The star lineman towersover most of the other pallbearers. That blond buzzcut, the baby face, the meager beginnings of agoatee—he’s only 16, too young to beburying his father. His broad shoulders are slumpedand trembling as he walks the coffin down the aisle ofSaint Barnabas Church in Bellmore, Long Island.
Bells toll. The parishioners sing “Make Me aChannel of Your Peace.” And then the younglineman, who charged onto the varsity squad hissophomore year at W.C. Mepham High School—Homeof the Pirates—is in tears. Four days ago, hisfather died in his sleep. He was 40 years old. The priest declares that the father “had nothingbut life ahead of him. What went wrong? We don’talways understand, and we don’t alwayssee.” He attempts a little levity—“Iknow he shared his hopes for the Yankees with theLord”—before straining for profundity:“The great artist has finished hisportrait.” He urges the mourners to say a prayerfor the family.
Everyone in the pews has heard how the father had beendevastated by the criminal charges his son was facing.Aggravated assault. False imprisonment. Terroristicthreats. Criminal coercion. Involuntary deviate sexualintercourse. The father died on October 5—a daybefore news broke that the lineman may be tried as anadult for some 26 felonies stemming from events thattook place over several late nights in August atMepham’s football-training camp in Wayne County,Pennsylvania. Waiting outside in front of the hearseis a police escort, to ward off the media.
Relatives read from the books of Matthew and Wisdom.And then the lineman—whom classmates call abully, who would shove kids he’d never even metinto lockers as they walked by—stands suddenly,stepping out from his place in the front, and walksback eight rows to give a bear hug to his littlebrother, seated next to his mother (who was divorcedfrom the father). The two boys join their sister tobring the Communion offerings forward as the mournerssing “Be Not Afraid.”
And he stands where the priest stood and speaks,reading from crinkled sheets of paper rapidly, almostinaudibly, in a low monotone. “My father was agreat man,” he begins, and tells a story of howhis dad once saw a crashed, burning car, pulled overand ran to help, and discovered that the guy trappedin the passenger’s seat was a friend. His dadsaved his friend’s life that day. That, thelineman says, is the kind of man his father was.
During the recessional, he submits to a seeminglyendless succession of embraces—much like theones he received from his former teammates last nightat the wake. He strokes his sister’s hair withone hand and slides an arm around his brother’sshoulders. He’s the man of the family now.
• Treat others with the respect that you wouldlike to receive.
• Act appropriately. Know what is expected andacceptable.
• Be responsible. Expect to be held accountablefor your choices and actions.
• Be truthful.—From “The Mepham Way,” Mepham HighSchool’s honor code
48 MINUTES OF HELL, A LIFETIME TO REMEMBER—Slogan on a Mepham Pirates football T-shirt
In the southern reachesof Long Island, nestled between the bucolic SouthernState Parkway and the fast-food joints and cardealerships on Sunrise Highway, the four small townsof Bellmore, North Bellmore, Merrick, and NorthMerrick make up a solid community of working- andmiddle-class families. These towns lost seventeenpeople in the World Trade Center attacks.They’re places whose kids go to college locallyand then settle here and raise families. Before lastmonth, Mepham High was generally known as anabove-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 thepossible exception of Roone Arledge, Mepham’smost famous alumnus has been star Pittsburgh Steelersrunning back Amos Zereoue. When people talked aboutMepham, they talked about Famous Amos.
Now when they talk about Mepham, they use the wordssodomy and hazing. They speak ofbroomsticks, pinecones, and golf balls.
The police call what happened in August at thePirates’ five-day training camp a series ofAbner Louima–style sex attacks (though,curiously, no student interviewed by police has evenmentioned Louima’s name). They were carried outover several nights, with several victims, one of whomrequired surgery for his injuries. After the coacheswent to sleep in their own cabin, at least threemembers of the team, ages 15, 16, and 17, allegedlyrubbed heat-producing mineral ice on broomsticks,pinecones, and golf balls and used those items topenetrate at least three freshman players while therest of the boys in the cabin all bore witness. Thepurported ringleader, according to police, was thelineman.
