How Kareem Hunt’s Chiefs career crashed after a night out
How Kareem Hunt’s Chiefs career crashed after a night out
THE FEBRUARY NIGHT that ended Kareem Hunt’s career with the Kansas City Chiefs — and landed the NFL in yet another controversy involving an act of violence against a woman and captured by a security camera — might have culminated with Hunt kicking a woman in the hall of a luxury hotel, but it began as something much more benign. It began as a traveling party.
A loose group of friends and acquaintances, some of whom Hunt has known for years and others he had just met, say they spent the evening of Feb. 9 bouncing among some of Cleveland’s swankiest bars and clubs. They recall hopping in and out of a private vehicle hired to safely escort them around the city.
For Hunt, who grew up in the nearby suburb of Willoughby and played four years at the University of Toledo, Ohio, has always been home. He had become an unlikely star at age 22, leading the NFL in rushing in his first professional season in Kansas City. Five running backs were selected ahead of him in the 2017 NFL draft, but it was Hunt who earned the Professional Football Writers’ Rookie of the Year award, and he led the entire league in rushing. He wrapped up his rookie year just 10 days prior, with an appearance in the Pro Bowl in Orlando, Florida. His first offseason as a professional athlete had just begun.
Outside the Lines interviewed witnesses and current and former league officials and reviewed police documents and nearly four hours of officer body camera video to build the most complete account to date of events leading up to Hunt’s physical altercation with Abby Ottinger, a 19-year-old Kent State student from Middleburg Heights, Ohio, early on the morning of Feb. 10. Also reviewed were a hotel incident report and contemporaneous social media posts to support witness recollections of events at The Metropolitan at the 9, where Hunt leases a 23rd-floor residential apartment.
What’s clear from available evidence is that a hotel security staffer and Cleveland police officers appeared skeptical of Ottinger’s account, and that police did not ask to see surveillance video that morning — even though witnesses on both sides of the altercation implored officers to do so. At one point, an officer is heard expressing his belief that a detective would have to get a subpoena to review surveillance tape. Officers also waited hours to question Hunt, deferring to the hotel’s insistence that officers couldn’t knock on his door without a warrant or permission from the hotel’s owner. When they did question him, police asked Hunt if he wanted them to turn off their body cameras — an offer they made to at least one other witness — and he requested that they do so.
No charges were filed, and what happened in the hall outside Hunt’s luxury residence remained largely unknown until Nov. 30, when TMZ published a portion of the video showing Ottinger being knocked down in a hallway and then kicked by Hunt.
As a result, the NFL is scrambling to explain how its hand was forced by TMZ once again, just four years after the media outlet published video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching out his then-fiancée, Janay, in a casino elevator, an infraction that initially earned him only a two-game suspension and led to a battle in federal court. Rice never returned to the field after the video emerged. One source with knowledge of the inner workings of the NFL disciplinary process told Outside the Lines the Hunt incident is actually “a bigger mess up than Ray Rice” because of the infrastructure that was put in place after Rice, including the hiring of Lisa Friel, a former Manhattan prosecutor, as senior vice president and special counsel for investigations.
A league source said Thursday that the NFL reviewed police documents and interviewed some of Hunt’s friends in February, and it requested the surveillance video from hotel officials, who responded that they would provide it only to law enforcement. Tony Quintal, an official with the hotel’s operating company, confirmed that. The league source also said the NFL made multiple calls, sent texts and mailed a letter to both Ottinger and a friend who was involved, but received no reply. One friend of Hunt who was cited in police reports, Rayshawn Watkins, told Outside the Lines that he had heard nothing from the league or the Chiefs. He declined further comment. The league source, however, said Watkins spoke with NFL security representatives in February and as recently as this week.
Hunt has said the league did not interview him, though the Chiefs did. One Chiefs source told Outside the Lines that the NFL told the team not to investigate because the league would handle it. The league source said it is protocol for the NFL to take over such investigations and that its case on Hunt remained open.
The Cleveland Division of Police announced Wednesday it was opening an internal investigation into the department’s response to the incident. The department also revealed that the NFL received a copy of the incident report in February, but the league did not make an official public records request for the document until Nov. 30, after TMZ released the video.
The Chiefs released Hunt last Friday, and he apologized in an interview Sunday with ESPN’s Lisa Salters. “I’m extremely embarrassed because of that video,” he said. “I’m definitely not that type of person.” His Baltimore-based agent, Dan Saffron, did not return several calls and text messages left by Outside the Lines this week.
