To a skeptical observer, the arrest of Mark Walton, a rising star on the University of Miami Hurricanes football team, seemed fishy from the start. When police nabbed him at 4 a.m. on charges of "driving under the influence" and "knowingly driving with a suspended license" this past April 23, news cameras conveniently arrived on the scene in time to film him completing his roadside sobriety test as it was happening.
This week, the state attorney's office in Florida dropped all the charges against Walton. There was "not sufficient evidence" to pursue the charges, the state attorney's office wrote in a memo.
Now, the public is learning more about the full story behind the arrest and the circumstances that preceded it. Walton's attorneys have gone on the offensive, claiming that police were engaged in a set-up that blew up in their faces—and placed the career and future prospects of 19-year-old Walton in jeopardy forever.
"There are grounds for civil suits here," said Walton's attorney, Joey McCall in an interview. "Depending on what happens, I'm planning on forwarding this information to the internal affairs unit and also to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement."
Fusion was given an early look at some of the documentation that supports McCall's claims of the circumstances that led up to the arrest.
Be warned: this story gets really, really weird.
It all started two days before the arrest, when Walton was driving home late one night, McCall said. A woman appeared to be swerving in her lane and Walton flashed his high beams at her, asking her to pull over. He made sure she was OK before helping send her on her way, and the two exchanged numbers, McCall said. His office provided Fusion with screengrabs of some of the alleged texts.
Here's where things take a bizarre turn.
The two kept exchanging flirtatious text messages for a few days. The woman eventually began insisting that Walton come to her house. He finally agreed on April 23.
"Here," he finally texted her around 3:00 a.m. Almost immediately upon arriving, the report notes, he was arrested by police officers already at the house, who believed Walton was under the influence. The state attorney's report notes that officers were working "undercover" at the time, but does not specify what they were working on.
"The young woman walks out of the house and then as Mark starts walking towards the gate she immediately walks back in the house and an officer dressed in all black with an unholstered gun in his hand, walks out and basically rushes Mark," said McCall.
And as quickly as the cops appeared, media swarmed the house.
At the very least, the story leaves many large questions unanswered. Why were police waiting for Walton? If, as his legal team alleges, he is the victim of an elaborate set-up, what would police have to gain?
"What the state attorney's office and the City of Miami police keep leaving out is how they even came to be in contact with Mark that night," McCall told me. "The officers basically were conducting a warrantless, unauthorized sting operation that lured Mark to the house in question, and they arrested him there on a completely bogus charge. This could have absolutely ruined the life of a young black man trying to make it from poverty to the football field."
McCall said he believes the operation was related to a report the woman filed saying that a man impersonating a police officer pulled her over and rubbed his genitals on her on the same night she met Walton. Journalists at the time said that man was widely assumed to be Walton, even though the report alleges that a man named "Salomon" was responsible. No charges were ever brought against Walton in connection with the events described in the report.
In a statement to reporters Tuesday, Miami police chief Rodolfo Llanes rejected any accusations of conspiracy. "Mr. Walton's physical contact with the Miami Police Department began with visual observations of possible impaired driving," he said. "The declination to file criminal charges as a function of prosecutorial discretion should not be used to presume wrongdoing of the Miami Police Department or any of its officers."
Before the charges were dropped, Walton's reputation appeared in danger of crashing. The sophomore is a local boy made good, having grown up in Overtown, Miami's historically black neighborhood, and attended Booker T. Washington Senior High. In his freshman year with the Hurricanes, he played all 13 games, tallying 1,054 all-purpose yards, and leading the team with 10 touchdowns.
Following the arrest, the University of Miami indefinitely suspended him from the football team within hours. He has since been reinstated.
Now that his client has been cleared, McCall is trying to get to the bottom of what happened.
"People infer a lot of things about legal matters when they are not corrected, or when the full story is not presented," said McCall. He fears the incident will come back to haunt Walton when it comes to an NFL draft. "He's going to have to keep explaining this thing away for a long time."
The full text message exchange and other documents will be released to the public in the near future, McCall said. He is currently weighing all legal options, but promises that by one way or another, the strange case will be sorted out.
"Filing a civil suit to address this misconduct is probably the only way to clear Mark's name," he said. "It just doesn't add up."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.