In the weeks following his arrest last April for sexual assault (Scorecard, April 24), Packers tight end Mark Chmura rarely left his suburban Milwaukee home. If he did go out, he kept his head down, a hat pulled low over sunglasses, a new goatee further obscuring his identity.
He had reason to hide. Waukesha ( Wis.) County district attorney Paul Bucher had issued an 11-page, single-spaced complaint containing lurid details of drinking and partying by the 31-year-old Chmura and his 42-year-old friend Robert Gessert in the wee hours of April 9 at Gessert's Hartland, Wis., house following a high school prom. A 17-year-old girl who had occasionally babysat Chmura's two young boys told police that Chmura had pulled her into a bathroom, locked the door, pulled down her jeans and had intercourse with her.
"I realized that you're not presumed innocent in something like this," says Chmura, who pleaded not guilty to sexual assault and child enticement. "The media even blasted my wife for sticking with me."
As Chmura sees it, there also wasn't much presumption of innocence in the Packers' front office. Eight weeks after the incident Green Bay released him, calling it a business decision. Chmura had missed all but the first two games of 1999 with a neck injury. There also was the little matter of a referendum (since passed) to finance Lambeau Field renovations. "My neck has been checked by three specialists around the country," Chmura told SI last week. "It's fine. [The Packers] claim they're such a loyal and family-driven organization, and when things were tough for me, they weren't there."
While Chmura's mere presence at the post-prom party raises serious questions about his judgment, it's also becoming apparent that the prosecution's case against him is less than airtight. The account given in a May 30 preliminary hearing by his unnamed accuser, now a college student, differs from what she told police in the hours after the party on two points: the color of the towel Chmura was supposedly wearing in the bathroom and whether Chmura had on underwear when the alleged attack began. The defense also plans to stress that a hospital exam found the girl's hymen intact and uncovered no DNA evidence from semen implicating Chmura.
Most significant for Chmura is a high school football star's eyewitness account According to several sources close to the defense, Mike Kleber, a 6'3", 280-pound lineman who has committed to Wisconsin next fall, will testify that he told the alleged victim that Chmura was in the bathroom and that she should stay out, but that she entered the bathroom anyway, smiling back at Kleber as the door closed behind her. Prosecutor Bucher disputes Kleber's account and claims it has been retracted. Bucher acknowledges that Kleber has "information about aspects of the case" but suggests that the accuser, the hospital personnel who found swelling and tenderness near the girl's genitalia, and other medical experts are "witnesses who are more important."
The trial is expected to begin in January. In the meantime Chmura has shed the sunglasses and the goatee and is regaining the 25 pounds he lost after he was charged. "I feel like I have the presumption of innocence back," he says. "People say hello, and they tell [my wife and me] they're praying for us."