Eric Frimpong was a promising talent at Santa Barbara university, but then came an allegation of rape
There’s always something happening on Del Playa Drive, which overlooks the ocean in Isla Vista, a community near Santa Barbara. Especially on a Friday night, as on 16 February 2007, when there was a party planned at the student house at number 6681.
The boys of 6547 Del Playa Drive began the evening quietly, watching a film. Only when the evening slid slowly into the night did they leave for the party.
One of them was a small somewhat withdrawn boy they called Frimmer.
You wouldn’t think it, but Eric Frimpong was the man, the star of the campus. All fraternity homes in Santa Barbara featured a Ghanaian flag in honour of the best player on the UC Santa Barbara college team, the daftly named Cinderella Gauchos, which, under Eric’s leadership, had just become national champion by beating UCLA in the final. Eric was the playmaker of the team, and no one doubted he would end up in MLS one day, or even in Europe. On top of that, he’d just finished a placement with the Kansas City Wizards, one of the biggest clubs in the US. Everything pointed towards him becoming a pro the following year. Pretty impressive for a boy who’d been living in Ghana less than a year before and for whom a place in the first team of Kwame Nkrumah University had seemed the summit. Until, having been tipped off about one of its players, a tall American called Leo Chappel came to watch the Kumasi-based team play. As it happened, the boy who had been recommended to Chappel didn’t play that day, but Eric did, impressing Chappel so much that he immediately offered him a scholarship as well as a place in the Gauchos.
At around 11pm Eric, who had a girlfriend at the time, met a first-year student. He and the student – a girl whose name has never been made public and who is referred to as ‘Jane Doe’ in everything written about her – had a chat and a drink, and left for Eric’s home to play a game of beer pong, a popular game at American universities. Almost every student at UCB, known as “one of the nation’s top party schools”, has played it. It’s a drinking game in which players take turns in trying to get a ping pong ball into a glass of alcohol. If you succeed, you have to down the glass in one.
The girl said she wanted a cigarette, so she and Eric went over to the park on the other side of the street.
What happened next remains unclear.
I first heard of the Eric Frimpong case years ago. I think it was 2009, when the American sports site ESPN published a long read (although I don’t think it was called a long read at the time), “The Story of Prisoner F95488” by a journalist called Sam Alipour.
It was the story of a boy from a poor Ghanaian family, who’d been raised by his mother Mary, a typist for Ghana’s Forestry Commission, and ended up in Santa Barbara by chance. A boy willing to sacrifice everything to become a professional football player, even moving to the other side of the world. A boy who was lovingly taken in by Paul and Lori Monahan, a Christian couple from Santa Barbara whose son Pat also played football and was the same age as Eric. They met him on the pitch and offered him a place to stay with them until his student room was available.
The family doted on Eric, who was always cheerful and considered America a world to be discovered gradually. He was a boy who could sit and watch a washing machine for hours, amazed at it, who was afraid in the dark and who, in spite of all the love and attention the Monahans lavished on him during his first year on the West Coast, felt so homesick that the UCB organised a fundraiser to collect money for a return ticket to Ghana. He was a family friend and a “darn likeable boy”.
But no one in Santa Barbara could believe that this boy, on the brink of becoming a professional footballer, had a girlfriend. Yet, from the very beginning everyone close to Eric Frimpong believed it was all a misunderstanding that could be sorted out quickly.
That night, at around 1 am, the UCSB student Justin Hannah saw a girl walking down the rocky side of Del Playa Drive, close to the beach and not far from a small park. Unsteady on her feet, the girl wasn’t wearing any shoes and looked quite drunk.
Hannah went up to her and asked, “Do you need anything?”
The girl turned to face him and she looked groggy. She said she wanted to make a phone call.
Hannah gave her his phone, the girl made several phone calls, and about 20 minutes later an old Toyota Camry drew up beside them. In the front there were two young women. Without saying another word, the girl opened the back door, got in and the car sped off.
The Toyota belonged to Mia Wolfson, a friend of the girl. Mia was also a first-year student at UCSB, and she, her older sister, her friend Munni and the girl had been to the party that night. They’d all left early, except the girl, who had stayed on to talk to a boy.
A few hours later, the Toyota Camry parked at the Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital. The girls got out and went in, taking the girl, who was crying. She said she’d been raped by a dark-skinned boy with "thick lips" and an "island accent".
His name? She doesn’t remember, but she thinks his name was Eric.
