When the Cleveland Browns drafted Jeremiah Pharms in April 2001, the team praised him as a family man, responsible and mature. The Browns' new coach...
When the Cleveland Browns drafted Jeremiah Pharms in April 2001, the team praised him as a family man, responsible and mature. The Browns’ new coach, Butch Davis, wanted players with character. Pharms was a husband and father of three.
“While his Washington teammates were out socializing on Friday and Saturday nights, Jeremiah Pharms was home changing diapers,” a Cleveland newspaper wrote.
Days before the draft, Davis had asked the UW’s coach, Rick Neuheisel, about Pharms. Neuheisel’s report glowed. For four years Pharms had suited up, no matter what. Pharms was responsible, the coach assured Davis. With a family to support, he’d had to be.
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In college football, an easy story line is hard to resist.
Fans get duped. Newspapers get duped. Even an NFL team handing out million-dollar contracts can get duped.
More than a year earlier, on March 14, 2000, at about 8 p.m., Pharms showed up at the apartment of Kerry Sullivan, a small-time drug dealer in the University District.
Pharms, a 250-pound linebacker from Sacramento, Calif., was a star at the UW. He bench-pressed more than 400 pounds, sported a pit-bull tattoo, and sometimes, during games, locked eyes with an opposing player and proceeded to urinate, the stream darkening his pants. He did this to intimidate. After all, who’d want to go against someone as crazy as that?
Pharms walked into Sullivan’s bedroom, where the dealer retrieved a quarter-pound of marijuana from his closet. Sullivan measured out an eighth of an ounce while Pharms talked about how he was failing his classes.
The two hadn’t met before. A mutual friend had put Pharms in touch.
After paying Sullivan $40, Pharms left the apartment.
About three hours later, another knock came at the apartment door.
The people who were inside say this is what happened next:
A roommate of Sullivan’s answered, and two men came in. One, wearing a ski mask, ran into Sullivan’s bedroom while the other intruder held a gun on the roommate and said, “Shhhh.”
Sullivan, in his room studying for a calculus exam at Seattle Central Community College, heard someone yell: “Freeze. Don’t turn around.” Sullivan turned around. He saw a masked man with a silver automatic, jumped up and grabbed for the gun. The two men wrestled, then the robber pulled away and pistol-whipped Sullivan. As Sullivan fell, the robber fired a shot that went through Sullivan’s right thigh and lodged in his chest, just missing his liver.
The robber went to Sullivan’s closet, grabbed the bag of marijuana — worth about $1,000 — and ran off, tripping over a telephone cord and smashing into a wall on the way out.
One of Sullivan’s roommates was a nursing assistant. He applied pressure to Sullivan’s wound while another roommate called 911.
Detectives with the Seattle Police Department’s gang-crimes unit were in the area and showed up first. Next came Mike Magan, a robbery detective who once played football at the UW.
Magan was an offensive lineman in the early 1980s, under Don James. He remained close to the program, keeping in touch with coaches and offering counsel to players.
After the robbery, a neighbor saw two men scramble into a nearby car, fumble around, then get out and run away. He pointed police to a white Chrysler LeBaron.
Outside the car, near the driver’s door handle, Magan saw a bloody fingerprint. Inside the car, he spotted a Nike glove — gray, with a gold swoosh — stained with blood. Magan knew that kind of glove: It was unique to college football uniforms.
Magan went in the apartment and questioned one of Sullivan’s roommates. The roommate described the robber who shot Sullivan as “linebacker size.” Then he mentioned the initials “JP.”
Magan knew those initials fit Jeremiah Pharms. So did the physical description. He asked the roommate if the shooter was Pharms. The roommate said no, then said he wasn’t sure. Magan thought the roommate was holding back, possibly afraid of retaliation.
To Magan, the evidence pointed to one person. He pulled aside Jeffery Mudd, a gang-crimes detective and the lead investigator.
Your suspect is going to be Jeremiah Pharms, Magan told Mudd. UW linebacker. No 4. Goes by the initials JP.
The next day, Magan told the UW’s head trainer about the investigation and said the suspect might be a football player. Please look out for any unusual cuts to an arm or hand, the detective asked. Police also talked to the UW’s equipment manager, who provided one of the team’s gloves for comparison. It was just like the one in the car.
Sullivan survived the shooting, although doctors were unable to remove the bullet. Interviewed in the hospital, Sullivan told police he thought the masked shooter was Pharms. The shooter had the same build, the same thick neck. Sullivan moved his marijuana stash around, but the shooter knew just where to go. And Pharms had seen where the bag was hidden.
