Mike O’Harro says he can’t stop himself from “devouring” newspaper and TV reports about the Duke lacrosse case.
“This all sounds so familiar to me,” says O’Harro.
If O’Harro’s name sounds familiar, either you spend a lot of time on eBay—he’s the site’s biggest single seller, having garnered 65,123 positive reviews as of the afternoon of April 17—or you know that for decades he was the king of this city’s nightlife. The Arlington resident is best remembered for founding what is recognized as our first upscale disco, Tramp’s, as well as the country’s first sports bar, Champions.
But he got out of the business that made him a local hero and a national celebrity in large part because of an incident that in many ways was a D.C. version of the current turmoil in Durham, N.C. In May 1990, a teenager accused four Washington Capitals players of raping and sodomizing her in a limousine parked outside O’Harro’s bar after a team party. O’Harro wasn’t on the premises the night of the alleged attack, but his business had hired the car in which it took place.
Nobody was ever charged criminally for whatever happened that night in the Georgetown alley. But by the time the case was over legally, the accuser had left town, the Capitals had decided to dismantle what to that point was the most successful team in franchise history, and O’Harro was on his way out of barkeeping. He sold Champions to a group of employees in 1992. It closed in 2002, and the cocktail lounge Blue Gin now occupies the sports bar’s former location.
The Caps of the mid-’70s were the worst franchise the league had ever seen. But in the 1980s, management had figured out a way to put together great regular seasons, even if those successes never translated to the playoffs. In the spring of 1990, though, things came together like never before. The Capitals defeated the division rival New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers and made it to the conference championships for the first time. Though the Caps were swept 4-0 by the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup semifinals, the future had never looked so bright heading into an offseason. On the night of May 11, the team held a party to celebrate its recent triumphs and upcoming glories at the only logical place in town: Champions.
Sometime after midnight, a young woman at the party left the bar and got into a limousine with Capitals players she identified as Scott Stevens, Dino Ciccarelli, Geoff Courtnall, and Neil Sheehy. Ciccarelli and Courtnall were the team’s top scorers, Stevens its top defenseman. Sheehy, a Harvard man, was the team’s enforcer, with 291 penalty minutes that season. Hours after the encounter, the accuser told police that she had been drinking heavily at the bar and that she knew the players who had allegedly attacked her, because she was dating one of their teammates.
The named players denied that any forced sexual activity took place.
The accuser’s identity was never made public. However, the already ugly situation got even more unseemly when it was learned that she was just 17 years old. A group calling itself the Outraged Women of Washington protested the pace of the investigation and voiced support for the alleged victim at a rally held outside O’Harro’s bar.
Marty Langelan, a self-defense instructor and former president of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, was among those who attended the rally outside Champions.
“My own personal view was that, yes, it was sexual assault, and no, it wasn’t being handled properly,” recalls Langelan. “To bring a [rape] case forward requires courage, particularly when the perpetrators are star athletes. She knew she was going to be vilified. She could be a nun and people would say she asked for it. But we weren’t there just for the legal situation. This was about public accountability for these athletes. No self-respecting man would take advantage of a child. Go play with people your own size.”
A week after the alleged rape, the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board launched an investigation to see if Champions had broken the law by serving a minor.
O’Harro says he found himself caught between letting his business be destroyed and going after an obviously troubled kid. He hired a private investigator to look into the accuser.
“There’s always an initial rush to judgment in these situations,” he says. “People think the worst of people; that’s human nature. The media loves chasing tales of boys behaving badly. This was my first and only, mind you, experience with something like this. I initially assumed something really did happen, that maybe the girl was raped as she said. It was clear that nobody was going to come out of this a winner. Nobody ever does in these situations. We found out a lot of things about the girl, about her history, that weren’t pretty. She was a teenager running wild—somebody who looked much older than she really was, with all sorts of fake IDs and living as an athletic groupie with all sorts of adult athletes. The whole thing was awful.”
As has happened with the Duke case, D.C. law-enforcement officials gave comments to the press without the evidence to back them up. Lt. Reginald L. Smith, then a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department, told the Washington Post that the cops “have sufficient grounds to believe that a criminal offense did occur.”
