Marshall University running back Steward Butler turned himself in to authorities Wednesday after police issued a warrant for his arrest for allegedly assaulting two gay men on April 5, Huntington police Chief Joseph Ciccarelli told BuzzFeed News. Butler has been charged with two counts of battery.
Officials at the West Virginia school dismissed Butler from the team on Wednesday, after the university issued a statement that said the criminal allegations against Butler described “violent, bigoted behavior.”
Law enforcement officials are now investigating federal hate crime charges, Ciccarelli said in a phone interview. “The FBI has been contacted and they are conducting an investigation,” said Ciccarelli, an FBI agent for 30 years before assuming his current position.
The incident occurred in the early hours of April 5, when Casey Williams, 20, and Zack Johnson, 21, were walking home from a nightclub in Huntington to their hotel.
Williams had just given Johnson a kiss at a downtown intersection when a red
Chevy Cobalt pulled up beside them. The couple said that’s when Butler, sitting
in the passenger seat with an open window, began yelling anti-gay slurs.
“He called us faggots, queers, you name it,” Williams said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “We were trying to ignore him, but he jumped out of the car and came running up to us.”
Then two more men got out of the car.
The couple, who was visiting from a small West Virginia city where they lived, said Butler and the other men were complete strangers.
“You can imagine, two people against three, so what do you do?” Johnson recalled.
When he realized something was about to happen, Johnson said he began taking photos and video.
"[Butler] was running toward us as we were backing away," he said.
Williams said at that point, “Butler punched [Johnson] in the ear and the temple area. He was hitting to cause damage. It was one strike with a closed
fist. Then he punched me in the head. It was on the face, in the cheek.”
The men then drove away. The couple, afraid to stay out on the street, returned to their hotel before calling police.
“It was frightening, of course,” Williams said. “What was going to happen? We were downtown in the city in the middle of the night. People are yelling that we’re gay. If they will hit you for being gay, are they also going to stab you for being gay?”
Williams added that it was "definitely a hate crime," a position that law enforcement may agree with.
The couple has since turned video footage they took that night over to detectives.
“On the face of the facts,” Ciccarelli said, “it appears to be a potential federal violation” of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The 2009 law gives federal officials leeway to investigate and prosecute certain violent acts motivated by animus toward a victim's sexual orientation.
Asked if police believe Butler acted because the couple was gay, Ciccarelli said it "appears to be the case."
"Those are the allegations that are set forth in criminal complaint," he said.
Butler appeared in court Wednesday for an arraignment and was released on a $10,000 personal recognizance bond, staff at the Cabell County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office told BuzzFeed News.
Butler’s lawyer, Rich Weston, did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment about the allegations against his client.
In a statement, interim Marshall University President Gary G. White said the school's community was "shocked and disappointed" after learning about the allegations against Butler.
"The type of violent, bigoted behavior reported to have been perpetrated by this student is not tolerated at Marshall University. Period. This is an extremely serious matter,” White said.
A spokesperson for Marshall University told BuzzFeed News by email later Wednesday that Butler had been expelled from the team.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, said in a statement: “We hope that this reprehensible behavior can ultimately lead to greater education, understanding and acceptance of LGBT people. By nature, hate crimes target innocent victims simply because of the color of their skin, their religious views, or in this case, the sex of the person they love. Hate-based violence fosters anxiety and mistrust and ultimately brings fear to whole neighborhoods, communities and towns.”
Ciccarelli, meanwhile, called for victims of anti-gay crimes to seek help.
“I would suspect that a lot of incidents of this sort of crime go underreported,” said Ciccarelli. “With this prosecution, I hope that the message goes out that we will vigorously pursue them, and that someone who is victimized in that way should come forward to the police department and let us do our job.”
Williams said he hopes the attack encourages lawmakers to expand West Virginia’s hate crime statute, which currently applies only to certain groups — including people targeted for their race or national origin — but not gay people targeted for their sexual orientation.
"If we were straight, he would not have punched us that night,” Williams said. “That right there is a hate crime."
“I don’t think there should be special permission granted to gay people,” Williams added, ”but there should be proper protections for gay people, the same way there are for people based on race or national origin.”
Williams said he also hopes Butler goes to jail.
“Maybe if justice is served for us, maybe the next person will think about reporting a crime happening to them too," he said.