The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, one of the most popular and dynamic basketball players of his generation, was charged Friday with felony sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel worker who went to his room at an exclusive resort.
Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark D. Hurlbert, in a nationally televised news conference, declined to divulge details about the evidence in the case but said Bryant had “caused sexual penetration or intrusion and ... caused submission of the victim through actual physical force.”
Later, in an emotional appearance before reporters at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he helped lead the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships, a tearful Bryant for the first time acknowledged having sex with the woman but insisted it was consensual.
“I’m innocent,” he said.
Sitting next to his wife of two years, Vanessa, he shook his head, shifted uncomfortably in his seat and pursed his lips as he said: “I sit here before you guys embarrassed and ashamed for committing adultery. You know, you go through the feeling of, ‘If I could just turn back the hands of time.’ ... But I’m innocent. And together, my wife and I and our family are going to fight these false accusations.”
If convicted of the felony charge of sexual assault, Bryant, 24, could face a prison sentence of four years to life, although probation would also be an option. The crime also carries a potential fine of up to $750,000.
His attorney, Pamela Mackey, a prominent Denver criminal lawyer, said he would plead not guilty and predicted he would be acquitted. She said the physical evidence in the case “totally supports his belief” that the sex was consensual. However, she declined to discuss the evidence, saying she did not want to try the case in the media.
Hurlbert similarly declined to describe the evidence against Bryant, except to say that it included both witness testimony and physical evidence. He did not say if there was any witness besides Bryant and the alleged victim.
Speaking on a sweltering afternoon outside his office in the Eagle County Justice Center, Hurlbert said he came to his decision to charge Bryant “only after reviewing all of the evidence -- testimonial evidence and physical evidence; after reviewing the relevant statutes; after reviewing the relevant case law; and after conferring with prosecutors from around the state. Then and only then did I make my decision.”
Saying that he had agonized over the decision, which came two weeks after Bryant’s arrest, Hurlbert insisted he could prove his case and said that Bryant would not get special treatment, despite his celebrity status.
“We’re trying this case like any other case,” Hurlbert said. Then, bowing to the disconnection of the moment, he added: “I understand [that] I’m saying that as I’m looking at about 20 cameras here.”
The rape allegedly took place the night of June 30 at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, a $300-a-night hotel in Edwards, a small town midway between Eagle and Vail. Bryant was there to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at a clinic in Vail.
The young woman who is accusing him works at the hotel as a receptionist and concierge and had gone to Bryant’s room sometime that night. The next morning, he underwent the surgery as scheduled and the woman went with her parents to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department to lodge a complaint against him.
Bryant was interviewed by investigators that night and voluntarily provided DNA samples at a hospital the following morning before taking a flight back to Southern California.
His attorneys say that Eagle County authorities told Bryant no arrest warrant would be issued or criminal charges filed until July 7.
Instead, Eagle County Sheriff Joseph Hoy on July 3 took the unusual step of obtaining an arrest warrant from a district judge without Hurlbert’s signing off on it.
Summoned back to Colorado, Bryant, accompanied by his wife, turned himself in on July 4. After being booked and posting a $25,000 bond, he was released.
In a statement issued through his attorneys, Bryant said: “I did not assault the woman who is accusing me.... I have to answer to my wife and my God for my actions that night and I pray that both will forgive me.”
At the Staples news conference, he said of his accuser: “I didn’t force her to do anything against her will.” Voice quavering, he added: “I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery. I love my wife with all my heart. She’s my backbone.”
Turning to his wife, he continued: “You’re a blessing. You’re the beats of my heart, you’re the air I breathe. You’re the strongest person I know, and I’m so sorry for having to put you through this and having to put our family through this.”
Vanessa Bryant stared straight ahead and caressed her husband’s hand during much of the news conference, and left without speaking. However, she issued a statement through her lawyers saying her husband had “made a mistake -- the mistake of adultery,” but that “he did not commit a crime. He did not assault anyone.
“I will give him all the strength and support he needs to face these false accusations,” she added. “I will not let him face these accusations alone.”
Her father, Bob Laine, also expressed qualified support for Bryant.
“He’s showing a weakness that none of us knew about,” Laine said in an interview at his home in Huntington Beach. “But that doesn’t mean he’s some sort of rapist or monster. I’m not thrilled it was adultery, but it sure ... beats the alternative.”
