Third Former Riverton Wrestler Gets Jail for ‘Hazing’ Attacks
A former Riverton High School wrestler who admitted to his role in 'hazing' attacks on younger teammates during a team trip earlier this year has been sentenced to eight days in jail.
Peyton Rees, 18, will be allowed to serve the sentence on weekends. He will also serve one year of supervised probation, having pleaded guilty one month ago to two misdemeanor counts of unlawful contact.
Rees was sentenced Monday morning by Natrona County Circuit Court Judge Michael Patchen. He is the third of three former wrestlers who were criminally charged following the January incident.
Reese will serve his jail time at the Natrona County Detention Center on Sept. 14-16, Sept. 21-23, Sept. 28-30, and Oct. 5-7.
Patchen also required that Rees complete 100 hours of community service at the Fremont County Alliance Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
"Put yourself in the shoes of the victims and get a feel for how helpless they feel," Patchen told Rees. "They don't know where to turn. They lose the ability to function."
Speaking of one of the victims in the case, Patchen told Rees, "This may be something that haunts him for many years to come."
Also charged in the case were 18-year-old Hayden Wempen and 18-year-old James Hampton. They were each sentenced last week to 20 days in jail.
Rees did not deserve to serve that much time, Patchen said, because he has a clean criminal background. Rees's attorney, Vance Countryman, said that Hampton was previously convicted of battery, while Wempen was convicted of marijuana possession.
Countryman had asked that Rees receive a sentence of probation with no jail time. He emphasized that this case marked Rees's first brush with the law, and spent over an hour calling witnesses and presenting evidence regarding Rees's character.
"If you look at all the various charges... this is the lowest level that exists for it to still be a crime," Countryman said of the case and the way in which the Natrona County District Attorney's Office proceeded with charges against Rees. "We're not saying that he didn't do it. We're just asking that there just be some perspective."
"He didn't do anything that these other kids were doing," Countryman added. He characterized the January attacks as "initiation rites" that were part of the wrestling team's culture. He said that his client, Rees, had been on the receiving end of similar incidents previously, and thought that it made him closer to his teammates.
"There's been a great deal of discussion as to whether this incident was sexual in nature," Countryman said early in the hearing. Of the "hazing" itself, which was described as wrestlers as "credit-carding" or "snake-pitting," Countryman said, "It is routine and it happens constantly."
"It is critical that we dispel this idea that these kids were sexually assaulting younger, minor kids," Countryman added.
"Credit-carding" involves one person inserting their hand between another person's buttocks, former Riverton wrestler Leighton Ivy testified. "Snake-pitting" is similar, but has been described as involving the perpetrator inserting a finger into the victim's anus, while remaining outside the victim's clothing.
Countryman used a projector during Monday's hearing to display security video from the school bus where the incidents took place in January, as the bus traveled through Natrona County from Riverton to Douglas for a wrestling trip. In the video, Rees is seen receiving treatment which Countryman said was similar to the behavior for which he was ultimately charged.
The judge watched the video as Countryman pointed to one wrestler who he said "gooses" Rees twice. Rees, Countryman said, didn't retaliate or react in any way.
"There was no skin-to-skin contact. It was done through the clothing, and it was done as part of an initiation," Countryman said. He went on to refer to excerpts from a civil deposition in which one victim in the case was interviewed.
The portion of the deposition to which Countryman referred, and displayed for the courtroom via the projector, involved the victim acknowledging that "snake-pitting" and "credit-carding" were things that Rees himself had been subjected to previously.
However, in removing that page of the transcript from the projector and moving on with his argument, Countryman did not mention the very next thing said by the victim, which could be seen from the gallery:
"It doesn't give them the right to do it to others."
The school's wrestling coaches, Countryman claimed, "knew full well" about the "hazing initiation." It was also acknowledged outside team -- for example, below a yearbook photo of Wempen are seen the words "Snake Pit." Countryman displayed the photo via the projector for the courtroom to see.
Countryman also displayed a questionnaire completed by former RHS wrestling coach Jay Galey. Countryman explained that Galey was one of a number of people who filled out such questionnaires as part of an investigation into the January incidents by Fremont County School District No. 25.
"Snake pit has existed for years," writing on the questionnaire read.
Countryman also told the court that an eighth-grade wrestling group had come to visit the RHS team at one point -- part of a recruiting effort on the part of the Riverton team.
During that trip, Countryman said Monday, the eighth-graders heard the RHS wrestlers talking about "snake-pitting," and were confused as to the meaning of the term. That's when the RHS coach, according to Countryman, told the eighth-graders, "If you want to know about the snake pit, come out for freshman wrestling."
