Path Of A Falling Star

  • With so many professional athletes in jail or on trial for crimes of sex and violence, cynics have joked that the diamonds on the Super Bowl ring should be replaced by a tiny set of shackles. So what allegedly happened on April 9, 2000, in a suburban Milwaukee, Wis., home would have been part of the familiar litany of testosterone and ego-fueled misbehavior--were it not for the reputation of the accused.

    As the 17-year-old accuser's story goes, the football star arrived at a post-prom party of Roman Catholic high school students at 3:30 a.m. and, according to the complaint, appeared "really drunk," even as the kids flocked around to get their picture taken with the celebrity. The star allegedly called out to the crowd, "You call this a party? Where's all the alcohol?" The kids then produced glasses of liquor they had been concealing. According to the accuser, the football star began a game called "the drinking Ping-Pong," in which the loser chugged a drink. Later, after the kids and the athlete warmed up in the hot tub, the 17-year-old girl ended up in a bathroom with him. She claims he had beckoned her in, and she followed because she did not know what he wanted. It was then, she alleges, that he locked the door, removed her jeans and sexually assaulted her on the floor. After a visit to a rape trauma unit at a local hospital, the girl and her mother went to the police. The following day the cops arrested Mark Chmura, 31, the celebrated tight end of the Green Bay Packers.

    Until then, almost everyone who met Chmura assumed--no, they knew--he was going places after pro ball. To a network broadcast booth perhaps, to political office or, with his striking looks and easy charisma, maybe even Hollywood. He also worked overtime to develop an image of Sunday-morning rectitude. In May 1997, citing a golf tournament, he skipped the President's White House reception for the Packers honoring their Super Bowl victory. "I knew it all along," Chmura said later, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. "It doesn't really say much for society and the morals [Bill Clinton] sets forth for our children." Just days before his arrest, Chmura had welcomed the fact that four Packers charged with relatively minor crimes--marijuana possession and obstruction of justice--would not be returning to the team under tough new head coach Mike Sherman.

    Chmura had seemed to be a perpetual-motion machine of good works, turning up in pediatric wards and at charity golf matches. He and his wife Lynda appeared together in a commercial for the United Way. He also threw his weight behind conservative political causes, attracting a sell-out crowd when he spoke at a G.O.P. fund-raising dinner. But last week a circuit-court judge in Waukesha, Wis., refused to dismiss or delay Chmura's Jan. 23 trial for sexual assault and enticement of a minor. Packer fans have never quite got over the shock of seeing the local hero, the go-to guy in the green-and-gold uniform, clad in handcuffs and an orange penal-system jumpsuit as he was led into a courtroom to hear charges. Once one of the celebrated "Three Amigos" of the Packers, along with quarterback Brett Favre and center Frank Winters, Chmura is out on bail after pleading not guilty. But in June the Packers dropped him, calling it "business" and relieving themselves of his $1.6 million salary.

    Chmura's defense and his version of what happened on April 9 is studded with silences. When a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel broached rumors of his previous womanizing in an interview last September, the football player pointed to his wife and their three-year-old son, saying, "O.K.? End of story." At the same interview, when asked whether he had been drinking prior to arriving at the home of his friend Robert Gessert, Chmura turned to his personal lawyer John Drana to ask if he should answer. Drana said no.

    Chmura said he had expected to see his wife at Gessert's house that night in April, but she had already left for their home a few blocks away. Chmura and the Gesserts had had dinner earlier that evening. Nevertheless, he said he thought it would be "nice" to show up at the party for the sake of the kids, who included several young football players as well as Gessert's daughter. Chmura reportedly impressed the kids by phoning his teammates, including Winters, leaving funny messages on their answering machines. Chmura also knew at least one person among the partyers: the alleged victim had baby-sat at his home. His attorney points out that no DNA evidence has been discovered implicating Chmura and that a clinic exam showed that the accuser's hymen was intact. But that exam, according to court papers, also indicated evidence "consistent with some object being forcibly inserted" in her genital area.

    In the complaint, the 5-ft. 7-in., 120-lb. girl said she did not resist the assault because she was "in a state of shock" that it was occurring and felt overwhelmed. Chmura stands 6 ft. 5 in. and weighs more than 200 lbs. At the party, after drinking repeated glasses of Mountain Dew and vodka allegedly refilled by Robert Gessert--she could not recall how many--the girl realized she was very drunk. All the while, she said, Chmura was downing straight whisky. At about 4:30 a.m., Gessert announced that it was "hot-tub time." When several of the girls said they had no swimsuits, he allegedly told them, "No problem," underwear was fine. The accuser removed her clothing but donned a swimsuit borrowed from Gessert's daughter. Chmura allegedly stripped down to his briefs and joined the group in the tub. After some time, one of the teens began vomiting, the tub cleared out, and Chmura and the girl returned to the house, where she pulled on her clothes.

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