Lawyers for Florida International University baseball phenom Garrett Wittels, charged with rape in the Bahamas after a night at the craps tables with two 17-year-old girls from Texas, are counting on surveillance footage from the casino to help vindicate him and two friends who also face rape charges.
But there is another wild card in the high-profile rape case: The father of one of the accusers -- who chaperoned the girls on their visit to the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Paradise Island -- has a controversial past. Several years ago, he was accused of planning to hire a woman to falsely claim she was raped at a professional sporting event. The sport’s governing body also accused him of plotting to use actors to stage a racially-charged fight in the stands in order to paint the fan base as hostile to minorities in a film he was making.
The organization also claimed separately in a lawsuit that he infringed on the sport’s trademark by seeking to market a sexually explicit Girls Gone Wild-type video.
The Miami Herald is not naming the father, or the sport, because to do so could possibly identify the daughter.
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From the day the charges became public, the ballplayer’s father, Dr. Michael Wittels, has asserted it was the girls, and not Garrett and his friends, who were the aggressors. The security footage will allow prosecutors and ultimately a jury to gauge body language, behavior and sobriety.
Last college baseball season, Wittels became a national curiosity, featured daily on ESPN, when he hit safely in 56 straight games. That was two short of the Division I record held by Robin Ventura, who went on to a successful major league career. Wittels’ streak was still going when the season ended.
The incident that led to the rape charge took place during college baseball’s offseason, while Wittels partied in the Bahamas, toasting a friend’s 21st birthday. Despite the notoriety stemming from the arrest, the school cleared Wittels to compete. The streak ended when he went hitless in the first game of the current season.
Miami attorney Richard Sharpstein, who is helping coordinate the defense for Wittels and his friends, Robert Rothschild and Jonathan Oberti, said he believes the criminal case is just a prelude to a civil suit.
Lawyers for the girls have requested information on all three men’s insurance companies -- unusual, according to famed Miami attorney Roy Black, when a criminal case has yet to be tried.
Civil attorneys in Texas and Florida who represent the two girls told The Miami Herald they were either unfamiliar with the allegations against the father or were not at liberty to discuss them. Neither the girl’s father, nor the girls returned phone calls.
BIRTHDAY GONE BAD
Events began to unfold on Saturday, Dec. 18, when Wittels flew to the Bahamas for the birthday party of David Shapiro. Wittels, Rothschild and Oberti, college students in their early 20s, joined Steven Tromberg at Atlantis. The four of them and Shapiro had all attended high school in northeast Miami-Dade.
The friends ended up sharing two adjoining rooms in the Royal Towers East. A roughly quarter-mile walk down a corridor filled with expensive shops leads to the resort’s casino, which features slot machines and card and dice gaming tables.
On the second day, the two teenage girls from Texas arrived, with the father of one of the girls, his girlfriend, his girlfriend’s mother and his young son. Their four-day vacation was slated to end on Dec. 22.
After dining at the resort’s Marketplace Restaurant on the Dec. 19th, the girls -- one in a black dress, the other in a green top -- were left to entertain themselves. At around 9:30p.m., they went out exploring.
They ended up at the Dragon’s Ultra Lounge, an 88-seat bar featuring exotic alcoholic drinks. Although the drinking age is 18 in the Bahamas, both 17-year-olds ordered alcohol and were served. “I ordered a cherry vodka sour drink,” the girl in the black dress told police in a written statement. “(My friend) also ordered the same thing.’’
They then conversed with some “native guys,’’ one of whom offered to share his marijuana. The girl in the green top took a “small puff.’’
The girls then ordered an apple martini and a Kahlúa and cream, followed by lemon drops, a vodka drink.
“As [my friend] and I were getting ready to leave, I observed a group of five white males coming from the casino [who] went directly to the bar,” said the girl in the black dress. “[My friend] pointed them out and said they looked like tools, meaning they looked stupid.”
The men asked their age, the girl in the black dress said, and “we told him 17 years. He then look in the direction of the other men and said to them they are [too] young.”
Sixteen is the legal age for consent in the Bahamas. Sharpstein maintains that the girls did not tell his clients they were 17, but instead tried to appear older by saying they were sophomores at the University of Arkansas.
NIGHT OF PARTYING
The party -- consisting now of the two girls, Wittels and Rothschild -- migrated over to one of the craps tables in the casino a few steps away from the lounge. Actually, the girls exited by themselves and the men followed, the girl in the green top told police. However, the video, viewed by The Miami Herald, shows Wittels and the girl in the green top walking hand-in-hand.
The time stamp on the video shows they entered the gambling salon at 1:38a.m. It shows the girl in the black dress standing side by side at the craps tables with Wittels and the girl in the green top with Rothschild.
The nearly 20 minutes of footage from the casino shows a series of flirtations and caresses, interspersed with Wittels rolling the dice and the girls blowing on the men’s chips for good luck. There is considerable physical contact, generally initiated by the girls. They kiss the men individually. They engage in three-way kisses with each other and Rothschild.
At one point, Wittels shakes his fist in celebration, apparently after a favorable roll of the dice.
At 1:52 a.m., the girl in the black dress spins Wittels around so that his back is to the craps table and as she kisses him, he leans back partly over the craps table. Thirty seconds later, he embraces her with his hands fully behind her hips.
The other gamblers appear oblivious to the goings-on, and a man employed by the casino brushes past, taking no note of the two underage girls.
At 1:54 a.m., the party leaves the craps table. The girls, both shoeless as they exit, end up in the men’s hotel room, where there are no surveillance cameras and where they are joined by Oberti.
There is no dispute that sex occurred in the room. The teens say they were roughed up and sexually assaulted as they lapsed into and out of consciousness. The accused say the girls were willing sex partners.
The next morning, around 10, the girl in the black dress told her father she had been raped. He called security. Security called police.
They picked out Wittels and his four friends from a photo lineup, although just three of them were present in the room.
Initially, all five were arrested; ultimately just the three were charged.