Friday, September 5, 2008

Flashback: No one is immune from false rape claims - not even beloved sports figures

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania idolizes its sports heroes. Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby. And especially the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not just a few, a host of them.

In Super Bowl XL in 2006, when the Steelers defeated the Seahawks, one aging halfback on the verge of retirement was the spiritual core of the team: Jerome Bettis, nicknamed "The Bus." Über-involved in community affairs, Bettis is the most beloved modern-day Steeler in a city drunk on professional football. A popular restaurant near Heinz Field bears his name; a Detroit businessman seeking to obtain the city's only casino license last year played up his Bettis connection to help him get the license.

Jerome is a good guy. And in 2002, like a lot of other good guys, he was slapped with a rape claim that in all likelihood was false.

You see, no one is immune from false rape claims if they were born male -- not even men who are rich, powerful and beloved.

As set forth in the news story below, former Steeler coach Bill Cowher made two important points:

"Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said he hoped Bettis' exoneration 'gets the same amount of attention as the initial headlines got.'"

Amen, Coach. A claim by a lone accuser garners big headlines, but what of the exoneration? Does not the press owe that to the falsely accused?

And Coach Cowher also said this: "Cowher said the matter illustrated that players are in the public eye and must be careful."

Did you get that? Certain feminist groups decry any attempt to urge women to be careful to avoid rape as "victim blaming." They say that this takes the onus for rape off men, who are responsible for rape. What an incredibly naive thing to trumpet. When a young man is beaten in a bad neighborhood late at night and his mother chides him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time of day, is that "victim blaming?" Not in the real world. Likewise, only in the fantasyland of the blogosphere or women's studies classes are we supposed to pretend that woman -- who are generally smaller, weaker, not as aggressive nor, to be frank, as sexually charged -- are never at risk, and that's it's OK when they do stupid things. But I digress. Would anyone think Coach Cowher's advice directed at men to avoid false rape claims, above, is "victim blaming"? Coach Cowher's advice is not "victim blaming." It's common sense.


Bettis won't face charges in sexual assault allegation

Westmoreland County decides accusation doesn't hold up

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

By Ernie Hoffman and Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The Steelers' Jerome Bettis will not faces charges after all on an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman he met at a bar in Greensburg this summer.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John W. Peck said there was not "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt" to proceed. "Only Mr. Bettis and the victim, the young woman, know what happened in that car," Peck said.

But Peck went on to say there was "clear" evidence that the accuser's uncle planned to use the allegation to extort money from Bettis.

Peck said Charles Walters of Mount Pleasant Township boasted of a scheme to sexually compromise a Steeler and extort money from him. Peck also described an earlier plot by Walters to provoke Bettis into a fight for the purpose of getting money from him.

Bettis' accuser, a 22-year-old woman, told Greensburg police that he assaulted her in his car after she asked him for an autograph at Bobby Dale's Restaurant & Lounge Aug. 21, when the Steelers were in training camp in nearby Latrobe.

Bettis, 30, told investigators that he and the woman had consensual sex that night. He would not comment on Peck's decision yesterday. The woman would not comment when reached at her home last night. Walters did not return calls, and no one answered the door at his home yesterday afternoon.

Peck said detectives interviewed about two dozen people and learned of a plan by Walters to get money from Bettis by manufacturing a sexual misconduct charge.

Walters was at Bobby Dale's the night of Aug. 21, and he was the first person to talk with police who responded to a 911 call from the bar.

"Numerous people who were found or came forward ... had many interesting details in their reports of what Walters had told them. Many reported that Jerome Bettis was the focus of this scheme ... where sexual misconduct would be alleged," Peck said.

"Many of the people reported that this was to take place at Bobby Dale's in the city of Greensburg."

It was the second scheme involving Bettis, witnesses told investigators. The first -- to draw him into a fight at Bobby Dale's in August 2001 -- failed when several other Steelers intervened after a man began to taunt Bettis, Peck said.

Another scheme Walters bragged about, one that did not involve Bettis, concerned accumulating credit card debt, then filing for bankruptcy, Peck said.

Investigators confirmed that Walters was able to discharge about $80,000 in debt in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in March 2000, Peck said, but he did not know whether there was enough evidence to forward to federal authorities for further investigating.

The witnesses talked to detectives independent of one another and most did not know one another, Peck said.

"Many of them knew of all three schemes. Many of them knew of just one or two," he said.

"Based on a review of all these witnesses' reports, it's clear that there was a scheme by Walters.

"Obviously, this evidence was extremely crucial" in the decision not to charge Bettis, Peck said.

"It would be unethical for a prosecutor not to look at this exculpatory evidence."

County and city detectives now are trying to determine whether Walters and his niece talked about a scheme to get money from Bettis, a determination necessary to identify a possible conspiracy.

The woman pleaded guilty in September 2000 to simple assault for luring a boyfriend to a secluded spot in East Huntingdon, where he was beaten with a baseball bat by her husband. The husband later was sentenced to six to 23 months for aggravated assault.

She was sentenced to two years of probation, but fell behind on the payment of fines and costs and had been scheduled for a probation violation hearing today. The hearing was canceled after she paid off her $375 debt on Sept. 21.

Walters is on administrative leave from his job as a teacher at Penn State McKeesport.

"In light of recent events, we felt that [a leave] was the appropriate thing to do," university spokeswoman Linda Curinga said.

Peck said he released Walters' name because of the volume of evidence against him. "Some details need to be released. It's a fact of the investigation," he said.

He would not identify the woman, however, saying, "It's our policy not to release the names of sexual assault victims."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has interviewed the woman several times, also is continuing its policy of not identifying accusers in alleged sexual assault cases.

Peck said his six-week investigation cast doubt on the woman's story.

Robert DelGreco, Bettis' attorney, said his office conducted a parallel investigation, although it was not as extensive as the ones by Greensburg police and Peck's staff.

Some of the information his investigators uncovered was forwarded to law enforcement officials, including statements by two college students.

After news of the police investigation broke in late August, the students contacted Steelers management to report that they had taken a class taught by Walters and had heard him discuss schemes to make money, including setting up a sex sting to extract money from Bettis.

The Steelers passed along the information to DelGreco, whose investigators questioned the students and passed along their names and information to Peck.

At that time, police were about to wrap up their investigation. But the students' statements prompted them to interview more people, including all of the students who had attended Walters' classes and several Steelers who had accompanied Bettis to Bobby Dale's on different occasions.

DelGreco said police interviewed linebacker Joey Porter, who had been with Bettis last year when a man whom investigators now believe was Walters tried to pick a fight with Bettis.

"That incident is what we believe prompted Walters to share with his class that his initial attempt to get money from a high-profile individual was unsuccessful," DelGreco said.

"Making false accusations to the police and conspiring to extort a public figure is wrong," DelGreco said. "On behalf of Jerome and his family, I can say we are all eager to put this entire matter behind us."

Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said he hoped Bettis' exoneration "gets the same amount of attention as the initial headlines got." But he said the case has not distracted the team.

Cowher said the matter illustrated that players are in the public eye and must be careful.

"People may want a piece of you, a piece of your time, and there are people out there that will resort to different things. You have to be careful with the decisions you make and the situations you put yourselves in."