Deshaun Watson’s Legal Battles Aren’t Over
1:29 PM EDT on March 14, 2022
On Friday, a Houston grand jury returned no bills on all nine criminal complaints they had been presented by prosecutors regarding Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. In layman’s terms, this meant no criminal charges would be filed against Watson in court after nearly two dozen women came forward in lawsuits last year and accused Watson of sexual misconduct during massage appointments. And it meant the conversation quickly shifted to Watson’s future as an NFL QB. Just like that, all the concerns about Watson’s conduct seemed to evaporate as Watson became just another elite signal caller searching for a team. Would he go to Carolina? Or the Saints? Or the Steelers?
This tweet from ESPN's Adam Schefter has obvious problems, like framing a finding of no guilt as some sort of higher truth, which it is not. It also had, as of Monday afternoon, more than 79,000 likes.
What got lost in all the near-immediate talk about what team would trade for Watson was why he had been essentially benched for a full season in the first place. On March 16 of last year, Ashley Solis, then going by Jane Doe, filed a civil lawsuit saying Watson showed her his erect penis and moved his body so that his penis touched her hand during a massage appointment in 2020. Within a month, 22 other women joined Solis with similar lawsuits outlining more sexual misconduct, ranging from Watson touching them with his penis, to Watson exposing himself to them, to Watson ejaculating on them during massage appointments. In three cases, the women said Watson forced them to give him oral sex.
Since then, all the women were forced to refile their lawsuits using their real names. One woman chose to drop her lawsuit instead, leaving the total, including Solis, at 22. The same day that the no bills were announced, Watson sat for a deposition in several of those lawsuits. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right during those depositions, The New York Times reported, but he will not in future ones scheduled for the other lawsuits.
To hear the NFL insiders tell it, the biggest concern right now is will the league suspend Watson and for how long. But documents in all those ongoing civil suits reveal there are still a lot of questions that the women and their lawyers are trying to get answered—about Watson’s conduct as well as what the Houston Texans did or did not know.
In civil court, the legal team for the 22 women, led by lawyer Tony Buzbee, has been slowly poking away at questions that a lot of people have had since Solis first spoke. One set of questions asked by them: Did Watson pay the legal fees for any of the 18 women who provided statements of support, as well as a few other women associated with Watson? And did they help the women find their own lawyers?
In a response filed in court, Watson's lawyer, Rusty Hardin, wrote that his office did refer three women to lawyers: Jasmine Brooks, Magen Weisheit, and Dionne Louis.
Brooks is one of the 18 women who provided a supporting statement to Watson’s legal team, saying she’d massaged Watson 40 times without having an “uncomfortable or inappropriate” experience with him. Weisheit is a massage therapist who worked on Watson and referred other massage therapists to work with him. And Louis is the owner of a spa where two of the plaintiffs worked when they saw Watson as a client.
Buzbee’s team called Brooks as a witness because, in April of last year, Buzbee shared with reporters a series of text messages that he said Brooks had sent. In the messages, a woman identified by Buzbee as Brooks said that she stopped working with Watson because she was “hearing too much stuff about him messing with other people.” The full transcript of Brooks’ deposition isn’t available in the public court file. But, in a filing to the judge, Buzbee’s team described what she said this way:
In the deposition, Brooks testified that, during his massage sessions, Watson insisted upon using a towel as a drape. She testified that he told her to focus only on his glutes, groin, and hamstrings. For the first time, while under oath, Brooks disclosed that during several sessions with Watson, he became erect. She testified that she told Watson that such behavior was not acceptable. She further disclosed that, recently, she had actually began to provide massage therapy to Watson again, and that her and Watson were actually friends. She even disclosed that she had told Watson to be careful with the many therapists he was receiving services from and that his “name was getting around.” Of course, none of this information learned at the deposition was included in the public statement released by Watson’s legal team, and none of this information was disclosed in Brooks’s prime-time interview—indeed, she in many cases said the opposite.
Buzbee’s team also has been trying to learn more information about the Texans and their role in Watson booking massages. In one document, Buzbee asked Watson to list the number of massages arranged for him by the Texans, the number of massages he received by Texans staff, agents or personnel, and the number of massages he received that were paid for by the Texans. Buzbee’s team also asked for the dates and locations of those massages, who performed them, how Watson paid for them, and how much he paid. Hardin objected to all.
