One Night at Verba's

She called it rape, they said it was consensual.

Bride & Prejudice Cedar Lee Theatre
Browns offensive lineman Ross Verba is sick of the rumors and innuendo.

"You want the truth?" he asks a reporter. "I'll give you the truth. Sit down, you've got yourself an interview. I just got you promoted."

Verba is sitting in a small back room at The Cove, a popular dive in Geneva. He's so massive, it seems as if his shoulders could rub against both walls. A wide smile stretches across his face. He's with friends, listening to his favorite band and looking forward to signing a new contract worth tens of millions of dollars.

Not long ago, all this was in jeopardy. In December, a woman named Laura Thompson went to police and claimed that she had been raped by at least two men inside Verba's Strongsville home. The accused said the sex was consensual. Verba said he was upstairs the whole time. Nevertheless, his off-season was soiled by a sex scandal.

Channel 3 showed up on his doorstep to interview his housemates. Other reporters hounded neighbors. The Plain Dealer even printed a detailed map to his house.

"They want to hurt you," Verba says of the media. "They want to tear you down, because that sells."

A police investigation called Thompson's credibility into question. Witnesses contradicted her story. Even her friends said she had concocted the tale, either to pacify her boyfriend or wheedle money out of Verba. Ultimately, the prosecutor declined to file criminal charges.

But a second woman has made startlingly similar allegations, in a complaint that has yet to be decided. And even the most charitable view makes Verba's home seem like a suburban Sodom and Gomorrah.

Laura Thompson doesn't seem the sort of woman who'd be at the center of a gangbang. She's Midwest pretty, with shoulder-length brown hair framing a slightly worn face. At 39, she's a single mom of two kids and cares for her elderly mother. They live in a weather-beaten house in Rye Beach, an hour west of Cleveland.

Thompson has learned to be wary of the media. After her rape allegation came to light, several TV crews staked out her home, hoping for footage or a sound bite. So when a journalist shows up on her doorstep, she politely turns him away. "I don't have anything to say to reporters," she says, staring at the ground, then slowly closing the door.

Although Thompson's not talking, her account of what happened on December 17 at Verba's house is contained in a 24-page statement, handwritten in her bouncy, girlish script, which she faxed to Strongsville police.

Throughout the report, police have redacted the names of the accused men, but interviews with Verba and others involved help fill in the blanks.

According to Thompson's statement, her evening began with a trip to Peabody's, a downtown rock club. Her friend, Shannon Kennelly, had invited her to watch the band Jackie (Kennelly's ex-husband plays bass for the group and provided free tickets).

Soon after arriving, Thompson saw Verba signing autographs by the bar. It was no surprise that he was at the show -- he fronted $175,000 for the band to record its first album and go on tour. Verba's housemate, Fredo LaPonza -- last seen on TV's reality staple Average Joe -- is the cousin of the band's lead singer, Jackie LaPonza.

Verba was no stranger to Thompson -- she had seen him out before. On this night, one of Verba's friends, a gray-haired man named John, bought Thompson a beer. Feeling friendly, she approached Verba, lifted her jacket, and asked him to sign her butt. "It was a joke," she told police.

Jackie, crooning like Pat Benatar's bastard stepchild, offered a high-energy set. When the music stopped, John picked Thompson out of the crowd and led her upstairs to the club's second floor. In a secluded corner, he asked for a blowjob and put her hand on his penis, Thompson told police. "I told him, 'No, no, I don't do these kinds of things.'"

If she was concerned, she didn't let it ruin a good time. She followed John out to a red Hummer and caught a ride to Tramp, the West Ninth Street nightclub. They stayed long enough for John to drink another round and make another clumsy appeal for oral sex, she told police. Soon after, she was riding in the Hummer again.

"I need to go back, my friends are going to be looking for me," Thompson claims she told him.

But he waved off her protest. "We're going to a party. You'll meet up," he said.

They soon arrived at Verba's sprawling Strongsville home and pulled into the garage. Thompson entered the kitchen, where she found several men cooking breakfast. They were LaPonza, Browns rookie tackle Sterling Harris, and a third man known only as Johnny. They ate Mexican wraps, ham, and toast. Then one of the men suggested they soak in the Jacuzzi.

John, the man who had driven Thompson to Verba's home, announced he was leaving. "I remember telling him he can't leave me here, I need to find my friends," Thompson told police. "He told me I would have a good time."

With John gone, the other men started to disrobe her, she claims. "I can remember saying, 'Don't, you guys! I have a 75-year-old mom and two small children. I need to go home.'"

