The case against Darren Sharper
Special reporting by Emily Kaplan
This story appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To read a digital version of the magazine, go here.
How much evidence do you need to believe the worst about a man? Is one serious accusation enough? How about two? Three? Four? Most of us agree: If a man has been accused of raping nine women, in six separate incidents, the public can reach a verdict before a jury.
As one friend of Darren Sharper’s says, if he is being framed, this is “one hell of a conspiracy.” Since January, the former NFL star has been charged with drugging and raping two women in separate incidents in Los Angeles, and drugging and raping two more in Arizona. Two women have accused him of sexually assaulting them in New Orleans; police there have a warrant for his arrest but haven’t charged him. Las Vegas police are investigating him for drugging and raping two women in his hotel suite there. (Lawyers for Sharper in these four states either maintain his innocence or declined comment.) After these incidents came to light, a woman told Miami Beach police that Sharper raped her; they investigated but did not pursue charges.
Rapists come in every color, from every tax bracket, out of every neighborhood. We know this. But the allegations are still stunning, especially if you knew the handsome, bright and genial Sharper, a five-time Pro Bowl safety and member of the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s. He dated actress Gabrielle Union, asked team executives for business advice and gracefully transitioned into an on-air job at the NFL Network after he retired in 2011.
On the field, Sharper was the epitome of reliability, starting 182 of a possible 205 games over his 14-year career with the Packers, Vikings and Saints. He seemed responsible in his personal life as well. Sharper had one child, Amara, and he once wrote in NFL Dads Dedicated to Daughters, a book produced by the NFLPA, that she “makes [me] mindful of how women are treated.” In 2009 he denied rumors that he had a second child, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “The next time I have a baby will be after I put a ring on [a woman’s finger].” He also mentored young players. Vikings teammate Dontarrious Thomas says Sharper told him, “People you may think are your friends aren’t, in certain situations. You’ve got to protect yourself.”
Many friends and former teammates now wonder if they knew Sharper at all, but at least one is certain that he does. Interior designer David Arcadian caters to the rich and famous -- his company is called Rockstar Interiors -- and since working on Sharper’s Miami Beach condo, Arcadian says the two have been tight. He dismisses the accusations. “This is impossible,” he says. “Darren just glides through life. I have yet to see him do anything remotely hostile. ... Millionaires don’t rob banks. People like Darren don’t need to do anything but smile to get their way.”
Sometimes Sharper did not even have to smile. Former linebacker Jude Waddy understands. Waddy roomed with Sharper at William & Mary and played with him on the Packers. “My female friends are very intelligent, articulate and successful, but when he was coming [to] town, they were like, Let him know I don’t have any panties on,” Waddy says. “They wanted to meet him, at least to make an offer or to present themselves. Whatever they get from it, he had it.”
But Sharper played it cool. Says Jammal Brown, a teammate on the Saints, “He acted like it was old news. He already had a plan with somebody.”
In crude athletic terms: Sharper let the game come to him. But the casual approach belied an active bedroom life, even by pro-athlete standards, former teammates say. One says Sharper seemed to sleep with a different woman every night -- “almost like it was a sex addiction.” Sharper’s sexual partners were often in their late teens or early 20s.
How did that Darren Sharper end up accused of such heinous crimes? An SI investigation reveals a man that his friends never knew, surrounded by questionable characters, in a descent that landed him in a Los Angeles jail.
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIV in 2010, Sharper grew close to St. Bernard Parish police sergeant Brandon Licciardi, according to a friend of Licciardi’s. Sharper made well-promoted appearances at The Daq Shaq, a bar owned by Licciardi, and introduced him to other Saints. Licciardi, now 29, basked in the relationships, says a source close to Licciardi, collecting autographs and showing off memorabilia.
After Sharper retired, he and Licciardi would frequent New Orleans bars and clubs. A source tells SI that New Orleans police have asked at least one Licciardi associate about Licciardi’s allegedly improper use of a powerful medication and his relationship with Sharper. (Licciardi’s attorney, Pat Fanning, tells SI he was unaware of that, but said Licciardi doesn’t use drugs. A spokesman for the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office said Licciardi was recently removed from the traffic division but declined to specify why.)
Friends may have thought Sharper was still gliding through life. But to some observers his behavior had become increasingly strange, and one woman described him as “desperate.” She told SI she was 22 when Sharper and another man hit on her and her 22-year-old friend in August 2012 at Republic, a trendy New Orleans club. Sharper went on a couple of dates with her friend and then asked to meet the friend’s parents, according to the friend. He also asked his date to drive him to a hotel, then said he didn’t have his wallet and wanted her to pay for the room. She left without paying, and they never went out again.