Police also discovered that the Chrysler belonged to a girlfriend of Pharms’.
As crimes go, this case hardly rated as a whodunit. There was the glove, the car, the physical description, the initials, the fact Pharms had been there three hours before. And there was the bloody fingerprint, waiting for a match.
For Pharms, stealth never had been a strong suit.
In 1998, he and teammates beat another student on campus, with Pharms throwing the first punch. Pharms fled when police sirens approached. But a witness, standing where the fight broke out, pointed to a nearby poster of the UW football team and told police: No. 4 is the guy.
Pharms later admitted to being in the fight — but prosecutors chose not to file charges, saying the victim’s injuries weren’t serious and that some witness statements conflicted.
Within 48 hours of Sullivan being shot, police had more than enough evidence against Pharms for a search warrant. And the sooner the search, the more likely that evidence would be found. A warrant would also let police obtain Pharms’ prints and a DNA sample to see if they matched the bloody fingerprint.
But after the initial burst of activity, the investigation stalled.
Mudd had trouble figuring out where Pharms lived. He got a search warrant for an apartment in Seattle — but elected not to serve it, based upon surveillance. He had seen someone other than Pharms sitting inside the place, watching television.
Seven weeks went by before Mudd got the correct address for Pharms from the UW police. Then, another eight weeks passed before the warrant was actually served.
On June 29 — 3 ½ months after Sullivan was shot and the marijuana stolen — police searched the Lynnwood home that Pharms rented, and collected his fingerprints and a saliva sample. The house reeked of marijuana. Detectives found a couple of marijuana pipes, but no drugs.
Two weeks later, the fingerprint results were in. The print left near the Chrysler’s door handle belonged to Pharms.
Mudd received this fingerprint report a month and a half before the UW’s first game of the 2000 season.
Analyzing the DNA took longer, because of a backlog at the Washington State Patrol’s crime lab. The results came back in mid-September, between the second and third games of the Huskies’ season.
The DNA in Pharms’ saliva and the DNA in the bloody fingerprint were consistent, the lab’s report said.
The authorities now had a wealth of evidence against Pharms. Steve Fogg, one of the King County prosecutors assigned to the investigation, says that in a normal case, the office might have filed charges after those first DNA results came in. But prosecutors didn’t see this as a normal case. The victim, a drug dealer, would be unsympathetic to many jurors. Plus, the suspect was a well-known football player.
“If you have a Husky or a Seahawk as a defendant, people want to believe the best of their sports heroes,” Fogg says. “That’s true in somebody’s living room, that’s true in the jury room. If there’s any doubt at all, that doubt will go in favor of the sports star.”
So prosecutors asked for more DNA tests, this time from a renowned expert in California. They wanted to “bulletproof” their evidence, Fogg says.
Prosecutors were also concerned how the case might play out in the media. Sportswriters tend to “lionize” athletes, Fogg says. “They’re hard-wired to write about stories like triumph over adversity.” Mudd, the detective, also worried about this. He had another player, Jerramy Stevens, in the back of his mind.
In the summer of 2000, Seattle police had arrested Stevens, the UW’s tight end, on suspicion of rape. But prosecutors decided not to charge him, saying the evidence was insufficient.
“I think the department kind of took it in the shorts on that, and was made to look kind of foolish,” Mudd says. “I didn’t want to look bad, and I didn’t want the police department to look bad. I knew we were facing an uphill battle in any kind of courtroom setting.”
When Stevens was arrested, the case was highly publicized, creating anticipation of the charging decision. Detectives moved quickly. They had DNA results in three weeks.
With Pharms, the public knew nothing, because police got the search-warrant records sealed. The investigation crept along. This time, DNA testing took nine months.
On Oct. 21, 2000 — seven months after Sullivan was shot — 70,000 fans packed Husky Stadium to watch the UW play California. Many picked up the game-day program, which included a story about Pharms headlined “Putting Phamily Phirst.”
The story line was Pharms the family man, a “devoted husband and father” whose love “knows no bounds.”
The profile said Pharms never knew his own father and wanted always to be there for his own son and two daughters.
“When the game ends, Pharms will change his clothes and exit the locker room, into the smiling faces and open arms of his wife, Franquell, and his children. Win or lose, the game is only secondary to Pharms, who understands the value of family.”
One year before, the story inside Husky Stadium was quite different.
In October 1999, Pharms’ wife called police and said Jeremiah had assaulted her. Franquell said that, through a bathroom door, she had heard Jeremiah on the phone, telling a girlfriend he loved her. She kicked the door open and screamed about his cheating. He came at her, so she grabbed scissors. He knocked them loose and held her against a wall, his hand around her neck.
