BOZEMAN — The teenage uncle of a boy killed in West Yellowstone in early February 2020 has accepted a plea deal in District Court Thursday afternoon.
James Sasser III, 15, was charged with deliberate homicide in the death of 12-year-old James Alexander Hurley, on or about February 3, 2020, at his grandparent's home on Buffalo Drive in West Yellowstone.
According to the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office, Sasser will not be charged as an adult. Sasser III reportedly admitted to causing the injuries that likely led to Hurley's death before Judge John Brown.
Judge Brown sentenced Sasser III on the spot, sentencing him to stay in juvenile detention until he reaches the age of 18. Following that punishment, he will then be required to be on probation until he is 21 years old. According to officials, Sasser III will NOT be on the violent offender registry list. He must also remain in mental health counseling during the entire period of detainment, paying a $500 restitution fine to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
Also charged in connection to Hurley’s death are his grandmother Patricia Batts, grandfather, James Sasser Jr., his aunt Madison Sasser, and one of Sasser III’s friends, Gage Roush.
According to charging documents, On Feb. 3, 2020, a Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputy was dispatched to a home on Buffalo Drive in West Yellowstone for the unattended death of a 12-year-old child.
The deputy found the circumstances surrounding the death suspicious and he requested assistance from the detective division after he observed the boy had multiple wounds and contusions all over his body.
Further investigation found that Hurley was living with his grandparents, his 18-year-old aunt, and his 6 and 14-year-old uncles.
Hurley’s grandmother, Patricia Batts, told investigators that the boy had been living with them for 2 years after being sent to Montana by his mother to live with his father while his mother continued to live in Texas. The boy’s father died approximately 2 years prior and that was the reason the boy was living with them.
Batts said she had three biological children with James Sasser Jr., including Madison Sasser, 18, and James Sasser, III, and another boy 6.
When the victim’s mother was contacted by a detective, she said she had made numerous attempts to contact the boy by telephone but was systematically blocked by Batts.
Batts reportedly told investigators the boy’s behavior had become “increasingly problematic” after the boy’s dad passed away, including drinking alcohol and stealing items from the family and stores.
The grandmother, Sasser, and the older uncle all stated the boy complained of hearing voices and had been observed self-harming himself multiple times, causing injuries to himself. The trio also stated the boy was suicidal.
James Sasser III stated that sometime during the last week of January 2020, the victim ran into the corner of the entertainment center, causing an injury to his head and having a gash that bled greatly. Batts, Sasser and the uncle stated that due to the boy’s “erratic” behavior, they had to constantly watch his every move, including someone staying up at night to make sure he was not going to harm himself or someone else.
The trio stated that on or about Jan. 27, 2020 James Sasser III woke up during the night and saw Hurley standing over Batts with a knife, so he tackled the boy and punched him several times on his body and in the head. The detective noted in court documents that the boy was approximately 103 lbs and 5’3, while James Sasser III was approximately 300 lbs and 6’ tall.
The detective also was not able to locate any record of the family reporting the claimed behavior to law enforcement or the family attempting to get medical or psychiatric help for Hurley.
Batts, Sasser Jr., Madison Sasser and Sasser III all reportedly told detectives there were multiple instances of physical violence by Sasser III against the victim. Sasser III also stated he made a paddle out of wood with a blue-taped handle and would hit the boy multiple times with it, mostly on the buttocks, but sometimes other places. A photo of the paddle was located on the grandmother’s phone during a later search.
Hurley’s body had injuries to his buttocks consistent with what could be inflicted by a paddle, detectives observed. They also observed multiple other injuries in multiple locations all over his body with severe bruising, that they believed were not consistent with self-inflicted injuries.
On Feb. 4, 2020 Hurley’s body was transported to Missoula for an autopsy at the Montana State Crime Lab. The examiner preliminary told a detective that Hurley died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head.
During a search of Batts’ house, detectives observed an indentation in the wall consistent with a head being hit into the wall with a trace amount of blood near the indentation. Later, during a more thorough search, detectives located forensic evidence that very large amounts of blood had been previously cleaned from the floor and various other surfaces. During interviews, each member of the family denied a large amount of blood ever existing within the house.
Sasser III was interviewed by detectives and said multiple altercations took place between him and the boy, the last one occurring on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020 around mid-day. He denied hitting the boy in the head with the paddle and that they had a fight on Jan. 27, 2020 that was even worse.
Madison Sasser told a detective that she watched the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, with friends in West Yellowstone and everyone was asleep when she arrived home that evening. She reported that Hurley was asleep on the floor of the living room and the grandmother was asleep on the couch. She told the detective that, to her knowledge, no altercations occurred after she arrived home, but also said she had texted friends that she believed her brother had killed Hurley.
Sasser Jr. reported that he had been sleeping during the Super Bowl, but stated that his son and Hurley had gotten into an altercation. He reported that he awoke on the morning of Monday, Feb. 3, and was on his way to work when he learned from Batts of the boy’s death.
