ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills released punter Matt Araiza two days after a civil lawsuit was filed alleging he and two of his former San Diego State teammates gang raped a minor. All three are accused of rape, gender violence and false imprisonment.
“This is bigger than football,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said Saturday night. “Let’s just step back and [let Araiza] go handle this. That’s what we thought was most important.”
Beane said in a news conference held over two hours after practice ended in the team’s fieldhouse that the decision was made to release Araiza earlier that afternoon.
Araiza was not at practice Saturday after being held out of Friday’s preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. He was not on the sideline during the game or in the locker room afterward. He traveled back to Buffalo on the team plane and has not spoken with reporters since the civil suit was filed.
In a statement released during the game Friday, Araiza said, “The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press. I look forward to quickly setting the record straight.”
“With the serious nature and allegations, and we just can’t, we don’t have the means to put all the facts together,” Beane said. “There’s multiple versions of what happened, and [Sean McDermott’s] a football coach, I’m a GM. We don’t have access to everything, and so that’s more important than playing football. And so, we want Matt to focus on that.”
Beane confirmed that the team got the “boulders” of what was being accused by the plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe, when the team’s assistant general counsel, Kathryn D’Angelo, spoke to her lawyer, Dan Gilleon, in late July. During that call, Beane said, Gilleon “laid out some of the things that they were accusing Matt and others of.”
“Doing the best we could with our resources, talking to the league, using our people to try and find information,” Beane said of the team’s investigation. “But ultimately, there’s a lot of things that we have not pieced together even today. We’re just trying to do the best we could and be thoughtful and not rush to judgment.”
Gilleon told ESPN that only the one conversation was had between Jane Doe’s representation and the Bills after Gilleon sent emails to different members of the team’s legal representation July 30 and 31, as seen by ESPN.
Asked if Doe’s words were enough for the team, Beane said they were “trying not to rush to judgment and obviously Matt’s version was different and you want to give everyone as much due process as you can. Again, we’re not a judge and a jury.”
In a statement released Thursday, the team said it “conducted a thorough examination of this matter.” Beane said Saturday that the team probably should have described the examination as “ongoing” because it wasn’t completed.
The lawsuit accuses Araiza, who was 21 at the time, of having sex with a then-17-year-old high school senior, who was under the age of consent in California, outside an off-campus party held at his residence in the early morning of Oct. 17, 2021. The suit states that Araiza then took her inside the home, where at least three other men, including the other two defendants named in the suit — Zavier Leonard, a redshirt freshman with the Aztecs, and Nowlin Ewaliko, who is no longer on the team’s roster — were located and that she was repeatedly raped for about an hour and a half. The lawsuit states that nose, belly button and ear piercings were pulled out during the acts and that she was bleeding from her vagina.
Araiza’s criminal attorney, Kerry Armstrong, told ESPN that his client spoke with the girl at the party but that the rape allegations are “just untrue.”
In a statement, Armstrong said, “I am sure he is very upset and disappointed that his career with the Bills ended not because he played poorly, but because of false allegations leveled against him by a young lady and her attorney. I hope he is back in the NFL soon.”
As far as the timing of when the Bills were informed, Beane said he could not remember if Araiza or Gilleon, Jane Doe’s attorney, first told the team of the accusations. Beane said both took place around the same time.
While an initial story by the Los Angeles Times was published June 3, connecting five current or former San Diego State football players to a rape, a follow-up story including more of Doe’s perspective was published July 29. Based on accounts from multiple parties, the Bills were contacted by both sides sometime after the second story was published.
Araiza was selected by the Bills in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL draft. Beane said they have reached out to a double-digit number of teams and “no one had anything on this” prior to the draft. Araiza received significant attention in the preseason for an 82-yard punt against the Denver Broncos.
“The Buffalo Bills had no choice but to cut their young punter after so badly botching their response to our claim,” Gilleon said in a statement. “They ignored us, as though what I warned them would happen could be avoided if they just kept their heads in the sand. This is what enablers do.”
A criminal investigation is ongoing into the alleged events, with the San Diego Police Department turning its investigation over to the district attorney’s office as well as an investigation by San Diego State under the California State University systemwide policy.
The NFL said in a statement that it was aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment. Because the alleged rape happened before Araiza was drafted, he would not be subject to the league’s personal conduct policy.
Bills co-owner Terry Pegula was kept updated on the situation when new information came up, but Beane said that Kim Pegula, the Bills’ co-owner and team president who has not been in public around the team and whose role is unclear since a health issue was first shared June 14, was not consulted.
The Bills released Matt Haack, the team’s punter in 2021, on Monday and had given Araiza the job for the 2022 season. The team has no punters on the roster. Quarterback Matt Barkley punted four times for the Bills against the Panthers.
“That’s a tough one. You can second-guess whether that was the right move,” Beane said on the satisfaction with the information gathered on Araiza for the team to release Haack. “We’ll definitely look at that going forward if this situation or similar situation happens.”
Haack signed with the Indianapolis Colts last week.