Details of recruit's crime are murky.
Even now, almost three years after the tragic events that led to the death of one teen-ager and the imprisonment of three others, details on what sparked the brutality involving Oregon football recruit Rodney Woods are still unclear.
Woods, a sophomore at Fresno (Calif.) City College, has signed a letter of intent to play football for the Ducks contingent on a felony assault charge being reduced to a misdemeanor. Woods pleaded no contest to assaulting another youth during the brawl on May 19, 2000 that claimed the life of 18-year-old Christopher O'Leary, a death in connection with which Woods was originally charged.
That charge was later dismissed, but Woods still served nearly a year in jail for assaulting Kevin Walker, a friend of O'Leary's. Saddled with a felony, Woods had a scholarship offer from Fresno State rescinded and enrolled at Fresno City, for which he has been a two-time junior college all-American at defensive back.
"I've never been a bad kid," Woods told the Fresno Bee in 2001 after his freshman season at FCC. "Something just happened, something I'm so sorry about. I don't want people to look at me as a bad guy.
"With God's help, I've learned a lot about responsibility and acting like a man."
Attempts to reach Woods on Monday through the junior college and the player's lawyer were unsuccessful.
Since entering FCC, Woods has won a state JC triple jump championship in track and field and was named a team captain for football coach Tony Caviglia, who last week called the cornerback "one of the best kids I've ever coached."
On Friday, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti confirmed the Ducks' recruitment of Woods on the condition that the felony is reduced to a lesser charge; a hearing on the matter is pending until Feb. 28 so that a court-appointed psychologist can examine Woods to determine whether he is a danger to society.
Woods had no criminal record before the events of May 19, 2000, though he had been disciplined twice for fighting at Littlerock (Calif.) High School, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.
The Daily News has reported on Woods and fellow defendants Marcus Raines and Richard Newton from the beginning, and what follows is an account of Woods' involvement in the situation culled from stories filed by the newspaper over the past three years.
On the evening of May 19, 2000, Woods, Raines and Newton - all 17 years old, all members of the Littlerock football team - attended a birthday party at a teammate's house in Palmdale, Calif. Witnesses reported alcohol and drugs being consumed at the party, which was also attended by Stacy Holzer, a Littlerock cheerleader and O'Leary's girlfriend.
As midnight approached, O'Leary arrived at the party by car to pick up Holzer. At that point witness accounts diverge, leaving investigators unable to corroborate what led to the deadly beating even three years later.
Some said O'Leary was upset when he arrived. Others said Holzer didn't want to leave.
An early account by a defense witness said Woods had a verbal altercation with O'Leary, then went to the back yard to fetch Raines and Newton. Another account had Newton first confronting O'Leary.
Regardless, prosecutors maintain that O'Leary turned away from a confrontation with Newton, who then threw a punch to O'Leary's head that caused the victim's eyes to roll back, and he fell to the sidewalk. The impact with the ground, according to the testimony of one pathologist, may have been the deadliest blow.
Holzer testified at a hearing in 2001 that she then bent down over O'Leary, only to have Raines kick him in the head. At least two witnesses said that Woods was also involved in the fatal assault on O'Leary, and the father of the victim still holds Woods accountable as the instigator of the fatal encounter.
Eventually, though, charges of murder and assault against Woods were dropped when an overwhelming number of witnesses contradicted the account of the two bystanders who said Woods helped assault O'Leary.
"The testimony of the eyewitnesses indicate that (Woods) did not participate in the attack on (O'Leary)," Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney John Portillo told the Fresno Bee. "He did attempt to involve himself, but a friend held him back. He probably owes that friend a lot."
After O'Leary was beaten, Walker realized what had happened and protested to the assailants, Palmdale sheriff's detective Steve Lankford told the Daily News.
"(Walker) confronted them about what they did when he saw that it was his friend O'Leary who had been assaulted," Lankford said. "He was struck once in the face and then took off running down the street, but was eventually caught and assaulted by several males."
Walker escaped the brawl with cuts and bruises, and O'Leary made it back to his apartment with the help of friends.
But he awoke the next morning and was airlifted to a hospital in serious condition, and three days later O'Leary died after being removed from life support.
The morning after the party, while O'Leary was being transferred to intensive care and treated for his injuries, Woods and Raines participated in a sectional track meet, where each won a pair of titles.
The identity of the assailant who first punched Walker was never determined, but Woods pleaded no contest in the attack. In exchange, his murder and assault charges against O'Leary were dismissed and in January of 2001 Woods was sentenced to a year in jail, with credit for 231 days already served in a juvenile facility.
Raines and Newton are currently serving four-year sentences for manslaughter under terms of separate plea agreements.
By the time Woods was released from jail on April 7, 2001, Fresno State had rescinded its scholarship offer due to a clause in the school's code of conduct barring the recruitment of an athlete with a felony record, according to the Fresno Bee.
In Oregon's case, however, the decision against allowing the recruitment of a felon came from director of athletics Bill Moos.
"That's been my stance on it, in athletics," Moos said Monday. "I can't speak for the broader admissions policy, but that's where we stand in intercollegiate athletics."
University of Oregon president Dave Frohnmayer said Monday that he intends to meet with UO officials to learn more about the Woods matter and declined further comment until after those discussions.
Moos said his policy - apparently enunciated for the first time because of Oregon's recruitment of Woods - will be reiterated to his head coaches in all sports at a meeting today.
"If that young man, or any others, have a felony on their record, we would rescind the scholarship offer," Moos said. "That's why we're waiting to see what happens in the hearing that's upcoming.
"The student-athlete knew that, and our coaches knew that. I had talked to (Bellotti) several weeks ago about it, and had informed (UO vice president) Dan Williams that there might be a possibility here, but if indeed (Woods) did not get the felony reduced to a misdemeanor, the scholarship was then void."
If the conviction is reduced to a misdemeanor, Moos said he is comfortable with the Ducks' signing of Woods "only because of my discussions with (Bellotti), that he is willing to back his decision to offer a scholarship to him based on a great deal of research, not only in the incident but the young man himself and the discipline that he'd gone through, and also his citizenship subsequent to the incident."
Register-Guard sports editor Ron Bellamy contributed to this story.
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|Title Annotation:||UO football: Rodney Woods' criminal record clean before deadly fight.; Sports|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jan 28, 2003|
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