A year after alleged SDSU gang rape, prosecutors still mum about bringing charges

At the SDSU football practice field with players in front of the scoreboard.
The Aztecs start their first fall camp practice Aug. 5.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s gotten easier for her as the months go by. But it doesn’t go away — the memory of the night she says she was gang raped by Aztec football players.

She’s learning to live with it. Sometimes several hours pass before it creeps to front of mind.

Then October came around again. This month — specifically early Oct. 17 — marks one year since she says she was led into a bedroom at an off-campus house party, thrown face first onto a bed and assaulted for roughly 90 minutes. She left the room bloodied and bruised, with her body piercings ripped out.

October, she said, “is triggering a lot.”

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“It’s been a little rough,” she said last week. “Half of me [thinks] that time is passing, you are getting better. But the other half is disappointed that it’s been so long and there is so, so little that has come out of this.”

Last October, when she was 17 years old and a high school senior, she reported the rape accusation the next day. Police investigated and prosecutors are still evaluating the case. The university continues to be criticized for its conflicting public responses and delayed investigation.

A civil lawsuit naming three former players was filed in August. Soon afterward, a newly minted NFL punter lost his job. At SDSU, the Aztecs started their season without the other two players on the team. Online, people targeted the young woman, threatening to out her.

Police have not publicly named any suspects. No criminal charges have been filed. There’s no timeline to do so.

“When I first was going through this, to keep myself hopeful I was like, ‘Oh, just think about in a year, this will all be done with.’ But it’s just not done with,” the now 18-year-old woman said in an interview. The Union-Tribune generally does not identify the victims of alleged sexual assault.

“It just drives me crazy that there have been no charges filed,” she said.

Others are waiting to see what happens, too.

The San Diego County district attorney’s office said last week the case remains under review.

A civil lawsuit and players named

The woman’s lawsuit alleges that punter Matt Araiza, then 21, had sex with her in a side yard of a College Area residence before bringing her into a bedroom where a group of men took turns raping her. Players Zavier Leonard and Nowlin “Pa’a” Ewaliko were part of the group, according to the lawsuit.


The players and their attorneys have either declined comment or denied the allegations. One of the attorneys cast doubt on the young woman’s recollection of events, another called the lawsuit “a money grab.” Araiza’s attorney said his client was never in the room where the alleged rape occurred.

Araiza was named the nation’s top collegiate punter last year; he set an NCAA record last season with a 51.19-yard punting average.

In April, the Buffalo Bills picked the Rancho Bernardo High School graduate in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL draft. Araiza’s selection was the first time in more than 30 years that the team had used a draft pick to obtain a punter. Within days of the lawsuit publicly accusing Araiza, the Bills dropped him.

Araiza issued a public statement a day before he was cut, saying: “The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press. I look forward to quickly setting the record straight.”

His parents issued a longer statement days later, which read in part: “There has been a war waged on our son. He has been tried and convicted in the media based on information released solely from the alleged victim and her attorney, much of it through social media.”

On Friday, Araiza’s attorney, Kerry Armstrong, said his client is “anxiously awaiting” the district attorney’s decision.

“Obviously I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am still very optimistic they won’t file charges against Matt,” Armstrong said. “I’m not sure, but I am optimistic they won’t.”

Attorneys for the other men did not respond to requests for comment last week.

The San Diego police investigation ran 10 months, and included more than 20 investigative staffers and nearly 200 hours of overtime, officials said. Detectives executed 10 search warrants, interviewed multiple witnesses, examined physical evidence and reviewed more than three terabytes of digital evidence.

Attorney Dan Gilleon, who represents the young woman, said Friday that women “will continue to be violated until police and prosecutors do more than offer PR comments about taking these matters very seriously.”

“For a year, the police and prosecutors have sent the message to our young community that even gang rape will be tolerated, and that they take victim complaints seriously only when their neglect becomes public,” Gilleon said.

In August, police handed the case to the district attorney’s office, which has given no timelines for a possible decision.

