Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said Wednesday he thinks a crime was committed against the 3-year-old son of Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, but he can’t prove who did it.
So, Howe said, Hill won’t face charges. Neither will Crystal Espinal, the boy’s mother, who is engaged to Hill and pregnant with twins.
In a news conference Howe called at the Johnson County courthouse in Olathe, the prosecutor admitted he was frustrated.
“A child has been hurt,” Howe said. “So, yes, as a prosecutor, as a father of four kids, yes, it frustrates me when someone hurts a child that you can’t do anything about it.”
Questions and speculation have swirled around Hill for weeks while Overland Park police investigated reports of child abuse at his Johnson County home.
Investigators could not determine who committed the crime, Howe said. He declined to comment further and would not say what crime his office thought occurred.
“We are deeply troubled by this situation and are concerned about the health and welfare of the child in question,” Howe said. “… My duty is to treat everyone the same way in each and every case no matter what our stature in the community is and I have a much higher duty to that child than the Kansas City Chiefs.”
Criminal cases, however, must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt by admissible evidence in open court, he said. Not “speculation, rumor or hearsay.” The prosecutor said he would rather let a guilty person go free than prosecute an innocent person.
Lori Ross, a longtime child advocate in Missouri and Kansas, said child abuse cases are hard to prove when more than one adult is involved and a young child is unable to say exactly what happened.
“If the adults won’t fess up or rat on the other adult, then the bottom line is they typically don’t press criminal charges because they don’t have clear and convincing evidence identifying who did it,” she said.
“So rather than charge everyone in the home, they don’t charge anyone.”
Ross was glad to see Howe strongly state that he thinks a crime was committed, even if he can’t prove who did it.
“If you can’t prosecute them because you don’t have the evidence to get a conviction, that doesn’t mean you don’t want people to understand this isn’t an acceptable thing to do,” Ross said.
News had surfaced in mid-March that Overland Park police took two reports at Hill’s Johnson County home, one for battery and the other for child abuse and neglect. The police reports, dated March 5 and March 14, both involved a juvenile.
At some point, a report also was made to the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
Howe said the criminal investigation is over, but there’s an ongoing child protection case by the state agency focused on the child.
“I know DCF is involved in this, and I’m going to let DCF handle this the way they handle it, which is not in the public,” Howe said. “What I can assure the public is, he’s safe.”
‘It’s the children’
Last month, after details surfaced about police calls to the Hill home, DCF confirmed that the child welfare system had received a report and it was investigating. Beyond that, a spokesman has said, state and federal laws prohibit the agency from saying anything about a specific case.
The DCF investigation has a different focus than the one conducted by police. With law enforcement, the goal is to determine if any state laws were violated.
But with DCF, the focus is completely on the child and family.
In such cases, where an investigation has been opened, the first goal is to make sure the child is in a safe environment. Once that is secured the agency determines what services the family may need to make sure the child is protected and in a strong environment.
When DCF investigators make a finding as to whether the allegation is substantiated, workers make a determination about what is best for the child and whether further services are needed.
The Star reported last Thursday that Hill’s 3-year-old son recently was removed from the custody of Hill and his fiancee, Espinal. It isn’t clear when the boy was removed, or who he is staying with now.
Sources have told The Star in recent weeks that Hill and Espinal have been working through a family court process called a “child in need of care” case. The couple was at the Johnson County courthouse last week.
Generally, cases like this involve DCF and the county court. A judge and lawyers representing the parents and the child discuss and make decisions about the child’s safety and care.
These cases can also result in a child being removed from a home.
When asked about the child Wednesday, Howe declined to give any further information.
“I’m going to ask that you all be aware that in these incidents we’re talking about a minor child and the system, and DCF, and child investigations,” Howe said. “... We’re troubled because anytime you have a child, one of our primary duties as prosecutors is protect those who can’t protect themselves,” he said. “I say this all of the time — it’s the children.”
Asked if his office’s decision to not file charges was a failure to the child, Howe said: “In a sense, yes, ‘cause we want to hold people accountable that hurt children.”
Ross, the child advocate, said it is of key importance that people realize that even though charges weren’t filed, another case is still ongoing. And the child protection case is crucial for the future of the child.
What happened Wednesday when prosecutors declined to file charges isn’t unusual, she said.
“In general you think if bad people hurt babies, they are going to jail,” she said. “But in reality that rarely happens.”
And she said she understands why prosecutors are frustrated.
“The general public should be frustrated by this, too.”
The investigations involving Hill have raised questions about the wide receiver’s future after the Chiefs confirmed last month that they were aware of the law enforcement probe.
Since he was taken by the team in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Hill has become one of the Chiefs’ — and the NFL’s — most high-profile players while seeming to put his domestic violence history behind him.
In December 2014, while a student and football standout at Oklahoma State University, Hill assaulted Espinal, then his girlfriend. She was eight weeks pregnant with their son at the time. Espinal, who started dating Hill in June of that year, told Stillwater police that Hill punched her in the face, put her in a headlock, choked her and struck her in the stomach several times.
Hill was arrested and dismissed from the Oklahoma State football team. He pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation in August 2015 and received three years probation.
As part of the plea agreement, Hill was ordered to complete 52 weeks of domestic violence prevention classes. He also was fined $500 and ordered to pay restitution and court costs.
The conviction was dismissed in August 2018 and ordered to be expunged after he completed his probation requirements.
In recent weeks, the Chiefs have said little about Hill and the ongoing investigation.
“I think it’s going to work itself out here,” general manager Brett Veach said in his pre-draft press conference, “and we’ll deal with the information as it comes.”
Records obtained last week show that the NFL requested documents from Overland Park police on March 12 asking for any relevant information, including photos and 911 calls, regarding Hill, his fiancee and their young son as “it relates to alleged injuries sustained by the couple’s minor child.”
The Star first reported the child abuse investigation of Hill on March 15.
The NFL has tried to contact the Johnson County district attorney’s office, Howe said, but he has not responded to the league. Records in the case would likely be sealed because the investigation involved a child.
Messages to the NFL and Hill’s agent were not immediately returned.
The Chiefs emailed a written statement late Wednesday: “This afternoon we were informed that Tyreek Hill will not be charged by the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office. Due to the continued investigation by the Department for Children and Families, we will have no further comment at this time.”
The investigations came amid discussions of a record-breaking contract extension that has been expected to make Hill one of the highest-paid wide receivers.
If Hill had been charged in this case, his domestic violence history would have been a factor in determining his league punishment. Because the first incident occurred prior to his professional career, he would not automatically be considered a repeat offender by the NFL.
If he were considered as such, his punishment from the league could have been more significant than the baseline six-game suspension without pay handed down to a first-time offender.
In 2017 Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended six games for domestic violence incidents in which prosecutors declined to file charges.
Running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse in 2014 and was also suspended six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. He pleaded no contest to reckless assault of the child.
“Repeat offenders will be subject to enhanced and/or expedited discipline, including banishment from the league with an opportunity to reapply,” the NFL policy reads. “In determining discipline, both aggravating and mitigating factors will be considered.”
While the criminal investigation is closed, any new information that comes to light could change its status, Howe said. Like most criminal cases in Kansas, there’s a five-year statute of limitations.
“We feel that we are at an impasse at this point,” Howe said. “And any further investigation would be unnecessary or unwarranted.”
Star reporter Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.