In the same document, Buzbee’s team asked Watson to admit that he had received a massage that was arranged by the Texans; or paid for by the Texans; or performed by an employee of the Texans organization, or an agent for the Texans; or performed at the Texans facility between March 15, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020. For all five admissions, Hardin answered that Watson would neither admit or deny.
In August of last year, Defector reached out to three different employees of Genuine Touch, the company contracted by the Texans for massage therapy. All three refused to answer questions regarding Watson, though one person said they did participate in the NFL investigation and the Houston police investigation. "I can’t talk or I will lose my contract [with the Texans]," she said.
In late January, Buzbee’s office sent a press release to the media and attached to it the full transcript of Weisheit’s deposition. Weisheit asserted her Fifth Amendment right on most questions, refusing to answer if she knew Watson, and whether she arranged massage appointments for him, his preferences in massages, and whether she’d massaged him herself. She refused a question on her relationship with the Texans, whether she sent photos of massage therapists to Watson ahead of their appointment, and another question about how much money she made from referring him to other therapists.
Q. (BY MR. BUZBEE) You knew Watson would make sexual advances to massage therapists, didn't you?
A. I plead the Fifth.
Q. You knew that Watson liked to try and coerce massage therapists into having sex?
A. I plead the Fifth.
Q. You knew that some therapists had been hurt and offended by Watson's conduct, didn't you know that?
A. I plead the Fifth.
Q. You tried to cover it up, didn't you?
A. I plead the Fifth.
Weisheit did admit to speaking to Sports Illustrated. She is "Susan," the woman who referred Watson to "Mary," the anonymous massage therapist who spoke to SI last March about her experience being sexually harassed by Watson in a massage appointment. Weisheit told SI much more than she would answer in her deposition.
Susan confirms that Mary reported concerns about Watson’s conduct to her directly following their appointment, specifically the thrusting and that he wanted to be uncovered. She says she apologized to Mary and was “almost embarrassed” that happened with one of her clients. Susan says she then talked to Watson about his conduct with Mary, but declines to share details of that conversation, calling it “confidential.”
“I've had one person report something to me” about Watson, Susan told SI, confirming that this person was Mary. “And I had a conversation with [Watson]. I was confident that wasn't going to happen again after our conversation.”
But Mary says Susan told her something different after her appointment with Watson: that Mary was not the first therapist Susan had referred who reported back concerns about Watson’s conduct. In a November 2019 text message about Watson, Susan wrote to Mary, “whether the creepy stuff is his intention or not, he does it every time,” adding the parenthetical, “only 1 therapist hasn’t complained.” (SI reviewed this message, which was sent from a phone number confirmed to be Susan’s.)
Weisheit also said that she had talked to Houston police twice, but would not say if she was being investigated by the police.
In August, Defector called Masako Jones, one of the 18 women who supported Watson, to ask her about Weisheit. Jones was referred to work with Watson through Weisheit. Jones said that in late May or early June, Weisheit called her to let her know that “HPD had pretty much grilled her and that she didn't anticipate that they would need to talk to me because she pretty much shut down any sort of thoughts that they had that she was running some sort of shady massage madame business."
Watson’s response to the first lawsuit was dismissive. He tweeted that he hadn’t even seen the complaint, but that he “has never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect.” Watson’s initial disclosures, filed in May, show that his stance hasn’t changed much since then. From the court document:
Mr. Watson has generally denied the allegations. To the extent any contact occurred that any Plaintiff contends was offensive, Mr. Watson denies that any offensive contact occurred. Alternatively, any contact between Mr. Watson was not objectively offensive, the individual plaintiffs did not view the conduct offensive, and Mr. Watson did not believe any contact to be offensive.
In addition, Mr. Watson contends that any contact between himself and any plaintiff was consensual and that the objective circumstances of the contact supported his belief that the plaintiffs consented to any contact between themselves and Mr. Watson.
