The story of prisoner F95488
By Sam Alipour
It's March 3, 2008, a brilliant day in Santa Barbara. But for Eric Frimpong, it feels like hell. He's in Superior Court, encircled by sheriff's deputies, making one more trip to the Department 2 courtroom. This is his last stop on the outside for a while, a painful reminder of how far he has fallen. He left his native Ghana in 2005 to play soccer for UC Santa Barbara; a year later he became a campus hero while leading the Gauchos to their first-ever national championship. If the immigrant experience can have a sound, Frimpong's sound was a raucous stadium. But in 2007, just weeks after being selected by the Kansas City Wizards in the MLS draft, he was accused of raping another student on the beach near his house. Now he's a convicted felon.
Frimpong enters the courtroom, which is packed with students and parents, former teammates and coaches -- row upon row of supporters. They've come for the sentencing that concludes a trial that has rocked this community: People v. Eric Frimpong. Or more accurately, People v. Eric Frimpong and His People.
A victim's advocate reads a statement on behalf of the accuser, referred to in this story and in news coverage throughout the trial as Jane Doe. "I don't care that he's a soccer star…and I'm a nobody," the statement says. "Eric Frimpong ruined my life."
There's a rumble in the gallery. If his supporters could chime in now, they'd say that the kid in the prison garb has never spoken an unkind word or acted aggressively toward anyone. They would remind the court of the points made at trial: that his accuser was a woman with little memory of what happened that night because of a near-toxic blood alcohol level; that Frimpong's DNA wasn't found on the victim; that semen found on her underwear belonged to a jealous boyfriend, a white student who was never a suspect. They would argue that overzealous law enforcement was determined to nail a high-profile athlete, facts be damned, and that this was the Duke lacrosse case all over again -- except that the defendants in the Duke case were white men from affluent families with the means to navigate America's justice system, unlike Frimpong, who is poor and an immigrant.
Judge Brian Hill, citing Frimpong's clean record and "a lot of community support," delivers his sentence: six years in state prison. As Frimpong is led away, many people in the gallery are crying. Out in the hall, Paul and Loni Monahan stand solemnly while the courtroom empties. Their son, Pat, was Frimpong's teammate, and the Monahans -- a white, middle-class family -- had embraced "Frimmer" like a son and a brother. Loni distributes copies of a printed statement: "We will continue to fight for Eric. We will not rest until he is exonerated and the ugly truth of his wrongful prosecution and conviction comes out." When the leaflets are gone, she leans against a wall, tears flowing. "Eric believed in our system," she says. "He believed justice would prevail." Then she straightens. "Before I was sad," she says. "Now I'm mad."
Something good happened in Santa Barbara. Even now, as Frimpong sits behind a glass partition in the visitors' room of a California jail, he smiles easily while talking about where he's come from and what he has achieved. The way he sees it, he has always been fortunate.
Back in Ghana, in western Africa, he and his three younger siblings were raised by their mother, Mary, in the poor farming community of Abesin, but her job as a typist with the government forestry department allowed the family to have plumbing and electricity, unlike many of their neighbors. Eric was an engineering major and a midfielder for Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, in Kumasi, when he caught the eye of UCSB assistant Leo Chappel, who attended a 2005 match to scout the son of a Ghanian pro but ended up offering a scholarship to Frimpong instead. The first words out of Frimpong's mouth? Thank God. The next: What's UCSB?
By that August, the Gauchos had a crafty midfielder with intangibles to burn. Frimpong's intelligence, instinct and vision, along with his speed and touch, made him an on-the-ball force. He also had a winning personality. "Frimmer was very humble and considerate, on and off the field," says head coach Tim Vom Steeg.
As a senior the next year, the 5'6" Frimpong developed a reputation as a lockdown defender in leading the unseeded Big West champs to a string of improbable NCAA tournament wins. When the final whistle blew on the 2006 national championship game, the Cinderella Gauchos had defeated four-time king UCLA. Frimpong earned All-Big West honors, a spot in the MLS supplemental draft and the gratitude of his peers. "He was the heart and soul of the team," says Pat Monahan. "Eric won us that championship."