When the victims came forward, the team closed ranks.Kids who were said to have witnessed the attacksrefused to talk, even though the longtime coach of thePirates, Kevin McElroy—Coach Mac to anyone whoknows him—warned them that the season would endif they didn’t come forward. Instead, thevictims were laughed at in the halls, called“faggot” and “broomstick boy.”The superintendent, Thomas Caramore, shielded theschool from inquiries at first. He told Pennsylvaniapolice that he couldn’t release informationabout a student without a subpoena. Nor did he suspendthe three alleged perpetrators, and as a result, theywere allowed to walk the hallways of Mepham High fornearly two weeks.
Throughout September, a question hung in the air:Would Wayne County district attorney Mark Zimmer trythe boys as adults, which would mean that each couldface up to twenty years in prison? On October 6, heannounced that that was his intention. Thelineman’s father’s death on October 5created one delay in moving the case forward; otherdelays have been due to the attorneys’ effortsto bring the case back to juvenile status, and tonegotiate their clients’ surrender into custody.
On September 17, the Bellmore-Merrick Central HighSchool District Board of Education canceledMepham’s football season. A day later, the threeboys were suspended, and a student demonstrationerupted behind the school—to the delight of theTV crews camped out there. Days later, the school wentahead with its annual pep rally, in a gesture ofsupport for Coach Mac and the sidelined Pirates.
“Most of the shit they did was pranks,like shaving cream,” one Mepham boy tells me ona sunny Wednesday, a day before the funeral of thelineman’s father. “Yeah, that shit gotfreakin’ blown up. Half that shit they didisn’t even that bad.”
The boy, wearing a regulation backward baseball cap,is standing at the school’s west entrance. Heand a group of kids have me surrounded. Most of themare yelling. They’re sick of reporters, andthey’re worried about the lineman.
“The kid that did it, I feel so bad forhim,” the boy says. “I don’t evencare what they did.”
What about the boys who were raped? I ask.
“Two of the kids are underclassmen, littlekids,” he says. “They reallycouldn’t do anything about it. But one kid whogot it in the shitter, he’s just like afag.”
He stops, waiting for my reaction.
“Yeah,” he says. “I heard the kidliked it.”
A day later, the three alleged victims are stillhaving broomsticks thrown at them from cars in theparking lot. Some kids even approach them and suggestthat 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 hebeen through enough?
Sometimes it’s hardto tell what bothers the people of Bellmore andMerrick more—allegations of sodomy or the abruptend of football season. At a school-board meeting onOctober 1, packed with camera crews and angry parents,Superintendent Caramore tries to explain that hazingsimply doesn’t happen at Mepham—thatfootball was canceled not because of what the boysallegedly did but because their teammates neverreported it. That hasn’t satisfied parents whocomplain about the lost scholarships, the deflatedhomecoming celebration, and the fund-raisers for othersports, all of which depend on football and are nowruined, they’re saying, because of a couple ofmessed-up kids.
But other voices emerge at the meeting, corroboratingthe victims’ contention that hazing is a fact oflife at Mepham. Kristina and Vic Reichstein stand upand say their son, a freshman, was threatened by thelineman during practice in July and August. Anotherparent, Jim Rullo, delivers a prepared statement onbehalf of the victims’ families. He quotes oneof the boys as saying, “I will never trustanyone again. They did not come to help me.”Rullo quotes the parent of that child as blamingprincipal John Didden, who “did not protect mychild.”
Four days later, Rullo and two other parents who spokereceive identical profanity-laced letters in the mail,warning that if they keep speaking out, they’llalso get the broomstick treatment. “Keep yourmouth shut,” the letters read, “andnothing will happen to you or your family.”
Mepham was known mainlyfor its wrestling program until Coach Mac arrived in1986. Then it became a football school. With FamousAmos on the squad, the team made the county playoffsall four years. McElroy was practically a secondfather to Zereoue when the running back moved to ahome for wayward boys in Bellmore—arriving, toMepham’s good fortune, at the start of hishigh-school career. Amos scored 29 touchdowns in hisjunior year and broke all of Long Island’srushing records.
In recent years, the Pirates haven’t done aswell, losing roughly as many games as they’vewon, but the coach remains a local legend—afather figure who welcomes players to his house forbarbecues with his teenage daughters in attendance.It’s not surprising, then, that McElroy and theadministration would be the first stop on thewho’s-to-blame tour. Parents demanded:Shouldn’t they have been there to stop theseboys?
The superintendent, while admonishing the team for notcooperating with the investigation, has also putforward a tidy defense of McElroy and the principal,Didden. Despite the lineman’s threats, “noone could have anticipated” what happened atcamp, Caramore told parents in a speech, adding thatwhatever happened wasn’t hazing:“None of us in Bellmore-Merrick has used thatterm to define what is, in fact, a brutalcrime.”
