El­liott case re­veals lim­its of how far the NFL can go in its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

As case with El­liott shows, po­lice and at­tor­neys don’t al­ways feel com­pelled to share in­for­ma­tion with the league’s in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY WILL HOB­SON Meryl Wil­liams in Colum­bus, Ohio, con­trib­uted to this re­port. will.hob­son@wash­post.com

Last Au­gust, NFL Di­rec­tor of In­ves­ti­ga­tions Kia Roberts emailed a top city of­fi­cial in Colum­bus, Ohio, where po­lice were in­ves­ti­gat­ing al­le­ga­tions Dal­las Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott as­saulted a woman.

Roberts men­tioned her back­ground as a for­mer homi­cide pros­e­cu­tor in Brook­lyn, ex­plained she was also look­ing into the al­le­ga­tions for the NFL and asked to speak about the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The Colum­bus of­fi­cial replied, via email, that he’d let her know when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was over.

Last Novem­ber — weeks af­ter Colum­bus pros­e­cu­tors de­cided not to charge El­liott and pub­licly re­leased a cache of doc­u­ments from the case — Roberts emailed a pros­e­cu­tor and asked for some of his per­sonal in­ves­tiga­tive notes. He de­clined to turn them over. A month later, Roberts emailed the same pros­e­cu­tor and asked if he would share de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with El­liott’s ac­cuser. Again, the pros­e­cu­tor re­jected the NFL’s re­quest.

Since be­ing sharply crit­i­cized by women’s groups and oth­ers for its han­dling of the Ray Rice case in 2014, the NFL has sought to demon­strate that it takes do­mes­tic vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions against its play­ers se­ri­ously. The league bol­stered its se­cu­rity staff, said it would launch its own in­ves­ti­ga­tions of re­ports of abuse com­mit­ted by NFL play­ers, and de­liver pun­ish­ments that hold abusers ac­count­able re­gard­less of how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem han­dles a case.

But as the El­liott case shows, there are lim­its to how ag­gres­sive the league can be in in­ves­ti­gat­ing claims.

“These are dif­fi­cult and com­plex mat­ters as we have all seen in cases across Amer­ica that go well be­yond sports. NFL in­ves­ti­ga­tions are thor­ough and com­pre­hen­sive as these se­ri­ous mat­ters de­serve,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a state­ment. “These in­ves­ti­ga­tions take time, but we want to be thor­ough rather than rush to a de­ci­sion with­out hav­ing all the facts.”

Good idea, tough ex­e­cu­tion

The NFL’s un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to pry ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion from Colum­bus of­fi­cials, some of which were first re­ported by Dead­spin and are de­tailed in records re­leased to The Wash­ing­ton Post this past week, il­lus­trate the lim­its con­fronting the league’s nascent in­ves­tiga­tive force as it han­dles po­ten­tially its most vex­ing case: the one-year-old in­quiry into al­le­ga­tions El­liott as­saulted a woman last July.

Last year, law en­force­ment in two cities de­clined to press charges against the 22-year-old Cow­boys star af­ter look­ing into sep­a­rate as­sault com­plaints made by the same 21-year-old Ohio woman. (The Post gen­er­ally does not name ac­cusers in cases in­volv­ing al­le­ga­tions of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.) El­liott main­tains he never harmed the woman; she main­tains he did, re­peat­edly. Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones has dis­missed the ac­cu­sa­tions as mer­it­less.

In Colum­bus, city at­tor­ney Rick Pfeif­fer treated the NFL’s re­quest for more in­for­ma­tion, es­sen­tially, like a me­dia in­quiry.

“Noth­ing has been de­ter­mined as of this time,” he wrote Roberts in Au­gust, not re­spond­ing to her re­quest for a phone con­ver­sa­tion. “I will let you know our con­clu­sion.”

