Sumner is accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in a Tempe hotel where he was staying while on tour with his band The Police in 1979. The complaint alleges that Sumner, then 27 and married with a hit album, knew that the plaintiff, identified only as Jane Doe in court documents, was underage and unable to give consent as a result. It says she has suffered lifelong trauma as a result of the incident, leaving her in need of therapy and unable to maintain healthy relationships.
Ashley Pileika, one of the three attorneys behind the suit, said that while Doe soon told people about what happened, it took her a long time to realize how harmful it had been because her friends glorified the alleged assault.
"She was 15 at the time and he was in his late 20s," Pileika told New Times. "And I think now there's an understanding that regardless of who that ... individual is, it's still wrong. She was 15 at the time; she was a virgin. She was from a very loving and kind of sheltered family in a way, and this was just something that truly changed the trajectory of her life."
Pileika said they decided to keep Doe anonymous at this point because they saw no benefit in naming her and she didn't file the suit for personal publicity.
The lawsuit claims that The Police and Frontier Booking International (FBI), the band's booking company, were negligent in letting the assault happen. The lawsuit asks for a variety of damages, including medical expenses and attorneys' fees. No dollar amount is given, but it notes that the total amount contested in the suit exceeds $75,000.
Sumner's attorney, John Rosenberg, said the musician "categorically denies" that the assault described in the lawsuit ever occurred.
“As will be revealed at the appropriate time, there is compelling independent evidence that refutes these allegations. Virtually the only part of the story alleged in the lawsuit that we do not dispute is that The Police performed a show in Arizona in 1979," Rosenberg said in a statement released through a spokesperson.
"I want to reiterate what we have said from when we first heard of this case: Sting has extraordinary compassion and support for any survivor of sexual assault who speaks out, but he categorically denies that this ever happened. Should this case proceed, we intend to vigorously defend it. Sting welcomes a thorough and open inquiry into this matter.”
The lawsuit was first reported by Yahoo Entertainment.
Both sides claim they have solid evidence. The complaint alleges that footage taken by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland and also included in a documentary shows Doe at a meet-and-greet with the band held at a Scottsdale record store on the day of the assault.
The lawsuit also alleges that Copeland took footage of Sumner talking to Doe in the room where the assault occurred, although Doe's attorneys say they are unaware if that footage still exists.
The string of events alleged by the lawsuit are as follows: Doe and Sumner first met in May 1979 at that meet-and-greet, and she told him she was 15 at the time. After Sumner approached her again at their show at Dooley's in Tempe, she went with him to a house party in Phoenix alongside guitarist Andy Summers and two women. (Dooley's closed in the '90s after an alleged sexual assault led to its liquor license being revoked.)
When Sumner came onto her sexually at the party, Doe told him she was 15 and a virgin. They eventually went back to Tempe to meet up with Doe's friend and she was in Sumner's hotel room when the alleged assault happened.
Doe told friends about what happened within a year of the incident, as well as several family members and therapists, the lawsuit says.
Pileika and David Haynie, another attorney on the case, said they listened to The Police's discography on repeat in the background while they prepared the case and poured through picture books published of the band's time on tour.
"We're both avid runners so, at least for me, it became my music to listen to while running," said Haynie. "I think [Pileika] was the same."
As a result, the complaint includes lyrics from The Police's later-published hit "Don't Stand So Close To Me" about a teacher with sexual feelings toward a student. The song, the band's fifth-most popular on Spotify, references the book Lolita, a 1955 literary classic by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov about a pedophile repeatedly sexually assaulting his adolescent stepdaughter.
Some reports have interpreted the lyrics' inclusion to mean Doe is claiming the song was written about her. While the filing claims that Sumner wrote the lyrics shortly after the assault alleged in the lawsuit, Doe's two attorneys say they are not claiming it was inspiration for the song.
Instead, the two told New Times they contend there was a pattern of sexualizing young women among members of the band at the time, which is why they have named the band and booking company in the suit.
The lawsuit includes a partial quote from Sumner about the inspiration for the song in which he talks about being a "blond bombshell" with "young girls" as fans, although the full quote shows he was at least in part referring to a sales strategy.
"I was a teacher but I never had a relationship with any of my pupils, [sic] I wouldn't want to. You have to remember we were blond bombshells at the time and most of our fans were young girls so I started role-playing a bit. Let's exploit that," he said in the full quote from 1993, excerpted on his website. "And it really worked. You know that single sold a million copies in Britain. A million. Imagine that now."
Further pointing to the group's interest, Pileika referenced a 1982 photo they found published by Summers, the guitarist, of a young fan. Summers captioned it "Fans, Lolita, Canada."
Sumner's attorney Rosenberg disputed whether such items were even relevant to the case.
“Amateurish psychological speculation of the supposed meaning of an artist’s work is no substitute for the facts and evidence that refute these claims," Rosenberg said in an additional statement.
The lawsuit was filed following an Arizona law passed last year that extends the statute of limitations for lawsuits by survivors of sexual abuse as children. Under the new law, survivors have until they are 30 to file a lawsuit; people over that age have until the end of 2020 to file a lawsuit.
This has led to a slew of lawsuits this year, many against religious institutions, but also one against the Arizona Republic over a case from the mid-1970s that involved circulation workers preying on paperboys.
Haynie estimates that his firm, Texas-based Forester Haynie Pllc, has 150 to 200 cases nationally as the result of similar statutes.
Criminal charges do not have the same limitations, and Doe's attorneys said they are also considering pursuing that option.
While the lawsuit alleges violations under state law, it was filed last month in federal court for the District of Arizona because the parties live out of state: Doe lives in California, Sumner lives in New York City.
It is unlikely that there will be developments soon. Haynie said that they have not been able to serve Sumner with the lawsuit yet because, they believe, he is out of the country. They hope the discovery process will unveil more evidence.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.