BUCKEYE, Ariz. — A newly released video, obtained exclusively by 12 News, depicts high school baseball players restraining, silencing, and allegedly sexually assaulting their teammates on a school bus.
The incident occurred on April 5, 2018, as boys varsity baseball players and girls junior varsity softball players from Buckeye's Verrado High School, traveled home from games at Maricopa High School.
The video, which has never been released publicly, is often dark, grainy, and much of the audio is muffled and inaudible.
However, it does depict multiple male teens holding down other teen boys, covering their mouths, and attempting to remove their pants. Victims can also be seen pulling up and re-buttoning their pants and belts.
In brief portions of the video that are audible, multiple screams of "no" and "hold him down" can be heard. Prior to the incidents, multiple racial slurs are also used.
The reporting witness
That ride on the school bus changed Sara Russell’s life forever.
It was a ride that stole memories from her that most teens cherish: friends, athletics, and high school itself.
"It just left me broken because my dreams got taken away from me," she said.
The then-sophomore was a member of the school’s junior varsity softball team and traveled home on the bus that day.
"It was quiet on the way going back for a little bit. And then all of a sudden the boys, I don’t know what happened, they all just started going crazy," Russell said.
The now-17-year-old says she saw, what she describes, as a sexual assault. She says a member of the baseball team was held down by his teammates, his mouth covered, and his pants forcibly pulled downward.
"It happened so fast. He just covered his mouth and he just began struggling like crazy," Russell said.
"I looked up, and that’s when I saw the boys moving and wrestling around. There's people on the floor. There's kids holding each other down. The part where his mouth was covered, and he was struggling a lot. That, I knew, was out of line."
Russell says she only witnessed one of four incidents identified by police on a video recorded by the bus’ surveillance cameras. She says she was seated "four to five" rows behind the incident but was incredibly disturbed by what she saw.
"When he was turning around and pulling up his pants, he made direct eye contact with me. And I could just feel his pain," Russell said. "It kind of felt like he was screaming out for help. And like, 'I can’t believe this just happened to me.'"
While on the bus, Russell called her parents. Police and school officials immediately began investigating.
"What left me so broken is that no one did anything about it. They just called it good and just left it unsolved," she said.
Buckeye police and school officials in the Agua Fria Union High School District learned of the incident not long after it happened, thanks to Russell.
"We took this very seriously," said Buckeye police spokeswoman Donna Rossi. "We had a lot of resources that were put towards this investigation."
In a phone interview later that evening, Russell told police she didn’t witness anyone exposed or any sex acts. However, she claimed her teammates told her they saw much more.
Russell says her former friend told her "she saw someone’s penis."
"One of my friends was saying that she saw the gesture of guys doing a blowjob with their hand, and I do think it went that far," Russell said.
After reviewing the video, police reports show that investigators concluded that there were "four different incidents with four different possible victims."
The four alleged attacks were similar in nature. Police found the victims were held down, their mouths covered, and their pants were attempted to be pulled down as they were "struggling to get free." One victim "appeared he was being punched," while another’s attack was largely obscured after a student covered the camera "with their hand for several minutes."
No genitals or private areas of the victims can be seen on the video.
According to police reports, investigators attempted to speak with students who were on the bus with mixed results. Some of the students' parents declined to make their children available, particularly because police identified at least two of the victims as also suspects.
One victim who did speak to police said he "did not see anything inappropriate about it" and that "no boundaries were crossed," adding that it was "normal behavior" for the team.
Another victim, who was seen on video with pants unbuttoned and an unbuckled belt, said the incident was "just a joke and messing around." However, he acknowledged that his attacker’s intention was to touch his penis, saying that he "used to do this in football."
A female witness told police she has seen the boys "do this before" but "not to this extreme." However, she felt the incident was "being blown out of proportion…when the boys involved were fine with it." She claimed the boys "pants were down," but that "their underwear were [sic] up."
"If it was really a rape thing to them, they would have said something," she told police, according to the report.
The police report does not indicate whether investigating officers felt a crime occurred, but rather that they ended their investigation because none of the victims wished to press charges.
"There was nothing to indicate to us that a crime had been committed, either through witness statements, through statements of the people involved, or the videotapes that we were able to obtain from the school," Rossi said.
Buckeye Police Chief Larry Hall told 12 News two weeks after the incident that it was a "big cluster of nothing." He said the boys were "tickling each other" and classified the incident as "horsing around," adding that at "no time was anyone exposed."
"This is not the Hamilton hazing case," Hall said. There was "nothing sexual according to the detectives," he concluded.
But Russell insists the incident was more serious.
"Why would he struggle that much, if his private area wasn’t out?" she told 12 News. "Roughhousing – yeah, you’re wrestling, but you’re not covering each other’s mouths. Not pulling each other’s pants down. And you’re not struggling."
Buckeye police say they also consulted with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) as part of the investigation.
"Our detectives were in constant contact with the prosecutor’s office with this case. One of the things they asked us to do was go back and interview another witness that we did not interview. We interviewed that witness and that person did not give us any more information that indicated that any kind of crime at all had been committed," Rossi said.
12 News asked the county attorney’s office what role they played in the investigation.
"MCAO did not conduct an investigation into this incident. Investigators may have asked questions of our prosecutors during the investigation, but we did not review this case for a charging decision,” spokesperson Amanda Steele said.
But Rossi told 12 News the department "consulted with the prosecutor’s office the entire way."
"It was a joint conclusion that there was nothing to move forward with," she said.
In other video obtained by 12 News, an angry parent stormed into the high school the day after the bus incident.
"It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, why am I just now being notified? What’s going on with my son?," an unidentified man asked a school official on the police body camera video.
"What about the adults on the bus?" he later said. "They couldn’t get control?"
