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Rams’ Henley Ends Silence on Indictment : Interview: Player tells of anguish over drug charges. He insists he’s innocent and eager for his trial to begin.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were there when he was 9 years old, the wind knocked out of him on the football field, crying. And they have continued to be there for him through high school, UCLA and on to the pros.

But last Saturday night, Darryl Henley had a request of his mom and dad: Don’t come to my game.

“I was terrified,” said Henley, Ram cornerback and accused drug trafficker. “I didn’t want my mom to sit up there and be subjected to whatever. My dad said he didn’t care what people said, he had gone to all my games and he wanted to be there, but I couldn’t let him.

“I mean, I was terrified about going to the stadium myself, about how people were going to react. I arrived, gave my name at the gate and looked at the people’s expression. OK, it was positive, but how were the other 25,000 people in the stadium going to react?

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“I got out of my car, there were people there for autographs. Do they believe you? Do they believe in you?

“The real true Ram fans sit in the end zone, just outside the tunnel, and I want to tell you, I felt fright. What were they going to say when I came down that tunnel? I remember coming out, there was nothing bad, and I know, because I was listening for everything.”

A federal grand jury indicted Henley last December on charges of cocaine possession and distribution. If convicted at his trial beginning Jan. 10, he could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

He remains free on $200,000 bail. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently reinstated Henley, who had taken a leave of absence from football last October, and Henley signed a $350,000 contract to play again for the Rams.

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“I know it’s a negative thing with a majority of people,” Henley said. “They’re saying, ‘How in the hell can this person look at himself in the mirror, not even give a reason to anyone for what has happened, and then just line up and play football like everything is OK?’

“I would love to write with a can of paint on this big window: ‘I am innocent.’ I want to tell my story, but I can’t. I feel that would be risking my life.”

It has been 10 months since Henley’s problems became public, more than a year since the Rams became aware of his difficulties, and in all that time Henley has declined to explain himself.

“This case has been made in the paper and I haven’t said a word,” he said. “Early on I kept asking my people, ‘Can’t I say something? Can’t I? Let me explain to people.’ But I had no idea how important it was for me not to say anything until it’s time--until the O.J. Simpson case. I wasn’t convinced until then.”

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Simpson, who faces two murder counts, agreed to speak with detectives without an attorney present early in the investigation. Legal experts say now that conversation might very well complicate his defense in next month’s trial.

“I knew exactly what O.J. had to be thinking when he went in there and wanted to talk,” Henley said. “That’s what I wanted to do, but from a legal standpoint they criticized him, tore him up. Who knows what went on in there? Who knows what is going to be misconstrued?

“I know what people say and I’d be just like that guy in Middle America who says, ‘You got nothing to worry about if you’re innocent.’ But so many things you say can be misconstrued. I was eating in this restaurant and I ran into a judge who told me that he has had hundreds of thousands of people come through his courtroom. He said, ‘I haven’t seen one of them talk their way out of jail, but there have been several who have talked their way in.’ ”

While in training camp, Henley continues to telephone his probation officer twice a week as well as meet him twice a month. Bail restrictions, which prohibit his leaving the federal Central District of California, will prevent him from playing in next week’s exhibition game in San Diego unless the court rules differently.

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Henley’s attorney, Roger Cossack, petitioned the court Tuesday to allow him to travel this season, and asked for a ruling before the Rams’ game in San Diego Aug. 25.

Henley’s freedom and opportunity to play football raised the ire of attorneys for the other defendants in the case, who remain jailed, but Henley said he has received no special treatment.

“I was told there are two reasons they don’t give bail: If you’re a danger to your community or a flight risk,” Henley said. “I’ve never been a danger to the community, and now that God has delivered what I’ve asked, I’m not going to run from football. Why would I be so stupid after doing what I was supposed to do for the past 10 months?”

If Henley is not allowed to travel and play in half of the team’s regular-season games, the Rams might have to release him. But then uncertainty has been a large part of Henley’s life for more than a year.

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“Have I let people down?” he said, repeating the question. “I let myself down. This is what I worked for, then 30 days prior (to last year’s training camp), it’s almost smashed up.

“I let my parents down with the negative stuff. It doesn’t matter what it is or in what context, they have to answer to it. I’m not saying by any means that I have done this, but it’s just the implication--it lets people down and hurts people.”

In a federal affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana last October, federal drug agents said Henley and Tracy Donaho, a Ram cheerleader at the time, showed up on July 15, 1993, at the Atlanta airport to claim a suitcase containing 12 kilos of cocaine.

The charges against Henley also allege that his Brea home served as a hub for a drug operation with distribution points in Atlanta and Memphis. Six weeks later Henley told Anaheim police that he was accosted at Rams Park by three men, one of whom displayed a gun. He said they took his car, which contained a loaded 9-millimeter pistol. Three men were later indicted on federal extortion charges.

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“People believe what they read, but unfortunately believing what you read is not always the best policy,” Henley said. “With the things that are written, it’s hard to be objective. I don’t blame people.

“I was scared from the time I realized I was this person, this implicated person. But I also knew that, what with everything being said, they had the burden of proof.”

Since returning to work, he said, none of his teammates have asked if he is guilty or innocent.

“I think the coach (Chuck Knox) has something to do with that,” Henley said.

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Because charges have been filed against him, he said, there will be many people who think there has to be some truth to them.

