A 12-year-old boy was tortured and beaten to death by his grandparents and teen uncle at their home near West Yellowstone earlier this month, prosecutors allege. In several instances, the torture of the boy was filmed with cellphones.

James Sasser Jr., Patricia Batts and 14-year-old James Sasser III are each charged with felony deliberate homicide for the death of 12-year-old James Alex Hurley. Sasser Jr. and Batts appeared Thursday with attorney Ryan Peabody in Gallatin County Justice Court.

Bail was set at $500,000 for Sasser Jr., 47, and $750,000 for Batts, 48.

Sasser III was seen in Gallatin County District Court on Wednesday before Judge John Brown. He is being held at the Yellowstone Youth Services Center in Billings on $500,000 bail.

On Feb. 3, a Gallatin County Sheriff’s deputy responded to a report of Hurley’s death at a home on Buffalo Drive near Hebgen Lake, where his 18-year-old aunt and 6-year-old uncle also live. The deputy found that circumstances surrounding the boy’s death were suspicious and requested the sheriff’s detective division help in the investigation.

Charging documents say the boy had multiple wounds and contusions all over his body. Hurley also had a large gash on the back of his head and other wounds on his back that police said would be difficult for someone to inflict on themselves.

A doctor who performed Hurley’s autopsy said in a preliminary report that Hurley died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head. The doctor said he wanted to wait on a toxicology report to give a final opinion.

Detectives searched Sasser Jr.’s, Sasser III’s and Batts’ phones and found videos that showed the family torturing Hurley, court documents say.

Police said in charging documents that one video shows Batts not allowing Hurley to use the bathroom while she mocked him.

Another video shows Batts choking and slapping Hurley against a wall after a separate video recorded seven minutes earlier showed Hurley crying with his hands shaking above his head. While hitting the boy, Batts can be heard telling Hurley she couldn’t stand him because he stole her father-in-law’s wallet after “she brought him into her home and gave him everything,” court documents say.

Police said Sasser III sent a video to Sasser Jr. in January of Hurley walking out of the home wearing a t-shirt while the rest of the family can be seen wearing coats. Sasser III’s message to Sasser Jr. read, “He ain’t limping see I told you,” court documents say.

Sasser III wrote a message to Batts a day later and said, “Dad said don’t let him pass out from hypothermia,” police said.

A day before Hurley’s death, Sasser III searched “concussion symptoms,” “symptoms of sleep deprivation” and “what are the symptoms of brain injury?” on the internet on his phone, according to charging documents.

During a search, police found that food in the house was locked away from Hurley. Police also found evidence where “large amounts of blood” had been cleaned from the floor and other areas of the house.

Sasser Jr., Sasser III and Batts told detectives that Hurley had lived with them for two years. He moved to West Yellowstone from Texas to live with his father. Hurley’s father died after he moved there, and he moved in with the grandparents after that.

The grandparents and uncle told detectives that Hurley complained of hearing voices telling him to kill various people and that he tried harming himself and others multiple times.

The family told detectives that Sasser III made a paddle out of wood with a blue-taped handle, and that Sasser III hit Hurley with it multiple times, court documents say. Batts told detectives she would also use the paddle to punish Hurley.

Sasser III told a detective that he tackled and punched Hurley several times for standing over Batts with a knife, court documents say. The detective noted that Sasser III is about 6 feet tall and 300 pounds. Hurley was about 5 feet, 3 inches tall and about 100 pounds.

Sasser III told detectives that he had multiple fights with Hurley but denied ever hitting him in the back of the head with the paddle, court documents say. Sasser III said he and Hurley last fought on Feb. 1, but that a fight on Jan. 27 “was worse.” Sasser III told detectives he beat Hurley “pretty good” after he found Hurley standing over Batts with a knife.

Batts told detectives that the Jan. 27 fight was a “blood bath” and that Sasser III had punched Hurley in the face. However, she denied that Sasser III used the paddle at that time.

Hurley’s mother, who lives in Texas, told detectives that she tried calling Hurley numerous times but those attempts were blocked by Batts.

Detectives were unable to find any record of the family reporting Hurley’s behavior to law enforcement or any attempts to get Hurley medical or psychiatric help.

Hurley was taken out of school in West Yellowstone in September 2019, and police said Hurley did not have contact with people outside the family for several months.

In court Thursday, prosecutor Bjorn Boyer said the defendants admitted in interviews that they exaggerated the victim’s mental health issues.

“I believe the systematic torture and beatings perpetrated on the victim in this case led to his death,” Boyer said.

He said Sasser III admitted to kicking Hurley’s head multiple times 24 to 36 hours prior to his death.

“The defendant was involved in doing concussion tests on the victim thereafter, but nobody sought medical attention for the victim,” Boyer said.

Boyer requested a higher bail for Batts because he said he believes Batts is more culpable in this case.

“She’s on a lot of the videos that show the torture to this young boy,” he said. “She’s in the videos seen strangling the boy, seen hitting the boy.”

After the hearing, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said he doesn’t remember ever hearing about a case this bad in Gallatin County. He said the allegations in the charging documents are personal and he feels sorry for Hurley.

“It’s just the worst type of case that you could deal with and, I guess, you just try to find some justice for Alex,” Gootkin said.

He said the county was sending a counselor to West Yellowstone on Thursday to “make sure we get everybody the help they need.”

“West Yellowstone is a small community and something like this really rocks it,” he said.

Kevin Flanagan, West Yellowstone School superintendent, said counselors from Big Sky and Belgrade were in town to talk to students and staff on Wednesday.

“We’re obviously all grieving and trying to work through this process right now,” Flanagan said.

West Yellowstone Mayor Jerry Johnson said everyone he’s talked to about the incident told him they were shocked, sad and disgusted. Because of the size of the town — the U.S. Census Bureau estimated less than 1,300 people lived there in 2018 — everybody knew the family, he said.

“It’s just a kid, you know?” Johnson said. “He had a whole life ahead of him. It’s really sad.”

He said small towns come together and help each other out. You just have to heal, Johnson said, whether that happens in churches or schools.

“There’ll be praying, I suppose,” he said, “for everybody.”

Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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