But the men persisted, she claims. They took her to the Jacuzzi, where one of them "came from behind and started forceful anal sex," according to her police statement. Another of the men held her from the front. "It was too dark and I was too messed up to know who did it."

At this point, details of the night become hazy. She claims she had eight beers at the most and shouldn't have been that drunk. "I know I was drugged," she writes in her letter to police.

"At some point one of them put me up on the kitchen bar and had forceful sex, someone got me from behind and someone wanted oral sex at the same time, telling someone else to take pictures while I was in a compromising pose," she writes.

"I have no concept of [the] time of events, of the pattern in which they happened. I only know I said 'No.' It was rape, and I went along so I would [not] end up dead."

Eventually, she passed out.

The sound of her cell phone beeping woke her the next morning. A man snoozed on the couch across from her.

Thompson picked up the phone and called Kennelly, the friend who'd taken her to Peabody's. Kennelly asked where she was, and Thompson confessed she didn't know. She roused the man on the couch, who told her she was at Verba's house.

Kennelly's ex-husband, Dominic Russo, was eavesdropping on the cell-phone conversation, Thompson recounts. "When she told him where I was, he began joking, asking if I took it in the ass, if I had to give blowjobs, and I said, No No No, just come and get me. I need help." But the cell phone died before she got a response.

Thompson hoped her friends were on the way. While she waited, she picked up the condom wrappers that littered the floor. "I was ashamed," she writes. She cloaked herself in a white long-sleeved shirt someone had discarded.

Soon Sterling Harris returned to Verba's house. He ate a gyro in the living room, then asked for more sex, Thompson claims. "I said, 'No, you already hurt me enough.' He then started unbuckling my pants, even though I was sitting he was pulling them off. He unzipped my boots. I kept telling him I didn't want to, 'No, leave me alone.' I got scared, and I thought he might get forceful, so I went along to the upstairs, bent over, and he had his sex."

When Harris finished, he noticed she was wearing one of the guys' shirts, Thompson claims. "He told me to keep the shirt as a souvenir."

(Browns spokesman Ken Mather said there would be no official comment from the organization and "likewise for Sterling Harris.")

She asked to borrow Harris's cell phone and used it to call Kennelly. Kennelly said she was already on her way home and suggested Thompson call her ex-sister-in-law, Angela Russo, for a ride. Angela agreed to pick her up.

Thompson put on her coat and stood by the door. "While I waited I began to take mental notes," she told police. She memorized the license plate of a Hummer parked in the garage and a stone address marker across the street.

As she waited, Verba came home.

"Hard night?" he asked, according to her police statement.

"You can thank your friend John for dropping me off on these guys," she said sarcastically, according to her account.

There was still no sign of Angela. Thompson called her and learned it would be another half-hour yet. So Harris offered to give Thompson a ride home. Thompson called Angela back. They agreed to meet at a CVS in Berea.

Once Thompson was safely in Angela's car, she told police, she confided that she had been raped. As they continued driving, Angela's cell phone rang.

It was Shannon. She had heard what happened that night from one of the men who was there, according to Thompson. "He told them the whole story, laughing and saying that I had been the wide receiver for the whole offensive line of the Cleveland Browns, that they abused me."

About the same time Thompson was cleaning up condom wrappers, Ed Wilson woke up at her house.

He immediately became worried. His girlfriend had left him a note saying she would be back by 2 a.m. at the latest. She always called if she couldn't make it.

A wiry, nervous man with a goatee, Wilson grew up in the Rye Beach area. He had met Thompson in high school.

He knew Kennelly had taken his girlfriend to Cleveland the night before. He didn't care for Kennelly and often told Thompson that she was bad news.

He hated to go to Kennelly's house, but if Thompson wasn't home, he thought he might find her there.

Kennelly was just pulling into her driveway with her ex-husband when Wilson arrived.

"Where's Laura?" he asked.

They said they didn't know. So Wilson drove up the street to his trailer and waited. Around 7:30 p.m., the phone rang.

It was Thompson.

"Where were you?" he asked.

She refused to say. Her reticence aroused his suspicions. He accused her of cheating. She denied it. But he wasn't satisfied and hung up.

He drove to her house, where he found the doors locked and shades drawn. Wilson stormed back to his trailer and spent the rest of the night watching TV.

The next morning, Wilson came back to Thompson's house. She opened the door, looked up at her boyfriend, and started sobbing.

Between tears, she told him she had been raped repeatedly by a player for the Cleveland Browns and that his friend had joined in.

Wilson reached for the phone to call police. Thompson stopped him. She didn't want to file a report.

She had just talked to Kennelly, who told her the incident was her own fault. Maybe the police would feel the same way.