In Colorado, Nicole McDonough, a close friend of the woman accusing Bryant, said she spoke to her after Hurlbert’s announcement. “She’s good, she’s happy,” McDonough said. “She was pretty confident all along that [Hurlbert] would do what he’d do.”
The accuser is a former high school cheerleader and choir member who has many supporters in the small community. The Times has a policy not to identify alleged victims of sexual assault in most cases.
Paul Pastoor, general manager of the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, said the woman had been put on administrative leave from her job.
Bryant’s first court date will be Aug. 6, Hurlbert said, when he will be arraigned and have bail set. The prosecutor would not speculate about when a trial might take place. Assuming the case does go to trial, Bryant’s attorneys will have an incentive to make sure it takes place outside basketball season, which runs from October until April -- plus a two-month-long postseason in which the Lakers hope to participate.
Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s senior vice president for basketball communications, said Bryant would be allowed to play while the case was pending.
Sheriff Hoy, who conducted the initial investigation, appeared buoyant after Hurlbert’s announcement.
As he marched back to his office, Hoy was asked if he felt vindicated by Hulbert’s decision.
“Vindicated? I didn’t feel a need for vindication,” he said. “I think we did a good job from the beginning.”
However, Hoy came under attack later from Mackey, Bryant’s lawyer, who accused him and his deputies of making “inappropriate statements” about the case to the press.
Bryant’s defense team also said it would be looking into reports that Hoy was the teacher in a drug awareness class that Bryant’s accuser took when she was in seventh grade. Eagle County government officials have confirmed that Hoy taught the DARE class at Eagle Valley Middle School. Hoy said he might have taught the girl but didn’t remember her.
“It’s a nonissue,” he said late Friday. “They’re trying to make a connection where there is not one.”
Regardless of the outcome, the charge will undoubtedly tarnish Bryant’s reputation. A player of enormous athletic skills, which have earned him comparisons to Michael Jordan, he is also known for being one of the NBA’s good guys, unusually polite and well-spoken, with a reputation as a devoted family man. He and his wife had their first child, daughter Natalia, in January.
But Bryant’s reputation also will be deployed in his defense, legal experts said. One prominent law professor, former prosecutor Laurie Levenson of Los Angeles, suggested that Hurlbert is mistaken if he thinks the case can be tried like any other. “Any time the jury knows the defendant by [his] first name, it’s a different kind of case,” she said.
Hurlbert, 34, who was appointed district attorney in December, may have admitted as much when he announced that he had hired a spokeswoman to handle media relations for his office, which serves three mostly rural counties in Colorado’s ski country.
The case has been closely watched by the Laker faithful, some of whom were present in the crowd as Hurlbert made his announcement.
“I was shocked to hear the allegations,” said Joel Mendoza, 26, of Inglewood, who had been visiting an aunt in nearby Avon. He said he had been a Laker fan since his father began sitting him in front of games on television at age 4. He had come to the news conference to show support for Bryant, he said, but found his convictions about the star shaken.
“As of now I have no opinion,” he said. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. I just hope he can get a fair trial here.”
Around Los Angeles, fans expressed disappointment in Bryant, although some said they hoped he would be found innocent of the charge.
“I’m a little disappointed,” said Soonie Paik, 27, of North Hollywood. “You hear things about sports figures, about how they have extramarital affairs. I’m not surprised. I hope it wasn’t rape because I like the way he plays. It probably will affect the way I look at him.... I’m still rooting for the Lakers.”
Marcos Villalvazo, 29, of South Los Angeles said he was disappointed in Bryant, but offered a defense. “He’s a man,” Villalvazo said. “She offered herself to him, because she went up [to his room].... I don’t think it was rape. I think they had consensual sex.”
“My gut reaction,” said Dorothy Dasgupta, 57, of Inglewood, “is that rich athletes get away with anything. All you have to do is have their people talk to your people. I believe that a deal is going to be made. He’s rich enough. He can make this right.
“When you’re in a position like that, you have money, you have power. People love you. You think you can do no wrong. And I think they think they can go out and do anything and be excused for it. They think they are above the law and the rest of us. And they think they can fix anything that happens.”
Pugmire and Kelly reported from Colorado; Landsberg from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Steve Henson in Eagle, Colo., Claire Luna in Orange County and Rob Fernas and Henry Weinstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.