Awesome article by McIntire!!!!!!!
At Florida State, Football Clouds Justice
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The 911 call could not have sounded more urgent: A man was beating a woman holding a baby outside their apartment as she tried to leave.
“You just need to get someone out here right away because it is really bad,” the caller said, adding that the man was “punching” the mother and “grabbing the little baby around the arm.”
By the time the police arrived shortly after 3 a.m. one day last January, the couple were back inside. The 19-year-old woman acknowledged that she and her boyfriend had argued, and that he had not wanted her to leave. But she insisted nothing physical had occurred.
Officers responding to a domestic violence call have a legal duty to investigate thoroughly, seek written statements from witnesses and from the victim, instruct the victim on how to seek help and, finally, forward their report to the local domestic abuse crisis center. But, according to their brief report on the episode, the officers did none of that.
They did, however, find the case significant enough to notify their sergeant — “due to the fact that it was an F.S.U. football player,” the report said. The sergeant, a Florida State University sports fan, signed off on it and the complaint was filed away as “unfounded.”
It was hardly the first time that the towering presence of Florida State football had cast a shadow over justice in Tallahassee.
Last year, the deeply flawed handling of a rape allegation against the quarterback Jameis Winston drew attention to institutional failures by law enforcement and Florida State officials. The accuser’s lawyer complained that detectives had seemed most interested in finding reasons not to pursue charges against Mr. Winston, a prized recruit who went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead his team to a national championship.
Now, an examination by The New York Times of police and court records, along with interviews with crime witnesses, has found that, far from an aberration, the treatment of the Winston complaint was in keeping with the way the police on numerous occasions have soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players. From criminal mischief and motor-vehicle theft to domestic violence, arrests have been avoided, investigations have stalled and players have escaped serious consequences.
In a community whose self-image and economic well-being are so tightly bound to the fortunes of the nation’s top-ranked college football team, law enforcement officers are finely attuned to a suspect’s football connections. Those ties are cited repeatedly in police reports examined by The Times. What’s more, dozens of officers work second jobs directing traffic and providing security at home football games, and many express their devotion to the Seminoles on social media.
Certainly, Florida State football players have not always sidestepped prosecution. Over the last three years, at least nine players have been arrested on charges ranging from sexual assault to being an accessory to a fatal shooting.
But on other occasions, despite strong evidence, investigations have been delayed and sometimes derailed.
When Jesus (Bobo) Wilson, an up-and-coming wide receiver, was stopped by the Tallahassee police in June while riding a stolen Bintelli Sprint motor scooter, his story was dubious: He claimed he had borrowed it from a student whose last name he did not know. But for Officer Michael Petroczky, it was convincing enough to forestall an arrest.
The officer, noting in his report that Mr. Wilson was a Florida State football player, wrote: “Wilson was not arrested today because he cooperated, showed no signs of guilt and provided a plausible story that needs to be investigated.”
According to the scooter’s owner, Mr. Wilson’s football connections weighed heavily on the case. After letting Mr. Wilson go, the officer arranged to meet the owner, a Florida State student, in a campus parking lot at night and “questioned if I was mentally stable or if I had forgotten that I lent him the scooter,” the student said in an email interview. The officer seemed deeply reluctant to charge Mr. Wilson, saying he did not want his name on the arrest report, according to the student.
“He told me that he had not arrested Wilson because he was a football player, and he did not want to ‘ruin’ his record by arresting him” if there was a chance he might be innocent, the student wrote.
At least 13 football players have been implicated in a string of wild public shootouts with CO2-powered BB and pellet guns, causing thousands of dollars in property damage, endangering bystanders and eliciting a police response. Yet until the most recent case — a previously unreported shootout in June that caused such a commotion that a sheriff’s helicopter was called in to search for suspects — none of the episodes led to charges, even though elsewhere in Florida suspects as young as 12 have been arrested for doing the same things.
The investigation of the June shootout sat inactive for months but was restarted not long after The Times began asking about it; charges were filed against three Florida State players on Oct. 2.
