Sunday, July 27, 2003

Murky images of Bryant's accuser

By Steve Wilstein and Colleen Slevin
The Associated Press

EAGLE, Colo. - The profile of the young woman emerges as if in silhouette. Kobe Bryant's accuser remains anonymous, her identity protected as an alleged sexual assault victim, her voice not heard to tell her side of the story.

Details of her life, coming from friends and police reports and cast in the half-light of reflected celebrity, create an enigmatic image.

Some see the slender 19-year-old with shoulder-length blond hair and a sweet smile as energetic, upbeat and confident - a peppy cheerleader and spirited singer in school shows who had aspirations of stardom.

Others in this middle-class, Rocky Mountain town of 3,500 - where bored teens hang out at the Texaco station, then drive off to party through the night in the hills - describe her as a showoff, "a total starve for attention," as one ex-boyfriend put it.

"It doesn't matter if (the attention) was good or bad," Josh Putnam said. "It was always good to her."

Friends call her honest, trustworthy and strong, "one of the toughest people I know," according to Luke Bray, a 21-year-old construction worker whose wife has known her since second grade.

"She can't believe the things that people in her own town are saying about her," he said. "She's going to be a victim a second time, a third time, a fourth time, every day for the rest of her life. But she knows the truth and can handle it."

Yet several former friends doubt her allegations against Bryant, saying she is impulsive, vindictive and emotionally fragile.

Her freshman year at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, a farm community 60 miles north of Denver, was interrupted Feb. 25 when she was rushed to a hospital by ambulance. Campus police chief Terry Urista said his office received a call about 9 p.m. that night regarding a woman in a dormitory room.

"An officer determined she was a danger to herself," Urista said, identifying the woman by name but refusing to characterize the episode as a suicide attempt. "It's classified as a mental health issue," he said.

Lindsey McKinney, who lived at the woman's family house this spring before the two had a falling out, said her former friend tried to kill herself at school by overdosing on sleeping pills, and overdosed again at home in May, little more than a month before she alleged Bryant assaulted her.

The woman was distraught over a breakup with her boyfriend and the recent death of a girlfriend in a car accident, McKinney said.

The contrast between the gregarious, seemingly happy image so many friends have of the woman and the histrionic, troubled side others describe is stark and hard to reconcile.

She is less visible these days, her friends say, staying home most of the time, unless she drives to meetings at her attorney's office in nearby Avon. She still visits friends, but has been warned by authorities not to talk anymore about the case.

Sex assault victims often worry about being blamed, said Krista Flannigan, an attorney and victim advocate working for the district attorney in the Bryant case.

"Fear, anxiety, some form of guilt, sadness, anger, vulnerability- those come and go," Flannigan said. "Some are more intense than others, depending on what their past life experiences have been, what their current support systems are, what their past support systems have been."

A high-profile case, she said, affects the victim and her community with greater intensity.

"I correlate it to throwing a pebble into a pond and then you have a ripple effect," Flannigan said. "When something's high-profile, your ripples get bigger and bigger and bigger. The higher profile it is, the greater the potential victim base."

In this case, the ripples are reaching far beyond the woman's family - her retired father and mother and two brothers. They are touching virtually everyone in this tiny town, down the valley from resort-rich Vail.

What everyone agrees on is that she had a passion and talent for singing. She wrote songs and kept telling people she would be famous someday.

She traveled with McKinney last fall to Austin, Texas, to audition for the TV show "American Idol." The two slept outside for 12 hours to win wristbands that ensured audition spots.

Involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with a boyfriend from Eagle, the woman chose a song by country singer Rebecca Lynn Howard called "Forgive," about a woman stung by infidelity, wondering how to respond when her lover asks her to say she forgives him.

The refrain of the song goes: "Well, that's a mighty big word, for such a small man, and I'm not sure I can, 'cause I don't even know who I am, it's too soon for me to say forgive."

McKinney thought her friend's rendition was beautiful, but neither of them got past the first round.

Though many friends believe the woman is telling the truth when she says Bryant assaulted her June 30 in his room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, where she had recently begun working at the front desk, McKinney has her doubts.

"I almost think she is doing it for the attention," she said. "She craves attention like no other. This is the bad kind of attention that she's going to get. I'm not saying it didn't happen. But it just doesn't fit the puzzle."

But Sara Dabner, 17, sees it differently. To her, Bryant's accuser is like a big sister, befriending her on a high school choir trip to Disneyland and helping her through personal problems. She and other friends took the woman out to see the movie "Bad Boys II" after charges were announced against Bryant.

The notion that the woman would make up the allegations strikes Dabner as preposterous.

"Why would a woman put herself through all of this - having people call her names?" she said, noting that her friend didn't even know who Bryant was when he first arrived at the hotel.

"She's not trying to drag him through the dirt," Dabner said. "She just wants justice."

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