- Paris Flash
- Real Estate
By JAMES DRAPER
Kilgore News Herald
KILGORE, Texas — Navarro College officials’ recounting of the Feb. 23 post-game pepper spraying of their basketball players by Kilgore College police officers differs on multiple, major points with KC’s description of the incident.
Spokesmen for both schools agree it was a good game with few on-court incidents between the players. They agree the fans were unruly, to varying degrees, during and after the match. They agree that a student blowing a whistle set off an escalation of tensions in Masters Gymnasium that Saturday night.
What happened next – what led two Kilgore College Police Department officers to pepper spray Navarro players off-court – depends on who’s recalling the night.
Both Navarro College athletic director Roark Montgomery and Kilgore College spokesman Chris Craddock witnessed much of the incident.
Montgomery maintains the aggressive attitude and actions of one Kilgore College Police Department officer set off the Navarro players, and he ultimately began spraying them to quell the situation.
“In my estimation, he instigated about 90 percent of this, drove it to the point that it got,” Montgomery said. “I think he made it a much more volatile situation.”
According to Craddock, citing Kilgore College’s official release on the event, Navarro College’s players left their locker room multiple times, repeatedly ignored the two officers’ warnings and verbally and physically threatened them, necessitating the pepper spray.
“Both of them felt that was the only way to control the situation at that split second to avoid a riot,” Craddock recalled.
Navarro College President Dr. Richard Sanchez awaits the results of the follow-up investigation of KCPD chief Martin Pessink and said he anticipates it will ultimately exonerate the Navarro team.
“I have every confidence that Dr. Holda (Kilgore College president Bill Holda) will conduct an impartial evaluation,” Sanchez said. “I continue to believe that the Navarro College players did not act inappropriately.”
According to Montgomery, it was a well-played game, a hard-fought game with a lot hanging in the balance but few altercations between players. It ended 88-78 in the KC Rangers’ favor, and the teams shook hands – without incident – and left for their locker rooms.
“When the game was over the Kilgore players and fans were celebrating in the middle of the court, like anybody would have done with a game of that magnitude. It appeared to me that some of the fans, students, whatever they were… kind of approached our bench area,” mostly mouthing off but not involving any players, Montgomery said.
“There was kind of some pushing and shoving behind the scorer’s table, behind the bench, probably between some of our fans and some of Kilgore’s fans,” Montgomery continued.
According to Montgomery, most of his players appeared to him to be in the locker room at that time and most of Navarro College’s 25 fans, the majority of them female, were heading to their bus when the team’s student filmer began blowing a whistle.
“He began blowing this whistle because he probably felt there was a disturbance or whatever” between fans, Montgomery explained. “At that point is when some of our players started coming back out of our locker room door.”
As he and another coach attempted to deal with the fans’ dispute and to stop the whistle-blowing, Montgomery says he saw KCPD Officer Charles Horton responding to the Navarro players’ return to the court and was reminded of the Nov. 3 football playoff post-game between the two schools.
“After (that) game there was the beginning of an altercation. There was this one policeman in particular I thought being very threatening. This was the same officer. I recognized him immediately,” he contended.
After the basketball game, “I felt like this policeman was a little aggressive in going toward our doorway,” Montgomery said. “He had his baton, one of those collapsible batons out. He said to me twice he was not going to allow to happen what happened at football.”
At one point, Montgomery says, Horton threatened to arrest him in the corridor outside the visitors’ locker room.
“I guess because I was in the corridor and he didn’t think I should be or something. I kept telling him, ‘I’m trying to get our players back,’” Montgomery argued. “It was an extreme amount of people in a very congested area. As you know, basketball players are pretty large young men.”
Not witnessing the entire escalation, after conferring with three Navarro coaches who submitted statements about the incident, Montgomery accepts there probably was some mouthing off by the students.
However, “I didn’t feel like our students responded at all until the officer was being threatening toward them and had begun to spray. That was when there was a lot of talk going back and forth… What they were saying to me after the game is they couldn’t figure out why they were sprayed.”
According to Montgomery, he was a few feet behind Horton when the officer, standing almost in the entrance of the locker room, began spraying.
“To the best of my knowledge I want to say there were two three or four (players) either right in the entrance or trying to come out.”
There were a number of other people in the tight corridor, Montgomery said, including the wife of one of Navarro College’s coaches and their four-week-old son.
KCPD Lt. Tony Means was also present, Montgomery added, trying to calm the situation until he too used the pepper spray.
“(Horton) hit several of our players in the face. I myself got some in the throat. At that point, I think he took a situation that was bad and almost turned it into a full scale riot,” Montgomery said.
“For a person who should be in control I felt he was very much the opposite of that, he was not in control, he was not a calming presence, that he was extremely aggressive, that he had an agenda against Navarro College,” Montgomery said.
The incident almost turned into a full-scale fight, he added, but the pepper spray did, in fact, neutralize the situation.
“Obviously, if you catch that stuff full in the face it will deter you from doing anything else, which is what it’s designed to do. Pretty much after that, everything seemed to calm down… Our players, the ones that were hit directly, were all coughing, sputtering, a couple of them had asthma, they were having trouble breathing.”
KC managers used a soothing foam to treat the burning sensation on the Navarro players’ skin, Montgomery confirmed. Understanding it would go away in time, he and the team’s coaching staff opted against taking the players to the emergency room and left soon after.
“That’s pretty much as I remember, what I feel I went through,” he said. “It was a situation I thought could have been handled differently.”
But for one detail, Craddock maintains Kilgore College’s initial account of the incident while awaiting the results of Pessink’s investigation.
“All I can go by is what my two police officers told me and what I saw for myself,” Craddock said. “We’re trying to be as transparent as possible. That’s why we posted all the video we have of the outcome of the game on YouTube, for anyone to look at.”
Upon further review of that post-game video (the only one that’s turned up so far), contrary to the initial report it does appear one Kilgore College fan did approach the opposing team’s bench, Craddock said, but he was escorted away by an assistant coach.
Other points – that some Navarro players left the locker room multiple times, that players ignored officers’ commands and threatened them – have not changed.
Key, he added, is that the pepper spraying actually happened in the hallway because the players would not return to their locker room, despite being warned.
According to Horton and Means, “Both (officers) have said that the players were showing aggression, not only with their actions but with what they were saying,” Craddock said. “They felt threatened. At that second, that’s what they did to avoid something bigger happening.”
Attempting to collect statements from as many of those involved as possible, Pessink is taking the situation very seriously, Craddock noted.
“He’s not rushing to any kind of quick judgment. Basically, he’s just trying to make sure the outcome is fair.”
There are many games ahead between the schools, already on the schedule. Montgomery expects they’ll be business as usual.
“We didn’t go over there thinking anything but that it was going to be a good basketball game, which it indeed was. It was an unfortunate incident,” Montgomery said. He doesn’t anticipate any residual effects between the schools or their teams.
“I don’t think it’s something like that, that will carry over,” he said.