In a statement, the Tallahassee police chief, Michael DeLeo, who took over late last year, said that with 66,000 college students in the city, “I take seriously the responsibility entrusted to us to keep them safe and also hold them accountable for their actions.” And while he is proud of his officers, he said, if they make mistakes, “we immediately investigate and hold them accountable.” In response to The Times’s reporting on the police handling of the scooter case, the department has begun an internal-affairs inquiry.
A police spokesman, Officer David Northway, added that because of likely attention from the community and news media, it was department policy for officers to notify supervisors if cases involved high-profile figures, from college football players to government officials and business leaders.
The Times’s reporting also yielded a fuller account of how Florida State handled the rape complaint against Mr. Winston. In January 2013, days after Mr. Winston was identified by his accuser, senior Florida State athletic officials met privately with Mr. Winston’s lawyer. Afterward, they decided, on behalf of the university, not to begin an internal disciplinary inquiry, as required by federal law.
Most recently, university officials suspended Mr. Winston for one game after he stood in a public place on campus and, playing off a running Internet gag, shouted a crude reference to a sex act. In a news conference afterward, his coach, Jimbo Fisher, said, “Our hope and belief is Jameis will learn from this and use better judgment and language and decision-making.”
A search of his public Instagram page would have turned up a similar display. Amid photos of himself with his coach, the comedian Will Ferrell and the former N.F.L. quarterback Archie Manning, Mr. Winston posted a video clip in February in which he and a teammate, mimicking a viral music video, jokingly sang a line from the song “On the Floor” by the rapper IceJJFish, which celebrates men not taking “no” for an answer from women:
“She said she wants to take it slow, I’m not that type of guy I’ll letcha know, when I see that red light all I know is go.”
On one level, the special treatment accorded Florida State football players who get into trouble is the age-old story of important people reaping benefits not available to everyone else. And to say the players are important to Tallahassee would be an understatement.
Drive around Florida’s capital city and evidence of Seminole fever is everywhere, from the Chief Osceola license plates and bumper stickers to the billboards and buildings sporting team colors of garnet and gold. The community has good reason, beyond pride, to get behind the team: County officials say each home game pumps $1.5 million to $10 million into the local economy, depending on the quality of the matchup.
The revenue also flows to important people at the university, mostly through the conduit of Seminole Boosters, a tax-exempt organization that collects millions from donors in the community, along with game concessions, sky-box rentals and merchandising. Money from the Boosters has helped pay the salaries of high-ranking athletic officials and the university president, whose performance goals included enhancing “the partnership” between the Boosters and the athletic department.
Days before the national championship game last season, Coach Fisher received a multimillion-dollar raise and contract extension. Most of his $3.5 million pay comes from the Boosters, and the more he wins, the more he earns — up to $1.45 million in bonuses, including $200,000 for an undefeated season, $200,000 for finishing with a top-five national ranking, $400,000 for winning the national championship and $125,000 for various coach-of-the-year honors. Mr. Fisher’s first 12 bonuses are linked to winning, the last two, for a maximum payout of $75,000, to academic achievement for student athletes.
A successful football program is also good for Tallahassee police officers. They earn an extra $40 to $45 an hour, at university expense, providing traffic control on game days, according to the department. Last season, officers were paid a total of $112,000, according to the university.
Some officers working game-day shifts are paid directly by Seminole Boosters. Three officers who played important roles in the Winston investigation were among those seeking private work with the group, records show, and the department’s top officials at the time — Chief Dennis Jones and his deputy, Cheryl Stewart — attended a 2012 fund-raiser benefiting the Boosters and Coach Fisher’s family charity. The close connection between the police and the Boosters is hardly hidden: The fund-raiser’s sponsor, a booster club called Old School, posted photos on its website showing Chief Jones kicking off the event by firing a shotgun.
