A Star Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Investigation

Walt Bogdanich, New York Times, April 16, 2014

Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, a freshman at Florida State University reported that she had been raped by a stranger somewhere off campus after a night of drinking at a popular Tallahassee bar called Potbelly’s.

As she gave her account to the police, several bruises began to appear, indicating recent trauma. Tests would later find semen on her underwear.

For nearly a year, the events of that evening remained a well-kept secret until the woman’s allegations burst into the open, roiling the university and threatening a prized asset: Jameis Winston, one of the marquee names of college football.

Three weeks after Mr. Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge Mr. Winston with rape. The quarterback would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship.

In his announcement, the prosecutor, William N. Meggs, acknowledged a number of shortcomings in the police investigation. In fact, an examination by The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.

The police did not follow the obvious leads that would have quickly identified the suspect as well as witnesses, one of whom videotaped part of the sexual encounter. After the accuser identified Mr. Winston as her assailant, the police did not even attempt to interview him for nearly two weeks and never obtained his DNA.

The detective handling the case waited two months to write his first report and then prematurely suspended his inquiry without informing the accuser. By the time the prosecutor got the case, important evidence had disappeared, including the video of the sexual act.

“They just missed all the basic fundamental stuff that you are supposed to do,” Mr. Meggs said in a recent interview. Even so, he cautioned, a better investigation might have yielded the same result.

The case has unfolded as colleges and universities across the country are facing rising criticism over how they deal with sexual assault, as well as questions about whether athletes sometimes receive preferential treatment. The Times’s examination–based on police and university records, as well as interviews with people close to the case, including lawyers and sexual assault experts–found that, in the Winston case, Florida State did little to determine what had happened.

University administrators, in apparent violation of federal law, did not promptly investigate either the rape accusation or the witness’s admission that he had videotaped part of the encounter.

Records show that Florida State’s athletic department knew about the rape accusation early on, in January 2013, when the assistant athletic director called the police to inquire about the case. Even so, the university did nothing about it, allowing Mr. Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions. After the championship game, in January 2014, university officials asked Mr. Winston to discuss the case, but he declined on advice of his lawyer.

{snip}

Mr. Winston has previously acknowledged having sex with his accuser but said it was consensual. His account has been supported by two friends from the football team who were with him that night, Chris Casher, who took the video, and Ronald Darby.

A month before the rape accusation became public, the university’s victim advocate learned that a second woman had sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Mr. Winston, according to the prosecutor’s office. The woman did not call it rape–she did not say “no.” But the encounter, not previously reported, “was of such a nature that she felt violated or felt that she needed to seek some type of counseling for her emotions about the experience,” according to Georgia Cappleman, the chief assistant state attorney, who said she had spoken with the advocate but not with the woman.

{snip}

The university, after initially speaking with The Times, recently stopped doing so. A university spokeswoman, Browning Brooks, said she could not discuss specific cases because of privacy laws but issued a statement, saying that the university’s “code of conduct process has worked well for the vast majority of sexual assault cases” and has “provided victims with the emotional and procedural help they need.”

On Feb. 13, before the university stopped granting interviews, Rachel Bukanc, an assistant dean who oversees student conduct issues, said she knew of no student who had secretly videotaped sex. After The Times questioned that response, the university began an inquiry and recently charged Mr. Casher with a student-code violation for taking the video. Mr. Darby has also been cited in connection with the episode.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of football to Florida State and its hometown. In Tallahassee, rooting for the Seminoles is a matter of identity and economy. The 2013 championship season generated millions of dollars for the athletic department and city businesses, and favorable publicity beyond measure.

Patricia A. Carroll, a lawyer for Mr. Winston’s accuser, said the police investigator who handled the case, Scott Angulo, told her that because Tallahassee was a big football town, her client would be “raked over the coals” if she pursued the case.

Officer Angulo has done private security work for the Seminole Boosters, a nonprofit organization, with nearly $150 million in assets, that is the primary financier of Florida State athletics, according to records and a lawyer for the boosters. It also paid roughly a quarter of the $602,000 salary of the university president, Eric Barron, who was recently named president of Penn State.

The Tallahassee police declined to make Officer Angulo available for an interview, but his report states that he suspended the investigation because the accuser was uncooperative, which she denies.

The department issued a statement, saying that police reports in the Winston case “document that our department took the case seriously, processed evidence and conducted a thorough investigation based on information available when the case was reported.”

{snip}

Late last year, Mr. Winston’s accuser and another Florida State student filed internal-affairs complaints, charging that Tallahassee police officers had investigated them, rather than the accused, and then prematurely dropped their cases.

“My attorney’s repeated calls to Tallahassee Police Department prove that I had not dropped the case,” Mr. Winston’s accuser wrote in her Dec. 19 complaint.

Two days earlier, the other student had written, “Why did the detective insist my case was closed and refused to answer calls and emails?” She added, “I am SO ANGRY!”

