Roethlisberger inquiry bumpy
Documents from high-profile case against Steeler reveal questionable decisions, missteps, contradictions
Sunday, April 18, 2010
By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the wee hours of March 5, as bars in Milledgeville, Ga. emptied for the night, three women approached a police officer parked downtown and said "something" had happened to their friend inside a nightclub -- something involving a "big time football player."
That understated conversation spawned a high-profile investigation of rape allegations against Ben Roethlisberger, one that was in the public eye for a month yet its inner workings were mostly hidden from public scrutiny until now.
New details gleaned from the case file reveal that the inquiry was, if nothing else, bumpy, contradictory and marked by dead ends -- no slam-dunk evidence, no DNA profile to compare with genetic material from the Steelers quarterback, and no coveted second interview with Mr. Roethlisberger after his initial statement to police in the incident's immediate aftermath.
Documents made available when the case was closed show some officers made questionable decisions in the investigation's early stages, such as not sequestering witnesses or securing the scene of the alleged crime -- a small, staff bathroom in the back of the Capital City nightclub.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation had occasional trouble contacting both the accuser and her lawyer, who did not return numerous calls from the agency.
And the alleged victim's family distrusted the Milledgeville Police Department so much that they warned the bureau's lead agent not to bring them to the woman's house when the agent went to swab her mouth for evidence samples.
An unsecured scene
About eight hours after the 20-year-old student at Georgia College and State University accused Mr. Roethlisberger of raping her in the restroom, a janitor scrubbed the sink, floor and toilet with Clorox and Pine-Sol.
To the chagrin of investigators, no one had told him not to. The only evidence collected from the bathroom did not yield useful results.
"In this type of case, usually your highest and best evidence is found on your victim. However, in an effort to be as thorough as possible, you always process the scene as well," said Tom Davis, special agent in charge of GBI's Milledgeville field office.
Attorney Alexander Lindsay, a former federal and state prosecutor in Western Pennsylvania, said GBI "worked the hell out of this case but it was muffed at the beginning" by Milledgeville police. Mr. Lindsay, who teaches law at the University of Pittsburgh, reviewed the case file, most of which was posted online by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
It is possible that DNA or other evidence of sexual contact could have been obtained from the bathroom.
"The bathroom was unsecured and washed with Pine-Sol. At that point, it was a factor in not only not having evidence, but a defense attorney was going to say the police botched the investigation," Mr. Lindsay said.
It was not until four hours after the bathroom was cleaned that the Milledgeville Police Department called in Agent Davis's investigators.
"Some agencies do wait to call, however we prefer to be called when the police respond and assess what they have," Agent Davis said. "The sooner the better for maximizing the potential for a successful investigation."
Milledgeville police Chief Woodrow W. Blue said a 12-hour wait was about normal before calling in state investigators. He said his department handles between three and six rapes a year, and Chief Blue said it was of no consequence that the bathroom had not been sealed off.
An officer's conduct
The woman's friends said she was shook up upon leaving Capital City.
According to one, Nicole Biancofiore, the alleged victim "did not want to report the incident to a random police officer," the case file shows.
Ms. Biancofiore called a friend, Baldwin County Sheriff's Deputy Shawn Tapley, to ask for advice. He told her to report to an officer downtown.
"Biancofiore also stated that [the woman] did not want to report it because she did not want people to know about the incident and was embarrassed by what had happened."
So the women approached Sgt. Willie Goddard. He, in turn, passed things along to the shift supervisor, Jerry Blash.
It was a fateful step.
Mr. Blash, who had been a police sergeant, resigned last week amid a furor over his conduct during the investigation.
It was Mr. Blash who had escorted Mr. Roethlisberger and his bar-hopping group of friends to Capital City. It was Mr. Blash who posed for a photograph with the quarterback early in the evening. And it was Mr. Blash who investigators say admitted in interviews that while in Capital City he said something like, "This bitch is drunk off her ass accusing Ben of assaulting her."