Watson also added that the women's claims are “barred in whole or in part because plaintiff expressly or implicitly consented to any contact with Mr. Watson,” and because that contact “did not threaten or inflict any bodily injury” and because “plaintiff had knowledge that her conduct and any contact with Mr. Watson was a part of her occupation or of an activity in which plaintiff voluntarily engaged.”
In May, SI reported that the issue preventing the two sides from settling was confidentiality. Hardin told SI that Watson wanted all terms of any settlement to be made public. Buzbee told SI: “These women have been roundly criticized. What Rusty wants is to humiliate them and make them targets of unscrupulous people. So any resolution we would want confidential, and it would also require Mr. Watson getting some counseling.”
In the court filings, Hardin’s team has been digging into the background of the women. They have subpoenaed two former employers of one woman, asking for documents pertaining to “all disciplinary actions, complaints and incident reports submitted or filed.” They also subpoenaed the massage therapy school she attended, asking for her enrollment records, disciplinary actions, complaints, incident reports, and “reasons for discontinuing her enrollment, any courses/credits completed, attendance issues, internal reviews and observations, and leaves of absences.”
Hardin’s team also subpoenaed another woman’s mother, asking for a number of things, including “photographs, video recordings, or audio recordings of defendant, including the video recording of you and/or your daughter’s … interaction with defendant outside of a club.”
A few months after the first lawsuit was filed, Nia Reese Lewis-Smith told YouTube host Tasha K that she too had been hired to massage Watson, a total of three times, and she had to stop because of the escalation in Watson's misconduct.
“The owner of the salon, she had introduced so many girls to Deshaun Watson,” Lewis-Smith said in her interview. “So I wasn't, at that point in time, I was not the only one massaging him from the salon. Actually, the people she was inviting in didn’t even work at the salon, I don’t know where she was getting these people from.”
Lewis-Smith said she had a hard time saying no to working with Watson even though his behavior got worse with each appointment.
“Nobody really cared," she told Tasha K. "I expressed my concerns to the owners of the salon, but she was really infatuated with the fact that we had Deshaun Watson as a client."
Lewis-Smith did not name the spa owner in her interview. Per the court filings, another spa owner also has been dodging involvement in these lawsuits. Dionne Louis—a Houston spa owner who employed two of the women suing Watson—ignored her subpoena from Buzbee’s team in October, then tried and failed to get out of her deposition by filing a motion to quash. In December, Buzbee’s team filed an emergency motion to compel her deposition, and the court granted it.
In August, Defector spoke to Louis over the phone. She denied knowing anything about all three women, instead saying: “All of this is just about trying to get a buck. Nobody ain't never said nothing until this guy [Buzbee] came out and said whoever had any kind of dealings with Deshaun, come forward.”
Louis said the police contacted her in June and got a statement from her. At the time we spoke in August, she said she hadn’t talked to Watson’s legal team but that she had screenshot of texts that prove that they had no issues with Watson.
“I have it and I have it prepared,” she said. “If they don't come by then it's no problem but if somebody come and they need proof of any of this, I have it.”
I visited Houston less than a week after speaking with Louis on the phone. She’d told me to come by anytime that week to speak with her more in person. But when I stopped by her business twice that week, she wasn’t there either time and neither of the employees present would discuss anything related to Watson with me. Louis stopped replying to texts or answering my calls. “I don’t get into that,” one employee said as she shut the spa’s front door on me.
Outside the courtroom, amid the locker rooms and offices of the NFL, none of this ever stopped teams from talking about Watson. The desperate Panthers are definitely still interested, and now the Saints are in the mix. Depending on who you follow on Twitter, the Steelers either were very interested in Watson or WERE NOT interested at all, though that appeared to be null with the announcement of the team signing Mitchell Trubisky.
By Sunday evening, the Panthers and the Saints both had reportedly made trade offers. Watson gave a statement outside the courthouse on Friday, saying he would “keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community." To hear Watson tell it, the lack of criminal charges meant he had been fully absolved. It’s pretty unsurprising that he and his legal team would present that image: It’s the most flattering one possible. For now, NFL reporters seem fine with letting that viewpoint be their own. How many people want to remember the viewpoints of the 22 women still suing Watson, though, remains to be seen.
Defector investigations editor Diana Moskovitz contributed to this report.