At a Mardi Gras event in 2011, Sharper met three college-age women, took them to his condominium and served them alcoholic drinks, according to a parent of one of the women. Another parent says the women left because Sharper was “acting like, who was going to sleep with him?”
Another woman told SI that she was 19 when Sharper -- then in his late 30s -- bought her a drink at Republic; she left 10 minutes later, characterizing his behavior as “creepy.” A Republic employee says Sharper was the “old guy in the club” and didn’t seem to realize it.
Sharper also frequented Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant, a favorite spot of young locals; he lived in an apartment above the bar while with the Saints. A photo of Sharper hangs on the wall, alongside those of other Saints, but in recent years he seemed out of place there, often standing behind the deejay. One employee tells SI, “He lurked. He didn’t talk to anyone. It was weird.”
After retiring, Sharper met Erik Nunez, now 27, who described himself on Facebook as an “NFL events coordinator.” He has actually been a server at Morton’s Steakhouse in New Orleans for the past three years. His attorney, Jeffrey Smith, says Nunez met Sharper in 2012 when he helped Sharper with some charity work. Nunez had tried out for his high school football team in Metairie, La., but failed a drug test, according to former Grace King High coach Mike Virgets, who describes Nunez as “kind of a loner ... the type that was searching for identity.”
According to the warrant for Sharper’s arrest and a police report, in September 2013, Sharper and Nunez took two women to Sharper’s apartment above Lucy’s and then raped them. Smith says that Nunez “committed no crimes.” Police say Sharper and Nunez admitted to acquaintances that they had each engaged in oral and vaginal sex with the women without their knowledge or permission. That sounds like a simple confession, but rape cases are rarely simple. Even Sharper’s.
One of Sharper’s attorneys in California, Leonard Levine, says he is “hopeful” that Sharper will be exonerated. This may not be far-fetched. Cumulatively, the accusations are overwhelming. But individually, each may be difficult to prove. If the accusers voluntarily joined Sharper in his hotel room or apartment after a night of drinking and don’t remember the assault, can a jury eliminate reasonable doubt?
Cases like this have always vexed prosecutors. The Rape Abuse & Incest National Network estimates that of every 100 rapes, only 40 are reported to police, just 10 result in an arrest and a mere four lead to a felony conviction. If Sharper is convicted of a felony, the verdict may be traced to another rape case a generation ago.
In 1991, as Sharper, a lightly recruited player at Hermitage (Va.) High, waited for offers from big-time schools such as Maryland and Virginia that never came, the country was transfixed by the trial of William Kennedy Smith. The nephew of John F. Kennedy, Smith had been drinking with his cousin Patrick and Patrick’s dad, Senator Ted Kennedy, in Palm Beach, Fla., when Smith met Patricia Bowman. The two went back to the Kennedy compound and walked along the beach.
Bowman said Smith tackled her and raped her. The Palm Beach police chief said he was “99 percent sure” a sexual assault had occurred.
In the wake of Bowman’s allegation, three other women—a doctor, a medical student and a law student—came forward and said Smith had sexually assaulted them between 1983 and ’88. But on the first day of the Smith trial in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Judge Mary Lupo barred those three from testifying.
Activists were outraged, but Lupo had sound legal reasons. Under Rule 404 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, “Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character or trait.” Put simply: Testimony must be directly related to the accusation at hand.
Smith was acquitted in 77 minutes. Would the verdict have been different if the jurors had known he had been accused of sexually assaulting three other women? Many activists believed so, and Lupo’s decision echoed three years later. As part of a crime bill, Congress added Rule 413 to the Federal Rules of Evidence: “In a criminal case in which the defendant is accused of an offense of sexual assault, evidence of the defendant’s commission of another offense or offenses of sexual assault is admissible, and may be considered for its bearing on any matter to which it is relevant.” Put simply: The rules are different for sexual assault than for other crimes.
Rule 413, which is often followed in state courts, is controversial. Why is the standard for rape different than for murder? Some attorneys argue it is solely because of the low conviction rate in sexual-assault cases, and that it is unfair.
In Sharper’s case, it is possible -- perhaps even likely -- that a judge will allow a prosecutor in, say, California to introduce the rape allegations from cases in Arizona, Louisiana and Nevada. How much evidence do you need to believe the worst about a man? For some jurors that may be enough.
Of course some millionaires do rob banks -- if not with a mask and a gun. And some handsome, successful men commit rape. Rapists are not just motivated by sex but by “power over someone else, control over someone else,” says clinical psychologist David Lisak, a leading researcher on acquaintance rape. “It can be a validation for them.” Sometimes human desire comes to rest in dark places, for reasons that are hard to understand, and even harder to foresee. Last November, Sharper drank with several people at American Junkie, a bar in Scottsdale. The bar, and the Arizona State students inside it, attract many pro athletes. A former employee working that night says Sharper was “very nice to the staff” as he ordered bottles of vodka for his table -- until he left without paying his $700 bill.