IN INTERVIEWS THEY would later give to police, as captured in police video and reports, Hunt and his friends say everyone in their group was getting along fine throughout the evening of Feb. 9. It was only when they got back to the hotel that things deteriorated. Their night began at TownHall, a trendy eatery that touts craft beer and GMO-free food. From there, they went to The Magnolia, a vibrant and popular dance club on the East Bank of the Cuyahoga River.
Men in the group included athletes or former athletes, and Hunt had known several for years. One was Watkins, Hunt’s teammate from Toledo, who did most of the talking with police when they arrived at The 9, at one point claiming Hunt was “upstairs, passed out” and that Hunt’s agent instructed him to stay downstairs and talk to the police until things were resolved.
“I only know those girls through a friend,” Watkins tells officers in the video. “They invited us to a club tonight. We got to the club, and they were overly drunk, as you can tell. But come to find out, they’re not even 21. They’re 19 years old. We were like, ‘Can you guys please leave us alone?'”
Watkins tells police Ottinger and her friend, Dominique Hamilton, got along fine with everyone throughout the evening, but that ended inside Hunt’s residence. According to Watkins’ account, Hunt said Ottinger and Hamilton couldn’t stay the night. Watkins says he offered $20 when they said they didn’t have enough money for an Uber ride home. After he sent them into the hall, Ottinger began to scream and pound on the door, according to his account.
“They’re in the hallway, like standing by the elevator,” Watkins tells police. “I come out and I’m like, ‘You guys are being too loud. Please just leave us alone.’ She started freaking out, grabbing the back of my head. She broke my necklace. She tried calling me the N-word. She called us n—–s and s— like that. We’re like, ‘There is no point of you to do that. We just want you to leave us alone.’ Then they started getting aggressive, hitting us.”
Ottinger could not be reached for comment by Outside the Lines.
In the police video, Ottinger confirms having gotten upset because she didn’t have enough money to get home and was in no condition to drive herself. Her car, she tells police, was parked at the hotel. “We needed a ride back to Kent,” Ottinger says. “An Uber was $112. We can’t afford that. We’re college students, right?”
Her account diverges from Watkins’ from there. Ottinger says she didn’t want to leave without her phone, and Watkins had it for some reason. He threatened to snap it in two pieces, and when she demanded it back, Hunt grabbed it and threw it into a wall, she says. Watkins tells officers he took Ottinger’s phone but claims he threw it down the hall only in an attempt to get her to leave. He says Hunt’s friend, Nicole McManamon, went into the hall to try to calm Ottinger down, and that’s when things got even more physical.
“[McManamon] was being really nice, like, ‘Hey guys, could you please leave? You’re being obnoxious; you’re bothering us. Please leave,” Watkins tells police. “And then they f—ing tackled her.”
Hamilton’s account tracks closely with Ottinger’s, although in the bodycam footage, she characterizes her friend as being “very upbeat” and “dramatic” when the two were asked to leave. She says she tried to tell Ottinger they should just leave, but her friend didn’t want to. “I’m not trying to, like, throw her under the bus, but she was being very dramatic,” she says in the bodycam footage.
Watkins claims, in talking to police, that Hunt went to bed before any altercations took place and that security eventually came upstairs and made Ottinger leave because other residents were complaining she was making too much noise.
But Watkins’ account doesn’t square with the security footage acquired by TMZ, in which Hunt can be seen walking into the hallway and verbally confronting Ottinger. He makes physical contact, pushing her in the chest. A friend of Hunt’s attempts to hold Hunt back, but Ottinger appears to reach past that man and strike Hunt. Several of Hunt’s friends drag him back into his apartment, but he surges back into the frame and careens into another friend, who careens into Ottinger, who falls near a wall. Ottinger lays on the floor, stunned, before slowly getting up. Hunt, as McManamon struggles to hold him back, then kicks Ottinger as she tries to stand. Hamilton can be seen videotaping most of the incident on a phone, before one of Hunt’s friends snatches the device.
“He shoved me, he pushed me,” a distraught Ottinger later tells police, according to the bodycam footage. “You can watch the video tapes, which I would like to see, if that’s possible. Can I press charges?”
Another of Hunt’s Toledo teammates who was there, Darryl Richards, also implored officers to look at the hotel security footage.
