Ten years ago, Baylor and its basketball program learned the meaning of evil

By John Henry - Special to the Star-Telegram

June 22, 2013 10:21 PM

For the world’s largest Baptist university, the summer of 2003 was a period of dread, the nearby Brazos overflowing with the filth of the most vile sins of mankind.

Instead of molding ambassadors of the Christian messiah, the 168-year-old institution was seemingly devoid of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was indeed the worst possible scenario.

Before the Penn State scandal emerged some years later, there was Baylor.

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It has been 10 years since the school’s lowest moment, indeed perhaps the most notorious moment in all of college athletics to the time.

A basketball player was shot dead execution style by former teammate Carlton Dotson and left to decompose in a gravel pit for more than a month before he was found.

Even as their coach, Dave Bliss, attended the funeral of Patrick Dennehy in California in support of his slain player’s family, he was crafting a scheme to hide the fact that Dennehy had been receiving illegal payments. Bliss would induce other players to tell authorities that Dennehy had earned his tuition money as a drug dealer.

There was no dignity, in life or death; no angels, only sinners.

There were no believers, only doubters.

“Put on the whole armor of God,” Ephesians instructs, “that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The New Testament describes six dreams of Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Each communicated knowledge, instruction and warnings.

The ultimate message: Do not be afraid.

Who knows if Abar Rouse’s dream — a nightmare — was divinely inspired or merely the result of his circumstances.

But through them he developed a resolve to do what was right and to do so knowing that his career and livelihood would be in peril.

“I had a nightmare while all this was going on,” said Rouse recently, at the time in his first few months as a Baylor assistant coach. “It clarified everything for me.

“I don’t have nightmares. Here is Patrick and Carlton showing up in my dreams.”

Thou shalt not kill

During the summer of 1856, the annual Union Baptist Association was presented a report on the status of the fledgling Baylor University, then just a little more than 10 years old after its charter in 1845.

“The professors and teachers continue to command the public confidence in a very high degree, with healthy tone of moral feeling that has pervaded the entire institution,” wrote Hosea Garrett.

It was a reputation that only grew as the generations passed and was, no doubt, a big reason why Patrick Dennehy and his parents decided Baylor was the place to continue a promising career with NBA prospects.

Dennehy had transferred from New Mexico and sat out the 2002-03 season under NCAA transfer rules.

Carlton Dotson, too, had wandered a bit to start his college career. It’s a typical journey for many.

After his senior year at North Dorchester High School in Hurlock, Md., Dotson played a season at Buffalo before transferring to Paris Junior College in Texas.

The 2002-03 season marked his first at Baylor. He was a junior forward.

His experience as a junior transfer was typical, too.

Learning a new system takes time. He was at times frustrated, while averaging 4.4 points in 28 games.

“He was competitive and he played hard,” said Tommy Swanson, a former star at North Crowley who was a freshman in 2002-03 but in the same recruiting class as transfers Dotson and Dennehy.

“Just like the rest of us, he wanted the team to do well, Patrick as well. We were stacked with talent.”

Said Matt Sayman, who played at Baylor from 2000-04 and has written a book about the episode and the aftermath under new coach Scott Drew titled The Leftovers: “Patrick was an unbelievable talent, and we all saw that when he came on board he would help us. They were both great. I really enjoyed playing with Dottie.”

The Bears were stacked, returning Lawrence Roberts, Kenny Taylor and John Lucas to a team that went 14-14 in 2002-03.

In addition to Dennehy becoming eligible, junior-college transfer Harvey Thomas gave Baylor its best hopes for an NCAA Tournament berth since last making the tournament in 1988.

Dennehy and Dotson were buddies, even sharing an apartment for a time.

Trouble, though, soon ensued.

A person who was close to the program at the time and who spoke on condition of anonymity said a relative of Dotson’s had alerted a coach about the player’s mental stability. Dotson appeared delusional at times, saying he heard voices.

Soon after that, Dennehy reported that he felt threatened, said the source, though he was vague about specifics of the perceived danger.

Whatever it was, both Dennehy and Dotson bought guns out of fear for their safety.

“With every team you have different personalities,” said Swanson, who added that he never felt unsafe at Baylor. “You’re not going to click with everyone. I had a working relationship with everyone.”

On the week of June 16, 2003, Dennehy vanished.

His stepfather filed a missing person’s report with Waco police on June 19.

For the thing which I greatly feared has come upon me, and that which I was afraid of has come unto me.

“We were bewildered not knowing what happened,” Swanson said. “Teammates and I were learning everything as things were reported on the news.

“We were kept in the dark as much as everyone else was.”

Dennehy’s whereabouts were anybody’s guess.

Some teammates figured that he, like many college students, extended a weekend trip.

