I traveled to Silsbee, Texas five times in the past six months, with conservative blogger Brandon Darby, to investigate why, despite the volume of evidence, a grand jury did not indict two football players accused of raping a high school cheerleader (who was later kicked off the squad for refusing to cheer for one of them). This is the unabridged version of events. The names of all minors have been changed, and Hillaire’s last name does not appear in the story.
When they found Hillaire half-clothed and crying under the pool table, saying she’d been raped, she was adamant that no one call the police or her parents.Hillaire was sixteen that October night in 2008 when four high school athletes took her into a dark room at a house party and locked the door. According to Hillaire, Rakheem Bolton, a star high school football player, raped her while another football player, Christian Rountree, held her down.
Three students outside the room heard her cries of “stop” and broke through the door, only to find that three of the four athletes had fled out the window, breaking it in the process. The one man who stayed behind told police “I know I did not do anything so I didn’t run.”
This was not a he said/she said situation. Witness statements from the police report confirm that Hillaire was raped (called sexual assault in Texas). An inexperienced drinker, Hillaire was exceedingly intoxicated after drinking a beer and six shots and could not legally consent. Before her friends cut her off, Hillaire made out with a guy in the living room and was egged on to kiss a female friend by a group of ogling young men. Bolton and his friends arrived late to the party, and, seeing an intoxicated and flirtatious Hillaire, isolated her in the pool room.
According to Hillaire’s police statement, she was
“suddenly pushed into the pool room and the door was closed behind me and the lights turned off.… I was pulled backwards and someone whispered in my ear ‘just lay down on the floor…’ Then hands on my thighs were pushing my legs apart. I felt someone penetrating vaginally. I suddenly realized what was happening and I put my hands on someone and yelled at them to stop. I then said, ‘seriously, stop it.’’ I then said ‘no!’ I heard someone; I think it was Derek [name changed] say something like ‘Dude she said ‘stop it’ and ‘no.’”
Derek, one of the football players who fled, confirmed that his teammate, Christian Rountree, “was holding her and was trying to talk her into coming in [to the pool room], so when they went back in I just followed.” At one point, he says, Bolton told the others to leave the room for five minutes. “We act [sic] like we left but we just hid under the pool table.” Then “Rakheem layed [sic] her on the floor and started to have sex and she start [sic] saying ‘stop.’ So Rakheem [Bolton] stopped.”
But Bolton didn’t stop. Two teens outside the room – Patrick Steed, Richard Garrett – heard her say “stop” several times in distress from the other side of the locked door. They went to get the guy who lived at the house, and he again heard Hillaire say “stop.” When the rescuers burst in, they found Hillaire lying partially under the pool table, half-clothed and crying. Said Patrick Steed, “All she had on was her black bra. She rolled over and reached for her clothes that were under the pool table. She was crying and appeared upset.” Garrett added to police, “I believed Hillaire had been raped.”
The three young men grabbed a bat and a martial arts sword and tried to chase down the perpetrators.
Bolton fled without his clothes, and after a few minutes in the woods, he borrowed a jacket and shorts from his friends and returned to demand them. Stacy Riley, the homeowner, heard Bolton yell
“‘I didn’t rape no white girl. I wouldn’t use anyone else’s dick to fuck her. I didn’t put my dick up inside her. I don’t know if she has AIDS. I don’t even know that girl.’”
Bolton would later admit to penetrating Hillaire, so the condom found nearby was his.
Stacy Riley, the adult at the house, was watching a movie in her room and would later be charged with serving alcohol to minors. She was one of the first to find Hillaire in the pool room. “[I asked] her again if she was hurt and ask[ed] her if she had been raped. All she would say was ‘yes’ and continued crying …I began to cry again and said to her, ‘sweetie, if you were my daughter I would want to know.’” So Hillaire agreed to speak to the police and her parents.
Several witnesses heard Bolton’s parting words:
“I didn’t rape anyone and you better be locked and loaded! I’m going to spray this house!… None of you had better go to sleep tonight.”
