As Criminal Investigation Looms, Matt Araiza Could Face Statutory Rape Charges

UPDATE: The Buffalo Bills released Matt Araiza.

In the wake of disturbing allegations against Buffalo Bills punter Matt Araiza that were filed in a civil suit, a criminal investigation has reportedly neared completion. Araiza, who is accused of raping and then gang-raping a high school senior, “a minor,” could end up facing statutory rape charges if the District Attorney feels the evidence is strong enough. Based on the alleged facts in the civil complaint, the evidence may end up persuading prosecutors to file formal charges.

The Los Angeles Times first reported the lawsuit. To recap the complaint, Araiza and two of his former San Diego State Aztecs teammates, Zavier Leonard and Nowlin Ewaliko, were accused of gang-raping a 17-year old at an off-campus Halloween party last fall.

The lawsuit claims the teen showed up to the party drunk and was approached by Araiza who offered her a drink. She believes Araiza may have put other substances in the drink saying that she felt it “not only contained alcohol, but other intoxicating substances,” according to her complaint. She says in the suit that she allegedly told Araiza, who was 21 at the time, that she was a senior in high school.

The teen says Araiza allegedly asked her to perform oral sex in a side yard where she alleges he then had sex with her. She accuses Araiza of then taking her into a bedroom where there were allegedly at least three other men. She claims two of those men were teammates of Araiza, Leonard and Ewaliko, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges that Araiza threw her onto the bed and raped her and that she was gang raped. The suit claims she had moments of falling unconscious but, “does remember some moments from the horrific gang rape.” The complaint claims that she was not able to leave for an hour-and-a-half and left the room “bloody and crying.”

The Bills sidelined Araiza before a preseason game, calling the allegations extremely serious. Perhaps even more serious is the fact that Araiza’s accuser is a minor who reportedly went to get a rape exam and reported the alleged incident to police the next day. She also reportedly contacted detectives and, at their direction, she recorded a call with Araiza approximately a week and a half after the incident. Araiza allegedly admitted to having sex with her but then denied remembering anything, according to multiple news reports.

This swift collection of evidence is generally rare among sexual assault victims, who often are stunned, humiliated or scared and neglect to go to the hospital to collect evidence. Rape exams or rape kits prove crucial to any sexual assault case. The immediate reporting to police and hospital exams can mean the difference between a conviction or not and lead to an alleged victim being believed.

Rape examinations generally involve a collection of leftover semen from which DNA can be extracted to identify the perpetrator. DNA can also be gleaned from other sources left on an alleged victim by a perpetrator such as sweat, urine, skin cells, blood, etc. The exam also looks for bruising, cuts and scratches or any other evidence of force and penetration. Such evidence becomes critical, most notably in sexual assault and rape cases involving minors. Here is why…

While it is unclear if the accuser was in fact raped, the crime of rape is measured differently when the accuser is a minor. This is because minors cannot consent to sex with an adult. Therefore, there is never a question of whether the accuser consented. Sex with a minor is automatically rape in most jurisdictions and particularly in San Diego where Araiza is accused. Hence why it is called statutory rape. It is rape, as a matter of law, when an adult has sex with a minor. Depending on the age difference, the rape would be a misdemeanor or a felony. If there is more than a three year age difference between perp and victim, it is generally charged as a felony. In San Diego, whether to charge the crime as a felony or misdemeanor is up to the prosecutor’s discretion. It appears at least that if the alleged victim was 17 and Araiza was in fact 21 at the time, then the four-year age difference could warrant a felony charge, depending on the evidence. A felony charge could carry up to three years in jail, if there is a conviction.

If the rape exam, performed the day after the alleged sexual encounter with Araiza produces his semen or any of his DNA inside the victim, he is in trouble. If prosecutors can prove any form of penetration by him, Araiza would likely be charged with statutory rape. He could be facing a high likelihood of conviction if he is faced with direct evidence and up against the statutory laws that make sex with a minor (consensual or not), a crime.

There are a few defenses Araiza could raise, but they have a low likelihood of success in the face of such direct evidence. For one, he and the accuser were not married so that defense would not apply. If there is evidence that sexual intercourse took place, then claiming it did not would not go over well in court. The one major defense he could raise would be a claim that the teenager told him she was eighteen. However, Araiza could still be charged and convicted, if that belief is deemed to be unreasonable or the alleged victim is more credible. Texts or even Witnesses could also debunk that defense, if anyone overheard her tell Araiza she was a senior in high school or 17.

Let’s not forget that two of his teammates are also reportedly under investigation. This means prosecutors could try to turn them on one another, promising plea deals in exchange for a promise by one or more of the football players to testify against his friends or provide information.

“This was a horrific crime, the kind of which happens all too often,” attorney Dan Gilleon, who reps the accuser, said in a statement to the AP. Gilleon called the Bills enablers who are “looking the other way in denial that my client deserves justice even if the defendants are prized athletes.”

On Friday, Bills coach Sean McDermott addressed the situation following a preseason loss at Carolina.

“It’s a situation that’s extremely serious. Just hard to go through. It’s not a situation that I or we take lightly whatsoever,” he said. “I can tell you this my heart, my thoughts and prayers go out to the people involved. And that includes Matt. It includes both sides here. The victim and everyone involved.”

McDermott said the team is committed to “trying to find the truth at the end of the day.” He also said he made the decision to sideline Araiza for the preseason game because it was the right thing to do.

“The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press,” Araiza said in a statement from his agent, Joe Linta. “I look forward to quickly setting the record straight.”

Araiza’s attorney Kerry Armstrong told the AP:

“I 100% do not believe that he ever forcibly raped this girl or had sex with her while she was passed out or drunk or anything like that….It’s unfortunate that she’s filed a civil suit. I think it’s a cash grab.”

Armstrong said he was retained six weeks ago to defend against the suit and gave the Bills updates. He claims the team was aware of the allegations and investigation of Araiza before the lawsuit was filed.

“We were recently made aware of a civil complaint involving Matt from October 2021,” the Bills said in a statement. “Due to the serious nature of the complaint, we conducted a thorough examination of this matter. As this is an ongoing civil case, we will have no other comment at this point.”

“Matt Araiza’s very upset about this, as you can imagine. He’s very disappointed,” Armstrong said. “But he’s going to get his day in court eventually.”

The 22-year-old Araiza was SDSU’s star punter, setting an NCAA record with a 51.19-yard average. He won the Ray Guy Award and was a first-team AP All-American.