This is a story about a famous quarterback's courtship of a 17-year-old girl and the girl's conflicting emotions about fame. No one committed any crimes, as far as we know. It's perfectly legal for the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez to date a 17-year-old girl. He can do it in Manhattan. He can do it at his home on a North Jersey golf course. She's legal. This story has stormy nights and 2 a.m. text messages and cute photographs and mean professional gossips and very angry lawyers, which is to say it's a story about love.
The girl — the "E.K." of attorney Richard Kendall's letter to us — first reached out to writer Barry Petchesky three weeks ago. Her email:
A threatening email was sent to me from someone by the name [name redacted] who claims to be doing research for you, it regards Mark Sanchez picking up a girl in a club around new years. The tip was originally sent from a [name redacted]. If you could explain what is going on here I would greatly appreciate it because so far I am being threatened w media exposure regarding false accusations and slander.
For the record, we weren't working on any story and do not know who [name redacted] is.
E.K, fearful of the potential backlash and tabloid infamy that might ensue, decided it would be best to tell her version of the story so there would be no misunderstandings. We spoke on the phone soon after, and here's what she told me: This New Year's Eve, E.K. and some of her friends were at the Manhattan nightclub Lavo, doing whatever underage girls do at Manhattan nightclubs on New Year's Eve. As noted in this New York Post item, Sanchez made a cameo there, along with tight end Dustin Keller. He was there long enough to chat up our young protagonist. E.K. told me that Sanchez sidled up to her, and the two talked for a while. She gave him her BlackBerry number and flirted a bit. "You know I'm 17, right?" she remembers saying. Sanchez kept his cool. "Well, we can still talk, but I can't see you until you're 18," he said. "Actually," E.K. replied, "17 is legal in New York." Poise all around.
Not long after, Sanchez reached out to our E.K. She, of course, went all-caps-teenybopper on Facebook when he came a-courtin'. Click the image to enlarge.
After they connected again, E.K. said Sanchez provided her and her friend with tickets to the Bills-Jets regular-season finale. Sanchez played only briefly that game but that was inconsequential to E.K. They set up a date for later that week. They had a lovely dinner at Nobu in Midtown; they talked; she was impressed, she told me several times, at how "genuine" a person the Sanchize was. "Even though," she said, "he's a really popular, good-looking quarterback."
And then came the somewhat-awkward moment when I asked E.K. if she hooked up with him.
"Yeah," she said, somewhat reluctantly. "We went back to his place in Jersey after dinner. He lives on a golf course. There was a big storm."
Thundersnow, I suspect. I told her I'd make sure it's legal in Jersey for a girl her age to hook up with a 24-year-old man.
"It is. It's 16," she said. "I checked."
"He's a really nice guy, you know?" E.K. went on. Was she smitten?
"I can say that he's one of the kindest people, and he's a genuine person," she said. "I know he's a guy, whatever, like, it's not that. Not that it matters to me at all."
"It scares me a little bit," she allowed.
Mark texted her from time to time. "He would send me a text at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday asking if I was out that night," she said, "but I'd be like, I have school tomorrow." High school.
E.K. said she didn't want this to end up to be an Ashton Kutcher situation. I wasn't familiar with the Ashton Kutcher situation.
"You know, that girl who said all those things about an affair she had with him or whatever."
"I don't want that image."
I asked her the last time Mark had reached out to her. She said he texted her around 2 a.m. on Jan. 24, a Monday. He'd just gotten back in town from Pittsburgh, where the Jets had lost in the AFC Championship game. He wanted to know if she was going out. She was not.
Legal romances blossom all the time between young adult males and high school girls. Take Kobe Bryant and his wife, Vanessa. Or Jerry Seinfeld's romance with Shoshanna Lonstein when she was in high school. There's nothing inherently wrong with a man falling headlong into a teenage girl's arms so long as the girl and state law consent to it. That said, when you embark on a romance with a very popular quarterback, your life becomes more fraught than usual at 17. E.K. knows this. She's familiar with upper-crust New York. How to get there. How to stay there. Most people who end up in the background of a Patrick McMullan party photo do. And for a while, she was OK with her story getting out. She just didn't want to be the one talking about it. She didn't want to jeopardize her budding relationship with Mark. Her biggest concern, it seemed, was what photograph we might use. She didn't want us to use the one you see up top, the one in which she's smoking a cigarette. It'd look bad, E.K. felt.
In any case, we were moving forward. She emailed us to say she was torn, but to let her know if we were running a story and to please keep her out of it.
I was still skeptical. Was it possible for her to share some of the text messages she exchanged with Mark? Or was there any way she could prove her tale outside of her Facebook status?
She sent along a cell phone number with a 949 area code — Southern California. She claimed that was the one from which Mark would BBM her. (We tried it. No one picked up.)
Then, she sent along this message:
Well, maybe she knows his maid?
At this point, E.K. was OK with the story, just so long as it was clear it didn't come from her. That would be bad for her and bad for the Jets and bad for Mark and bad for the rest of her life.
Why? She wrote:
Well I'm still "close" w mark and he knows about you so jets pr was like here how's you handle it, I don't want to betray him but I don't want to let him play me like this, if this comes out like I technically sold this then I can risk any jobs or college in the future. They may not want me if I "sold" the story. So publish what you no and ill just be like it was a deceitful friend of mine. You no? So my future isn't ruined but mark doesn't get everything. He is a genuine person but not necessarily good to women. You know?
And then again:
I just am in contact 24/7 w the jets and mark so I can't officially betray them, but you know?
She didn't sell us the story. We never offered to buy it. We wanted to hear her side of it because, well, it's kind of fascinating to know how romance blossoms just this side of the law. I wanted to talk to E.K. again, to find out more information and to see what the status of her relationship with Mark Sanchez was before we published anything.
Late last week, however, she turned:
E.K.: "There's no story, if you print about me I'm 17 ill sue"
Me: "Sue for what?"
E.K.: "Someone has my email, I don't know what messages you have received but I have no part in those, I'm 100% against this. Go away."
E.K.: "You can't print my name, I'm under 18, you need consent"
[Name redacted], you're making this stuff up now.
And, no, we won't use your name. But this is a story, and this is a bigger problem than you think it is. The bottom line is, you talked to me, you talked to me on the record. You then went back on that. Then you went back on again but told me to say a "friend betrayed you". If you want to go through the entire process of where the legal lines are here, I'd be more than happy to go over them with you. But the reality is, this is a story.
Like I said, we don't have to use your name. But this story is going to run. I'd like more cooperation from you but it's not going to change the fact that this story is in the process of being done.
I'm not trying to ruin your life, I'm trying to do my job. If you'd been a little more upfront with me from the get-go, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead, we've had several which were ones that I told you I was going to use for this story.
Just think about it. I'll let you know where we are on Monday, but this is running on Tuesday.
The next person I heard from, a few hours later, was Richard Kendall, that nice attorney from California, concerned on behalf of his client from Connecticut about the story we were running about her night out in New York. Kendall, proud USC Trojan (Gould School of Law, class of '79), believes that our publishing a story about a legal relationship would both be defamatory and constitute an "unlawful publication of private facts," even though his client, E.K., had given us her explicit cooperation several times. It's kind of odd. But then, so is love. You know?