Eventually, Wilson convinced her that she should at least get checked out at Firelands Regional Medical Center. When she told the hospital staff why she was there, they called Sandusky police.

Wilson stood by Thompson's side as she explained to the officer that she had been drugged and raped. She was shaking and crying, but managed to get her story out.

She was transported to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner's Clinic. Due to patient confidentiality, hospital staff cannot say what they did for Thompson.

Normal routine for rape victims includes antibiotic treatment to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Emergency contraceptives are offered. Patients are asked to undress over a large paper sheet, which collects any debris that falls in the process.

Clinic staff also look for abrasions and cuts. They take fingernail scrapings and pubic combings. The evidence is handed over to the city prosecutor.

Sandusky police contacted Strongsville to let them know they now had a high-profile rape allegation on their hands.

The next day, Thompson returned to Strongsville and told her story to Detective Noah Bentley. Soon after, he drove to Verba's house to hear what he and his friends had to say.

Verba knows that no one, not even his teammates, has heard the full story about what happened December 17. When he goes to Browns training camp, he'll have some explaining to do.

"I know it's going to come up the first day," Verba says. "I have to think of how I'm going to talk about this with my team."

Fredo LaPonza already has his answer: "Nothing happened. She made it up. Fortunately, these people came forward and said we didn't do anything wrong."

Indeed, several witnesses -- some of them Thompson's friends -- gave police statements that called her credibility into question.

Sterling Harris remembers meeting Thompson at Peabody's. "When I walked by she grabbed my butt," Harris told police. "We exchanged smiles and comments. I thought it was funny."

Later, he saw her fondling one of his friends, he recounts. Dominic Russo, Jackie's bass player, told police he saw the same behavior. "I remember seeing Laura talking and flirting with the accused guys," he explained.

By the time Thompson reached Tramp, she was acting even more frisky, according to witness statements.

"I observed her and John making out and flirting with one another," Harris told police. "She seemed fine. She was drinking, but she did not seem to be highly intoxicated."

"[She] followed me downstairs into the men's room," John told police. "[There were] people in there so we went to the ladies' room, fooled around [and] went back upstairs."

From there, they went to Verba's house. In Thompson's version, she was eager to reunite with her friends and begged John to take her home. Not so, according to other witnesses.

"I wanted to leave and she wanted to stay," John told police.

Harris remembers John asking if she was ready to leave. "She said, 'No, I am going to stay here and get in the hot tub,'" Harris recounts.

After John left, Thompson cooked turkey and ham sandwiches for the men. She seemed eager to satisfy their other needs as well, LaPonza told police. "[I] had sex with her on the counter willingly."

Harris had gone up the street to Speedway. When he returned, he found Thompson half-naked after she'd had sex with LaPonza.

"Me and her started talking and we laughed about what had happened earlier in the night with her grabbing my butt," Harris told police. "We started caressing each other. I took off my pants and put a condom on in the kitchen. We tried to have sex with her bent over the counter but she was too short. So we had sex on the floor, me, her and [LaPonza]."

The orgy continued in the Jacuzzi. "I went into the hot tub, she then came out and got into [the] hot tub willingly and had sex," LaPonza told police.

Harris told police he had sex with Thompson again after LaPonza. "After that, we all went to sleep in separate rooms," he claims.

When Thompson awoke the next morning, she called Shannon Kennelly's cell phone. Kennelly remembers her phone ringing at 9:45 a.m.

"It was Laura laughing and giggling that she was at Verba's house and partied with the Browns all night," she told police. "She begged me to cover for her with her boyfriend Ed. Then we were disconnected."

Harris left the house around 9:30 a.m., came back at 11:30 a.m., and ate a gyro for lunch, he told police. In Thompson's version, he raped her, but he told police she was a more-than-willing participant. "I looked at her and said, 'How about some morning sex?' She smiled and I led her upstairs and we had intercourse again."

Afterward, Thompson tried to arrange a ride. Harris remembers giving Angela directions on how to get to the house.

Verba returned as Thompson got ready to go. He told police that "the girl looked fine [but] obviously tired."

Harris then volunteered to drive Thompson to the CVS in Berea, where Angela would pick her up.

"While I was driving we had a conversation on why she did not want to leave with John, and she said, 'I wanted to stay and have fun with you guys,'" Harris told police. "I smiled and said, 'Thanks.' She also told me she had some kind of a boyfriend, but she did not seem too concerned about him."

