It was May 21, and the Valley was in mourning.
The Phoenix Suns had just been eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Houston Rockets after a roller-coaster, seven-game series. To many, the loss was especially bitter, because they feared it would be superstar Charles Barkley's final game in uniform. During the game, the pain of a groin injury and the wear and tear of the long season were evident on Barkley's face. He played heroically, as though he might collapse at any moment.
The team returned to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that evening, to be met by thousands of tearful fans grieving about the end of their dream--to bring an NBA championship banner to Phoenix.
But by that evening, Barkley had evidently recovered sufficiently to hit the town for an end-of-season celebration along with teammates Cedric Ceballos and Oliver Miller. They went to a nightclub named Jetz, the locus of the lively, upscale Scottsdale bar scene and a regular postgame watering hole for the team.
The Barkley charm was present in usual abundance, and the players mingled easily with the awestruck club crowd, inviting a few, especially the more attractive ladies in attendance, to a party to be held at Ceballos' north Phoenix home after last call.
According to allegations made by three women who attended that party--allegations recorded in detailed Phoenix police reports and in a New Times interview with one of the women--the event was not what the legions of fans who greeted the players at the airport would have imagined.
The women who went to Ceballos' home that night describe a wild saturnalia in which women were on hand only for the privilege of having sex with the gods of the NBA.
One woman, in an account of the evening supported by her companions, claims she was led into a room by Barkley and raped by Miller while her friends were prevented from coming to her rescue.
The Suns did not respond to repeated requests for comment, or to New Times' request to interview the players alleged to have been involved.
The woman who told police she was raped by Miller now refuses to press charges, citing health concerns and a fear that the Suns organization or the players involved would seek revenge.
What really happened to her that night?
We may never know for sure.
But there are a few things that are certain.
While the allegations of rape would almost certainly never stand up in court, the police reports of the incident--in their cold, clear, detached language--provide a rare glimpse into the lurid lifestyle of young, rich athletes.
That lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the for-family-consumption, civic-heroes image of the Suns propagated by the team's PR machine and Valley media boosters like the Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Gazette and the television news teams (all of whom have had access to the police reports for weeks and failed to disclose them to the public).
It is a morbidly compelling story of arrogant, unchecked desires, of life inside basketball Babylon.
It is also a story of a woman who, either through naivet or fascination with the allure of the basketball superstars, flew into their orbit--and into a world whose unforgiving rules she did not fully understand.
She flew too close to the Suns. And she got burned.
@body:The phone rang at 6:05 a.m., no doubt waking Phoenix police detective Donald Newcomer from his Sunday-morning slumber. Newcomer was instructed to report immediately to a house in east Phoenix to interview a victim of a sexual assault.
Newcomer must have known instantly, however, that this was no ordinary rape investigation. The alleged assault, he was told, involved Suns star Oliver Miller. The sensitivity of the case to the Phoenix police is evident not only in the urgency with which the department summoned one of its top detectives, but also in that he was to join seven other officers already on the job. This case clearly couldn't wait until Monday.
When Newcomer arrived at the house, owned by the ex-husband of the reported victim, he was introduced to the alleged victim, Mary (all the names of the women in the reports have been changed; also, all verbatim material from the police report is italicized, and includes the accounts of several different officers). The report describes the scene:
Mary was laying on the couch and trying to sleep. Mary was dressed in a green robe and I asked her where her clothing was that she had been wearing earlier. She [said] that her pants were somewhere in the residence, but . . . there was no reason to give her clothes to the police since she was not going to prosecute. She also stated that she was not going to have a sexual assault examination.
Her friend, Sue, interrupted and asked to talk to Mary alone. A few minutes later, Sue exited the house and stated that Mary would cooperate and get a medical examination.
Newcomer escorted Mary and Sue to John C. Lincoln Hospital, where Mary was examined by doctors. They said it was apparent that while Mary had no signs of physical trauma, there was "redness to the vaginal area and it appeared that she had had sex." Samples of fluid that police believe to be semen were taken.
The detective then sat down with Mary in a quiet room in the hospital and asked her to explain the events of the night before. He wrote:
Mary did not appear intoxicated, but she did appear withdrawn, tired, sleepy and showed little emotion, until she began describing the particular sex acts.
Prior to describing the act, she told me that she felt uncomfortable talking to a total stranger, [and] as she told me about the acts, she began crying.
Mary provided the officer with a chronology of the preceding 12 hours; a chronology confirmed in almost every detail by summaries of separate interviews with her two companions:
Mary, her sister Kelly and her friend Sue had intended to spend that Saturday night country dancing. Mary left her two children with a friend and went to dinner with her companions. The three women then changed their plans and dropped by the Jetz nightclub.