Jeremiah denied assaulting Franquell. He told police that the two were separated, and that she was the aggressor, trying to stab him with the scissors. He knocked them away and his cousin wrestled her to the ground.
Police arrested Jeremiah, but released him before the day was over.
That night, Neuheisel had a decision to make: The Huskies were playing at home the next day, and he had to decide whether to bench Pharms. The team reached out to Magan — the robbery detective who’d once played for the UW. Magan went to the hotel where the team stayed before home games and met with Neuheisel and another team official.
Magan says he told Neuheisel: “I can’t tell you what to do, Rick, but in my opinion, Jeremiah is the victim.”
In the end, no one was charged in the case, and details about the incident were improperly sealed in King County Superior Court.
The day after the fight, the UW played Oregon at Husky Stadium. Franquell showed up and saw Pharms’ girlfriend sitting in the student section, with Pharms’ mother and his cousin. Franquell found a top administrator from the athletic department and told him that Pharms’ girlfriend wasn’t supposed to be there, “because coach Neuheisel did not want any distractions for Jeremiah.”
Franquell walked into the stands. She made her way to Pharms’ girlfriend, taking off her jacket along the way. Pharms’ mother and girlfriend saw her coming. Get ready, the mom said.
Franquell pulled the girlfriend’s sweat shirt over her head and began punching, witnesses told police. As a crowd gathered, Pharms’ mother stepped in. Franquell pushed her away. Pharms’ cousin pinned Franquell down. Police ran up and, not knowing what started all this, ordered the cousin to let go. When he didn’t, they blasted him with pepper spray.
After talking to witnesses, police arrested Franquell on a charge of assault. Years later the charge was dismissed.
Pharms played that day against Oregon. In the fourth quarter, he recovered a fumble and returned it 22 yards.
On Oct. 27, 2000, a secret hearing was held inside the King County Courthouse.
This was six days after UW fans received the “Putting Phamily Phirst” story, and three days after King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng announced that Jerramy Stevens would not be charged with rape.
Michael Lang, the lead prosecutor in the Pharms investigation, was calling witnesses to testify about the shooting of Sullivan. The witnesses included a second girlfriend of Pharms — not the woman at Husky Stadium.
The proceeding, called an Inquiry Judge hearing, was a way for prosecutors to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses — and to keep their investigation under wraps. Before testifying, each witness was sworn to secrecy.
Prosecutors wanted this girlfriend’s testimony because it was her car that the robbers used. The girlfriend testified that she’d let Pharms borrow her Chrysler before, but not on the night of the robbery. That night, somebody stole it, she said.
She met Pharms in the spring of 1999, she testified. He had pulled up next to her at a stoplight, smiled, and asked her to pull over. When they were together, she’d keep quiet while he talked to Franquell on the phone.
“I’m trying to get him to realize he is married,” the girlfriend testified. “He doesn’t even acknowledge what marriage is.”
Pharms smoked marijuana “almost every day,” the girlfriend said. She usually bought the drugs for him.
Daily responsibilities baffled Pharms, the girlfriend testified. He didn’t know how to pay bills. When he needed a place to live, she found him a rental home. She also hooked up his phone service.
In November, one day before the UW played Washington State in the Apple Cup, the Inquiry Judge hearing resumed. This time, one of Pharms’ teammates, Sam Blanche, was called to testify.
Kerry Sullivan, the drug dealer, had told police that Blanche was the go-between when Pharms bought the $40 of marijuana. But Blanche told Lang: “I didn’t set up any deal for anybody.”
Sullivan had also said that Blanche threatened him after the shooting, warning him not to report Blanche’s name to police. Blanche denied that, too. “I never said any of that to Kerry,” he testified.
Blanche was represented at the hearing by Mike Hunsinger, a Seattle attorney hired by at least 14 players on the 2000 team.
For Lang, the prosecutor, watching Pharms play that year wasn’t much fun. “He’s out there enjoying the applause of thousands, and yet he’s a guy who almost killed somebody. … That really bothered me.”
Pharms played his best in the run-up to the Rose Bowl. Coaches named him a defensive MVP in each of the regular season’s last four games.
The UW football team left for California and the Rose Bowl on Dec. 20, 2000.
One week later, Pharms’ neighbor called police.
For months, she had worried about the pit bulls Pharms kept in his backyard. He seemed to be breeding the dogs and selling the puppies. She’d also seen groups of people in the backyard tying up bloody rags and encouraging the dogs to attack.
