UPDATE: Late Thursday evening, Attorney Thomas Eoannou abruptly called a press conference. He said his firm had spoken with the district attorney and continued to do its own investigation into the paper bag that was purported to have contained the rape kit. Based on new information he had received about the alleged victim’s mother’s acquisition of the evidence, Eoannou said that he felt “misrepresentations were made to me” and announced that “because I no longer have confidence in the story given to me, I’m withdrawing from the case.”
Shortly after noon on a sunny Wednesday in downtown Buffalo, a collection of reporters and cameramen milled around in front of a white French Renaissance Revival building, speculating idly about why they were there. A few stood near a sign identifying the place as Cornell Mansion — built in the late 19th century for a lead baron “reported to be the best-looking gentleman in the City of Buffalo” — while others sat beneath a statue of Lady Justice, with her scales and her double-edged sword reminding visitors that law offices now lived inside.
What did criminal attorney Tom Eoannou, who the night before had called for this press conference, want to announce? In early August, Eoannou’s client, a 21-year-old woman, had been out on a Saturday night just a few blocks away at the rooftop dance club SkyBar, up above a ground-level Irish pub called D’Arcy McGee’s. Buffalo-area native Patrick Kane, who was planning to bring the Stanley Cup to the venue a few nights later to celebrate his third championship in six seasons, wound up there too.
Later, both of them, along with a couple of their friends, reportedly left to go hang out late night at Kane’s lakefront home, everyone chauffeured there by an off-duty local cop who has been employed by the Chicago Blackhawks star for the past five years. The number of people who know what happened next can be counted on one hand. By the time the sun rose, Eoannou’s client had turned up at an area hospital to submit samples and evidence for a rape kit. Kane has since been investigated for, though not charged with, a crime.
Some of the people loitering outside the Cornell Mansion — a mix of sports, crime, and local news reporters — suggested that there was an outside chance Eoannou might be announcing an end to the investigation. Over the last few days, there had been leaked reports that Kane’s DNA had been found on the accuser’s shoulder and beneath her fingernails, but nowhere below her waist. Others felt it more likely that he wanted to publicly denounce these leaks, to accuse his opponents of dirty dealings through the media.
The press was let into a conference room that seemed to have been hastily thrown together by a set designer for a legal TV drama, all dark wood, gilded ceilings, and lots and lots of glass: a glass light fixture hanging from a gold chain, stained glass above the door, glass-front bookshelves holding volumes of West’s McKinney’s Forms, double old-fashioned glasses etched with “Crown Royal” next to a water pitcher. TV crews fiddled with their connections; photographers snapped test shots. “Who’s gonna tweet for us?” someone asked a colleague. “Does he know how to tweet?”
A woman with the law firm came in and handed a stack of glossy blown-up photos to a reporter in shirtsleeves, telling him to pass them around. He peered at them through his reading glasses. “They’re pictures of … paper bags,” he said, as others scrambled to look. “Are these evidence bags?” someone asked, and the woman nodded. People took pictures of them and tried to make sense of what they meant.
Eoannou walked in, sat down, and delivered prepared remarks. He sounded calm but pissed. “It was never my intention to comment or try this case in the media,” he began. “However, during the course of this investigation, multiple leaks to the media have occurred … [they] have all been troublesome, to say the least.”
So that was it: He was here to shake his head at the other side, to take the next logical step in a battle that has so far played out not only publicly, but with a grim predictability. First had come the accusations, then the dissection of their worth. Next came the interviews with peripheral characters advancing disparate agendas. After that, the leaks. Now this would be the condemnation. But then he kept speaking:
“We have encountered a far more troublesome situation,” he said. “This concerns the integrity of that evidence. Yesterday the rape kit evidence bag was anonymously delivered to the home of my client’s mother.”
The room was filled with camera shutter clicks and flashes as he held up a clear Ziploc containing a crumpled, ripped, and empty paper bag, one about the size you’d get at a grocery store. Even the unflappable crime reporters sitting in their reserved leather chairs appeared caught off-guard.
“In my 30-years-plus of being both a prosecutor and a defense attorney,” he said, “I have never seen an evidence bag outside a police lab, a prosecutor’s office, or a courtroom — let alone find one in the doorway of a rape victim’s mother’s home.” He explained that the bag was empty, but that his team had determined — based on identifying labels, discussions with hospital workers, and consultations with former district attorneys — that it had once held the results of the rape kit administered to his client. This was something that was supposed to have remained intact, he said, with a clear paper trail denoting its chain of custody. Its very presence in this room today, therefore, brought into question the sanctity of the physical evidence that had been collected and preserved within.
Eoannou painted an almost cinematic picture: The bag, folded several times, had been left wedged between the house’s storm door and its front door. It was discovered when the accuser’s mother came home for lunch on Tuesday afternoon. He thanked the person who had left it there.
“I’m sorry, you’d like to thank them for doing this?” someone interjected.
Yes, and also to ask them to please come forward, Eoannou replied.
As with everything that has unfolded here in Buffalo and in the nearby town of Hamburg since August 1, there are multiple prisms through which to view each piece of information, and Eoannou’s implication — that a “good Samaritan” dropped off the bag to alert the accuser’s family that something shady might be happening behind the scenes — is just one possible conclusion to be drawn from an action open to wild interpretation. And it’s just the latest twist in an inquiry that has transfixed and disturbed a city, a community, and an entire sport.