The women arrived at the club about 9 p.m., had one drink and danced for about an hour. As they were about to leave, there was a stir near the doorway.
Mary's sister saw Charles Barkley enter the nightclub. Barkley approached Mary and began talking to her. He did not introduce himself, but she knew who he was, because her sister told her.
She recalled that another "little guy named Pookie" was with Barkley. Mary said that there were not lots of people in the bar when the basketball players first arrived, but then it became crowded.
Mary, who is five-feet-three and 113 pounds, also spoke to Oliver Miller.
. . . Oliver grabbed her hand and asked her if she wanted to go to a party. He proceeded to take her by the hand to a place in the bar where the other basketball players were, in the corner.
Oliver asked Cedric [Ceballos] what his address was, since it was his house [where] the party was going to be held. Again, Miller asked her if she was going to the party. She indicated that she was not sure and stated that she was going to another club. Oliver then told her that he did not mean now, but after the place had closed. He then gave her the address and she said okay.
Mary, Kelly and Sue left Jetz and spent a few hours at another Scottsdale club, Sharks. Mary told the investigator that she had had only one drink containing alcohol while at Sharks. When the bar closed, the conversation turned to the party invitation.
The three of them decided to go to the party. [Mary] said it was a joint decision to go among themselves. At first, they did not really want to go, but [thought], "it would sure be fun to meet the players, stay five minutes, then tell the kids that we got to go to a party where there were basketball players, and they would get a kick out of it and that would be the end."
She estimated that they arrived at the party close to 2 a.m.
Ceballos' home is located on a dark street just south of Shea Boulevard, nestled near Phoenix Mountains Preserve. The women had difficulty finding the address, since Mary hadn't written it down. They drove around the area for a time, then saw a limousine pull up to a house that, unlike the rest of the neighborhood at that late hour, was brightly lighted.
They walked up to the house and into the living room. According to Sue's statement to police, a few people were standing around "in an uncomfortable situation." No one seemed to know each other, and before long there were explicit porn movies playing on the big-screen television (total sex" seemed to be the theme of the film, Sue told detectives).
When Barkley entered through the doorway, his eyes fixed on Mary, and he bounded over to say hello.
Mary said that she thought it was "so neat to meet these players" and having Charles Barkley complimenting her. She told me that he said something real nice to her, but she could not remember what it was. Since she had received her "thrill" for the evening, she told her sister that she wanted to leave. However, Sue said she did not want to go.
Mary obliged her friend, but began to get uneasy when Barkley, now standing at the top of the stairs above the living room, made a bizarre and ominous announcement. The police report states:
Barkley called everyone in the house together and made a statement. Barkley stated, "Before this party starts, I want everybody to know that anything that goes on in this house, doesn't leave this house."
. . . He then pounded his fist into his hand and made it real clear what he was saying. He then stated, "If you can't handle that, leave now."
But the three women didn't leave, even though Mary later told police she "figured that what Barkley was talking about was a big orgy."
. . . Sue said she wanted to see what was going to happen. Mary said that her sister and her knew what was going to happen, but Sue did not have a clue since she is naive. Mary also stated that she never dreamed she would be involved. She thought that as soon as something did happen, they would leave immediately.
(Kelly told one investigator that Suns players Dan Majerle and Joe Kleine were also at the party, although none of the other witnesses mentioned it.) The three women chatted for a while, noting with disdain the presence of several "slutty" looking girls in the house, and then tried to go upstairs to use the bathroom.
Although there was a lot of "traffic" up and down the stairs, a man and a woman, sitting on the steps, would not allow the three women to climb, suggesting they instead use the downstairs bathroom. They did, and afterward passed the time by eavesdropping on a conversation about Oliver Miller's marriage.
Then, suddenly, Miller himself appeared on a balcony at the top of the stairs, along with a few other men. He motioned for Mary to come to him. "I want to talk to you," Miller called.
This time, the people on the stairs let her pass. The police report states:
Once upstairs, Pookie [the small man seen with Barkley at Jetz], came up behind her and grabbed her shoulders as she made eye contact with Barkley, Pookie and Oliver. She described it as "everybody knew something was going to happen." She told me that she was by the balcony on a darkened corner and would not yell or scream because the people upstairs were Barkley's friends. Mary said that she kept mouthing to her sister, "help me get out of it, help me get out of here." Mary said Kelly did not understand . . .
Barkley approached Mary and grabbed her right arm, but not hard. He began pulling her. . . . As Barkley pulled on her arm, he called her by name and pulled her into the bedroom . . . saying "you need to be in here." [He] then shut the door behind her.
