NFL star and record-breaking safety Darren Sharper helped the New Orleans Saints to their first — and only — Super Bowl win in 2010. Five years later, Sharper stood in a Los Angeles courtroom and agreed to plead guilty or no contest to charges that he had drugged and raped women in four states.
It was a rampage that could have been stopped, according to a new investigation by ProPublica and The New Orleans Advocate. Nine women had reported being raped or drugged by Sharper to four different law enforcement agencies before his January 2014 capture. But police and prosecutors failed to investigate fully the women's allegations, the investigation found. Some victims and eyewitnesses felt their claims were downplayed. Corroborating evidence, including DNA matches and video surveillance, was disregarded or put on hold. Perhaps most critically, police did not inquire into Sharper's history — which could have turned up the previous complaints against him.
Sharper's story illustrates a wider problem in the prosecution of sexual assaults in America. Law enforcement investigation are often cursory, sometimes incompetent, almost always done in ignorance of the suspect's past sexual assault history.
Reporters from ProPublica, The New Orleans Advocate and Sports Illustrated held a discussion on the Darren Sharper case, how this story was reported and how Sharper was able to perpetuate these crimes.
The chat included ProPublica reporters T. Christian Miller (@txtianmiller) and Ryan Gabrielson (@ryangabrielson), New Orleans Advocate reporters Ramon Vargas (@rvargasadvocate) and John Simerman (@johnsimerman), and Sports Illustrated reporter Thayer Evans (@thayerevanssi).
Here's the recap:
Question: Do you think Darren (Sharper) was offered celebrity status and that impacted the case?
John Simerman, The New Orleans Advocate: Yes, speaking of the New Orleans case. Our sources in New Orleans told us that police and prosecutors took extra caution before finally issuing an arrest warrant, after Sharper was already behind bars in L.A. The police chief and the district attorney were in the loop from the early going, which is unusual. It was a high profile case, a local hero, and the level of caution was high.
Question: Do you guys know if Darren (Sharper) had some type of life event that caused him to start doing this spree or has he been doing this his entire life?
T. Christian Miller, ProPublica: We checked with 20 police departments in places where he had lived. We found nothing, other than some minor incidents. He played his last game in January 2011. In March 2011, two women file the first complaint. One friend told us that he had to adjust to a new life, with less money, and less star power. But we didn't find any sign of a really cataclysmic event.
Question: How has the NFL taken serious course of action to demote the violence against women exhibited from their players?
Ramon Vargas, The New Orleans Advocate: A starting point was the NFL personal conduct policy the league adopted in 2014, which would call for a 6-game suspension following a first domestic violence incident and a lifetime ban on a second such incident. It was thought Saints pass rusher Junior Galette could be the first test case of the PCP, when he was accused of domestic violence in January. However, the authorities never charged Galette, and he has always denied wrongdoing; so he did not become the test case people thought he would.
Question: Was there any particular point that made the difference in deciding to prosecute him?
I understand being hesitant to issue an arrest for a celebrity with money and resources to boot. At what point was it decided, "This is the real deal, we should move forward"?
Ryan Gabrielson, ProPublica: The tipping point came in Los Angeles in January 2014 when Sharper picked up two women at the same club as he had in October 2013, took them back to the same hotel, and assaulted in much the same way. The same LAPD detective caught both cases. It became the real deal really quickly at that point. He was arrested three days after the second Los Angeles assaults.
For more information on the chronology, we've created a timeline.
Question: One thing that I found very interesting/alarming was how fast the cocktail reportedly worked on his victims. Was he overdosing them to make it work faster, or was it the combination of drugs? Was there a danger they could have died? Seems like if there was a chance of that might be overdoses that lead to serious problems or death for some of them that never got reported.
T. Christian Miller, ProPublica: Top of FormHe was using a variety of drugs, many of which could have caused death. GHB, Valium, and Atavan in high doses, can be fatal. As to how fast they worked, a pharmacologist could better answers. But I would say that the women who reported the time were already under the influence of mind-altering drugs.
And to follow, there is no sign he used GHB -- the 'date rape drug' that is most commonly talked about in the media. He used more prosaic pharmaceutical agents like benzodiazapines, Ambien, MDMA and Quaaludes.
Question: Did you ever speak with any of Darren's former co-workers/teammates about whether he had exhibited this type of behavior outside of the incidents? Just curious how much of this was a shock or not to people that actually knew him.
Thayer Evans, Sports Illustrated: One ex-teammate mentioned that he smoked marijuana frequently and slept with a different woman every night -- "almost like it was a sex addiction." He was an ominous presence in many clubs on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans to the point some women described him as being "the old guy in the club."
Question: I read your article yesterday and found it really well written and disturbing. One thing I noticed is that the victims were highly reluctant to talk to you. Were you aware of their reasons, beyond the obvious trauma associated with such an event?
On a related note, do you think the recent Rolling Stone debacle will lead to fewer women coming forward with their stories?
T. Christian Miller, ProPublica: In general, I have found that reporting on rape is one of the most difficult things to do in journalism. All of us attempted to contact different victims, but in my case the women simply didn't want to relive the experience. Or they simply hung up. All very understandable reactions.
Ramon Vargas, The New Orleans Advocate: For my part, I spoke to one of Sharper's victims in New Orleans. She politely heard me out but then said she really didn't want to say anything that could be used as ammo against the case authorities here were building against Sharper. She said she didn't want to do anything that could jeopardize Sharper's chances of being made to face justice.
Ryan Gabrielson, ProPublica: For the most part, the victims said they wanted to move on. And sometimes they or their relatives just hung up on me. Regarding the Rolling Stone situation, that's always the concern, when a story falls apart like that, it will have a chilling effect for victims. I hope not, but it's too early to tell.