QB’s case in trouble from the start

AJC exclusive: NFL’s Roethlisberger benefited from lapses in Milledgeville case

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Shielded by two police buddies during an evening of bar-hopping in a Georgia college town, Ben Roethlisberger would acquire a third ally in blue after a college sophomore claimed that she was raped by the Pittsburgh Steelers star that night.

According to witnesses aligned with both the accuser and accused, Milledgeville police Sgt. Jerry Blash demonstrated little patience with the alleged victim, a 20-year-old Georgia College & State University student, or her claims that she was assaulted at a nightclub early on the morning of March 5 by the NFL star.

Roethlisberger, meanwhile, was barely pressed by Blash, the night commander, who had his picture taken with the two-time Super Bowl champ earlier that evening.

Vivid details of the encounter between Blash and the accuser emerge from an examination of a 500-plus-page case file on the incident compiled by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The report and interviews with attorneys for Roethlisberger and the accuser, the district attorney for the Milledgeville area and other legal experts show that the investigation into the woman’s claim of sexual assault was compromised from the start.

“We’ve got a big problem. We’ve got a big problem. We’ve got a big problem!” Blash, 35, told fellow Officers Richard Davidson and Jason Lopez during a hastily arranged huddle at the Capital City club, where the woman claimed she had been assaulted. The accuser, accompanied by two sorority sisters, had just reported the assault to Blash, who wasn’t convinced.

Her friends did most of the talking, Blash later told the GBI. The alleged victim, he said, was “very nonchalant.” He asked her if she had been raped. According to the sergeant, she said no. Her account of what happened in the club’s bathroom would change, as would Blash’s recollection of what was said that night.

Quarterback alerted

After hearing the young woman’s story, Blash quickly notified Roethlisberger and his group of her allegation. The sergeant, who has since resigned amid an internal investigation into his behavior, approached two of the quarterback’s associates, Pennsylvania lawmen Anthony Barravecchio and Edward Joyner, and told them what had transpired.

Barravecchio, a Coraopolis, Pa., officer assigned to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration task force, said Blash told them: “We have a problem, this drunken [expletive], drunk off her ass, is accusing Ben of rape.”

In a separate interview with the GBI, Joyner, a veteran Pennsylvania state police officer and a friend and “assistant” to Roethlisberger, confirmed Barravecchio’s account.

“The way she says it happened, there is no way,” Blash told Joyner. “There is no way it could have happened,” adding that the accuser had changed her story several times.

The woman seemed unsure at first of what exactly had happened, Blash told the GBI. The officer asked if she had been raped and she responded, “No.” He then asked her if she and Roethlisberger had sex and she said, “Well, I’m not sure.”

She “talked all over the place,” Blash said.

The woman told Lopez the sex took place when she was sitting on the toilet in the club’s cramped bathroom. “Blash advised that the toilet was low and Roethlisberger was 6’5” so Blash did not know how that could of occurred,” the GBI report states.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not naming the woman because she is an alleged sexual assault victim.

Accusation doubted

The accuser’s encounter with the Milledgeville lawmen occurred moments after she and her two Zeta Tau Alpha sisters left the Capital City club looking to make a report. An officer they found directed them to Blash. What followed was a tense, sometimes confrontational exchange, according to all the parties involved.

To Blash, the accuser was heavily intoxicated and uncertain what had happened. Her friends, Nicole Biancofiore and Ann Marie Lubatti, “got on his nerves.”

The disdain was mutual. Biancofiore and Lubatti told the GBI that Blash never took their friend’s accusation seriously.

According to Biancofiore, the sergeant told them he would file a report but warned them they were wasting their time. Lubatti told the GBI that Blash advised, “You can file a statement but this man has a lot of money and good attorneys.”

That angered the accuser, her friends said. She asked, in a raised voice, whether she should just forget she was raped and not file charges. The sergeant became defensive, Lubatti said, accusing the alleged victim of trying to put words in his mouth.

