The Darren Sharper story is undeniably stunning.
It stars a wealthy, once-admired football hero with movie-star looks who led a double life as a serial rapist. It unfolded in glamorous settings and at exclusive parties, in New Orleans, Los Angeles, Miami Beach and the Phoenix area. It features a supporting cast of celebrity enablers and skittish, even deferential, cops and prosecutors, according to a chilling account of Sharper’s three-year, four-state crime spree published last week by The Advocate and ProPublica.
Yet for all that, for all the things that make this case extraordinary, there’s something horrifyingly mundane about the details. Read the story carefully and you can’t help but conclude that the nine women Sharper has admitted to drugging and sexually assaulting aren’t so different from countless others who’ve made the wrenching decision to go to the cops, submit to invasive exams, put their word and their reputation on the line against someone else’s.
For all sorts of reasons that have been well-documented, rape is a difficult crime to investigate. That’s particularly true where the victim knows her assailant, and where she’s been incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, which was the retired Saints safety’s MO. Sometimes her motives are questioned. Sometimes her confusion over details or lack of recall, not at all unusual under the circumstances, prompts investigators to downplay the allegations. Sometimes there’s no corroborating evidence.
But the record shows that investigators in New Orleans, and in some cases elsewhere, didn’t just stumble over the hard stuff. They didn’t even do the easy part.
They didn’t pay enough attention to evidence like DNA and video, or question Sharper himself. And worse, they didn’t contact other locales that Sharper frequented, and didn’t investigate whether there might be a pattern, even though, in hindsight, it’s clear that there was.
If they had, perhaps authorities could have made connections sooner, gotten a dangerous predator off the streets before he could victimize more people.
Instead, Sharper met up with and drugged young women across the country over the course of three years, from just after his retirement from the NFL in early 2011 until early 2014, when Los Angeles authorities finally put him behind bars following a 24-hour stretch in which he drugged and raped four women in two states.
The investigative shortcomings weren’t just the result of Sharper’s status. They’re depressingly familiar in New Orleans, where just last year the city’s Inspector General’s Office documented a genuinely shocking lack of investigative follow-through from the New Orleans Police Department’s sex crimes unit. One of the officers singled out in the report initially investigated the allegations against Sharper.
They’re just as familiar to advocates nationwide, who have long lamented the backlog in rape kit testing and the severe underuse of a national database set up to flag similar details, identify serial predators and build cases based on common patterns. Consider this damning fact: The FBI set up a database designed to capture and compare reported sexual assaults and track assailants who cross state lines. But it contains precious little data; of nearly 80,000 rapes reported nationwide in 2013, just 240 cases were entered into the FBI database.
So yes, the Darren Sharper story may seem on the surface like an epic tragedy. But there’s an even larger tragedy here, and it’s that things like this happen all the time.