MILLEDGEVILLE – It started, witnesses said, with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hopping from bar to bar in this small college town, mixing with students and building an entourage of female admirers as Thursday night wore on.

It ended, they said, with a 20-year-old student reporting to a downtown beat cop at 2 a.m. Friday that a man fitting the description of Roethlisberger had “sexually assaulted or sexually manipulated” her in a popular, late-hours nightclub..

But exactly what happened and when during the night of carousing remains a mystery that local police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation say they will strive to solve over the next few days.

Roethlisberger, who has a lake home in a gated community 30 miles north of Milledgeville, was not taken into custody and has not been charged with a crime. His agent, Ryan Tollner, said nothing untoward happened and confirmed that Roethlisberger had left the state.

“We have spoken to law enforcement,” said Tollner. “Based on information currently available, an allegation was made against Ben, which appeared to be dismissed after a preliminary investigation. Obviously, given the prior accusation against Ben, we are skeptical of motive, but will continue to cooperate with everyone involved.”

The reference was to a separate, civil lawsuit brought by a woman who said Roethlisberger raped her in 2008 at a Lake Tahoe, Nev., resort hotel. He’s strongly denied the accusation and has filed for counter-damages.

Milledgeville’s deputy police chief, Richard Malone, confirmed that investigators have talked with Roethlisberger and the alleged victim. Now, he said, they are focused on gathering information from anyone who witnessed the quarterback’s night out.

“He’s been identified as being at the scene, and there are allegations naming him as the perpetrator,” said Malone. “That’s all we have to say at this time.”

The official police incident report said the alleged victim approached Sgt. Jerry Blash, who was on duty in the area, about 2 a.m. Friday to report she had been “sexually assaulted or sexually manipulated by a white male” at the Capital City nightclub.

She did not identify Roethlisberger as the perpetrator, saying only that he was 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds. Several friends with her at the time said she was referring to Roethlisberger.

Police said the woman was immediately taken to Oconee Regional Medical Center, where she was examined and released. The results of the examination were not made public.

Bar patrons, bartenders and other witnesses told the Milledgeville Union-Recorder that Roethlisberger and three or four friends began visiting bars near Georgia College & State University around 8 p. m. Thursday, drinking heavily and talking with students along the way.

Eventually, they said, a crowd began to follow the football star on his rounds. The alleged victim, they said, was among several females in the group that ended up at the Capital City nightclub, where the favorite drink is Red Bull and flavored rum, a concoction known as the O-Bomb.

Waynesia Sherman of Milledgeville said he was standing at the bar in the club, watching Roethlisberger, and then decided to ask if he could have his picture taken with the quarterback. Roethlisberger consented, said Sherman, remarking that “this is like a photo shoot."

Paul Kurcikevicus, 24, a college student, said he also talked and drank with Roethlisberger during the night. He said several women had their pictures taken with the Pittsburgh player.

Reuben Atkinson, a bartender at The Brick, another nightclub, said Roethlisberger had two body guards and a couple of friends with him. He said patrons were excited to see and talk with the group.

“Everybody tried to buy them shots, but they said, ‘No, we don’t take shots from people we don’t know,’” said Atkinson. “Roethlisberger was buying drinks for all his buddies. They were drinking, but they weren’t ridiculous. They weren’t making a scene.”

No one could recall when the alleged victim became acquainted with Roethlisberger. Or whether the two were ever alone. The nightclubs feature VIP rooms where private parties can get away.

Milledgeville is an unlikely place for a celebrity sports figure to end up in the national spotlight. It is a town of 18,000 in central Georgia best known for its large mental hospital. About 7,000 of the residents are college students, most of whom attend the state college. There’s also a junior college and a military college.

The community is most famous as the antebellum capital of Georgia from 1806 to 1868, when the seat of state government was moved to Atlanta because Union Gen. William T. Sherman had destroyed the statehouse in Milledgeville during his march through Georgia.

Roethlisberger owns a sizable home in Reynolds Plantation, a resort on Lake Oconee about 45 minutes from Milledgeville. Local residents said he was not a regular on the Milledgeville nightclub circuit.

The sexual assault allegation had the town talking about little else. Patrons of the popular Blackbird coffee shop, around the corner from the Capital City nightclub, were puzzled by the lack of details.

“It is certainly a shock,” said Maggie Johanson of Marietta. “It’s just so hard to grasp that his is happening in Milledgeville.”

Jasmine Schnell, also from Marietta, said it is possible the “that this is being blown out of proportion, but you can never really tell these days. And if they do have evidence to convict, then it could be a very long road ahead for Mr. Roethlisberger.”

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