Fremont County School District No. 25 Superintendent Terry Snyder told K2 Radio News last week that the wrestling coaches did not know about such behavior, and reacted appropriately to stop it upon discovering the conduct.
This year, Snyder said, the coaching staff for the RHS wrestling team is all-new. None of last year's coaches -- a number of whom were present on the school bus during the January incidents -- are still with the team.
However, Snyder said that was not part of a disciplinary response by the district. Instead, he said it was a decision made in the best interest of the wrestling program moving forward.
Countryman also displayed what he said was a Facebook post made by the RHS Boys Soccer page. The post displayed an image of what Countryman said was a hazing that involved a burning material being placed on a player's back.
In regards to the January incident itself, Countryman argued that since the victims sat back down on the bus and engaged with their teammates on the return trip, they had not suffered as a result of the "snake-pitting" or "credit-carding."
Countryman showed the court evidence of a Wyoming High School Athletics Association sportsmanship award given to Rees. He also displayed a letter acknowledging the award, addressed to Rees, from Wyoming U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi.
Rees made a short statement, saying that he feels "really bad" about the incident.
"If I knew I was hurting people, I would never have done it," he told Patchen. "If I could go back, I'd take it all back."
Rees added that he was ready to accept whatever punishment the court might find appropriate.
Rees's statement followed several witnesses called by Countryman, some of whom he knew previously through coaching and other associations, who testified regarding Rees's character. Countryman also presented a number of letters written community members in the Riverton area on Rees's behalf.
Rees's mother, Kelly Rees, was one of those who testified. She recounted instances in which she said Rees bought dinner for teammates who didn't have money, gave a ride to a kid who was trying to ride his bike home in a snowstorm, and gave a pair of shoes to a teammate who didn't have any.
"Understand that my son is more than this one incident," she told Patchen.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Itzen had argued that Rees should serve 30 days in jail. While Countryman's defense of Rees took the better part of an hour, Itzen took far less time to poke holes in Countryman's argument and, specifically, his characterization of the January incidents.
"Judge, I heard a lot of words this morning. Perhaps the most prevalent word was 'sportsmanship,'" Itzen said at the beginning of his argument. But, Itzen said, sportsmanship is something that also takes place outside the arena. He asked, rhetorically, whether "snake-pitting" or "credit-carding" were examples of good sportsmanship.
"The other thing I heard this morning was, 'Well, it happened to them,'" Itzen continued. The other defense he heard was that the coaches were aware of the behavior, and so the former wrestlers should not be held accountable.
"Judge, that doesn't make their conduct acceptable," Itzen said. "That's not an initiation, that's a crime. That's why he pled guilty."
"This conduct clearly crossed all lines of norms in our society," Itzen continued. "Your honor, we're here because it is criminal. We're here, not because of a culture or because it happened to him."
"If this is all fun, why do you cover their mouth?" Itzen continued. "Judge, there's one reason to cover a person's mouth: they can't scream for help."
"The idea, judge, that it's okay because the victim went and sat back down, is absurd," Itzen emphasized. "The idea that you wouldn't be part of a team unless this happened is ridiculous."
"There's a particular phrase that just drives me nuts: 'We've always done it that way'," Patchen said before sentencing Rees. "I do not like the phrase because what it says is, 'we perpetuate a wrong.'"
"Just because it's common doesn't make it right. Just because it happened in the past doesn't mean it should continue," Patchen added. "Wrong behavior is wrong behavior."
He went on to say that calling such conduct an "initiation" doesn't make it right -- nor should anyone think it's appropriate based on how the victims did or did not respond.
"Just because someone says they aren't bothered by it doesn't mean they aren't bothered by it. Peer pressure in high school is extreme," Patchen said.
He went on to admonish the coaches who were present during the incidents. saying is "extremely concerned."
"To have the coaches say they're there to protect the children -- talk is cheap," Patchen said.
He also had a warning for administrators.
"I would be ashamed to be a school board member of a high school that allows that," he said. "How many kids quit or don't go out because of the hazing requirement?"
"I do not appreciate the culture in Riverton athletics to allow this hazing," Patchen continued. "In today's culture, seeing the many stories of kids who are bullied for a variety of reasons... it's disastrous."
Patchen acknowledged the many statements made regarding Rees's character, but said to Rees, "Leaders stand up."
"If you're a man of integrity, you stand up to wrong actions. You don't just sit there and be complacent."
"You didn't need to perpetuate it. It's got to stop somewhere, and it's got to stop by someone," Patchen added. "It's sad. It's a sad commentary on the culture of wrestling in Riverton."
Patchen also had a statement for parents.
"If that's the culture of Riverton wrestling and soccer, you all need to stand up and say, 'This is wrong.'"