When he was first approached by the women, Mr. Blash told investigators, the alleged victim was "swaying and smelling of alcohol" and "talked 'all over the place.' " He also said she seemed "nonchalant."
"Blash stated that he asked [the woman] if Roethlisberger had raped her and she stated, 'No, I did not know what was going on,' because she was intoxicated so much. [The woman] told Blash that Roethlisberger did not force her but kept asking her."
Ten days later during a second interview, he told investigators that the woman said "Well, I'm not sure" when he asked if she and Mr. Roethlisberger had sex.
Those interviews are the only places where Mr. Blash's description of that conversation -- and the woman's denial of being raped -- is memorialized, according to Agent Davis.
"He did not put that in his original report, only in his interview. His original report was very brief," Agent Davis said.
All other accounts -- the accuser's two written statements and her friends' interviews with investigators -- consistently state that the woman claimed Mr. Roethlisberger forced sex on her.
Mr. Roethlisberger, through his attorneys, denies any illegal conduct.
At one point, the woman and Mr. Blash argued on the street with voices raised about whether he would take a report, according to her friends. She felt she was being told not to file one; Mr. Blash countered that he was not trying to dissuade her.
"Blash indicated that he did tell the victim that what she was saying to Blash was not making sense and told the victim that Roethlisberger's attorneys or any attorney would 'tear your story up' and 'you got to be more clear with me and fill in these blanks.' "
In his interview, Mr. Blash acknowledged his vexation.
"Blash was frustrated because the victim could barely stand, and that pissed Blash off," wrote GBI Special Agent Ryan Carmichael.
"The victim's friends got on Blash's nerves because he kept asking them were they back there with her, and they said no. The victim's friends were trying to tell what was going on more than the victim was, and the victim could not answer Blash's questions."
'A big problem'
Mr. Blash sent the woman to the city police department. He met with fellow officers, including Jason Lopez.
Officer Lopez recalled that as the bars were emptying, Mr. Blash asked him to get Capital City's manager to call.
About 10 minutes later, Officer Lopez said, Mr. Blash came up to him and said, "We've got a big problem. We've got a big problem. We've got a big problem."
Police headed into the nightclub. When they arrived, people in the Steeler's entourage were on the phone with lawyers, one officer reported. Most refused to give their names to police.
Mr. Roethlisberger was there along with several friends: off-duty Coraopolis police Officer Anthony J. Barravecchio, off-duty Pennsylvania State Trooper Edward J. Joyner, and Nima Zarrabi, marketing director for the California firm of the quarterback's agent, Ryan Tollner.
"Not this ... again," Officer Barravecchio said upon learning of the allegation, according to the GBI report.
"When Blash was talking with them, one of them said that he gets sick of this kind of 'BS,' and Blash said that he knows how it is and these kind of people deal with this type of thing all the time, but they still have to follow procedures."
Mr. Zarrabi told investigators that he saw Mr. Blash approach Trooper Joyner and tell him: "I know, I know, it's [BS]. I don't believe a word this girl was saying. She could barely stand up straight as she's telling me this, but she's making a serious claim we have to look into."
As Mr. Blash spoke with his colleagues and the off-duty Pennsylvania officers, he used profanity in connection with the accuser and discussed her being drunk, according to investigative reports.
They also chatted about things unrelated to the case, including Officer Barravecchio's watch.
Officer Richard Davidson described the conversation as casual and "light-hearted."
The woman's friends alleged that the two Pennsylvania police officers were involved in putting the woman and Mr. Roethlisberger together in a hallway leading to the bathroom and then preventing them from reaching her.
In their interviews, the men denied the accusations.
Trooper Joyner, who sought and obtained permission from his bosses in April 2005 for permission to work for Mr. Roethlisberger as a driver and assistant, has declined to comment on the case.
Pennsylvania State Police officials are examining the case file and reviewing Trooper Joyner's conduct.
