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Michigan State coach Tom Izzo ‘sought out’ witness in 2017 criminal investigation of player
7:28 AM ET
  • Paula Lavigne and Nicole Noren

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and two assistant coaches contacted a witness in a 2017 investigation of criminal sexual conduct involving a basketball player before the witness had discussed the incident with police or school investigators, records newly obtained by ESPN show.

MSU student Brayden Smith was with then-freshman guard Brock Washington on the night a female student said Washington forcibly groped her, according to a Michigan State University police report obtained by ESPN through a public records request to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office. On Aug. 31, 2017, the female student told police that Washington grabbed her butt without her consent, tried to pull her to the floor despite her telling him no, reached toward her vagina and kissed her without her consent, according to the Michigan State University police report.

When police officers interviewed Smith about what he had seen that night in August 2017, he said he had already been contacted by Izzo and assistant coaches Dwayne Stephens and Mike Garland about the incident. They “asked [Smith] if he was OK and if there was anything that he had seen during the evening,” according to the report. Smith made a similar statement to a Michigan State Title IX investigator: “Mr. Smith said he was sought out by Mr. Izzo and other members of the basketball coaching staff. Mr. Smith said they asked him what he knew and if he was OK,” according to the Title IX report. Smith, who was not present for most of the interactions between Washington and the woman, told police that what he saw he thought was consensual.

W. Scott Lewis, co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators and a partner with TNG, a consulting firm that works with schools on Title IX compliance, said the actions of Izzo and his coaches are improper and could open the school up to a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights or a lawsuit.

“You just don’t do that,” Lewis said.

Lewis said it would have been acceptable for a coach to reach out to a player facing such allegations to ask how he or she is doing and to encourage the player to tell the truth to authorities, but Lewis said that’s where the involvement should stop.

“It’s entirely another level when my player says, ‘Oh, my friend Brayden was there,’ and you call Brayden in as a coach and say, ‘Tell me what your perspective is,'” Lewis said. “Now you’re investigating. You’re not just being supportive of your athletes. If you know the police are looking into this or the Title IX office is looking at this, it becomes even more inappropriate for you to step in and do your own ad hoc Title IX investigation.

“Once you’re calling in other people, it starts to reek of either you investigating this yourself or trying to intimidate a witness.”

ESPN tried to reach Smith through a phone number listed for him and through a social media message, but he did not respond. ESPN also was unable to reach Izzo by phone, and he didn’t respond to text messages.

Smith has never played basketball for the Spartans, but his father, Steve Smith, played from 1987 to 1991, when Izzo was an assistant coach. The younger Smith told investigators he considers Washington his “best friend” and the coaches his “godfathers” who check in on him from time to time, according to the Title IX report.

Smith told a Title IX investigator in a Sept. 27, 2017, interview that, when he was approached by the basketball coaches, he had until that point been unaware of the allegations against Washington. Smith said that “because the coaches brought up the incident and appeared to know something was up, he went to [Washington] to see what was going on,” the report shows.

Police wrote in their report that the coaches asked Smith what he had seen that night but that Brayden’s “perception of this conversation with them was not to get information out of him, but rather to ensure that he was OK and remind him to be responsible.”

Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for Michigan State, said in an email that the university has policies against interfering with an investigation or any employee conducting his or her own investigation. “OIE [Office of Institutional Equity] did not feel those policies were violated in this situation,” she said, noting Smith’s relationship with the coaches.

The documents obtained by ESPN have not been made public previously. The woman who reported the incident to police has come forward to publicly identify herself for the first time.

The woman, Rebecca Lambert, told police that on Aug. 28, 2017, she and a group of people were hanging out in a friend’s room in a residence hall. She told police she left to get a phone charger from her room, and Washington followed her into her room. She said Washington closed the door and groped her without her consent.

Lambert’s roommate had been in the room asleep when they entered, according to the police report. Her roommate told police that she heard the two kiss and heard Lambert say, “No, my roommate is right there,” and, “Are you done?” The roommate told a university investigator that “from what she could hear, she believed [Lambert] wanted [Washington] to stop and leave the room,” but she was not able to witness any interaction. “[The roommate] said she tried to stay quiet and still because she did not want to embarrass [Lambert],” according to the Title IX report.

