SAYREVILLE — At least six members of the Sayreville High School football team were taken into custody by police this evening on charges in connection with a series of locker room sexual assaults on four victims, NJ Advance Media has learned.
A seventh player was charged, but not immediately taken into custody. He was being sought by police.
The detentions — on a night the team was scheduled to play Monroe High School for its homecoming game on its home field — came less than a week after its season was abruptly canceled by school officials in the wake of allegations of what was first called “serious bullying and harassment” of younger players.
The parent of one victim later described what occurred as a violent ritual involving anal sexual attacks by seniors who routinely preyed on freshmen.
The players taken into custody — who ranged in age from 15 to 17 — were at home with parents or guardians when police arrived, law enforcement sources told NJ Advance Media. Those sources, who were familiar with the arrests, asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The charges were brought by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office, which confirmed the detentions after they were first reported on NJ.com.
According to Prosecutor Andrew Carey, three were charged with aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration upon one of the juvenile victims. One of those defendants and four others were charged with various counts including aggravated assault, conspiracy, aggravated criminal sexual contact, hazing and riot by participating in the attack of some of the victims.
According to the complaints filed in the matter, one or more of the players held victims against their will, while others improperly touched victims in a sexual manner. In one case, one of the victims was kicked during an attack, said the prosecutor’s office.
Prosecutors said the events took place in four separate incidents at Sayreville War Memorial High School, between Sept. 19 and Sept. 29.
Aggravated sexual assault is a first-degree crime and even a juvenile would face up to five years of incarceration if found guilty. A prosecutor would also have the option of seeking to charge any of those arrested as adults, when they might face substantially more prison time, leave them with criminal records, and require their registration as sexual offenders.
Because they are all under the age of 18, the names of those taken into custody are not expected to be released.
Police were seen arriving at the home of team captain Myles Hartsfield, a 6-foot, 190-pound running back and free safety, a senior who is committed to Penn State, but it is not known if he was charged.
Three police officers also arrived at the home of Dylan Thillet, another team captain who is also a senior and plays guard and defensive end. They spent several minutes knocking on the door and circling the house with a flashlight. No lights in the home were on and no one answered the door.
At the Sayreville police station, three women wearing team sweatshirts declined to comment. Another woman walked in to headquarters and pulled her blue hooded sweatshirt around her face as she left 45 minutes later. She shook her head at photographers and said, “Awful, awful.” When asked by a reporter if she was referring to the media or the situation inside the police station, she replied “All of it.”
All those in custody were being detained pending a Family Court decision on whether they will be held at a detention facility pending a court hearing, or be released to the custody of their parents or guardians until that hearing is scheduled. Juvenile hearings are not open to the public.
No coaches or anyone in a supervisory role were charged.
Sources said the charges against the players were unrelated to the drug case that surfaced last month involving an assistant Sayreville coach charged with possession of steroids.
Reached Friday night, Sen. Joseph Vitale, (D-Middlesex), whose district includes Sayreville, said: “This is beyond bullying — this is sexual assault and it should be treated as if it were. If these were acts against girls many people would be taking a different attitude. We have to grow up and treat boys as if it were girls being assaulted.”
Sayreville War Memorial High School has been the focus of intense scrutiny ever since allegations surfaced about what school officials described as “widespread and pervasive” incidents of bullying and harassment within the school’s storied football program.
District Superintendent Richard Labbe said he immediately brought the matter to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office after he was alerted by an anonymous allegation made to Sayreville police about a serious incident of inappropriate conduct — possibly more — by members of the team.
Within days, Labbe canceled the Bombers’ next game against South Brunswick High without explanation. Days later, he subsequently announced the decision to forfeit the rest of the season — ending the freshman, junior varsity and varsity football seasons after consulting with the prosecutor’s office.
The cancellation sparked immediate public outrage by parents of some players on the Sayreville football team, which has won three state sectional championships over the past four years. Earlier this week, amid catcalls and emotional pleas from players, parents and alumni, the board of education upheld Labbe’s decision to end the season.
Students, parents, and alumni as the Sayreville Board of Education upheld the cancellation of the football season earlier this week.
