Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times was the first reporter to contact the Tallahassee Police Department to inquire about case No. 12-32758. He was acting on a tip he got back on Nov. 6 from a trusted source, who told Baker that a woman had brought some sort of sexual abuse complaint to police last December, and that even though no arrest has been made, Baker would have good reason to look into it. No. 12-32758 is the file number the Tallahassee police assigned to the case, which had not yet been made public. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has since been identified in numerous reports as a possible suspect.
Baker is a sports reporter for the Times, which covers FSU football but doesn't have anyone on the Seminoles beat full-time. He chips in on FSU coverage, and while he had no idea whether his source's info would check out, he did his job and looked into it.
"I cover sports," Baker told me over the phone today. "I wouldn't have pursued it if it was just Joe College Student from Florida State."
Baker wouldn't reveal much about his source, and I didn't expect him to. But when asked about the timing of all this—nearly a year after the woman filed a complaint, with Florida State unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the country, with Winston having emerged as a surefire Heisman Trophy candidate—Baker did say this, repeating it more than once for emphasis: "My source has no axe to grind against Florida State. And neither do I."
TMZ got credit on Wednesday for breaking the story about the ongoing open investigation involving Winston, who has not been charged with any crime. But while TMZ first reached out to Tallahassee cops on Monday, a public records request reveals that was several days after Baker had begun looking into it.
So how did we get here? Why is all of this coming up now, a full 11 months after the victim in the case filed her complaint with police? Speculation is rampant. In Florida, the state attorney's office must determine whether to file charges, and state attorney Willie Meggs told the Miami Herald his office only got the case from police on Wednesday. Were the cops only now acting on it because a reporter like Baker began sniffing around? Or were the cops recently given more information—physical evidence, a victim's statement, an eyewitness account—that caused them to take the case off the back burner? In a phone conversation this morning, Officer David Northway, the Tallahassee PD's public information officer, declined to discuss specifics. He did, though, use a hypothetical—about an armed robbery victim who might be reluctant to talk to police, or might be so traumatized in the immediate aftermath to recall certain details—to strongly suggest it was something like the latter.
It's fair to ask whether the story started circulating because an interested party, knowing that new information had come in, wanted to make sure that an idle case didn't remain idle. Until more details from the investigation are made public, pretty much anything's on the table.
After hearing from his source, Baker told me, he initially contacted Florida State University police. He was told that because the incident happened off-campus, the case was being handled by the Tallahassee PD. Baker told me he called the Tallahassee cops on Nov. 6 and got no response. Same thing the following day. By Friday, Nov. 8, he finally got Scott Beck on the line. Beck is the police department's spokesman. Beck asked Baker to send along a written request for an incident report via email, which Baker did at 1:54 p.m. Friday afternoon.
The weekend passed. Baker heard nothing on Monday, and nothing again on Tuesday. At 12:59 p.m. Wednesday, he sent another email to Beck as "a friendly follow-up":
I emailed a few days ago about getting the first page (or whatever else is available) on case 12-32758. I haven't heard back from you all yet, so I just wanted to send a friendly follow up. You could email me at this address, or I can have one of my colleagues in the Tallahassee bureau pick up the document(s) if need be.
Tampa Bay Times
In the meantime, TMZ had gotten wind of the situation. Our public records request revealed that Gary Trock, a TMZ producer, sent Northway the following email on Monday at 5:46 p.m.:
Office [sic] Northway,
My name is Gary. I'm a producer at TMZ in Los Angeles—you spoke with my colleague, Dennis, this morning.
We wanted to verify a case being handled by the Tallahassee PD regarding Jameis Winston, DOB: 1/6/1994. We are told that Jameis has been named as a suspect in a sexual assault case. We would like to request any and all reports, documentation, witness testimony, or any information available regarding this case and investigation. Thank you for the help.
It is not known how TMZ learned of the case—did a law enforcement source tip them off?—and Trock declined to answer any questions from us. It's not clear what other news organizations began contacting the Tallahassee PD before the story broke in the days that followed, since some reporters may have made phone calls instead of sending emails. The Tallahassee Democrat was one outlet that was on the case, though its executive editor, Bob Gabrodi, strangely also felt the need to put on his FSU foam finger before sitting down to type this paragraph to his concerned readers:
We knew a national media outlet was working on the same story, an outlet that didn't care a whit about our community, our university, our team or the young man many of us – me included – have learned to care about, Famous Jameis Winston.
At approximately 5 p.m. on Wednesday, a few hours after Baker's last request to police, Northway, the TPD's public information officer, sent out a mass email to several outlets that included a copy of the heavily redacted police report. The email included a statement under a subject line that said "Press Release":
The Tallahassee Police Department has received several requests from local and national media for a case TPD received on December 7th, 2012, of an alleged sexual battery. The case was assigned to the Special Victims Unit. TPD is continuing its investigation. TPD is continuing its investigation and has consulted with the State Attorney as to the direction of the case. A copy of the original report is attached to this email, which has been redacted to meet the requirements of Florida Statute 119.
There was no mention that the complaint was filed against Winston. Baker was driving back from a high school football practice when the email landed in his inbox. He tried to forward Northway's statement to his editors, but his phone battery was low and he was having difficulty uploading the document. A little more than an hour later, TMZ published its story, including the detail that Winston was under investigation. The Tallahassee Democrat confirmed that information a few minutes later. All hell broke loose, with news outlets from all over contacting Tallahassee police to get a copy of the report. (As always happens with media requests like these, the email trail included correspondence from a hapless television person—in this case, Alex Yoder of WCTV—who chimed in to ask what the fuss was all about because so much of the report was redacted. You can find that email, and all the rest, at the bottom of the page.)
Baker's story went up at 7:08 p.m., roughly one hour after TMZ's. Baker said he's not that upset he didn't get the police report before everyone else. He understands that there could have been any number of reasons for police to take their time in getting it to him. Baker is also not sure if the report alone would have been enough for him to run with the story, based on the limited info he had at the time. His source had only indicated that it was something he ought to check out, though Baker declined to explain in further detail what that was. The source also would not go on the record, and the Tampa Bay Times has a policy prohibiting the use of anonymous sources with nothing to corroborate what they're saying.
"I wish I would've gotten it," Baker said, laughing, "but I also wish I had a pony or a unicorn."
[Note: We've updated the first and the penultimate paragraphs after Baker clarified the nature of the tip he had received.]