Allegedly there had been payments made to Dennehy’s AAU coach and some that weren’t made. Some coaches feared the AAU coach had stashed him away, literally holding him hostage until another payment was issued.

The worst fears were beginning to take root, however, when Dennehy’s 1996 Chevrolet Tahoe was found without license plates in a strip mall parking lot in Virginia Beach, Va.

The Lord will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life / the Lord will watch over your coming and going / both now and forevermore.

Searches for any sign of him proved fruitless.

A gun was found outside the apartment of Harvey Thomas, the player who allegedly made the threat against Dennehy, though police cleared Thomas of any suspicion.

“Nobody knew,” Rouse said. “I’m following the lead of the other coaches who had been there. As soon as that missing person’s report was filed by his parents, it obviously took on a greater importance. It was clear that something was amiss.”

A break in the case occurred when an informant in Delaware told law enforcement authorities that Dotson, who had returned home to Maryland, told a relative that he had shot Dennehy during an argument while the two were shooting guns.

On July 21, Dotson was arrested in Maryland and charged with Dennehy’s murder. On July 25, five weeks after he went missing, Dennehy’s body was discovered off a road in Waco.

Dennehy had been shot twice in the head, according to an autopsy report.

No motive for the murder ever has been released. Dotson told authorities initially that the killing was in self-defense.

Dotson, who said he had been hearing voices (others said he believed he was Jesus Christ), was declared incompetent to stand trial after the testimony of a psychologist.

The case would never make it to trial. Dotson agreed to plead guilty in June 2005.

He was sentenced to 35 years and sent to the Connally state prison unit in Kenedy, 60 miles southeast of San Antonio, where he sits today waiting for a possibility of parole in 2023.

Dotson declined a request to speak about the case.

Though Dennehy’s disappearance was resolved weeks later, the moral questions remained unsolved at Baylor.

Thou shalt not bear false witness

“This guy is going to get these kids to say this,” Abar Rouse said. “And this is not where this ends. There’s going to be a murder trial and they’re going to have to testify and they’re going to testify to this lie they’re telling.

“So now this becomes about drugs. They’re telling us this kid was shot twice in the head execution style and you throw drugs in there... you’ve just changed the motive for murder. And that could mean the death penalty.”

Rouse’s professional journey to assistant coach at Baylor started as a student manager for the basketball team under former coach Harry Miller in 1995.

After graduating, Rouse began an odyssey that took him to Midwestern State, Sam Houston State, Ranger Junior College, Cape Fear Community College in North Carolina, Southeastern Community College in Iowa, McLennan Community College and back to Baylor, where he was hired in June 2003 as director of basketball operations.

When a position opened after Dennehy’s disappearance, Rouse was hired, primarily “because no one wanted the job” with the cloud over the program.

It was hardly the way Rouse envisioned getting his break. He said he was so uncomfortable about the circumstances surrounding his hire that he couldn’t even sit in his new office.

Rouse’s decision to blow the whistle on Dave Bliss’ scheme to paint Dennehy as a drug dealer was motivated by doing right by the player, who could no longer speak for himself, and by doing right by himself, protecting himself legally.

There was precedent. In 1995, a federal jury convicted three Baylor assistant basketball coaches of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy for their roles in helping five junior-college recruits obtain phony academic credit. The jury acquitted Darrel Johnson, then the head coach, of similar charges.

In the front of Rouse’s mind was being held criminally liable of obstructing justice in the murder case as well as protecting Dennehy, and Dotson’s right to a fair trial.

Under the Texas Penal Code, merely making a false report to a peace officer is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000. This could have been much worse.

“I didn’t know what happened to what or to who,” Rouse said. “But I did know they were both my responsibility as a coach, and I also thought about my school. There were a whole bunch of reasons that went into [taping the conversations].”

Bliss’ aim, with what he hoped would be Rouse’s cooperation, was to coerce players to tell authorities that Dennehy paid for his tuition by dealing drugs.

In fact, Dennehy’s tuition was being paid for by members of the Baylor basketball community, a major NCAA violation, which, if uncovered, meant the end of Bliss’ then-30 year career that began as an assistant under Bob Knight at Army and Indiana.

From Indiana, Bliss went on to head-coaching positions at Oklahoma, SMU and New Mexico before taking over Baylor in 1999.

The issue came to light when Dennehy’s stepfather said he didn’t know how his son was paying tuition because he wasn’t on scholarship yet.

“You’re a young professional and you’re looking at how the boss is handling this situation,” said Rouse, who added that he was threatened with termination if he didn’t go along. “You’re looking at him for leadership and this is what he comes up with?

“I’m a regular guy. I just thought it was wrong. Ultimately, I could not see myself explaining to my child or my mother. I just couldn’t do it.”

