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Illicit CP - March 1998

Corpun file 13852

Washington Post, 22 March 1998

No Charges in Alleged VMI Hazing

Ex-Student Says 6 Freshmen Suffered Welts, Bruises in Lashings

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer

A prosecutor has decided that there is not enough evidence to file assault charges in the case of a former Virginia Military Institute student who said he was struck repeatedly with a belt by seniors at the school, according to the student, who met last week with the commonwealth's attorney and state police.

press cutting

George Wade Jr., 20, of Henrico County, Va., said that he and five other VMI freshmen were beaten with a belt -- and once with a coat hanger -- on the buttocks and upper thighs by three VMI seniors. The beatings occurred about three times a week from Sept. 11 to mid-October, leaving the students with welts and bruises, Wade said.

Wade said yesterday that Rockbridge County Commonwealth's Attorney Gordon Saunders told him on Thursday that a charge of assault would be hard to sustain because the former cadet could be seen as a willing participant in the events. Wade said he acknowledged to the prosecutor that he made statements such as, "I want to go first to get it over with," and that he repeatedly returned to a dorm room knowing that he was likely to be struck.

Saunders did not return a telephone call yesterday. A Virginia State Police lieutenant involved in the investigation said the probe was finished but wouldn't comment further. A spokesman for VMI declined to comment.

Wade, who expressed frustration at the decision, said that although he endured the beatings without objection, there was nothing voluntary about it because he felt he had no choice and had no one to turn to for help at VMI.

He said state police told him that witnesses had confirmed that he and other students had suffered welts and bruises.

Even so, Wade said, the commonwealth's attorney said he cannot pursue a criminal case under the state's law barring hazing unless a complaint is made by VMI. VMI has so far declined to treat the matter as hazing, and school officials have suggested that the reason was a lack of evidence of any bodily injury, a finding that the state statute requires.

Wade said that if the state has evidence that he was injured, it should turn it over to VMI so the school can reassess its decision not to treat the incident as hazing.

State police rejected that suggestion yesterday.

"We conducted our investigation for Mr. Saunders, not for VMI," said State Police Lt. James Ruhland. "Any other questions need to be taken up with Mr. Saunders."

Wade said he "felt it was hazing from the beginning, but we pursued assault because VMI wouldn't do anything. And now the state police investigation shows it's hazing, and the prosecutor says he can't do anything."

Last month, three VMI freshmen who along with Wade were struck by the seniors challenged Wade's account that the incidents were malicious. In interviews with VMI's student newspaper, two of the freshmen described the incident as horseplay and said that all six cadets participated voluntarily.

Wade said yesterday that he and his family are unconvinced by Saunders's reading of the hazing statute because it gives a university, not police or prosecutor, the authority to decide whether an incident should be investigated as a potential crime.

But, Wade said, "if the prosecutor is right and he can do nothing, then the hazing law needs to be amended because it gives way too much power to the university. And that's dangerous."

Wade said he plans to contact the U.S. Justice Department to see if it will investigate. The Justice Department is monitoring the assimilation of women at VMI this year. A spokeswoman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

blob Follow-up: 5 May 1998 - Expelled VMI cadets to take finals as case heads to court

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