In 2010, Darren Sharper was a hero.
As he closed out his NFL career, he played safety for the New Orleans Saints that year, the only season in which the team ever made it to the Super Bowl. Previously he had played for the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings and, in college, for William & Mary.
To many in New Orleans, that Super Bowl was a healing of sorts following Hurricane Katrina’s decimation of the city. As The Washington Post wrote, “Around here, people feel like they need the Saints to win the Super Bowl.”
The Saints won with a last-minute pick-six from Tracy Porter that made grown men cry and a city erupt with dancing and jubilation, joy after so much heartbreak.
Behind Porter ran Sharper with his hand in the air, index finger pointed upward in the classic “We’re No. 1” gesture.
After that game, New Orleans built a 121,000 square-foot, open-air plaza outside the Superdome celebrating the victory. Fittingly called Champion’s Square, it prominently featured a two-story-high image of Porter and Sharper in their victory run.
Fans excitedly cheered him when he later became an NFL analyst. While known for being a ladies’ man, he seemed like a dedicated father — a photo of him with an arm wrapped around his daughter appeared in “NFL Dads Dedicated to Daughters,” a book created by the NFL and A Call to Men, a national organization dedicated to raising awareness of domestic and sexual violence.
In it, Sharper wrote, “My daughter makes me mindful of how women are treated: undervalued and exploited. Which is why I feel compelled to take advantage of this opportunity to speak up about domestic violence.”
But in the shadows he was the exact opposite of what he preached. He was a serial rapist destroying women’s lives.
And Thursday in New Orleans, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo sentenced Sharper to 18 years in prison for drugging at least nine women across four states in order to rape them, all crimes to which he either pleaded guilty or no contest.
He is awaiting sentencing in California, Nevada and a local New Orleans court on rape charges as well, according to the Advocate. He already has received a nine-year sentence in Arizona, to run concurrently with Thursday’s sentence.
Milazzo said there could be as many as 16 victims in all, as not all of the allegations became formal complaints, the AP reported. Sharper entered a global plea deal in federal court, consolidating the drug cases.
At the hearing, one of his victims called him a “twisted” man and told him to “go to hell.”
Of course, the ache of football fans does not come close to agony experienced by his victims, women Sharper overpowered with drugs and then raped.
Sharper encouraged at least two people — Erik Nunez and former St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Brandon Licciardi — to spike women’s drinks so he could rape them, the Associated Press reported.
The first known victim was a New Orleans Saints cheerleader.
Detective Derrick Williams of the New Orleans Police Department got the call before dawn on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2013, from an unnamed cheerleader, who told a story of spending the night drinking in the French Quarter before going home with Sharper, where she passed out.
When she woke, his body was on top of hers, and they were naked.
Before long, police had matched Sharper’s DNA to a swab taken from the cheerleader’s body and had several eyewitness accounts of Sharper and the woman together both at the club and his condo. In addition, there was video footage of the two together.
One witness, a bar manager named Tony Stafford, said he had seen Sharper and the woman together earlier that evening. Stafford was concerned, as the woman was stumbling around as if in a fugue.
According to Stafford, Sharper told him that the woman was okay, and he was taking her back to his apartment.
“She’s on the potion. She’s ready,” Sharper reportedly told Stafford.
Later, Stafford said of the night, “[Sharper] was going home with a zombie.”
It seemed like a slam dunk case, ProPublica reported, but the district attorney’s office was hesitant to attempt prosecuting such a well-known and wealthy figure. They called the case a “heater,” slang for a high-profile case.
“If his name was John Brown, he would have been in jail,” a criminal justice official familiar with the case told ProPublica. “If a woman says, ‘He’s the guy that raped me,’ and you have corroborating evidence to show they were together and she went to the hospital and she can identify him, that guy goes to jail.”
But many reports followed in the next year.
The cheerleader in the French Quarter was one of the nine women who reported being raped, drugged or both by Sharper before he was finally arrested in January 2014. Each time, prosecutors hesitated.
Sharper wasn’t arrested until January 2014, when he was booked in Los Angeles in connection with attacks on four women who were either drugged or raped or both over a 24 hour period.
According to the police report from that arrest, Sharper met two women on Jan. 14, 2014, at the Bootsy Bellows night club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, after they attended a party at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles for a 50th anniversary party for Sports Illustrated. The three made plans to go to another club, and Sharper offered the women a ride.
First, he claimed he had to pick something up from his hotel room. They joined him in the room, and he made vodka and cranberry shots for them.
The drinks tasted odd to the women, and within 10 minutes, they had blacked out. The next morning, one felt vaginal pain and a burning sensation when she urinated.
The two filed a police report the next day, and a judge issued an arrest warrant.
By then, Jan. 15, 2014, Sharper was already in Las Vegas, where he met with two women and their male companion.
According to a police report, all three of them blacked out after having drinks made by Sharper in his hotel room.
One woman recalls having sex with him but feeling unable to stop it — she did not do so willingly. The other felt like she had sex but couldn’t remember doing so.
And the male present woke up in the hotel lobby with no memory of how he arrived there.
Sharper flew back to Los Angeles where he was promptly arrested on Jan. 17, USA Today reported.
Prosecutors recommended nine years in prison for the 40-year-old Sharper, which sparked anger.
“This is what happens to a serial rapist who admitted to committing horrific crimes, over and over? To be sentenced to just nine years on top of his time served?” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, told the Times-Picayune. “It’s an outrage for the sentence to be so lenient.”
Milazzo rejected that nine-year sentence in February and followed up with the 18 year sentence Thursday.
The cheerleader from the French Quarter who Sharper raped in 2013 offered a statement at the hearing.
“You gave me and the entire judicial system the big middle finger because you thought we weren’t capable of stopping you,” she said to Sharper, the Advocate reported. “But … your biggest mistake was the night you chose me. … You can’t do what you did to me or any other girl and get away with it — not on my watch.”
Then, she reminded Sharper about how he spoke against domestic violence in that NFL book, in which he was pictured with his daughter.
“So rape is acceptable but not domestic violence?” she said. “Go to hell.”
Sharper also spoke.
While his parents, brother and victim watched, he said through tears, “This is all on me — I take full responsibility for that. I still don’t know why I lived my life right for 38 years, and then I took this path.”
Last May, after his arrest, the city of New Orleans took down that triumphant Super Bowl image of Sharper.
“It’s common sense. We don’t even want the perception that that’s an individual we’re celebrating,” Saints executive Ben Hales told The Advocate.
Added Hales, “The shame of it is, that’s an iconic moment from the Super Bowl. People can probably do the TV and radio call in their head. There just happens to be somebody in the background who is not someone our organization or the NFL Network is likely to be celebrating.”