By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
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By Melanie Asmar
Eight years after she first reported a sexual assault to police and four years after prosecutors told her they were dropping the case, a young woman has won an unusual court ruling that orders prosecution of her alleged assailant, a former University of Colorado football player who was also implicated in the school's infamous recruiting-party scandal.
On Monday, December 15, after hearing an Aurora police detective testify that a veteran prosecutor had declined to pursue the case rather rather than "jump on the CU bandwagon" of rape allegations, Arapahoe County District Judge Carlos Samour granted the woman's petition to compel prosecution of Clyde Surrell, a former defensive end for the Buffs. The case is being removed from the office of Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney Carol Chambers and will be assigned to a special prosecutor.
"It's almost unheard of for a judge to intervene in the decision-making of a district attorney's office and take the case away from them," says Baine Kerr, the woman's attorney. "It's astounding that a case as strong as this one would have to face this kind of prosecutorial timidity. This is a great day for rape victims."
Although the alleged assault predates the CU scandal by eighteen months, its handling appears to have become entangled in the political fallout from that highly publicized case. If Surrell's prosecution does proceed, he will be the only one of several players named in a wave of rape allegations that started in 2002 to face sex-assault charges. But they won't be filed by Chambers, the controversial DA who has built her reputation on being tough on crime and a strong champion of victims' rights ("The Punisher," February 8, 2007). Chambers inherited the case from her predecessor, but the alleged victim says her complaint was mishandled for years.
"It felt good to have a judge look at the evidence and agree that this case deserves its day in court," says the 26-year-old woman, who asked to be identified only as Julie. Arapahoe County prosecutors "walked out of there with their heads down, and I was happy about that."
Paul Wolf, Arapahoe County's chief deputy DA for appeals, says that the victim's inability to recall details of the assault and initial reluctance to pursue the matter, conflicting stories from witnesses and other problems made the case unsuitable for prosecution — a position seconded by a Larimer County prosecutor who was asked to review the file last year. But Julie claims that the county failed to act on solid evidence even after Surrell's name surfaced in other CU rape allegations.
Her long-running ordeal dates back to June 2000, when she drank too much at an Eaglecrest High School graduation party. Surrell, a senior star quarterback, apparently drove her home. Julie says she has no recollection of what happened next. When she woke up hours later, she was sitting in her car in her driveway, wearing only a shirt, spattered with mud and in pain. She filed a report with Aurora police. They took samples with a rape kit and questioned Surrell, who initially denied having any sexual contact with her.
Months later, Surrell's DNA popped up in the rape-kit test results, indicating that he'd had vaginal and anal sex with Julie. By now busy playing football at CU, Surrell changed his story for detectives, saying that he'd had consensual intercourse with Julie. At that point, Julie says, prosecutors were prepared to move forward — but she wasn't ready.
"They came to me in February 2001 and asked if I would like to prosecute," she says. "But my dad was dying of leukemia, and I had tried to commit suicide after finding out the DNA results. I was quite unstable, and my mom wouldn't let me go through a trial. So I declined, knowing I could possibly do it at a later date."
Wolf maintains that the DA's office was never inclined to file charges in this case. But that's contradicted by a note in the case file from Aurora detective Ronald Hahn, who wrote in February 2001 that he'd received a call from Karen Pearson, now chief deputy district attorney for trials, "advising me that she felt that the case against Clyde Surrell was fileable." Hahn would later aver that, in his view, Surrell's shifting statements about his encounter with Julie, including a lengthy 2007 interview with 9News that was at odds with earlier versions, only made the case against him stronger over time, not weaker.
Julie's interest in pursuing the case changed dramatically when the CU scandal broke in early 2002, after three women claimed to have been raped at on off-campus party for players and potential recruits. Surrell was one of four players who later pleaded guilty to providing alcohol to minors at the party. He was also accused of being involved in a gang rape of a soccer player and forcing a student-trainer to have sex with a recruit, but he denied any sexual misconduct and was never charged. Julie, though, suspected the worst.
"I felt really bad about not prosecuting, because I thought I could have prevented some of these rapes," she says now.
In 2004, Julie flew back to Colorado from college in Arizona to tell Pearson that she was now ready to pursue the case. Hahn also attended the meeting, during which Pearson explained that her office considered the case closed. "We don't want to look like we're jumping on the CU bandwagon," she said.