Thank you, Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times, for getting to the bottom of what went so horribly wrong in the investigation of the sexual assault accusation against Jameis Winston, Florida State University’s star quarterback. I’ve been writing about this case since news of it broke last November. There has been plenty to be suspicious about along the way. But I learned several key new facts reading Bogdanich’s masterful story, and it all makes the Tallahassee, Fla., police and FSU look much worse than I’d expected. Which is really saying something. Here’s the damning bottom line: “The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.”
The woman who accused Winston of rape, who is an FSU student, spoke to the police, after a friend called 911, around 3:30 a.m. on the night she said she was assaulted. She had bruises, and Winston’s semen would later be found on her underwear—much later, because the police decided not to ask him for a DNA sample. Two months after the alleged assault, with barely any investigation underway, Detective Scott Angulo closed the case, citing the alleged victim’s lack of cooperation. The woman and her lawyer say she never stopped cooperating with the police and that the police didn’t inform them that the case had been closed.
For almost a year, until the Tampa Bay Times filed a public-records request to get the case files, the whole thing remained buried. Meanwhile, Winston kept playing football and began leading his team, the Seminoles, to an undefeated, record-breaking season. In November, with the Seminoles poised to play for the ACC championship, the Tampa Bay Times published its story, and prosecutor William N. Meggs launched his own investigation into the sexual assault charges. His office got the DNA sample from Winston and started trying to interview witnesses and piece together other evidence. But by then it was too late to prove a rape occurred that night, Meggs said. Bogdanich explains why:
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.
Meggs gave more scathing quotes to the Times. “How long does it take to identify a freshman football player — about 10, 15, 16 seconds?” he said of the police’s failure to find Chris Casher, one of two of Winston’s teammates who witnessed the alleged assault and whose first name the alleged victim knew and told the police at the start. (It took her a month to identify Winston as the man she said held her down and raped her—she said she was drinking that night and for a time partially blacked out—but had the police found Casher, they probably would have gotten to Winston much sooner.) Other leads the police failed to follow: They didn’t get videotape from Potbelly’s, the bar where the woman said she met Winston. They didn’t try to find the cab driver who she said drove her, Winston, and two other men—Casher and another friend of theirs, Ronald Darby—to their apartment. When she identified Winston, Angulo called him on the phone rather than going to talk to him in person. Winston told Angulo, “I have baseball practice, I’ll get with you later,” and then hired a attorney who advised him not to talk. “It’s insane to call a suspect on the phone,” Meggs told Bogdanich.
By the time Meggs’ office launched its own investigation, the Potbelly’s video had been erased, the cab driver who drove the woman, Winston, and his friends either couldn’t be found or didn’t want to be involved, and Winston had lawyered up.
Meggs is careful to note, as he must, that he can’t say whether a proper investigation would have led to criminal charges. Through his lawyer, Winston has denied from the outset that he assaulted anyone. The Tallahassee Police Department has defended its handling of the case, issuing a statement that the police reports “document that our department took the case seriously, processed evidence and conducted a thorough investigation based on information available when the case was reported.” FSU, which stopped talking to the Times in the course of Bogdanich’s reporting, says 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.”
Maybe, but Bogdanich reports on other sexual assault accusations by FSU students that make the police look insensitive and incompetent and the university like an ostrich with its head in the sand, or worse. And no, FSU has not solved the problem with a belated Title IX investigation and decision to charge Casher and Darby—not Winston—with five violations of the school’s code of conduct. [Update, April 16: After this post published, FSU issued a statement objecting to the Times story. It's a lot longer than it is convincing—read for yourself.]
Here’s the paragraph in Bogdanich’s story that shocked me most:
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.
How is this not a giant conflict of interest? How does it not make FSU’s failure to launch a timely Title IX investigation, as the law requires, appear utterly suspect? Here’s another telling bit from Bogdanich: “The athletic department had known early on that Mr. Winston had been accused of a serious crime. According to an internal Tallahassee police email on Jan. 23, 2013, one officer wrote that Officer Angulo’s backup on the case ‘received a call from the Athletic Directors Assistant inquiring about the case.’ ”
This story makes it clear that the Tallahassee Police Department is in desperate need of the kind of training that’s been proven to work best for interviewing alleged rape victims. And it makes me intensely eager for the outcome of the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX inquiry into FSU’s handling of the Winston matter.
At the outset of this tale of error—and possibly corruption—I wrote that “sexual assault charges against star athletes are often a kind of poison, one that acts less on the athlete in question than the woman who says she is the victim.” The woman who says Winston raped her was relentlessly criticized at FSU and withdrew from her classes. Winston won the Heisman Trophy. It’s too late to alter any of that. But I hope the Times story hits FSU and the Tallahassee police with the force to produce fundamental change. And I hope other universities and police departments treat this as a warning and a wake-up call, too.