But the closest the investigators ever got to a witness to the alleged assault, other than those involved, was the driver of the limousine, and he told police he was standing outside the vehicle when whatever took place took place.
“One thing I can tell you for certain: There were no screams for no help,” recalls the limo driver, who requested his name not be used in this story. “She knew exactly what she was doing. She knew she was going to roll those dummies under a damn bus when she got through with them.”
U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens’ office brought the case to a grand jury a month after the incident, but it refused to return any criminal indictments against the players. No civil suits were ever filed in the matter.
Despite the lack of a criminal case, Capitals management quickly rid the roster of the players involved. The team let Stevens sign as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues in the offseason. Before his 2004 retirement, Stevens had won Stanley Cups as a member of the Devils, and he’s a sure-thing first-ballot NHL Hall of Famer. Courtnall was traded to the Blues that summer, too, and played another 10 years in the NHL. Sheehy never played another regular-season game for the Caps. Ciccarelli, who came to Washington from Minnesota in 1989 in a trade for future Hall of Famers Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy, was given away by the Caps in 1992. Ciccarelli is the only eligible player with 600 goals not to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Just as the Duke lacrosse situation has laid bare Durham’s divisions, by the time the case was over, class and race were made a part of the Capitals story. The Chicago Tribune ran a piece under the headline “Violence, crime tarnish exclusive capital enclave’s tony image,” which spoke of “Georgetown as the neighborhood of the Washington novel, the cobbled streets where, once upon a time, the young Jack Kennedy lived with his wife, the glamorous Jacqueline,” and mentioned the myth that Metro was designed to keep blacks out of the “predominately white neighborhood.”
“But whatever the disposition of events, the life of Georgetown these days seems a long way from Camelot,” read the piece’s kicker.
O’Harro says that, by 1990, he thought he had gotten used to the limelight. Years earlier, he had produced a poster of himself posing with a cocktail, decked out in riding gear and leaning on a Bentley over the heading “Poverty Sucks.” He says it became the biggest-selling poster of all time, outselling even Farrah Fawcett in a swimsuit.
And he was already a legend in the bar business. He opened Tramp’s in 1975—years before Saturday Night Fever or Studio 54 foisted such nightlife on the masses. (He founded the International Discothèque Association and is a member of, ahem, the Disco Hall of Fame.) In 1983, down an alley in the same neighborhood, he and partner Jim Desmond opened Champions, which is considered the prototype of the American sports bar. Soon enough, it was selling more beer per square foot than any bar in the United States, and copycat establishments were showing up in every hotel, airport, and strip mall in the country. ESPN the Magazine put Champions on its 2004 list of the greatest innovations in sports history, along with the salary cap and Air Jordans.
O’Harro, named Cosmopolitan magazine Bachelor of the Month in 1976, also had his share of dealings with scandalous females. He dated Elizabeth Ray, the former Miss Virginia, before she brought down Rep. Wayne Hays in 1976 by publicly confessing to drawing a $14,000-per-year salary as a congressional staffer with no legislative tools: “I can’t type. I can’t file. I can’t even answer the phone,” was how Ray famously described her skill set to the Washington Post after Hays married another woman. And he was involved with Paula Parkinson, who, also in the mid-’70s, was rumored to have had affairs with as many as eight members of Congress. And with Colleen Gardner, who in 1976 was outed for being another paid member of a congressional staff, in this case Texas Democrat John Young’s, while lacking any obvious skills.
“I’m a lucky guy, fortunate to be around beautiful women all my life,” O’Harro says.
But the Ray, Parkinson, and Gardner scandals all had some degree of humor to them, and everybody involved was an adult. The Capitals mess didn’t leave anybody laughing. Champions, like the Caps, was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. But the heat that the alleged sexual assault put on him and his business caused O’Harro to rethink just how much he loved the nightlife.
“This was a very traumatic, unpleasant time,” he says. “That didn’t hit me immediately, because so much was going on, and I wasn’t going to run and hide from it. But once this was resolved, I figured I was getting too old for this business. I just said, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to move on.’ And I got out.”—Dave McKenna