The hazing-or-not debate is a key factor in the legalbattles to come. Because if these attacks are acceptedas hazing, then the school is responsible. Which mayexplain why Coach Mac, in his only public statement,has concurred with Caramore. “We as coaches donot see this incident as hazing,” he said,“but as a criminal act.”
Coach Mac has an attorney, Joseph Rosenthal, who isshifting the blame right back to the parents.“The coach is a very dedicated, sincereperson,” the lawyer says. “The coach wentalong with canceling the season because he knew kidswere not coming forward. The problem was with thekids—and with the parents who brought them upthat way.”
So—the parents. The question has whirled aroundBellmore for weeks: Who would raise a child who woulddo this to another child? Yet to place responsibilityon any adult, coach or parent, means at leastpartially acquitting the kids; to suggest that someoneshould have stopped them is to believe that they couldhave been stopped. No one understands this better thanMark Alter, the lawyer for the alleged ringleader.“The fact that it’s egregious allegationsdoes not necessarily mean it’s not a juvenilecase,” says Alter. He suggests that broomsticks,golf balls, and pinecones are consistent withtraditional forms of hazing. He cites essays abouthazing from the Internet, including an academic paperby Elizabeth Allan of the University of Maine thatincludes in a long list of hazing activities“sexual simulation and sexual assault.”
“The conduct took place in a juvenilesetting,” Alter argues. “The fact thatthese studies show the prevalence of this conduct inmany hazing situations supports a conclusion thatthere’s no reason to believe that this wouldhave occurred outside of such a setting, or abelief that such conduct would reoccur.”
Besides, he notes, “the juvenile-justice systemaffords kids a second chance. Weren’t theyalready on the right track? After all, theyweren’t just students—they wereathletes.”
There’s fury and finger-pointing—andopportunity—on all sides in this corner of LongIsland.
“In my mind, the school made a major error innot suspending these three allegedperpetrators,” says Robert Kelly, an attorneyfor two victims. “Ultimately, it’s gonnabe a civil case.” Abner Louima sued the New YorkPolice Department for $155 million, eventuallysettling for $8.75 million. If three victims getanything close to that much each, it would devastatethe school district’s budget.
Or as David Woycik, who represents another victim,puts it: “There’s bound to be a movie madeabout this.”
‘This is not what Isigned on for when I tried to do the rightthing,” says Vic Reichstein. “But I justgot off the phone with the mother of one of thevictims, and she told me that we’re her bestadvocate. We’re doing this so they don’thave to.”
In July, when Reichstein’s son, an incomingfreshman, showed up for football practice, a junior onthe team—the lineman—started calling himand some of the other boys “pussy,”“faggot,” and “cocksucker.”Reichstein went to McElroy. He says the coach said,“Okay, I’ll handle it.” From thatmoment on, the junior stopped callingReichstein’s son “faggot” andstarted calling him “tattletale boy.”
One day at practice, the lineman approached him whilehe was drinking from a water fountain. “Who doyou think you are?” said the lineman, accordingto Reichstein’s son. “Are you on crack? Doyou know who I am?”
The freshman, trying to show a little backbone,replied: “This is America. Go to the back of theline.”
The lineman was furious. “Don’t eventhink about sleeping at camp,” he said.
Reichstein called Didden, whose reply, according toReichstein, was that there was no hazing at Mepham,“because if there were, we’d cancelfootball season.” (Didden and his attorney didnot return repeated calls.) Reichstein’s wife,Kristina, then begged Didden to make an example of thelineman. According to her, Didden said he wouldinvestigate the incident. “I’m theprincipal,” he said, “and I’lldecide who can go on the trip.” The lineman wasallowed to go to camp.
On a Friday morning in August, 60 kids were droppedoff for the bus ride to Pennsylvania. Reichstein triedto stare the lineman down. He gave his son a cellphone. He told him to find a friend and never bealone.
“I told him what hazing was,” he says.“I did not explain to him that hazing wasgolf balls, broomsticks, and pinecones.”Reichstein’s son was unharmed; three otherfreshmen weren’t so lucky.