Lambert told police she said she initially and briefly consented to kissing Washington in her room, but then he grabbed her butt and moved his fingers toward her vagina without her consent. She said he also attempted to pull her to the floor despite her trying to push him away and saying no, according to the police report.

She said Washington stopped advancing on her when two of her friends who had been in the other dorm room knocked on the door.

“When he tried to push me onto the ground, my initial thought was, ‘I’m about to be raped,'” she told ESPN. “I could never say what would have happened if my friends hadn’t knocked on the door.”

One of her friends who came to the door told police he did not see the interaction between Washington and Lambert but said that Lambert “had a look on her face as if she were saying ‘thank you’ and she looked relieved” when he walked in, at which point Lambert and Washington exited the room, according to the report. The other man who came to the door said Lambert told him after the incident in her room that “she was telling Brock to ‘stop and he [Brock] wouldn’t,'” according to the police report.

Washington told police in an interview on Sept. 8, 2017, that, once in the room, he asked Lambert if he could kiss her, and she responded, “Yes.” He also said, while he and the woman kissed in her room, he did put his hands on her butt. He told police, “I thought she was OK with it,” and when asked by police, he said he did it for “gratification.” He said that he did not try to touch her vagina or attempt to get her on the floor. “I wasn’t sure I had consent to do anything else. I just did what I had consent to do,” he told police, according to the report, which also stated that Washington said he would not think about having intercourse with someone whom he had just met.

But when Washington spoke to a university Office of Institutional Equity investigator three days later, he said he never grabbed Lambert’s butt. The police report notes that Washington “provided contradictory statements” during Michigan State’s investigation. Washington also told police he was the one who shut the door after going into Lambert’s room, but he told the Title IX investigator he was “pretty sure” she shut the door, according to the reports.

The police report stated that Lambert’s retelling of events in the Title IX report was consistent with what she told law enforcement.

Another incident happened shortly after the two left the room, according to the police report. Washington and Lambert gave different accounts of whether a kiss they exchanged in the hallway after the encounter in the room was forced or consensual, and whether Washington touched her butt in that encounter too, according to statements in both reports. Smith, Washington’s friend, who said he stayed in the other dorm room when Washington followed Lambert to her room, told university investigators that Lambert “appeared to be the initiator” of the kiss in the hallway.

The university’s Title IX investigation, which concluded Oct. 30, 2017, determined that Washington was not responsible for having violated the university’s sexual misconduct policy. The Title IX report cited Smith’s testimony about the hallway incident as a factor. The Title IX report also notes that Washington denied groping Lambert’s butt and that there was no witness in the room who saw Washington touch her without her consent. Lewis, the Title IX expert, said the Title IX investigator should have taken Smith’s close relationship with Washington and the coaches into account when using his testimony to make a decision in the case, although Lewis said that relationship does not by default make Smith’s testimony unreliable.

When asked whether the Title IX investigator considered Smith’s relationship with the coaches when weighing his testimony, Guerrant, the Michigan State spokeswoman, said, “We can’t speak to that.”

“I’d like an apology [from Izzo],” Lambert said. “I didn’t lie. I tried to say something. … It did me no good to report it through the school specifically. I didn’t enjoy anything that happened; I don’t know what benefit anyone really gets from reporting sexual assault.”

Police forwarded their case to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office in December 2017, recommending fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and unlawful entry charges against Washington.

In early 2018, Washington pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, according to police records. He pleaded under a provision in Michigan law that allows offenders ages 17 through 23 to plead guilty without a court entering a judgment of conviction, essentially keeping the crime off the public record and dismissing the case as long as terms of a probation are fulfilled. Lambert told ESPN that she agreed with a prosecutor’s recommendation to allow Washington, who was then 18, to plea to a charge not classified as a sex crime.

Washington had two attorneys during the investigation into that incident. His latest, Brian Jeffries, who is the lead attorney for MSU Student Legal Services, did not respond to a message left at his office or to an email. The other, Peter Samouris, said he had been in touch with the family and would not comment beyond saying that the “2017 allegation was ridiculous.” He maintained Washington’s innocence in that case and said he was not involved in Washington’s plea deal at the end.

Washington has not responded to messages seeking comment.

Lambert, who was a criminal justice major at the time, told ESPN that — based on what she learned about the sex offender registry — she would feel bad if Washington had that on his record forever. “I thought that would be enough of a deterrence, pleading to assault,” she said.

