Market Street Saloon owner Sam Mustafa got the best birthday present he could wish for Monday when prosecutors dropped a rape charge against him, ending a nearly two-year ordeal that hurt business and tarnished his reputation.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said the case suffered from witness credibility issues, making it clear prosecutors could not proceed to trial. As they tried to verify different accounts, “stories continued to change and certain claims could not be corroborated, or were refuted,” she said.
In the end, prosecutors could not prove in court that Mustafa had raped the woman, a former employee, aboard his party boat in June 2011, as she had claimed, Wilson said.
“What happened on that boat that day is not anything we can prove or know,” she said.
Mustafa, who turned 43 Monday, got the news in the late afternoon and he was still trembling when he sat down behind his desk overlooking a prime stretch of Meeting Street real estate. He said he was grateful to his lawyer, Andy Savage; private investigator Laurie Langford; and to Wilson’s office for taking the time to thoroughly vet the charges.
“I’m very thankful and relieved,” he said. “It took a lot longer than I had anticipated, but I am glad it’s finally over.”
Savage said the case was rife with holes and inconsistencies, and Langford obtained evidence indicating that the victim hoped to cash in on the allegations. Another player in the case offered to make a key witness go away before trial in exchange for a $2,500 bribe, he said.
Savage described the alleged victim’s account as “a collage of misinformation.”
Authorities have not identified the woman, and she could not be reached for comment.
The case began when the woman showed up to attend a party cruise aboard Mustafa’s 44-foot boat, The Southern Lady, on June 26, 2011. Mustafa said the trip to the area around Morris Island was planned to reward employees.
The woman, then 20, told Charleston police the attack occurred in a downstairs cabin. She accused Mustafa of throwing her on a bed, pulling off her bikini bottom and raping her, police said.
The woman sent her boyfriend a text message following the alleged attack, and the boyfriend alerted police. She initially denied the rape when police arrived at Charleston City Marina but later provided police with a statement that Mustafa had taken advantage of her.
Mustafa insists he did not sexually assault the woman, but he would not say Monday if they did engage in sex on the boat. “Emotionally, I am not prepared to go through the entire thing right now,” he said.
He said he thought the call to police was a misunderstanding that had been cleared up that night. He said he was stunned when police contacted him weeks later about the allegations and then arrested him, charging him with first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
“I couldn’t understand how this could happen to me,” he said. “I spent many sleepless nights wondering why.”
He said business at his restaurants fell off and it pained him to see the effect the case was having on his ex-wife and his 12-year-old son. “It was really damaging,” he said. “People who didn’t know me only knew what they had read and made judgments without knowing the facts.”
Still, Mustafa said, his staff, his family and friends, and his loyal customers stood by him. In addition to Market Street Saloon, he owns Toast of Charleston, Eli’s Table, Whisk Bakery, Tabbuli and The Wreckfish.
Langford, with Tracker Investigations, said red flags emerged from the start, including a lack of DNA and other evidence.
Langford said the woman’s boyfriend had cautioned her against going on the party boat that day and he grew increasingly angry when she didn’t return his repeated text messages. She apparently concocted the story in hope of winning sympathy and blunting his anger, she said.
The boyfriend later provided Langford with a sworn statement in which he detailed how the woman had discussed Mustafa’s wealth with her father and had talked about a civil suit that would leave her “set for life,” Langford said.
Savage said the boyfriend of a key witness in the case offered to have her disappear before trial in exchange for a $2,500 bribe from Mustafa. Savage said he reported the bribe attempt to the State Law Enforcement Division but never heard back from the agency.
Reached late Monday after state offices had closed, SLED spokeswoman Kathryn Richardson tried to research the complaint Savage had filed but said she was unable to reach anyone with knowledge of the matter. She pledged to continue searching and would contact The Post and Courier when she had information to provide.
The accuser went to Medical University Hospital hours after the alleged attack for a rape examination. Photographs showed bruising and redness, but Savage said Langford found evidence that the woman already had those injuries before the alleged attack occurred.
Langford said she also obtained photos of the woman partying and dancing on the boat that day.
No one on the boat heard the woman screaming for help, as she claimed, not even a sober woman who was right outside the door to the thinly walled cabin, Savage said. Witnesses described seeing the accuser follow Mustafa into the cabin and later leave showing no signs of distress, Langford said.
Langford, a former New York City police officer with 29 years of investigative experience, said she found “not one thing” to support the allegations. “I am 100 percent confident Sam did not do this,” she said.
Wilson and Assistant Solicitor Timmy Finch, who handled the case, wouldn’t go that far. They can’t say for sure what happened that day or who is lying about what, and that left them unable for go forward.
“They tell so many different stories and inconsistent stories, uncorroborated stories and contradictory stories, we’re left without knowing whether the original accusation is accurate,” she said.
Savage said police could have saved Mustafa a big headache if they had just done a thorough investigation to begin with.
Wilson said police did investigate and they “tried pretty hard to get to the bottom of this.”
Police spokesman Charles Francis said the department sought out witnesses who were willing to cooperate and, “as we do with all of our cases,” investigated thoroughly.
“If anyone has any information in reference to the case or our investigation, we ask that they provide us with that information,” he said.
Mustafa said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending his name, but he’s met some good people in the process, learned who his friends are and has taken steps to avoid such situations in the future.
For his birthday, he planned a quiet dinner with his ex-wife, his son and some close friends. But Mustafa felt like he’d already received a gift. “It is the best birthday gift — to get my dignity back.”