It was supposed to be college day for the students of Ware Shoals High School in South Carolina, a chance to learn about educational prospects at a local institution. But according to police, two of the school's cheerleaders ditched the event (the exact date hasn't been made public) and instead headed to a motel with Jill Moore, their coach. There, they met up for a tryst with two National Guardsmen who recruited at their school. Moore loosened things up by allegedly providing the girls with vodka. Then, the cops say, she repaired to a room with one of the soldiers and set up a different room for the two cheerleaders and the other soldier to "hook up." According to authorities, the second Guardsman and one of the girls later admitted that they had a sexual relationship.
The alleged incident is part of a wider scandal that has shaken Ware Shoals. With its titillating mix of cheerleaders, soldiers, booze and sex, the story has drawn national media to a tiny 2,300-person town that, until now, was best known for its annual Catfish Festival. On Jan. 18, the city of Ware Shoals charged her with transferring beer to a minor; the Greenwood County Sheriff's Office charged Moore with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Then, on Jan. 22, authorities charged the high-school principal, Jane Blackwell, with obstruction of justice, accusing her of impeding their investigation into Moore's alleged misdeeds. Though the sheriff's office isn't bringing charges against the Guardsmen—since all parties involved were at least 16, the age of consent in South Carolina—the military is conducting its own investigation, one that could lead to a court-martial. Even the South Carolina Legislature may be prodded to action: some lawmakers are now talking of trying to raise the age of consent in the state.
Moore, who also worked as a guidance office clerk at the school, stands accused of a litany of inappropriate behavior. Authorities accuse her of regularly buying alcohol and cigarettes for members of her squad. They say she brought along a cheerleader to the National Armory, where the girl would distract other employees while Moore had sex with her Guardsman lover, Thomas Fletcher. And they allege that she also had a sexual relationship with a male high-school student who once accompanied her to a Clemson athletic event while she boozed it up. Investigators say that Fletcher and the male student have admitted to sexual affairs with Moore, who is married with two kids. (Fletcher is also married.) But she says she's innocent of the charges. Her attorney, W. Townes Jones, says she's utterly distressed. "She is almost catatonic," he says. "She cries all the time and says she feels like a bomb went off inside her. She is barely existing."
The accusations against Moore come as no surprise to many townspeople. One high-school student says Moore used to buy beer for his sister when she was on the cheerleading team. The parent of a current squad member says she had heard of Moore's affair with the male student, but overlooked it because she considered Moore a good coach and believed the boy to be at least 18. But not all parents were as sanguine. Near the end of last year, several contacted police to complain about the coach's behavior.
Cops began investigating a few weeks ago but say they quickly encountered resistance from the high-school principal, Blackwell. When they visited the school after Moore's arrest, they say that Blackwell denied any knowledge of the coach's reported improprieties. Yet, subsequent interviews with staff, and Blackwell's own notes in a journal seized by police, indicated that she was indeed aware of some of the accusations. Moreover, authorities learned that immediately after their visit to the school, Blackwell summoned the cheerleading team and ordered the girls not to discuss Moore with "anyone." Some of the cheerleaders later told cops that they felt intimidated; one girl left school that day due to "emotional distress." Some students also reported that Blackwell instructed staffers to lock restroom doors between classes, so that none of the students could send out text messages about the Moore case. Authorities became incensed. "Nothing is more dangerous than mixing alcohol, teenagers and automobiles," said Greenwood County Sheriff Dan Wideman. "To have a school official facilitating, that is bad, but for a school to cover it up versus doing whatever was necessary to protect those kids—that's appalling." (Blackwell's attorney says she is "completely innocent of all charges.")
The pedigrees of the accused women add another layer of drama to the story. Both reportedly come from well-established, influential old families. Moore's father is the head of Mount Gallagher Baptist Church and a member of the school board (he resigned from the latter last week). Blackwell lives in a handsome brick colonial on a large wooded lot and is herself well-connected: her first cousin is the school superintendent. For that reason, some locals worry that the affair "will all get swept under the rug as soon as the publicity dies down," as one puts it.
But the judicial machinery has now cranked into action. Moore and Blackwell have both been charged and released on their own recognizance. Moore resigned from her positions at the school the day she was arrested, and Blackwell has been suspended with pay, pending the results of the investigation. Meanwhile, school officials are seeking to reassure parents that their kids are safe. "Education is going to go on as usual," Superintendent Fay Sprouse told The Observer, a weekly Ware Shoals newspaper. "We are taking steps to ensure our students are safe. That is our top priority right now."
But some parents remain irate. Roxie Propst says her daughter, a cheerleader on the varsity squad, is now getting teased at school for being "wild and loose." "Everyone is acting like it's all the cheerleaders, but it's only two that are involved," says Propst. "The rest aren't wild. They are victims." Unfortunately, all it takes is a few carousers to give the whole squad a bad name.