A prominent San Antonio attorney skilled in both the victim and suspect sides of sexual abuse litigation is warning the public regarding early conclusions about individuals allegedly involved in the La Vernia High School scandals. The arrests of three 18-year-old students at the high school on April 12, brought the total number of suspects up to 13. Six adult students and seven juvenile classmates have been charged in the sex scandal involving the boy’s athletic program at the school.
“It is important that we realize these are just allegations,” attorney Luis Roberto Vera, Jr. said in an exclusive interview with NEWS LEGIT. “In America, these students are presumed innocent and they have not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“Some of these boys may be completely innocent, but not many will give them the benefit of a doubt,” Vera said. “We should all be careful about this. These kind of accusations are the easiest to make and the most difficult to defend,” said Vera, who has successfully defended many sexual abuse cases in Texas and across the country. “It’s the only crime you can be accused of and people automatically think you are guilty and look down on you. It’s easy to accuse and you have a bad stigma placed on you. But unfortunately people will jump to conclusions.”
“La Vernia is a close-knit community, a good place to raise a family where everyone knows one another,” Vera, the national general council and attorney for League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) continued. “This is particularly overwhelming because these boys grew up together and the consequences and suffering will effect so many people, not just the victims. Not just the suspects. In some way, every student is in some sort of distress. Both sides come from some very good and loving families. It is imperative everyone is treated fair and just. Everyone.”
“These serious allegations are fundamentally traumatic to these boys, especially when some of them could be totally innocent,” Vera said. “It’s not that unusual in these type of high profile cases to grow in what is known as a ‘hysteria case.’ And if there is an element of that here in La Vernia, then the boys that could be falsely charged with sex abuse are going to face numerous problems of their own.”
“Just the nature of the crime itself evokes a devastating sense of betrayal to them and their families,” Vera said. “Especially in highly publicized cases like this, many people have a strong tendency to instantly assume the accused are guilty. This is a very somber disgrace and shame associated with this. Even if they are acquitted, anyone accused risk a part of their lives—loss of friends, being fired from their jobs, harassment or even having their property vandalized. And they could not be guilty at all.”
Vera cautions that everyone should be very careful this doesn’t turn into something like the Salem witch trials of 1692 or the ‘hysteria cases of sexual abuse” that swept America in the 1980s. He cited a “famous landmark case, the McMartin School in Manhattan Beach, California seven employees and teachers of a day care center were charged with unspeakable crimes against children. Gossip, rumors, TV reports and newspapers stoked the fires of outrage and hysteria.”
“After one of the longest on most expensive trials is U.S. history, about three years, the case concluded in 1990 without a single conviction,” Vera said. “Cases like this can be very emotional and are fuel for a frenzy of exaggerations and distortions.”
“A danger here is that people, society, and media can adopt a perspective too early before we know the facts,” Vera continued. “Take the case of 24-year-old Margaret Michaels, a nursery care worker in New Jersey who was convicted in 1988 on 115 counts of molesting young children. She didn’t have much of a chance going into trial. She denied all of the charges, but her denial was not easily accepted. The hysteria was against her. Five years later, her conviction was overturned after appellate courts found evidence proved this perspective and testimonies were tainted. They were not based on facts. Wait until we hear the facts to draw your conclusion.”
“Another reason to be careful in forming opinions is because children and adolescents are vulnerable to variety of outside influences,” Vera informed. “Some of these can lead to fabrication of testimony. These influences could be peer pressure, fright, preconceived notions from others or in the questions they are being asked to answer. Remember some of these boys have gone through some traumatic experiences which can cause repressed memory issues.”
When asked about the responsibilities of the School District, Vera explained that “Texas statutes say a teacher or staff member of the school district must report any kind of assault including mental, physical or sexual assault. It is a criminal penalty not to report it. But again, the facts will tell us that. We just don’t know at this point.”
“If a person is truly a victim there may or may not be compensation for them because the state requires notice,” he continued. “People with supervisory power like a principal, school board member, vice-principal, or someone in that capacity that has the knowledge of what is going on and has the ability to stop it. If one of these individuals did know about it and did not make attempts to stop it, then that could be serious. The law says these people with supervisory power must also report it or they can be heavily penalized because they are civilly liable.”
“Just being a coach or teacher normally is normally enough to go after a school district accord to law. That is not enough alone,” Vera said. “The court will look at two types of knowledge in these school cases. Active knowledge and constructive knowledge to determine who knew or should have known.”
John Rutkowski, 18; Christian Roberts, 18; Colton Weidner, 18; Alejandro Ibarra, 18; Dustin Norman, 18; and Robert Olivarez Jr., 17 are the adult La Vernia High School students charged.
Local police Sargent Donald Keil, the chief investigator on the case, along with Police Chief Bruce Ritchie and others were initially responsible for the investigation that rocked the small town of 1,250. Texas Rangers were brought in to help support the efforts and subsequently took over the leadership of the investigations. The State Attorney General’s office is handling the litigation.