Details emerge in Roethlisberger's night out
EATONTON, Ga. -- Shortly after 9 p.m. on March 4, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned to Heath Burton and told the restaurant owner that he was going to do something he'd never done before: Drive to tiny Milledgeville.
"He told me he'd never been down there," said Burton, owner of the posh Eenoco Japanese Steak & Sushi restaurant a few miles from Roethlisberger's mansion in the Reynolds Plantation resort.
After a 45-minute drive to the home of Georgia College & State University, Roethlisberger indulged in a few hours of bar hopping -- complete with Big Ben holding court in the VIP room of the popular Capital City nightclub. The fun ended soon after a 20-year-old woman told a Milledgeville patrolman at 2:30 a.m. March 5 that Roethlisberger, 28, had sexually assaulted her there.
The ongoing criminal investigation into Roethlisberger's conduct that night and a flood of national media washing over the seat of Baldwin County are revealing in greater detail the cloistered world of a National Football League icon known not only for his two Super Bowl rings, but also two allegations of sexual assault.
In Georgia, it all began with Roethlisberger and his posse of beefy buddies dining at the sushi restaurant near his mansion in the Great Waters section of the 14,000-acre resort.
"People approach him here, but this is a laid-back restaurant," Burton said. "Ben is really a nice guy, and I'm happy when he and his friends come in."
No. 7's faves: Firecracker roll -- spicy tuna, cream cheese and crab -- washed down with Japanese rice wine, called sake, or cold Bud Light.
On Memorial Day, he treated his offensive line to dinner here.
For guests, he buys top-shelf tequila, typically Patron, whether he's at the Ritz Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation or Long Shot's, the sports bar just outside Great Waters.
"He loves to buy Patron. I don't know that I've ever seen him drink it, but he loves to buy it for his friends -- and those big ol' boys like it," said the tavern's owner, Shawn Wiggins.
"He's always a nice guy. Very sociable. But he doesn't like a lot of people hounding him. He comes in a few times a year and will bring his offensive line. They're great guys, too. We've never had a problem with them."
While bistro owners have one view of the celebrity, some of the service employees who talked to the Trib had different opinions. Fearing for their jobs, they didn't want to talk about them on the record.
Their stories seemed similar to what Lake Tahoe restaurant manager Alvaro Brito has alleged in a lawsuit percolating through the Nevada courts.
In September, Brito's attorney alleged Roethlisberger got him fired for seeking identification of a 27-year-old woman seated with the quarterback and "several very large males, one or more of whom is believed to be a bodyguard or bodyguards."
Born in Mexico but an American citizen, Brito claims that Roethlisberger and his party "mocked, made fun and mimicked" his accent and that one of the men "intentionally bumped" him. Brito alleges that his boss, a Steelers' fan and golfing buddy of Roethlisberger, terminated his employment when Big Ben got mad.
Citing the ongoing lawsuit, Brito declined to talk to the Trib. So did managers at the resort where he once worked.
Roethlisberger wasn't named in the lawsuit.
The quarterback, however, is the subject of a lawsuit filed by a female Harrah's hotel employee who claims he sexually assaulted her in 2008. Roethlisberger has strongly denied the allegations.
So has his newest attorney, Atlanta lawyer Ed Garland, who insists Big Ben will be cleared in Milledgeville, too. Garland declined to comment for this story.
Garland has promised to arrange for Roethlisberger to meet with police and provide them with a DNA sample. Authorities won't say when that will be.
Milledgeville students, bartenders and waitresses put Roethlisberger and his entourage -- estimated by witnesses to be from seven to nine other large men -- at The Velvet Elvis after 10 p.m. March 4.
He was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the fiery image of Satan. Two of his chums were vacationing Coraopolis police Officer Anthony Barravecchio and Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Ed Joyner. Another was Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon, who left with Roethlisberger after 11 p.m. to drink Patron tequila at The Brick bar across Hancock Street.
"I was walking down the sidewalk, and someone calls out, 'Big Ben is at The Brick.' I went to have a look. He had a group of big guys around him," said Scott Thompson, 24, a Georgia College & State University senior.
"They were all big. Ben looked pretty calm."
Thompson had seen Roethlisberger before, on Lake Oconee, where the public can take to the water alongside motorboats piloted by the rich and famous living in Roethlisberger's Great Waters development.
"We were near a sand bar," Thompson said. "His friends were with him. We call them the 'linemen' because they're so big. They stared at us, turned around and went away. They like their privacy."
At The Brick, Roethlisberger's large chums ensured that fans and the merely curious were kept at a distance. Thompson and a dozen other witnesses, however, said that some women were allowed into the circle to toast tequila he bought for them at the bar.
Whether she drank or not, a 20-year-old sophomore was there with a small group of friends. Friends and fellow students described her as a smart sorority sister from the Atlanta suburbs who helped raise money for charity.
Witnesses said Roethlisberger and the woman were first noticed near each other around 11 p.m. at The Brick, but it's unclear whether she had been admitted into the inner sanctum at that point.
She also was at Buffington's with him, but, again, it remains unclear whether she was the object of any special attention. There were a lot of people hanging around him, coming and going for photos and autographs, especially young women.
At Capital City, she was among the women selected to go into the VIP lounge, but some of her friends weren't. They stayed on the dance floor.
The woman has not commented about the incident. Her family has hired Atlanta attorney Lee Parks to represent her. He didn't return telephone calls.
The Trib doesn't name alleged victims of sexual assault.
While most Milledgeville residents have been fixated on other issues -- a slumping economy, rolling layoffs, a murder suspect on the loose -- students at George College & State University, a public liberal arts institution known for its academics, largely have rallied around the alleged victim.
"Every woman our age has been in bad situations with men, only not always to this extreme," said Jennifer Noice, 21, a former sorority sister to the young woman. "Whether you have been attacked or you were made very uncomfortable, that sort of moment affects you.
"It has a lasting effect. It hurts people. All the things people say about 'she is just a small-town woman who wants money' are so far from the truth. We support her because we know her."
After leaving The Brick in the waning hours of March 4, students milled near Roethlisberger as he held court in Buffington's, a bar named for the county's first tavern. Students described him as affable, a man who mugged for their cell-phone cameras, even taking time to pose with on- and off-duty Milledgeville police officers.
Roethlisberger's party walked east down Hancock Street to briefly glance into Amici's, but the drinking hole was packed, the students inside hopping to a live band.
After midnight, the Roethlisberger party ended up where hundreds of students at GCSU and the nearby Georgia Military College go on Thursdays, the busiest night for drinking and dancing: The Capital City -- a hard right off Hancock Street and a short stroll down South Wayne Street. Like most of downtown's boulevards, The Capital City is named for a Revolutionary War hero.
About 2:30 a.m., the woman told police she had been sexually assaulted in what's normally a locked staff bathroom a dozen or more paces away from the "VIP" room.
Until last call before 2 a.m., the Roethlisberger party had been encamped in the dark lounge that's really a small hall with a stage, a couple of couches near the glass window from the main bar. Students said that young women rotated in and out of the room, which is fenced off from the dance floor by a thin black curtain. No men outside the entourage were allowed inside.
The owners, who live in an apartment above the dance club, were out of town that night. They also run the restaurant downstairs, Chops. They've hired their own lawyer, prominent local defense attorney Carl Cansino, but they've faced no charges or lawsuits stemming from the alleged incident.
Cansino and other attorneys say the probe conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Milledgeville Police Department could take weeks, maybe months.