I almost can’t bear to think about what this little boy went through in the last two years of his life. I have a son the same age, and the thought of anyone treating him even a fraction as horrifically as these people allegedly treated this child makes me want to scream myself hoarse.
Cases like this are exactly why this blog exists… unfortunately.
Born on September 18, 2007 in Cleveland, Texas, James Alexander “Alex” Hurley was twelve years old when his short life ended at the hands (actually, the foot) of his 14-year-old uncle, James Sasser III, his paternal grandmother, Patricia “Trish” Batts, and her husband, James Sasser Jr.
Alex had lived with his grandparents and their children, including James III, 18-year-old Madison Sasser, and 6-year-old Hunter, for about two years. The couple also has at least two older children, daughters named Janette and Sky, who did not live with them and may be the biological children of one or both of the parents.
Alex’s mother, Alicia Davis, lives in Texas, along with her husband, Jesse Richardson, and Alex’s brother, Austin Cameron. Interestingly, Alicia’s father, Earnest Davis, and his wife, Tammy, who share a Facebook page, posted a photo of Alex in 2010, revealing in the comments that the boy was 3, identified him as “Earnie’s daughter’s son,” and that out of the past year, he had lived with them for eight months. I’ve been unable to find out where Alicia was during this time, but another photo posted in 2012 indicated that Alex may still have been living with Tammy and Earnest around Easter of that year.
In August of 2017, Alicia allowed Alex to move in with his father, Tommy Tate, in Montana. Various sources have reported different reasons for this decision; on Tommy’s Facebook page, he explained that it was “for the school.” Alicia’s family said the move was to facilitate Alex getting to know Tommy better. Other sources report that Alex had requested to live with his father.
Reportedly, Tommy was paralyzed in an accident in 2014; photos from his Facebook page appear to indicate that both feet and and least part of one leg were amputated over the last year or two of his life. Tommy was engaged to a woman named Marci Ingraham, who, by all reports, loved Alex like he was her own. When Tommy died in early 2018, reportedly due to complications caused by his accident and recent related surgeries, his mother, Patricia Batts, took Alex in. Although Alicia reportedly tried multiple times to contact her son, Patricia stonewalled any kind of communication between Alex and his mother.
There is no word on whether Alicia filed a complaint with the police or made any calls to CPS regarding the situation.
Patricia, her husband, and James III told investigators that Alex’s behavior had become “increasingly problematic” after his father died, escalating further within the month before Alex’s death. They said Alex had a tendency to harm himself, including hitting himself repeatedly in the head and running head-first into walls and steel doors, and reported hearing voices telling him to rape and kill members of the family. Patricia also claimed that Alex, who she said was suicidal in the past and threatened to take pills, became drunk on alcohol, and stole items from the family and from local stores. Patricia, Madison, and James III all told police that Alex would scratch himself to the point of bleeding and would then constantly pick at his wounds, leaving open sores that refused to heal.
In September of 2019, Alex was pulled out of public school in West Yellowstone to be “homeschooled,” which, as I covered in my recent post about Raylee Browning, is all too often used as a way to isolate children from mandatory reporters and therefore hide child abuse. After that point, very few people outside the Sasser home had any contact with Alex.
On February 3, 2020, Deputy Matthew Stubblefield from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 call from the Sasser home at 325 Buffalo Drive in West Yellowstone, Montana, reporting the unattended death of a 12-year-old.
The deputy was suspicious of the story the family gave him and of the circumstances surrounding Alex’s death, so he called in reinforcements: Detective Captain Don Peterson, Detective Sergeant Matthew Boxmeyer, Detective Kelly Sprinkle, and Detective Colter Metcalf.
When detectives arrived, they found multiple wounds and contusions covering Alex’s emaciated body. Other injuries, including severe bruises on his buttocks that could have been caused by a paddle, other posterior contusions, and a large gash on the back of his head, were not consistent with the self-inflicted injuries the family reported. Detective Sprinkle observed that the gash on the back of Alex’s head did not appear consistent with running into a piece of furniture.
