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Former Dietrich High School football player pleads not guilty in sexual assault case

DIETRICH — An 18-year-old former Dietrich High School football player pleaded not guilty Tuesday in the alleged locker room sexual assault of his teammate.

John R.K. Howard, of Keller, Texas, entered his plea Tuesday during a district court arraignment in Gooding County District Court, though he’s charged in Lincoln County. He’s charged with a felony count of forcible sexual penetration by the use of a foreign object.

Although three teens were charged in the alleged attack Oct. 22, Howard is the only one still facing a criminal charge as an adult. One teen was initially charged as a juvenile, and all records in his case have remained sealed, while 17-year-old Tanner Ray Ward, initially charged as an adult, had his case moved to juvenile court last week as part of plea negotiations.

Dressed in a black suit, black shirt and white tie, Howard appeared in court Tuesday for the first time since April 22 when he was arraigned in magistrate court; he waived his preliminary hearing that was set for July. Seated next to one of his attorneys, Stacey DePew, Howard answered affirmatively that he understood the charge against him and the possible punishments.

If convicted, Howard faces up to life in prison, a fine up to $50,000 and he would have to register as a sex offender.

Satisfied that Howard understood the charge and its potential consequences, District Judge Eric Wildman asked how he pleaded. DePew answered for her client, saying he pleaded not guilty.

Because Wildman is not the district judge who will hear the case, he did not set a trial date but instead scheduled a hearing by phone for next week to set future hearing dates.

Casey Hemmer, a deputy attorney general prosecuting the case, was not in attendance at Tuesday’s hearing and was instead patched through via telephone. The alleged victim and his family also did not attend.

The arraignment was the first hearing in the case since last week’s surprise hearing in which prosecutors dismissed the adult felony charge against the 17-year-old Ward.

“This is pursuant to plea negotiations,” Ward’s attorney, Mike Wood, said in a Lincoln County courtroom last week. “We’re going in that direction. This dismissal is part of that.”

Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys will say whether there are plea negotiations going on in Howard’s case — lawyers are barred from talking about the case, and some of the documents are still sealed — but one thing that’s certain is that Howard’s case cannot be moved to juvenile court, as he was 18 at the time of the alleged attack.

In court documents and in previous hearings, prosecutors have alleged that Howard kicked a hanger into the rectal opening of a teammate after Ward initially attacked the alleged victim with the hanger.

In a civil lawsuit against the Dietrich School District, administrators and football coaches, Howard is also alleged to have racially, physically and emotionally abused the sexual-assault victim, described as a black, mentally disabled student.

The lawsuit, which seeks $10 million in damages from the school district, described Howard as “a large and aggressive male who had been sent to live with his relatives in Idaho due to his inability to keep out of trouble in Texas.”

The civil lawsuit goes on to describe specific ways in which Howard allegedly abused the black teen, including one instance when Howard, displaying a confederate flag on his computer, “demanded that the plaintiff watch and learn” a “vicious Ku Klux Klan song.”

The lawsuit also alleges that during a summer football camp, coaches watched as Howard and the alleged victim fought in a circle of players and teammates. The alleged victim wore boxing gloves while Howard, without gloves, knocked down the victim several times before finally knocking him unconscious.

Howard, who in April was back living in Texas, is out of custody on $75,000 bond. His trial date will likely be set during a hearing over the telephone Monday.

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