Decision based on evidence, victims' wishes

Updated: May 12, 2004, 4:06 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- The state's top prosecutor decided against criminal charges Tuesday in nine alleged sexual assaults involving Colorado football players, citing concerns about evidence and the reluctance of some women to pursue their cases.

Attorney General Ken Salazar said the decision from a special task force formed in late February was unanimous.

Salazar, tapped as a special prosecutor by Gov. Bill Owens, said the investigation remains open and other potential charges concerning Colorado's embattled football program haven't been ruled out.

Gary Klatt, whose son, Joel, is the team's quarterback, said the decision helps dispel some of the cloud over the program. He and other players' parents have voiced concerns the allegations are unjustly tarnishing innocent athletes and coaches.

Klatt, however, said he was saddened by the scandal's effects. "I don't think anybody becomes a winner," he said.

Patty Klopfenstein, the mother of tight end Joel Klopfenstein, said Salazar's decision was no surprise.

"We knew they wouldn't find anything. There's no story, really," she said.

Salazar, the university and a Board of Regents commission are all investigating allegations the football program uses sex and booze to lure recruits to the Boulder campus.

At least eight women have accused football players or recruits of rape since 1997, though no criminal charges have been filed. Salazar spokesman Ken Lane said the ninth allegation surfaced during the investigation, but he declined to elaborate.

Three of the women have sued the school, saying its failure to rein in athletes broke federal gender equity law and contributed to their rapes in 2001. They are seeking unspecified damages and sweeping changes at the school, which has already put stricter limits on football recruiting.

Attorneys for one of the women, Lisa Simpson, said Salazar's office "has never prosecuted a sexual assault case so we never expected that sexual assault would be the focus of their prosecution."

"We are gratified that they're pursuing potential criminal matters in the way the football program has been run at CU," the attorneys said in a statement. Simpson has agreed to have her name used in public.

Victims' advocates were disappointed but said sexual assault cases are difficult to prove.

Janine D'Anniballe, executive director of the Boulder rape crisis center Moving to End Sexual Assault, said her bigger concerns are public perception and the chilling effect on victims who have watched what some of the women in the recruiting scandal have gone through. Simpson, for example, was forced to turn over her diary to university lawyers.

"An unwillingness on the part of victims to come forward doesn't mean sexual misconduct and sexual assault did not occur," she said.

The scandal erupted in January when a deposition by Boulder County prosecutor Mary Keenan in one of the lawsuits was made public. Keenan said prosecutors met with university officials in 1998 and advised them to clamp down on partying by recruits and student-hosts.

Keenan also said she believed the football program uses sex and parties as recruiting tools. School officials have disputed Keenan's version of the meeting, but the scandal has not died down.

Football coach Gary Barnett was put on leave over comments attributed to him in two of the cases. One involved Katie Hnida, who told Sports Illustrated she was raped by a Colorado teammate in 2000.

Owens and a spokesman for the regents' panel declined comment on Salazar's decision. University President Elizabeth Hoffman said she appreciated the "timely manner" in which Salazar completed his work.

"We have great respect for the difficult work being done by the special prosecutor," she said in a written statement.

State Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, who had suggested the Colorado Legislature investigate the university, said he doesn't think Salazar's decision will affect the work of the regents' panel. He said he wasn't surprised by the lack of charges.

Keenan "has expressed no real love" for the football program, but hasn't filed any sexual assault charges, Groff said.

"If she couldn't come up with anything, I wouldn't expect (Salazar) to come up with anything," Groff said.

The regents' panel must finish its work by Friday. Its report will be discussed at a special regents meeting May 19 in Boulder.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press