Back in the summer of 2009, I was immediately intrigued by the Frimpong case. Alipour’s article was full of baffling details and legal reality seemed to have been suspended in this case. Eric Frimpong was accused of violently raping the anonymous girl on the beach at Del Playa Drive, on the basis of a statement by this same girl, whose blood alcohol level was still about 0.3 when she arrived at the hospital. There were no witnesses and there was no sound DNA evidence. The DNA sample that had been taken matched Frimpong's testimony. Given the following day, it stated that the girl had grabbed his crotch and had tried to kiss him in the park, and that Eric had pushed her away with some force.
Even so, Eric Frimpong was arrested, charged and found guilty of rape. He was given a six-year prison sentence. All the articles published about the case at the time, and there were many of them, noted the composition of the jury: it was all white. Few of the articles said explicitly that there was a racist element involved in the Frimpong case, but it seemed clear enough that there was. The most outspoken articles were by a man named Joel Engel, and were published in The Santa Barbara Independent. Engel had been alerted to the case by his daughter, who knew Eric Frimpong through a friend.
Engel, a journalist and writer, studied the dossier with his uncle, Oscar Rothenberg, a retired lawyer. In one of his articles he said that their research had taken an estimated 6000 hours. Engel’s exceptionally detailed reports focused mostly on Daniel J Kies, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff who’d paid Eric Frimpong a visit on 17 February 2007, the day after the party, casually asking him what Frimpong had been doing the night before. Eric had answered that he’d watched a film, gone to a party and had met the girl in question. He described her as “just a football fan”, and explaned that, after the confrontation in the park, he’d gone to the house of his friend Krystal Giang. At around 4am he’d joined his girlfriend in bed.
Eric Frimpong took the sheriff to his house, even gave him the clothes he’d worn the night before, and accompanied Kies to the police station.
That’s where he was arrested.
Some two years later, Joel Engel wrote extensively about that period in the life of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff, recounting how, a month before the girl’s report, Kies had lost his brother, Christopher, who’d died from an accidental overdose of a medicine prescribed to him after a severe motorbike accident. Engel described how Kies had spent his entire life in the shadow of his brother, a hero and veteran of the First Gulf War, while Daniel was a local policeman. A policeman, as it happens, who’d been involved in a scuffle a few years previously, when, after a night of heavy drinking at a school reunion, he’d been stopped by a colleague and been given an alcohol test, after which he grabbed the colleague by the throat. When in custody, Kies couldn’t remember that the incident had ever taken place.
Engel suggested that Christopher’s death had brought to the fore in Daniel an urgent need to prove himself, a need that Eric Frimpong fell victim to. Engel wrote, “So at the very least, the lead detective in the case against Eric Frimpong had a special, if undeclared, sympathy for those, like Jane Doe, with alcohol-ravaged memories.”
In the autumn of 2017, I emailed Joel Engel using the contact form on his website, which announced, “A Joel Engel invented cell phone technology. A Joel Engel composed early 20th-century music. A Joel Engel is the world’s foremost handwriting expert (and a really nice man). I am none of those Joel Engels. I am the Joel Engel who writes for a living.” I asked Engel if I could put a few questions to him about his articles and his involvement in the Frimpong case for a book that I was writing. Within 10 minutes – it must have been the middle of the night in the US – I got a reply.
“Tell me more about your book.” No salutation, no opening line, no “thank you for your message”.
I wrote another long and polite message, describing the book. What it was going to be about, and why the story of Eric Frimpong would fit in well.
Again, his reply was both swift and curt. Had I written any of it yet? Did I write in English or in Dutch? I was wondering what Joel Engel was frightened of, what experiences he’d had with writers and journalists for him to be so wary. And what kind of a journalist he himself was to be so suspicious. Only once he had read my apparently satisfactory answer – that I had written a great deal of it and that I wrote in Dutch – was he happy for me to send my questions.
Joel Engel’s answers to my questions were curt. Written in capitals, they were inexplicably (and probably unintentionally) aggressive. In answer to my question about whether he’d ever doubted Eric’s innocence, he replied: “PLEASE REREAD MY ARTICLE.” According to Engel, Eric was not only deprived of the legal aid he was entitled to, he was convinced that his detailed reconstruction had conclusively demonstrated that it had been logistically impossible for Frimpong to have raped the girl.
