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Prosecutor says Mitchell baseball team case not hazing: 'It's a sexual assault case'

Steve Goodwin

Nine individuals of the Mitchell Legion Baseball team are being charged in connection with a sexual assault case.

At least six are facing felony charges for second degree rape as well as aiding and abetting.

SDPB’s Lee Strubinger spoke with lead prosecutor, Pennington County States Attorney Lara Roetzel, about the incident.

A full transcript of the interview is below. Audio of the interview is attached to this story.

Roetzel: There are two named victims in this case that reported an incident that happened in Rapid City, one incident to each of them, that the Department of Criminal Investigations conducted a very thorough, very well done, investigation, discovered that the jurisdiction was Rapid City, that's when I became involved. After speaking to the two victims, it led to the indictments that you see, that have come down today. Although the case has been characterized as a hazing, or an initiation, that's not what the case is at all. It's disturbing to me that it's being characterized that way. It's a sexual assault case and we need to stop calling it anything other than that.

Strubinger: When you hear hazing, you think, boys will be boys, but you're saying this is much more serious than that?

Roetzel: Yeah, that's exactly right, and I think in America we have this mentality of testosterone, that there's going to be a degree of hazing or initiation whenever groups of men come together for sports or in fraternities. To me, that conjures up images of drinking too much beer, or shaving heads or legs, or having a situation like that. So to use those terms, it just so minimizes and undermines the situation that we have here, which is a very serious criminal offense involving two sexual assaults. And not just sexual assault, but a forcible sexual assault.

Strubinger: How do these generally move along? What kind of timeline are we thinking here?

Roetzel: These cases will be complicated by the fact that several of these young men are juveniles, meaning they're under the age of 18. So, because of their age being over 16, and the fact that it is a very serious felony offense, those cases start in adult court. But those men will have the opportunity to have their cases considered for transfer back into juvenile court. The same thing could happen with the three that have been charged as juveniles. There's a total of nine involved people in Pennington County. Three have been charged as juveniles. Those cases could be considered for a motion to transfer into adult court.

There's a lot of initial proceedings that will determine where these cases are going to be heard before we can really get into the merits of the allegations. So, where a typical criminal case like this will take six to 12 months, I think we should expect, as a community, for it to take longer, given the fact that we're going to have the interplay of juvenile law and adult law.

Strubinger: How were investigators first made aware of this?

Roetzel: The complaining parties, the victims in this case, initially made reports to the Legion Baseball team and the Legion Baseball team board. Those complaints eventually made their way to law enforcement, and that's how law enforcement became involved. The victims went directly to law enforcement in order to have their complaints taken seriously, and of course they were.

Strubinger: Is it possible that there were similar incidents that happened with this team prior? Or is this believed to be an isolated event?

Roetzel: I'm glad you asked that question because it's something that I was going to volunteer if you didn't. I have good reason to believe that this is a pattern of behavior that has gone on for a number of years. I believe at least five years. If there are other young men that have been involved in the Mitchell baseball team, or any situation where they've been a victim of sexual assault, I think there's a particular onus for young male victims to not come forward. They don't feel like they'll be believed, they don't feel like the system is welcoming. It's a scary thing to report, especially for young men. It just is. I do have reason to believe this is a culture, a continuing pattern of behavior, with that organization. I truly hope that if anyone else has been a victim, this is the time now to come forward and have all of that come to light and addressed so that this can stop, once and for all, that this culture ends with this case.

Strubinger: Will each person be tried individually? Or will it be a group trial? How will this go down?

Roetzel: Right now, the six that are charged in adult court are charged together, meaning that, as it stands today, they will all be tried in one joint trial. Now, they certainly will have the opportunity under the law to ask the court to separate them out, it's called bifurcation, to have their cases bifurcated for individual trials. That's something that ultimately a court will have to decide. But as it stands today, it will be one case.

Strubinger: Have you ever seen anything like this before?

Roetzel: I've heard of things like this in the media on a national level for years. I've not personally encountered a situation like this that was characterized as a hazing or an initiation type ritual. It was very upsetting to know that something like that is allegedly happening in our South Dakota community. It makes me wonder how much more of this exists that is kept under wraps and protected by groups of people that are tolerating behaviors that are really damaging, long term, to the victims. No, the answer is no. I've never seen a sexual assault like this characterized as an initiation. I hope, as far as our state goes, that it ends with this case.

If anyone else has been the victim of a sexual assault, in any capacity, it's important that you involve law enforcement, or at a minimum, make sure that you're getting the mental health support that you need. There's a real possibility that people, potentially even accused in this case, are actually victims themselves, if this is a pattern that's been going on for years. We know that sometimes people that have been victimized later become perpetrators for a million psychological reasons, and that cycle will continue if people aren't addressing that trauma that's happened to them. I would really like to shed light on this whole situation, that's why I'm talking about it. I hope that people take this terrible situation as an opportunity to pull it out into the light, deal with whatever has happened in the past, so we can all, as a state, move forward.

Pennington County State's Attorney Lara Roetzel
Courtesy photo
Pennington County State's Attorney
Pennington County State's Attorney Lara Roetzel

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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