Matt Araiza has not been charged with a crime, but he has already admitted to one

The Buffalo Bills spend an awful lot of time preaching how much they believe in personal character and how important it is to them when they research the players they want to draft or sign in free agency.

“Culture” is a big word for coach Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, almost on equal footing, it seems sometimes, as the word “winning.”

But the accusation rookie punter Matt Araiza is facing after a civil lawsuit was filed in Southern California on Thursday, claiming that he was a participant in a gang rape of a 17-year-old female in October 2021, casts a dark shadow on the organization.

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There is still a long way to go before anything is decided in this case — after all, Araiza and his two former San Diego State teammates named in the lawsuit have not yet been charged with a crime. And in statement released during Friday night’s preseason game at Carolina – which he did not play in – Araiza said: “The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press. I look forward to quickly setting the record straight.”

And we all eagerly await to hear what he has to say. But, according to the lawsuit, Araiza has already admitted to the crime of having sex with a minor, so it will certainly be interesting to see what his side of the story is.

“His admission was the thing that, when I started reading about this case, that just jumped out,” Dallas-based attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel told the Democrat and Chronicle on Friday afternoon. “I was like, ‘Whoa,’ because there are a lot of cases I handle where we don’t have that kind of what I would consider bombshell evidence.”

A day after the alleged incident at an off-campus Halloween party at Araiza’s home, the plaintiff (whose name has not been released) reported it to the San Diego police department, who opened an investigation.

In her lawsuit, she claims detectives from the Sex Crimes Unit arranged for her to make a phone call to all three of the players she said were involved. In the call to Araiza, he acknowledged having sex with her and said she should be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

Later in the call, prompted by the detectives, she asked Araiza point blank about whether they had sex and he reversed course and said, “This is Matt Araiza. I don’t remember anything that happened that night.” And then he hung up. The calls were recorded.

Simpson Tuegel, a former criminal defense attorney who now specializes in victims rights cases and has represented survivors in some of the biggest sexual assault cases of the past decade, including USA gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar, said Araiza’s statement is damning.

“That initial acknowledgement, that is not legal,” Simpson Tuegel said. “And when you layer on top of that, alcohol, heavy intoxication, what sounds like some pretty well documented and violent physical injuries that this minor woman suffered, that is a really problematic statement when you’re faced with that level of evidence.”

When the news of the lawsuit, first reported on by the Los Angeles Times, broke on Thursday, the Bills put out this hollow statement:

“We were recently made aware of a civil complaint involving Matt from October 2021. Due to the serious nature of the complaint, we conducted a thorough examination of this matter. As this is an ongoing civil case, we will have no other comment at this point.”

“Recently made aware” appears to be July 31, the day the plaintiff’s attorney, Dan Gilleon, sent an email to the Bills informing them of the allegations and the impending civil litigation against Araiza, Zavier Leonard (who is still on the San Diego State team) and Nowlin “Pa’a” Ewaliko (who is no longer on the team).

At least on the surface, the Bills – who made the right call and did not dress Araiza for Friday night’s preseason game in Carolina – are trying to make us believe they did not know of the alleged incident when they used a sixth-round draft pick on the punter nicknamed Punt God four months ago.

However, Simpson Tuegel contends it seems rather unfathomable that the Bills only learned of the situation July 31 given the depth that they, and all NFL teams, typically research prospective new players.

Teams don’t just look at game film, conduct physical workouts, and reference medical records. They interview most or in some cases all of the players they select (either in person, by phone or, these days Zoom), and they also do deep dives into their backgrounds away from the football field.

Rarely is a stone left unturned, and this certainly seems like a potential boulder that was left alone.

“It’s pretty clear that quite a number of athletes at the university knew about this gang rape, and some of the original reporters and information that came to the school were athletes beyond the football team who were communicating to the university about it,” Simpson Tuegel said.

“Had the Buffalo Bills been doing the depth of checking that they claim they do now on athletes, their histories and their background and their disciplinary conduct and all of the things they’re saying they’re doing now to try to vet and prevent athletes who have these sorts of problems from being on their teams, I struggle to believe that, majorly (that they would have missed this).”

Punter Matt Araiza sends one downfield on the opening day of the Buffalo Bills training camp at St. John Fisher University in Rochester Sunday, July 24, 2022.

Punter Matt Araiza sends one downfield on the opening day of the Buffalo Bills training camp at St. John Fisher University in Rochester Sunday, July 24, 2022.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Araiza’s name first surfaced in connection with the rape allegation through an anonymous San Diego State campus reporting system.

On Oct. 26, 2021, San Diego State received the first of several submissions from individuals with third-hand information about the alleged off-campus sexual assault. The university complied with the San Diego police department’s request to not open its own investigation and pass along the information to assist in the SDPD’s investigation, which it did.

One student was quoted Oct. 26 as saying, “I hope this isn’t true for Matt’s sake. But if it’s true I hope he gets the repercussions he deserves and (the) girl gets justice.”

The Associated Press reported Friday that during the draft process at least two teams learned of Araiza’s involvement in some type of incident, while three others who spoke on the condition of anonymity learned of the allegations when it broke Thursday. So, the information was out there. If the Bills truly didn’t know anything before July 31, then that’s a pretty poor job by their investigators.

We do know, however, that they were aware once Gilleon sent his email, and yet they continued to not only hold a training camp punting competition between Araiza and Matt Haack, but named Araiza the winner earlier this week and cut Haack.

We can assume that the Bills are standing behind Araiza at this time because he has not formally been charged with a crime. Clearly, their plan is to let the case evolve until the San Diego district attorney’s office decides whether to charge him and the other players with a crime.

They would then have these options: They could release Araiza and sign another punter; they could fine and/or suspend him; or they could do nothing until, at some point, either the matter is settled out of court, or his guilt or innocence is proven at trial.

Based on what she has read in the lawsuit, “I think it’s enough for them to charge him with a crime,” Simpson Tuegel said. “As a criminal defense lawyer or as a lawyer who now represents victims and has for years, I would say that is an admission and a problematic statement for him. He made an admission and she’s under age. I just don’t know how you get around those facts. That’s a real problem.”

As for the NFL, it has no say in the matter because the alleged incident occurred before Araiza entered the league and thus is not subject to the league’s personal conduct policy, which reads:

“This Policy is issued pursuant to the Commissioner’s authority under the Constitution and Bylaws, Collective Bargaining Agreement and NFL Player Contract to define, address and sanction conduct detrimental to the league and professional football. The provisions below apply to players under contract; all rookie players selected in the NFL College Draft; all undrafted rookie players following the NFL College Draft; all Draft-eligible players who attend a Scouting Combine; all unsigned veterans who were under contract in the prior League Year; and all other prospective players once they commence negotiations with a club concerning employment.”

Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.To subscribe to Sal’s new twice-a-week newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link:

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Matt Araiza rape accusation Buffalo Bills punter admits to crime

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