Ex-Spartan pleads guilty in court amid questions about background checks

Former Michigan State defensive lineman Auston Robertson was back in a Michigan court Wednesday. He pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal sexual assault. Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire

Former Michigan State defensive lineman Auston Robertson pleaded guilty to a criminal sexual assault charge during a pretrial hearing in a Michigan court Wednesday.

Robertson, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound former four-star recruit from Wayne High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was dismissed from the Michigan State football team in April 2017 after police said the freshman sexually assaulted a fellow student at an off-campus apartment.

On Wednesday, he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual assault with intent to commit penetration. An Ingham County judge will sentence Robertson next month and has preliminarily agreed to give him three years in state prison (a 43-month sentence that includes time already served), according to Robertson's attorney.

Robertson was offered a scholarship to join the Spartans in 2016 amid questions about a pattern of troubling behavior in high school. MSU coach Mark Dantonio delayed the offer in the first few months of 2016 while Robertson went through the legal process for a misdemeanor battery charge. In March of that year, Dantonio said the football program had decided to add Robertson to the roster after using "all resources available to us to thoroughly review his situation."

An Outside the Lines review of Robertson's recruitment and background check shows missed opportunities to gain a complete picture of his prior behavior: There is no record of Michigan State officials speaking to law enforcement agencies in Indiana about his past or requesting records from them, despite the university learning that Robertson had been permanently barred from his high school's campus in January 2016; Robertson's high school principal did not inform MSU during its recruitment process of every allegation made against Robertson at the high school; and Robertson himself did not disclose a series of prior run-ins with police and school officials.

Robertson was a coveted recruit in 2016, earning scholarship offers from more than a dozen programs, including Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Miami and Penn State. Four members of Michigan State's celebrated 2016 class of freshmen, including Robertson, have been dismissed from the team and the university following accusations of sexual misconduct.

After Dantonio dismissed Robertson from the Spartans last year, he said, "We've never intentionally brought a guy in here and said, 'Hey, that guy's going to be a bad guy.' Obviously, we took a risk, as we said earlier. We vetted the young man."

A spokesman for the football program declined a recent request to interview anyone from Michigan State who was involved in vetting Robertson. Dantonio did not respond to multiple attempts to learn more details about what resources his program used before deciding to bring Robertson to East Lansing.

Michigan State officials have said the university was aware of two criminal charges in Robertson's past. One was sexual in nature, and the other was not. He was charged in January 2016 with misdemeanor battery related to an incident during school in which he "rubbed and grabbed" a female classmate's groin area against her will in the fall of his senior year.

A university spokeswoman said in May that Michigan State was not aware of several other police reports documenting alleged sexual violence and misconduct by Robertson in high school.

In one of those cases, in 2013, a female peer of Robertson's told Wayne High School administrators and then police officers that Robertson forcefully attempted to rape her after she said she was interested in having sex with him. She said Robertson "grabbed her by the ankles and pulled her into the bathroom." She said he pulled her hair, pulled down her pants and made her sit on his lap before she was able to escape.

Several months later, the same girl told police that, in a separate incident, Robertson burst into a bathroom where she was having sex with a different person and said, "My turn." She said Robertson forced her over the bathtub and raped her after she told him no and tried to push him away.

Robertson, who declined to comment through his attorney, was not charged with a crime in either incident.

Wayne High School principal John Houser was aware of those incidents, according to court records. He did not tell Michigan State's coaches about them during their discussions about Robertson's behavior because he did not recall that Robertson was the accused student, said Krista Stockman, a spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

"Looking back now, he's putting it all together," she said. "He hadn't put it all together, but now, 'Oh, that was another situation involving him.'"

Stockman did say that Houser and Wayne football coach Derrick Moore told Michigan State officials that they were worried about Robertson's character and future because of the behavioral issues. Houser and Moore declined interview requests for this story.

"They were concerned," Stockman said when asked if the two men told Michigan State that Robertson could be a safety risk to others on campus. "I don't know that I can say how specific they got, but they were clear that they shared their concerns about his pattern of behavior."

