A few miles outside of town, a faded yellow sign hangs from white fence posts. Against a rustic backdrop, it flutters and declares, “JUSTICE FOR JACOB,” reminding the town that one of its own is locked away.
The words are printed next to a sketch of a feathered wing — the same symbol tattooed on the chest of 22-year-old Jacob Ewing.
When Ewing was on trial two months ago, facing life in prison for the alleged aggravated criminal sodomy of a 13-year-old girl, it divided the town. After a tense trial, he was acquitted, but harmony has not returned to Holton.
Ewing — a former state champion football player, wrestler and, after high school, mixed martial arts fighter with a compact build — faces trial again beginning Monday for more alleged sex crimes.
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This time, he’s accused of the rape and aggravated criminal sodomy of two women, 18 and 21 at the time of the alleged offenses. The alleged crimes occurred in Ewing’s home on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And there are more alleged victims. The state of Kansas has also charged Ewing with the rape of two other women and the attempted rape of another, trials for which are scheduled in August and October. Last month, more charges were filed against Ewing: 13 counts of sexual exploitation of a child for possession of child porn.
It’s rare that a small town of about 3,000 must endure the acrimony and division surrounding sexual assault trials so many times.
“It’s put such a stain on our community,” said Ewing’s grandmother, Julie Hawthorne. Holton “is quaint. The people are so nice. Then you’ve got this. The news portrays anybody who supports Jacob or us as being these hicks. ... We’re not these backward people.”
On Facebook, Hawthorne adamantly defends her grandson.
Meanwhile, the mother of one of the alleged victims, who won’t be named under The Star’s policy to not identify alleged sexual assault victims or their immediate family members, has endured her own version of hell.
“My daughter says that now people look at her either one of two ways,” she said. “Either, ‘There is that poor girl that got raped,’ or, ‘There is the whore on a witch hunt.’ ”
Vitriol is easily found online. Some have called for imprisoning what they deem to be the lying, opportunistic women. In September, they threatened to protest Ewing’s arrest at the courthouse on the Holton square. In addition to the signs, mugs and T-shirts were made, the latter adorned with the feathered wing next to the words: “Ewing protector.”
Lisa Hyten, the victim services coordinator with the Jackson County, Kan., Sheriff’s Office, couldn’t comment directly about the case. She did say she feels that, in general, those living in the area are fair-minded.
But she’s discouraged by the heightened confrontation surrounding these cases.
“In my more than 10 years in the victims service field, I have never experienced this level of personal hostility from a defendant’s family,” Hyten said.
Michelle McCormick, an advocate for victims of sexual violence with the Young Women’s Christian Association in Topeka, said the backlash could discourage future victims from coming forward.
“We’ve been very concerned about the impact of the divisiveness in the community,” she said.
“ ‘No’ means ‘try harder’ ”
The alleged victim’s mother wonders if the stature of the Ewing family could sway a jury. Ewing’s grandparents have owned Holton Farm & Home, a farm equipment supplier, since 1978.
“The family I’m sure are good people,” the mother said. “Our fight is not with them, but with the person responsible for the charges he’s been accused of.”
The community splintered long before the first trial. A Facebook group named Free Jacob Ewing wrote, “The allegations on him are absurd.”
One of the alleged victims wrote a response on Facebook.
“People have said that it is odd that none of us victims came forward sooner,” she wrote. “Let me tell you what, THIS is why rape victims fear to come forward when something tragic happens to them. People are vicious and cruel.”
Now, before Monday’s trial, the mother fears the ridicule and scrutiny her daughter may face, in the courtroom and outside it.
“I find it outrageous that people would think that all of these girls and their families would make up a lie about a guy that most of us had never even met,” the mother said, “and continue to lie for this long and have to deal with all the stress and embarrassment and victim shaming if it were not true.”
While some support the alleged victims, their presence seems muted online next to the Justice for Jacob group. In the town’s neighborhoods, signs supporting the alleged victims aren’t easily found. Many refused to offer comments to The Star.
Impassioned support of accused rapists is not uncommon. Many supported Bill Cosby during his recent trial.
The Kobe Bryant rape case in Colorado mobilized a defense of the former NBA star as enthusiastic as those supporting the alleged victim. The woman’s character, mental state and sexual history were closely scrutinized.
Anne Munch was one of the prosecutors assigned to the Bryant case. She told The Star that a marked drop in reports of rape in the area resulted from it, with victim shaming likely to blame.
Men, Munch said, are inundated by the idea “that ‘no’ doesn’t really mean ‘no’; ‘no’ means ‘try harder.’ ”
Munch said a deep-rooted fear of the crime breeds victim blaming from those most likely to experience it: women.
“When you hear about a victim who was raped, some women will question the victim’s conduct: ‘What did she do wrong? Did she drink? What did she wear? Did she agree to be alone with him?’ ” Munch said. “They start looking for one of the things they believe in their mind could protect them as long as they don’t do it.”
In next week’s trial, the alleged victim’s mother hopes her daughter is heard by impartial jurors — with open, unbiased minds.
“We have to keep the faith that people will put their personal feelings aside and make a decision based on the evidence,” she said, “and not based on ... the fact that he was a football and wrestling star.”
“Wait for the jury to decide”
In the office of Ewing’s mother at Holton Farm & Home, one of the first things she recounted to The Star was her son’s illustrious athletic career.
Taped below her computer screen was a note from her son from jail. “Hey momma ... just wanted to say I miss + love you.” An array of photos adorn the wall behind her computer, many showing a younger Jacob Ewing.
“I raised him,” said Ewing’s mother, Wendy Ewing. “I think because of that he’s had more respect for women. He holds doors for women. He never leaves without saying ‘I love you’ first. I just — it’s just difficult. It’s totally opposite of what we know of.
“I will go to my grave not believing any of this.”
After high school, Jacob Ewing was employed as a security guard at a juvenile detention center in Topeka and, later, in maintenance at a Holton food manufacturer. One of the alleged rapes occurred during a party for Ewing’s brother, who had been accepted into the military.
Ewing pleaded guilty in May 2016 to driving under the influence, according to court documents. In next week’s trial, he also faces charges of furnishing alcohol to a minor, battery and possession of hallucinogenic drugs.
Online, Ewing has written that he’s had sex with too many women to count, and that if a “Bitch doesn’t respect herself then Damn straight ill have sex with them and leave.”
His grandmother Hawthorne said when the charges were filed against Ewing, some wanted to “shoot him and castrate him.”
But she called for considering her grandson innocent until proven guilty.
“Wait for the jury to decide before you condemn this boy,” she said.
Wendy Ewing spoke at length of her son’s good deeds. He often volunteered, donated money to the destitute and once offered a bedroom to a transient classmate.
As she spoke, the computer screen behind her displayed an image of her and Ewing, his arm around his mother.
Ahead of the trial, Wendy Ewing and the alleged victim’s mother have the same hope: that the truth is exposed.
The alleged victim’s mother knows some in the community won’t believe her daughter. But she takes solace in her daughter’s resolve.
“I thank God every day that I raised such a strong girl who will trade her peace of mind and self worth to save another girl from going through the hell she has been through,” she said. “And I will be right beside her all the way.”