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June 2010: Lauren Chief Elk and her attorney Jim Hammer held a press conference in front of the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose to discuss some of the issues involved in the failure to prosecute the case.

Nearly four years after a teenager alleged that a group of De Anza College baseball players gang-raped her at a party, the young woman is finally getting her day in court -- but not in a criminal courtroom, where many believe the sensational case that helped defeat a district attorney and sparked a national conversation should play out.

Instead, whatever really happened in that small secluded bedroom will soon be argued in graphic detail in a stately San Jose courthouse where civil lawsuits are aired.

The civil trial comes after Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores Carr's controversial decision to not file charges in the 2007 case. One problem, Carr said, was that nearly everyone involved had been drinking. Even the young woman at the center of the case, who was 17 at the time, can't remember anything beyond being served shots at a makeshift bar at the party and waking up the next morning in a hospital in vomit-stained clothes.

Three female soccer players who brought the girl to the hospital said they had to break into the room filled with young men, where they flipped on the light to find the motionless girl lying on a stained futon.

Now, the young woman is a young mother and lives in Wyoming, according to court documents. Carr lost her bid for re-election in a historic upset. And the baseball players, who were suspended from the De Anza team and never rejoined, are eager to clear their names.

Mediation fails

But the civil trial -- which includes allegations of rape against some men and accuses all eight of negligently putting the woman in great peril -- will bring that night all back, including aspects that have never been made public. The grandfather of one young man, who owned the house and let his grandson live there free, is also being sued for negligence on the grounds that he knew the young man had rowdy, occasionally violent parties with underage drinking that required police intervention. The only defendant who wasn't on the baseball team is on the brink of a default judgment against him for ignoring court orders.

Any chance of a quick settlement ended last week after the men declined to accept the young woman's offer to drop the case for $9.1 million. If she winds up winning the lawsuit, there will be another battle royal in civil court -- over whether personal liability and homeowner's insurance policies taken out long before the incident by the grandfather and the young men's parents can be tapped to pay some of the damages.

The four men who face the worst allegations, including sexual battery, either won't testify or won't reveal much on the stand because they have invoked their constitutional right against self-incrimination. But for the first time, some of the men will publicly tell their version of the story.

One avid listener will be new District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who promised during his successful campaign against Carr to re-examine the criminal case and test all the evidence the lab was ordered by the former administration to ignore. The state Attorney General's Office concurred with Carr's decision not to file charges, but under the 10-year statute of limitations, there are still about six years left on the legal clock to bring criminal charges.

"We are, of course, watching the civil trial," Rosen said, "to see what new evidence and information is brought forth that was not previously known."

Conflicting accounts

Like the infamous Duke University gang-rape case that came before it and the Richmond gang-rape case that came afterward, the De Anza case was the catalyst for a painful and awkward debate.

Was this a story of debauched athletes and a vulnerable woman, as the woman's attorneys allege? Or a loutish bacchanal that the young woman voluntarily engaged in? Or does it fall somewhere in between, in an uncomfortably murky gray area?

The March 3, 2007, evening started with a birthday party, thrown for two of the De Anza ballplayers -- Luis Cardenas and Spencer Maltbie.

In voluminous court documents, her attorneys argue that the drunk young woman essentially became one of the party favors, and all the men involved had a legal and moral duty to try to stop the assault or bring her to safety. They cite an interview by sheriff's investigators with one of the young men, who told them that another man in the room said, "OK, birthday boys, time to jump on this."

But lawyers for the young men say the public has been swayed by years of inaccurate, sensationalistic accounts that will be debunked in the course of the trial. To the extent the judge will let them, they are expected to contend, as they did in court documents, that the young woman "has demonstrated, both before and after the incident, a willingness to perform sexual acts while other individuals are watching."

A key question will be whether the underage girl's drunkenness was voluntary or induced by some of the young men. One of the female soccer players, who were hailed as heroes by the San Jose City Council for "rescuing" the woman that night, told investigators that the shots of vodka and rum were clearly directed at women.

The defendants' attorneys in turn will argue that there is evidence the young woman central to the case arrived uninvited with her own 18-pack of beer and downed shots with gusto.

Consensual or not?

Another question will be whether the sexual acts, including intercourse and oral copulation, were consensual. There's little question the sexual activity started when the inebriated girl gave one of the men a provocative lap dance in an outer, public room in front of an encouraging crowd, and then was willingly led by another young man to the secluded bedroom. When the man she did the lap dance for vomited and passed out on the bed, according to the defendants' account, she told another boy who wandered in that she wanted to have sex with him and his friends.

But the woman's lawyers contend that she was too young and too drunk to ever grant consent -- and certainly did not agree to be sexually assaulted by some of the eight to 10 men in the room while others either masturbated or used their cell phones to light the scene or take photographs.

On the other hand, the men also are expected to argue that even if there came a point when the sex was no longer consensual, some of them were far too inebriated to notice.

But the three female soccer players who stopped the action said it took them about 10 minutes of yelling and banging on the door barred by some of the young men to get in. And at least one young man who stepped in the room for a moment was disturbed enough by the scene to track down another man who lived in the house, according to the court documents.

"There's a girl in Rebo's room basically getting gang-banged," he told investigators he said to his friend. Asked during the law enforcement interview whether he thought the girl was in danger, he said, "At one point, yeah, I did."

Mercury News staff writer Sean Webby contributed to this report. Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.

In criminal cases, the state must prove the defendants' guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." In civil litigation, the plaintiffs win if the preponderance of evidence favors them.
KEY PEOPLE
Expected to testify
  • Alleged victim:
    Jane Doe
  • Soccer players
    who aided her: April Grolle, Lauren Chief Elk and Lauren Bryeans
  • Former De Anza baseball player: Kenneth Chadwick says he was in the room for 45 seconds
    Invoked Fifth Amendment right against
    self-incrimination
    They could be called
    to testify but will not discuss what happened.
  • Stephen Rebagliati, Scott Righetti, Luis Cardenas and Christopher Knopf:
    All four face all 14 causes of action, including rape
    Have not taken the
    Fifth and may testify
  • Grandfather Steven Rebagliati: negligence
  • Ryan Kanzaki: negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • Spencer Maltbie: negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress
    Entire lawsuit dismissed
  • Robert Sedin
  • Christopher Skinner: Judge's refusal to grant a new trial will be appealed
    Lost on all causes
    For ignoring a court
    order in the case
  • Cesar Gutierrez:
    not a member of the baseball team