She said that Barkley was standing at the bedroom door when he grabbed her. Barkley never entered the room and she was uncertain where Oliver Miller came from, but he was in front of her. Mary said she was panicked and scared at this time.
She described the bedroom as big with white thick shutters and a bedspread which was green and a "satin sort of feeling." She also said that the bed had lots of pillows on it. She remembered a light on in the bathroom, but she could not give me a description or color of the bathroom . . .
Mary said [Miller] asked, "Are you scared?" She replied that she was a little bit intimidated, but actually she . . . was scared to death, but never said that to him.
Oliver said something to the effect, "What's wrong, you don't like black guys?" Mary said she did not answer and Oliver again asked, "Or you don't like big black guys?" She said that Oliver repeatedly asked the same two questions over and over . . . Oliver [then] asked her if she had any tan lines. She told him that she had a sunburn. Oliver requested to see her tan lines and told her to unzip her pants and take them off. Mary said that she was not going to unzip her pants, but Oliver said he would.
She . . . was wearing button 501 jeans and when he grabbed them, they "popped open" and the pants went down. Once the pants were down, Oliver pulled her onto the bed.
Once on the bed, Oliver made her perform oral sex as he pushed her head down on him . . . she was told by Oliver to suck his balls, which she did. She said that he kept her head there and asked if she liked it. She was not certain how long she did this, but it felt like forever.
Afterwards, Oliver pulled his thing out of her mouth and climbed on top of her with his huge, fat, disgusting thing. They then had intercourse.
Mary said he never took his shorts off, but he pulled them open to expose his penis. She was wearing a top, panties and her pants were open. Oliver had pulled her pants and panties down far enough to put it inside of her. The pants would not go below the knees, since she still had her boots on.
She said Oliver was on top of her for approximately one minute and he was not wearing a condom. He never touched her breasts or any other part of her body. He ejaculated inside of her.
Neither Sue nor Kelly saw Mary led into the bedroom, but after she had been gone for a few minutes, they began to worry. They decided to check on her, and made for the stairs. The statements Sue and Kelly gave to police describe what happened:
Kelly went upstairs looking for Mary but found all the doors closed. . . . Charles Barkley was upstairs with four women. A man named Pookie told Kelly she would have to go back downstairs, which she did.
A short time later, Kelly and Sue attempted to go upstairs again, but they were not permitted.
Sue [said] that there were three black men . . . and a white female with long black hair, dark lipstick and wearing black, who were sitting on the steps. Sue expressed concern about Mary and the unidentified white female asked if she wanted to have her talk to Mary.
Sue agreed and the white female went upstairs.
A short time later, she returned with Mary in front of her. As Mary approached them, Sue saw that Mary was "white as a ghost." Mary told them, "let's get out of here."
As they were walking to the car, Mary stated, "it was so horrible I don't want to talk about it."
Mary refused to discuss what happened with Miller during the car ride home. But once there, she confessed to Sue and Kelly, emphasizing that she was "afraid" and didn't want to call the police.
Sue, against Mary's wishes, dialed 911.
@body:There are so many questions.
Why did Mary remain at Ceballos' house in light of her having told police she suspected that an "orgy" was imminent? After Barkley's impassioned disclaimer and warning? After she noticed the selective gatekeepers on the stairs, allowing the "slutty" women to make the trek to the top?
She must have known what kind of party this was.
Why didn't she cry out for help during that dark moment when she made "eye contact" with Barkley, Miller and Pookie, in those seconds before "something" was going to happen?
Why didn't she struggle with Miller, or at least utter an unequivocal "no"?
Why didn't she want to call police? Why did she refuse to press charges?
Why should anything in the report be believed?
Valid questions all, to which Mary has a few answers. Although she has repeatedly declined requests from Valley media for interviews, she agreed to a brief conversation with New Times.
Mary told police that she did not resist her rape because she had made a pledge to herself that "if she ever got raped, she was going to let the person do whatever they wanted to do for fear of her life."
It was that fear, she says, that dictated her course of action that night, and it is fear that continues to guide her in the aftermath of the traumatic event.
That night, she told New Times, she was "a complete basket case, intimidated and afraid. I did the best I could under the circumstances. All I could think about was getting through, surviving.
"And that's all I'm thinking about now."
There was also an element of disbelief that kept Mary from running from the party and, she says, from the clutches of Barkley and Miller.
"It comes down to the fact that I just felt safe at the party," she says. "It was foolish, but, I mean, these people are heroes. I've seen them on TV, in the papers. They are portrayed as people to look up to. "I guess the bottom line is that I just couldn't imagine that they would act the way they did. Even while it was happening, I just couldn't believe it."
