An independent investigator says he found no concrete evidence that racial slurs were hurled during two Tri-City middle school girls basketball games last February.
But that doesn't mean hurtful comments weren't made.
The investigation surrounding the Feb. 15 incident involving Leona Libby school in West Richland and Ellen Ochoa school in Pasco was pursued by both school districts.
In the end, a Seattle law firm concluded that allegations of racism and racial tension before, during and after the game, along with the interactions between a coach and a referee, came to a head and spurred the Pasco team to abandon the court.
The report did find that an uncle of a Libby player told a Pasco coach to "take that trash back to east Pasco."
The uncle was one of four main people featured in the 13-page summary report. The other three people are a Richland player, a Pasco coach and the referee.
The allegations fell along district lines, with players from Ochoa Middle School talking about racial comments and Libby players denying them.
The report, written by investigator and lawyer Jessie Harris, was obtained by the Herald from the Pasco School District as part of a public records request.
Harris said in the report that the incident appeared to start during the seventh-grade girls' B-team game at Libby.
A "less than cordial encounter" likely occurred between two players during warm-ups.
The Ochoa player — identified as "B" — reported that the Libby player told her to "go back where you belong" after a ball got loose from the Ochoa side of the court and rolled to the Libby side.
Ochoa player B didn't report the encounter to her coach because the game was about to start, Harris said.
Though the game was one-sided in favor of Libby, Ochoa player B managed to score on the Libby player.
Ochoa player B later got hit with a ball and had to leave the game. As she was walking off, another Ochoa player referred to as "D" heard the Libby player call her teammate "a f---ing b----" and the team "stupid Mexicans," the report said.
Ochoa player D also told Harris that she heard the Libby player say something along the lines of, "They're just Mexicans; we can beat them."
The Libby player's mother refused to allow Harris to interview her daughter.
He interviewed two other Libby players, each of whom said they and their teammates said nothing in a racially disparaging manner.
The Ochoa seventh-graders talked to each other about the incident during the game. But it wasn't until after the game was over that several players told their coach and the eighth-graders' coach, Aaron Bell.
The seventh-graders' coach told Harris that he referred the matter — with three Libby jersey numbers — to Libby administration assistant Eli Cuello, who told the coach he would follow up the next day.
Cuello told Harris that he tried to find the players at the game, but couldn't. He did meet with the girl the next day.
Each player denied to Cuello using slurs and profanity, but did say the game was physical at times, Harris said. One player was surprised they were being accused of such behavior.
Before the eighth-grade girls game, Bell said he told the referee about the racial remarks reported by the seventh-grade girls. The referee allegedly told Bell that he shouldn't worry about it and to let him control the game.
A separate email obtained by the Herald in a records request shows Ben Wutzke with Tri-Cities Sports Officials Board denying Bell's claims to Pasco School District Superintendent Michelle Whitney.
Since the Ochoa eighth-grade girls already had heard about the alleged remarks by the Libby players in the earlier game, it increased their game's tension before it began, Harris wrote.
The Libby players again outmatched the Ochoa girls.
After a call against Ochoa, Bell told the ref the Libby players were being too physical. The referee issued Bell a technical foul, the coach told Harris.
After the technical, the calls got worse for Ochoa, Bell claimed, while Libby got off pretty easy. The Ochoa girls were getting upset and crying, Bell told Harris, and he tried to keep his team calm.
Bell got the referee's name from the Libby scorekeeper, who also told Harris that Bell and the Ochoa girls weren't being fairly treated.
Harris concluded that the racial allegations likely fueled Bell's perception of biased officiating.
Toward the end of the game, an Ochoa player had one of her shots stricken from the scoreboard because of a technicality, the report said.
Bell told the referee that the call wasn't fair. At that point, the referee gave Bell a second technical foul — automatically ejecting him from the game.
Cuello confirmed the scorekeeper's account of Bell's ejection, Harris said.
The referee told Harris that he and the other referee "endured much criticism" from Bell about their officiating, which prompted the technical fouls.
Harris concluded that it was likely that the referee's more hawkish officiating "impacted the Ochoa team more severely insofar as their skill level was not on par with the Libby team."
Cuello started to escort Bell off the court after the ejection, when Bell noticed the scoreboard turn off.
At that point, Harris said Bell turned around and motioned for his team to leave the court, forfeiting the game.
Video obtained by the Herald through a records request confirms what the report said Bell did.
That video shows the game appearing to continue as normal, with the Ochoa players upset about losing their coach. But once the scorekeeper turns off the scoreboard, Bell — in blue — motions for his team to gather their stuff, leave the court and go to the bus.
The two girls teams shook the hands of the Libby players at Bell's request, Harris said.
As Bell was leaving, Harris said that's when an uncle of a Libby player started shouting at Bell.
The uncle made statements to the effect of "that coach needs to be fired" and "get that trash off the court."
The uncle also said that Bell was teaching his players to be "quitters."
Bell reported that the Ochoa seventh-grade coach and Cuello had to physically keep him from engaging with the uncle.
"These are kids," Bell, 27, said to the uncle. "If you have something to say, say it to me. I'm a grown man."
The uncle didn't respond to Harris' request for an interview. His brother — a Libby eighth-grade player's father — said the uncle would never say those things, pointing out that his daughter is Latina.
"While these statements may objectively strike one as rude, offensive, and unbecoming for a middle school game, I am unable to conclude that they were meant as racial insults or that they were directed towards anyone other than" Bell, the report concluded.
Pasco schools' communications director Shane Edinger said Bell still was an employee at Ochoa, but couldn't confirm if he was still basketball coach.
How the report came about
The Pasco and Richland school districts started their own investigations immediately after the game, according to emails the Herald obtained through public records requests.
Officials from both districts began communicating, particularly after the Herald published its initial story.
That third party was Seattle law firm Williams Kastner. The districts settled on Harris, whose specialties include school law.
In the report, Harris says he interviewed 19 people — nine from Ochoa, seven from Libby, a Libby parent and two people from the referee's board.
He also reviewed written statements.
The names of everyone involved were either redacted by school officials under the state Public Records Act, or replaced with letters by Harris.
The Herald identified officials in the report using emails obtained through records requests.