For the past week, however, rumors have been growing about the ugly secrets of the Sayreville team locker room that went far beyond a hazing ritual. While school officials declined to provide any detail about the allegations that led Labbe to go the authorities, the parent of a freshman football player in an interview with NJ Advance Media described a sexual assault targeting younger members of the team, which he said took place almost every day.
The parent, who asked not to be identified because of possible repercussions in a working-class town where football is almost a religion, said the assaults would begin with a howling wolf call from a senior on the team, before the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.
In the darkness, a freshman player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. The victim would then be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.
“[For] 10 seconds, the lights would go off and they would grab a freshman and they would go on,” the parent said. “Right on the floor. … It was happening every day. They would get the freshmen.”
The parent added: “Kids would just sit around and witness [stuff] like this.”
The “ringleaders” involved in the hazing, according to the parent, were all seniors.
Earlier, another parent of a freshman player told NJ Advance Media that his son and teammates would “stampede” to the locker room after practices to try to get dressed before the senior players entered.Labbe has said that the coaches, including head coach George Najjar, and other school employees, were unaware of what was going on in the locker room. According to several former players of Najjar when he was the head coach at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn in the 1980s, hazing was a constant during preseason camp. They recounted initiation rituals that included Animal House-style paddling of underclassmen by upperclassmen, but they called it a “relatively harmless football tradition” and they did not believe Najjar had been aware it was happening.
In a statement after the charges were made public, Labbe said “as should be evident by now, the Sayreville Board of Education takes this matter extremely seriously and thus will continue to make the safety and welfare of our students, particularly the victims of these horrendous alleged acts, our highest priority.”
He said the district administration has already launched a harassment intimidation and bullying investigation of all athletic and extracurricular programs “to ensure that we take all steps necessary now and in the future to protect all our students.”
He said the district will continue to cooperate fully with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.
“In the ensuing days, weeks, and months, we will come together as a school district and greater community to harness the strength required to support the young men who may have been victimized and then to begin the healing process for our beloved community,” he said.
Reached at home Friday night, the superintendent declined further comment.
‘The whole town is torn apart’
Throughout town, reaction was sad late Friday.
“My feelings go out to the victims, the kids who are arrested, the rest of the football team and the rest of the town, because the whole town is torn apart,” said Jim McIntosh, president of the Sayreville Bombers Touchdown Club. “If you don’t think it is, just look around.”
Wendy Rondeau, who was reading the story about the criminal charges on her cellphone outside Wawa on Washington Road Friday night, said Sayreville was a good town.
“For something like this to happen is shocking. But we will get through this,” she said.
Rondeau, though, said she always believed the allegations were serious. “You don’t just make stuff up like that.”
The parent who first detailed the allegations, meanwhile, said he was ecstatic.
“It’s like a gorilla jumping off my chest,” said the parent, who still wanted to remain anonymous because of possible repercussions against his family. “Over the past week and a half, I’ve tried to do everything in my power to get it out there.
“The only hero in this town are the kids, these freshman kids that stepped up.” He said the parents who had earlier defended the kids and “tried to intimidate the superintendent” should be ashamed of themselves.
Najjar, who makes $84,752 as a faculty member at Sayreville High School, and was to make $11,700 for coaching duties for the 2014-2015 school year, declined comment after answering his phone. He has been at Sayreville for 20 years.
Even before the season for Sayreville had come to an end, the program had already been rocked by revelations that an assistant Sayreville football coach had been charged with possession of steroids and of hypodermic needles a week earlier.
The assistant coach, Charlie Garcia, 38, of South Plainfield, was arrested after police said they discovered 800 mg of steroids and 14 hypodermic needles in his pickup truck during a traffic stop on Route 22 in Bridgewater on Sept. 26, according to the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office.
Garcia resigned and his attorney said the allegations had “nothing to do with the football program at Sayreville High School.” Charges against him are still pending.
Staff writers Ted Sherman, Vernal Coleman, Jeremy Schneider, Braulio Perez and Brian Amaral contributed to this report.
Matthew Stanmyre may be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @MattStanmyre. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
Sue Epstein may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @susan_epstein. Find NJ.com on Facebook.