Hillaire didn’t sleep: She spent the early morning hours after the rape at the police station and at a nearby clinic. She sustained internal bruising and her right thigh had a full handprint bruise – “a thumb and four fingers,” according to her mother. Of the four guys in the room, Bolton and Rountree were charged with “child sexual assault” (because Hillaire was a minor and they were “of age”) which carries a prison term of two to twenty years. Derek, a minor, was arrested on unknown charges. The fourth man, Gedrick Morrisey, became a witness for the state and was not charged with a crime.
After the rape, Hillaire stood up for herself and assumed this crime would be fairly prosecuted. Instead, she faced intense mistreatment from her peers, many residents of Silsbee, school officials, public officials prosecuting the case, and the local press.
Silsbee, population 7,100, is twenty miles north of Beaumont. Named for the Boston inventor who financed the railway that dissects downtown, its charm is immediate. Modest homes flank two busy highways, lined with a jumble of national chain stores and more than forty churches. The town’s best known personality, porn star Chloe Jones (Melinda Dee Jones), graduated from Silsbee High School (SHS) in 1994 and died of liver failure in 2005.
The High School is celebrating its centennial and many businesses display “Go Tigers” signs. Hillaire’s father, Craig, a self-described conservative and Christian, runs a modest garden and antique shop. Despite having sued the high school, a “Go Tigers” sign greets customers in his shop. The high school is just down the road with a massive, manicured football field attesting to the “second religion” of football in the region.
Hillaire returned to school a few days after the rape to face a chilly environment from her peers and school administrators. School officials urged her to take a low profile, and the cheer squad wanted Hillaire to skip homecoming because, according to a fellow cheerleader, “Someone from another city had called and threatened her. If she cheered at another game, they were going to shoot her.” Hillaire went anyway, and some students painted Bolton’s and Rountree’s jersey numbers on their faces to protest their removal from the football team. Students also chanted “free tree” (referring to Rountree) at the homecoming bonfire within earshot of Hillaire.
Many in Silsbee bought the “slut” defense – that Hillaire was to blame for what happened that night because she made out with several people at the party. Sarah [name changed], a fellow student and cheerleader, doesn’t believe Hillaire was raped. “Right after it happened, most of the school was supportive. But as time went on and we heard more details of what happened, that’s when people started doubting that this happened….A majority of the school felt this way.” When asked what changed her mind, Sarah described Hillaire’s sexual behavior at the party. Hillaire was called a “slut” several times to her face, and her younger sister transferred to another school the next year.
Another student, Jenny [name changed], told me Hillaire didn’t act like a “real” rape victim: “She had no shame….She never seemed upset. She acted like it was no big deal.” When asked why Hillaire should be ashamed, Jenny said, “I wouldn’t have openly said this is what happened, blah, blah, blah.”
An anonymous letter to Hillaire’s family laid bare the “slut” defense that so many in Silsbee seem to hold:
“These boys are nice respectable boys and you can’t tell me that there were no other girls that wanted to be with them so they raped your daughter (please). Just think how you have ruined these children [sic] lives and your daughter gets to carry on and be a cheerleader after drinking herself and going against your family values… This makes your daughter [sic] reputation look very bad and if you think people will forget, remember we live in Silsbee. Someone will always remember! (Don’t think she won’t be talked about).”
A toddler approached Hillaire at a town parade shortly after the rape and called her a “bitch.”
Hillaire’s status as a popular cheerleader at the high school couldn’t compete with the popularity of high school sports that grants the best male players special privileges. The high school stadium seats 7,000—equal to the town’s population—and it’s full on game days. School lets out early for important “away” games, and wins and losses can determine the mood of the town. Celebrating high school sports is ingrained in Southeast Texas cultures, so it’s no wonder that many in Silsbee rallied behind Bolton and Rountree. A common argument, articulated to me by one student, is that Bolton wouldn’t rape anyone because “he was popular. A lot of girls wanted to be with him.”
