The former Thunder Mountain High School football coach who faced criminal charges after being caught on video knocking a player unconscious ducked assault charges during a trial held in Oregon last week.
Former coach and Floyd Dryden Middle School teacher John Wahl was found not guilty during a one-day bench trial July 8 in Oregon. The trial was held there because the incident occurred while the TMHS football team was attending a camp in Gold Beach, Ore. in 2012.
Oregon District Attorney Everett Dial dismissed count one of Criminal Mistreatment 1, a Class ‘C’ felony, in exchange for telephonic testimony. Wahl was found not guilty of the other charge, Assault 4, a misdemeanor.
Wahl waived a jury trial, and the proceedings lasted about four and a half hours.
Wahl previously declined to comment on the case, but after the verdict he opened up to the Empire during a series of interviews.
“It went just the way I thought it would go, not guilty,” he said. “It is called a fair trial.”
According to Oregon state law, it’s not illegal for an adult to box a youth over age 11, so in the court’s eyes no crime had occurred.
“Essentially, it was found that what John did was not criminal,” defense attorney Jonah Morningstar said. “That was what we had been saying all along, and we tried to reach out to the prosecutor in the case and to ... (the student’s) family and we couldn’t make any sort of resolution. And so, we did end up taking it to
“The law in Oregon essentially doesn’t criminalize boxing that is sort of consensually entered into,” Morningstar continued. “In the same way that people play football, some people box and they are not breaking any laws when they do that. That was basically what happened.”
Numerous phone calls to Dial were not returned and court documents were not available by press time. The family of the player also did not return phone calls.
Wahl said there’s more to the story than the “30-second video and everything you (newspaper) guys put out there.”
“You guys saw a portion of the boxing match, that was consensual,” he said. “ ... Based on the testimony at the trial and everybody present, I did not initiate the boxing match, the student initiated it and I refused to box him several times. Other students were boxing each other and it was not an environment where they were trying to hurt each other. ... The boxing that was taking place was, more or less, light horse play.”
Even though boxing a 14-year-old player isn’t considered a crime in Oregon, Wahl admitted he displayed a lapse in judgement. He is hopeful the community will forgive him and move on.
“I said from the get-go that I made an error in judgment,” he said. “And I apologized immediately after; I apologized every step of the way. It was a poor decision. I should not have engaged in a boxing match with the youth, but that being said, it was a consensual boxing match. ... The student agreed to it, I agreed to it.”
The video, which spread about a year after the camp, resulted in Wahl and head football coach Bill Byouer losing their jobs with the district. Byouer taught health and physical education at the same school as Wahl. According to the school district, it and Byouer are in litigation over his termination. No other details were provided.
In the video, Wahl could be seen throwing a hard right after the youth had covered his face and turned away. The punch connected with the back of the teen’s head and he immediately dropped to the ground. Wahl was then shown raising his arms in the air, simulating a gesture of victory, as football players watching applauded and cheered.
“I think, especially in light of the fact that he was charged with this crime and had to go through the stress of this assault trial and partly lost his job over it, I think it is pretty easy for him to say it was a mistake,” Morningstar said. “On reflection, he would have rather not have done that and I think we can leave it at that.”
Horseplay and camp rules
Morningstar and the state each called four witnesses. The defense called four TMHS football players, two of whom were classmates and teammates of Jacob Weir, the student Wahl boxed, and of Wahl’s son, another classmate and TMHS football player.
The four prosecution witnesses were Gold Beach Football Camp director Kevin Swift, Gold Beach police chief Dixon Andrews, Jacob Weir, and a Juneau Police Department investigating officer.
Swift said the boxing match occurred outside the camp times. The team had stayed an extra day while waiting for a return flight to Juneau.
“This happened outside the window of camp,” Swift said. “Because of Juneau’s travel arrangements, they always arrived a couple days early and stayed a couple days later because of prices on flights.
“Bill (Byouer) would always ask if they could hang out. That was not a problem but it was his game now, they would not have help from any camp personnel. The supervision of teams at camp has always been the primary responsibility of the staff that bring them, and then they are supported and backed up by the camp staff. I made it real clear to Bill that when camp is over, you are on your own.”
Swift stressed that the boxing match didn’t happen “at the Gold Beach Football Camp, it happened while Thunder Mountain was a guest in our gym.”
Still, he thought the judge made “a pretty gusty call.”
According to Swift, Oregon 15th Circuit Court Judge Jesse Margolis essentially said there is no law against instructing kids in karate, tae Kwon do, or other forms of martial arts and combative sports. Margolis said the youths all had gloves, and he believed Weir consented to the match.
“I thought there would be some kind of consequences,” Swift said. “My opinion was it was a poor choice by the adults.”
Swift stated that his football camp, now in its 21st year, has strict policies on activities not related to football.
“It is not a perfect science,” Swift said. “I can’t think of one positive that has ever come out of a horseplay incident. Horseplay is horseplay, but I always ask the kids what positive comes out of that. We frown on it. We stop it when we see it, and we expect the coaches to do the same. In 21 years we have only had a couple instances.”
Wahl claims he was never told about any rules or camp policies by Byouer, and that Byouer and former assistant coach Brandon Mahle organized the boxing matches between player and then left, placing him in charge.
Byouer could not be reached on an old cellphone number and Mahle, who first brought the video to the attention of the school district, died in January. Both previously told the Empire they were unaware of the boxing matches while at the camp.