Over the past weeks, dueling developments have ricocheted back and forth through the press, each one proving both everything and nothing, depending on whom you ask. First, the SkyBar owner, Mark Croce, told the Buffalo News that a woman had hovered near and hung “all over” Kane that night — “I noticed it and kind of laughed about it,” he said. His comments were variously interpreted as gross victim-shaming, as opportunistic kissing-up to a valuable customer — and as she-wanted-it evidence that Kane couldn’t have done anything wrong. Friends of the accuser would later counter that she was not even the same woman Croce described.
It was pointed out that in 2009, after bar-hopping around the same neighborhood where SkyBar is located, Kane was arrested after police said he punched a cab driver over a dispute about spare change. We were reminded that in 2012, he passed out at a Wisconsin bar while wearing a shirt with his own inebriated image printed on it. To some, this indicated a history of drunken, even violent behavior. To others, it just painted him as a vulnerable target.
A grand jury was scheduled, then indefinitely postponed. Many NHL fans were outraged when Kane showed up to Blackhawks training camp as usual and then sat alongside his coach, general manager, and team president for an uncomfortable press conference in which he repeated the line “I appreciate the question” again and again — though he didn’t appreciate them enough to answer them, apparently. Others argued that sidelining him would set a really tricky precedent: He had not been charged with anything, so why shouldn’t he be allowed to play?
This is a particularly high-profile situation, to be sure; most rape and sexual assault cases aren’t reported on the daily news. But early on, the arguments and prejudices and frustrations and privileges and details involved are ones that have grown depressingly familiar. Lots of alcohol. Statistics about the tiny percentages of falsely reported rapes countered with examples of the highly publicized occasions in which rapes have been falsely reported. Ever-evolving understandings about consent and about what constitutes a criminal offense. (“I came to understand that what passed for a ‘bad hookup’ when I was in college is today what we would rightly call rape,” Sarah Ellison wrote in a Vanity Fair article about the recent UVa. debacle.)
When Eoannou held up that brown paper bag, though, what was once an almost rote, if awfully dismal, investigation blew up into an unsettling and beastly Rorschach print.
What did it all mean? Who was involved? It could be, as Eoannou suggested, a whistle-blower concerned with mishandling of evidence, sure. Or it could be quite the opposite: an attempt at intimidation, a sort of you don’t wanna know what will show up at your doorstep next. It is impossible not to conjure a mental image — multiple mental images — of the person creeping up to a suburban Buffalo set of front doors, opening one of them, and making the drop. It’s hard not to extrapolate all kinds of things from there. Then you stop yourself: This isn’t Gone Girl or a John Grisham novel or Law & Order, this is real people’s unraveling lives.
Eoannou’s press conference was not the whole of yesterday’s developments but just the start. The conflicting stories started stacking up, turning a he-said, she-said into a he-said, he-said, he-said. First, Patrick Kane’s lawyer Paul Cambria called a hastily assembled meeting of his own.
“First of all, the victim has not been determined in this case, yet,” he said. “I think my client’s a victim of this case.” Sitting in front of a bookshelf holding a conspicuous commemorative 40th-anniversary Hustler mug — Cambria has famously represented Larry Flynt — the attorney (who recently argued with folks on Facebook about the case) was brash in his remarks. Responding to Eoannou’s comment that “if you’re looking for a surefire way to scuttle the prosecution, you may tamper with the evidence,” Cambria said: “To me, if you don’t like the results, then you start the smoke.” While Eoannou had called this week’s DNA leaks “a classic example of why rape victims don’t come forward” and deemed it “the worst case of victim-blaming I’ve ever seen,” Cambria reiterated that a “mixture” of DNA not belonging to Kane was found on the accuser and characterized this not as victim bashing — but as just the facts.
During his earlier press conference, Eoannou had shot down questions about the potential for a monetary settlement, saying that he’s never been a part of one and that he’s the last person in town the accuser would hire if that’s what she were after. Cambria openly mused about whether Eoannou’s aggressive announcement had been prudent. “It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out and whether it’s a tremendous backfire,” he said.
By the end of the day, everything grew murkier. Both the Hamburg Police Department and Erie County Central Police Services released statements insisting that the rape kit had been collected, stored, and transported in an “unassailable” manner, and that what they consider to be the original evidence bag remains in the possession of law enforcement. (Eoannou has not backed down on his allegation that the bag delivered to his client’s mother’s home is authentic.) Erie County’s district attorney announced an investigation into everyone’s confounding stories.
Everywhere I went in Buffalo yesterday — the bar for lunch, the cab to get back to my hotel, even the hotel’s front desk — people were chatting about the day’s events. Some had stories about encounters they’d had over the years with Kane himself; others had loud theories about the fragile psyches of women generally. Nearly all eventually defaulted to one of two safe, true-but-meaningless assessments of what’s going on: “It’s just so weird” and “It’s such a shame.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said that the crazy day had no effect on Kane’s status from the league’s standpoint. Kane didn’t travel with the Blackhawks to Detroit, but that wasn’t unusual: During preseason, not every player dresses for every game. He has been cheered throughout Chicago’s public training camp. This is not going away anytime soon. The NHL will start its season with its biggest American star on its most successful franchise in the epicenter of a story whose reverberations grow stronger and more destructive by the day.
“It’s a circus sideshow,” you keep hearing, but it has become more like a depressing carnival ride. The nauseating ups and downs and upside-downs. The ominous loopiness and shady operators. The getting off, newly disoriented, right back at the same dirty, dingy place where you just got on.
This post has been updated to remove an erroneous reference to Slava Voynov’s suspension by the NHL, which occurred after his arrest on domestic violence charges.