When parents came to an emergency meeting on September16 with the principal and superintendent, they heardnot mea culpas but accusations. “Due to the poormoral character of your children,” Kristina saysCaramore told the parents, “this investigationis not moving forward.” She stood up and askedDidden twice if any child had been threatened beforethe camp incidents. She says Didden said no twice.That’s when Vic stood up and called Didden aliar. Now the Reichsteins have written the stateDepartment of Education, demanding an investigation.
Vic and Kristina have done The Early Show and20/20. But they don’t want to appearself-serving, he says.
“Not like Wesley Berger,” Vic says.“He’s overexposed.”
In 1994, Wesley Bergerwas a Mepham freshman, a football player with a shelfof trophies—MVP for the peewee league,fastest-runner and best-tackler awards. He was dyingto play for the Pirates—he’d gotten AmosZereoue’s autograph when Zereoue visited hisjunior high. That was until Berger started practicethe August before his freshman year.
A player tried to flush his head in a urinal. Heresisted, and according to his version of events, heremembers a JV coach telling him to roll with it.
Once the season started, eight players tackled him inthe locker room and lowered him into the toilet; thistime, he says, it contained urine. They hit his headon the porcelain and he got a concussion. Berger sayshe got up and called his dad, who went straight to thecoaches. Then came the civil suit, settled for apaltry sum, to cover medical bills.Berger got threatening letters: “Keep singing,Berger, and you’ll see.”
He was benched for two years as the lawsuit creptthrough the legal system. “I was by far the besthalfback on the team,” Berger says, now 23 butstill angry. “There’s no way youcan’t play me. In practice, they’d put meon the B squad and I’d tear up the Asquad.” He says he stayed on the team for twoyears but was allowed on the field only once,returning a kickoff 50 yards.
“Everybody knew I got hazed in the lockerroom,” he says. “I said, ‘You wantto lock me in a locker and laugh for an hour, fine.But I’m not down with urine, dude.’”
At the beginning of his junior year, Berger says, heshowed up to start the season. The coach told Bergerhe needed a physical. Berger produced the requiredslip of paper. He says the coach started yelling.“He’s like, ‘No! No! No!!!Effin’ this, effin’that—you’re not coming on my team,you’re done, you’re done, you’redone!’ And I started screaming at him.”
That’s when Berger says Coach Mac lunged athim—his hand reaching the boy’s throat.
“The guy grabbed me in front of the wholeteam,” Berger says. “This is hard tosay—I know he was a good coach and a lot of kidsliked him. But it really happened.”
McElroy’s lawyer vehemently denies almost everyaspect of Berger’s story. “McElroy hadnothing to do with this kid,” Joe Rosenthalsays. “What I know about the Berger incident isit did not involve hazing. It involved a fight amongteenage boys. He never brought this incident toMcElroy’s attention; he must have brought it tothe JV coach’s attention. And McElroy neverprevented him from playing on the varsity team. Anyplayer that wants to be on the football team can be onthe team. There’s a no-cut policy. You may notstart, but you’ll be on the team.”
Berger says his friends persuaded him to stay off theteam. He wrestled instead. But he wonders whether whathappened at camp could have been prevented if hehadn’t settled his lawsuit.
“Of course this thing escalated tosodomy,” Berger says. “This guy’sstill the head coach.”
It’s a fact of lifein Bellmore and Merrick that the farther south you go,the more money you’ll find. Mepham’sstudent body is pulled from the northern part of thecommunity, where there are $50,000-a-year jobs and theschool parking lot is dominated by Chevys and Fords. Afew miles away—south of Sunrise Highway, down bythe blue water of East Bay—BMWs and Lexuses fillthe lot at the rival high school, John F. Kennedy.This was Amy Fisher’s high school—the richschool. Says one Mepham parent, “We’realways in competition with the upper class.”
The kids on Kennedy’s football team know theMepham team, and they’re a little afraid of someof them. One afternoon after practice, they air theirtheories, the chief one being that the lineman musthave been traumatized as a kid. “That kid wassick!” says a player named Rob. Does heknow this for sure? Of course not. But it’s notthe only time I hear neighbors, even parents, floatthis notion. (Almost as prevalent is the idea, notconfirmed by police, that the lineman’s fathercommitted suicide.)
“I knew all those kids,” saysanother boy, a JV player. “I went to summerschool with them.” The lineman, he says,“was always starting fights. You could just seehe had so much anger in him. He’d just beat upon people—he’d be walking by andboom! Into the locker! I think he’s adirtbag. Decent football player, though.”