Bolton and Rountree did not receive the same chilly treatment as Hillaire. In a taped interview with The Silsbee Bee, Rountree’s mother thanked “all the members of the Silsbee community that have supported us; all the love and prayers that have been sent out. We’ve had a tremendous, just a tremendous outpouring of support and we just appreciate everyone and thank you for believing in these boys.”
Hillaire was deeply hurt by the reaction, but she resolved not to show it. Craig, describes the trauma. “My daughter would wake up in the middle of the night crying and come sleep in our bed at sixteen, seventeen [years old] because she was having nightmares. She’d get up in the morning without any sleep. She’s say ‘I can’t let them know that I’m not going to school today.’ I look at my kid and say ‘wow, she’s my 16-year-old kid, and she’s my hero.’ She’s so strong and determined, beat down but fighting back. She could have given up and quit fighting, but she didn’t do that.” Hillaire describes the weeks following the rape as “the hardest thing me and my family have gone through” because of the response from the community.
Three months after the rape, a grand jury dismissed the case against Bolton and Rountree, and they returned to Silsbee High School. Superintendent Richard Bain told The Silsbee Bee that there would be no further punishment for the two young men, despite a district policy allowing school officials to investigate and take action if there is a “reasonable belief” something occurred, even if students have been cleared of crimes. The school did not investigate the alleged rape or Bolton’s death threats against classmates.
In addition to being a star football player, Bolton also played basketball, and his return to school meant that Hillaire would be cheering for him. But Hillaire refused. The first refusal came during a February 10, 2009 game – four months after the rape. Hillaire cheered for the entire team, but quietly folded her arms and stood back when Bolton approached the free-throw line. “It just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to cheer for him after what he did to me.”
To boot, the cheer was obscene – “two, four, six, eight, ten, come on Rakheem, put it in.”
At another game a few weeks later, Hillaire knelt next to her cheerleading coach when Bolton was at the free throw line. Her coach told her she would be off the team if she didn’t cheer for everyone, and when Hillaire refused, she was trotted into the foyer by the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, and her principal. They told her she needed to cheer for everyone. A sobbing Hillaire stood her ground and was formally removed from the squad the next day. According to Mary, a long-time Silsbee resident, when it comes to sports in East Texas, the school “would rather have a basketball player or a football player on the team than a cheerleader.”
Hillaire was devastated when she was kicked off the cheer squad. “My whole life was cheerleading. That’s just what I did.” When faced with the choice of cheering for Bolton or not cheering at all, Hillaire gave up her favorite activity.
A few days later, Hillaire’s father, Craig, met with Principal Gaye Lokey to complain, and he recorded the exchange:
Craig S.: Policy says even if the jury finds them not guilty, that the school district still has the authority to have reasonable belief that – that it happened, and it could still be acted on.
Principal Lokey: Craig, I’ve told you what I know about the policy.
…Craig S.: [Bolton] threatened to shoot eight to ten of your students, and he’s still allowed to do it. We’ll just keep the rape out of it if you don’t believe that. Eight or ten students have police statements that he threatened to shoot them. And apparently, that’s not enough to keep a uniform off of him. But the fact that my daughter won’t cheer for him is enough. That doesn’t seem a little twisted to you?
Principal Lokey: It’s all twisted, Craig. It’s all twisted.
Oddly enough, Bolton should not have been eligible to play at the game where Hillaire was kicked off the squad. Unrelated to Hillaire’s case, he had threatened to shoot a teacher earlier that week, and when the University Interscholastic League received a complaint about it, Bolton was pulled off the team bus as it was leaving for the next game. He was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the school year, but missed so many classes that he was arrested for truancy. Bolton was allowed back at school and even played football the following year, despite the arrest and avoiding his punishment the previous school year.
Hillaire’s parents sued the school for violating her right to free speech, but an appeals court dismissed her case on September 16, 2010. Their reasoning was that “In her capacity as cheerleader, [she] served as a mouthpiece through which the school could disseminate speech–namely, support for its athletic teams,” and refusal to cheer for Bolton “constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, [she] was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily.”