"Upon completion of that review, appropriate action that is warranted will be taken," said Lt. Myra A. Taylor, a state police spokeswoman. She declined additional comment.
Officer Barravecchio's lawyer, Michael Santicola, said his client did nothing wrong and was sober throughout the evening.
"Walking into a bar is not a crime, and none of these guys committed any acts that were a crime," Mr. Santicola said. "The only crime that I've seen committed right now is the crime of this girl. She's underage, she's bombed out of her mind and she's in a bar she shouldn't be in."
Mr. Blash spoke briefly with Mr. Roethlisberger, outlined the allegations against him, and said the quarterback stated he told the woman to leave because she was too drunk.
Mr. Roethlisberger also told Mr. Blash she fell and hit her head. A medical examination did not substantiate that, the district attorney said last week.
According to Mr. Zarrabi, the quarterback told Mr. Blash that the girl's accusation was not true. Mr. Zarrabi told him to not say anything further. He called the firm's lawyer and handed the phone to Mr. Roethlisberger.
When Mr. Blash asked the quarterback for his address, Mr. Zarrabi intervened and handed the sergeant his business card.
One officer who was on the scene, Michael Clay, said Mr. Roethlisberger stated "that he would not give the girl the time of day and that he had ignored her. Clay stated that Roethlisberger appeared to feel or imply that the girl would only say what she alleged because he had ignored her friend and her friend had instigated her report."
While Mr. Blash was in Capital City, Officer Lopez interviewed the woman in a squad room at the station. He said she spoke with candor, but her speech was slurred and her eyes were red.
She told him something that officers found perplexing: the woman claimed that she and the 6-foot-5 Mr. Roethlisberger had sex while she was sitting on the toilet.
An interview sought
By the end of March 5, investigators had spoken with the alleged victim, her friends, a bouncer, the janitor, the club manager and several Milledgeville officers.
Rape kit tests were performed on the alleged victim, and swabs of evidence along with her underwear were sent to a lab for analysis.
On March 8, investigators and Mr. Roethlisberger's Atlanta attorney Edward T. M. Garland talked on a speakerphone. They tried to work out a trade.
GBI's Agent Davis asked Mr. Garland if he would make the quarterback and his friends who accompanied him in Milledgeville available for an interview.
Mr. Garland said he would with regard to the friends. As for Mr. Roethlisberger, he was "unsure."
Would the investigators provide details about the allegations against his client?
Agent Davis "advised Garland that if he would produce Roethlisberger for an interview, and that if District Attorney Fred Bright was present and in agreement, that SAC Davis would provide the basic details of the allegations against Roethlisberger."
Later in the day, Agent Davis told Mr. Garland that the DA agreed to the swap.
"Down here, lawyers very rarely let us talk with their clients but I was giving it my best shot," Agent Davis explained.
The next day, the records show, Mr. Bright told a gathering of top prosecutors and investigators that he had already given Mr. Garland the information he was seeking.
The interview with the quarterback was never granted.
"Bright only had one conversation with Garland that I am aware of through the course of the investigation and that was the one you mentioned. He basically gave him what the allegations were and that's all," Agent Davis said.
Mr. Garland gave investigators something else, though. He put them on notice that he knew of Mr. Blash's derogatory words about the accuser and that the sergeant had "stated that he did not believe her story."
Mr. Bright was "very concerned," Agent Davis reported, and asked that Mr. Blash be interviewed.
A leery accuser
Investigators were having other issues. The accuser could not be reached. Special Agent Monica Ling, the lead investigator, tried to reach her "numerous times" over the weekend of the alleged assault without success.
Lee Parks, the woman's lawyer, finally called on the evening of March 7. Agent Ling said she wanted to take swabs from inside the woman's cheeks.
Mr. Parks said his client and her family were leery. They thought Milledgeville police had leaked information about the woman to the media.
Within two hours of making a report, the woman told Agent Ling, the media was calling her cell phone
Mr. Parks added that the woman and her family were also upset that one of the Milledgeville detectives gave his private e-mail address to the family for sending pictures from the night of the incident. It was not clear why that bothered the family.