Everyone around Frimpong was buoyed by his success: his mother, friends and classmates, prominent locals who had helped him out along the way with invites to dinner, rides to the store and, when he struggled with homesickness during his junior year, a fund-raiser that yielded $3,000 for a ticket to Ghana. "We all tried to pitch in, because Eric's so darn likable," says Tim Foley, a booster who made Frimpong a regular guest at his family's home. "He was an American success story."
The Monahans were especially proud. Frimpong had met his "American parents" on move-in day in 2005, and they promptly invited him to spend Thanksgiving in San Diego. They gave him his first cell phone and laptop and took him on family vacations. They sat in their kitchen for hours listening to his stories about Ghana. They were also impressed by his knowledge of the Bible, and his quiet spirituality helped bolster their own faith. "He was going to graduate, play professionally, make more money here than he ever could in Ghana and bring it back to support his family," Loni says. "Eric really had it all."
|With the support of friends, including girlfriend Prieto (far right), Frimpong stayed in school after the incident and graduated.|
UCSB is among the nation's top party schools, and oceanfront Del Playa is the belly of the beast. Even a model student-athlete like Frimpong, who maintained a 3.0 GPA while working on a double major in applied mathematics and business economics, found it hard to skip the party entirely. After the Gauchos won it all, they were the toast of the town, especially Frimmer. As Pat Monahan puts it, "You'd walk into apartments and see Ghanian flags hanging over people's beds."
Frimpong's journey from soccer hero to convicted felon began a little more than halfway through his senior year. (The account that follows is based on police reports, interview transcripts, court proceedings and comments from trial observers.) The night of Feb. 16 began for Frimpong in the same place where he started most Friday nights, on the couch in his house at 6547 Del Playa Drive, watching a movie with housemates. His girlfriend, Yesenia Prieto, was working late, but Eric had reason to celebrate, fresh off an impressive 10-day tryout for the Wizards, so he showered and went to meet friends at a party at 6681 Del Playa Drive. It was outside that home, at about 11:30 p.m., that Frimpong met Jane Doe, a UCSB freshman. They struck up a conversation, then walked back to his house to play beer pong. They arrived just before midnight, and Eric introduced Jane to his roommates before taking her to the patio, where the two of them played beer pong for a few minutes until, according to Frimpong, Doe said she wanted to smoke, so they headed for the park next door. At the park, he says, Doe approached another male, who appeared to have followed them. When she walked back to Frimpong, she started kissing him, but he wasn't interested because she smelled of cigarettes. Doe became aggressive, he says, and stuck her hand down his pants. He pushed her away, then headed to the home of his friend, Krystal Giang, who'd been expecting him. By 4 a.m., he was in bed at Prieto's apartment.
About an hour and a half earlier, Jane Doe, accompanied by her sister and two friends, checked into Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital emergency clinic, claiming she had been raped. She was transferred to the Sexual Assault Response center downtown, where a nurse discovered a laceration to Doe's external genitalia and bruises on her body, findings consistent with sexual assault.
"Yesterday was a really good day," Doe told sheriff's detectives Daniel Kies and Michael Scherbarth when they arrived at her dorm room the next morning, according to a police transcript. The reason for cheer: The 18-year-old Doe had just regained her driver's license following a juvenile DUI conviction. At around 9 p.m. on Feb. 16, she went to a party with her sister, Elizabeth, and friends Mia Wolfson and Lakshmi Krishna. After stopping at a second party, Doe left the group and headed for a fraternity bash on Del Playa. "That's where I saw the guy," she told police.
From there, Doe's story is mostly consistent with Frimpong's, up to and including their game of beer pong. "He was really nice," she said. But their accounts differ sharply after that. According to Doe, the next thing she remembers is being on the beach, where the nice guy turned violent, knocking her to the ground, striking her in the face, holding her throat and raping her before fleeing. Having lost her purse, Doe walked to Del Playa, where she stopped a passerby, student Justin Hannah. Using his cell, she phoned a friend, her father and then Wolfson and Krishna, who picked her up around 1:30 a.m. Doe, who admitted to drinking heavily throughout the evening, couldn't remember anything between stepping into their car and going to the hospital -- a period of one hour -- but her friends would fill in the blanks: At first Doe didn't want to go to the hospital because she was worried about getting in trouble for drinking. But back at the dorm, her friends kept urging, and she relented. Sitting with the detectives that morning, she described her attacker as a black male who spoke with an "island accent" and had "big lips" and short hair. His name? "Eric, I think."