The brief exchange ended on a sour note, and two days later, the alleged victim’s attorney, Lee Parks, told a GBI agent the woman’s family didn’t want “anyone from the Milledgeville police coming to their residence for any reason.”

Former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan reviewed the GBI documents at the request of the AJC.

“With that kind of attitude, what victim would want to go through with a prosecution?” Morgan said. “After the way she was treated, it was going to be hard to move forward with this case.”

A series of lapses

In the coming days, investigators and prosecutors would be confronted with inconsistent statements, a botched crime scene and serious witness problems.

On Monday, March 8, a meeting between Milledgeville police Chief Woodrow Blue and GBI Special Agent in Charge Tommy Davis was interrupted by a phone call from Roethlisberger’s recently hired attorney, Ed Garland.

According to the GBI investigative file, Garland said “he was familiar with statements made by the initial responding officer to Roethlisberger and his group that the officer called the victim a drunk [expletive] and stated he did not believe her story.” It was the first they had heard of the exchange.

The next day they met with District Attorney Fred Bright, who was “very concerned” about the alleged statements. Already, it appeared, the prosecution was in trouble.

The situation called to mind another NFL star represented by Garland and his law partner, Don Samuel: Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, who was charged 10 years ago with the murder of two Decatur men during a street brawl in Buckhead.

Garland managed to win over jurors with his Southern charm while staging a withering public defense of his client. He called news conferences and denounced the charges against Lewis, who later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Two co-defendants were acquitted.

This time, Garland employed a quieter strategy, avoiding any criticism of law enforcement. He issued a statement that Roethlisberger was “completely innocent” and expressed confidence the facts would acquit his client.

Blash could have been a significant asset for the defense. In his interview with GBI agent Carmichael, he admitted denigrating the accuser.

It wouldn’t be the Police Department’s only mistake. The crime scene was never sealed off, and 12 hours after the alleged assault occurred, the club’s janitor swabbed the bathroom with Clorox and Pine-Sol..

In another lapse, Roethlisberger was never actually questioned. Blash spoke with the quarterback at the Capital City club, along with his agent and two bodyguards. But Roethlisberger was hardly engaged, spending most of the time on his phone, according to the sergeant.

Regardless, Blash took another step to minimize the incident involving football player, 28. He told the GBI he completed a “non-detailed incident report” so as not to alert the news media.

Bright told the AJC his decision not to prosecute was influenced by variety of factors. “I don’t want to quantify, but it was the totality of everything,” he said, citing the woman’s changing story, her state of intoxication and Blash’s actions.

“Being the first officer on the scene means that, normally, he’d be one of the first witnesses,” Bright said. “Clearly, Blash didn’t believe her.”

In addition, DNA evidence was inconclusive.

Bright also had been sent a letter on March 17 from the accuser’s lawyers, Parks and David Walbert, asking him to drop the case. A criminal trial would be “a very intrusive personal experience ... given the extraordinary media attention that would be inevitable,” the letter said, adding it did not reflect any recanting of the allegations by their client.

Parks declined to say whether there had been any monetary settlement over potential civil claims his client could have been brought against Roethlisberger, who signed an eight-year, $102 million contract in 2008.

Said Parks, “I can’t comment on that.”

AJC staff writers Rhonda Cook and Katie Leslie contributed to this article.


How we got the story

AJC reporters obtained and examined the 500-plus-page Georgia Bureau of Investigation report on the March 5 incident in a Milledgeville club involving NFL quarterback Ben Roethlisberger; the quotes and characterizations of that night in this story are taken from interviews contained in the report. Reporters also traveled to Milledgeville to conduct interviews and observe the city’s bar scene. They conducted background interviews with several people knowledgeable about the case. They also attempted to contact many of the key participants and witnesses quoted in the report, but were either not granted interviews or did not have calls and e-mails returned.