BOZEMAN, Mont. — Bail was set for the grandparents and uncle of a 12-year-old boy who was allegedly tortured and beat to death near West Yellowstone.
James Sasser Jr., James Sasser III, a juvenile, and Patricia Batts are each charged with felony deliberate homicide for the death of 12-year-old James Alex Hurley. Sasser Jr. and Batts appeared with attorney Ryan Peabody in Gallatin County Justice Court.
Bail was set at $500,000 for Sasser Jr. and $750,000 for Batts.
Sasser III was seen in Gallatin County District Court on Wednesday before Judge John Brown. He is being held at the Yellowstone Youth Services Center in Billings on $500,000 bail.
On Feb. 3, a Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputy responded to a report of Hurley’s death at a home on Buffalo Drive in West Yellowstone. The deputy found that the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death were suspicious and requested the sheriff’s detective division help in the investigation.
Police said in charging documents that the boy had multiple wounds and contusions all over his body. Hurley also had a large gash on the back of his head and other wounds on his back that police said would be difficult for someone to inflict on themselves.
A doctor who performed Hurley’s autopsy said in a preliminary report that Hurley died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head. The doctor said he wanted to wait on a toxicology report to give a final opinion.
Sasser Jr., Batts and Sasser III told detectives that Hurley lived with them for two years after his father died and that his behavior had become problematic during that time, court documents say. The three told detectives that Hurley complained of hearing voices telling him to kill various people and that he tried harming himself and others multiple times.
The family told detectives that Sasser III made a paddle out of wood with a blue-tapped handle, and that Sasser III hit Hurley with it multiple times, court documents say. Batts told detectives she would also use the paddle to punish Hurley.
Sasser III told a detective that he tackled and punched Hurley several times for standing over Batts with a knife, court documents say. The detective noted that Sasser III is about 6 feet tall and 300 pounds. Hurley was about 5 feet, 3 inches tall and about 100 pounds.
Sasser III told detectives that he had multiple fights with Hurley, but denied ever hitting him in the back of the head with the paddle, court documents say. Sasser III said he and Hurley last fought on Feb. 1, but that Jan. 27 “was worse.” Sasser III told detectives he beat Hurley “pretty good” after he found Hurley standing over Batts with a knife.
Batts told detectives that the Jan. 27 fight was a “blood bath” and that Sasser III had punched Hurley in the face. However, she denied that Sasser III used the paddle at that time.
Hurley’s mother, who lives in Texas, told detectives that she tried calling Hurley numerous times but those attempts were blocked by Batts.
Detectives were unable to find any record of the family reporting Hurley’s behavior to law enforcement or any attempts to get Hurley medical or psychiatric help.
A few days later, detectives searched Sasser Jr.'s, Sasser III's and Batts’ phones and found videos that showed the family torturing Hurley, according to charging documents. During a search of the home, police said they found food in the house was locked away from Hurley.
In court on Thursday, prosecutor Bjorn Boyer said defendants admitted in interviews that they exaggerated mental health issues of the victim.
“I believe the systematic torture and beatings perpetrated on the victim in this case led to his death,” Boyer said.
He said Sasser III admitted to kicking Hurley’s head multiple times 24 to 36 hours prior to his death.
“The defendant was involved in doing concussion tests on the victim thereafter, but nobody sought medical attention for the victim,” Boyer said.
Boyer requested a higher bail for Batts because he said he believes Batts is more culpable in this case.
“She's on a lot of the videos that show the torture to this young boy,” he said. “She's in the videos seen strangling the boy, seen hitting the boy.”