The star lineman towers over most of the other pallbearers. That blond buzz cut, the baby face, the meager beginnings of a goatee—he’s only 16, too young to be burying his father. His broad shoulders are slumped and trembling as he walks the coffin down the aisle of Saint Barnabas Church in Bellmore, Long Island.
Bells toll. The parishioners sing “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.” And then the young lineman, who charged onto the varsity squad his sophomore year at W.C. Mepham High School—Home of the Pirates—is in tears. Four days ago, his father died in his sleep. He was 40 years old. The priest declares that the father “had nothing but life ahead of him. What went wrong? We don’t always understand, and we don’t always see.” He attempts a little levity—“I know he shared his hopes for the Yankees with the Lord”—before straining for profundity: “The great artist has finished his portrait.” He urges the mourners to say a prayer for the family.
Everyone in the pews has heard how the father had been devastated by the criminal charges his son was facing. Aggravated assault. False imprisonment. Terroristic threats. Criminal coercion. Involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. The father died on October 5—a day before news broke that the lineman may be tried as an adult for some 26 felonies stemming from events that took place over several late nights in August at Mepham’s football-training camp in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. Waiting outside in front of the hearse is a police escort, to ward off the media.
Relatives read from the books of Matthew and Wisdom. And then the lineman—whom classmates call a bully, who would shove kids he’d never even met into lockers as they walked by—stands suddenly, stepping out from his place in the front, and walks back eight rows to give a bear hug to his little brother, seated next to his mother (who was divorced from the father). The two boys join their sister to bring the Communion offerings forward as the mourners sing “Be Not Afraid.”
And he stands where the priest stood and speaks, reading from crinkled sheets of paper rapidly, almost inaudibly, in a low monotone. “My father was a great man,” he begins, and tells a story of how his dad once saw a crashed, burning car, pulled over and ran to help, and discovered that the guy trapped in the passenger’s seat was a friend. His dad saved his friend’s life that day. That, the lineman says, is the kind of man his father was.
During the recessional, he submits to a seemingly
endless succession of embraces—much like the
ones he received from his former teammates last night
at the wake. He strokes his sister’s hair with
one hand and slides an arm around his brother’s
shoulders. He’s the man of the family now.
• Treat others with the respect that you would like to receive.
• Act appropriately. Know what is expected and acceptable.
• Be responsible. Expect to be held accountable for your choices and actions.
• Be truthful. —From “The Mepham Way,” Mepham High School’s honor code
48 MINUTES OF HELL, A LIFETIME TO REMEMBER —Slogan on a Mepham Pirates football T-shirt
In the southern reaches of Long Island, nestled between the bucolic Southern State Parkway and the fast-food joints and car dealerships on Sunrise Highway, the four small towns of Bellmore, North Bellmore, Merrick, and North Merrick make up a solid community of working- and middle-class families. These towns lost seventeen people in the World Trade Center attacks. They’re places whose kids go to college locally and then settle here and raise families. Before last month, Mepham High was generally known as an above-average school with a robust athletic program. Fathers and sons have played for the Mepham Pirates, and Saturday football games are huge social events. The players are the school’s heroes: With the possible exception of Roone Arledge, Mepham’s most famous alumnus has been star Pittsburgh Steelers running back Amos Zereoue. When people talked about Mepham, they talked about Famous Amos.
Now when they talk about Mepham, they use the words sodomy and hazing. They speak of broomsticks, pinecones, and golf balls.
The police call what happened in August at the Pirates’ five-day training camp a series of Abner Louima–style sex attacks (though, curiously, no student interviewed by police has even mentioned Louima’s name). They were carried out over several nights, with several victims, one of whom required surgery for his injuries. After the coaches went to sleep in their own cabin, at least three members of the team, ages 15, 16, and 17, allegedly rubbed heat-producing mineral ice on broomsticks, pinecones, and golf balls and used those items to penetrate at least three freshman players while the rest of the boys in the cabin all bore witness. The purported ringleader, according to police, was the lineman.
When the victims came forward, the team closed ranks. Kids who were said to have witnessed the attacks refused to talk, even though the longtime coach of the Pirates, Kevin McElroy—Coach Mac to anyone who knows him—warned them that the season would end if they didn’t come forward. Instead, the victims were laughed at in the halls, called “faggot” and “broomstick boy.” The superintendent, Thomas Caramore, shielded the school from inquiries at first. He told Pennsylvania police that he couldn’t release information about a student without a subpoena. Nor did he suspend the three alleged perpetrators, and as a result, they were allowed to walk the hallways of Mepham High for nearly two weeks.
Throughout September, a question hung in the air: Would Wayne County district attorney Mark Zimmer try the boys as adults, which would mean that each could face up to twenty years in prison? On October 6, he announced that that was his intention. The lineman’s father’s death on October 5 created one delay in moving the case forward; other delays have been due to the attorneys’ efforts to bring the case back to juvenile status, and to negotiate their clients’ surrender into custody.
On September 17, the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District Board of Education canceled Mepham’s football season. A day later, the three boys were suspended, and a student demonstration erupted behind the school—to the delight of the TV crews camped out there. Days later, the school went ahead with its annual pep rally, in a gesture of support for Coach Mac and the sidelined Pirates.
“Most of the shit they did was pranks, like shaving cream,” one Mepham boy tells me on a sunny Wednesday, a day before the funeral of the lineman’s father. “Yeah, that shit got freakin’ blown up. Half that shit they did isn’t even that bad.”
The boy, wearing a regulation backward baseball cap, is standing at the school’s west entrance. He and a group of kids have me surrounded. Most of them are yelling. They’re sick of reporters, and they’re worried about the lineman.
“The kid that did it, I feel so bad for him,” the boy says. “I don’t even care what they did.”
What about the boys who were raped? I ask.
“Two of the kids are underclassmen, little kids,” he says. “They really couldn’t do anything about it. But one kid who got it in the shitter, he’s just like a fag.”
He stops, waiting for my reaction.
“Yeah,” he says. “I heard the kid liked it.”
A day later, the three alleged victims are still having broomsticks thrown at them from cars in the parking lot. Some kids even approach them and suggest that the time has come to let bygones be bygones. Their logic is biblical—an eye for an eye. The lineman’s father died! Hasn’t he been through enough?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what bothers the people of Bellmore and Merrick more—allegations of sodomy or the abrupt end of football season. At a school-board meeting on October 1, packed with camera crews and angry parents, Superintendent Caramore tries to explain that hazing simply doesn’t happen at Mepham—that football was canceled not because of what the boys allegedly did but because their teammates never reported it. That hasn’t satisfied parents who complain about the lost scholarships, the deflated homecoming celebration, and the fund-raisers for other sports, all of which depend on football and are now ruined, they’re saying, because of a couple of messed-up kids.
But other voices emerge at the meeting, corroborating the victims’ contention that hazing is a fact of life at Mepham. Kristina and Vic Reichstein stand up and say their son, a freshman, was threatened by the lineman during practice in July and August. Another parent, Jim Rullo, delivers a prepared statement on behalf of the victims’ families. He quotes one of the boys as saying, “I will never trust anyone again. They did not come to help me.” Rullo quotes the parent of that child as blaming principal John Didden, who “did not protect my child.”