Character at stake
Jacob Weir’s father, Richard, did not return phone calls after the verdict but stated before the trial that the camp incident set in motion a series of bullying events that were ignored by adults in the Juneau School District and led to his son reacting violently. As of two months ago, Jacob Weir was being held at Anchorage’s McLaughlin Youth Center.
Wahl said the video clip didn’t show the first round of their bout.
“It was light horse play,” Wahl said. “So when I eventually agreed to box him, because he kept pestering me and pestering everyone else in the room and no one would box him. Finally, I looked at it from a point of view that everybody was outcasting this kid, and I don’t want that to happen. I will agree to box him just so he gets the chance to box, because everybody else was getting the chance. My observation was they didn’t want anything to do with him because of his character.”
Wahl declined to comment further on his opinion of Weir’s character, and instead referred to what defense witnesses told the judge.
“All the witnesses that testified on my behalf … stated that his reputation was that of being a manipulator, a liar, not the kind of person they wanted to hang out with,” he said.
Despite the not guilty verdict, he knows his character has taken a blow in the court of public opinion.
“Everybody made judgments about me,” Wahl said. “Mind you, I was not on contract as a football coach; I was a volunteer.”
Wahl said he wishes he could take back that final blow.
“So why did I continue?” Wahl said. “That is a great question. That was a split-second decision. It is one I wish I could go back and change. Unfortunately, my life changed over a decision I made in the heat of the moment. I can’t go back and change the past. I wish I could.”
And as for the victory pose?
“Have you ever won something?” Wahl said. “Have you ever been victorious in something? Have you ever been competing in something and you were found to be the winner? What did you do? Especially when you had about 25-30 other kids cheering at the moment. Or adults? Does it matter?”
Wahl said Jacob Weir’s earlier claim in an Empire report that no headshots were to be thrown was false.
“Every one of my witnesses said that was not … agreed to,” Wahl said. “He outweighed me by quite a bit … he was in better athletic shape than I was, and I just said take it easy on me. The whole first round he was not taking it easy on me. He was trying to show off to his teammates by getting the better of the coach. I never even tried to swing back, I just defended myself the whole first round.”
Wahl said they stopped after one round because Weir was tired. Wahl asked if he wanted a round two and said Weir agreed.
Wahle said Weir was checked for a concussion by Mahle after the match and that Weir appeared to be fine.
According to concussion experts at Boston Children’s Hospital, a concussion can cause an immediate loss of consciousness but a victim can also appear fine at first and then have symptoms develop later that include headaches, insomnia, excessive sleepiness, nausea, dizziness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and remembering, and problems with balance and coordination.
Wahl: Lack of direction to blame
Wahl said there were other circumstances surrounding his “mental state of being at that time” in relation to stress.
“My whole family has a history of mental illness,” Wahl said. “I was suffering from a mental illness at the time. It was undiagnosed bipolar.”
Wahl paused when asked if the disease led to other vices, such as alcoholism.
“Alcoholism is a coping mechanism that a lot of people with bipolar tend to use as a self-medication treatment,” he said, “because they don’t want to have to deal with the stigma of getting it diagnosed with a psychiatrist and getting on medication for fear of losing their career or their job.”
Wahl said he was drinking to self-medicate but not at the time of the boxing match except for a beer with the coaches the night before.
According to court records, Wahl was arrested for drunken driving April 28, 2013. He said that happened during a difficult time in his marriage.
Wahl said the lack of direction from Byouer is partially to blame.
“Expectations were, who knows what?” Wahl said. He said the varsity coaches told him, “‘Well, there are your (junior varsity players) over there, go deal with them.’ I have never been put in a situation where it was set up to fail before. I just thought they were disorganized and did not have their act together. I don’t have any ill will toward the former head coach, but I was not impressed with his organizational skills or his ability to plan out things. You have an unstructured day with the kids just doing whatever they want to do and I knew, as a teacher, that is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, I was the one that was caught in the middle of the disaster.”
Wahl also said that Byouer did not pass on any information given to him by the camp about rules of horseplay or what was and wasn’t allowed.
“When I saw the boxing happening and he (Byouer) was not objecting, I thought ‘Well, I have never coached high school football before, so if he is okay with it then I am okay with it,’” Wahl said.
Wahl said during the year he faced felony assault charges he was viewed as unemployable and “couldn’t even get hired at Walmart.”
Getting life back on track
Wahl stated his next step was to get his career back.
“Seeing as how I am probably going to still be guilty in public opinion, it is going to be hard,” Wahl said. “Fortunately I do have people who believe in me and trust me. Everybody makes mistakes. While I agree that this was not a criminal mistake, it was definitely an ethical mistake. It was a mistake that I wish I could go back and change.”
Wahl said he doesn’t know how to contact Jacob Weir’s family but hopes they’ll read his apology.
“I am sorry they blame me for all their son’s troubles,” he said. “I don’t think I was the sole cause. It was an unfortunate event that has caused some division in the community. It has been an issue that has raised some people’s emotions. If the trial had been in Juneau, there would have been no way I would do a jury trial because I doubt anybody would have been fair and impartial. The facts still would have been the same, which is why I chose a bench trial. The judge had to rule on the point of law.”
With the case over, he’s now visiting family in California and trying to “get on with my life.”
“I apologize to the community for the perception that I am some evil coach or monster,” he said. “I am pretty sure there will be people who will not forgive me no matter what. I feel sorry for them. My conscience is clear between the state of Oregon and the higher power I serve. I am ready to move on.”