Sometime around noon on Feb. 17, Kies and Scherbarth spotted Frimpong hanging out with friends at the park on Del Playa. When Kies asked if he would accompany them to the station to talk about "what happened last night," Frimpong agreed to go, despite being unsure what the detective meant. Once at the station, Kies reminded Frimpong that he had come voluntarily and asked him to describe what he'd been doing the previous night. According to the police transcript, Frimpong told Kies about watching a movie at home, then going to a party and eventually meeting Doe, whom he described as one of the "random soccer fans," and playing beer pong with her before heading to Giang's house and later to Prieto's. Kies then asked for Frimpong's consent to collect the clothes he'd worn the night before. "Yeah," Frimpong responded, "but I still don't know what's going on." Kies explained that the girl said that they'd "had sex" on the beach.
"Wow," Frimpong responded.
Kies then informed Frimpong that he was being detained and read him his rights. Minutes later, he explained the rape accusation. "I didn't have sex with her," Frimpong insisted. Charged with felony rape, he phoned Paul Monahan, who spread the word. Vom Steeg couldn't believe it: "I'm thinking, Frimpong? Rape? No way." (The coach later asked Frimpong directly. "I said, 'Eric, is there any chance you had sex but you thought maybe it was consensual?' He said, 'Tim, I never pulled my pants down.' I said, 'If you did this, DNA will prove it.' He said, 'Coach, I'm not stupid.' ")
By the next day, Frimpong supporters had mobilized. Vom Steeg arranged for Paul Monahan to meet with Foley, and it was agreed that Monahan would fund a defense while the $100,000 bail would be paid by Foley and Cam Camarena, a former UCSB soccer player who helps finance Right to Dream, a program that brings Ghanian players to America. Based on a referral, they hired attorney Robert Sanger, and funds were bolstered by the campus-based Eric Frimpong Freedom Fund, which raised $25,000 within months. When Frimpong was released on bond, teammates were waiting outside the police station. "Nobody knows Eric like we do," says former teammate Alfonso Motagalvan. "And he's just not capable of doing something like this."
When the test results came back in March, Frimpong's DNA hadn't been found on Jane Doe's clothing or body, but Doe's DNA had been found on Frimpong: in two nucleated epithelial cells, found on his scrotum and penis, and in an unspecified trace under his fingernail. (Epithelial cells are found inside the body and in body fluids like mucus, saliva and sweat. These tested negative as vaginal cells, but such tests can be inconclusive. When the case went to trial that November, the defense argued that the findings were consistent with Frimpong's claim that Doe had grabbed his genitals.) Also, semen found on Doe's underwear didn't match Frimpong's -- but it was a match for that of Benjamin Randall, Doe's sexual partner throughout her freshman year. Randall told authorities that he and Doe had engaged in intercourse seven days before the rape; Doe said they'd had sex four days prior but that she thought she was wearing different underwear, and she told a nurse that they'd used a condom. (During the trial, Doe and Randall confirmed they'd been together at parties the night she met Frimpong. Randall testified that, while en route to a friend's house, he spotted Doe and Frimpong walking on Del Playa at about 11:40 p.m. Randall then called Doe, and she told him she was headed to "Eric's house to play beer pong." Under cross-examination by Sanger, Randall admitted, "I might've been a little upset. I guess you can call that jealousy." He also testified that after the call, he returned to his dorm at Santa Barbara City College, where he spent the night alone.)
Despite having DNA evidence matched to him, Randall was never a suspect. Neither was the man who retrieved Doe's purse, which she said she'd lost either on the beach or at Frimpong's home. It was delivered to the sheriff's department the next day, minus $30, by someone described in the police report as a "can recycler." But because of a "language barrier," he wasn't questioned.