Batts told detectives she was also sleeping during parts of the Super Bowl but awoke to the uncle and Hurley having an altercation, with the 14-year-old striking the boy with the paddle. She denied that Hurley was hit in the head with the paddle. The grandmother minimized the fight during the Super Bowl, saying the pair had a significant fight on Jan. 27, 2020 where James Sasser III had beat Hurley, stating the fight was a “bad fight” and it was a “blood bath.”
She reported that the boy slept on the floor of the living room the night of Feb. 2 and was mumbling and “moaning” throughout the night. She reported finding Hurley’s body on the morning of Feb. 3, 2020 and that he was deceased. She reportedly called 911 upon finding the body.
Cell phones belonging to Batts, Sasser Jr. Madison Sasser and James Sasser III were seized by detectives.
In reviewing the various phones, detectives found videos of what appeared to be the family torturing Hurley, including:
- On Dec. 12, 2019, a video on Batts’ phone shows the boy doing forced jumping jacks while holding his buttocks area, crying and saying he has to go to the bathroom. Batts reportedly can be heard in the video mocking him.
- On Jan. 10, 2020, a video on Batts’ phone shows the boy standing near the garage door, bent over holding his head in his hands, rocking back and forth saying “no” and moaning. Another video, time-stamped 2 minutes later, shows the boy crying and saying, “Ow, it hurts so bad.”
- Several videos show the boy being forced to sit against the wall or door to the garage in a squat position
- Several other videos show the boy being forced to do jumping jacks as punishment.
- On Jan. 10, 2020, a video on the phone of James Sasser III shows the boy sitting against the door to the garage, crying: “I f###ing hate this.” A larger male can be seen in the video hitting the boy with a piece of wood. The boy is heard screaming about committing suicide.
- On Jan. 17, 2020 a video on Batts’ phone shows the boy has cuts on his face and wrist.
- On Jan. 23, 2020 a video on Batts’ phone shows the boy against the front wall of the house, pinned between the wall and the couch with his arms in the air above his head. He reportedly does not have a shirt on and has red marks and injuries to his shoulder. The boy can reportedly be seen starting to fall asleep, resting his head against the window trim. Batts can be heard saying “Wake up! Get your f###ing head off there!” In another video, Batts can be heard telling the boy to keep his hands apart and open in the air. Hurley is crying and visibly shaking, saying that he hurts and his head hurts. Batts can be heard reportedly saying, “Who cares.”
- On Jan. 27, 2020 a video on Batts’ phone shows the boy only wearing underwear, being forced to stand in front of fans in the dining room. Throughout the video Batts is heard berating the boy, while the 6-year-old uncle is seen, acting as if it were a normal occurrence.
- Another video from Jan. 17, 2020 on James Sasser III’s phone shows Hurley standing in front of the fan in his underwear. Batts can allegedly be heard telling him, “Oh, you’re not even a human, you’re some kind of thing.”
When detectives located videos of Hurley from approximately 2 years ago, the boy appeared to be a healthy and well-fed boy. At the time of his death, detectives observed that Hurley appeared to be emaciated. Detectives also observed that a good portion of the food in the house was locked away and the boy would not have access to it.
On Jan. 17, 2020 James Sasser III texted Sasser Jr. at 8:07 a.m. “I’m gonna end up killing him today.”
On Jan. 27, 2020, James Sasser III searched for “what was the longest coma?” On Feb. 2, 2020 he searched for “what are the symptoms of brain injury?” “Concussion symptoms” and “how do you tell if someone has a concussion?”
During various interviews, detectives determined Hurley had been taken out of school in Sept. 2019. Court documents state it appears that very few people have had contact with the boy in the last several months outside the family.
Batts stated she and Sasser Jr. didn’t take Hurley to a doctor to seek medical help for any of his injuries.
Batts, Hurley’s grandmother, was charged with deliberate homicide by association, kidnapping, child endangerment and strangulation.
Investigators said in an earlier court hearing that Batts was withholding social security benefits from Hurley, keeping the boy inside, forcing him to sit against a wall or door in squat positions.
And at times, as on January 23, 2020, documents reveal a time when a video shows Batts holding Hurley against the wall by his neck and, days later, telling Hurley is “not even a human.”
On Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2020, 18-year-old Gage Roush of West Yellowstone pleaded not guilty in Gallatin County District Court to a felony charge of assault on a minor, in connection with the death of 12-year-old James Alex Hurley.
According to court documents, Roush was identified as the man seen striking Hurley with his hands and a wooden paddle in a video on the phone of James Sasser III.
Madison Sasser, 18, the aunt of Hurley was arrested in Texas in March 2020 on an out-of-state fugitive warrant.
James Sasser Jr. remains in custody at the Gallatin County Detention Center on a $500,000 bond for deliberate homicide.
Patricia Batts remains in custody at the Gallatin County Detention Center on a $750,000 bond for deliberate homicide, aggravated kidnapping, criminal child endangerment, and strangulation of a partner or family member.
Paperwork requesting the death penalty for a West Yellowstone grandmother accused of “systematically torturing” and murdering her grandson was filed by the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office on May 8, 2020.
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.
Additional reporting by Ken Spencer, David Dyas - MTN News
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