Justice in Hillaire’s eyes is simple. “I just want somebody to admit they did something wrong.”
I first traveled to Silsbee in December of 2010 with Brandon Darby to get an answer to a simple question. Given the volume of evidence that a rape occurred, why did the first grand jury choose not to indict Bolton and Rountree? Had they issued an indictment, Hillaire never would have been in a position to cheer for Bolton because he would not have been eligible to play sports.
We discovered that it was more complex than simply the town’s glorification of male athletes. We found overt skepticism toward the victim from law enforcement, the town, and the local newspaper – complicated and fueled by sexual shaming and racial politics. We also discovered highly suspicious ties between Bolton’s family, the police, and the district attorney.
With about 30% black residents, Silsbee is more racially diverse than surrounding towns. During one of many visits, I stayed in a hotel without lamps near the “black neighborhood” and went to a convenience store where teens congregate. An open-face freezer of cheap beer took up half the store. Punk rocker Stig Stench spent his formative years in Silsbee and described it as a “very close-minded, racially segregated,Texas town.”
In a part of the country with longstanding racial tensions, Hillaire is white and the accused are black, so Hillaire’s “purity” as a victim was challenged by some white residents and her honesty by some black residents. It’s easy to understand the trepidation surrounding an interracial rape accusation: Older residents can remember a time when black men were lynched in this part of the country for just such an accusation, whether proven or not. A local black reverend in Silsbee told me that if four black men had been accused of raping a white girl in the town 50 years ago, they “would not have made it to trial.” Even today, he added, “This area is very bad with racial tensions. You don’t see the white sheets anymore. They wear three-piece suits now.”
Hillaire’s attorney, Larry Watts, affirms that “Silsbee isn’t the happy valley of race relations.” But some white residents want to ignore that reality. As one white resident put it to me, “We don’t have a racial problem. The town is segregated, but that’s not a problem.”
In a new incarnation of the old stigma surrounding interracial sex that made a black man accused of raping a white woman vulnerable to violence, now residents in Silsbee tended to question Hillaire’s conduct. As Sara, a white student, told me, “A lot of people blame it on [the fact that] he was black and she was white and she got caught having sex with a black person, so she didn’t want her parents to know.”
Sociologist Lisa Wade sheds light on the interplay between race and the “slut” defense:
“Because of intertwined history of racism and sexism, sex between white women and black men carries a meaning that sex between whites, between blacks, or between a black woman and a white man do not. White women are put on a pedestal as more sexually pure than men and other women; this valorization, however, means that white women must remain sexually passive. If they are identified as no longer ‘pure,’ they can face severe consequences for failing to live up to this (impossible) ideal.”
Police statements from multiple witnesses negate the idea that Hillaire claimed rape because she “got caught” having sex with a black man. Instead, they show that she did not consent to having sex with Bolton, that she said “stop” multiple times in a state of distress, and that she sustained injuries from Bolton.
But race did affect the grand jury’s decision, as District Attorney David Sheffield confirmed in a recorded conversation with Craig. Before the grand jury convened to hear the case, Sheffield told Craig it would not indict because five members were black and the case had stoked racial tensions. According to Texas law, juries must “represent a broad cross-section of the population of the county, considering the factors of race, sex, and age.” Hardin County is 90.8% white, which should have translated into one black juror. The case split down racial lines.
But given the way the police and district attorney presented the case, it is a wonder that anyone on the first grand jury voted to indict.
Grand jury proceedings are closed, but DA Sheffield shared the details with Craig and prominent Silsbee attorney, “Bo” Horka, and his daughter, Misty Horka. The police also left a telling paper trail.
On the day of the rape, Craig remembers Detective Dennis Hughes, the officer assigned to the case, telling him that, given his four decades of police experience, “This is a slam dunk case. There’s more evidence than we see in most sexual assault cases, and we’ve got lots of witnesses.” But the detective changed his mind between uttering those words and presenting the case to the grand jury three months later.
