him on 5 years probation. Ellis was also ordered to serve 30 days shock incarceration, which will begin Friday. He will have to complete 200 hours of community service and pay for any counseling the victim may need over the next several years as well.
The teen pleaded guilty in February 2013 to second-degree assault in relation to alleged sexual attack in the Hardin-Central School boy’s locker room in late 2011. Another defendant, Randy Estenbaum, 18, pleaded guilty to two counts of assault in April.
Ellis’ sentence went against recommendations by both the prosecution and defense. Ray County Prosecuting Attorney Danielle Rogers wanted a seven year Suspended Execution of Sentence (SES), which means the conviction will go on his record, but he won’t serve the prison term unless he violates his probation. Ellis’ defense team asked Judge Harmon for seven years Suspended Imposition of Sentence (SIS) for the assault of the 14-year-old victim. That type of sentence would have allowed Ellis to keep the conviction and sentence off of his record if he successfully completed his probation.
In Monday’s court proceedings, Rogers summarized the case as being about bullying and humiliation. She said in opening statements that the humiliation didn’t end after the event. In describing the small town and the effect the incident had on the young victim, she said, “Everyone knows everyone. Everyone knows what happened in that locker room.” She added that the young boy doesn’t get to walk away from what happened and doesn’t go into town anymore for fear and embarrassment. According to Rogers, the victim at one time said, “I feel everyone blames me for this.” He has to live with what these other students did to him the rest of his life, and Rogers told Judge Harmon that she believed Ellis did not deserve any leniency.
The 14-year-old victim, stood before the court and read his statement during Monday’s proceedings. The victim described his life after the assault and said he has flashbacks and trouble focusing in school. “I have a hard time communicating with my parents,” the boy said. “I feel I am a disgrace to them.” He also stated it was difficult for him to go into town and that other students in school teased him about the incident in the locker room.
The victim’s mother also spoke prior to Judge Harmon’s ruling. “What happened to my son has forever changed our life.” She said her son now has trouble sleeping and going into the locker room. “It’s not his fault, he did the right thing,” said his mother. She said he has hates toward her and her husband for coming forward with the information.
The father, who was overcome with emotion and was not able to speak, gave his statement to Rogers to read. He said that he feels he failed as a father because he couldn’t protect his son. “When I think of the humiliation my son suffered, it kills my heart,” his statement read. “I feel helpless. He didn’t get a choice… I hope justice will be served.” Neither the mother nor the father is being identified by KMZU News in order protect the 14-year-old victim.
Ellis’ attorney, Sean Blair, stated the acts were “normal teasing between upper and lower classmates that went too far.” He said a lack of adult supervision is what led to the boys “messing around.” He said Ellis felt pressure from the ring leaders, and didn’t want to become the next victim. Blair repeatedly pointed the finger at the two other students who have not been charged in the case. “[They] fostered a culture of harassment. It was always [those two].” According to Blair, Ellis hesitated at the time of the incident. “In that split second [Ellis] made a life-altering decision.” The attorney said, had Ellis known it was a felony, he wouldn’t have made the decision. “He had no sexual intent. I wasn’t premeditated,” Blair told Judge Harmon. “My client is asking for the opportunity to prove to this court that it was merely a lapse in judgement.”
It took Judge Harmon about 15 minutes to reach a decision. “This is a difficult case. I have thought about this case a lot. It is difficult trying to balance what is appropriate given all of the circumstances. What is troubling is the age of the victim and somewhat the age of the defendant,” Judge Harmon spoke to the entire courtroom. “It is troubling that what may have started out as horseplay went on for a long period of time.” Judge Harmon at that time paused and asked the courtroom if any school officials were present. No hands were raised. Judge Harmon continued, “It’s probably true that it was horseplay at the very beginning, but it escalated. It is unfortunate no one, until this victim, came forward. No one had the fortitude to do what was right early on. If a leader on the athletic team or in the P.E. class, or the school had stood up, we probably would not be here.”
Judge Harmon then addressed the young victim. “Your parents are 100 percent behind you. Don’t feel guilty about what happened to you. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong and I am confident you will be okay.” He then looked at Ellis and said, “You will be okay too.” Just prior to issuing his ruling, Judge Harmon said to the entire room, “I am not following either side’s recommendation… I hope I get this right.”
The alleged ring leader of the assault is expected to be charged in the coming days, according to Rogers. As per their plea agreements, both Ellis and Estenbaum will have to testify against the third suspect. KMZU News is choosing not to identify the other student until formal charges are filed. A fourth person questioned in connection to the incident was deposed in juvenile court. He can only be identified by his initials, M.C., because he was not certified to stand trial as an adult. The outcome of M.C.’s hearing has not been made public.