BLUE EARTH, MINN. – Tonya Hurley could see that her son wasn’t feeling well.
For days after the Blue Earth Buccaneers’ final regular-season football game on Oct. 18, the sophomore lineman suffered headaches, vomited regularly and wanted to stay in his room with the lights off. He told his parents that he had the flu.
But when the 16-year-old’s condition didn’t improve after more than two weeks, she made him visit a doctor, where he threw up three times before being diagnosed with a concussion.
What she found out next shocked and angered her and has this southern Minnesota city of 3,200 residents demanding answers.
This was no football injury. Rather, Hurley found out, four of her son’s teammates had beaten him so badly at a party in a nearby town on Oct. 19 that he briefly fell unconscious. One of the alleged assailants filmed the assault on a cellphone and showed it to him the next day, according to charges later filed in district court. But the boy said nothing, not wanting to get his teammates in trouble, his mother said.
While many questions about the attack — including what prompted it and why it took so long for it to be investigated — remain, some of the narrative of the beating was spelled out this week when the Faribault County attorney charged the assailants with felony assault and aiding and abetting in connection with the attack. That same day, the boy’s father made a passionate plea to the school board for help, saying it needed to do something.
“Everybody’s getting bullied, and I believe it’s getting covered up,” Dale Hurley told a packed meeting.
In an interview Wednesday at the family’s home, Tonya Hurley said her son, who hasn’t returned to school since his doctor visit, has suffered more than a concussion.
“He is the one being punished,” she said. “He’s not in school, he’s not in classes, he’s not around his friends. You can’t tell me that kids won’t be snickering and laughing and saying things behind his back.”
Her son, who was a varsity lineman, didn’t play in Blue Earth’s state playoff game, she said, while his alleged attackers did.
“It’s hard to realize that these are supposed to be his teammates,” she said. “It’s been hard. My son is afraid to go back.”
According to the criminal complaint and police:
The alleged assault took place at a house party in Winnebago, a community of about 1,500 residents just a few miles from Blue Earth. But Winnebago police didn’t begin investigating it until three weeks later — Nov. 9 — after they learned of it from a Faribault County sheriff’s deputy who is a school resource officer at the high school. Authorities arrested four teens last week — days after Blue Earth lost to Pipestone in the state Class AA quarterfinals.
Senior Wyatt Tungland, 18, of Frost, was charged with third-degree assault and aiding and abetting third-degree assault. Senior Dalton Nagel, 18, was charged with third-degree aiding and abetting.
Tungland’s attorney, Chris Ritts, said the fact that the case wasn’t reported until after the football season ended “looks very suspicious.”
Ritts doesn’t dispute that the attack took place but questions Tungland’s alleged involvement.
“It’s outrageous,” Ritts said. “I’ve never seen a person get picked up a month later after a charge like this. It looks very suspicious and is a very incomplete, unprofessional investigation.”
Winnebago Police Chief Eric Olson declined to answer questions due to the ongoing investigation but said in a news release that the issue is the department’s No. 1 priority.
Outrage over bullying
On Monday, after the criminal charges were filed, so many students and parents packed a school board meeting to address the assault and allegations of bullying that district officials moved it to a larger location to accommodate the crowd.
Superintendent Evan Gough said it was the first time school leaders had heard the extent of concerns about bullying, adding that a plan will be developed to better address the issue across the district. He said Wednesday that he’s heard there’s a reluctance among students to report bullying for fear of retaliation.
“The safety of our students is our top priority,” Gough said, declining to talk about the assault. “Bullying is a challenge across our country and … cyberbullying has definitely changed how bullying looks. It can extend outside the school walls.”
Tonya Hurley said her son was pressured on social media in the days after the incident by some of the alleged attackers not to report it.
“They said it would ruin their lives,” she said.
As a result, she said, the family has ordered the boy to stay off social media and not use his phone.
Hurley said she reported the assault to an assistant football coach immediately after learning of it at her son’s Nov. 7 doctor visit, just days before the team’s state quarterfinal game. The assistant coach immediately informed the head coach, she said, and the head coach told the school’s activities director.
Faribault County Sheriff Michael Gormley said the school resource officer heard from the school district’s athletic director on Nov. 9 that students at the party may have been drinking alcohol. The deputy reported the incident to Winnebago police.
A Winnebago police officer followed up and learned from interviews with several teens that a fight had taken place at the party and was captured on video, according to the criminal complaint. The victim told police he had been in a dispute with a 17-year-old and was pushed down, punched in the face and fell unconscious, according to the complaint.
The next day, the victim showed up at football practice with his face swollen and bruised. The teen with whom the victim had the dispute showed him a cellphone video of the attack.
Besides Tungland and Nagel, two juveniles — senior Blake Barnett, 17, of Blue Earth, and sophomore Caden Ochsendorf, 16, of Winnebago — were also charged with third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm and aiding and abetting.
The suspects were released from jail not long after charges were filed. All four are expected to appear in court in the next few weeks.
“This one is definitely [unusual],” Gormley said Wednesday. “It’s a pretty hot topic [in the community]. It’s very concerning.”
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.