Frimpong was the only suspect, even though there was no apparent sign of sexual activity -- no blood, semen, vaginal secretions -- or any scratches or other telltale marks of rape on his body or clothes. The absence of abrasions was odd. Doe told authorities she was wearing a "thicker ring" on her right ring finger and that she hit her attacker so hard, "all my knuckles were screwed up." There was also very little sand found on his clothes. (At the trial, Dianne Burns, a criminologist who examined the physical evidence, testified to the presence of two small vials' worth of sand in the cuffs of Frimpong's jeans and in one pocket.)
Still, the district attorney's office pressed on, in a case reminiscent of one that was unraveling on the East Coast. "There was always a strong parallel to the Duke case," Vom Steeg says. "From the start, the sheriff's department felt like they had their guy. But when the evidence didn't turn out the way it was supposed to, their position became, 'If she's willing to testify, we'll go forward.' "
|Frimpong's (sliding) lockdown defense keyed the UCSB Gauchos' improbable run to the 2006 NCAA soccer championship.|
Throughout the investigation and during the trial, Doe admitted to gaps in her memory. In her interview with detectives, she claimed she had consumed "a couple shots of vodka" before leaving her dorm. In an interview that April with assistant district attorney Mary Barron, the lead prosecutor, Doe said she'd consumed more throughout the evening. "I know I had beer," she said. "And I know I had rum." She also acknowledged that her memory after beer pong was hazy. "That's when it starts to, like, cut out," she told Barron. According to the transcript, Doe had little memory of going to the beach, and her recollection of the rape itself was scattered. Asked whether she recalled going outside to smoke, Doe said she "probably" smoked but didn't remember when. "I don't even know, since there's that chunk missing."
So what happened on the beach? Doe said Frimpong may have tried to kiss her, but when pressed by Barron she admitted, "I have no clue. I'm just assuming…" She also said, "I remember him biting me on my face," even though she had told the emergency room doctor she thought she'd been hit, and when questioned by detectives, she said she didn't know about being bitten -- despite Kies' saying, "That's definitely, most definitely, teeth marks, dude," about the bruise on her cheek. When Barron questioned her about it, Doe said, "But later, when they're, like, 'It looks like teeth marks' …I remember that happening."
Doe continued, "I saw him, like, feel around -- take off his belt -- or something on his pants -- I don't know." She said she remembered being penetrated, and "it felt like a penis." Barron asked if the attacker was the same person she'd played beer pong with. Doe said that while she couldn't recall going to the beach, she remembered the attacker's accent, his eyes ("They were white") and his lips ("They're big"). She was also fairly confident that the rape lasted "15 minutes at the most… but then, since there's that huge chunk of time that I don't remember, it could be anything."
Many of Frimpong's supporters believe that race is at the heart of the case. Santa Barbara County has nearly 425,000 residents, but only 2% are black. "I love this town," says Foley, a resident for 30 years, "but there's no question there's racism here."
Thanks to Frimpong's celebrity status, he wasn't flying under the radar. "I'm 100% convinced that they were going to nail this guy before he walked into the station," Foley says. (At the trial, Burns testified that in a Feb. 22 phone call from Kies, the detective asked her to expedite her usual process, reminding her that this was a "high-profile case.")
Back on campus, media coverage led to an unwelcome surprise for the defense: After reading about Frimpong's arrest, another student came forward claiming that she too had been assaulted by him. This new Jane Doe told police that a few weeks before the rape, he had acted aggressively toward her, grabbing her buttocks and tackling her on the beach. The DA used the accusation to charge Frimpong with misdemeanor sexual assault, which made for a second count at trial. (He was found not guilty.) "The DA's office filed a weak claim of sexual assault to portray Eric as a serial sexual predator and bolster the flawed rape claim," wrote Kim Seefeld, a local defense attorney and former prosecutor, in a blog post on Jan. 15, 2008. "The allegations severely prejudiced him before the jury."
The second charge also sent Frimpong back to jail, where friends say he was taunted by deputies. When Paul Monahan picked him up later that day, after Foley and Camarena paid the additional $250,000 bail, Frimpong broke down in tears.
