"The thing I remember is his size," she says now. "The man is gigantic. When he stood in the doorway, he filled the entire frame." The man is a Minnesota icon, fondly remembered for his ability to sack quarterbacks as one of the Vikings' famed "Purple People Eaters" defensive line. But the woman's recollection of Carl Eller and their encounter 11 years ago, when she was a 19-year-old sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, is anything but fond.
The woman, who spoke to City Pages on condition that she would not be identified (we'll refer to her as "Catherine"), now works as a county prosecutor in Florida. She's been thinking about that day a lot, she says, since hearing of Eller's arrest last month in North Mankato, after another woman alleged that he had sexually assaulted her. "Oh my God," she remembers thinking. "That girl couldn't get away like I did."
St. Peter Police Department records show that on November 14, 1988, Catherine reported having been "inappropriately touched" by Eller, who was on campus to speak to students about sobriety. Eller was never arrested or charged in connection with the incident. He declined to speak to City Pages about the case for this story; in a statement released through Andrew Birrell, the attorney who is representing him in the North Mankato case, he acknowledges that "there was a claim in 1988, but it was never charged because I was innocent and there wasn't any evidence to support the charge."
Sources familiar with the case say a monetary settlement was reached between Eller and Catherine. Catherine declined to comment; Birrell will not confirm that but observes that "cases are settled all the time because of their nuisance value. Mr. Eller, as a public figure, is certainly a target for people to make false claims about." (Records in Ramsey and Hennepin counties show no criminal charges or convictions against Eller.)
Eller, who went through substance-abuse treatment after his retirement from the Vikings in 1979, operates a counseling center called Triumph Life Services and recently took a position as a policy analyst with the state Department of Human Services; he often speaks about his experiences to audiences at high schools and colleges. On that November day in '88, he was lecturing at Gustavus at the invitation of the college's alcohol education office, where Catherine was a volunteer. A lifelong Vikings fan, she happily accepted an invitation to help escort him around campus.
Transcripts of interviews conducted by St. Peter police after the incident outline Catherine's version of events: A group of students took Eller out to dinner, gave him a tour of the student union, and walked him to a guesthouse where Gustavus puts up campus visitors. Eller asked the students to stay and "watch TV or whatever and relax." Then he turned to Catherine, asking whether she could come back later to talk about a designated-driver program she had organized.
"[I said] 'Well, we can just talk about it right now because Sue [Schultz, another student] is here too and Sue is doing it with me,'" Catherine told police. "And he said, 'Well, I would really feel more comfortable if you and I would just talk about it alone.' I said, 'Okay, that's fine.'" After Eller autographed photos for the students, Catherine said, Schultz and the other escort left.
Eller then asked to see the rest of the guesthouse, the transcript continues: "I started to get a little nervous. I thought that he seemed to be having other things on his mind." When Eller offered to show her some brochures he had written, she followed him to the bedroom. While she was sitting on a chair looking at brochures, she told police, "He was turning off the lights and he was pulling the drapes shut. I was totally paranoid now because I knew that he had other things in mind than the designated driver program." After asking Eller a few questions about the pamphlet, she got up to leave. But, she told police, he pulled her down onto the bed, put his legs around her, and started to give her a back rub. "I immediately got up from that and said, 'No, I have to go,'" she stated. She said Eller blocked the doorway and tried to hug and kiss her. "He said, 'One more hug before you go.' He spun me around, pressed up against me, put his head down, put his lips on mine, stuck his tongue in....He was moving...up and down, kissing me....I broke away....I left the guesthouse, ran to my dorm room."
Sobbing, Catherine called her home in the Twin Cities. Her mother contacted Judy Douglas, the head of the alcohol education office, who says she in turn alerted the dean of students. By midnight Catherine was at the St. Peter police station telling her story to Sgt. Jerry Yushta, who also called in the other two student escorts to give statements. But he didn't bring in Eller. "I specifically told [police], 'He's at the guesthouse,' and yet they didn't make contact with him," Catherine remembers. "Seems like they showed more deference to [him] than to me." Yushta says Eller had "packed up and left" by the time he tried to reach him.
Yushta's report indicates that he did reach Eller the next day and conducted a "fairly short" phone interview, during which the former football star denied any wrongdoing. "At any time did you touch her buttocks?" Yushta asked. "Ah, I'm not sure that I did," Eller responded.
"Was there a kiss involved with this?"
"Oh, there may have been just a, you know, a peck on the cheek or something like that."
"No lip to lip?"
"No, I don't know."
Yushta says he hoped to reinterview Eller at a later date but received a letter from him saying that "all communication needed to go through" Eller's Twin Cities attorney.
Concluding that he had enough evidence to prosecute the case, the sergeant asked county attorneys to charge Eller with fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct. But Assistant Nicollet County Attorney Jerold Lucas responded in a letter that while "the various reports describe a situation where the perpetrator touched the clothing covering [Catherine's] buttocks, kissed her on the lips, and hugged her," there had "not been a violation of the criminal sexual [conduct] statutes."
Yushta says he was disappointed in the outcome and adds that he considered Catherine a credible witness. "In interviews, what people say is one thing, and what they're displaying is more important," he elaborates. "I had a genuine feeling that this was something she had not anticipated. This particular case bothered me--that something like this could happen and there was no criminal case."
For her part, Catherine says the county attorney's office never contacted her about the case. Thinking back, she says she was "very naive" at the time; still, she adds, she can't understand why there was no charge. "It has bugged me for years. Assault is an intentional touching against one's will. Even a simple assault should have been filed." Nicollet County Attorney Michael Riley Sr. declined to comment on the case.
Prosecutors often find it difficult to build criminal sexual conduct cases, especially in situations that lack witnesses or physical evidence, says University of Minnesota Law School professor Mary Louise Fellows. "Remember that the prosecutor, in order to go forward with a case, has to not just have probable cause, they have to believe that a jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," the law professor explains. "If the defendant is a celebrity, there may be more ways for a defense attorney to say, 'Isn't this for the purpose for trying to get money?' or 'Don't you have an ulterior motive?'"
It remains to be seen how those considerations will play out in the more recent case involving Eller. According to North Mankato police reports, a woman called police from a pay phone at a SuperAmerica at about 2:00 a.m. on April 21, saying she'd been sexually assaulted. Capt. Wayne Hoffman, one of the investigating officers, says the woman is a student at Mankato State University.
Hoffman says police arrested Eller, who was in the area on speaking engagements, at a nearby motel, and that he was released later that day on his own recognizance. Eller has since told reporters that he has known the woman for "about a year" and that they had consensual sex. County Attorney Riley says they have not yet decided whether to file charges in connection with the incident.