Detective Hughes included information in the grand jury file that discredits Hillaire using the “slut defense.” According to the Texas Rules of Evidence, in cases of sexual assault, “reputation or opinion evidence of the past sexual behavior of an alleged victim of such crime is not admissible.” But Detective Hughes seemed very interested in Hillaire’s sexual history when he spoke with her alone for about ten minutes in the police station on the morning of the rape. He added a note at the bottom of Hillaire’s sworn statement, “After taking the statement I talked with the victim at length in reference to her statement about never having sex before. She related she had never had oral sex either given or received. She has never had heavy petting where there was fondling of the breasts and genitalia” (emphasis added). Detective Hughes also had Rountree submit a video from his cell phone of Hillaire kissing her friend, Brandi, to enter into evidence.
Detective Hughes also inserted language at the end of Brandi’s sworn statement that discredits Hillaire: Brandi “indicated she thought Hillaire was acting aggressive in her behavior towards Pat Steed [the guy she made out with] and the majority of what transpired was consensual” (emphasis added).
According to Brandon Perron, the National Director of The Criminal Defense Investigation Training Council, an officer adding his or her comments to the end of a sworn police statement is tantamount to tampering with evidence:
“This is poor procedure. It’s awful. They’re not supposed to add information to a witness statement once it has been signed. That document was evidence. What they did was alter evidence after it was signed and attested to.”
By the time I interviewed Chief Dennis Allen and Detective Hughes for nearly three hours last December, both men were of one mind that what happened wasn’t rape. Detective Hughes claimed that witnesses were unsure whether the accused broke the window as they fled, despite several confident witness statements taken directly after the fact. And when asked why the two accused fled if they didn’t commit a crime, he replied, “Where in the books can you tell me that running is a crime?”
In the same interview, the chief of police described Hillaire’s sexual activities earlier in the night as “corroborating evidence” for the jury failing to indict. And when I asked him what impression one might draw from the grand jury file, he replied that he couldn’t speak directly to Hillaire’s case since it was still open, but
“let’s just say, I don’t know a little girl who didn’t lie to her daddy.’”
But the police weren’t alone in trying to convince the grand jury that Hillaire hadn’t been raped. At a press conference after the jury’s decision, DA Sheffield said, “I’m not surprised by the decision after seeing the evidence I’ve been privy to.”
But what about the evidence that Sheffield did not put in front of the grand jury?
Sheffield only called Hillaire and members of the Silsbee Police Department to testify before the grand jury. He did not call the three young men who heard Hillaire say “stop” multiple times and broke through the door because he classified their testimony as “hearsay.”
According to Misty Horka, Sheffield also used the “slut defense” as justification for not calling witnesses who could have confirmed Hillaire’s altered state and lack of consent:
“What was not good, from what David [Sheffield] said, was the statements of the witnesses that were there. They were not in her favor at all….The things that weren’t good were the things like that she was in there with her shirt off, straddling other guys…”
Sheffield also admitted to Craig in a recorded conversation shortly after the first grand jury ruling that he did not enforce Texas sexual assault law:
Craig S.: I do just Internet research of toxicology, and I understand the .08 of alcohol says the law says you can’t drive… So when I take the numbers about the amount of alcohol that was consumed, and I take her body weight and I throw a maximum of four hours of time of consumption, and I still come up with a .14 and a .18. Now there’s no set BAC that determines…
DA Sheffield: And that’s enough to impair your judgment.
Craig S.: Is it? Well you just said that then. Because if it’s enough to impair her judgment, then it’s rape! Because the law says that if you’re intoxicated to the point that your judgment is impaired, then by God, it’s rape, whether you consented or not. Whether you’re 16, 18, or 20. If you’re intoxicated to a point that your judgment is impaired, then it’s rape by intoxication!
DA Sheffield: Then by your definition, everybody who drinks and has sex…
Craig S.: It’s not my definition, David. It’s the damn law.
