Local News

May 23, 2014

Attorney: Client was only a witness to rape

Officials say no one ruled out as a suspect

— Rhett Harper graduates today as valedictorian of Southeast Whitfield High School with a scholarship in hand to play baseball at Georgia State University.

But for the past two weeks, a cloud has hung over him.

That cloud, said his attorney Sam Sanders with McCamy Law Firm in Dalton, stems from an alcohol-fueled post-prom party at an Ellijay cabin on May 10 where a woman reported she was raped by “multiple guys.” Sanders said rumors have swirled, both in the community and on the Internet, that Harper is a suspect in the attack.

Sanders told The Daily Citizen Friday the lead detective in the investigation, Kirk Champion of the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office, told Sanders on Thursday that Harper is not a suspect in the rape, but only a witness to the attack. When contacted by The Daily Citizen, Champion declined to comment. Capt. Frank Copeland, spokesman for the Gilmer County Sheriff’s Office, said, “We have not ruled anyone really out as a suspect. We have cleared and exonerated no one in regards to this case yet.”

“Whenever you talk to somebody sometimes and you tell them, ‘Hey, as long as you have been honest with us and truthful and everything, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a problem here,’” Copeland said. “That is not the same thing as saying, ‘You are completely cleared and exonerated of everything in this case.’”

After The Daily Citizen spoke to Champion and Copeland, a reporter called Sanders back to tell him the sheriff’s office had not ruled Harper out as a suspect.

“I called and asked for specific permission to go public with the fact that he’s not a suspect before I made any public proclamation,” Sanders said. “They gave me permission to do that. This is not me shooting from the hip. They told me yesterday (Thursday) he was just a witness, they told me at the very beginning of our conversation that he was just a witness, they told me when we left he was just a witness, they told his parents he was just a witness.”

The incident at 20 Edgewater Drive in Coosawattee River Resort earlier this month involved older teenagers from Calhoun High School who traveled there after their high school prom, bringing alcohol. The female victim told a Calhoun Police Department officer the afternoon of May 11 she had been raped by “multiple guys” earlier that morning at the cabin, according to an incident report obtained by The Daily Citizen. The girl did not say who raped her, saying only that at about 2 a.m. she was “passed out” in an upstairs bathroom at the cabin.

The report lists 16 Calhoun High students and Harper. Three Calhoun High students and Harper are listed as suspects in the felony rape investigation. Sanders said Harper was at the party, but “did not participate in any sexual assault whatsoever.”

Mid-Friday afternoon, Sanders posted to his personal Facebook page a seven-paragraph statement claiming his client was not a suspect in the rape. Sanders asked his Facebook friends to “Please like and share” the post. Sanders also contacted the media to try to clear his client’s name, adding that Harper’s parents gave the OK to release his name.

“He’s got a full scholarship, the valedictorian, just won the math and science award from Rotary, he’s MVP of the baseball team, I mean an all-American kid,” Sanders said. “He was nothing more than a witness.”

No arrests have been made. Gilmer County Sheriff Stacy Nicholson said earlier this week that charges could range from the sexual assault to “numerous people” lying to investigators to underage alcohol consumption.

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