A defensive tactician on the sidelines, Matt Patricia is now defending himself against a newly resurfaced charge of sexual assault dating back to his college days.
The recently hired Detroit Lions head coach and former Patriots defensive coordinator is denying the allegations that led to his arrest when he was 21 years old, and the arrest of a friend, while they were on spring break in Texas. The otherwise little known 1996 sexual assault indictment, which was ultimately dismissed, was reported on anew by The Detroit News in a 2,800-word story Wednesday night. In response, Patricia categorically denied the charge and said the new reporting was “incredibly unfair, disappointing, and frustrating.”
Here’s what we know about the 22-year-old allegations and why they’re resurfacing now.
What allegedly happened?
The charges date back to Patricia’s time at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private university in Troy, New York, just outside of Albany, where the future football coach studied aeronautical engineering and played offensive line for the school’s football team. In March 1996, Patricia and Greg Dietrich, his friend and RPI football captain, went to South Padre Island, a resort town on the southernmost tip of Texas, for spring break.
It was there that Patricia and Dietrich met a 21-year-old college student who was attending another “large university.”
“They were also students and casual friends,” E.E. Eunice, South Padre Island’s then-police chief, told the Brownsville Herald at the time. “She told us she had palled around with them for a few days.”
However, on March 15, 1996, Patricia and Detrich reportedly “burst into” the Radisson hotel room where the woman was sleeping at around 6 p.m. that Friday. The two men then allegedly awoke the woman, before taking turns forcefully penetrating her without her consent, according to the Herald and a grand jury indictment.
“The defendants compelled the victim to submit and participate by the use of physical force and violence,” reads the indictment.
Patricia and Dietrich were arrested later that night after being identified by the accuser, before being released on $20,000 bond. The alleged victim’s name was withheld by both papers to protect her identity.
What was the evidence against Patricia?
Patricia and Dietrich were both indicted by a Texas grand jury that August on one count each of aggravated sexual assault, a felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in the Lone Star State. Such an indictment requires a vote from nine of 12 grand jurors that there is probable cause, if not proof, that the defendant committed the crime.
“It’s a fairly low standard,” Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, told The Detroit News.
It’s unclear what evidence existed against Patricia and Dietrich beyond the alleged victim’s statements.
Eunice told The Detroit News that though he doesn’t remember the case, his department would have taken the accuser to a local hospital so medical staff could look for evidence of a sexual assault, and legal experts said the grand jury would have been presented with such, if any, physical evidence.
Jeff Wilson, a defense attorney for Patricia, told The Detroit News that he believes the allegations were a “fabrication” and that it was a “‘he said, she said” case.
Why were the charges eventually dismissed?
The case reportedly collapsed five months later when the woman didn’t show up for the first day of the trial in January 1997. According to court records, the dismissal of the case was requested by the alleged victim.
“Victim is unable to testify and can not give a date certain when she will be available,” prosecutors wrote. “Victim may request that the case be refiled at a later date.”
Henning told The Detroit News that such last-minute dismissals are not uncommon in sexual assault cases.
“This does happen, in part, because of the stigma attached,” he said. “It reflects on them personally, and that’s very difficult for the victim.”
Wilson told The Detroit News that the entire ordeal was “a freakin’ nightmare” for Patricia and Deitrich.
“Imagine if you’re innocent and charged with something like that — which nowadays would be worse,” he said, alluding the new, heightened scrutiny of sexual misconduct allegations in the #MeToo era.
What was Patricia’s response to the new report?
Hours after The Detroit News published their report Wednesday night, the Lions posted a statement from Patricia on their team website.
“As someone who was falsely accused of this very serious charge over 22 years ago, and never given the opportunity to defend myself and clear my name, I find it incredibly unfair, disappointing, and frustrating that this story would resurface now with the only purpose being to damage my character and reputation,” said the now-43-year-old coach. “I firmly maintain my innocence, as I have always done.”
Patricia added he would never condone the alleged behavior and that he will “always respect and protect the rights of anyone who has been harassed or is the victim of violence.” The coach, who says he got into the field to improve people’s lives, said the will continue on to fulfill that mission.
“My priorities remain the same — to move forward and strive to be the best coach, teacher, and man that I can possibly be,” he said.