Craig could not have known at the time that the Silsbee police had inaccurately testified to the grand jury that Hillaire was not impaired by alcohol. According to Misty Horka, Sheffield told her that the police officers’ testimony to the grand jury was not favorable toward Hillaire:
Misty Horka: [Sheffield] did say this about what the police officers said… That [Hillaire] was very coherent, that she did not seem intoxicated, that she was very coherent, she gave her answers fast you know when they interviewed her, gave truthful answers, and did not seem intoxicated beyond her self control…
Craig S.: That was a good three hours [later]!
In a recent interview with my co-investigator, Brandon Darby, Sheffield said his hands were tied because the two police investigators refused to support the charges. But according to Misty Horka, Sheffield also told her that, given Hillaire’s sexual behavior at the party, if it were up to him, “he wouldn’t charge [the accused] much at all.”
And if the weak prosecution weren’t enough to derail a fair prosecution, one of the members of the grand jury was Rakheem Bolton’s family pastor, a fact I confirmed in a brief phone conversation about the spiritual guidance he offered Bolton during this ordeal.
To sum it up, the police testified that Hillaire wasn’t altered and Detective Hughes discredited her by adding to witness statements in the grand jury file. DA Sheffield failed to call key witnesses, admitted that he didn’t enforce Texas sexual assault law, and didn’t notice that the perpetrator’s family pastor was on the jury. Athlete preference and archaic notions of female sexuality were likely significant, but Bolton’s family connections may have also been influential.
Members of Bolton’s politically powerful family immediately got involved in the case. According to multiple sources close to the family, Bolton’s cousin is Thomas Tyler, Sr., a city council member and the leader of the Black community in Silsbee. Tyler, a former police officer, is also Shannon Robinson’s cousin, the man who drove Bolton and his friends away from the scene of the crime that night.
It’s hard to know how Tyler maneuvered behind the scenes, but he did immediately involve himself in the case by driving Robinson to the police station the morning of the rape to give a likely perjured statement. Robinson told police that, after restraining Bolton outside the house and driving the accused away from the scene of the crime, “They did not tell me anything about what went on at the party.” Derek, the minor in the room, contradicts this outlandish claim: “I called Shannon [right after the assault] to let him know what happened.” Who knows what coaching Tyler provided to Robinson on the way to the police station, but Robinson’s refusal to tell what he knew was a bold move for a teenager sitting in front of a police officer.
Tyler, also Bolton’s cousin, has long-standing ties to the Silsbee police. As a member of the Silsbee City Council, Tyler appointed Chief Allen in 2007, in consultation with the city manager, and the two worked in law enforcement in Hardin County for years. In fact, when I asked Chief Allen who I should talk to in order to better understand the case, he told me to contact Tyler. I spoke with Tyler several times over the phone and he repeatedly lied, telling me he had never even heard of the case. When I asked him about the family connections, he abruptly hung up.
But the connection that is perhaps most troubling is Tyler’s long-time, close relationship with DA Sheffield. Tyler worked on Sheffield’s 2008 DA campaign, and according to a prominent local politician, Tyler delivered “the black vote” in Silsbee. “That was Sheffield’s way into office. Thomas Tyler was bringing folks in by the vanloads to vote for Sheffield.”
Tyler also worked with Sheffield for over a decade as a police officer in the Hardin County Attorney’s office, and when Sheffield became district attorney, he transferred Tyler’s license to his office. According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education, “If you are ‘carrying’ someone’s license, they are considered working for you.” In other words, Bolton’s politically powerful cousin was working for the district attorney prosecuting his case.
In a now suspicious move, Detective Hughes persuaded Hillaire’s father that it was best to wait a few months and try the case when Sheffield assumed office. According to Craig,
“We thought everything was being handled correctly and thoroughly and professionally. There was no way of knowing there was an ulterior motive. It was strongly suggested that we wait and not give the case to [Henry] Coe; that we wait and give it to Sheffield who takes office in January…What the heck? I even voted for Sheffield.”