Despite the sharp tone of his answers, Engel’s articles were, for a long time, the basis of my research. They were unusually elaborate and lucid. At the same time, though, they were far from objective. It was clear that Engel had concluded that Kies, not Frimpong, represented true evil in this case. He also demonstrated fairly convincingly that the girl, Jane Doe, had changed her statement time and time again, and that fear and revenge might have been powerful motives.
Revenge was what drove Morgan Menzies, another student. When the university paper Daily Nexus reported Frimpong’s arrest, Menzies contacted the authorities claiming that Eric had sexually assaulted her on the beach some time earlier. Menzies’s complaint confirmed the image of Eric as the aggressor. She’d even left a message on his Facebook wall about the night they met: “Sorry I ran away. I was pretty drunk last night. Thanks for grabbing my stuff. How can I get it back.”
Morgan had left her belongings on the beach that night, and Eric had taken them home, just in case. These things included her mobile phone. However, as Eric had left for Kansas for his trial training sessions with the Wizards the following day, Morgan had had to wait for her phone. Which she hated. In a private message to a friend, she wrote, “I hate that guy eric frimpong. I’m gonna be such a bitch to him.” This was an understatement.
Meanwhile, Eric Frimpong repeated his initial statement. That he had left the girl in question in the park and had joined his then-girlfriend in bed. When his coach, the Santa Barbara legend Tim Vom Steeg, visited him and asked him whether it was possible he hadn’t noticed that the girl didn’t want what he thought they both wanted, Eric replied, “Coach, I never pulled my pants down.”
“If you’ve done this,” Vom Steeg said, “they’ll prove it.”
Eric nodded. “I’m not stupid, coach.”
But Eric’s denial didn’t help him, nor did the fact that, due to the countless glasses of beer and shots of vodka she had been drinking, the girl couldn’t remember much of what had happened on the night in question. When, during one of the interviews, she was put under pressure, she said, “I have no clue. I’m just assuming.” In short, her accusation was as unreliable as it could be. Besides, the traces of semen found on her were not Eric’s. Researchers found one Benjamin Randall, the girl’s boyfriend, who confirmed that he’d seen the girl stagger towards the park with Eric Frimpong. Asked how he felt about that, he answered that he might have been “a little upset. I guess you can call that jealousy.” Still, he was never a suspect, but Eric was. The most significant evidence against him (besides the girl’s statement) was that he didn’t have a watertight alibi and that his student house had been full of sand. You might ask whether the presence of sand in a student house on the beach is direct evidence of a rape on the beach by one of the residents, but on 17 December 2007, the jury reached a unanimous verdict. Eric Frimpong was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.
Too many people in Santa Barbara, including Joel Engel, Pat Monahan and Tim Vom Steeg, the Frimpong case was yet another proof that racism still played an important role in the American legal system. Everyone I talked to for this story confirmed this1. Besides, Eric’s lawyer’s role was called into question by everyone involved: he was said to have made many mistakes, giving the impression that he didn’t want to win the Frimpong case.
Every legal specialist asked for their opinion by local newspapers was surprised by the verdict.
While Eric and his lawyer, Robert Sanger, who’d defended Michael Jackson against accusations of child abuse, lodged an appeal, the Free Frimpong movement grew larger. There were protests, a blog (none of the weblog administrators ever reacted to my requests for an interview) and a Facebook group named Free Eric Frimpong. The administrator of the page was Nicolas Dassah, a Ghanaian with whom I was in touch several times in 2017. I learned that he’d met Eric Frimpong in Ghana, that he’d been interested in the case because of the injustice of it, and that he had become quite religious not long before.
Nicolas promised to put me in touch with Eric and to put my request for an interview to him. When Nicolas didn’t get back to me, I contacted him again. He said then that Eric was very busy, but that he would do his best. Shortly afterwards, he emailed me saying that he wanted to do an IT course in the Netherlands, and could I recommend a school? My first reaction was not to answer his question, because I was sure that that was what he’d been wanting to ask right from the start. Later, I understood that all those times I sent people email messages, I wasn’t just asking them for help, I was asking them to rake through their memories, to open up wounds that had finally been beginning to heal. The least I could do in return was to do five minutes of research on the website of the ROC Midden Nederland school for vocational training.
3 March 2007 was a glorious day in Santa Barbara.
It was busy at the Superior Court, the room filled with students, parents, team mates and coaches. Supporters. They all believed in the innocence of prisoner F95488, seated at the front of the room with his back to them.
The girl’s lawyer read her final statement: “I don’t care he’s a soccer star and I’m a nobody. Eric Frimpong ruined my life.”
