Six months after Ronaldo was accused of rape, why is the case in legal limbo?
ON A WARM October day in Las Vegas, we slip our car into a parking lot wedged between two buildings, then push open the door to the lawyer's office. My colleague, Nicole Noren, and I figure this will be simple. We are in Nevada reporting on the rape allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo, and we want to meet Ronaldo's attorneys, as well as the lawyers representing Kathryn Mayorga, the woman accusing him.
Normally, this sort of meeting is pretty straightforward for journalists. Lawyers, particularly those who do a lot of personal injury work in places with no shortage of clients like Las Vegas, almost always have a strong perspective on a case and are generally happy to tell you all about it. When those clients are celebrities and the cases are in the public eye, that chattiness -- on the record or on background -- is amped up even more.
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We have seen news reports that a lawyer named Peter Christiansen is representing Ronaldo, though we have not confirmed this, and even if it is true, we are not sure which Peter Christiansen -- there is a Peter J. and a Peter S. in this office. We find the Christiansen Law Offices down the street from a bail bondsman and a wedding chapel. We go inside and, seeing no receptionist or secretary, follow a sign for "Christiansen" down a hall.
We step into an office where two women and a man are sitting. We identify ourselves and ask if we can either talk to or make an appointment with one of the Christiansens. The women physically recoil.
"You have to leave right now," one of them replies. Her voice rises. "You're not allowed to be here. You have to go. You have to go."
She is frantic. I explain that there is no one at the front desk area so we'd decided to walk back. I ask if we can leave a message or even just confirm which Peter Christiansen is Ronaldo's lawyer. The woman becomes more animated. "You need to leave right now!" she says. "I can call the police if I need to."
We back away, confused. "A lawyer won't even confirm he is representing someone? That's never happened to me before," I say to Nicole as we walk to the car. She nods. "Never for me either."
The whole thing feels strange. We look over our shoulders and see the woman from the office watching us as we leave. She peers out the door as we drive away.
THERE IS A lot that feels unusual about this case: the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime, the start-stop-start-again police investigation, the fallout (or lack thereof) that comes with the world's most famous athlete being accused of committing a violent sex crime.
A big part of this is the timeline. According to Mayorga, Ronaldo raped her in the early hours of June 13, 2009, after she and a friend met him at a club and spent part of the previous evening together. Mayorga, then 25, reported the assault to Las Vegas police that afternoon. She did not identify Ronaldo by name at that time, she says, because he was a public figure and she felt intimidated. She was taken to a hospital and had a rape kit examination.
In the following months, according to Mayorga's attorneys, private investigators hired by Ronaldo's European lawyers trailed her and recorded her movements. She also claims that Ronaldo's lawyers, working with private investigators and crisis consultants, pushed for an out-of-court settlement that would require her to drop all charges; they also tried, she says, to use that potential outcome to dissuade police from investigating. Ultimately, Mayorga signed a nondisclosure agreement with Ronaldo's team in January 2010. She received roughly $375,000, and police closed the investigation.
More than seven years later, in 2017, German magazine Der Spiegel published a story about an alleged rape committed by Ronaldo, without naming Mayorga. Much of the information for the story came from emails, memos and documents Der Spiegel received from a computer hacking group known as Football Leaks, a website primarily focused on exposing the murky underworld of international soccer business transactions and relationships.
Ronaldo's agent denied and discredited the report, saying that the documents were obtained illegally and claiming it was illegal for Der Spiegel to publish on the subject. A year and a half later, in September 2018, Der Spiegel published another report on the case, this time naming and interviewing Mayorga. In that story, she described, in graphic detail, how Ronaldo assaulted and anally raped her, as well as her years of suffering in the aftermath. Der Spiegel also unearthed a trove of documents related to the case, again obtained via Football Leaks, including one in which Ronaldo described the encounter to his lawyer as "rude" and admitted Mayorga "said no and stop several times."
Ronaldo's European attorneys have denied the allegations and questioned the documents' authenticity. Around the same time, Las Vegas police reopened their investigation into the alleged act, eight years after closing it. (In Nevada, the statute of limitations on rape cases is 20 years.) Mayorga, meanwhile, announced later in September that she is suing Ronaldo. Her new lawyer, a man named Leslie Stovall, contends that the documents detailing what happened in the aftermath of the alleged rape show an attempted and improper cover-up. The intimidation of Mayorga by Ronaldo's private investigators and their interactions with police while the case was being investigated were designed to "prevent or delay criminal prosecution," Stovall told Der Spiegel in October, adding that "hiding a crime is a crime."
Stovall also told Der Spiegel that the original nondisclosure agreement is not valid for many reasons, including Ronaldo's failure to comply with parts of it. Most notably, Stovall believes that correspondence between Ronaldo's agents and lawyers shows that a letter Mayorga wrote to Ronaldo after the settlement was reached -- in which she describes her pain and upbraids him -- was never read to Ronaldo, despite that being a requirement of the agreement.
