HESPERIA — As a school district police officer here, Mayor Bill Holland fell under his boss' scrutiny for purportedly destroying evidence while leading the investigation into claims that an Oak Hills High School freshman football player had been subjected to sexual hazing, the Daily Press has learned.
The call for a probe into Holland's alleged misconduct was prompted by Michael Graham, who in 2013 had been the police chief at Hesperia Unified School District. Graham retired last year after mending a publicly contentious relationship with the district. He won a wrongful termination suit in March 2013 after he sought to expose financial misconduct.
In a court ruling Oct. 6 that denied attorneys for 17-year-old Josh Villegas their second request to take the testimony of HUSD Superintendent David McLaughlin, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Gilbert Ochoa laid out the reason why McLaughlin and other top administrators were protected from a deposition: Nothing showed they had directed the investigation into Villegas' claims three years earlier, which would be necessary to compel them to testify.
But Ochoa's explanation also revealed a bombshell.
"The evidence merely shows McLaughlin and his office (were) apprised of the status of the investigation," minutes from last month's hearing read, "and of Graham's decision to investigate Holland for destruction of evidence."
It's unclear what, if any, result came of it. Messages left for Graham were not returned.
The inspection of Holland wasn't criminal in nature, according to Ray Dolen, a Riverside-based attorney who is representing the school district in the 2014 lawsuit filed by Villegas' mother. He returned a message left for Holland and spoke on his behalf although the mayor isn't a named defendant in the case. Dolen insisted that the investigation of Holland, in fact, had stalled before it ever began and ultimately led nowhere.
"No investigation was completed, an investigation was contemplated," Dolen said, emphasizing the distinction. "It was not criminal in any fashion. The potential for an investigation never developed. It was not conducted; that's why there was no result or anything."
After Graham expressed his suspicions, yet before the lawsuit against the school district and Oak Hills High was filed in summer 2014, Holland voluntarily resigned from HUSD. Dolen said he believed the timing to be "more coincidence than anything else."
Attorney Skye Daley, with Irvine-based Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, which is representing Villegas, said the defendants' legal team had requested the former district top cop's August deposition be sealed, a potential hint Graham's testimony may have elaborated on the scrutiny of Holland. Daley added that Holland and the district "have been anything but transparent" and that the revelation embedded in the October court order "sheds light on an issue the defendants have worked to keep secret."
As of right now, the document that details Graham's testimony remains heavily redacted in public court records.
"Given that this is a matter of public concern, we believe the sworn testimony ... should be unsealed and made available to the public," Daley said in a statement to the Daily Press, "so that they may judge for themselves whether William Holland is the honest law enforcement officer he has portrayed himself to be, or whether the young student at the center of this case is the victim of a cover-up."
David Olney, an assistant superintendent with HUSD, said the district could not comment on personnel matters for confidentiality reasons and that it also has "been advised by legal counsel not to discuss matters related to a pending trial."
Villegas, who offered his identity and story to ESPN for a program that aired in September, contends that coaches and others at Oak Hills High created an environment in which systemic abuse by older football players against younger ones was nurtured and where sexual hazing rituals were commonplace.
Having since moved out of the region with family, Villegas said he had regularly been touched inappropriately, including being held down in the locker room while older players stuck their fingers in his rectum. Holland was also interviewed for ESPN's "Outside the Lines" piece, defending the brevity of his two-day investigation that fizzled after it couldn't produce further leads or identify suspects. He called it "insulting" to suggest his role as a former volunteer football coach at Oak Hills High constituted a conflict of interest.
Attorneys for the defendants have adamantly denied a culture of abuse and the school district has described the claims raised by the plaintiff as "deeply concerning." Shortly before the ESPN episode aired, Olney said, "we trust that the process will shed light on what truly happened and ask the community to hold judgment until that time."
On Thursday, Daley traveled to the Victor Valley to take the testimony of the plaintiff in a second lawsuit filed in late September. Now 18, he claims he was subjected daily to similar hazing during the 2012-13 football season, a year before Villegas played. Daley said the plaintiff is expected to be a key witness in Villegas' trial, which is slated to begin next month.
Shea Johnson can be reached at 760-955-5368 or SJohnson@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.