When prosecutors evaluate these kinds of cases, they have to believe they have enough evidence to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime was committed and that the accused is guilty.

Even after the #MeToo movement, with the societal attention and advancements it brought, challenges in investigating and prosecuting rape cases endure.

Victim advocates say the biggest obstacle is that investigators and members of the public still struggle to believe people who report they’ve been raped. But that’s only part of the equation. Alcohol or drugs may have been involved, potentially affecting the victim’s recall. Many suspects claim sexual encounters are consensual, and proving otherwise can be difficult.

According to figures recently released by the district attorney’s office, just over a quarter of cases involving rape and related sex crimes result in charges being issued.

A college criticized

The story of the gang rape allegations broke in June, when the Los Angeles Times reported that the university had not started an administrative inquiry into the allegations of misconduct by student athletes on a winning team. San Diego State said it had deferred investigating, at the request of the San Diego Police Department, for fear it would harm the criminal investigation.

Critics, however, said seven months was too long.

College officials have issued several statements on the matter, sometimes with conflicting accounts.

SDSU officials said numerous times that they did not know the identity of the young woman until shortly before the San Diego Police Department investigation was done. However, in a statement sent to the Los Angeles Times in recent weeks, the university said it had confirmed multiple times that the San Diego State University Police Department knew about the alleged rape and the victim’s name early on.

Officials also said that no accusers or direct witnesses reported the incident to the university’s Title IX office or the University Police Department. However, in a statement, the young woman’s father said he drove to the school and reported the incident to an SDSU police lieutenant days after the alleged rape.

College officials later acknowledged that one of the accuser’s relatives contacted the university’s Police Department, but added that no police report was filed.

The father said he didn’t recognize a difference between reporting the incident and filing a formal report.

“When the university came out and said they had no knowledge, that was frustrating,” he said in August. “As a parent, I thought we had done what we were supposed to have done.”

Shortly before the San Diego Police Department completed its investigation, the school announced it would open its own administrative inquiry into the manner. The university said it would explore whether any of its policies were violated and review “all known and confirmed information and evidence through the lens of SDSU and CSU [California State University] policies.”

Last week, university President Adela de la Torre sent a message to the campus community acknowledging the anniversary of the reported allegation. She said the college’s investigation continues, and little can be said about its progress.

“I know the delay in resolution is frustrating and upsetting to members of our community, as we have waited nearly one year to learn the outcome of SDPD’s criminal investigation,” De la Torre said in the letter. “While this is typical for complex cases like this, which involve multiple individuals, the wait required by due process is still incredibly emotionally and physically taxing to so many of us.”

According to the college’s most recent Annual Security Report, 15 rapes were reported on campus or adjacent to the campus in 2021.

The gang rape allegations are not part of those numbers, because the alleged incident happened outside an area considered accessible from the campus, and thus are not part of the reporting requirements.

SDSU’s football team — which went 12-2 last year— is celebrating the start of its 100th season, and is doing so in the new $310-million Snapdragon Stadium.

Mocked, blamed and shamed

Internet trolls have targeted the young woman relentlessly, threatening her family and saying they would reveal her name. She said hate mail has come to her home.

“It’s really horrible,” she said.

She said she would scroll through social media and read post after post where she was mocked, blamed, shamed and labeled a liar.

“It’s really detrimental to my mental health,” she said. “I really want to know but then actually I don’t want to know. I’d rather not have any idea of what people are saying. In the end, their opinions don’t matter. I just have to stay away from it.”

She deleted most of the social media apps from her phone and asked a family member to change her password so she couldn’t reinstall them and start scrolling again.

She said she’s in therapy, working full time and getting ready to start college after the new year. And she continues to wait for a decision about whether criminal charges will come.

“The anticipation is definitely driving me crazy,” she said. “I just want to see charges filed. I think that is the closure that I have been waiting for.”

And if no charges are filed?

“I will have closure in knowing that I tried,” she said. “However, I truly don’t know how that is going to affect me.”