There was no trip to the White House with the rest of his teammates. After the second arrest, Frimpong went into seclusion, moving to an apartment with Pat Monahan and relying on friends to run errands and deliver food. He still ventured out for dates with Prieto, and he remained active on the field, playing in an intramural league and with the semipro Ventura Fusion. He also took a part-time job with Foley. "I tried to give him pocket money, but he wouldn't take it," Foley says. "He was a different kid, just as sad as can be."
Meanwhile, a battle raged among the student body. On one side were Frimpong's loyal backers, who attested to his character in TV interviews and who carpooled in large numbers to his hearings. On the other side were victims' rights advocates, who responded with rape awareness presentations on campus and a confrontation with Frimpong supporters at an MLK Day rally. "It was ugly, with a lot of people saying a lot of dumb things," Giang says. "People just forgot that at the heart of this are the facts, not just vague concepts."
None of it kept Frimpong from graduating in June 2007. "Nine out of 10 kids would have dropped out," Vom Steeg says. "It says a lot about his character." Adds Camarena, now the head coach for the University of Hawaii at Hilo: "Eric never blamed corruption, never called anyone a racist, never called the girl a liar. He continued to uphold American values. And he maintained faith that our justice system would see him through."
Frimpong put that faith in an all-white jury of nine women and three men. His trial began on Nov. 26, and for three weeks Department 2 was home base for Team Frimpong. Many supporters came with notebooks, and during recess they would go to the café across the street to discuss the latest unfavorable ruling. They point to the time, for example, when Barron may have implied to the jury that Frimpong had chosen not to testify, even though the prosecution is not allowed to refer to the defendant's right to remain silent. While Judge Hill said that there were "possible inferences," he denied Sanger's motion for a mistrial. Also, during jury deliberations, Hill refused to dismiss juror No. 5 after her arrest for drunken driving. (The defense argued that the juror, whose case was in the hands of the DA, couldn't remain impartial.)
Perhaps the most troubling ruling, as far as the defense was concerned, involved bite mark analysis. The prosecution's forensic expert, Norman Sperber, testified that he couldn't rule out Frimpong for causing the bite on Jane Doe's face. But detectives failed to disclose that they had first approached another expert: Raymond Johansen would later testify, outside the jury's presence, that after preliminary analysis, he told Kies that the bite mark was "vague." Law enforcement is required to turn over evidence that doesn't point to the defendant as the suspect; suppressing such evidence is grounds for a mistrial. But Kies failed to file a report of his conversation with Johansen. When questioned by Sanger, the detective stated that while he had indeed approached Johansen first, the dentist had failed to provide any opinion. Kies and senior DA Ronald Zonen both told the court that they had passed over Johansen because he wanted to charge for his services, and Sperber wasn't charging. But Sperber testified that he always charges for his services, and he did so for this case, too. Judge Hill, who had served 19 years as a Santa Barbara DA prior to sitting on the bench, ruled that Johansen's testimony was not exculpatory and denied that motion as well.
Nonetheless, Frimpong's supporters save much of their scorn for Sanger. The prosecution rested its case on Dec. 12, having called 32 witnesses; Sanger questioned them all on the stand but called only one additional witness, a blood expert who testified that Doe's blood alcohol level at the time the sample was taken, 5:37 a.m., was .20, and that it could have been as high as .29 at the time of the incident -- an almost lethal level. Sanger rested his case the next day. "The final score was 32-1," Vom Steeg says. "I feel guilty, like we didn't do enough." Loni Monahan spoke to Sanger throughout the trial about his strategy. "He told me, 'The best defense was no defense, because it would demonstrate there's nothing to defend,'" she says. "We made a mistake."
The jury began deliberating on Friday, Dec. 14; the next Monday, just after 3:30 p.m., came the guilty verdict.