Lewis said Washington’s guilty plea should’ve been a “red flag” for Michigan State and prompted the university to reopen its Title IX investigation, which relied on a lower burden of proof than a criminal investigation.

“He pled guilty, albeit to misdemeanor assault,” Lewis said. “And so there would have to be a determination of a finding of some responsibility for some policy violation.”

Guerrant said that in 2017, the school had a policy that did not allow for the reopening of a Title IX case once a decision was made; the university “made changes” to that policy this year, she said.

During the 2017 investigation, Washington suited up for every game in the 2017-18 Spartans basketball season but did not receive any playing time. Washington, a walk-on, played in seven games during the 2018-19 campaign and in nine games this past season, the last being the Spartan’s 71-42 loss at Purdue on Jan. 12.

Lambert has kept the handwritten statement she read at Washington’s court appearance two years ago in her wallet.

“I went from being a high-achieving student to struggling to get myself up for classes and my grades suffered,” she wrote in the statement.

“I distanced myself from friends and family and I was afraid of getting close with any males,” she wrote. “I took medications for my mood and sleep and tried to seek out counseling … I’ve lost the last eight months to waiting for acknowledgement that something happened to me and now I’m working to use the assault and everything that came after it to better myself and try to empower other victims.”

The 2017 incident first became public just weeks after the publication of a Jan. 26, 2018, ESPN investigation that scrutinized Izzo, Michigan State’s athletic department and the university for their handling of past complaints of sexual violence involving athletes. Then-Michigan State interim president John Engler and former athletic director Mark Hollis, who announced his retirement just hours before the publication of the January 2018 investigation, criticized ESPN’s reporting.

“The sad thing is, I think we should, probably as a Michigan State community, apologize to this young man [Washington] and his family who has been named without, at least in that report, any evidence of any wrongdoing,” Engler said after a February 2018 board of trustees meeting.

In response to questions about his comment in light of Lambert’s response and the status of the criminal case at the time, Engler, when reached by phone on Wednesday, said he is in Texas now and hasn’t been following news at Michigan State. He said prior reporting was “inaccurate.” “I just can’t help you. Sorry,” he said, and hung up the phone.

Lambert left the university after the incident based upon how she says she was treated. She told ESPN she worried about running into Washington on campus after she made the report. She said no one in Michigan State’s Office of Institutional Equity offered her extra protection or discussed moving her to a different room or residence hall or checking her classes against his to make sure she wouldn’t run into him.

“When I spoke to OIE, it wasn’t really clear if they were going to help me feel safer,” she said. “It was just about trying to figure out what happened. But then after it came out, it just felt like they were trying to wipe it away as quickly as possible.”

When asked about Lambert’s allegations that she received no protective support, Guerrant said claimants in Title IX cases are given a form that explains all of the resources available to them.

Lambert said her experience with the Title IX office is what prompted her to drop out of Michigan State and transfer to another college. Lambert’s case took about 60 days to complete — 120 days was the university average that year — and didn’t include one of the primary student witnesses interviewed by police because the Title IX investigator said she was unable to set up a meeting with him.

“OIE closed the investigation so quickly, and I felt like thrown to the curb by the school, so I didn’t really want to be a part of that environment,” Lambert said. “The school didn’t seem to care about it. [Washington was] still playing on the basketball team. I didn’t really want to be around that. It was just like a reminder.”

Jayne Schuiteman, then a senior OIE investigator, conducted the investigation and did not respond to emailed questions from ESPN.

ESPN reported Monday about a second alleged sexual assault investigation that involved Washington. In that case, a woman asked the Michigan attorney general’s office to investigate her claim that Washington raped her in January while she was too intoxicated to consent; local prosecutors declined to file charges in March. Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon issued a statement to ESPN stating she declined to charge Washington because the case “does not meet the burden of proof that we must present to a jury.”

A spokesman for Michigan State University police told ESPN on Monday that the attorney general’s office has requested the case file and that the department is cooperating.

“I hope she’s taken seriously and that she has a good support system around her,” Lambert said of the woman who made the January report.

Izzo announced on Jan. 23 that Washington was indefinitely suspended from the team, and he did not rejoin the team during the duration of the season. He remains enrolled at Michigan State, a university spokeswoman said.

Paula Lavigne is a reporter and Nicole Noren is a producer in ESPN’s investigative unit. Investigative unit reporter Dan Murphy contributed to this report.

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