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Roethlisberger recalled as in control on night of alleged assault

| Sunday, March 7, 2010

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- In this historic college town, the locals are dubbing the Thursday visit of star Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the night "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Wearing a black T-shirt reading "Devil" and surrounded by an entourage of up to 10 beefy male friends at times, Roethlisberger stormed the city of about 20,000 south of Atlanta with a bar-hopping spree that began at The Velvet Elvis about 10 p.m. and ended in the VIP room of Capital City when he closed down the popular bar.

About 2:33 a.m. Friday, a 20-year-old student at Georgia College & State University approached a police officer and told him that she had been sexually assaulted. Police said they are investigating Roethlisberger as the perpetrator. No charges had been filed as of Friday, and police said it was likely they wouldn't have anything new to say until Monday. Representatives of the police and university couldn't be reached for comment Saturday.

Interviews with a dozen students, bartenders and waitresses who saw women draped over him as he mugged for photos reveal a town that doesn't like the taint of scandal -- but remains divided over whether he did it.

Bartenders and students first put him at The Velvet Elvis restaurant and tavern about 10 p.m. They say his party ranged from eight to 10 men, mostly large black men they thought were offensive linemen. He tipped at 100 percent of their very large combined bill.

They say he drank little, maybe a Corona beer or two, and noshed on food, signed autographs and posed for camera phone photos.

"He kind of acted like a show-off, but he's a professional athlete, you know• He never looked drunk, never looked out of control. He shook hands and kissed babies, you know?" said Kyle Pilgrim, 22, a senior in accounting from Gwinnett County, north of Milledgeville.

On the busiest party night for the town that is home to two colleges -- Georgia College & State University is one; the other is Georgia Military Academy -- Roethlisberger crossed Hancock Street near the Old Baldwin County Courthouse about 11 p.m. to drink at The Brick, a bistro that turns in the later hours into a tavern. Students say that he nursed a beer, continued to cheerfully sign autographs and watched the large TV in the bar to catch plays from the University of Pittsburgh men's basketball tilt against Providence College.

Mark Eaton, 18, a freshman at Georgia College & State University, said he was sitting at the bar in The Brick with a girl when Roethlisberger entered with his entourage, including several bodyguards and a Steelers teammate.

He said Roethlisberger stood next to him at the bar and spoke to his friend, commenting that she had a really old cell phone and needed an upgrade.

"She said he looked like Crocodile Dundee, because his hair was all long in the back," Eaton said. "I don't know, I think that made him mad a little."

Roethlisberger stopped briefly in another bar, Buffington's, and then about 11:30 p.m. marched down South Wayne Street -- along with hundreds of students -- to Capital City. With its black decor, flashing lights and private VIP room, it's a second-floor dance bar so popular that co-eds just call it "the club."

Students said that Roethlisberger spent most of the evening in the VIP room with his group.

"I had already gone over there, and he came in with his group," said Pilgrim. "There were girls all over him all night. But he never presented himself as someone who would cause trouble. Looking at the way he behaved, you never would've thought about what they later said about him."

Employees of the hot spot told the Trib that they were under a gag order after being interviewed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation -- their cruisers dart about the downtown -- and couldn't discuss what they saw Thursday night. But students who were there say that Roethlisberger closed down the joint at 2 a.m., when by law it had to shutter for the night.

The Milledgeville police report states that the alleged victim approached a police officer stating she had been "sexually assaulted or sexually manipulated by a white male in Capital City" sometime between 11 p.m. Thursday and 2:33 a.m. Friday. Roethlisberger was named "in connection with the incident," according to Milledgeville police.

The university's Web site says the school is offering counseling to students who request it. A university spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment.

Steelers tackle Willie Colon was with Roethlisberger at times that night.

"Willie has no knowledge of any incident alleged or otherwise," said Joe Linta, Colon's agent.

The latest allegations come eight months after a Nevada casino worker filed a civil lawsuit against Roethlisberger, claiming he sexually assaulted her in July 2008 while playing in a celebrity golf tournament at Harrah's Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino. Roethlisberger has denied the allegations. No criminal charges were filed, and the lawsuit remains unresolved.

Some Steelers fans at Pittsburgh's Station Square last night said they will stand by the star quarterback, but added that they wish he would be smarter -- and more discreet -- with his personal life.

"He's a target, I guess. It's a shame," said Dawn Cannon, 49, of McDonald, who said she thinks the charges are not true. "I just don't see it."

But even if the charges are a lie, Roethlisberger is partly to blame for the unwanted attention, said Rob Smith, 35, of Altoona.

"He's an idiot. He's making millions of dollars, this has happened before -- don't put yourself in that predicament again!" Smith said. "Whether it's true or not, I don't know. But you can't chance it. You've got to be smart."

Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia from 1803 to 1868. Milledgeville Councilman Stephen Carter said he didn't know before Friday that Roethlisberger owned a home at Reynolds Plantation, an upscale, gated community on Lake Oconee, about 30 miles from Milledgeville.

"He seems to have a propensity toward wildness," he said. "This sort of episode is not the best way to put us on the map."

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