On Jan. 31, 2008, with Frimpong in jail awaiting sentencing, the defense filed a motion for a new trial, citing several factors, including a development with the jury: In a written declaration to the court, juror Ann Diebold stated, "I regret the decision I made in finding Mr. Frimpong guilty." Among her many points was the court's refusal to provide the jury with evidence they had requested for review, including Doe's testimony and Frimpong's interview with Kies -- the latter because some jurors stated that they wanted "the opportunity to hear Mr. Frimpong's side of the story." (They were read only Doe's direct testimony, without cross-examination, because Judge Hill said "it would take some time to gather the additional information," Diebold wrote.) Diebold also claimed that the jurors rushed through deliberations so they could conclude the case by the Christmas holiday. "I felt pressure from the judge and other jurors to reach a verdict by Dec. 18," she wrote.
Sanger's motion was a last-second heave, but it allowed him to put his own forensic dentist on the stand. Defense expert Charles Bowers fell ill during the trial and was unable to testify, but at the hearing on Feb. 28, he delivered his opinion: Frimpong's teeth could not have made the bite, but Randall's teeth could have. As Bowers spoke, there was a buzz in the gallery. But Judge Hill was unmoved. He began the hearing by saying that in his 27-year career, "I've not seen a rape case with so much incriminating, credible and powerful evidence," and ended it by dismissing the motion. Three days later, he sentenced Frimpong to six years.
|Frimpong's supporters were a vocal presence throughout the trial, and many continue to fight for his freedom.|
Today Eric Frimpong is prisoner F95488, a ward of the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, about 75 miles northeast of Santa Barbara. Friends and supporters continue to fight for him, but none worries more than his mother. "She's sick to death," says Loni Monahan, who provides Mary with weekly updates. "We understand one of every 10 words, but we're moms, so it's enough." Loni's own son marvels at Eric's almost preternatural calm in the face of adversity. "The kid's in jail, and with all his issues, he's the one keeping us sane," Pat says.
Frimpong is small in size, but he seems to have avoided many of the pitfalls of life behind bars. He even calls many of his fellow inmates his friends. One of them is 45 year-old Terry Carter, who served time with Frimpong at Santa Barbara County Jail. "Eric was a godsend, just an amazingly positive influence," he says. "It's funny, but to guys twice his size, the kid's a leader."
Every day, Frimpong led group exercises in the yard, but his primary pastime was Bible study. Before his arrival it was Hispanics-only, so Eric started his own, and some of them joined his.
"It's a terrible thing that happened to me," Frimpong says. "Being in here, I keep asking myself why God put me in that situation. And then it struck me: Maybe I can reach more people, help more people, if they hear my story." His supporters say it's working. "All you have to do is look at Frimmer's camp -- he hasn't lost anyone," Vom Steeg says. "In fact, since the trial, he's actually gaining supporters." In Ghana, Frimpong's plight is well-documented by the media. In Santa Barbara, people continue to proclaim his innocence, even when it's not easy to do so. After writing several opinion pieces in the local papers, Kim Seefeld was inexplicably subpoenaed to appear at the hearings on the motion for a new trial. (She was never called to testify.) "I got harassed by the DA, subpoenaed and threatened, all because I stuck my neck out for someone I believe is innocent," says Seefeld, who plans to continue her writing. "That's what happens to a citizen who dares to question our justice system in Santa Barbara."
And then there are the letters from all over the world, many containing donations. "These are people who don't even know Eric, have never spoken directly to him," Loni Monahan says with awe. "Eric was born to be a pro soccer player, but he's realized he has more impact in the direction he's going. There's a groundswell going on."
The key addition to Team Frimpong is Ronald Turner, a Sacramento-based, court-appointed appellate attorney who has filed the opening brief in an appeal with the Second Appellate District of California. The process gives Frimpong hope. So too does his dream of eventually attending seminary and becoming a priest. Not that he has given up on turning pro. "He's very determined," says Andy Iro, Frimpong's friend and former teammate, now with the MLS' Columbus Crew. "His reputation has been tarnished, but if anyone can come out of this a better person, it's Eric."
Many nights, Frimpong says, he dreams the same dream: He is running, but not from anyone or anything. His bare feet punch the shoreline, toes clawing the sand, while the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean. "My body can be in prison," he says. "But my mind and soul are in Santa Barbara."
Something bad happened there. Two young lives were suddenly, sadly interrupted. But in the end, something good may still come of it.