One of the accused is a star athlete of national and international repute — 20-year-old Garrett Wittels, who has hit in 56 straight baseball games. Wittels and two schoolmates, Jonathan Olberti and Robert Rothschild, both 21, have been charged with rape in the early morning hours of Dec. 20 and are free on bonds of $10,000 each.
National media covered Wittels’ hitting streak in the spring and media in Israel have compared him to Joe DiMaggio, who had a 56-game streak, and Sandy Koufax, star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Wittels has been “billed as the next great Jewish baseball player,” said the Broward Palm Beach News which headlined Dec. 27: “Deeply Religious FIU Baseball Star Garrett Wittels Arrested on Rape Charges.”
Wittels, a second baseman, takes a “travel mezuzah” with him to baseball games and kneels in the outfield while reciting the Shema, a prayer declaring the unity of God that believers are commanded to recite twice a day, said the blog of Bob Norman of the Palm Beach News.
This story echoes the travails of golf idol Tiger Woods in 2009 after his sexual exploits came to light. An added element is the public profession of religious beliefs by Wittels.
This reporter, who happens to be on vacation in the Miami area, was astounded to find that two competing newspapers — the Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — carried the same slanted stories on this topic written by Herald staffers Siobhan Morrissey and James H. Burnett III.
The papers have separate owners, McClatchy for the Herald and Tribune Publishing for the Sun-Sentinel, and compete for the most part. Circulations are 162,000 and 149,000, respectively.
Local residents say the papers do some sharing in order to save money.
Stories Dec. 28 and 29 (after the Palm Beach News broke the story the day before) sound like a legal brief in support of the accused FIU students. As of press time, no further stories had appeared in either paper.
The two young women (who are always referred to as “girls”), are portrayed as being sexually reckless and apparent lesbians (“kissing” while at a bar in the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island); liars because they were drinking at the bar when the legal age in the Bahamas is 18; the aggressors since they “gestured for the young men to join them,” and cooperative with the men since they willingly went to the room of one of them where five used condoms were later found by police.
One of the women vomited on herself and one of the men offered her his T-shirt, said the stories.
Still unidentified in the media are the two women or the father of one of them who made the complaint to police. The Herald knows who they are because its story Dec. 29 said attempts to reach the parents of the women were unsuccessful.
Five anonymous “sources” are quoted in the Dec. 27 story and six in the Dec. 28 story. The quotes, almost all of them negative from the viewpoint of the women, apparently are either from the Atlantis or the police.
Reference is made to a videotape that showed the women were “occasionally kissing each other” and that they were “drinking at the resort’s Dragon’s Ultra Lounge.”
Atlantis is one of the resorts owned by Kerzner International, headed by Solomon Kerzner, described by Wikipedia as the “billionaire real estate tycoon and operator of destination resorts.”
It frequently takes full page ads in the New York Times and other papers. A brief item on the Wittels story appeared in the Dec. 27 NYT as part of a column by Michael Schmidt in the sports section. The AP was credited with the story.
Readers who have posted more than 200 comments on websites of the Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach News, say the five condoms indicate at least one of the women had sex three times.
Bloggers are incredulous that any woman would have three sexual episodes with men whom she had met only minutes or possibly an hour before unless her judgment was impaired by alcohol or some other drug.
The Herald, quoting “sources,” said “Wittels & Oberti each separately engaged in sex with one girl, and Rothschild had sex with both.”
Most of the bloggers say that Wittels is innocent of any wrongdoing.
The Herald said, “The rape charges stem from the girls having been drinking; it was believed they might have been so impaired that they were unable to consent to sex.”
Also amazing is the false headline put on the Dec. 29 stories in the Herald and Sun-Sentinel: “Drugs ruled out in Athlete’s rape case.”
The stories say blood tests given to the women “showed only that they had been drinking” and were not given a “date-rape drug.” This ignores the fact that alcohol is a drug and the one most used encourage sexual activity.
What comes to mind is the Ogden Nash couplet on sexual seduction: “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”
The two papers might as well have headlined: “No bruises or broken bones found on alleged rape victims.”
The Dec. 29 Herald story does not mention the amount of alcohol found in the blood of the alleged rape victims. A “source” was quoted as saying: “There was no evidence fund of any drugs — just alcohol.”
A story on foxsports.com on MSN Dec. 29 used the headline, “Report: No drugs found in Wittels’ accusers” and said “Investigators found traces of alcohol but no drugs…”
The Herald stories include a quote from Dr. Michael Wittels, father of Garrett, who impugned the motive of the complaining father by saying: “The next morning, they found out who [Wittels] was and that was the road they took.”
Dr. Wittels, according to an item on spotlight.vitals.com, believes that the successful career of Garrett in making NCAA history is what “motivated the girls to take advantage of the situation.” That quote is from the site and is not a direct quote of Dr. Wittels.
Dr. Wittels operates the Wittels Orthopedic and Sports facility in Bar Harbor. He is quoted indirectly as saying that his son will be vindicated.
“Anyone can accuse anyone of anything at any time,” he told the Herald.
Dr. Wittels played a major role in helping his son to develop as a baseball player. He installed a batting cage in the family’s backyard when Garrett was eight, reported Sports Illustrated. Said the article: “When Wittels was an early teenager, he had a propensity to bail out on inside fastballs, so his father enclosed the cage’s batter’s box with cinder blocks, giving his son no escape route.”
Wayne Munroe, Bahamian lawyer who is representing the accused, is quoted as saying it’s “easy” for someone to get arrested on rape charges in the Bahamas and that there is “an appallingly high acquittal rate” for rapes.
The Herald described this as an “arrest-first, ask-questions later policy” that came about because a U.S. ambassador complained that the police were not taking rape charges seriously.
Munroe, past president of the Bahamas Bar Assn., is best known as the attorney for the estate of Anna Nicole Smith.
Justyellfire.com is a website dedicated to warning girls and young women from 11 to college age about the threat of forcible sex. It says one out of three college women “will become a victim of abuse or violence” unless an educational program is undertaken.
Anything such as alcohol that impairs judgment in sexual matters is improper, according to the site.
It is competing for a $250,000 grant from PepsiCo. To produce a “Just Yell Fire: Campus Life” film aimed at reducing campus violence. It is asking supporters to vote online or text to 192488 to PEPSI (73774).
A previous “Just Yell Fire” film became a “Million Girl Revolution” against predators and sexual assault for girls 11-19,” says the website.
It adds that it’s “now time to do it again for girls in college.”
Founder is Dallas Jessup.
FIUSM.com, the student journalism site at FIU, carried a brief item by sports director Joel Delgado on the rape charges on Dec. 27, saying it was “a developing story” and advising students to “stay tuned for further developments.”
She is a past president of the Assn. for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and has received the Wells Award of the Society of Professional Journalists.
The Columbia Scholastic Press Assn. gave her its “Joseph M. Murphy Award for Outstanding Service in 2003 in ceremonies at Columbia University.
Rosanna Fiske, chair of PR Society of America, is an associate professor at FIU. Fiske presumably could call on the other 16 members of the Society board for advice on this situation or any of the numerous crisis experts that are members of the Society.
This is also an opportunity for Kopenhaver’s department to practice journalism since so many facts are missing from this story.