MILLEDGEVILLE — Citing a lack of evidence, District Attorney Fred Bright said Monday that he will not pursue charges against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom a 20-year-old college student accused of sexually assaulting her in a downtown nightclub last month.
The announcement ended a five-week investigation by Milledgeville police and the GBI into allegations that Roethlisberger assaulted the Georgia College & State University student in a restroom at the Capital City nightclub during the early hours of March 5.
Roethlisberger, who owns a house on Lake Oconee about 30 miles north of Milledgeville, was bar-hopping at several downtown establishments with a large entourage to celebrate his 28th birthday.
Bright, the district attorney for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, said there wasn’t enough evidence to build a case against Roethlisberger.
“The sexual allegations against Ben Roethlisberger cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Bright, a prosecutor for about 28 years.
During an afternoon news conference, Bright gave the first official account of what investigators believed happened that night:
Roethlisberger’s group and that of the 20-year-old first met at the Velvet Elvis nightclub on the night of March 4, and both parties visited several other establishments before eventually running into each other again at Capital City.
Roethlisberger and some members of his party, which included friends and bodyguards, had consumed alcohol, as had the accuser and members of her group, which included fellow Georgia College students.
Roethlisberger and his friends were allowed to take over a VIP area of the club that was separated by a curtain, and he began to buy drinks for several young women at the bar, including the 20-year-old.
Accounts vary on exactly what happened next. Bright said the accuser’s statement from when she spoke with investigators that morning while still under the influence of alcohol changed several hours later after she was sober.
Her friends and sorority sisters became concerned about her and were worried that she shouldn’t be left alone with Roethlisberger in the VIP area. The young women tried to get a manager at the club to intervene, since the area was blocked off by Roethlisberger’s bodyguards and a club bouncer. At that point, the 20-year-old apparently went into a unisex restroom nearby, followed by Roethlisberger.
The manager told the young women that there was another way they could get to the restroom, but the women didn’t go to retrieve their friend.
Bright said no one has been able to provide a clear account about what happened in the restroom, but that the two of them were in there for about 10 minutes.
After the 20-year-old emerged, she told her friends that some form of sexual intercourse had taken place and that she wanted to go home, Bright said, but her friends found a Milledgeville police officer in front of a nearby establishment and told him that the young woman had been raped.
Bright said the officer tried to question the 20-year-old, asking her if she had been raped. Initially, she told the officer “no,” Bright said. She told the officer she was unsure if she and Roethlisberger had had sex, then said she told Roethlisberger, “I don’t know if this is a good idea.” She said he told her it was OK, and then had sex with her.
Roethlisberger made a brief statement to police when officers questioned him, Bright said. He said Roethlisberger told officers he remembered the 20-year-old and that he told her she was “too drunk to be (in the VIP area).” He told officers that he remembered her falling down accidentally and hitting her head.
Bright dismissed an earlier media report saying that Roethlisberger told police he’d had consensual sex with the 20-year-old as false, saying Roethlisberger had said very little after his initial statement. A member of his group who works for the sports agency that represents the quarterback told officers that Roethlisberger wouldn’t be making any other statements to police without his attorney.
Attorney Ed Garland, who represents Roethlisberger, did not make his client available to investigators during subsequent requests for interviews, citing Roethlisberger’s Fifth Amendment rights.
Letter to Bright
After the episode, the 20-year-old was taken to Oconee Regional Hospital, where she was examined by a doctor and two nurses, who performed a rape examination. The doctor found no evidence that the accuser had sustained any sort of head injury, Bright said.
Medical workers told investigators that they found some evidence of bruising and slight bleeding, but that it wasn’t clear if there had been a rape.
The GBI crime lab found a trace sample of DNA evidence in the rape kit that was identified as male DNA, but GBI officials told investigators that there was not enough of a sample to compare it to Roethlisberger’s DNA, Bright said.
Bright said a letter he received from the accuser’s attorney, David Walbert, dated March 17 asked him not to continue with the prosecution of Roethlisberger, citing the stress that media attention had placed on the 20-year-old and her family.
“What is obvious in looking forward is that a criminal trial would be a very intrusive personal experience for a complainant in this situation, given the extraordinary media attention that would be inevitable,” the letter stated. “The media coverage to date, and the efforts of the media to access our client, have been unnerving, to say the least.”
The 20-year-old’s attorneys said she is standing by her allegations, however, and wasn’t recanting them.
A statement issued Monday by attorney Lee Parks thanked Bright and the investigators for their work in the case. It made no mention of whether his client might pursue a civil case against Roethlisberger, but the statement indicated that the woman didn’t want the publicity that a trial would generate.
Bright said a meeting with the accuser, her attorneys and her family reinforced that position, but that it was the lack of evidence that ultimately made him decide not to pursue criminal charges. Investigators interviewed more than 50 witnesses.
The prosecutor said he could have filed a misdemeanor charge of supplying alcohol to a minor against Roethlisberger, but that would have meant filing a corresponding charge of underage drinking — also a misdemeanor — against the accuser.
The Milledgeville Police Department is conducting an internal inquiry into Sgt. Jerry Blash, who supervised the initial investigation after the incident was first reported, according to Police Chief Woodrow Blue.
Blash allegedly made a derogatory statement about the accuser to Roethlisberger at that time. Blue said the statement had no bearing on the investigation. He declined to provide details about the inquiry or Blash’s current status with the department, calling it a personnel matter.
Bright said he hoped everyone involved in the case had learned a lesson about the dangers of alcohol consumption and would be more careful in the future. He dismissed communications he had seen on the Internet alleging that the 20-year-old was a “gold digger,” saying he believed she was sincere during her interviews with investigators.
Bright had stronger words for Roethlisberger, noting that Bright’s oldest son was just a few years younger than the quarterback.
“Everybody could be criticized for their actions that night,” said Bright, who noted that Roethlisberger is also facing a civil case of sexual misconduct stemming from a 2008 complaint made by a woman in Lake Tahoe, Nev. “If he was my son, I’d say, ‘Ben, grow up. You’re supposed to stand for something. You don’t need to put yourself in this position anymore. ... You need to be a role model for your team (and) city.’ I hope he’s learned something.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.