The benefits that flow from a top-tier team, and the incentives it creates to protect the franchise, are not unique to Florida State; indeed, they can be found in college towns across the country. But the current national uproar over professional athletes receiving light punishment for serious misbehavior has refocused attention on what some say is a similar failure to hold student athletes accountable in powerhouse college sports programs. Some critics of the N.F.L.’s handling of recent domestic violence cases are asking if players learn the wrong lessons while still in school. Gerald Gurney, a former senior associate athletic director at the University of Oklahoma who teaches a course on “ethical issues in intercollegiate athletics,” said the outsize influence of big-time collegiate sports could create a climate where keeping student athletes on the field trumped all other considerations.
“Too often, that relationship between the athletic department and local law enforcement is too close, where we lose objectivity and lose the ability to have a fair investigation if these students are athletes,” Mr. Gurney said. “Why? No. 1 is the love of the sport, of college football and the public’s attention to it, and the celebrity of the head coach and celebrity of the athletes.”
BB and Pellet Guns
On a Sunday evening in November 2012, as people milled about on West Tennessee Street near the Florida State campus, a red sport utility vehicle started cruising up and down, with someone inside firing a BB gun out a window. Bystanders were “stung by BBs,” and one nearly hit a security guard at an apartment complex, said Connie Ratliffe, the guard’s supervisor at the time.
“I heard this ‘ping, ping, ping’ and felt something whiz past my cheek,” as BBs struck a car she was standing next to, Ms. Ratliffe said in an interview. She added that she had pushed the guard back and ducked out of the way.
The episode marked the beginning of an intermittent, nearly two-year run of dangerous mischief — much of it, including the November episode, previously unreported — involving Florida State football players using BB and pellet guns powerful enough to shatter windows, damage cars and embed steel BBs in door frames.
According to a Tallahassee police account, the authorities put out an alert for the vehicle and soon pulled over a red Mercury with Marvin Bracy, Chris Casher and Kenneth Williams inside. The officer’s report says that the three young men “told me they were on the F.S.U. football team,” and that the police retrieved a black “semi-auto pistol BB gun” hidden under a rug in the back of the car.
Ms. Ratliffe identified the car but could not say which of the players had been firing the gun. The players denied shooting at anyone. The officer gave Mr. Bracy, the driver, a traffic ticket, and then “the BB gun was returned to Mr. Bracy,” according to the report. No charges were filed. The police spokesman, Officer Northway, said that without anyone to identify a suspect, “there was no ability to move ahead.”
“They were doing something that was really dangerous, that could have put somebody’s eye out or caused a car accident,” said Ms. Ratliffe, who did not know the players were never charged. “That’s ridiculous.”
A couple of weeks later, the university police responded to a complaint that two men were walking on a bike trail carrying a “long-barreled handgun.” The officers ordered the men — identified as Mr. Winston and Mr. Casher — onto the ground and handcuffed them, before determining that the gun was a pellet gun. The players said they had been shooting at squirrels, and were let go.
Later that night, according to the property manager at the nearby Legacy Suites apartments, Mr. Winston, Mr. Casher, Mr. Williams and another player, Mario Edwards Jr., took part in a shootout that caused $4,200 in damage to 13 windows. The manager, David Sudekum, told the Tallahassee police that he planned to evict all four players and had called the Florida State athletic department, but that “none of the suspects have come forward to pay for damages.” The police report said the case was being investigated as a potential felony, since it involved damage in excess of $1,000 resulting from criminal mischief.
Under university rules, a felony arrest results in automatic suspension from the team.
After officers made inquiries, Monk Bonasorte, an associate athletic director, said the cost of replacing the windows would be split among the four players and others involved in the shootout. In response to questions from The Times, the university said 13 of the team’s 100 or so players — far more than reported earlier — had paid $300 apiece. The police report added that Mr. Sudekum no longer wanted to pursue charges, and the case was dropped.
This past June, Florida State players were implicated in another previously unreported BB-gun shooting that caused damage and frightened tenants at the Cypress Gardens apartment complex. In what appeared to be retaliation for a BB-gun assault that shattered the apartment windows of a Florida State player that morning, three football players drove into the complex’s parking lot, jumped out and started exchanging fire with a fourth man.