“That kind of overrides ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ ” Henley said. “But then if this happened to somebody else, and I was paying money to watch football games and I thought football players were role models, I’d be saying, ‘What the hell is this person thinking?’ That’s what I would be saying without knowing any more details.”

By now, he said, he had hoped to make this more than just a one-sided story. His trial had been scheduled for February, then postponed to May, again to August and now to Jan. 10.

“I was yelling at my attorneys, ‘Why isn’t this over? I need to get on with my life!’ The only way for me to be functional every day was to hope I could come back and play football. Three times I tried to start working out, and I never could get past 10 days before quitting. I’d get myself ready and then the trial would be delayed, and it would just kill me.

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“I had a friend, Ronald Knight, who would call every morning. ‘Man, get up,’ he’d say. And I’d tell him I don’t want to get up. I would just sit in my attorneys’ office. I had nothing to do. I tried blinking my eyes several times, but it just wouldn’t go away.”

Henley had been scheduled to go to trial next Tuesday, which would most likely have kept him from playing this season. The postponement to Jan. 10 was his first real good news regarding his case.

“Some people say if it never goes to trial you should be happy,” he said. “I think in order for my life to go on, things have to happen in trial. Before, it was a day I wanted, but really didn’t want. The reality of the situation is, hey, you can go to jail.

“After dealing with the reality and you have said you have not done this, then you have to be a tough . . . and fight this. I have to have that trial if I want to get things back to normal, well, halfway normal again.

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“If the government said for some reason, and God knows they won’t, that they were dropping charges, that would do nothing for me. I don’t want to risk my life going to jail, but this has to be addressed.”

If successful in defending himself, Henley was asked, will it be enough to restore his good name?

“I don’t think historically it has ever been done,” he said. “I’ve taken a sock in the ribs financially, but if I play well this season it can put me back where I was. I call that get-back, and it’s a major motivation. For all the people that were hurt, including myself, I have a chance to get it back. But it has to be done right.”

Henley will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and, if he plays well and then is exonerated, he undoubtedly will command big money to play in 1995.

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“Then I can begin to piece my life together,” he said. “Not put it back together totally, but piece it together.”

The Rams have stood by him from the beginning. They were aware of the possible charges against Henley in July, 1993, and allowed him to play on. He missed 11 games after taking a leave of absence, but the Rams paid him his entire $600,000 salary.

“John Shaw (Ram president) came to my room and told me, ‘I know what you’re going through. You’re going to have good days and bad days. You’re going to want to talk about it, but you can’t. Period. Here’s my home number, call if you need something.’ That was July 22.

“John told me it was going to happen. He looked me right in the eye and said it might not be what I want to hear, but the indictment is going to be handed down. He talked to me every week, and he said if my head was about to blow up and I needed time away he would talk with (Knox) and get me a day off. We weren’t 14-2 or anything like that. He was taking care of me as a person. This wasn’t some sort of football issue and that was important to me.”

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After the NFL reinstated Henley two weeks ago, he was free to sign anywhere in the league. He immediately came to terms with the Rams.

“I told Shaw after I was reinstated that you can pay me one dollar a week to play again. What he did was big. I had someone from another team, that was trying to sign me, said that any other team would have reacted the same way. Maybe on the surface, but there were things happening behind the scene. Chuck called to check on me, Joe Vitt, Rod Perry, George Dyer, all the defensive coaches called.”

Although Henley had kind words for his coaches, he concedes he returned to training camp with a chip on his shoulder. He blamed the media for listening to the government’s side of the story, and took a confrontational approach with reporters.

“I could not function with all the emotions running wild inside of me,” he said. “My mother was reading things about me in the paper. I was hating people for what they were thinking. That was my attitude: I don’t care, I don’t care.

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“But I’ve learned a lot the past two weeks about handling situations I don’t want to deal with. I’m not a jerk. I’m not walking around thinking this isn’t any big deal and I’m gonna walk. No, no, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

“I’m doing everything within the confines of the (bail restrictions). The government people involved in this are not my enemies. People are just doing their jobs, and while that’s not easy to accept, there’s no reason for me to blast anyone.

"(Assistant U.S. Atty.) John Rayburn went to my high school. When he graduated from college he got a law degree. When I graduated from college I became a football player. I’d rather have our paths cross at a Damien High School Alumni Assn. meeting, but that hasn’t happened. These are the cards that have been dealt.”

Henley said he was advised by friends and attorneys not to give this interview, but he said he wanted people to understand why things have happened as they have.

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“I’d just like people to think about it,” he said. “I want to address things, but if they were in my situation, and by God they don’t want to be, they wouldn’t do anything differently right now.

“You think, ‘How the hell did I get myself into this?’ But then that’s a statement that can be misconstrued. Someone could come back in court and say, ‘What did you mean by that?’ That’s why I have to be careful. The safer version of that is, ‘Why am I here?’ That’s it. Everything you’ve said you are held accountable for . . . there’s so much I want to say, and I can’t.”

Once he does get the chance to talk, though, he will do so for the benefit of 12 people who will determine his fate: a jury.

“My attorney says when I open my mouth about this case it will be to the people who count,” he said. “But if any kid is going to get anything out of this, I’d tell them to beware, just beware.

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“Just be careful. What does that mean? Just be careful.”


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