A Top Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Inquiry
The case involving Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy.
The New York Times
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — 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 Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge 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 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,” 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’ 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’ 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 Winston to play the full season without having to answer any questions.
After the championship game, in January 2014, university officials asked Winston to discuss the case, but he declined on advice of his lawyer.
When The Times asked Winston for an interview, an Atlanta lawyer advising his family, David Cornwell, responded, “We don’t need an investigation, thorough or otherwise, to know that Jameis did not sexually assault this young lady.”
Cornwell, who has represented major sports figures and the NFL, added, “Jameis has never sexually assaulted anybody.”
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 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.
The victim advocate was concerned enough about the episode to have alerted Winston’s first accuser.
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 Casher with a student-code violation for taking the video. 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 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.
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 Angulo available for an interview, but his report states that he suspended the investigation because the accuser was uncooperative, which she denies.
Purgatory at Potbelly’s
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, 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, 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.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
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, drove her on a scooter to an intersection near her dormitory and dropped her off.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
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,” Weisberg said. “‘I think I just got raped,’” she recalled her saying. Weisberg drove immediately to the friend’s dorm.
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., 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, 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.
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.
An Inquiry Begins, and Ends
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 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 damage would be paid, and no charges were filed.
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.
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, Angulo hesitated. Nearly two weeks passed before his backup investigator contacted Winston — by telephone, records show.
“Winston stated he had baseball practice but would call back later to set a time,” Angulo wrote.
The police did get a response — from Winston’s lawyer, Timothy Jansen, who said his client would not be speaking to anyone.
With Winston identified, the next logical step would have been to quickly obtain his DNA. Angulo decided against it.
Carroll, the accuser’s lawyer, said the officer told her that testing Winston’s DNA might generate publicity. “I specifically asked and he refused,” Carroll said.
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.”
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, Winston’s lawyer had the two witnesses, Casher and 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 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, 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. (The men did not respond to phone messages, conveyed through university officials, seeking comment.)
Meggs immediately directed his staff to reinvestigate the case.
Only after the prosecutor took over the case did authorities obtain Winston’s DNA. It was a match to DNA found on the accuser’s clothing.
Belatedly, Angulo and his backup were asked to conduct a crucial interview — to question Casher about the events of Dec. 7, 2012.
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.
Casher had never mentioned the video in the affidavit he submitted with the help of Winston’s lawyer. Even so, officers did not ask why he had omitted that important fact, why he had deleted the video or whether he had shared it with anyone. And though Casher said he had a new phone, the officers did not ask what he did with the old one.
Neither the police nor the prosecutor’s office subpoenaed the phone records of Casher, Darby or Winston — even though they investigated all electronic communications to and from the accuser around the time of the sexual encounter.
The failure to seek similar electronic communications from the three football players surprised one former assistant state attorney, who prosecuted a Florida State football player on a rape charge a decade ago. “Why that was done, I don’t really know the answer to that,” said the former prosecutor, Adam Ruiz. “To me, that’s a no-brainer.”
Ruiz said his children, ages 7-21, all have iPhones, and even for something as mundane as rain: “You’re texting 30 people about it. I can’t imagine there would not have been something coming off that cellphone after the incident.”
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,” Cappleman said, “but that’s completely separate from whether I’m able to prove a crime occurred.”
The University’s Role
The news that Winston had been accused of rape moved through campus like an electric charge. On social media, the discussion quickly lost any semblance of civility, prompting one female student to send an email expressing her anger to Mary Coburn, vice president for student affairs.
The athletic department had known early on that Winston had been accused of a serious crime. According to an internal Tallahassee police email on Jan. 23, 2013, one officer wrote that Angulo’s backup on the case “received a call from the Athletic Director’s Assistant inquiring about the case.”
This knowledge should have set off an inquiry by the university. According to federal rules, any athletic department official who learns of possible sexual misconduct is required to pass it on to school administrators. Florida State declined to respond when asked if top officials, including the university president, had been informed of the encounter.
“Why did the school not even attempt to investigate the matter until after the football season?” said John Clune, another lawyer for the accuser.
His client filed a complaint with the civil-rights office of the federal Department of Education, and the agency recently agreed to examine whether Florida State properly responds to sexual violence complaints. The inquiry was first reported by USA Today.
Universities must also inform the federal government of reported sexual assaults on their property or in the immediate vicinity.
Florida State has not yet reported its 2013 sexual assault numbers, but in the three previous years it reported four, five and five. Those numbers place Florida State in the lower half nationwide of similar-size public universities, according to federal data analyzed by The Times. The number of reported rapes can be affected by the percentage of students who live off campus.
Baldwin, the Refuge House director, said accusers report that the university’s internal complaint system tends to bury their experience rather than address it responsibly.
“When I compare FSU with other universities within the last five years that have done a great deal to address this issue, I’m not seeing that level of energy here,” said Baldwin, a former Florida State law professor.
In its statement, the university said that, in complying with federal rules, “The need to investigate possible harassment must be balanced against the rights of and consent from the complainant.”
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.
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 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.”