When Pfeif­fer’s of­fice de­cided it would not press charges last Septem­ber, it pub­licly re­leased wit­ness in­ter­view tran­scripts and record­ings as well as pho­tos of the ac­cuser’s in­juries. Colum­bus of­fi­cials alerted Roberts to their de­ci­sion with an email also sent to more than a dozen jour­nal­ists.

The ma­te­ri­als re­leased in Colum­bus show why pros­e­cu­tors de­cided there was not enough ev­i­dence to press charges. The ac­cuser called po­lice early July 22, al­leg­ing El­liott had phys­i­cally abused her re­peat­edly over the pre­vi­ous week. The woman had bruises on one shoul­der and on both fore­arms and wrists. In vi­o­lent out­bursts, the woman al­leged, El­liott had choked her, threw her against a wall and dragged her across a floor. She said El­liott told her “she was lucky that he has not killed her yet,” and that “he loved her and did not want to have to put his hands her but it’s tough love.”

El­liott de­nied the claims, and told po­lice the ac­cuser had been in a barfight with an­other woman that night. Po­lice found no wit­nesses of El­liott’s al­leged as­saults. Three peo­ple, in­clud­ing a se­cu­rity man­ager at a bar, told po­lice they saw El­liott’s ac­cuser fight an­other woman that evening, not El­liott. Four peo­ple told po­lice they heard the woman yell at El­liott she was go­ing to “call the cops to ruin his ca­reer.” And one woman — whom El­liott’s ac­cuser had iden­ti­fied as a wit­ness — told po­lice she didn’t wit­ness any as­sault, but El­liott’s ac­cuser had asked her to lie and say she had.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion stalled

In late Oc­to­ber, Roberts flew to Colum­bus and met with pros­e­cu­tor Robert To­bias. A few days later, she emailed To­bias and re­quested some in­for­ma­tion that had not been in­cluded in the doc­u­ments pub­licly re­leased: a cal­en­dar the pros­e­cu­tor had kept, with de­tailed notes of the ac­cuser’s al­le­ga­tions and when they oc­curred.

“As we dis­cussed, an im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion in our in­ves­ti­ga­tion is the con­sis­tency be­tween the al­le­ga­tions that [El­liott’s ac­cuser] has made to us here at the league, and what she has al­leged to you,” Roberts wrote on Nov. 3. Ten min­utes later, To­bias replied.

“As men­tioned dur­ing our meet­ing, I do not wish to turn over the chart I cre­ated,” To­bias wrote. He directed Roberts to lis­ten to the pub­licly re­leased in­ter­view record­ings.

A month later, Roberts emailed again. She’d asked the pros­e­cu­tor to share de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with the ac­cuser, and To­bias had de­clined, cit­ing con­cerns about vi­o­lat­ing the woman’s con­fi­den­tial­ity. Roberts made an­other ap­peal, this time in­clud­ing To­bias’s boss.

“Dur­ing my con­ver­sa­tions with both of you over the last few months, I have men­tioned that prior to join­ing the League, I spent ap­prox­i­mately 9 years in the Brook­lyn Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice,” Roberts wrote Dec. 9. She men­tioned an in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing agree­ment the NFL had re­cently signed with the Na­tional Dis­trict At­tor­neys As­so­ci­a­tion.

“I sin­cerely hope that we can come to an un­der­stand­ing here,” Roberts wrote.

To­bias, in an email ex­change with The Post, said he be­lieves he called Roberts min­utes later and ex­plained, again, that he would not dis­cuss his con­ver­sa­tions with the ac­cuser. To­bias de­clined to fur­ther dis­cuss his in­ter­ac­tions with the NFL. The Cow­boys and El­liott de­clined to com­ment. El­liott’s ac­cuser did not re­ply to a phone mes­sage seek­ing com­ment.

As Roberts was wran­gling with Colum­bus of­fi­cials, a sim­i­lar process played out in South Florida, where El­liott’s ac­cuser told the NFL a pre­vi­ous in­ci­dent had oc­curred.

