Four days later, Rullo and two other parents who spoke receive identical profanity-laced letters in the mail, warning that if they keep speaking out, they’ll also get the broomstick treatment. “Keep your mouth shut,” the letters read, “and nothing will happen to you or your family.”
Mepham was known mainly for its wrestling program until Coach Mac arrived in 1986. Then it became a football school. With Famous Amos on the squad, the team made the county playoffs all four years. McElroy was practically a second father to Zereoue when the running back moved to a home for wayward boys in Bellmore—arriving, to Mepham’s good fortune, at the start of his high-school career. Amos scored 29 touchdowns in his junior year and broke all of Long Island’s rushing records.
In recent years, the Pirates haven’t done as well, losing roughly as many games as they’ve won, but the coach remains a local legend—a father figure who welcomes players to his house for barbecues with his teenage daughters in attendance. It’s not surprising, then, that McElroy and the administration would be the first stop on the who’s-to-blame tour. Parents demanded: Shouldn’t they have been there to stop these boys?
The superintendent, while admonishing the team for not cooperating with the investigation, has also put forward a tidy defense of McElroy and the principal, Didden. Despite the lineman’s threats, “no one could have anticipated” what happened at camp, Caramore told parents in a speech, adding that whatever happened wasn’t hazing: “None of us in Bellmore-Merrick has used that term to define what is, in fact, a brutal crime.”
The hazing-or-not debate is a key factor in the legal battles to come. Because if these attacks are accepted as hazing, then the school is responsible. Which may explain why Coach Mac, in his only public statement, has concurred with Caramore. “We as coaches do not see this incident as hazing,” he said, “but as a criminal act.”
Coach Mac has an attorney, Joseph Rosenthal, who is shifting the blame right back to the parents. “The coach is a very dedicated, sincere person,” the lawyer says. “The coach went along with canceling the season because he knew kids were not coming forward. The problem was with the kids—and with the parents who brought them up that way.”
So—the parents. The question has whirled around Bellmore for weeks: Who would raise a child who would do this to another child? Yet to place responsibility on any adult, coach or parent, means at least partially acquitting the kids; to suggest that someone should have stopped them is to believe that they could have been stopped. No one understands this better than Mark Alter, the lawyer for the alleged ringleader. “The fact that it’s egregious allegations does not necessarily mean it’s not a juvenile case,” says Alter. He suggests that broomsticks, golf balls, and pinecones are consistent with traditional forms of hazing. He cites essays about hazing from the Internet, including an academic paper by Elizabeth Allan of the University of Maine that includes in a long list of hazing activities “sexual simulation and sexual assault.”
“The conduct took place in a juvenile setting,” Alter argues. “The fact that these studies show the prevalence of this conduct in many hazing situations supports a conclusion that there’s no reason to believe that this would have occurred outside of such a setting, or a belief that such conduct would reoccur.”
Besides, he notes, “the juvenile-justice system affords kids a second chance. Weren’t they already on the right track? After all, they weren’t just students—they were athletes.”
There’s fury and finger-pointing—and opportunity—on all sides in this corner of Long Island.
“In my mind, the school made a major error in not suspending these three alleged perpetrators,” says Robert Kelly, an attorney for two victims. “Ultimately, it’s gonna be a civil case.” Abner Louima sued the New York Police Department for $155 million, eventually settling for $8.75 million. If three victims get anything close to that much each, it would devastate the school district’s budget.
Or as David Woycik, who represents another victim, puts it: “There’s bound to be a movie made about this.”
‘This is not what I signed on for when I tried to do the right thing,” says Vic Reichstein. “But I just got off the phone with the mother of one of the victims, and she told me that we’re her best advocate. We’re doing this so they don’t have to.”
In July, when Reichstein’s son, an incoming freshman, showed up for football practice, a junior on the team—the lineman—started calling him and some of the other boys “pussy,” “faggot,” and “cocksucker.” Reichstein went to McElroy. He says the coach said, “Okay, I’ll handle it.” From that moment on, the junior stopped calling Reichstein’s son “faggot” and started calling him “tattletale boy.”
One day at practice, the lineman approached him while he was drinking from a water fountain. “Who do you think you are?” said the lineman, according to Reichstein’s son. “Are you on crack? Do you know who I am?”
The freshman, trying to show a little backbone, replied: “This is America. Go to the back of the line.”
The lineman was furious. “Don’t even think about sleeping at camp,” he said.
Reichstein called Didden, whose reply, according to Reichstein, was that there was no hazing at Mepham, “because if there were, we’d cancel football season.” (Didden and his attorney did not return repeated calls.) Reichstein’s wife, Kristina, then begged Didden to make an example of the lineman. According to her, Didden said he would investigate the incident. “I’m the principal,” he said, “and I’ll decide who can go on the trip.” The lineman was allowed to go to camp.
On a Friday morning in August, 60 kids were dropped off for the bus ride to Pennsylvania. Reichstein tried to stare the lineman down. He gave his son a cell phone. He told him to find a friend and never be alone.
“I told him what hazing was,” he says. “I did not explain to him that hazing was golf balls, broomsticks, and pinecones.” Reichstein’s son was unharmed; three other freshmen weren’t so lucky.
When parents came to an emergency meeting on September 16 with the principal and superintendent, they heard not mea culpas but accusations. “Due to the poor moral character of your children,” Kristina says Caramore told the parents, “this investigation is not moving forward.” She stood up and asked Didden twice if any child had been threatened before the camp incidents. She says Didden said no twice. That’s when Vic stood up and called Didden a liar. Now the Reichsteins have written the state Department of Education, demanding an investigation.
Vic and Kristina have done The Early Show and 20/20. But they don’t want to appear self-serving, he says.
“Not like Wesley Berger,” Vic says. “He’s overexposed.”
In 1994, Wesley Berger was a Mepham freshman, a football player with a shelf of trophies—MVP for the peewee league, fastest-runner and best-tackler awards. He was dying to play for the Pirates—he’d gotten Amos Zereoue’s autograph when Zereoue visited his junior high. That was until Berger started practice the August before his freshman year.
A player tried to flush his head in a urinal. He resisted, and according to his version of events, he remembers a JV coach telling him to roll with it.
Once the season started, eight players tackled him in the locker room and lowered him into the toilet; this time, he says, it contained urine. They hit his head on the porcelain and he got a concussion. Berger says he got up and called his dad, who went straight to the coaches. Then came the civil suit, settled for a paltry sum, to cover medical bills. Berger got threatening letters: “Keep singing, Berger, and you’ll see.”