Kobe Bryant makes first Eagle court appearance
EAGLE — Los Angeles Lakers superstar guard Kobe Bryant faced an Eagle County judge and a packed courtroom here Wednesday afternoon, stoically listening as his attorney waived advisement of the third-degree sexual assault charge facing him.A rather casually dressed Bryant, wearing a jacket but no tie, was quiet and subdued and quickly left the Eagle County Justice Center without comment. His attorneys also refused comment as the entourage sped off in a trio of sport utility vehicles.A preliminary hearing was set for Oct. 9, and Bryant firmly answered “No, sir,” when asked by Judge Fred Gannett if he objected to waiving his right to such a hearing within 30 days. Those were the only words Byrant uttered in a hearing that lasted less than eight minutes.Both Bryant and his attorneys have steadfastly maintained his innocence in the face of accusations that he raped a 19-year-old Eagle woman at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera June 30, but Bryant made no plea at the advisory hearing. The married 24-year-old Bryant admits he committed adultery when the two had consensual sex, but denies the rape charge.The woman, an Eagle Valley High School graduate and now a student at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, was working as a concierge at the upscale resort near Edwards at the time of the alleged assault.Bryant was arrested July 4, and the single charge of sexual assault, which carries a potential jail sentence of between four and 40 years, was filed by the district attorney’s office on July 18.The case has focused a white-hot spotlight of national media attention on Eagle County, particularly on the old ranching town of Eagle, 35 miles to the west of the posh and more media-savvy ski resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek.Hundreds of journalists flocked to the courthouse Wednesday, though many have been camped out for weeks, filling tents with portable TV studios in a lot across from the courthouse and adding to the circus-like atmosphere.When Bryant arrived by SUV shortly before 4 p.m., MST, after jetting into the Eagle County Airport aboard a private plane, onlookers, some carrying signs such as “Need tickets” and “Kobe is innocent” cheered their hoops hero.Gawkers seemed to outnumber the press as the moment of Bryant’s arrival neared. Jessica Willenborg, who claims she graduated in the same class as the alleged victim, showed up in a Lakers’ No. 8 jersey emblazoned with “Kobe’s Innocent” and her car decorated with purple-and-gold balloons and pro-Kobe slogans.”I don’t think she’s a bad person; I’m just standing behind Kobe,” said Willenborg, a Gypsum resident. “She’s a very, very nice girl and I’m not going to call her names and say that she’s easy or whatever everybody else is saying. But I think it’s fabricated; I don’t believe her.”Never has a story so thoroughly exposed the character of Eagle County, where the multi-million-dollar trophy homes of celebrities and captains of industry dot the scenic ridgelines and densely packed trailer parks crammed with resort workers crowd the valley floor.The case, pitting the word of white woman against that of black mega-star, has also set this predominantly white mountain enclave on edge. Residents have reacted with emotions ranging from outrage to saddened disbelief at being labeled on a national stage as a racist community.”My personal opinion is, no, this I not a racist community,” said Robert Aikens, an African American who manages Verbatim Booksellers in Vail. “You definitely have ignorant people no matter where you are in this country. But I found more racism when I was in Longbeach (Calif.) than I’ve have found here.”According to the 2000 Census, blacks make up .3 percent of the county’s population, with 142 compared to 35,558 whites or 85.4 percent. Hispanics constitute 23.2 percent of the population, with 9,682 residents. The discrepancy in percentages is the result of Hispanics being able to also register as white.James Johnson, the county’s first and only black commissioner, scoffed at the idea of Eagle County as a racist community. Johnson was elected to two terms, but moved to Louisville, Ky., three years ago to be closer to his family. He said he experienced less than a dozen racial incidents in the 20-plus years he lived in Eagle County.”For me, I felt very comfortable in Eagle County regardless of my race, and I think that a greater excuse for racial hatred and prejudices comes from an interacial marriage, and I never experienced that in Eagle County,” said Johnson, who is married to a white woman.But Johnson added that there may not be enough African-Americans in Eagle County for the white population to feel threatened and therefore to lash out.”For some people to exhibit their prejudice, their needs to be a critical mass of individuals, and therefore I saw greater racism directed toward the Latino population than what I felt as an African-American,” Johnson said.But Debbie Marquez, co-owner of Fiesta’s Mexican restaurant in Edwards and a self-described “fourth- or fifth-generation” Mexican-American, said she does not find Eagle County to be a particularly racially charged place either.”We have our bubbas in this county,” Marquez said. “We have our share of racial bias from the occasional letter to the editor or Tipsline (an anonymous call-in column in another local newspaper), but I think most of those come from just a few people.”Marquez thinks a fair jury could be empanelled if Bryant’s lawyers don’t seek a change of venue.”I’d like to think Eagle County would offer a fair trial, because, with the exception of the black population, we have a fairly diverse, well-educated community.”One story that’s been dredged up from Eagle County’s past, some say in an effort to portray its residents as racist, is a racial-profiling lawsuit filed against the Eagle County Sheriff’s office over traffic stops on Interstate 70. The county, at the urging of its insurance company, settled for $800,000 in 1996.Aikens said that’s old news, and not at all relevant in the Bryant case.”I used to live here back then I and I never had anyone stop me,” Aikens said. “Leave that alone; let that stay in the past.”None of the investigators working the Bryant case where part of the profiling program, according to the sheriff’s department, and former Sheriff AJ Johnson said it’s a red herring.”I had people telling me it’s only a matter of time before they bring that up and do the whole Mark Fuhrman thing,” AJ Johnson said, referring to the detective branded a racist in the O.J. Simpson trial. “It’s such a far reach that (the profiling) would carry over; it’s some attorney grandstanding almost to the point of absurdity.”Johnson was sheriff at the time the case was settled, though he fought to block the settlement. Former commissioner James Johnson said he urged the county to settle because it would be cheaper in the long run than fighting it in court.AJ Johnson said the Bryant lawyers should be very careful in playing the race card.”I think it would be a card they would not want to pull, because I think it hurts the case all around because it has nothing to do with it,” AJ Johnson said. “You had two human beings in a situation and race had nothing to do with it.”Sienna LaRene, a criminal defense attorney for 20 years in Detroit before starting an immigration law practice in Edwards, said Bryant can get a fair trial.”Based on my knowledge of this community and my involvement in the trial system in Eagle County, I would find it very difficult to believe they would not be able empanel a fair jury,” LaRene said.