After obtaining evidence from the woman, the next step was to interview her. Agent Ling reported having trouble reaching Mr. Parks the next week. When they connected, the attorney told the agent that his client was in therapy and could not help.
"Parks stated he had spoken with [the woman's] therapist and they had decided at this point [she] would be reliving the incident again if she was interviewed now."
Agent Ling wrote that Mr. Parks told her it would be important to speak with his client before talking to Mr. Roethlisberger because she would "know the kind of language Roethlisberger used and exactly what happened."
A 'minute' sample
Several hours before Mr. Bright sat down March 9 with investigators, Agent Ling learned from the crime lab that only a "minute" amount of male DNA had been identified from the rape kit tests.
By March 11, Mr. Garland told investigators that his client's entourage would be available for interviews in the next few days. He was willing to make Mr. Roethlisberger available over the weekend to give a DNA sample.
Agent Ling obtained a search warrant the next day for the quarterback's DNA. The warrant was never executed, and authorities eventually rescinded the request for the sample from Mr. Roethlisberger.
Forensic evidence, it turned out, was scant. Although testing showed the presence of male human DNA from the woman, there was no way to match it to Mr. Roethlisberger or anyone else, according to Ted R. Staples, GBI's manager of forensic biology.
"It was an extremely small quantity of that, and there simply was not enough to generate a nuclear DNA profile from that male" Mr. Staples said. "We carried it forward and made an attempt [to obtain a DNA profile.] The only profile generated was that of the female."
Even with today's technology, the sample was so infinitesimal that nothing could be determined.
"Normally what we're looking for is about a nanogram of DNA, which is a billionth of a gram. A raisin weighs about a gram, so if you could cut a raisin into a billion pieces, we need one of those. So this particular result was far less than even a nanogram. There was something there. It just wasn't enough."
Mr. Staples said scientists could not discern the source of the DNA in the sample, whether it was from saliva, semen or something else.
On March 15, GBI Agent Carmichael also interviewed a member of the Milledgeville Police Explorers, a program for youth interested in law enforcement careers. According to the report, the youth repeated an account -- which was not substantiated by investigators -- that a 16-year-old friend's sister had told of driving Mr. Roethlisberger home while he was drunk and saying the quarterback initially wouldn't allow her to leave before he exposed himself and told her "she could do whatever she wants."
That woman also told of attending a party at Mr. Roethlisberger's home about a week later, saying he invited her to his room and stuck his hand up her skirt. She said she told her father, who "chose not to pursue the issue," according to the report. The woman did not wish to speak to investigators.
Mr. Garland declined to comment on that account, saying "We are not going to discuss the rumors or allegations. The district attorney has concluded there was no criminal conduct."
David Cornwell, another of Mr. Roethlisberger's attorneys, called it "hearsay at least twice removed."
"The fact that this was in the GBI file kind of confines its relevance to the prosecution's consideration of whether or not to charge Ben," he said. "The outcome speaks for itself."
A case closed
With no DNA, no video evidence and no eyewitness accounts, the investigation was dealt its final blow on April 2.
That afternoon, the alleged victim, her parents and her lawyers met with prosecutors and investigators at Mr. Parks' law firm in Atlanta.
Based on a previous conversation with one of the woman's lawyers, investigators had planned to interview the woman. But at the meeting, the message to investigators was unequivocal: the accuser did not want to go forward with the case.
Ten days later, Mr. Bright announced on live television that there would be no charges filed against Mr. Roethlisberger. His obstacle, he said, was not being able to prove that a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt. Whatever happened in the bathroom of Capital City, if anything, would remain a secret.
After a month of intense investigation that began with a conversation on a darkened street and ended in the glare of the national spotlight, the case was closed.
Jonathan D. Silver: email@example.com or 412-263-1962. Staff Writers Dan Majors and Michael A. Fuoco contributed.
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