James III told police that during the last week of January, Alex sustained the injury to the back of his head when he ran into the corner of the family’s entertainment center, causing the gash that bled a great deal.
The family told investigators that because of Alex’s “erratic” behavior, they watched his every move, even having a member of the family stay up at night to ensure Alex did not harm himself or someone else.
According to the alleged murderers, James III had awoken during the night of January 27 and found Alex standing over Patricia with a knife. James III subsequently tackled Alex, punching the younger boy multiple times in the head and body. The great disparity in size between the two boys should be noted here: James III stands six feet tall and weighs 300 pounds; Alex was approximately five feet three inches tall and weighed 103 pounds at the time of his death. Patricia described the fight on January 27 as a “blood bath.”
During interviews with police, the family said that multiple times, they had used a wooden paddle to hit Alex as punishment. James III denied ever using the paddle to hit Alex in the back of the head, saying he usually hit the boy’s buttocks with the paddle, a photo of which was found on Patricia’s phone. Patricia said that James III and Alex last fought as recently as February 1, but James III said the fight on January 27 “was worse” and that he beat Alex “pretty good” during that incident. Patricia told police that her son had hit Alex with his fists, denying the paddle was employed during that attack.
She claimed that on the night of February 2, Alex slept on the floor in the living room, mumbling and moaning throughout the night, before she found him dead the next morning.
Madison, Alex’s 18-year-old aunt, told detectives that she had been out watching the Super Bowl with friends that evening, returning home to find everyone else asleep already. She said that Alex was asleep on the living room floor, and her mother, Patricia, was asleep nearby on the couch. To her knowledge, she told police, no altercations took place after she arrived at home, but she said that she had texted friends that night saying that she thought her brother had killed Alex.
Spot-on, stupid. Sorry if that seems harsh, especially considering Madison has not been publicly accused of having any part in Alex’s death, but if this grown-ass woman thought her nephew was dead or even severely injured, why the actual fuck did she text her friends instead of — oh, I don’t know — calling 911? Plus, she definitely knew about the abuse well ahead of Alex’s death, as a search of the family’s cell phones would soon prove.
An autopsy conducted by Dr. Sunil Prashar at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula revealed that Alex died from blunt force trauma to the back of the head. A toxicology report is pending.
There is no evidence so far that Alex’s “problematic behavior” had been reported to law enforcement or that any medical or psychiatric help had been sought for him. Batts confirmed that neither she nor her husband ever sought medical treatment for any of Alex’s injuries.
On February 6, detectives searched the cell phones belonging to Patricia, her husband, her daughter, and her 14-year-old son and found a plethora of video recordings showing that young Alex endured unfathomable abuse while living with his father’s parents and siblings. Video footage obtained during the investigation portrays a family gleefully engaging in torturing the 12-year-old boy on multiple occasions. The videos include a lot of disturbing details:
- In a video recorded on December 12, 2019, Alex does jumping jacks while holding his buttocks, tearfully crying out that he has to go to the bathroom. Patricia’s voice is heard in the background, mocking him.
- On January 10, 2020, Alex was recorded standing near the garage door, bent over at the waist with his head in his hands as he rocked back and forth, moaning and repeating the word “no” over and over. A video taken two minutes after that one shows Alex crying and saying, “Ow, it hurts so bad!” In yet another video from the same day, this one on James III’s phone, a larger male is seen hitting Alex with a piece of wood while Alex sobs out, “I fucking hate this!” He is also heard on the video screaming about committing suicide.
- Several other videos show Alex being forced to do jumping jacks as punishment or to sit against a door or wall in a squatting position.
- In one video recorded by James III, Alex is seen wearing only a t-shirt while the rest of the family wears coats. This video was texted to James Jr. along with the message: “he ain’t limping see I told you.” A day later, James III texted his mother, “Dad said don’t let him pass out from hypothermia.”
- In videos from January 17, Alex is seen with cuts on his face and wrist. Another shows him standing in front of a fan wearing only his underwear and Patricia berating him in the background, “Oh, you’re not even a human. You’re some kind of thing.”
