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Jury's Out
S.L. Price
February 12, 2001
Can Mark Chmura, acquitted of sexual assault, rebuild his reputation?
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February 12, 2001

Jury's Out

Can Mark Chmura, acquitted of sexual assault, rebuild his reputation?

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There were plenty. Early on the morning of April 9, Chmura, after a night of heavy drinking with his 43-year-old friend Bob Gessert, showed up at Gessert's house, where Gessert's 17-year-old daughter, Jamie, was hosting a postprom party. When she heard Chmura was coming, his accuser, according to court testimony, told one of her friends at the party, schoolmate Mike Kleber, that she hated Chmura, calling him "a sick f—-" and repeating a rumor that he had fathered a child by another former babysitter. Chmura walked downstairs and, according to the testimony of his accuser and of one of her friends who was at the party, said to the gathered teenagers, "You call this a party? Where are you hiding the alcohol?" There ensued a game of drinking Ping-Pong with his accuser and several other teens and a hot-tub session in which Gessert allegedly sexually assaulted another teenage girl. (Gessert, who has pleaded not guilty, faces trial on a charge of sexual assault.) According to several eyewitnesses, Chmura was drunk, red-faced, giggling.

Despite the inconsistencies in her story, Chmura's accuser, referred to in court only as Allison M., nevertheless delivered indelible responses to questions about what happened when she and Chmura were alone together in a Gessert bathroom that morning. "The point was that I'd been raped," she said under cross-examination. "I don't know how my legs got apart so he could rape me.... But they were apart because he raped me." Said one of the jurors (who requested anonymity) on Sunday, "We [jurors] all believed something happened in there. But we had no evidence to prove it." (Chmura, who never took the stand, says that once the threat of a civil suit has passed, he'll give his account of what happened in the bathroom.)

By the time Allison M. testified last week, however, the Chmura who sat in the courtroom was not the same man who'd been pitying himself just a few months before. In June, while visiting Holy Hill, a Catholic shrine in the Milwaukee area, Chmura had bumped into a priest who had worked in Chmura's tiny hometown of South Deer-field, Mass., when Chmura was a boy. Chmura took it as a sign, the first of many over the ensuing months that convinced him that the accusations were a trial God meant him to endure. He and Lynda say that they both began smelling roses—a sign among some Catholics that one is in the presence of the Virgin Mary—in church, in their bedroom; once, says Lynda, she was even awakened by the scent. Chmura went to Mass every day. During the summations at the trial, Lynda clutched a Rosary.

"I know. I hear it every time something happens to an athlete: He goes to God," Chmura says. "That's not how it is. Most people take what they want out of the Bible. It says, 'Don't get drunk'? Well, I can do it this once. That's the way I was before. I applied what I wanted to apply. But this was my wake-up call." Now, Chmura says, he's setting his feet on a different path. Where to? "Follow the roses," Chmura says.

One day in September, Chmura stood on a golf course and took it while a friend told him how wretched he looked, and something clicked inside. The next day he contracted for the construction of a $20,000 gym in his house. He wanted to play football again. "It just hit me: I'm not going to let this ruin my life," Chmura says. "I didn't do anything. Whether I play one more game or one more year or five more, I'm going out my way."

That he even has that choice now is attributable to many people, from Kleber, the Chmura-worshipping all-state lineman (who testified that he'd told Allison not to go into the bathroom but mat she'd gone in anyway, turning to smile at Kleber before she opened the door) to Boyle to Lynda, who has known Mark since the second grade and called his mother when he was arrested to assure her she wouldn't leave him. When Lynda took the stand last Friday, she testified that Mark had "never" had a baby with a babysitter, and she called their marriage as solid "as a rock." As for rumors, raised by the prosecutor, about Mark's womanizing, Lynda said, "We've dealt with these for a long time, and it's strengthened our relationship because I know the truth about my husband and love him very much."

Mark's mouth trembled as Judge Mark Gempeler read the verdict, and men he wept into his right hand. It was late and snowing when he and Lynda walked out of the courthouse and down the dim stairs. They walked side by side into the parking lot, past the 10 TV trucks, with their high antennae broadcasting the news to the world. Spotlights shone in their faces. He wore a huge camel-hair coat, and the snow dusted his hair and the tan fabric and Lynda's eyelashes. The air smelled nothing like roses. Mark closed the car door on his coat, and the mud and slush spattered onto the hem as he drove away, dirtied but free.

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