I connected the political dots for Trent Gaither, a Houston trial attorney not associated with the case. “A small county in East Texas where an investigation is driven by political motives? Doesn’t surprise me. There have been 1,000 of them.”
Even as the first grand jury was reading their “no bill” in January of 2009, another grand jury had already expressed interest in hearing the case. Grand juries hear cases presented by DAs as well as cases they choose to hear. Since Sheffield was named as a defendant in Hillaire’s civil case, Special Prosecutor David Barlow from Beaumont was assigned to prosecute the case. The second grand jury was dismissed when some members received documents they should not have received. Hillaire’s attorney, Larry Watts, claims that Sheffield “corrupted [the second grand jury] by giving information that spoiled it, tainted it, prevented them from hearing the case.” Barlow confirmed that some members of the second grand jury received documents in a questionable way, but couldn’t say from whom.
A third grand jury was then convened to hear the case. They did not request testimony from the Silsbee police, choosing instead to rely on their written reports. Bolton and Rountree were finally indicted on November 24, 2009– over a year after the rape that October night.
One week after this indictment, Bolton’s great uncle, Reverend Billy Ray Robinson, abused his position as President of the Jasper branch of the NAACP when he staged a press conference in the Hardin County Commissioner’s Courtroom challenging the indictment. In an unusual turn of affairs, instead of the NAACP challenging law enforcement, Robinson joined forces with the police: “First of all, we question why special prosecutor, David Barlow, allowed absolutely no investigator or police department to testify before the second grand jury, as they were allowed to testify before the first grand jury.”
Reverend Robinson’s brazen use of his position to aid a family member was not caught by the local press, despite the fact that the much closer NAACP Beaumont chapter did not get involved. Robinson ironically expressed concern about “the possibility of someone with political motivations or influence for this to be brought back to [another] grand jury. This is outrageous. This is where we stand, on principle.” I contacted the Texas NAACP several times, but received no response.
In September of 2010, nearly two years after the rape, Bolton pled guilty to the lesser charge of Assault. He received a $2,500 fine, community service, anger management, and a suspended one-year jail sentence. Court documents do not specify what part of Hillaire’s body he pled guilty to assaulting. When asked how his actions affected Hillaire, Bolton replied, “I have no hard feelings. I never have and I feel like it was just a misunderstanding.” Hillaire supported the plea deal, believing that if Bolton pled guilty to assault, everyone would know he had done everything he was accused of.
Bolton’s active Twitter life indicates that he is in school and training with the goal of becoming an NFL player. Many tweets are unabashedly misogynistic, referring to women as “bitches” and “hoes,” declaring “I hate females that try to live the high life,” and posting “freaky bitch eat da dick wile I’m playin madden” in this public forum. On June 1, 2011, a few days after the details of the rape from witness statements were made public for the first time by Ms. Blog, Bolton tweeted “I ain’t gonna lie I do deserve some of the shit that be comin my way…”
On January 26, 2011, two years after the rape, Christian Rountree’s charges were quietly dropped based on the vague statement “in the interest of justice.” According to Special Prosecutor Barlow, a conviction would have been difficult, although it’s unclear why since Bolton had already pled guilty to assault. Rountree still maintains that he was not in the pool room during the assault, even though witnesses put him in the room and Hillaire insists that he fondled her and held her down during the rape. Rountree became the father of a baby girl earlier this year.
Throughout these events, the case was tried in the court of public opinion. Hillaire’s story gained widespread attention, especially after stories in the Ms. Blog and on Fox News. Change.org organized an on-line petition calling for the high school to forgive Hillaire’s legal fees, receiving more than 90,000 signatures to date – many times the population of Silsbee. Outside of her town, Hillaire was a hero for standing up for herself.
But the local paper, The Silsbee Bee, actively downplayed the national attention. In one article, Editor Gerry Dickert writes “The national outrage stems in part from incomplete information being published and broadcast by television, web blogs, and magazines,” failing to see why this case might engender national outrage. Dickert even went on HLN to downplay the national attention the case was receiving and was cut off by a frustrated host. Dickert also frequently interviewed the accused and their family, but not one story included an interview with Hillaire or her family. Despite having public access to the grand jury file for over a year, The Silsbee Bee has never published the details of what happened that night as documented through numerous witness statements.