- A video from January 23 on Patricia’s phone depicts Alex pinned between the living room wall and the couch, shirtless, with his arms in the air over his head. Red marks and injuries to his shoulder are visible. When Alex rests his head against the window frame, apparently starting to fall asleep, Patricia snaps, “Wake up! Get your fucking head off there!” In another clip, Patricia snarls at Alex to keep his hands apart and open in the air; Alex, who is crying and visibly trembling, says that he is in pain and his head hurts, but Patricia’s ice cold response is: “Who cares?” A third clip, timestamped 25 minutes later, shows Alex in the same position with Patricia telling him that the reason she can’t stand him is because she brought him into her home and gave him everything, only for Alex to steal her father-in-law’s wallet.
- A video from James III’s phone, shot several minutes after the ones on his mother’s phone, shows Alex screaming, crying, and yelling, “Ow!” Patricia slaps Alex repeatedly in the face, saying, “That’s for screaming.” Six-year-old Hunter sprays Alex in the face with a clear liquid from a spray bottle, which detectives believe was isopropyl alcohol. Alex, trying to cover his face with his hands, says, “He’s burning me.” Patricia twists Alex’s arms behind his back and bends him over at the waist, hissing at him, “Shut your fucking mouth, or I’ll break this son of a bitch off on you!” She twists his wrist while his arm is bent behind his back and says, “You’re gonna stay this way so you don’t choke yourself.” When he replies that he wasn’t choking himself, she says, “Yeah, you were. Everybody seen it.”
- In a video on Patricia’s phone from January 27, Alex is once again shown standing in front of fans in the dining room in his underwear, clutching himself as if he was cold. Patricia’s voice can again be heard denigrating Alex, but in this video, Hunter once again appears, behaving nonchalantly, as if the terrible scene is just another day in the Sasser house. During this video, Alex says that his mom is a drunk and that she hates him; in another clip, he begins to cry and says he can’t remember anything and that everything is a blur.
Incriminating text messages, photos, and online searches were also discovered.
- At 8:07 AM on January 17, the following text exchange took place between James Jr. and James III:
Son: He’s worse when your gone way worse.(Source: court documents)
Father: That’s what mom said I don’t know what to do.
Son: I’m gonna end up killing him today.
- On January 27, the 14-year-old performed a search for “what was the longest coma?”
- Multiple searches were done on February 2, including “what are the symptoms of brain injury,” “symptoms of sleep deprivation,” “concussion symptoms,” and “how do you tell if someone has a concussion?”
- A photo on Madison’s phone indicated that Alex had the gash on the back of his head, supposedly from running into the entertainment center on January 27, as early as January 23.
Bjorn Boyer, Deputy County Attorney with the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office, described the events leading up to Alex’s death as “systematic torture and beatings.” He said that the family later admitted exaggerating Alex’s mental health problems.
Detectives also searched the family’s home multiple times. During the initial search, they saw a head-sized indentation in one of the walls with traces of blood nearby. During a later search, forensic evidence was located showing that large amounts of blood had been cleaned up from the floor and various surfaces; the amount of blood would be consistent with Alex’s head wound but was found in an area of the living room separate from the part of the home where James III had reported Alex had his collision with the entertainment center. During their police interviews, the whole family denied ever seeing a large amount of blood present in the home.
Also found during the detective’s searches was the fact that most of the food in the house was locked up so Alex could not access it. Video footage from two years prior to Alex’s death showed a “healthy and well fed boy,” according to court documents, while at the time of his death, he weighed just over 100 pounds.
During interviews, the family disclosed to police that Alex and James III frequently fought.
Patricia told police that during the Super Bowl on February 2, she was asleep, awakening to see her 14-year-old son, James III, who (let me remind you) outweighed her grandson by almost two hundred pounds, hitting Alex with a paddle.
James Jr., Patricia’s husband, told investigators that, conveniently, he was also asleep during the incident. He did not learn that Alex was dead until he received a call from his wife on his way to work the next morning.