But why should people believe Mary? After all, anyone can contact police and allege they have been sexually assaulted. Many believe that allegations of sexual impropriety have become weapons with which vindictive women can tarnish men--from a U.S. Supreme Court nominee to a president. It's certainly nothing new for professional athletes.
Is her story merely a fiction, a search-and-destroy mission prompted by a sexual rejection or some other slight? Perhaps the result of a regretful morning after--after, that is, a consensual sexual encounter?
It is, of course, possible. But there are good reasons to believe Mary's story.
Mary, Sue and Kelly gave repeated statements to the numerous officers who responded to the rape call that Sunday morning. In all their accounts, there is remarkable unity, a lack of contradiction. They all agree on key points of the evening--the circumstances surrounding the party invitation, the atmosphere at Ceballos' home, the wording of Barkley's dramatic "warning" to the guests.
To believe that the story was fabricated, one has to accept that these women, sometime between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m. (the time after returning home and before calling police), concocted the elaborate tale and united their thoughts flawlessly as to the details.
They then added a special twist--Mary would feign reluctance to come forward, and would at first refuse to speak with police or submit to a physical exam, before finally giving in.
In addition, this ruse would have required Mary to convince physicians that she had had sex. In fact, police obtained samples of what they believe to be semen from her vagina. The samples are locked away in the basement of the Phoenix Police Department, in a refrigerator.
To what end all this deception? For her part, Mary doesn't care if her story is believed or not.
"It doesn't matter what people think," she tells New Times. "I just want it to go away. I'm a single mother, I have a family and I just want to go to counseling and hope that God deals with him."
If Oliver Miller or any of the other Suns present deserves punishment, it will have to be a higher power that inflicts it. Mary's refusal to press charges ensures that.
Her reasons are simple. For one, she knows it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove rape under the circumstances she has described. For another--there is the recurring fear.
"These people are so powerful," she tells New Times, "not only in terms of the Suns organization, which has a lot of pull in the Valley, but individually. They are big people, physically, and if this gets out, if too much attention is paid to this thing, they could hurt me again.
"And, anyway, I'm not a well person. I don't think I could hold up under the pressure of a trial."
Reeling from the stress of the past few weeks, during which time she has been besieged by media inquiries and has lived in constant fear that her name would be exposed--and that her two children would read about their mother in the newspaper--her resting heart rate has climbed to 110 beats per minute. She says she is under a doctor's care for stress and exhaustion.
Never a basketball fan, she has made a point since that Saturday night to learn a bit more about the Phoenix Suns. What she has found, gleaned mostly from newspaper accounts over the past year, has contributed to that fast heart rate.
Bar fights involving Barkley and Majerle. Ceballos, the man who owns the home where the alleged attack took place, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Jerrod Mustaf, another Sun, questioned in the killing of his pregnant girlfriend; Mustaf's cousin has been charged with the murder.
These are people, Mary says, whose rules of fairness and conduct require only a veiled warning that "anything that goes on in this house doesn't leave this house" before assuming that any woman in attendance has granted her consent to have sex.
"I just couldn't go to trial against people that think like that and come out a loser," she says.
"I mean, you have to understand. I feel like I'm already a loser."
@body:Perhaps the most disturbing segment of the police report detailing the events of that night is the one in which Mary describes the moments immediately after the alleged sexual attack.
It is a chillingly dispassionate scene, in which Miller, Mary says, made it clear he wasn't necessarily done with her. The police report states: Oliver Miller had asked [Mary] for her phone number while they were at the bedroom after he had dressed. She said that she did not know it. Miller stated that he did not believe her and she told him that she does not call her house.
She said that Miller became upset, and she told him that if she went to a phone and tried dialing the number, she could possibly remember it. At that point Miller had her go to the phone in the bedroom and dial the number.
Mary dialed the correct number, because her answering machine came on after four rings. When she hung up, Miller asked her if she remembered the number. She said that she did and gave Miller the number, which he dialed on the same phone.
Miller listened for a moment, then hung up the phone. Then, without a word, he turned and walked out of the room.
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Upon hearing this, Detective Newcomer asked Mary once again if she would be willing to press charges against Miller. If so, he counseled her, an investigation would begin immediately. But the report states:
Mary told me again that she did not want to prosecute and she would not testify. She said that all she wanted to do was . . . be with her kids, pray to God she did not wind up with AIDS and put everything behind her . . .
She also did not want me to contact any of the parties involved and she only wanted to go home. For these reasons, this report was taken for information purposes only.