Civil case accusing Matt Araiza of rape is unusual legal strategy, expert says
Araiza, a former SDSU football standout, is being sued along with two others for allegedly raping a teenage girl last fall.
Editor's Note: The following story includes a description of a sexual assault, which some readers may find disturbing.
The civil case accusing San Diego State University football players of raping a teenage girl at a house party last fall is an unusual legal strategy, a longtime defense lawyer said Friday.
Dan Gilleon, the lawyer representing the young woman making the allegations, filed the lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court on Thursday even though no criminal charges have been filed in the case.
“Her civil attorney may want to just get the ball rolling because we don't know what's true or not true, and we don't know all the facts,” said Gretchen von Helms. "If true, this is a very egregious case."
She's also surprised that charges weren't filed. Typically, police would have filed charges and then conducted further investigation to build out the case, said von Helms, who has no involvement in the case.
In this instance, the San Diego Police Department investigated the case for 10 months before handing it over to the San Diego District Attorney.
“It seems as if the police officers were trying to take their time on this case and not rush to judgment because they get accused of rushing to judgment in a lot of cases," von Helms said. "And so I think they were trying to take their time on it."
The suit alleges that in the early morning of Oct. 17, 2021, former Aztec punter Matt Araiza had sex with the then-17-year-old girl and later gang-raped her with three other men.
The other men named in the suit are Zavier Leonard and Nowlin “Pa'a” Ewaliko. All three were on the SDSU team last season, but only Leonard is on the roster this season. Araiza now plays for the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
A civil lawsuit has a lower standard of proof compared to a criminal case, but it also moves slower than a criminal case, von Helms said. It could be years before a civil suit wraps up and a criminal case could be over by then.
Resources at SDSU for sexual assault victims
• SDSU Counseling & Psychological Services: (619) 594-5220 (non-emergency)
• Counseling Access & Crisis Line: (888) 724-7240, www.sa.sdsu.edu/cps/
• Student Health Services, Calpulli Center: (619) 594-5281, shs.sdsu.edu/index.asp
• SDSU Police Department: (619) 594-1991
• Center for Community Solutions: (888) 385-4657 (bilingual rape crisis hotline), ccssd.org
The DA's office has yet to file any charges. A spokesperson said the office is still reviewing the case and that there is no timetable for when charges might be filed.
Earlier this month, Gilleon, told KPBS he thinks the DA's office is taking its time because it's a complicated case and prosecutors are trying to sweep it under the rug.
"I don't think that prosecutors like to lose cases at trial. I think they like to charge cases they know they can win," he said. "And that's not the way trial attorneys — most of us — work. I mean, we try cases that we believe in, and if the jury doesn't go our way, so be it. But unfortunately, politicians aren't motivated that way."
Kerry Armstrong, who is Araiza's criminal attorney, said he doubts any charges will be filed against his client. Armstrong is not representing Araiza in the civil matter but has been authorized to speak on the case.
"My private investigator has talked to numerous witnesses who are there that night, including at least one witness who would be essentially on the prosecution side, if you will," Armstrong said. "And based on all of that information, I believe that they will definitely not file criminal charges against him for anything forcible or anything regarding rape by intoxication or anything like that."
On Monday, the Bills cut veteran punter Matt Haack and made Araiza the starter for Friday's game against the Carolina Panthers. But shortly before kick-off, the Bills announced Araiza would not be playing in the game.
Armstrong thinks the timing of the lawsuit is a money grab for the now 18-year-old woman identified only as Jane Doe in the civil complaint.
"(Her attorney) waited until after that happened to follow the civil lawsuit," Armstrong said. "He could have done it months ago if he wanted to. He could have done it a month ago when he and I communicated about it."
In a statement issued Thursday, the Bills said the team was recently made aware of the civil case against Araiza.
"Due to the serious nature of the complaint, we conducted a thorough examination of this matter. As this is an ongoing civil case legal, we will have no other comment at this point," the statement said.
Armstrong said Araiza only became aware of the allegations against him about six weeks ago, around the time when the Los Angeles Times first published a story about the alleged rape. The story did not name any players, but Armstrong said there was enough information there that made Araiza think he might be implicated.
"The LA Times article had some pretty serious allegations of it, and that I would imagine it would make anybody worry at that point, especially someone who at that point was trying to get on with the Bills," he said. "We've been drafted by the Bills, and, you know, has a lot to lose, so to speak."