In the ensuing mayhem, two cars belonging to tenants were damaged — the back window of one was shattered, and the other was hit five times, causing dents and smashing the side mirror — and frightened bystanders took cover.
“Whatever they were using, these weren’t toys you get at Walmart, they had some power behind them,” said Cameron Manning, whose apartment overlooks the scene. “It looked like a drug deal gone bad.”
Police officers responded and, based on witnesses and a security camera video, initially believed the shooting involved firearms. Officers fanned out to search the area and called in a helicopter from the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. A homicide investigator from the Tallahassee police violent crimes unit was assigned to the case.
The investigator, Scott Cherry, soon figured out that the shooting had involved BB guns and within a day had identified four suspects: a Cypress Gardens resident named Prince Adams and three Florida State football players, Dalvin Cook, Trey Marshall and Mr. Wilson, the wide receiver. The sensitivity of the football players’ involvement became clear in what happened next.
According to a report that he wrote later, the investigator described the facts of the case to the state attorney’s office on July 2, but at first did not reveal the “names or status of the subjects.” Then, after explaining that three of them were Florida State players, “I was instructed that the issue would have to be ‘round-tabled’ with the division chiefs” before deciding what to do, he wrote.
The chief assistant state attorney, Georgia Cappleman, said, “We round-tabled the matter to get a consensus because the prosecutors who were reviewing it did not agree on how the matter should be handled.” Ultimately, they concluded that the crime involved was disorderly conduct — a lesser offense than the criminal mischief designation the investigator was considering.
The inquiry went nowhere for more than two months until the police began interviewing the players on Sept. 8, not long after The Times began asking about it. In his report, the investigator wrote that he had been preoccupied with more serious cases over the summer. He said the state attorney’s office “looked at this incident again” and decided that a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief was, in fact, warranted, and on Oct. 2, all four suspects were charged and ordered to appear in court later this month.
The criminal mischief count fell short of a felony because the police estimated the damage to the tenants’ cars at less than $1,000. In arriving at that figure, investigators did not take into account the cost of the apartment windows that had been shot out earlier the same day in an episode that witnesses said involved some of the same suspects.
The police spokesman said the chief had found the delay in the case to be unacceptable and had instituted a new policy to prevent such lapses.
The BB-gun investigation came at an inopportune time for Mr. Wilson, who on June 17, just a week before the shootout, had been stopped by the Tallahassee police for riding around on the motor scooter that had been reported stolen. At first, it was unclear if he would face charges related to the theft, as he insisted to the officers that he had borrowed the scooter from a student he knew only as “Drew.”
Officer Petroczky’s initial report was not short on praise for Mr. Wilson. After the officer identified him as a football player, he wrote, Mr. Wilson did not attempt to flee and “was completely cooperative and calm during the entire encounter.” He added, “It is not typical for a suspect that is knowingly operating a stolen vehicle to be so compliant.”
Later that night, after meeting the scooter’s owner in the Florida State parking lot, Officer Petroczky wrote an addendum to his report, saying he had concluded that the owner was not, in fact, the mysterious “Drew” and had not lent the vehicle to anyone. Yet he still did not arrest Mr. Wilson, and instead turned the whole matter over to the university police, where the case languished for weeks.
The police spokesman, Officer Northway, said the chief had ordered his internal-affairs unit to look into the case because “the allegation that an officer might have tried to influence a citizen not to file charges in a possible felony theft is a serious allegation.” The scooter owner, who asked that he not be identified out of concern for retaliation on campus, said in the email interview that it was only after his father complained to the police that the case had picked up steam.
“It didn’t seem like they were pursuing the case much and were waiting to see if I would just forget about it or let it be,” the student said.
Mr. Wilson finally admitted that he had stolen the scooter after finding it with the keys in the ignition, and on July 9 he was charged with grand-theft auto, a felony. Mr. Wilson was suspended from play, although he took part in summer practice.
Mr. Wilson’s lawyer, Tim Jansen, who specializes in representing Florida State athletes in trouble, succeeded in getting the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. Mr. Wilson pleaded no contest, was sentenced to 30 days on a sheriff’s work detail — to begin after football season — and through his lawyer paid $1,000 restitution for damage to the scooter.
