Department 25 in the North County Division of San Diego Superior Court sits at the end of a third-floor hallway, sheltered from most of the building’s swirling traffic of criminal and civil cases.
One recent morning, giggling kids wrapped in clothes hand-picked for a special day shattered the relative calm. Hugs, photos and court-furnished teddy bears punctuated an adoption hearing rushing to a heartwarming close.
Then in a blink, the courtroom ushered out the new families – along with the smiles.
The room plunged into disturbing darkness amid graphic, grisly testimony about alleged rapes and kidnappings involving women ages 54 and 59 and misdemeanor charges related to three others.
At the surprising center of the controversy was a 10-year NFL veteran with one of the most famous names in football. Kellen Winslow II watched without emotion as his wife, mother and namesake Hall of Fame father endured the avalanche of alarming details while questions lingered in the transformed room.
At the end of his two-day preliminary hearing, a Vista judge ordered Winslow, 35, to stand trial on six felony kidnapping and sexual assault charges, one misdemeanor count of indecent exposure and two misdemeanor counts of trespassing.
That same day, prosecutors filed a new charge, this one alleging he raped an unconscious 17-year-old girl in 2003. He has pleaded not guilty. Winslow’s attorneys, Brian Watkins and Harvey Steinberg, did not respond to requests for comment.
How did someone with seemingly limitless athletic ability and the type of privilege undoubtedly afforded to the son of a Chargers legend end up here? Why was the man who became a Pro Bowl player with the Cleveland Browns and reportedly earned about $43 million facing the possibility of life in prison? How had he come to this moment where he had admitted to investigators that he engaged in consensual extramarital sex with transient women, according to court documents filed by Winslow’s attorneys.
Answers remain as difficult to tackle as Winslow the player, who bloomed into a Mackey Award winner as college football’s best tight end at the University of Miami and piled up 5,236 yards and 25 touchdowns as a pro.
The Union-Tribune reviewed more than 300 pages of court documents, canvassing records in San Diego and Orange counties, as well as Ohio, New Jersey and Florida. Research included interview requests of people ranging from immediate family to high school, college and NFL coaches.
A picture emerged of a supremely talented, brash and some say misunderstood athlete who sometimes encountered nearly as much trouble as success.
The spotlight, always near when he wore shoulder pads, shifted to a criminal case in June. At the preliminary hearing, a USA Today reporter sat in a courtroom as Winslow defended his innocence. TMZ requested courtroom access. Another former NFL All-Pro, Oceanside’s Willie Buchanon, attended the arraignment to support Winslow’s famous father.
Once cocky and confident and gifted, Winslow – a San Diego native – finds himself in a dramatic run toward an uncertain finish as the sports world finds itself watching – again.
“He had everything in the world going for him,” said former Mission Bay High football coach Dennis Pugh, who game-planned against Winslow in high school. “So what’s all this about? It’s bizarre.”
Alleged attacker: ‘I will murder you’
Harvey Steinberg, a high-profile lawyer from Colorado and co-counsel for Winslow, has built a reputation for successfully representing athletes and sports executives. A headline on a prominent national publication’s website trumpeted Steinberg as, the “man sports figures call when in trouble.”
Those successfully defended by Steinberg include NFL names like Bill Romanowski, Travis Henry and Brandon Marshall. Steinberg fashioned an acquittal on sexual assault charges in 2012 for six-year defensive back Perrish Cox, despite DNA evidence that linked him to an accuser.
In court last month, a 58-year-old homeless woman referred to as Jane Doe 2 explained how she met someone named “Kevin” over the course of several months. One day last May, she testified, the man asked if she needed anything and offered to drive her somewhere for coffee.
Jane Doe 2 explained that she voluntarily climbed into the vehicle of the tattooed acquaintance. The description of the driver’s tattoos and type of vehicle matched Winslow and his Hummer. When the driver made an abrupt U-turn on a dark, lightly-traveled road, the woman described a building dread: “That’s when I knew I was in trouble.”
The woman claimed in court she “thought I was dead” while being choked during the assault, saying the man told her, “If you tell anyone, I will murder you.” She then said she was sodomized.
Steinberg mined the account for inconsistencies until the woman’s voice spiked in the most dramatic moment of the two-day hearing.
“What does that have to do with rape, sir?” she said. “What does that have to do with rape? I’m the victim.”
Moments later, the woman added: “Saying yes to coffee isn’t saying yes to rape.”
The Union-Tribune does not identify victims of sex-related crimes unless the individuals choose to be named.
