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Father of assaulted Clarkson lacrosse player looks for answers

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POTSDAM — Lacrosse is a rough and physically demanding sport.

But when Donald James Ware Whelley, 21, a Clarkson University sophomore and defenseman for the university’s lacrosse team, found himself having to get facial reconstructive surgery for a broken upper jaw, orbital fracture and facial cuts, his father, fighting back tears, said he never imagined his son’s worst injuries would come off the field.

It was just after 5 a.m. on Aug 24 when Stephen M. Whelley received the call letting him know that his son was hospitalized after he was assaulted on Maple Street in the village of Potsdam. By Friday he was trying to make sense of what he says is a heinous crime.

“They just shattered my world,” Stephen Whelley said. “This never should have happened here.”

It is alleged that, at 1:52 a.m. Saturday, Donald Whelley was attacked by two men, leaving him unconscious and bloodied on the pavement for a passer-by to find.

Stephen Whelley said that, prior to this incident, his 6-foot-tall, 200-pound son had never been in a fight. He added that this, by no means, was a fight.

“He had an injured right hand from playing lacrosse last season and he couldn’t even defend himself,” Stephen Whelley said. “They knocked him out and, while he was out cold on the ground, they proceeded to beat his face.”

Mr. Whelley pulled up photos of the injuries his son suffered and, fighting back tears, said when he arrived at the hospital the morning of Aug. 24, he didn’t recognize his son.

At the time of their arraignment Thursday, suspects Bryan A. Bicknell, 20, of 342 West Parishville Road, Parishville, and Dakota J. Vallance, 18, of 399 Buckton Road, Winthrop, showed no sign of injury from their alleged involvement in the assault, except for the bruised and skinned knuckles of Mr. Vallance’s right hand.

Both men were charged with felony second-degree assault and released under probation supervision, but Stephen Whelley said he is concerned they will plea down to a misdemeanor.

“I think the community needs to and wants to send a message here,” Mr. Whelley said. “I think they are mad as hell and, once they are made aware of the situation, they will address it.”

Stephen Whelley, a 1983 graduate of Clarkson who has family from areas like Colton and Norfolk, said the incident paints a bad image for a community in which he has deep roots. Members from both his mother’s and father’s families have long been involved in both St. Lawrence University, Canton, and Clarkson University, Potsdam.

And while he and his immediate family moved to Catonsville, Md., for economic advantages to his business, Stephen Whelley planned to bring his family back to the area with the purchase of property in South Colton.

This attack on his son not only has him questioning that decision, but it has opened up a floodgate of emotions and bad memories.

He said his son is the second generation of Whelleys to experience this kind of violence. In 1980, when he was a sophomore at Clarkson, Stephen Whelley was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time, when she was sexually assaulted on the campus of Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs.

“I harbored that pain and suffering for years,” Mr. Whelley said. “I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want him to go through that experience.”

Both SLU and Clarkson have been nothing short of supportive, Mr. Whelley said.

“The community has really wrapped their arms around us,” Stephen Whelley said, including providing therapy sessions for his son to help him cope with the event, something he didn’t have after his own traumatic experience in 1980.

But it’s not just his son he is concerned for — it’s also his daughter, Maggie, who is a freshman at SLU.

The siblings are very close, Mr. Whelley said, and upon seeing her brother, Maggie was visibly shaken and even fainted.

“James looked at her and said, ‘I don’t want this to happen to you,’” Stephen Whelley said. “‘I just don’t want another Don Whelley out there. I just don’t want this to happen again.’”

“The underlying tone that I have been hearing is, ‘no one deserves this, Mr. Whelley. You gotta get these guys,’” Mr. Whelley said. “There was no reason for this whatsoever and I don’t know the reasons why these kids did this but there was rage in their hearts.”

But he said he has placed his trust in the St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s Office and the Potsdam Police, who he said have been “dogged” in their efforts to investigate the attack.

Lt. Mark R. Murray said Daniel R. Netter, 22, Fayetteville — the witness who found Donald Whelley in front of the old Honda dealership on Maple Avenue and called 911 — is “the real star” in the investigation.

Concerns that there might be some kind of retaliation against the suspects by members of the Clarkson lacrosse team were quelled after Lt. Murray said he spoke with the team’s coach.

“It is very clear that Clarkson University wants a safe environment for the students and has been an integral part of this investigation,” Lt. Murray said.

Village police have been utilizing surveillance footage from businesses around the area where the assault took place, leading them to their suspects and helping them put together the timeline of events that occurred that night.

Mr. Vallance and Mr. Bicknell are to appear at 9:30 a.m. Friday in Potsdam Village Court.

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