A few minutes later, the judge was to confirm on appeal the verdict of six years in prison.
The corridors of the Superior Court filled with people weeping.
The scene was described by Sam Alipour in an article published a year later. At the time, the key players were still full of hope, they believed in Eric’s innocence and that the judges would sooner or later realise they had made an error. However, this didn’t happen, and even the last appeal, lodged in the spring of 2010, was rejected. There are no further online traces of the case beyond this point. First, Nicolas Dassah’s Facebook page fell silent, followed soon after by the Eric Frimpong Freedom Fund blog. Eric Frimpong, meanwhile, was serving his sentence at the California Correctional Centre. During that period, he proved to be an exemplary prisoner, a modest man who spent most of his time studying the Bible.
The last time he spoke to Joel Engel was shortly before he was freed.
Immediately after his release, in late 2013, he was detained again and deported to Ghana.
At the end of 2017, after my e-mail conversation with Joel Engel, I contacted Bryan Byrne, a former team mate of Eric’s, who had written about him on his website. Byrne told me that he still exchanged the odd email message with Eric, who, nearly 10 years after the first conviction, was still trying to come to terms with it all. According to Byrne, the story had been completely forgotten in Santa Barbara, which Byrne had left a long time ago.
Through Byrne I came into contact with Pat Monahan.
Yet again, I had an answer within 15 minutes. Monahan was excited to discover that someone still had an interest in the case after all this time, and he said he was happy to answer my questions. As I drew up my list of questions for him, I recalled encounters I’d had with people I’d followed on the radio or on television for years. They felt unreal, those meetings, as they didn’t really make the celebrities more real, rather they increased the distance between us. I just couldn’t get my head round the fact that I knew them, but they didn’t know me.
Something similar happened to me with Pat Monahan, who’d never heard of me, but whose name had been gathering dust in my mind for years. He told me about the first time he’d met Eric, about his struggle for justice (which had cost him his marriage to Lori), about the role of Joel Engel and his uncle, and about how much sorrow the case still caused him. He and Eric still contacted each other once in a while.
I had been planning to ask Pat, like everyone else I talked to about Eric, for Eric’s contact details. But I didn’t dare. Perhaps I doubted my own sincerity, perhaps I didn’t know what I could ask Eric Frimpong. Whether it would help me. I didn’t even know whether I wanted to know what had become of him. Joel Engel had told me that there were still several court cases relating to Frimpong in the US, and Pat Monahan wrote, “He now works in Ghana. It could have been very different.” Then Bryan Byrne, Eric’s former teammate, mailed to say Eric was importing lamps running on solar energy from the US, to provide Ghanaian villages without electricity with light. I thanked Bryan and made one last attempt to get Eric’s contact details from him.
Bryan then sent me a link to a Facebook profile. Heck, there he was: Eric Frimpong. Impossible to find for those looking for him, but clearly recognisable. In his profile picture, he was wearing a suit and he was smiling. I noticed that many of his friends were white Americans. I briefly considered sending him a friend request, but didn’t pluck up the courage. I wasn’t his friend, after all, and I didn’t want to give him the impression that I could be. I wanted to steal from his life to write a good piece, to showcase my perseverance and his sorrow. Perhaps Joel Engel had been onto me; I was looking for a good story, he was looking for justice.
I sent Eric a private message, the same kind of message I’ve sent so many of: Dutch journalist working on a book about football players and could I maybe… To be honest, I didn’t expect much. Messages from people who aren’t your friends tend to disappear into oblivion on Facebook.
I waited for a week and then began to write this story, without knowing how it ended. After that week, there was a message in my private message box. It was a message from Eric Frimpong.
“Dear Mr Heinen,” he wrote, ‘thank you for expressing your desire to write a story on my career and my case. Thinking about my unfulfilled career as a result of my case brings nothing but incredible pain to my heart. I respectfully have decided not to allow myself to go through any more pain than I already have in the media. Thank you.”
I answered Eric right away that I understood and that I was grateful for his response. But could he maybe tell me a little bit about his current life? About the kind of work he was doing? Where he lived? Whether he still played football? I didn’t get an answer. When I reread my messages, I perceived a certain hesitance in my words, and I was certain that Eric must have felt it too.
Joel Engel wrote, in capital letters, that although he hadn’t talked to Eric for four years, not a day went by when he didn’t think of him.
Translated by Susan Ridder.