Three of the victims were unable to identify Winslow in the courtroom. One of the women, a rape victim labeled Jane Doe 1, framed her attack in stark terms: “I’ve never had any pain like that in my life, ever. I couldn’t believe the pain.”
When the woman was asked, however, to identify Winslow in court, she pointed to one of his attorneys. Testimony suggested, though, that Winslow’s appearance in court – clean shaven with a different haircut and glasses – was much different during the time frame of the crimes.
Jane Doe 1 also referred to death threats from the attacker, saying, “He goes ‘I’m going to (expletive) you or I’m going to kill you.’ “ The woman then identified the vehicle brand as a 2-door Jeep, rather than Winslow’s 4-door Hummer.
Testing found DNA from four people on her clothing, including, what a defense motion described, was “likely” the accuser’s and Winslow’s. Defense attorneys questioned how clothes the woman said had been washed could constitute reliable evidence. Judge Harry Elias hinted that the evidence will play a role in the trial, however, when he answered back, “(DNA) is a sturdy little genetic device that has lasted for eons.”
Another woman, Jane Doe 3, testified that a man in bicycle clothing approached her while she was gardening on May 24, near Winslow’s home. She said the man, who identified himself as David, asked if she was married before exposing his erect penis. A Union-Tribune review of Winslow’s verified account on a fitness app showed he was on the same street that day.
The complex tangle of evidence in the case includes the same woman being unable to identify Winslow and describing the height of the man she encountered as much shorter.
In June, a woman told police she spotted a man matching Winslow’s description enter a neighbor’s residence in a mobile home park. The 86-year-old woman who lived there was asleep at the time and her husband was walking their dog. The neighbor estimated the man was at the site for less than 10 minutes.
Steinberg capped the two-day hearing by promising the trial will be “hotly contested.”
Attorney: ‘I wasn’t rooting for Miami’
Back in 2001, the sound of Winslow’s foot cratering part of Omed Habib’s face could be heard “from over 100 feet away” according to Habib’s civil lawsuit against Winslow. Injuries included fractures around the eye socket and nose, a broken jaw, several loosened teeth and damage to an optical nerve.
What started as a fight between another pair of Scripps Ranch High students on May 2, 2001, at Jerabek Park ended with the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Winslow – a receiving star signed to a scholarship at Miami, who also punted for Scripps – using a striding start to kick the 150-pound Habib while the student was hunched on hands and knees, according to depositions of witnesses contained in the lawsuit.
Habib, who multiple witnesses said attempted to break up the fight, became entangled with Winslow. Some accounts indicate Habib punched Winslow. Others allege he accidentally made contact with him as Winslow ripped him off the pile of bodies. What’s not disputed: Habib, choked nearly unconscious by Winslow, fell to the ground as he labored to regain his breath.
Attorney Fred Schenk, Habib’s attorney, wrote in records filed at the time that initial medical expenses approached $120,000. Schenk, contacted this week, said Habib lost some vision, his mouth was wired shut for several weeks and he was temporarily forced to eat through a straw.
The $3 million civil suit eventually was settled. Details remain unavailable due to a confidentiality agreement.
“I can’t talk about the settlement, other than to say I wasn’t the one who asked for confidentiality,” Schenk said.
As news of Winslow’s legal trouble mounted, Schenk thought about his former client.
“I was just waiting for this call,” Schenk said. “I assumed someone would dig a little deeper and find that case. All I can say is, I wasn’t rooting for the University of Miami the following season.”
Sergio Diaz, Winslow’s former football coach at Scripps, described a far different person than the one portrayed in court cases.
“We had a good coach-player relationship,” Diaz said. “He was a very coachable person, a very coachable kid. His football IQ was probably the highest I’ve ever seen and I’ve been coaching for 22 years. As the old saying goes, he was a man among boys. He was head and shoulders above any other kid on the field.
“Probably the only time he was outshined in a game was against (eventual Heisman Trophy winner) Reggie Bush and Helix in the playoffs.”
That insatiable drive fueled assumptions, Diaz contended.
“There’s a moment when we played against Hoover High School,” Diaz recalled. “They had a really good running back. During pregame introductions, he called the kid out, ‘Me and you man!’ They beat us. He went up and shook the kid’s hand and gave him a hug and said, ‘You’re a great player.’ That stuck out to me.”
When things turned fiery on the sideline, Diaz said those scenes lacked context.
“There were times he’d come off the field hot-headed and he’d come up to me,” he said. “It might have looked heated, but he was pumped up. He was never disrespectful to me. He never didn’t listen or put me down. It was always heat-of-battle stuff.
