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Sex-crime charge marks a turning point in the Bill Cosby saga

Sex-crime charge marks a turning point in the Bill Cosby saga
Bill Cosby arrives at court to face a felony charge of aggravated indecent assault on Dec. 30, 2015, in Elkins Park, Pa. (Matt Rourke / AP)

He was an entertainment legend, a trailblazing stand-up comedian and actor who won multiple Emmys and America's hearts. He became the first African-American to star in a television drama series and later played the part of a beloved doctor, in a show named after him.

When rumors of sexual misconduct began to surface over the past few years, Bill Cosby issued strong denials and sued some of his accusers. His reputation was damaged, but he was never charged with a crime; most of the accusations fell outside the statute of limitations.

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That changed on Wednesday, though, when the 78-year-old star walked unsteadily into court here and was charged with drugging and sexually assaulting a 31-year-old woman at his home in early 2004. The charges came shortly before time would have expired for a prosecution in Pennsylvania.

When authorities first looked at the case, in 2005, the local prosecutor decided he couldn't win a conviction and did not charge Cosby. The search for evidence was hampered because the accuser had waited a year before reporting the alleged attack. And when detectives looked into Cosby's past, they found other people claiming Cosby had behaved "inappropriately" but uncovered no prior complaints of criminal behavior.

In recent years, however, a torrent of accusations has swamped Cosby, many of them echoing the woman's account that he used drugs to facilitate a sexual assault.

Montgomery County's current top prosecutor, Dist. Atty.-elect Kevin Steele, cited "new evidence" in charging Cosby with aggravated indecent assault in connection with the 2004 encounter.

If convicted, he could face 10 years in prison.

As he walked into court Wednesday, Cosby wore a hooded gray sweatshirt and black velour sweatpants. During the brief hearing, Cosby's lawyer, Brian McMonagle, turned over his client's passport to prosecutors, and Cosby signed papers agreeing to the terms of his release with the posting of 10% of his $1-million bail.

As a condition of his bail, the judge told him not to contact the accuser or her family. He was fingerprinted at the police department and released after posting bail.

Steele said the accuser — identified in the criminal complaint as Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee and Canada native — was cooperating in the case.

"She's a very strong lady," said Dolores Troiani, Constand's attorney. "She'll do whatever they request of her."

As with previous accusations, Cosby's lawyer denied the charges and said that he will be exonerated.

Cosby has filed suit against seven of his accusers, claiming they have defamed him.

The criminal charges represent the latest turn in the epic plummet from grace of an American entertainment legend.

After gaining fame with best-selling comedy albums, Cosby starred in "I Spy" and later on the "The Cosby Show," the most-watched show on TV for five seasons.

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Dozens of women have come forward to say Cosby assaulted them during the long decades of his stardom, starting in the 1960s. In many cases, the statute of limitations prevents prosecutors from filing charges.

Cosby grew up in North Philadelphia and graduated from Temple University, and later became a member of the school's board of trustees, a post he has since resigned.

At Temple, according to the criminal complaint against him, he met and befriended Constand, who from 2001 to 2004 was director of operations for the university's women's basketball team. She was 37 years younger than Cosby.

Cosby invited her to dinner, both at his home and at restaurants, and she came to consider him a mentor and sincere friend, the complaint said.

Twice at his home, the complaint said, she rebuffed his sexual advances — once after he gave her dinner and then groped her on the sofa, and another time when he suddenly began unbuttoning her pants.

"Despite these advances by Cosby, the victim trusted him and continued to accept his invitations to social and professional functions," the complaint said.

One night in January or February 2004, she later told police, Cosby invited her to his Cheltenham home to talk about her career plans. After she told him she felt "drained" and had had trouble sleeping, she said, Cosby went upstairs and returned with three blue pills and urged her to take them.

She asked if they were herbal, and Cosby said yes, according to the complaint. Cosby also insisted she drink wine, she said, though she said she hadn't eaten that day.

She said that her vision became blurry, and that she was nauseated and unable to move or speak as Cosby put his hands in her pants, the complaint said. She awoke the next morning and encountered Cosby, who offered her a muffin and said "Alright" as he showed her the door, the complaint said.

Constand returned to her native Canada and, in early 2005, told her mother she had been attacked.

Constand notified police in Canada, who forwarded the case to investigators in Pennsylvania. According to the complaint, Cosby "admitted going to his room and coming down with pills for her to take," saying he gave her 1½ Benadryl pills.

In an interview with investigators in Montgomery County, Cosby "admitted" he had not told his accuser the nature of the pills. Cosby admitted to touching her sexually but characterized the encounter as consensual, and said she "never told him to stop" or pushed him away, according to the complaint.

Cosby described their relationship as "social and romantic."

When asked directly if he and the alleged victim ever had sex, the complaint said that Cosby gave an "unusual answer: Never asleep or awake."

In February 2005, Montgomery County's then-Dist. Atty. Bruce Castor announced that he had looked into the case but would not file charges.

That same year, Constand filed a suit against Cosby that was soon settled.

It wasn't until this July, however, as accusations against Cosby mounted, that a judge unsealed parts of Cosby's deposition in the suit.

Among the evidence it contained that implicated Cosby, according to the criminal complaint, was his admission that he possessed multiple prescriptions for Quaaludes that he didn't take himself, and that he once had sex with a woman backstage after giving her one.

The complaint also cited Cosby's "evasive" answers regarding exactly what he gave Constand that night.

"Only Cosby knows what substances he gave the victim," the complaint said.

Though the statute of limitations has run out on most of the accusations against Cosby, it is possible he could still be charged in a Los Angeles case.

The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating allegations by a woman who says Cosby gave her a drink that made her black out, and then assaulted her, at the Playboy Mansion in 2008, when she was 17.

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The charges filed Wednesday may not have a dramatic effect on Cosby's standing in the entertainment world, given that the actor and producer already had become essentially untouchable in the industry following former model Janice Dickinson's November 2014 accusations that Cosby sexually assaulted her in 1982.

Jeffrey McCall, media studies professor at DePauw University in Indiana, said the industry was slow to distance itself from the performer, at least initially.

"The media industry helped promote Cosby as a bigger-than-life personality, rather than just a clever actor and comedian," McCall said. "That's why it is so shocking for his many fans to deal with and understand the charges Cosby now faces."

Following the Dickinson allegations, Netflix indefinitely postponed the launch of a new stand-up special, "Bill Cosby 77," taped on the performer's 77th birthday. NBC dropped a Cosby comedy pilot that would have starred Cosby as the patriarch of a multigenerational family. And TV Land, a cable network that specializes in classic television shows, yanked reruns of "The Cosby Show" airing on weekends.

Tanfani reported from Elkins Park, Pa., Serrano from Washington, D.C., and Goffard from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Richard Winton, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.

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