One woman at American Junkie that night told police that she “did not feel Sharper had come on to her in any way.” Another woman who was there that night -- she had known Sharper before and picked him up at the airport -- said she had had consensual sex with him in the past. These two women told police that Sharper went back with them to one of their apartments, then drugged and raped them both.
In the fall of 2012, three woman were having drinks in Mokai, a South Beach club, with Sharper, a local real estate agent, and a mutual acquaintance named Wascar Payano, an Iraq War veteran.
Payano’s name had come up in a police investigation a year earlier. Sharper and his older brother, Jamie -- an NFL linebacker from 1997 to 2005 -- were investigated for an incident that began at Mansion, a club just a mile away from Mokai. Two women were on spring break and ended up asleep on a couch in Darren’s condo. One woman told police she woke to find “[either Darren or Jamie] behaving inappropriately by exposing his penis and attempting to bring it close to her face.” (Attempts to reach Jamie Sharper were unsuccessful.) The two women discovered their underwear had been removed while they were asleep; they went to a rape treatment center, but a doctor found no evidence of sexual battery. The police report is redacted, but it mentions that one woman had “made arrangements to meet at the incident location with Payano.”
Payano told police that he was Sharper’s cousin, but Nyack, N.Y., gym owner Teddy Guerzon, a childhood friend of Payano’s, says Payano and Sharper met when Payano was promoting parties at Mansion. Payano has been accused of assault before. In December 2008, his ex-girlfriend told police that Payano went into her room at the University of Miami and tried to kiss her. She said that when she resisted, he smacked her, spat in her face and threatened to kill her. A few weeks later, another Miami student told police that Payano held her down and forced his tongue into her ear and began to simulate intercourse while lying on top of her. She said that he forced his knee between her legs and slapped her 20 times. Payano was arrested. The police dropped both cases when the women were reluctant to continue with them, though one did get a restraining order against him. (Repeated attempts to reach Payano were unsuccessful.)
The women at Mokai told police they ended up at Sharper’s condo, where he poured them drinks. One told police she woke at 9 a.m. with Sharper’s penis inside her. (She did not report the incident until she saw a story about the other charges on TV this winter. Police have declined to pursue charges.)
And last October, Sharper was at Bootsy Bellows, a West Hollywood club co-owned by actor David Arquette. Two weeks earlier, Usher had celebrated his 35th birthday there with Justin Bieber and Diddy. Sharper’s five Pro Bowl appearances didn’t hold much social currency there; says one employee, “[Sharper] was not significant. He was way off the radar.”
Sharper met two women through a mutual friend at Bootsy Bellows on Oct. 30, according to a police report. In his hotel suite, the report says, he poured them coffee-flavored Patron, and both women blacked out. One woman told police she woke up with Sharper sexually assaulting her in his bedroom. The other said she woke up on a sofa, walked into the bedroom and stopped the assault.
According to police, on Jan. 14, Sharper met two other women at Bootsy Bellows, took them to one party and invited them to a second. He told them he wanted to stop in his hotel room so he could pick up some narcotics, according to the police report. He poured them drinks, and they too blacked out. One woke at 8:30 a.m. and, the report says, “felt as though she had been sexually assaulted.”
The very next night, the city is Las Vegas: two women in Sharper’s hotel room, as he poured shots. This time, according to police, a man was with them. The man told police his next memory, after drinking a shot, was sitting alone in the hotel bar. One woman said the next thing she remembered was Sharper sexually assaulting her. The other said that when she woke, she felt she had been raped.
We tend to see what people want us to see. Sharper sounded convincing as he denied rumors in 2009 of a second child, but his lawyers recently acknowledged that he does have another child. (The child’s mother, Patricia Hall, declined to talk to SI.)
Before his retirement, Sharper seemed to be in good health; afterward, he was a public face on the league’s network. (He was fired after the allegations surfaced.) But in 2012, he filed a worker’s compensation claim against the NFL in California, citing injuries to his head, hips, shoulders, knee and kidneys. His lawyer for that claim, Mark Slipock, declined to detail Sharper’s specific injuries.
If Sharper committed these sexual assaults, he did it without threatening anyone or acting with aggression. Maybe you can understand why women trusted him. He was a handsome, single celebrity, athletic and charismatic -- friendly enough to spend a few hours with them at a club, generous enough to invite them to a party, polite enough to fix them a drink.