Dickert’s bias was especially apparent in a December 2, 2009 article on the indictment of Bolton and Rountree. Dickert dedicates two paragraphs to describing the “no bill” from the first grand jury, a not-so-subtle challenge to indictment.
The Silsbee Bee continued their favorable coverage of the accused with a front-page article on the dismissal of Rountrees charges that included advice from his mother for Hillaire: “I think she needs to move on instead of always being this girl who was supposed to be a victim.” She also hinted that the accused were the “real” victims: “Christian and Rakheem lost a lot of school and a lot of opportunity….Our town needs to move on…and heal from something that got blown way out of proportion.”
More recently, The Silsbee Bee published an article titled, “Sexual Assault Prosecutions Cost County Nearly $20,000: Ends with Misdemeanor Plea, Dropped Charges.” It was hard to miss the implication that this was money ill spent.
In the brief moments I spent in Dickert’s office before he skipped a scheduled appointment and stopped taking my calls, he laid bare his bias: “everyone in the case is a victim.”
Perhaps Dickert’s work in Hardin County politics makes it difficult for him to remain objective when writing stories involving his associates. Dickert worked as the publicity chairman for a judge whose office is downstairs from Sheffield’s, and as a member of the Silsbee Economic Development Corporation, Dickert recently worked with the city council (including Tyler) to provide nearly $200,000 for infrastructure development for Tyler’s other employer, Cowboy Autoplex.
There is no simple explanation for why, as Craig describes it, Hillaire was raped, then “raped again by the school district, raped by the D.A., and raped again by the appeals court.” It was a perfect storm of family and political connections, the exploitation of legitimate racial fear for illegitimate ends, the “slut” defense, and male athlete hero worship.
After over two years of legal wrangling and national attention, the case continues to wound the town. The house on 324 Pinewood where Hillaire was assaulted sits dark. The homeowner is doing time for unrelated charges, and neighbors say the pool table was repossessed this past February.
Many Silsbee residents just want the case to go away. Detective Hughes described it “like a sore. It’s healing and something comes around and knocks the scab off again.” The problem is that most people in most places in America evolved beyond the “slut” defense decades ago, sports stardom doesn’t mean a free pass, and local officials failing to enforce the law is not tolerated.
Hillaire got to tell her story in an April, 2011 article in Seventeen. The article spawned a Facebook discussion that reminded Hillaire of how many in Silsbee still treat her like she’s the perpetrator. She is still harassed by some in town, including students who recently threw ice at her car as she dropped her younger sister off at school.
Hillaire is no longer the carefree, live wire she was once was. She went from A/B grades to barely passing high school. She received counseling until her therapist passed away from breast cancer last year. In remembrance of her therapist, she got a tattoo on her right hip. It’s an image of two ribbons – one for sexual assault prevention and the other for breast cancer awareness – with a Bible quotation from her deceased therapist:
“Perfect love casts out fear.”
“She’s broken,” says her father. “I think she’s still fighting on some levels, but I don’t think she has the determination that she used to have. Just don’t see that fire, that ambition in her anymore.”
Craig lost his refinery job last year and spends his time building the family business and working on the case. As the family is no longer able to afford legal fees, Larry Watts continues his work on the case pro bono. According to Craig, the case “hasn’t destroyed our business. It hasn’t destroyed the family. We’ve gotten closer as a family.” The family is divided about whether to leave Silsbee, but both Craig and Hillaire want to stay.
As Craig puts it, “I live in the best town in the perfect part of Texas.”
Change.org has started a campaign urging the school to “forgive” the legal fees.
Journalist Scott Rose encourages people to mail one penny to the Silsbee School District in protest:
Richard Bain Jr.
Silsbee Independent School District
415 Highway 327 West
Silsbee, TX, 77656