Fellow students rallying around Roethisberger accuser
By Carl Prine, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, March 8, 2010
MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — In a quaint town best known for its insane asylum and twin college campuses, Milledgeville residents are huddling around the 20-year-old Zeta Tau Alpha sorority sister who has accused Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of sexually assaulting her in the dingy corner of a popular bar last week.
TV camera crews continue to camp outside the Capital City bar — even when it was closed Sunday — turning a town devoid of celebrities and scandal into the epicenter of the sports world. ESPN vans gobbled up a large chunk of Wayne Street parking.
"At first, you saw ESPN there and you thought, 'Well, this is a big deal.' But when you know the girl and you know that she would never bring this on herself, that she doesn't want publicity, then you feel sorry for her," said Dan Kaufman, 23, a senior at Georgia College & State University, where they both attend school.
"The fact of the matter is that she doesn't want this type of attention," agreed Jennifer Noice, 21, a former sister of her sorority. "People shouldn't judge her if they don't know her."
They echoed the sentiments of several other students who told the Trib they were close friends of the woman, whom authorities have not identified.
Employees of the nightclub where Roethlisberger, 28, allegedly sexually assaulted the young woman between 11 p.m. Thursday and 2:30 a.m. Friday said outsiders shouldn't indict the popular watering hole.
Saturday night's manager, Will Britt, 35, a city councilman in nearby Statesboro, took the Trib on a tour of the teeming tavern. A thin black curtain demarcates the VIP room where Roethlisberger spent nearly two hours with an entourage of large men, but it's easy to peek inside the room from numerous angles through a window near the bustling bar.
Because Thursday is the busiest night of the week, as many as eight bouncers patrolled the dance floor and the black velvet rope barricade downstairs.
In Georgia, 18-year-olds can mix in the clubs with drinkers, but liquor laws forbid bartenders from serving any patrons without a bright bracelet indicating they're older than 21. The second-floor VIP room serves as a stage area when big acts come to the bar, but it was sectioned off Thursday.
"They say it happened in the staff bathroom here," said Britt, pointing to a door in a dark, drafty aisle near the VIP section. "But that door is always locked, and people can see into the VIP room easily."
The restroom is near a storage room holding janitorial supplies, a grocery cart, spent boxes of booze waiting to be crushed and a disassembled mechanical bull, its tan and milky hide slumped on the floor as bass notes blared from a crowded dance floor.
Its dim corners can't be seen from the bar. Security cameras dot the club, but none appeared to be trained on the dark back room because no one but workers ever went back there, Britt said.
Milledgeville police and agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation searched the room shortly after the woman told an officer on downtown foot patrol that Roethlisberger assaulted her. According to detectives, at their request she received care in the Oconee Regional Medical Center.
National Football League spokesman Greg Aiello said the commissioner's office and NFL security "are not commenting on an ongoing police investigation."
Roethlisberger, who spends part of his offseason at his mansion on Oconee Lake about 30 miles north of Milledgeville, hasn't been charged with any crime. His agent, Ryan Tollner, did not return telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.
"When it's cold at night, there isn't much going on around the lake," Britt said. "That's when they come down to Milledgeville."
According to dozens of witnesses interviewed by the Trib, Roethlisberger's pub crawl began about 10 p.m. Thursday at The Velvet Elvis and migrated with his entourage and follow-on fans to at least three other bars before alighting at Capital City about midnight. When he wasn't in the tavern's VIP room, he signed autographs, mugged for photos and affably talked with the crowds, witnesses said.
"We thought the guys with him were offensive tackles or guards in the NFL," said Joseph Gaglia, 18, a student at Georgia Military College. "They weren't causing any trouble that I saw."
A police news conference is slated for today in Milledgeville, about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta. With five police forces — Georgia College & State has one, along with Georgia Military College and Baldwin County — Milledgeville boasts a constant law enforcement presence and a minuscule crime rate.
The accuser attends Georgia College & State University, known as GSCU, which reported two rape investigations in 2006 and two more in 2008, according to public filings detailing campus crimes. The mandatory 2009 report to the U.S. Department of Education hasn't been posted yet.
A five-minute walk across campus would take a female student past four emergency stations complete with sirens, blue flashing lights and a red panic button. The alleged sexual assault, however, took place two blocks from GCSU's border.
"This incident happened off campus," GCSU spokeswoman Judy Bailey said. "But we're concerned about any safety issue. Hopefully, this will turn out to be an isolated incident.
"We have a very safe campus. We're well known for that safety record. Parents trust that this is a very safe place to send their children to school, and we take that trust very seriously."
Bailey said that GCSU's police department has pledged to assist Milledgeville and GBI detectives. Her campus offers health counseling to students 24 hours every day.
The crime the town is probably best known for is the twin 1974 slayings of two hitchhikers by spree killer John Paul Knowles, the "Casanova Killer" who reportedly killed 33 other people, including a state trooper.
In recent years, however, the shuttering of several carpet mills, the decline of the local prison industry and the shrinking rolls of the 168-year-old Central State Hospital for mental health patients have dominated headlines.
Milledgeville is a gorgeous antebellum town spared destruction by the Union army during the Civil War. The town erected a plaque to honor native son Oliver Hardy of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo. Early 20th century residents knew him by his nickname, "Fatty."
Deceased Congressman Carl Vinson came from Milledgeville, and a Navy aircraft carrier bears his name today. Memory Hill Cemetery is the final resting place for novelist Flannery O'Connor. Former Steelers fullback J.T. Wall coaches a local high school team.
Townsfolk are quick to mention that Julia Roberts' character in the 1990 movie "Pretty Woman" says she arrived in California from Milledgeville.
Retired teacher and prison official Carl Maak, 59, said the city has remained out of the media spotlight since he arrived in 1971 from Rutherford, N.J., as a GSCU student.
"When I first arrived, I thought Milledgeville was at the end of the world. Now I don't say that," he said. "It's not at the end of the world, but you can see it from here."