It is unclear where he came up with the money. According to a letter his mother wrote to the judge in an eviction proceeding that was happening at the same time, neither she nor her son could pay his back rent and utilities of $3,139. She said she was out of work and could come up with only $1,000 for her son’s landlord.
Florida State reinstated Mr. Wilson after the Seminoles’ first game; five weeks into the season, he was the team’s second-leading receiver.
On Jan. 10, 2013, a female student at Florida State spotted the man she believed had raped her the previous month. After learning his name, Jameis Winston, she reported him to the Tallahassee police.
In the 21 months since, Florida State officials have said little about how they handled the case, which is now one of dozens across the nation being investigated by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
But new information has recently emerged, as part of The Times’s continuing examination of the case, indicating that it was Florida State’s athletic department that decided the allegation did not merit a university investigation. Normally, university officials outside the department handle such matters.
According to a statement released by the university on Tuesday, senior athletic department officials met with Mr. Winston’s lawyer, Mr. Jansen, within days of his identification as a suspect and quickly concluded that “there were no grounds for further action.” The accuser’s former lawyer, Patricia A. Carroll, said the department did not contact her at the time to get her client’s side of the story.
Although Florida State was legally obligated to conduct a “prompt, thorough and impartial” disciplinary inquiry, the university chose not to, as the team marched to the national championship. “This is exactly the cover-up we suspected,” Baine P. Kerr, a lawyer for Mr. Winston’s accuser, said in a statement responding to the new information. “Coach Fisher and his associates ‘concluded’ that they would keep it to themselves. But football coaches don’t get to decide whether schools investigate athletes for rape.”
According to the university’s statement, Mr. Winston’s lawyer “informed the athletics department that the police had dropped the investigation.” Based on that information, and accounts given “by the athlete and two others who had witnessed the encounter,” athletic officials made the decision that no inquiry was warranted.
At times, the university’s statement underscores inconsistencies in the case. The Tallahassee police have said publicly that they had not dropped the case — only temporarily suspended it — and according to police records, detectives at the time knew nothing about the two witnesses, both friends of Mr. Winston’s. One of them, Mr. Winston’s roommate, took a video of the encounter, only to discard it before the police could examine it.
On Friday, as The Times was preparing to publish this article, the university sent an open letter to the Florida State community, laying out the university’s timeline of events and defending its handling of the case.
In response to questions from The Times, university officials said they had fully informed federal investigators six months ago about the athletic department’s knowledge of the sexual-assault allegation in January 2013. The officials said they were limited in what they could say publicly about the case because of privacy laws, and declined to make athletic department officials or Mr. Winston and other team members available for interviews. Mr. Jansen also declined to discuss the case.
As The Times reported last April, the Tallahassee police also failed to aggressively investigate the rape accusation. It did not become public until November, when a Tampa reporter, Matt Baker, acting on a tip, sought records of the police investigation.
Upon learning of Mr. Baker’s inquiry, Florida State, having shown little curiosity about the rape accusation, suddenly took a keen interest in the journalist seeking to report it, according to emails obtained by The Times.
“Can you share any details on the requesting source?” David Perry, the university’s police chief, asked the Tallahassee police. Several hours later, Mr. Bonasorte, the senior athletic department official, asked Chief Perry if the requester was a sportswriter. The chief did not know. At 7:59 the next morning, a city official informed the chief that Mr. Baker was in fact a sports reporter. By 11 a.m., the athletic department had tracked down his résumé.
Might the Tallahassee police try to block the report’s release on legal grounds? Mr. Bonasorte wanted to know. “I will talk to Jimbo, if released or not,” he said, in an email to Chief Perry.