Four people have been charged in connection with Alex’s death. 48-year-old Patricia Lynn Batts; 47-year-old James Danny Sasser Jr.; and 14-year-old James Danny Sasser III have been charged with felony deliberate homicide by accountability. Judge Rick West of Gallatin County Justice Court set bail for James Jr. at $500,000 and for Patricia at $750,000; during the hearing, they were represented by attorney Ryan Peabody. Patricia’s bail was set higher because prosecutors alleged her participation in Alex’s death was greater. Patricia and James Jr. will remain in the Gallatin County Detention Center unless they manage to scrape together their bail money.
The despicable duo did not enter pleas. Their next court date is on March 6.
James III has been remanded by Judge John Brown of Gallatin County District Court into the custody of Yellowstone Youth Services Center in Billings on bail of $500,000. Prosecutor Boyer said he will be tried as an adult. While this may be an unpopular opinion, I very much disagree with this decision; the human brain doesn’t stop developing until a person is approximately 25 years old. While this 14-year-old is clearly a bad seed and has obviously been groomed by a pair of inhuman monsters, he is still legally a child. He should definitely remain in a high-security juvenile psychiatric facility until he is at least 18, at which point I believe he should be held in a psychiatric hospital indefinitely until or unless he is deemed safe to be released, if ever. In my opinion, even though James III was clearly one of the most grievous perpetrators of the abuse against Alex, he was also a victim of his manipulative parents, who led him to believe he was, in some sick, twisted way, protecting his family. He is going to need a lot of psychological help to overcome the foundation his parents laid, but at such a young age, it’s entirely possible that a personality disorder and other issues could be prevented.
The fourth person to be charged in Alex’s death is 18-year-old Gage Roush, a friend of James III. Gage has been charged with felony assault on a minor after detectives identified him as the man seen on one of the videos beating Alex with the wooden paddle.
Gage’s grandmother spoke with KBZK to express her shock. “Once I found out, I’m like, ‘Oh my God,’” Brenda Reed said. “It’s a punch in my stomach, you know?… I knew nothing until yesterday when I got locked up.” Brenda attended court on February 14 in support of Gage, along with his girlfriend, Brooklyn. “He’s like a gentle giant,” Brenda said in disbelief. “It just boggles my mind. I was blind-sided… He’s the reason I get up in the morning. He’s the reason for me living.”
She told a reporter, “I hope this is a turning point and he grows up.”
Court documents indicate that detectives located Gage after the absolute dolt defended the Sasser family on the Gallatin County Sheriff Office’s Facebook page.
“It is unacceptable to strike or otherwise brutalize a child,” Prosecutor Boyer said in court. “There’s two instances that, at least alleged, in here.”
If he is convicted, Gage could face up to 40 years in prison.
Melissa Finney, a friend of the Roush family who lives about a block away from their home, told a reporter, “I am flabbergasted. I can’t even begin to explain to you how disgusting and sick I am to my stomach about the whole situation… I just never saw it coming. I have known this family, like I’ve said, for 12 years. Our kids have hung out together and I’ve never ever thought this… I would be standing here today in this position saying ‘Oh my God.’”
Melissa told the reporter that she knew Gage since he was four years old and that James III had spent time with her son. “The abuse in the home like that and nobody knowing about it, it’s frustrating because when you are with them and you are around them and you see one side of them and then you come back and you hear this, you’re like ‘okay, they are living double lives,’” Melissa said.
In court on February 13, James III admitted to kicking Alex repeatedly in the head approximately 24 to 36 hours before he died, which is likely what caused the boy’s death.
Prosecutor Boyer said the county attorney’s office is still trying to determine if the death penalty is appropriate to pursue in Alex’s case. In Montana, deliberate homicide by means of torture is considered an aggravating circumstance that allows prosecutors to seek capital punishment. Montana’s last execution took place in 2006, although there are two other inmates currently serving death sentences at the Montana State Prison.
“This particular type of case — I don’t — I’ve been doing this 27 years, that’s how bad this one is,” said Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin, evidently struck speechless by the brutality of Alex’s treatment. Same, Sheriff.
“He was just a very sweet, loving boy, a little mixed up, but he had a good heart, and he loved his family,” Loren Davis, Alicia’s sister-in-law, said tearfully. “Honestly, the hardest part so far besides receiving the news is explaining to all of our kids here — his cousins and his brother — that he won’t be back with us.”