“He’d hug me at games and say, ‘You know I love you, right?’ “
Dennis Ackerman, California Interscholastic Federation commissioner at the time Winslow attended Scripps, said any key disciplinary situations would have crossed his desk: “I don’t remember any issues about him at all.”
Diaz also shared the story of Winslow hearing that his former team needed uniforms.
“It was like, ‘What do you need coach?’ “ Diaz said. “I said, ‘We need uniforms tomorrow.’ He said, ‘You got it.’ No hesitation. I think it was in the neighborhood of $9,000.”
Larry Coker coached Miami to the national title in 2001, during Winslow’s freshman season. He recoiled at the news of the former star’s legal dilemma.
“Oh, wow,” Coker said by telephone, when told of Winslow’s legal jeopardy. “That’s tragic.”
Coker declined additional comment, “out of respect for the family.”
At one point, Winslow appeared headed to the University of Washington. A rift between father and son about the decision, including the racial makeup of the football staff, created heated arguments. Winslow Sr. even refused to sign his son’s letter of intent to play for the Huskies, according to ESPN.com.
Rick Neuheisel, Washington’s coach at the time who a Scripps official said was warned about Winslow’s “baggage” during a school visit, declined to discuss the topic through a contact at his previous employer CBS Sports.
Kellen Winslow Sr. and his son’s mother, Katrina Ramsey, each declined to comment for this story.
Winslow eventually became the No. 6 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, signing the biggest rookie deal ever for a tight end. He later inked a six-year contract with the Buccaneers that was the richest for the position in history.
As a college player at Miami, Winslow told The Associated Press, “I think sometimes I’m misunderstood.” While a member of the Browns, he acknowledged he continued to struggle with maturity and decision-making.
“I’ve been working on being humble,” he said.
Claims of damage, extortion, exposure swirl
The 35-year-old Winslow has found himself on both sides of civil cases, as well.
In 2012, the owners of a $9,000-per-month home rental in Rancho Santa Fe claimed Winslow caused more than $144,000 in damage to the furnished dwelling. There were cigarette and cigar burns throughout the home, owners contended, along with carpeting and antique Persian rugs “stained with dog urine and also littered with dog feces. ... The house was overpowered with a putrid stench of animal waste.”
Watkins, Winslow’s attorney in that suit, called the claim bogus at the time in an interview with the Union-Tribune and added: “It’s a shakedown of a professional athlete.” The attorney who represented the homeowners told the Union-Tribune that the lawsuit was settled.
In 2008, an acquaintance of Winslow from Ohio and others allegedly attempted to extort $5 million from him while he played in the NFL. The man, according to a lawsuit Winslow filed, threatened to sully his reputation and damage potential earnings. Winslow alleged in the lawsuit that the man who threatened him, Cleveland Scruggs, also traveled to Las Vegas “to party,” using Winslow’s name to secure food and lodging at the Palms Casino Resort.
The suit was dismissed in 2009.
Long-time Morse High football coach John Shacklett called Winslow a tremendous athlete with a reputation “as a problem child up there at different times.”
In 2013, a 58-year-old woman accused Winslow of masturbating in his vehicle in the parking lot of a Target store in New Jersey. Winslow was playing for the New York Jets at the time. Police found two jars of Vaseline, but the only charges – later dropped – were for possession of synthetic marijuana. The incident drew national notice, including popular TV personality Charles Barkley making fun of Winslow without naming him on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.”
Unraveling more about who Winslow is begins this month. Winslow will appear for a preliminary hearing Aug. 17 on the freshest charge involving the unconscious teenager. Winslow was 19 at the time of that allegation.
As the most recent court proceedings came to a close, Judge Elias imposed a $2 million bond and required constant GPS monitoring. Attorneys also surrendered Winslow’s passport in court.
The self-assured football player who once dubbed himself “The Chosen One” while vowing to eclipse his father’s legendary career now seems jarringly mortal and muted. Many still perceive Winslow to be the combustible player who once proclaimed after a Miami loss to Tennessee that the game is “war” and, “They’re out there to kill you, so I’m out there to kill them. ... I’m a (expletive) soldier.”
Many see the years of smoke and wonder if there’s fire.
Diaz, whose father has worked as a Los Angeles County judge, cautioned that his unique upbringing taught him to let the legal process breathe.
“You never know the whole story,” he said. “I’ll wait to make a decision and a judgment once the courts have had a chance to hear everything.”