TMZ, the gossip website, also requested the police report and later asked the school’s deputy police chief, Jim L. Russell, if the campus police had interviewed Mr. Winston about the rape report. Mr. Russell responded by saying his officers were not investigating the case, omitting any reference to the city police, even though the campus police knew of their involvement. “Thank you for contacting me regarding this rumor — I am glad I can dispel that one!” Mr. Russell told TMZ in an email. The university said Mr. Russell was unaware of any other police investigation at the time of the inquiry. Soon after, the Tallahassee police belatedly sent their files to the news media and to the prosecutor, William N. Meggs. By then critical evidence had been lost and Mr. Meggs, who criticized the police’s handling of the case, declined to prosecute.
Only after the end of Florida State’s national championship season did the university, having begun a disciplinary inquiry, attempt without success to interview Mr. Winston. Seven more months would pass before the school interviewed his accuser, who had long since dropped out. Mr. Winston has acknowledged having sex with his accuser, but said it was consensual. He will cooperate with the university’s disciplinary inquiry, which the university said Friday would be conducted by an independent hearing officer.
Abuse Call to 911
The 911 call came at 3:10 a.m. A man and a woman were fighting outside an apartment complex three miles north of the Florida State campus. The caller, a neighbor, asked the police to hurry. He said the man was grabbing the baby, punching the mother and trying to block her from driving away. “He jumped behind the truck, and she tried to run him over,” he said.
It was not the first time the couple had fought, the caller said, adding, “You can constantly hear them screaming.”
In two minutes, the Tallahassee police were on the scene. Officer Paul Donaldson later summed up what they had learned in a three-paragraph report: The man and woman were inside talking, not yelling. He was holding their baby. During an earlier argument, she had tried to leave their apartment, taking the baby with her, but he objected. Both calmed down and went back inside. “There was no bruising or evidence of a battery,” the police report stated, calling the complaint “unfounded.”
Because police departments have historically treated complaints of domestic violence less seriously than other violent crimes, many departments have adopted clear investigative protocols, some of them codified in state laws. But since the officers decided that this was not a case of domestic violence, they avoided having to follow those protocols and their own department policies, according to police records and interviews with domestic violence experts.
Over all, the police appear to have done little investigating. Officer Donaldson’s report contains no indication that the police interviewed any witnesses or obtained written statements, nor did he give a reason for failing to do so. Because the 911 caller said the altercation occurred outside, the police could have attempted to examine video from security cameras fixed throughout the apartment complex, but the report includes no mention of it.
“The training that I have seen on domestic violence, not just in Florida but nationally, certainly you would want to see if there were any witnesses,” said Nina Zollo, legal counsel to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “So based on the 911 call, there was a witness. That is pretty basic domestic violence training for officers.”
Florida law states that whether or not an arrest is made, officers must clearly indicate in their report that “the alleged offense was an incident of domestic violence.” They must then send the report to the designated domestic violence crisis center.
The department spokesman, Officer Northway, said the case was correctly reclassified as a “domestic disturbance” because officers had determined that it was only a “verbal argument.”
After viewing the police report, provided by The Times, the director of the designated crisis center in Tallahassee, Refuge House, said she believed that the episode should have been classified as domestic violence, with the report sent to her office.
“Refuge House has raised its concerns about this report to T.P.D. and is awaiting a full response,” the director, Meg Baldwin, said in a statement.
Ms. Baldwin said the episode pointed to broader concerns about domestic abuse involving Florida State football players.
“Victims of domestic violence at the hands of F.S.U. football players have come to us, believing that they can’t go to police, can’t get an injunction safely, can’t complain to F.S.U., can’t be seen anywhere near the F.S.U. victim advocate office, and face enormous risk to their safety, alone with an attacker who is physically massive and habituated to physical aggression,” she said. “None of these victims even filed a police report.”
In the January case, the officers may have been less than diligent in their investigation, but there was one item they did not neglect: notifying their supervisor, Sgt. David McCranie, “due to the fact that it was an F.S.U. football player.”
The sergeant was recently demoted after running two red lights and hollering at state troopers while off duty. He said he got carried away because he was excited about Florida State winning a big softball game against Michigan.
“Where I was, everybody was whooping and hollering,” he told internal affairs investigators. “The streets were busy. And I left, and as I passed the trooper, I whooped and hollered.”