Western New Jersey

Phillipsburg wrestlers: photo was misunderstood, not racist

Now the wrestlers are facing a criminal investigation over the controversial photo

Phillipsburg wrestlers: photo was misunderstood, not racist

PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. - It's an image that's sparked public backlash, and many say is extremely offensive. Now New Jersey officials say they've launched a criminal investigation into the controversial photograph.

The eight Phillipsburg High School wrestlers have been in hot water since the picture surfaced this week.

It shows seven of the teens posing around a dark colored dummy with a noose around its neck; two of the athletes have hoods pulled over their heads in a point.

Thursday night the students spoke out through their attorney taking responsibility and apologizing.

The teens' lawyer says the photo was taken out of context.

"A suicide note created by one of the boys in a young man's handwriting and in orange marker," Scott Wilhelm explained.

He wants to set the record straight. Wilhelm says the 8 Phillipsburg High School wrestlers weren't trying to offend anyone when they hung a wrestling dummy from a noose.

"It appears as though they were just trying to create a death scene, a grim reaper scene," he explains. "They conquested Kittatiny, they've conquested Paulsboro, and they're going on to conquest other teams."

Wilhelm explains the dummy is called Coach Trenge, and was forced to wear the clothing of Phillipsburg's rivals.

The lawyer hopes releasing an additional photo will shed more light on how the students staged the whole thing.

The dummy even wrote a suicide note before hanging himself with the rope.

"The Kittatiny singlet was enough, the t-shirt pushed me over the edge," Wilhelm read.

The images were captured earlier this month after Phillipsburg beat both Kittatiny and Paulsboro.

"These are just boys who have no racist thought at all, this was just trying to promote school spirit and the excitement and enthusiasm to the wrestling season they were having."

The picture has created a firestorm for the athletes. They had to serve three days of school suspension, and are banned from this weekend's individual state wrestling tournament.

But the teen's troubles may be far from over.

The Phillipsburg Police Department, along with the Warren County Prosecutor's Office, recently started a criminal investigation.

"We had a number of calls over the last several days from various individuals regarding the incident," described Warren County Prosecutor, Richard Burke.

Those calls included one from the state Attorney General's Office.

We're told the investigation will be comprehensive; the point is to figure out if any laws were broken.

"We look at the facts and see what they are," Burke added. "If there is something that violates the bias crime statute then of course we would pursue that."

Wilhelm says the situation is unfortunate, and the wrestlers are sorry.

"There is no criminal intent here," he shared. "I don't think criminal charges are warranted, and if they were filed I don't think they could be sustained."

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