“The morals, the attitudes, of a Mepham student,are different,” suggests another Kennedy player,Danny.
Adds Jesse: “Mepham kids say,‘You’re from Kennedy,’ and punch us.They’re the bully school, the physical school.Even in middle school, we knew which kids were goingto Mepham and which to Kennedy.”
“We’re more Jewish!” another kidyells, laughing.
“We have more wealthy backgrounds,” saysDanny.
“They’re big football players who look andact like football players,” says Jesse.“Big and aggressive.”
The lineman “was yelled at a lot,”remembers another boy. “He was always in troubleat school, but not in football. Sports in Mepham isvery big.”
What’s Kennedy’s record?
“We’ve been 0 and 8 since 1999!”says James.
On Bellmore Avenue, themain drag in town, a mile or so east of Mepham,Doc’s Pub serves as an unofficial class-reunionspace. It’s the kind of bar where people stillsmoke and no one cares. On a warm night in October,Mary Williams and her boyfriend, Andy Corcoran, bothMepham class of 1980, sit having a drink. Mary is athird-generation “Bellmoron.” Her boy,Kyle, played varsity. He went to camp but didn’tstay in the fated cabin. “He knows the mainkid,” she says. “He’s been introuble before, that kid. He’s well known as abully. But my son says nobody knew he would cross theline.”
Andy’s son plays lacrosse. This is a sore pointfor Mary. “Your son—woo hoo!He’s having fun. My son’s not. Hedoesn’t have a senior season to put on hiscollege application.”
“This guy comes to my job,” says Andy.“He says, ‘Oh, I’m in Mephamnow, maybe I should shove a pinecone up myass!’ I said, ‘That’s notfunny.’ These guys on the team are gonna beharassed the rest of their fuckin’ lives.”
“My son knows one of the boys who wasattacked,” Mary says sadly. “He triedseriously to treat him as a regular kid, like nothingever happened. And I know the family of one of theattackers. They’re a beautiful family. My sonthinks it’s just a bad thing that went too far,too fast.”
Andy mentions what some people are saying—thatwhat happened at camp was part of a pattern of hazingat Mepham. Mary explodes. “Who? Wesley?Wesley was a nasty rat bastard! That washazing! This was a sexual attack!”
“Yeah,” says Andy,“but—”
“Are we gonna argue about this? Myson’s season has been completely fucked up! Hisfriend was a captain on the team, he maybe was gonnaget a scholarship. Who’s going to give him thatmoney now? I think the kids covered it up to saveCoach Mac and save their season.”
Tending bar at Doc’s is Rob McDermott, class of’95. He was one of four captains chosen by CoachMac his senior season. “A captain is anextension of the coaching staff,” he says,slipping into present tense to talk about his team.“What the coaches don’t control, thecaptains control. Whether it’s being in thelocker room, making sure everybody’s on the samepage, rallying the troops, or making sureeveryone’s focused on the task at hand.”
How do you weed out the undisciplined players?“On any high-school team, the seniors give you alittle bit of a hard time,” he says. “Webuilt a very good tradition with our team, and we justwant to make sure that anyone who wants to fit in onthe team knows about the tradition.”
What about, say, having your head flushed in a toilet?
“It’s all fun and games,” saysMcDermott. “And coming in, you expect it.You’re ready for it.”
Was Wesley Berger expecting it?
“From what I heard, the guys stuck his head inthe toilet, and that was it. We don’t beat guysup.”
Some of his old teammates have gathered to buy drinksfrom him. The conversation easily shifts to a defenseof Coach Mac. “He never judged us,” saysDave Lohman, class of ’94. “He alwayslistened. He did more for me than any coach ever. Andbecause we were the group with Amos, our team isetched in his memory.”
“The coaches would have to be everywhere at thesame time,” says Dave Hill.
“When I was in ninth grade,” says Lohman,“my father died and my mother wanted to move toFlorida. Coach Mac talked to my mom, convinced us tostay. He taught us not to run away from ourproblems.”
“How old were these kids, 16, 17?” saysAndrew Longaro. “You’re old enough to knowwhat you’re doing.”
So, I ask, were any of you guys flushed?
“I had some friends who were older,” saysMcDermott. “So, no.”
The others also shake their heads no.
“But, you know,” says McDermott, “ifthey wanted to do it? Go ahead. I want to bepart of the team.”