Lawsuit accuses SDSU's former star punter and two other football players of gang rape
Editor's Note: The following story includes a description of a sexual assault, which some readers may find disturbing.
Buffalo Bills punter and former standout player for the San Diego State University football team was among three current and former players accused in a civil lawsuit of raping a teenage girl at an off-campus party last fall.
The suit was filed Thursday in San Diego Superior Court by local attorney Dan Gilleon. It alleges that punter Matt Araiza had sex with the then-17-year-old girl in the backyard of an off-campus house during a party on Oct. 16, 2021, then took her to a room inside the house where she was gang-raped.
According to the suit obtained by KPBS, Araiza took the girl to the side yard of the house "despite her age and inebriated state" and told her to perform oral sex on him. He then had penetrative sex with her in the yard from behind, the suit says.
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
Shortly thereafter, Araiza took her to a bedroom inside the house where there were "at least three other men already in the bedroom," the suit says. The suit named two of the three men in the room as Nowlin "Pa'a" Ewaliko and Zavier Leonard.
There, according to the suit, the men took turns raping her.
An attorney for Araiza, who now plays for the NFL's Buffalo Bills, did not immediately return KPBS' call for comment.
Ewaliko was listed as an offensive lineman on the SDSU football team's roster last season. He's not listed on the roster for this season.
"At present, the (San Diego County) District Attorney is reviewing the matter and no charges have been filed," said Marc Carlos, attorney for Ewaliko. "The filing of the civil lawsuit does not have any bearing on potential criminal charges.
Leonard is listed on this season's roster as a red-shirt freshman on the offensive line. His attorney, Jamahl Kersey, said the investigation is ongoing and "that no conclusion should be drawn regarding my client at this time."
The now 18-year-old woman spoke to KPBS earlier this month. She described the alleged rape as violent.
"It was really aggressive. It was aggressive. It was really scary," the woman said in her Aug. 4 interview with a KPBS. KPBS is protecting her identity due to the nature of her allegations.
The woman said she was in and out of consciousness during the assault, which left her bloodied and bruised.
"They threw me down onto the bed, face down, and they took turns assaulting me from behind, other things in the mix," she said. "And I was bleeding everywhere. My piercings were ripped out. I had my belly button, my nose and my ear piercings."
The woman said she had bruises on her neck and said she didn't know if they were hickeys or something else. There were also bruises on her legs, she said.
The woman said she reported the rape to the San Diego Police Department the next day and her father also reported the alleged rape to the SDSU Police Department two days later.
Araiza was known as a "punt god" for his powerful, precision kicking. He was drafted by the Bills in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL draft.
The SDPD announced on Aug. 4 that it had completed the investigation, roughly nine months after the alleged rape, and submitted the results to the San Diego District Attorney for review.
The SDPD did not make arrests in the case. A police expert told KPBS that it's normal in high-profile cases for the department to refer them to prosecutors.
In a statement Thursday to KPBS, Gilleon said what made this case different was that it was committed by "self-entitled athletes."
"Just as awful as the crimes, for months, multiple organizations — SDSU, the San Diego Police Department, the San Diego District Attorney, and now the Buffalo Bills — have acted the part of enablers looking the other way in denial that my client deserves justice even if the defendants are prized athletes," Gilleon said.
In her interview with KPBS, the woman said that about a month after she reported the rape, the police had her do "pretext" calls to the suspects, which are recorded phone calls.
"I went in under sort of, like, giving off the impression that I was just concerned about what had happened, trying to figure out what went on, worried about STD, worried about pregnancy," she said. "And I had to call each of the suspects and kind of just ask them to walk me through what happened that night. And a majority of them admitted to what they did or lied about it. And so I feel like that's pretty solid evidence in itself."
Among those who admitted what happened to her was Araiza, the suit says.
Under California law, sexual intercourse with someone under the age of 18 is statutory rape, and it becomes a possible felony when the perpetrator is 21 years or older.
SDSU said the university takes the allegations seriously. It had been criticized for not starting a Title IX investigation earlier. The university said it was told by police to wait until its investigation was completed.
The university announced it started its Title IX investigation on Aug. 1. In a statement Thursday, SDSU said its investigation is ongoing.
"As this involves an active university investigation, and given laws governing privacy (FERPA), the university is not able to provide specific details regarding its investigation," SDSU said in a statement to KPBS. "If a student is found to be in violation of the student code of conduct, as the result of a thorough investigation, disciplinary action includes but is not limited to suspension, dismissal or expulsion."
The suit is asking for unspecified damages against the three players and the corporation that owns the house where the alleged assault took place.
Editor's Note: KPBS is a service of San Diego State University.