The 54-year-old woman was thumbing a ride on a March afternoon in 2018 when, finally, a boxy black SUV pulled up.
Point blank, he threatened to rape her, and then said, “and if you say anything, I will kill you,” according to prosecutors.
The woman begged to be let out at a 7-Eleven, but it was useless, prosecutors said. The man kept driving, turning into a strip mall parking lot. He ordered her out of the vehicle, prosecutors say. She didn’t run because she was scared, and she didn’t scream either. Behind a fence near the freeway, he started to order her to remove her clothes, prosecutors say, before changing his mind and ordering her back inside his car.
There, he forced her to perform oral sex, and then pinned her against the passenger’s seat and raped her, authorities say.
She reported the alleged attack to police four days later, providing a description of the man — the muscles, the tattoos — but saying she did not know who did this to her.
San Diego prosecutors say they know who it is now: Kellen Winslow II, a former NFL star who lived in a $3 million home in the area, not far from where the hitchhiker met him on the side of the road. Once the highest-paid tight end in the league, raking in more than $40 million over his 10-year career, the 35-year-old Winslow is now on trial as an accused serial rapist.
The trial began Monday, as Winslow’s father, San Diego Chargers Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow, sat behind him. Winslow II is accused of raping the hitchhiker, a 59-year-old homeless woman two months later and an unconscious 17-year-old in 2003 while he was playing football at the University of Miami. He is also accused of exposing himself to a 57-year-old woman while she tended to her garden and a 77-year-old woman as she lounged in a fitness club’s hot tub. The charges in the five cases include rape, forced oral copulation and sodomy, kidnapping and indecent exposure, among others.
If convicted, Winslow could face life in prison — and would join a sordid list of former NFL players, such as Aaron Hernandez and Titus Young, whose bizarre or violent crimes in the aftermath of their careers caused speculation about what role, if any, repeated head trauma contributed to their behavior. Hernandez, for example, who was convicted of murder, was posthumously found to be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by head trauma.
But the disease can only be diagnosed posthumously, and despite speculation that Winslow’s defense attorneys may introduce evidence regarding the former NFL player’s mental state, they have made no specific claims attempting to link his behavior to football head trauma.
Instead, in an opening statement lasting fewer than 10 minutes on Monday, defense attorney Brian Watkins claimed the “accusers aren’t giving you the whole truth,” and suggested the sex was consensual. He argued Winslow’s only offense was infidelity in his marriage, that his actions were immoral but not criminal.
“Kellen Winslow has been honest from the start, over a year ago,” Watkins said. “He admitted he had consensual sex with those accusers, way back when. He was never dishonest about it.”
Winslow, maintaining his innocence, told NBC San Diego last October, “It’s a money grab. Unfortunately, that’s the society we live in now.”
The stunning set of allegations against Winslow comes six years after he retired from professional football after playing for the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots and New York Jets. The son of divorced parents, Winslow grew up in San Diego with his father before enrolling as a star tight end for the University of Miami in 2001. While a student-athlete there in 2003, he garnered national attention with a rabid locker room interview, where reporters asked if he realized he had injured an opposing player. He said he didn’t care. “It’s war,” he said. “They will kill you. . . . So I’m gonna kill them. . . . I’m a [expletive] soldier!”
That same year, prosecutors now say, he raped an unconscious 17-year-old girl at a house party, while he was at home in San Diego for the summer.
But fearing the consequences, the alleged victim wouldn’t come forward for years, not until seeing the news that Winslow had been arrested on sex crimes charges last June, prosecutor Dan Owens said Monday.
In the meantime, Winslow was selected No. 6 overall drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2004, spending five seasons there before bouncing around the league. He avoided trouble for the most part, but reports later emerged that he was suspected of masturbating inside his car in a Target parking lot, shocking a woman who saw him. She declined to press charges, and Winslow denied the allegations.
Winslow did not return to the Jets after the 2013 season, in which he violated the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He went on to live quietly with his wife in Encinitas, Calif., in an enormous ranch home with a six-car garage that looked like a big red barn.
Then, in 2018, the police reports started piling up.
The hitchhiker’s allegations came first. Two months later, a homeless woman reported to police that a man matching Winslow’s description, driving a similar car, raped her on the side of a road.
The 59-year-old woman said she had known the alleged rapist as an acquaintance. He had been nice to her, offering her food and money and rides on several occasions after seeing her on the streets. Once, Owens said, he even offered her $50 for sex. But she had said no, Owens said.
One evening in May, however, the man she allegedly knew as “Kevin” rolled up in his black Hummer at a train station where she was sitting with friends. He asked if she would like to get a cup of coffee, Owens said, and this time the homeless woman decided to take him up on the offer.
But instead of coffee, Owens said, the man drove her to a remote location, pulled over, pulled her out of the vehicle by her wrists and raped her anally in the dirt along the roadside. She screamed, so then he choked her, Owens said.
“He left her on the side of the road, and she walked all the way, through the night, to coastal Encinitas,” Owens said. “She was afraid he was going to come after her, she was afraid she was going to find her, and so she went and sat in a taco shop by herself.”
Police, who knew the famous football player lived in the area, began investigating him based on the information provided by the women. Two others, ages 71 and 86, also came forward to identify him as the suspect who broke into their home. And just weeks after the alleged May rape, a 57-year-old woman called police to report that a man riding a bike and matching Winslow’s description approached her while she was tending to flowers in her yard — and dropped his pants to expose himself.
Police pulled him over and obtained a sample of his DNA on June 7, Owens said. It matched the profile of the semen found on the hitchhiker’s pants, he said.
Owens said Winslow then had his Hummer detailed and promptly sold it, which Owens described as an attempt to cover up any evidence. The women’s DNA was not found in the vehicle, he said, although Winslow’s sperm was. A bike matching the one the 57-year-old gardener described to police was found in Winslow’s home, Owens said. He was arrested June 14, prompting the fourth accuser to come forward.
“Kellen Winslow is a man who has been given much,” said Owens. “He reached the top heights of his profession. He reportedly has earned $40 million himself as a football player. He was born the son of a man who himself had achieved great heights in his profession. ... But it was not enough for Mr. Winslow to be given what he had in life. Instead he took from these women.”
This past March, prosecutors say, while Winslow was out on bail, he exposed himself to a 77-year-old woman in a hot tub at a fitness center, masturbating while sitting next to her.
He has remained jailed without bail since then.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated prosecutor Dan Owens’s first name.