Michigan State declined to provide details to Outside the Lines about what resources it used to vet Robertson. The university requires all incoming students to tell the school about any previous convictions on their adult or juvenile records. None of Robertson's previous incidents resulted in convictions, so he would not have been required to report them. MSU officials have stated that they did not know about every incident involving Robertson.

No one from Michigan State requested information about Robertson's criminal history in Fort Wayne through formal records requests during the school's vetting process, according to the city's records department. Officials in Fort Wayne were not able to determine if anyone at Michigan State had attempted to contact local law enforcement officers via email or phone to discuss Robertson.

Allen County (Indiana) Prosecutor Karen Richards said no one from Michigan State contacted her or her office for records or discussion about Robertson during the time that Michigan State was vetting him. Richards' office prosecuted Robertson for the misdemeanor battery charge that prompted a delay of the scholarship offer.

Michigan State officials have said they were aware that Robertson had been arrested twice in the year leading up to his arrival on campus. Allen County prosecutors charged him with criminal mischief and evading law enforcement in September of his senior year of high school. The charges were later dismissed, but he was suspended from the football team.

On Oct. 22, 2015, surveillance cameras in the high school captured video of Robertson allegedly groping a female classmate in the incident that led to the misdemeanor battery charge and a delay of MSU's scholarship offer. Stockman said she did not believe anyone from Michigan State saw the video of the encounter. She said the school typically does not share surveillance videos with anyone other than police to protect the privacy of its students.

The girl involved in that incident told police that Robertson had also harassed her and touched her inappropriately on two occasions elsewhere on school property, according to a Fort Wayne Police Department report. She told police that the first incident had occurred several months earlier. She said the second incident happened in early October 2015, and she reported it to the high school but was told there was no video of the alleged encounter.

The girl and her parents came to the school the day after she said Robertson had groped her in the high school, and at first they were apprehensive to say much due to Robertson's status as a top football recruit, the girl said. Now 18 and in college, the girl, along with her mother, spoke to Outside the Lines on the condition that their names not be used.

Robertson was suspended from school for five days, according to the police report. He was charged with misdemeanor battery three months later, in January 2016, and banned from returning to the high school's grounds for the remainder of his time as a student in Fort Wayne as a result of the incident. In March 2016, an Indiana judge allowed Robertson to enter a pretrial diversionary program that would wipe the charge from his record if he successfully completed a year of probation without further problems.

Stockman, the high school spokeswoman, said questions from MSU about Robertson's behavior were prompted by his suspension from the football team and occurred only in the fall of 2015 and not in the first three months of 2016 when Michigan State said it was thoroughly reviewing Robertson.

She said any additional conversations that Wayne High School officials had with Michigan State coaches or athletic department employees during the first few months of 2016 were focused on his ability to meet NCAA academic eligibility requirements and not his behavior.

Robertson was placed in a homebound education program to finish his senior year shortly after he was charged with the misdemeanor battery charge. Michigan State, Stockman said, was aware that Robertson was not allowed on the high school's campus when it extended its scholarship offer for him to come to the East Lansing campus.

Robertson entered a diversionary program for the battery charge in March 2016. Dantonio announced three weeks later that he and Michigan State "believe Auston should be provided with an opportunity to begin his education and playing career at Michigan State."

Dantonio said last year that Robertson was required to undergo an extensive educational program including "regular meetings with university staff addressing appropriate behavior and developmental growth" while he was on campus. Michigan State declined to provide further details about those sessions.

The former high school student involved in the battery incident and her mother said they agreed to allow Robertson into the diversionary program rather than pursue charges because they hoped his moving out of state to a college campus would help him get a fresh start. Stockman said officials at the high school held the same hopes.

Robertson successfully completed his legal diversionary program for the battery charge in late March 2017, during his freshman year at Michigan State. One month later, he faced the sexual assault charges that brought him back to a courtroom in Michigan on Wednesday.

ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne and investigative producer Nicole Noren contributed to this report.