On Sept. 28, NFL se­cu­rity rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ed Du Bois emailed sev­eral of­fi­cials at Aven­tura Po­lice De­part­ment seek­ing “as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about this mat­ter.”

“The NFL is very ag­gres­sive in it’s (sic) in­ves­ti­ga­tion of this con­duct so please re­spond as soon a pos­si­ble,” Du Bois wrote.

Aven­tura Po­lice treated the in­quiry as a pub­lic records re­quest, a po­lice spokesman said this past week, and gave the NFL in­ves­ti­ga­tor a copy of the in­ci­dent re­port, and noth­ing more.

Credit and crit­i­cism

Like the Colum­bus ma­te­ri­als, that re­port is in­con­clu­sive. Po­lice re­sponded to a call the night of Feb. 12, 2016. The ac­cuser al­leged Ezekiel pushed her against the wall, caus­ing “left shoul­der pain.” El­liott de­nied the ac­cu­sa­tion. Of­fi­cers saw no vis­i­ble signs of an in­jury. The woman de­clined an of­fer by emer­gency med­i­cal re­spon­ders to take her to the hos­pi­tal. The in­ci­dent did not re­sult in a crim­i­nal charge.

The NFL’s in­ves­tiga­tive lim­its played a role in its last high-pro­file do­mes­tic vi­o­lence case as well. Last year, de­spite an ear­lier pledge to sus­pend play­ers found to have abused a spouse or part­ner for at least six games, Good­ell sus­pended New York Gi­ants place kicker Josh Brown for one game af­ter pros­e­cu­tors in Wash­ing­ton state de­clined to press charges stem­ming from a 2015 ar­rest for al­legedly as­sault­ing his wife.

Last Oc­to­ber, con­tro­versy erupted af­ter law en­force­ment re­leased doc­u­ments show­ing Brown ad­mit­ted to be­ing “phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and ver­bally abu­sive” of his wife for years. NFL of­fi­cials said their in­ves­ti­ga­tors had re­peat­edly at­tempted to in­ter­view of­fi­cials in King County, Wash., and re­view in­ves­tiga­tive files, but law en­force­ment re­fused to re­lease records while the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was on­go­ing.

“We’re not go­ing to re­lease them to any­one, in­clud­ing the NFL,” a King County law en­force­ment spokes­woman said at the time.

As the NFL’s in­quiry has dragged on, El­liott has been in­volved in two other in­ci­dents that Good­ell could con­sider as he de­cides whether to pun­ish the player. In March, videos emerged of El­liott pulling down a woman’s top dur­ing a St. Pa­trick’s Day cel­e­bra­tion in Dal­las. And two weeks ago, he was in­volved in an al­ter­ca­tion in a Dal­las bar that re­sulted in no crim­i­nal charges.

Some vic­tims’ ad­vo­cates re­main skep­ti­cal of the league’s ef­forts to re­duce do­mes­tic vi­o­lence com­mit­ted by NFL play­ers.

“The NFL never had a Ray Rice prob­lem, it has a vi­o­lence against women prob­lem, and that prob­lem is the prod­uct of Roger Good­ell and his board, the own­ers,” said Terry O’Neill, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women. “The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is be­ing done to al­low Ezekiel to play . . . it’s not about pro­tect­ing the vic­tim.”

Oth­ers give the NFL credit for go­ing fur­ther than many pri­vate em­ploy­ers to ex­am­ine al­le­ga­tions of abuse, and ac­knowl­edge the dif­fi­cul­ties in­her­ent in in­ves­ti­gat­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases.

“I think they’re be­ing thought­ful, and I rec­og­nize that they have some bar­ri­ers to mak­ing things hap­pen quickly,” said Ruth Glenn, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Coali­tion Against Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence. “Any time you’re try­ing to deal with some­thing this com­pli­cated, it’s go­ing to take time.”

GUS RUELAS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cow­boys run­ning back Ezekiel El­liott al­legedly has been in­volved in sev­eral al­ter­ca­tions off the field, though no charges have been filed.

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