{snip}

Potbelly’s is a classic campus bar: big and boisterous, a place to drink, dance and mingle inside or at a tiki bar outside. A Thursday tradition, Purgatory at Potbelly’s, allows students to drink all the alcohol they want for $10 from 9 p.m. to midnight.

On Purgatory Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, Mr. Winston’s accuser, who at 19 could not legally buy alcohol, shared at least five mixed drinks with friends, according to police records. At one point, a man she did not know grabbed her arm, pulled her close and introduced himself as Chris, a football player. He said he was looking for his roommate, and when he requested her phone number, she gave it to him. She did not recall seeing him again that night.

The woman did not appear drunk, her friends said. But after a stranger gave her a drink, she recounted, her memory became hazy and fragmented. Soon, she found herself in a taxi with three unfamiliar men, all of whom turned out to be Florida State football players.
Jameis Winston was one of them. A redshirt freshman quarterback, 6 feet 4 inches and 235 pounds, Mr. Winston had been a prize recruit, well-known in football circles but not yet a widely recognizable name.

Because of the young, combustible clientele, Potbelly’s protects itself by operating more than 30 security cameras. If something untoward happens, the cameras are there to record it. They were in position to fill in the blanks from that evening, recording how the woman came to leave without her friends, her general behavior and the face of the man who gave her the final drink.

Taxi records also contained a footprint for investigators to follow: The woman recalled that someone in the car swiped a Florida State student identification card to get a discounted fare.

After partially blacking out, the woman said, she found herself in an apartment with a man on top of her, sexually assaulting her. She said she tried unsuccessfully to push him away, but he pinned down her arms. Meanwhile, according to her account, another man walked in and told her assailant to stop. He did not. Instead, she said, he carried her into the bathroom, locked the door and continued his assault.

Afterward, the woman told investigators, the man put her on a bed, dressed her and drove her on a scooter to an intersection near her dormitory and dropped her off.

Upon returning to her room, she posted a plea online for someone to call her. Two friends did. One was Jenna Weisberg, another Florida State student.

“I was awake and I called her and she was hysterically crying,” Ms. Weisberg said. “‘I think I just got raped,’” she recalled her saying. Ms. Weisberg drove immediately to the friend’s dorm.

Ms. Weisberg said her friend was reluctant to call the police because she did not “want anybody to be mad at her.” Eventually she relented, and at 3:22 a.m., Ms. Weisberg called 911.

A campus police officer responded, listened to the accuser’s account and then drove her to the hospital for a sexual assault examination. Because the woman believed the encounter occurred off campus, a city police officer, Clayton Fallis, interviewed her next.

Soon, Officer Angulo, an investigator with the special victims unit who joined the force in 2002, arrived at the hospital and took over the case. Again the woman began to recount what had happened, until the investigator, seeing she was tired, told her to go home and come to Police Headquarters later in the day.

She returned, accompanied by a friend, Monique Kessler, who was with her at Potbelly’s, and they recounted what they had seen and heard, including the encounter with Chris, the football player.

Officer Angulo had three solid leads to identify the suspect: the name Chris, the bar’s security cameras and the cab where a student identification card had been used.

What the investigator did next–or did not do–would later confound prosecutors and muddied the outcome of the case.

{snip}

Officer Angulo’s investigation was halting at best. His first report, filed more than two months after the encounter, includes no mention of trying to find Chris or looking at Potbelly’s videotapes.

Not only would Chris have been easy to find, but the police already had an investigative file that identified Chris Casher as Mr. Winston’s roommate. A little more than a week before the sexual encounter, the Tallahassee police had interviewed both men in connection with 13 damaged windows at their off-campus apartment complex, all caused by football players engaging in a long-running BB gun battle. The Florida State athletic department promised that the $4,000 in damages would be paid, and no charges were filed.

Officer Angulo did contact the cab company, without success. “The GPS units on the vehicles are not precise enough to eliminate enough cabs to focus the search,” he wrote.

He then asked the cab company to email all drivers who had worked that night, with “the demographics of the passengers and the pickup location.” No one responded, and there is no indication that he attempted to interview drivers.

Officer Angulo, who had told his superiors that he “had no real leads,” suddenly got a big one on Jan. 10, a little more than a month after the encounter. As a new semester was beginning, the accuser called to say she had identified the suspect–Jameis Winston–after seeing him in class and hearing his name called out.

Again, Officer Angulo hesitated. Nearly two weeks passed before his backup investigator contacted Mr. Winston–by telephone, records show.

“Winston stated he had baseball practice but would call back later to set a time,” Officer Angulo wrote. The police did get a response–from Mr. Winston’s lawyer, Timothy Jansen, who said his client would not be speaking to anyone.

With Mr. Winston identified, the next logical step would have been to quickly obtain his DNA. Officer Angulo decided against it. Ms. Carroll, the accuser’s lawyer, said the officer told her that testing Mr. Winston’s DNA might generate publicity. “I specifically asked and he refused,” Ms. Carroll said.