In Thompson's account, she expressed relief to be in the safety of Angela's car and claimed to have told Angela about being raped. Angela remembers the conversation somewhat differently:

"She told me she had fun -- the most fun she's ever had -- all night long," Angela told police. "She continued to tell me she had sex with several of these players along with giving them blowjobs, and she was laughing about [it], like she was bragging about it to me.

"She was telling me how she had six or seven guys standing around her with their pants down because she was giving them all blowjobs -- she laughed about that. They were even taking pictures of her and said she's going to be on 'MILFs' -- which is a porn site meaning 'Mothers I'd Like to Fuck.' She said, Imagine me from little Rye Beach being on 'MILFs' sucking off the Browns players."

Angela also remembers Thompson bragging about the T-shirts she took. "She said it was for all the ass and pussy she gave up, she deserved them," Angela told police. Thompson even donned one of the shirts, emblazoned with the word "Naughty."

Apparently, Thompson was already beginning to fear how her boyfriend would react. "She said, 'It's OK. I don't regret it. I just feel bad in a way because I cheated on Ed,'" Angela told police.

But the story Wilson would hear was markedly different from the one she supposedly told friends.

"Sunday morning her boyfriend Ed came to my house blaming me because she was kidnapped and drugged and raped," Kennelly told police. "I told him, 'Try again, that's not what she told me yesterday.'"

After the witnesses came forward and poked holes in her story, the case fell apart. Detectives closed the investigation December 30.

It had all taken place off the media's radar. Nary a word of the scandal had leaked to the press. That was about to change.

On the day detectives closed the case, a second woman came forward with a strikingly similar story. She claimed she had awakened at Verba's house that morning, completely naked. She believed she had been drugged and raped.

WKYC-TV obtained a recording of her mother's call to Strongsville police.

"Does she think she was sexually assaulted or raped or anything like that?" the operator asked.

"She says she doesn't know, but woke up naked," the mother answered. "She doesn't want to get other people involved in this. She would just like to find out what the heck happened."

A rape test was conducted, and the evidence was sent to the lab. Two months later, the results still have not come back to Strongsville. "In all honesty, I would have expected them by now," Police Chief Charles Goff admits.

Police have declined to release details of the case, citing an ongoing investigation. Verba, who was not home on the night in question, says he doesn't think anything will come of it. The alleged victim no longer lives at the address she listed in the police report and could not be reached for comment.

After Channel 3 broke the news, reporters descended on the police station. When they got there, they discovered an earlier allegation of rape -- Thompson's. Suddenly, Thompson's police report was big news. Police were bombarded with so many requests for the file that they began keeping copies at the front desk.

"Claims of Sexual Assault at Browns Player's Home Under Investigation," Channel 3 blared.

"Woman Says She Woke Up With No Pants in Browns Player's Home," Channel 5 shouted.

"The Huron woman told police that she was kidnapped, raped, and drugged at the home of Browns lineman Ross Verba on December 18," recited one Action News reporter.

With all the media attention, prosecutors decided to take another look at Thompson's case. But they still found the evidence wanting and dropped it for good on January 11.

"The case was not credible," says Strongsville City Prosecutor George Lonjak. "Her statement was not credible. It could not under any circumstances lead to a conviction."

In the wake of the scandal, Verba says he's changed the wild atmosphere at his home. Friday-night parties have gone the way of Butch Davis. "I've put my house in lockdown," he says. "I'm not having anyone over I don't know."

Fredo LaPonza is focusing on running the businesses in which Verba has invested. There's the Tony Roma's in Brunswick and Flo, a soon-to-open yuppie diner on West Sixth Street. "We've committed $3.5 million to this city," says Verba.

LaPonza doesn't understand why the media is only interested in the negative. "I'm pissed at this city," he says. "Is Cleveland supportive? Fuck no."

"It's unfortunate," Verba continues. "It hurts my feelings."

"The truth will prevail," LaPonza sighs.

Angela Russo thought she was doing Thompson a favor. Instead, she was dragged into the scandal.

"For someone who was raped, she seemed to have had a fun time," she says over the phone. "That girl is nothing but a liar. Things happen, and people try to use the system to bring people down. It's a shame. She wanted to party. Now she's got to live up to her actions."

As for Thompson, she's trying to get on with her life. She recently got a new job and is still seeing Ed Wilson.

But if Wilson has forgiven his girlfriend, he still holds a grudge against the Browns. A fan since the age of four, he had amassed a small fortune in memorabilia. He gave it all away after reporters showed up on his doorstep. All that remains is a Tim Couch bobblehead on a shelf against the wood paneling of his trailer. One day he'll remember it's still there, and then it too will go.

"Fuck them," he says of the Browns. "I hope they never win another game."

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