In a press conference Thursday, Patricia again forcefully pushed back against the charges, though he declined to go into the details of what happened on that March, 15, 1996, night.
“I was innocent then, and I am innocent now,” he told reporters.
“I think what’s important now is what didn’t happen,” he said. “I did nothing wrong, and that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.”
Patricia said the team has remained 100 percent supportive of him. Indeed, in a joint statement from Lions owner Martha Ford, general manager Bob Quinn, and president Rob Wood, the team executives said they take such allegations seriously, but that, given the facts of the case, they continue to support their new head coach.
“The charge was dismissed by the prosecutor at the request of the complaining individual prior to trial,” their statement said. “As a result, Coach Patricia never had the opportunity to present his case or clear his name publicly in a court of law. He has denied that there was any factual basis for the charge. There was no settlement agreement with the complaining individual, no money exchanged hands and there was no confidentiality agreement.”
The statement said that the reporter involved — Detroit News staff writer Robert Snell authored the report — “acknowledged that the allegations have not been substantiated” in discussions with Lions management. They also said that Patricia went through a “standard pre-employment background check,” which did not disclose the issue, even if the indictment records were publicly and easily available.
Wood, who initially said he was unaware of the allegations, told The Detroit News that after having learning about the case, nothing had changed about his impressions of Patricia or his decision to hire him. Lions management concurred with that response in their official statement.
“Based upon everything we have learned, we believe and have accepted Coach Patricia’s explanation and we will continue to support him,” read the team’s statement. “We will continue to work with our players and the NFL to further awareness of and protections for those individuals who are the victims of sexual assault or violence.”
Did the Patriots know about these past allegations?
Not according to Bill Belichick.
In a statement Thursday afternoon, the Patriots coach said the team was unaware of “the matter which recently came to light.” Belichick also praised Patricia’s “integrity” and “character” during his time in Foxborough.
“For 14 years in our organization, Matt conducted himself with great integrity and is known to be an outstanding coach, person and family man,” Belichick said. “We have always been confident in Matt’s character and recommended him highly to become the head coach of the Detroit Lions.”
In his press conference Thursday, Patricia said that the indictment “never came up” during past interviews.
As The Detroit News noted, Massachusetts state law bars employers from asking employees or job applicants about past arrests that did not end in a conviction. The intent of the law is to prevent discrimination. Patricia was hired by the Patriots in 2004 as an offensive assistant, before gradually moving up the ranks to become defensive coordinator in 2012.
Why are the charges being reported now?
“It was really just routine background checking,” Gary Miles, the managing editor of The Detroit News, told Boston.com.
Patricia complained during Thursday’s press conference that the “sole purpose” of bringing up the 22-year-old allegations now was to hurt his reputation, as well as his family, friends, and the Lions organization. But Miles says the paper was simply doing their due diligence on the new head coach, who was hired in February.
“Such is the role of the press; we examine the background of people in prominence,” he said. “The head coach of the Detroit Lions is a pretty prominent position around here.”
Miles said he was surprised that the arrest hadn’t been noticed sooner by the Lions or the Patriots, especially given Patricia’s long tenure with the latter. When their background search turned up the indictment, he said that Snell simply executed the process of reporting out the story: scouring criminal records, interviewing the people involved, and getting the details of the case.
“In today’s climate of allegations, this was essentially a Google search away for anyone, anywhere, and we were the ones who happened to do the search,” Miles said.
What is the NFL’s response?
The league’s personal conduct policy — which applies to players, coaches, owners, and virtually all team and league employees — states that it “is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. … even if the conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, players found to have engaged in any of the following conduct will be subject to discipline.”
The conduct guide also states that teams are obligated to report any matters that may constitute a violation.
“Failure to report an incident will be grounds for disciplinary action,” the league document reads. “This obligation to report is broader than simply reporting an arrest; it requires reporting to the league any incident that comes to the club’s or player’s attention which, if the allegations were true, would constitute a violation of the Personal Conduct Policy.”
It’s unclear what the implications are of past allegations. Though Patricia said Thursday that the allegations had never come up in past interviews, he then declined to directly answer when asked if the Lions asked him about it. He only reiterated that he has always been truthful with the team.
In a statement, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Thursay that the league “will review the matter with the club to understand the allegations and what the club has learned.”