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Illicit CP - January 1999

Roanoke Times, Virginia, 16 January 1999

No Convictions In VMI Cadet Case

Hazing Trial Ends With A Rebuke

Two men must perform community service before charges are dismissed

By Matt Chittum
The Roanoke Times

A Circuit Court judge declined to convict three Virginia Military Institute cadets charged with hazing for whipping a former freshman at the college, but he rebuked them and VMI for the behavior.

"I'm putting you and VMI on notice that this is a corrupt practice under state law, and it must cease," Judge George E. Honts III said to the defendants in rendering his decision. He said there was ample evidence that two of the men, now graduates of VMI, are guilty of hazing, but took their charges under advisement until September because they had no criminal record.

Charles Travers Clemons of Richmond and John Gonzales of Mechanicsville must perform 56 hours of community service by September and otherwise stay out of trouble, and Honts will then dismiss the charges against them.

He dismissed a hazing charge against a third defendant, Thomas Michael Upshaw of Caroline County, because there was no evidence other than the victim's claim that Upshaw had struck him.

Beyond that, however, there was no evidence to contradict George Wade Jr.'s claim that he was struck repeatedly with a belt and on one occasion with a coat hanger during fall 1997, when Wade, now 21, was a freshman "rat" at VMI.

Wade, of Henrico County, said that Clemons, his senior mentor at VMI, and his friends told Wade and several other rats they were going to receive 98 licks from a belt, in honor of Clemons' class of 1998. He said Gonzales removed his belt and said it had been especially prepared by beating it against a wall to soften the leather.

According to the testimony of several rats, they were bent over a bed in Clemons' room, and Gonzales used the belt like a whip.

Upshaw said he never wanted to participate because he feared getting in trouble and because his parents didn't raise him to hit people.

On one occasion, Wade testified, Clemons whacked him with a coat hanger stretched lengthwise with tape on one end for a handle. They called it the "hazing hanger," he said.

Clemons admitted hitting Wade with the hanger and keeping a tally sheet of how many licks each rat received.

While the defendants never denied the beatings, they and several prosecution witnesses claimed that Wade not only was a willing participant but also an enthusiastic one. They also said the beatings never caused "bodily harm" as required by Virginia's anti-hazing law. Wade pursued the hazing charges as an excuse to get out of VMI before he failed, the defense contended.

The licks were never intended to cause harm, Clemons testified, but were a fun bonding activity that the rats themselves asked for because they heard it was a tradition at VMI.

The defendants all said they had been whipped as freshmen by their mentors, or "dykes."

Wade, they testified, competed with another rat to pile up licks the fastest.

Wade said he went along because he was afraid of what would happen if he didn't.

"I didn't believe we really had a choice," he testified. He'd been taught that rats look out for their dykes at all costs, he said, and if you get your dyke in trouble, "it will come back to haunt you."

Wade said he kept the beatings a secret from his family until his girlfriend and her mother came to visit one weekend. The women both said they saw marks on Wade's backside when he was changing clothes and became concerned.

The mother made an anonymous call to VMI to report what was happening to Wade, and an investigation ensued.

Wade quit VMI in December 1997, and, soon afterward, Clemons and Gonzales were suspended. Upshaw was given a lesser penalty and allowed to stay in school.

In making his ruling, Honts admitted he was struggling with the vague language in the hazing statute, which says that "it shall be unlawful to haze or otherwise mistreat so as to cause bodily harm" without defining hazing, mistreatment or bodily harm.

What Clemons and Gonzales did constituted mistreatment, he said, and was in all likelihood a violation of the law. But he didn't want to saddle the pair with a criminal record, he said.

VMI spokesman Mike Strickler said the college would take the judge's words to heart.

Wade called the ruling "a very wise decision." He said he hasn't ruled out a civil suit against VMI, but just wants to get on with his life for now. He is attending an out-of-state college, majoring in criminal justice.

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