Loren posted this video on Facebook of a younger Alex singing an eerily appropriate song that put tears in my eyes.
One of Patricia’s close friends, who wanted to remain anonymous, said, “Before it was confirmed to me, personally, that it was them, that these were… this was my friend that did this, I couldn’t help but go to what this was like for him and how scared he must have been.” Speaking with KRTV, the friend said she knew Patricia had reached her breaking point. “I knew something was wrong, and I encouraged her repeatedly to get him some help and have him put somewhere, and she just really expressed that she just did not like him.”
“I trusted this woman,” the friend lamented. “I’ve known her since 2008. I’m just reeling. I’m devastated for this little boy.”
During my research, I found one unofficial report that indicated Madison Sasser was arrested this past Saturday, but take that with a grain of salt, as I was unable to confirm it. Sheriff Gootkin has not responded to my email inquiry on the subject.
This case hearkens back to a case I’ve mentioned before: the torture and murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens in October of 1965. Sylvia and her sister were sent to board in Indianapolis with a woman named Gertrude Baniszewski while their parents worked for a traveling carnival. After a few weeks, when the parents were late sending the girls’ rent, Gertrude began a campaign of horrific torture against Sylvia. Interestingly, her younger sister, Jenny, who suffered from polio, was not targeted for abuse. Sylvia, however, endured unimaginable abuse at the hands of Gertrude, her teenage children, and even some kids from around the neighborhood. Sylvia died alone in the basement of Gertrude’s house, emaciated from starvation and suffering over 150 separate wounds, including contusions, lacerations, burns, and extensive muscle and nerve damage. All of her fingernails had been broken backward, and Gertrude had used a heated needle to begin carving the phrase “I’M A PROSTITUTE AND PROUD OF IT” into Sylvia’s stomach, but she hadn’t finished. Thank God for small favors, I guess.
Sylvia’s case has horrified me for years, and hers was the first story I thought of when I began reading what these subhumans did to little Alex.
It’s worth mentioning here that even if the family’s allegations that Alex was a difficult child with problematic behavior are true, he did not deserve to be berated, abused, tortured, or murdered. I have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like caring for a child with severe behavioral issues, so I understand how frustrating it can be, but when faced with something like that, you need to reach out for help, not take your frustrations out on the child. There are innumerable resources and support available for parents and caregivers in situations like these, and there’s certainly plenty of assistance available for children with mental illness, behavioral difficulties, and emotional disturbances. I’ve had this framed quote hanging on the wall in my home for many years, and it absolutely applies here.
Alex’s death also makes me think of other kids I’ve covered on the blog: 12-year-old Eduardo Posso was also tortured and starved by family members. 5-year-old AJ Freund and 8-year-old Thomas Valva were both abused on video by their own family. Little Raylee, who I mentioned earlier, was removed from public school to be “homeschooled” when her injuries could no longer be explained away to staff at the school.
Identifying patterns is one way to prevent such future tragedies, but knowledge of these patterns isn’t enough; something needs to be done. I don’t proclaim to have the answers to the massive problems plaguing the country’s agencies tasked with protecting children, but I can at the very least use my modest platform to highlight these cases and make as many people aware of them as possible.
Alicia will be bringing Alex’s ashes to Cleveland, Texas for a memorial service at Cornerstone Church. A memorial motorcycle escort ride has been organized to accompany his remains to the church on February 22.
A candlelight memorial will be held at West Yellowstone City Park at 5:00 PM on Sunday, February 23. Attendees are asked to wear blue ribbons to signify standing up against child abuse. All donations collected will go toward mental health services in the area.
May this sweet boy rest in peace in his daddy’s arms, out of pain, far, far away from the people who did him harm.
Sources: WebSleuths, People, Helena Independent Record, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, KECI/NBC Montana, New York Post, KBZK Bozeman, CNN, KRTV Great Falls, Blue Bonnet News, Newsweek, New York Daily News, Facebook, court documents