Officer Angulo concluded his six-page report by saying: “This case is being suspended at this time due to a lack of cooperation from the victim. If the victim decides to press charges, the case will be pursued.”

Two parts of that statement struck Ms. Carroll as strange. The officer, she said, never informed her client that he had suspended his investigation, and her client never said she would not cooperate. She said that while her client was indeed concerned about the prospect of pressing her case against a star-in-waiting, “at no time did we call him and tell him we don’t want you to do an investigation.” Her client, she added, simply wanted more information before deciding what to do.

{snip}

In the weeks that followed, not knowing the investigation had been suspended, Ms. Carroll called the police periodically to see if lab tests had come back. Sometimes, her calls were returned, she said, but not always.

{snip}

It was Wednesday of homecoming week last year and Florida State, ranked No. 2 in the nation with a 9-0 record, was preparing to play Syracuse. Mr. Winston, described by teammates as both playful and intense, had already thrown 26 touchdown passes, amassing 2,661 passing yards with a completion percentage just south of 70 percent. After his first game, an ESPN draft expert had identified him as a legitimate No. 1 choice in the 2015 N.F.L. draft.

If Florida State was going to ascend to the national championship game on Jan. 6, it would do so on the arm and poise of Jameis Winston. The Heisman voting was but a month away, and his crowning as America’s best college football player appeared all but certain.

Then, suddenly, that glorious vision began to go out of focus.

On Nov. 13, the Tallahassee police, responding to a public-records request from The Tampa Bay Times, released documents on the sexual assault case, setting off a frenzied scramble in the news media and prosecutor’s office to learn what had happened.

As the news broke, and before investigators could talk to them, Mr. Winston’s lawyer had the two witnesses, Mr. Casher and Mr. Darby, submit affidavits attesting to their recollection of that now-distant night. They gave similar accounts: A blond woman who was not intoxicated willingly left the bar with the three football players, they said, and joined Mr. Winston in his room. Because the door was broken and would not close, they looked in and saw the woman giving the quarterback oral sex.

At one point, Mr. Casher said, he entered the room, but the woman told him to leave, got up to turn off the light and then tried to close the door. At no time, both men said, did she appear to be an unwilling participant. {snip}

Mr. Meggs immediately directed his staff to reinvestigate the case.

In the recent interview, Mr. Meggs said he was surprised that the police had not quickly found Mr. Casher. “How long does it take to identify a freshman football player–about 10, 15, 16 seconds?” he asked, adding, “Anybody that looked at this case would say you get a report at 2 in the morning, by noon you could have had the defendant identified and talked to.”

Why Officer Angulo had not asked to see the Potbelly’s security video is unknown. {snip}

As for not finding the taxi driver, “I am convinced that we would have identified the cabdriver that night and had an interview with him,” Mr. Meggs said. “Don’t know what we would have learned, but we would have learned the truth. I am also convinced that had it been done properly, we would have had the video from Potbelly’s.”

By the time the prosecutor asked for that video, the tape had long since been recycled.

{snip}

Only after the prosecutor took over the case did the authorities obtain Mr. Winston’s DNA. It was a match to DNA found on the accuser’s clothing.

Belatedly, Officer Angulo and his backup were asked to conduct a crucial interview–to question Mr. Casher about the events of Dec. 7, 2012.

Mr. Casher made a startling admission: he had secretly videotaped part of the sexual encounter through the partly opened bedroom door, and deleted the video from his phone a couple of days later. Had the police found him quickly, they might have obtained that video.

{snip}

Neither the police nor the prosecutor’s office subpoenaed the phone records of Mr. Casher, Mr. Darby or Mr. Winston–even though they investigated all electronic communications to and from the accuser around the time of the sexual encounter.

{snip}

Three weeks after it began, with evidence lost and memories faded, the state attorney’s investigation was over.

“I have personal concerns about what happened in that room that night,” Ms. Cappleman said, “but that’s completely separate from whether I’m able to prove a crime occurred.”

{snip}

The news that Mr. Winston had been accused of rape moved through campus like an electric charge. {snip}

{snip}

If cases are reported, the university is obligated to investigate, regardless of what the police do. According to the federal Education Department’s civil rights office, “a school that knows, or reasonably should know” about sexual harassment, including rape, “must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.”

Universities must also inform the federal government of reported sexual assaults on their property or in the immediate vicinity.

{snip}

A decade before the Winston case, the inspector general found that Florida State had violated its policy when the athletic department failed to inform the campus police of a rape accusation against one of its standout football players. Mr. Ruiz, the former prosecutor who handled the case for the state attorney’s office, recalled that the coach at the time, the revered Bobby Bowden, attempted to convince him that a crime had not occurred. A jury eventually acquitted the player.

“I learned quickly what football meant in the South,” said Mr. Ruiz, who grew up in New York State. “Clearly, it meant a lot. And with respect to this case I learned that keeping players on the field was a priority.”

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