Now, Pharms had left four pit bulls in the yard, without enough food or water. The neighbor saw the dogs’ ribs and, concerned they were starving, began throwing food bones over the fence.
A Lynnwood police officer arrived and captured two of the dogs, ones that had escaped the yard. He took them to a shelter, where a veterinarian examined them and described one as “all bony prominences.” The two dogs that remained wore heavy chains around their necks, with padlocks attached. No water bowl in sight, they lapped from a gutter drain.
Pharms had already been written up repeatedly for not licensing his dogs. In September, he’d been convicted of a misdemeanor for having too many. He received 90 days in jail — suspended — and two years’ probation. But still his dogs weren’t licensed. And still he had more dogs than the law allowed. The officer wrote up a new set of charges. A court date was set and a summons issued.
Pharms never returned for his dogs. After the Rose Bowl, he was gone. He’d left the UW without a degree, ready to join the NFL.
The landlord found dog feces all through the house. “It was just a mess,” he says. A UW alumnus, the landlord had done no reference check on Pharms. “A mistake,” he says now. Estimating damage to the property at $3,500, the landlord contacted the UW, hoping to garnish Pharms’ scholarship checks. But there were no checks to be had.
In mid-January, the police officer returned to the house and discovered Pharms’ wife, Franquell, loading furniture into a U-Haul truck. He told her about the court date and summons.
She said Pharms would return — and that she hoped the judge was a Huskies fan.
When the Browns drafted Pharms in April 2001, he was a fifth-round pick, likely to get a three-year contract worth $1 million.
But before he could sign, he was arrested and charged with robbing Sullivan, nearly 14 months after the crime occurred.
The Browns promptly released him.
Neuheisel said he had no idea Pharms was under investigation. A few days later he added: “I’ve been accused of knowing and not divulging, and I can categorically say that’s false. I can only apologize and say that I was in the same company as everyone else who did not know.”
Prosecutors called the evidence against Pharms “overwhelming.” Although they accused him of shooting Sullivan, the most serious charge they filed was robbery. Pharms accepted a plea deal that reduced his sentence to a fraction of the nearly 20 years he could have faced.
He refused to identify the second robber. No one else was ever arrested.
A judge sentenced Pharms to three years and five months, saying: “It’s difficult to imagine a more serious robbery without it becoming an attempted-murder conviction.”
In prison, Pharms lifted weights, worked as a janitor and completed a 12-step program to improve moral reasoning. He refused to give up on the NFL, writing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he was treating his time in prison as a “long training camp.” He signed the letter: “Jeremiah Pharms, #4, 2001 Rose Bowl champs.”
On a Department of Corrections questionnaire, Pharms wrote: “What got me to this point in my life is not being able to deal properly with my emotions such as anger, pain, sadness and grief. Always feeling like I needed to smoke to deal with everything when in reality things were only getting worse.
“I was two days away from being a millionaire. … And it was taken away because of a mistake.”
In January 2004, a P-I sportswriter wrote a lengthy story about Pharms and his time in prison. The story raised a series of questions that suggested Pharms might be innocent. “Why would he, a year away from a shot at the NFL, decide to rob a drug dealer at gunpoint, particularly one who likely would recognize him, mask or not?”
The story steamed the case’s two prosecutors. They drafted a letter to the P-I’s editor, but decided not to send it. The letter said the story vilified the victim “while glorifying the man who shot him.” It added: “Mr. Pharms is a lucky man: lucky that his victim didn’t die, lucky that his victim wasn’t permanently disabled, lucky we had mercy on him.”
In 2004, Pharms became eligible for work release and began playing for the Eastside Hawks, a semipro team in Everett.
In June 2005, he was released from supervised probation — allowing him to leave the state without permission and see his family in California.
One week later, the Hawks were scheduled to play a night game at home. That morning, around 2:30 a.m., a state trooper stopped Pharms for speeding on I-5. Pharms’ eyes were watery and his breath smelled of alcohol. His blood-alcohol level was 1 ½ times the legal limit.
Pharms, the trooper wrote, “offered to give me free tickets to the Everett Hawks football game, and I advised him that I appreciated the offer but I could not accept.”
Charged with driving under the influence, Pharms failed to appear in court. A judge issued an arrest warrant — one that remains in force.
Pharms played last year for the New York Dragons in the Arena Football League but was released during the season.
Three months ago, he was charged in Sacramento with two felonies: illegal possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and discharging a firearm in a grossly negligent manner that could harm or kill. Those charges are still pending.
Staff researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this story.
Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or firstname.lastname@example.org;
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com.