In his book, Sayman, too, said that Bliss pulled him aside in a hallway and confronted him with the story.

Sayman was oblivious to Dennehy being technically a “walk-on.”

“In no way would I ever imagine,” said Sayman, who was recruited out of The Colony and is soon to embark on his first year as head coach at Grapevine Faith. “You know what walk-ons look like and you know how they play and what their purpose is.

“It’s pretty obvious that they’re that. When you see these guys that are just athletic and huge and you just don’t ever question it. We just all assumed, at least I did.”

Sayman was by now disillusioned by the whole experience and not completely surprised to hear what Bliss was saying, though “something about it didn’t rub me right.”

Plus, like many of his age, he held those in authority in good esteem. “I had always grown up told to trust your coaches. That’s something my parents instilled in me.”

But it was that same allegiance that Bliss was likely counting on to sell the story to players.

“The entire situation took me by surprise,” Rouse said. “When you’re interviewed, they don’t ask you if you’re a cheater or if I cheat or violate NCAA rules, or play a role in changing the facts in a murder. They don’t ask those questions.”

In three conversations taped with a hidden microcassette — tapes Rouse ultimately turned over to the NCAA — on the last two days of July and Aug. 1, 2003, Bliss suggested that players tell investigators they saw Dennehy with a tray containing drugs and a roll of $100 bills.

He also tells players he knows they smoked marijuana and that Dennehy couldn’t rebut the story because he was dead.

“First of all, nobody is ever going to know about the fact you might have smoked weed with the guys,” Bliss told one player. “I think the thing we want to do — and you think about this — if there’s a way we can create the perception that Pat may have been a dealer. Even if we had to kind of make some things look a little better than they are, that can save us.”

“You don’t even have to tell me about Dotson, because he’s still alive. But Dennehy is never going to refute what we say.

“I’ve got some things to say about him, because he came in and tried to get me to help him with something, and I told him, ‘I can’t help you.’ Now I know that ticked him off, but he knows that’s the truth. And now he’s dead, so he isn’t going to argue with me at all.”

Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs; like a sharp razor, working deceitfully.

“I’m a parent,” Rouse said. “I put my kid’s face in Patrick’s and Carlton’s place and thought, ‘Are you kidding me? You came to my house, sat down on my couch and promised to treat my child like they were your own.’

“You find me a coach that would allow their child to be put in the situation that Patrick’s parents found their son in. How would they respond?

“If any of those guys would sit and tell you that they would be OK with what Coach Bliss did if it was their kid, they’re lying to you.”

Bliss resigned after the tapes were disclosed.

Sanctions, a new start

An investigation conducted by Baylor found that Bliss had paid up to $40,000 in tuition for Dennehy and another player. Officials also found that Bliss lied to investigators about attempts to cover up his conduct and that Baylor coaches failed to report failed drug tests.

The NCAA hit Baylor harshly: Five years’ probation and the stripping of five scholarships over two seasons.

The Bears were banned from playing nonconference games in 2005-06.

Bliss’ career as a Division I coach was over. If a school wanted to hire him in the last 10 years, the institution would have to appear before the NCAA Infractions Committee to discuss.

The former coach, now 69 and the dean of students and athletics director at Allen Academy in Bryan, did not return a message asking for comments.

“It was tough,” Sayman said. “I was close with him. I enjoyed playing for him. We spent some time off the court together.

“It just goes to show that if you’re not careful and don’t keep your heart guarded and allow the pressures of whatever you’re doing to take over your judgment, that even good people — and I consider him a good person — even good people can make horrific decisions.”

Sayman said he believes Bliss is using his experience to help others not make the same mistakes.

“I feel like he’s doing that now,” said Sayman, who added that he spoke with Bliss in the last couple of years at a basketball camp. “You have to believe and hope that he is. I choose to believe in the best.”

Rouse’s decision to do what was right came with a heavy worldly cost.

His career as a basketball coach also was over, presumably for violating the unwritten rule of loyalty among coaches.

He worked for a while at Midwestern State and said he probably would have had opportunities at the junior-college level and perhaps at Division II schools.

Instead, Rouse decided to move on.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Today, though, he lives in peace and is happy with a family and a new career in criminal justice.

Rouse works at the Federal Medical Center at Carswell in Fort Worth.

He’s been promoted twice and will put his degree in education from Baylor to use as a teacher there, starting next month. He is also sharing his experiences as a public speaker, addressing audiences on the subject of professional ethics.

“I don’t hold any ill will toward” Bliss, said Rouse, who added that it took some time to enjoy even watching basketball again. “I moved on with my life, I’m happy.

“If none of that had happened, I wouldn’t have my family. God has a purpose for all of us and a reason. I’m in a better place.”