An unidentified school official told the parent that administrators had just begun reviewing the videos and interviewing students.
The body camera video provided to 12 News is partially redacted, so the identity of the individuals is unclear.
12 News also obtained school department documents that indicate that there were three coaches aboard the bus at the time of the incident: Head baseball coach and social studies teacher Mike Ward, physical education teacher and assistant softball coach Chris McQuade and assistant softball coach Dave Brown.
According to the documents, the coaches told school officials that Ward "verbally directed the baseball athletes to settle down at the beginning of the trip" and that they "had to be reminded a couple more times." They also said they "visually monitor[ed]" the students during the trip.
A review of the surveillance video from the front of the bus shows that the three coaches never left their seats in the front two rows, even as the alleged incidents transpired behind them.
According to school records, the coaches told school officials they had no knowledge of any misbehavior.
Police never charged anyone with a crime but both players and coaches were disciplined for the incident.
Six baseball players were found to have violated school policy, confirmed Agua Fria Union High School District Superintendent Dennis Runyan.
The teens faced punishments including five- to nine-day suspensions, missed athletic games and some missed the prom.
Runyan declined specifics on the discipline, citing student privacy laws. He also declined to be interviewed.
"The District has cooperated with law enforcement and has addressed this matter with all relevant employees, students, and community stakeholders previously. The District takes allegations like these very seriously and the safety of our students remains a priority," he said in a statement.
The documents obtained by 12 News show that the three coaches - Ward, McQuade and Brown - were temporarily banned from campus and barred from contacting anyone associated with the school, pending an investigation.
The coaches denied being aware of the incident but were ultimately issued "letters of direction," after the school concluded their supervision fell short.
Principal Kristen Tiffany ordered them to spread out on the bus in the future.
"…Position yourself so that you have constant and direct visual and even physical supervision of athletes while traveling to and from athletic competition," she wrote. The coaches were also ordered to conduct training and review policies on "hazing, bullying, and harassment."
Ward, who was given additional directives, ultimately resigned in August. He remains a teacher at the school and did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
He told the Arizona Republic in August that his departure was related to family concerns, and not the incident aboard the bus.
"I made this choice myself. There was no reason needed to be given. I was asked to return as the head coach," Ward said.
"My wife and I are ready to start raising a family, and I want to be home with her and invest time into my family. I decided that I would like to commit all my time there."
The video obtained by 12 News has not been shared with the parents of those on board.
Sandra Haiflinch, executive director of accountability and accreditation for the Agua Fria Union High School District, initially told 12 News that the bus video was an "educational record" and therefore could not be released under a public records request, due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
A Buckeye police records clerk issued a similar response. However, lawyers for the city ultimately relented following a demand letter from attorneys representing 12 News.
Portions of the video, including moments when a student obscured the on-board camera and when students were making racial slurs, were not included in the city’s initial release of the video.
When 12 News asked Buckeye police about the obscuring of the bus camera, which was mentioned in police reports but was not seen in the video, Rossi indicated that portion had not been included, because officials thought what they had provided was "responsive" to the station’s request.
12 News' initial request for public records in April requested "all public documents related to the case."
Ultimately, the department provided 12 News with two unredacted surveillance videos from the bus, under the condition that the station would not reveal the faces of any of the juveniles on board.
The audio was professionally enhanced by a multimedia forensics company retained by 12 News but yielded only minimal improvement.
The incidents aboard the bus were the first of multiple stories that garnered media attention surrounding the school's 2018 baseball team.
Then in August, recent graduate Nicholas Montano died in a car crash in Goodyear, according to the West Valley View.
Despite the bus incident, and McKinsey's death, the 2018 team had unprecedented success on the field. The Vipers reached the 5A state final game for the first time in school history, before losing to Peoria Liberty 6-2.
The incident sparked a flurry of reaction from the Verrado High community – and debate over what really happened.
So much so, that the school held a heated community forum in July, filled with "anger, tears, insults, and allegations," according to the Arizona Republic.
But no one was affected more than Sara Russell.
"It was very hard on me. I lost hours of sleep. I got depressed of course," she said through tears. "I would have nightmares of [an alleged suspect] in my room and I couldn’t sleep because every time I closed my eyes, I was terrified I would see him in my room."
Upon returning to school she says she was threatened, bullied, and shunned – even by her friends.
"…I really want u to know all those nights u cry for all the backlash…u f****** deserve it…so me taking my friends pants off is rape? Ur a stupid piece of s*** and tell your mom and sister you’re all worthless feminists who belong in the kitchen…don’t be mad [because] you’re a jv f*****…," said one private Instagram message Russell provided to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
"I reported what I saw and I felt what I did was the right thing…I felt like I became more of a target than what was going on," she said.
"There was a girl at that school that said she wanted to drag me out of that school by my hair and put me in the hospital…It scared me," Russell said.
According to police reports, the sheriff’s office concluded that the Instagram post was "not specific enough to be considered harassment" and no charges were filed. MCSO also forwarded the information to Buckeye police, who in turn, forwarded the information to a school resource officer.
Russell says the harassment got so bad she was forced to quit both school and softball.
"I went to school and every time I saw the baseball boys I got nauseous. And I texted my mom telling her 'I couldn't do it anymore,'" she said.
"My team just kind of – it felt like they kind of disowned me… And then all my friends just stopped talking to me. And everyone just gave me the cold shoulder."
Russell is now homeschooled and says she feels she hasn't gotten the support of school officials either.
"I couldn't play sports and the school didn’t do anything for me," she said. "It just left me disturbed that no one did anything about it. They just swept it under the rug and called it good."
Russell says her family, and close friends, have gotten her through the incident.
“The support they give me. It keeps me going. And the grace of God keeps me going too," she said.
Hear more from Adam Bagni on what went into reporting this story on our Facebook page.