Presumably, all of this is a massive development-only it isn't. Stovall holds a news conference on Oct. 3 at his tiny offices on the outskirts of Las Vegas and livestreams it (with dodgy audio) on his firm's Facebook page. The volume of news coverage around the world is hardly overwhelming, and social media is surprisingly muted.
This dissonance is jarring, particularly when one considers the base reality: The most famous player in the world's most popular sport has been accused of doing something that, should he be convicted, could mean a life sentence in prison. (Rape is a Category A felony in Nevada.)
This is more than gossip, more than a misunderstanding. The stakes are real, and everyone waits to see what will happen next.
Except ... nothing does.
IT'S BEEN MORE than five months since Stovall announced Mayorga's lawsuit and the police reopened their investigation. There has been no announcement about whether charges will be filed against Ronaldo, no update on whether the police have discovered anything that makes them believe officers were compromised during the initial investigation. Police did request a DNA sample from Ronaldo, which is common and, since Ronaldo's team doesn't deny that there was a sexual encounter, not necessarily that damaging.
It is a disquieting limbo. While Mayorga, according to her attorneys, is still battling depression related to the alleged assault and has spent many weeks away from home in Nevada to avoid the media crush, Ronaldo has not faced any significant fallout. He continues to score goals and post photos of his family, his team celebrations and his impeccable physique on Instagram to his 156.3 million followers. His main American sponsors -- Nike and EA Sports -- made statements expressing concern about the allegations but took no substantive action.
Ronaldo's club is steadfast in its support. Juventus, an Italian club looking to keep up with more popular, wealthier teams in England and Spain, broke the league transfer record to sign Ronaldo last July and, even with a rape accusation dangling over its new star, basks in his fame: Shares are up; millions of fans are latching on to the club's social platforms; ticket and jersey sales are soaring.
Initially, it seemed as though Ronaldo thought this would simply go away. In an Instagram Live post shortly after the lawsuit was announced, he casually described Mayorga's allegations as "fake news" and said it was "normal" that someone would "wanna be famous -- to say my name." He added that situations like this are "part of the job."
Ronaldo kept with that theme when he released a more standard statement a few days later in which he denied raping Mayorga and said rape is "an abominable crime," adding, "I refuse to feed the media spectacle created by people seeking to promote themselves at my expense. My clear [conscience] will thereby allow me to await with tranquillity the results of any and all investigations."
That last part might be a clue to his legal team's approach: running the clock. While the criminal investigation slogs on, Mayorga's civil suit against Ronaldo has stalled as well. That is primarily because Ronaldo has still not officially been served notice of the lawsuit. Serving a lawsuit to someone who lives abroad is a tricky process that requires following rules set forth in international treaties, and Ronaldo has not authorized his American attorney to accept on his behalf. Peter S. Christiansen, who has not returned ESPN's calls and messages since the visit to his office, isn't even listed as an attorney of record in the court's digital filing of Mayorga's lawsuit. That space is blank.
Stovall and his associates have been unsuccessful serving Ronaldo in Italy. The initial 120-day period expired at the beginning of February, and Stovall has filed a motion asking the court to grant an extension and to allow service by leaving the paperwork at Juventus' training center or via public notification (publishing the lawsuit in Las Vegas and Turin newspapers in lieu of handing Ronaldo a copy). According to portions of the motion published by the Daily Mail, an English tabloid, the Italian process server hired by Stovall spent several months trying to serve Ronaldo but was stymied at every turn. At one point, per the motion, the server reported that Juventus players are treated "like royalty" in Turin, making it nearly impossible to access Ronaldo. From Ronaldo's perspective, that is presumably the idea.
"A rich defendant can wear down a plaintiff with lesser means," says Abed Awad, an attorney and legal commentator with experience in international law. "It's a delaying tactic, and it's a calculated strategy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires."
Maybe, at some point, there will be a criminal charge. Maybe, at some point, the civil case will proceed. For now, only dribs and drabs tumble out, barely registering beneath the regular cacophony of a famous athlete's buzz: Ronaldo's mother said she believes Mayorga knew when she went to Ronaldo's hotel that it "wasn't to play cards." A former girlfriend of Ronaldo's has said she was bullied and threatened by him. (After speaking with her, Stovall says he doesn't see a helpful connection.) In January, Ronaldo had a different brush with the law, this time in Spain, where he settled a tax evasion charge stemming from his time at Real Madrid. Meanwhile, the rape case is in limbo.
This, it seems, is the reality of fame. The type of fame Ronaldo enjoys means power -- the power to hide in plain sight, to appear on screens in every country every weekend yet avoid being served. Ronaldo might not be above the law, but he can surround himself with a protective layer of lawyers, private investigators and fixers so thick he can hover above it for a lot longer than most.
And so, Ronaldo continues to score goals. Juventus continues to thrive. And Mayorga, with her scars now bared to all the world, continues to wait.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March World Fame 100 issue. Subscribe today!