Swamp manager asked that charge against Hernandez be dropped
Published: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.
The man who, according to a 2007 Gainesville police report, was punched in the head by Aaron Hernandez asked the state attorney to drop the felony battery charge weeks later, after telling police he had spoken with legal staff and coaches from the University of Florida about settling the case.
Questions remain whether the man received financial consideration for dropping the case against the former Gator now at the heart of a murder investigation in Massachusetts. Such a payment could be considered preferential treatment provided to a student-athlete under NCAA rules, though the statute of limitations for any such violation is five years.
The state dropped its case against Hernandez after the request from Michael Taphorn, who was the manager of The Swamp Restaurant and had alleged that Hernandez struck him in a dispute over a bar tab.
"This case was dropped at the request of the victim," State Attorney Bill Cervone told a reporter Tuesday after consulting the notes on the case.
Cervone said it is common in the case of a first-time offender, where no long-term harm is done, to drop a case if the victim declines to pursue charges or participate in the case. "This is a garden-variety case in my world," Cervone said.
About two weeks after the April 28, 2007, altercation, Taphorn told police he might ask to have the charges dropped because he had been "contacted by legal staff and coaches with UF and they are working on an agreement; however, nothing has been finalized."
Reached by phone last week, Taphorn refused to discuss whether he had struck a deal with UF or with people representing the school, the team or Hernandez.
"I have no comment on that. Thank you very much," Taphorn said.
Asked if his silence was a condition of an agreement, he repeated: "I have no comment" and hung up.
Huntley Johnson, a Gainesville lawyer who represented Hernandez in 2007 and has represented dozens of Gator players over the years, refused to comment on whether he or anyone from his firm talked to Taphorn about dropping the charges.
"I have no comment at this time," Johnson said last week.
Asked if there was ever an agreement reached with Taphorn to have the charges against Hernandez dropped, Janine Sikes, assistant vice president for media relations and public affairs at UF, said: "No one from the university's general counsel's office was involved in this matter."
Asked to clarify if that meant there was a settlement or agreement of some kind, Sikes said: "It doesn't have anything to do with the university. It was not a University of Florida issue. There is no involvement by us at all."
When asked whether the university knew of any such agreement, she said: "The University of Florida did not strike any agreement. If there is one, it is not with us."
Steve McClain, senior associate athletic director of communications for the University Athletic Association, said neither "UF legal counsel nor anyone from the UAA administration met with the victim. In addition, we do not have any knowledge of the football staff ... meeting with the victim. "
Stuart Brown, an Indianapolis lawyer who specializes in NCAA compliance issues, said the issue is whether preferential treatment of a student-athlete occurred. In order to be eligible, an athlete has to be an amateur, which means he can't be paid, Brown said. Some of the things that constitute pay include preferential treatment - services and benefits that aren't available to most other students.
Were a university official, representative or athletic booster to ask a victim to drop charges against a "student-athlete because of their status ... and that couldn't occur except for that kid's status, a question could arise whether that's preferential treatment," Brown said.
On the other hand, the university could have a legal obligation to talk to the victim in a case to look after the student-athlete's welfare or to help ascertain what kind of internal discipline might be appropriate, Brown said.
Hernandez, a former tight end with the New England Patriots, has been charged with murder in connection with the Massachusetts shooting death of semi-pro player Odin Lloyd. Hernandez also is being investigated in another double murder there and is being sued over another shooting in South Florida.
The murder charges and connection to other shootings has led to an investigation of other incidents in Hernandez's background, including the fight at The Swamp and Hernandez being questioned in connection with a Gainesville shooting five months later.
Hernandez was 17 at the time of The Swamp altercation and had not yet played a game for the Gators. He had been recruited by then-offensive coach Steve Addazio, who is the current head coach at Boston College. Chris Cameron, associate director of athletics at BC, said coach Addazio was on vacation and that before he left, he "authorized us to respectfully decline any interview requests regarding Aaron Hernandez, which we have done for the past 10 days."
Addazio was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying he knew of no off-field problems while Hernandez was at UF.
Hernandez, Tim Tebow and Shaun Young were at The Swamp on April 28, 2007, when Hernandez got into an argument with Taphorn over the non-payment of a bill for two alcoholic drinks, according to police reports. Tebow tried to resolve the dispute by offering to pay the tab and get Hernandez to leave peacefully.
Taphorn escorted Hernandez out of the restaurant and turned to go back inside when Hernandez punched Taphorn in the head, bursting his eardrum, reports said.
Taphorn refused medical treatment on the scene but later saw his doctor, police said. He told police his doctor said he had a burst eardrum and that it would take four to six weeks to heal.
After police got the medical report, they filed a sworn complaint with the State Attorney's Office recommending felony battery charges.
The police didn't pursue underage drinking charges against Hernandez "because we could not prove exactly who it was that provided the alcohol, and we would have had to witness it," Officer Ben Tobias of the Gainesville Police Department said.
Gainesville police officers said they notified UF about the altercation. University of Florida Police Department spokesman Maj. Brad Barber said there was no record at UF related to The Swamp incident.
"Anytime a student is involved in a serious crime, we are notified of that," Barber said. If the student happens to be a player, then UPD would notify the UAA, he said.
Investigating underage alcohol cases is costly and time-consuming, Cervone said. "I am not going to spend state money proving the beverage (served) was alcohol," he said.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation issues alcoholic beverage licenses and investigates allegations of selling alcohol to minors. Since 2007, there have been three reports of criminal activity at The Swamp and one enforcement action.
Ronald A. DeFilippo, president of The Swamp, did not respond to several requests for an interview.