“I have a question,” Richards asks. “Can we please pull the video? Like from cameras? From upstairs?”
The bodycam footage shows police taking pictures of Ottinger’s injuries in the lobby of the hotel, and she repeatedly identifies Hunt by name and physical description as the man who assaulted her. “Do you see these?” Ottinger says, pointing to various parts on her body. “I have a scratch right here, I have a wound right here, a wound right here. He plays for the NFL, and he’s an abusive person.”
After officers interview Ottinger and Hamilton, the two are sent safely away — Ottinger with two Kent State students and Hamilton with her parents.
THE ONLY PERSON Cleveland Police would decide to arrest or detain that night was Derek Szeto, a Boston-area man who was staying at the hotel while in town for a business conference. Szeto, 29, told Outside the Lines he was returning to the hotel by an Uber around 3 a.m. when Ottinger ran up to him outside the hotel “crying hysterically.” She told him a front desk clerk would not let her call 911 to report that she had been assaulted. Szeto offered his phone and agreed to sit with Ottinger until police arrived.
“That’s how I got involved, specifically because the hotel would not let her use the phone,” Szeto told Outside the Lines. “I could see she had cuts on her. She told me the guy at the front desk told her, ‘That’s what you get for being a slut,’ which I just found outrageous.”
In an incident report he filed with The 9’s security office on Feb. 10, Szeto addressed his interaction with the hotel’s loss prevention officer, Tyler Krajcik.
“Tyler, the security guard on staff, seemed callous and insensitive at first. I felt like we were being blamed for the situation,” Szeto wrote in the report. “However, he returned five minutes later and said, ‘I just looked at the security footage and, wow, are you OK?’ to Abby.”
Szeto said he started to have concerns the hotel wasn’t on Ottinger’s side and began shooting video on his phone as he waited for police. “The hotel was acting weird, and I wanted video evidence of this for my safety,” he said. When police arrive, he tells them he’s taping, and they indicate they are fine with it.
But Krajcik is later seen in footage asking officers to confiscate Szeto’s phone and delete images he had captured. An officer immediately confronts Szeto on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and demands the phone, saying he had “illegally recorded somebody.” Szeto refuses.
“We don’t need a warrant, because you just committed a crime,” the officer says before handcuffing Szeto and putting him in the back of a squad car. He was cited for disorderly conduct intoxication, although Szeto says he was not drunk and did nothing but stand up for Ottinger. He wanted to fight the citation but decided against a trip back to Ohio and just paid it. Police took his phone briefly, but Szeto says they did not delete the video.
“The way that the hotel handled this, and the way that the police indulged them, is really distressing and frustrating,” Szeto told Outside the Lines. “I do feel the hotel specifically, and the police, should be called out for their actions.”
At one point on the bodycam footage, Krajcik tells a police officer he’ll have to get permission from the hotel owner if the police want to interview Hunt. “I need to talk to my boss. I’m not going to get fired the first month on the job,” he says.
Krajcik, approached by Outside the Lines at his home Wednesday, declined to answer questions and asked a reporter to leave.
Quintal, chief operating officer and vice president of finance for Geis Hospitality Group, which manages The 9, released a statement to Outside the Lines, saying, “We condemn any violent or aggressive behavior and at all times act in support of our guests’ well-being.”
“The actions of our team members throughout this and any evening emulate and exceed our standards of putting safety and security first,” the statement said. “We refute any allegations suggesting otherwise and specifically deny the allegations that our property failed to provide appropriate aid or that our staff used vulgar language towards anyone involved. The use of foul or demeaning language is deplorable, and we have a zero-tolerance policy in place to eliminate all such behavior. Now and from the beginning of this incident, we continue to cooperate with local officials or any other legal investigative agencies.”
Szeto says he reached out to Ottinger the day after the altercation, just to make sure she was OK, and she expressed that she had decided not to press charges and wanted to move on. When Outside the Lines spoke to a member of Ottinger’s family at their home on Wednesday, he said the whole incident has been very difficult for her and that all she wants now is her privacy.
It’s not known what Hunt told police about his interaction with Ottinger on Feb. 10. Anything he said about a physical confrontation is not captured in their report. Their bodycam footage simply cuts off at his request, leaving more questions than answers from a night that continues to haunt those who were there — and some who weren’t.
ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham and ESPN reporter Adam Teicher contributed to this story.
December 7, 2018 at 09:39AM