Vaughan: Delay in Winston investigation hurt search for evidence

The long delay in investigating a sexual assault allegation against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston hampered the search for evidence and witnesses, according to documents made public Friday.

Florida state attorney Willie Meggs ultimately filed no criminal charges in what Winston asserted was a consensual encounter. However, it’s clear from reports filed by his investigators that the passage of nine months while the case sat on the shelf at the Tallahassee Police Department was a problem.

Meggs also said Friday that his investigators considered it possible his accuser had been drugged — and that caused the gaps in her memory — even though toxicology tests found no sign of it.

“That’s the only way this would have made any sense,” said Meggs, given that the level of alcohol in the woman’s system suggested that she should have been able to remember events.

Winston, the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, had played in recent weeks with the investigation hanging over his head. Now cleared, he’s ready to suit up in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game without the looming possibility he could be charged.

The case centered on a woman’s allegation that she was out drinking with friends last Dec. 7 when someone she did not know bought her a shot, that she ended up in a cab with several young men and that she was raped at an apartment.

The woman told investigators she could remember only bits and pieces of the incident and did not know her attacker. About five weeks after the incident, she called a detective and identified Winston as the suspect after seeing him in one of her classes.

Tallahassee police investigators shelved the case in February, contending that the victim did not want to press charges — something her attorney later disputed. The investigation was revived in mid-November after several news outlets requested the initial police report. Police turned the case over to Meggs, and his office directed the investigation.

Documents released Friday show that the long delay hurt investigators both in their quest to find out more about the night of the incident and to find others who may have witnessed key moments.

For example, an investigator went to Potbelly’s, the Tallahassee bar where the woman had been drinking with friends, in a search for video surveillance footage. The hope was that footage could help identify the person who bought the woman a shot and that it might show who the woman interacted with in the hours leading up to the alleged assault. It could also have provided detectives with the identities of others who were there that night.

Though the bar has more than 30 surveillance cameras, the images from them are “recycled” every 30 days — so any hope of using that footage in the investigation was lost.

There was also an attempt to identify the cab driver who drove the woman, Winston and two of his friends from the bar to his apartment.

In the early weeks of the investigation, a police detective sent an e-mail to all the city’s cab drivers, asking them if they remembered picking the group up. No one responded.

When state investigators went back to the cab company a few weeks ago, they sought data on who was working that night and other information that might have identified the driver. But one cab company had recently adopted a new system for tracking drivers and passengers and no longer had records from 2012. And even though 37 cab drivers were interviewed, more than 11 months had passed and none recalled picking up a young woman and three men at the bar.

In addition, one friend of the woman’s met with an attorney for Winston before she talked to detectives in November — a situation that might not have occurred if the investigation had been handled more promptly.

It’s also clear that investigators considered it possible that the woman was drugged, although a test of her blood found no sign of drugs. Still, Meggs said Friday that some so-called “date rape” drugs can cause the kind of memory loss the woman described — and be undetectable even a few hours after they are introduced to someone’s body.

“We don’t know if we didn’t find any because it wasn’t there or because it was undetectable,” he said.

The woman — who in a statement issued with her family disputed Winston’s assertion that this was a consensual encounter — was dropped off on the Florida State campus after the assault and walked to her dorm. She called a friend, who came to her room, according to the newly released records.

After the friend arrived, the woman was at first hesitant to call police but eventually agreed to do so. That call came more than an hour after the alleged assault. And it was several more hours before blood and urine samples were taken to test her for drugs and alcohol.

She had a blood-alcohol level of .048 when the test was administered — enough to be considered an impaired motorist in many states. Investigators performed a reverse extrapolation that estimated she would have had a blood-alcohol level of around .10 at the time of the incident, which is above the point at which a motorist can be charged with drunken driving.

But the documents also made it clear why prosecutors would have had a hard time presenting the case to a jury.

Not only did two friends of Winston’s describe her as in control of herself, a friend of hers also told investigators that though she had been drinking she did not appear to be intoxicated.

“We all seemed fine,” the woman told investigators, according to reports.

In addition, the documents released Friday made it clear how the woman concluded that Winston was the suspect. She was sitting in class when she saw him and made eye contact with him.

“They both had a look of concern on their face,” the report said. The woman “listened for roll call in the class and heard the person’s name was Jameis Winston.”

A DNA test later confirmed that his genetic fingerprint was found on her clothing.

But with her problems remembering details of the incident, Meggs said it was impossible to determine exactly what happened.