Kobe Bryant's Colorado prosecutor recalls the case that linked them

Kobe Bryant arrives at the Eagle County Courthouse for his first court appearance on Aug. 6, 2003. The sexual assault charge against him was dropped the following year after his accuser declined to testify. The two later reached a confidential settlement. Ed Andrieski-Pool/Getty Images

MARK HURLBERT WAS on the chairlift for his last run of the day at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Sunday afternoon when he got a text from a friend. "Google Kobe Bryant," it read.

It had been a while since anyone had asked Hurlbert, now 51, to research anything involving Bryant, but the request was not unusual. The lives of the former district attorney for Colorado's 5th Judicial District and Bryant are forever linked. During a 14-month span in 2003 and 2004, Hurlbert prosecuted Bryant on a single felony sexual assault charge. He searched for Bryant on his phone and saw a headline: Bryant had died in a helicopter crash in the hills of Calabasas, California, at the age of 41.

Hurlbert sat on the chairlift, considering the life and legacy of a man he once tried to imprison. "It was a horrible tragedy," he says now, in one of the rare interviews he's done since the case failed to make it to trial. Hurlbert is no longer a prosecutor, but he still speaks like one, choosing his words carefully. You become weirdly calloused to tragedy as a district attorney. But on the chairlift, he didn't yet know the extent of the wreck. The news of Bryant's death prompted a near-universal outpouring of shock and sadness, from fans all the way to U.S. presidents. Hurlbert's reaction mirrored those who found themselves sad but not exactly grieving. "I didn't really know him," he says.

Hurlbert knew a different Kobe Bryant: the courtroom defendant.

IN EARLY JULY 2003, Hurlbert's phone rang. It was a sheriff's deputy. Hurlbert was 34 and just six months into his job as DA, an appointee of then-Gov. Bill Owens. He had sandy blond hair parted to the right and intense blue eyes. Like Bryant, Hurlbert was a young father; he had a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. He had grown up in Dillon, Colorado, and graduated from Dartmouth and the University of Colorado Law School. He wanted to work for the government, standing up for the little guy.

The deputy had tough news. "Mark, we have allegations of sexual assault against Kobe Bryant," he said.

"Who?" Hurlbert replied.

Hurlbert knew who, of course, but he was hoping that, somehow, it wasn't that Kobe Bryant.

"The basketball player," the sheriff replied.

A 19-year-old woman had told authorities that on June 30, Bryant raped her in his room at The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, where she worked at the front desk. On July 18, 2003, after two weeks of reviewing the case, gathering information and seeking advice from other prosecutors, Hurlbert stood at a curved lectern and announced on national television that Kobe Bean Bryant, then 24, would be charged with felony sexual assault, carrying a penalty that ranged from four years to life in prison. Bryant called a news conference the same day, confessing to adultery but emphatically denying the charges. Still, Hurlbert felt confident in his case. He had successfully gone up against rich defendants before, and he had successfully prosecuted sexual assault cases, even with scant physical evidence. "I feel that after reviewing evidence, I can prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt," he said at the lectern.

After the news conference, Hurlbert's mother called. "You did a good job," she said. "But boy, your hair is really receding."

He says his hairline receded more over the next 14 "crazy" months. Bryant was an international icon, a three-time NBA champion whose closest brush with controversy had been rooted in his own ambition, when he tried to wrestle the Los Angeles Lakers away from Shaquille O'Neal. Hurlbert's 35-person staff and $2.3 million budget wasn't prepared for the onslaught of attention. He received death threats. The 19-year-old woman received death threats. Worried that someone might try to steal and sell evidence, Hurlbert had the case file locked in a cabinet. Eventually, bulletproof glass was installed around the DA's office. Hurlbert estimates that at one point, around 3,000 people associated with the media were in Eagle, Colorado, roughly doubling the town's population at the time.

Hurlbert says he felt a duty to speak to the media on the woman's behalf, so at the beginning, he was all over the airwaves, on ESPN and other national networks. But he quickly realized that he was overmatched. Bryant "had all these PR people," Hurlbert says. "We didn't have a PR team. It was me. It was overwhelming."

The frenzy overwhelmed his case too. Reporters would do their own investigations and "mess things up," Hurlbert says, by both interviewing potential witnesses and scaring off others. Most media didn't print the woman's name, but the Eagle County court, which Hurlbert did not oversee and was in a different part of county government, mistakenly released her identity to the media three times, and a sealed transcript of a closed hearing on DNA evidence was emailed to media outlets. Hurlbert believed that "it truly was an accident" by the court, but the damage was done. The woman's identity became the worst-kept secret around town. Pamela Mackey, Bryant's attorney, had disclosed the woman's name six times in a preliminary hearing and had cited her sexual history. "It was the start of a nightmare for this woman," says Mark Shaw, a lawyer and reporter who covered the case for ESPN. "It was the accuse-the-accuser defense. From that point on, she didn't have a chance. She was looked at as this person who was putting this poor celebrity through all of this anguish."

Some legal experts believed that the prosecution and court were overmatched by the magnitude of the case and by Bryant's resources. But Hurlbert tried his best to remember that, at its core, it was a routine sexual assault case, the kind he had prosecuted before. He assigned two prosecutors to it. "We felt we had a handle on it," he says.

But in late August 2004, just days before the trial was to begin, the woman, who declined to comment Wednesday through her attorney, informed Hurlbert that she didn't want to testify. He understood. He asked her to think about it for a few days. During that time, he called other prosecutors for their advice on what was left of a rape case if the accuser refused to testify. The consensus: The case was over. Hurlbert technically could subpoena her, but he felt that would be amoral. He called her, but her mind was made up. He respected her decision.

On Sept. 1, 2004, he dropped the case. Bryant released a statement, apologizing to the woman and her family while admitting no guilt. The two sides reached a confidential civil settlement in March 2005. "I was disappointed that we had to dismiss the case," Hurlbert says now. "I wish it had gone to a 12-person jury.

"But the victim was going through hell."

BY THE TIME Hurlbert got off the ski lift Sunday afternoon, he had to take a break from thinking about Bryant to focus on the task at hand: getting down the mountain. At the bottom, he hopped on a bus that would drop him off near his home. He pulled out his phone, and the texts were pouring in, with people well-intentioned but expecting an insider personal reaction of sorts from him, the kind that only one man who is forever tied to another can provide. But he didn't have it in him. He didn't know why. Maybe he'd been hardened by his job. Maybe it felt inappropriate to disclose his opinion so quickly after a tragic death. "I don't want to get into my feelings for him, personally," he says. "How I feel about him isn't relevant."

After the Bryant case, Hurlbert returned to his job. He would win two terms as district attorney, then leave to become the assistant DA in Arapahoe County, outside of Denver. The Bryant case and the Duke lacrosse case, in which athletes were falsely accused two years later, would be pivot points in how sexual assault cases are viewed in America. There was conversation about victim shaming and how to balance the rights of the accused. For a time, prosecutors seemed wary of indicting high-profile figures in such cases. Hurlbert traveled the state, giving postmortems of the Bryant case. At home, he says, he worked to improve the process for sexual assault victims. He modernized local procedures, hiring nurses trained in sexual assaults, and helped pass legislation to strengthen rape shield laws, making it harder for sexual history to be used against accusers -- a pillar of Bryant's defense. And he's proud of his job of the past two years, as a vice president for eBodyGuard, a personal safety phone app.

Bryant never spoke at length about the sexual assault charge. The case stuck with Hurlbert longer than most of his cases. He had to find a way to make peace with it, and he did so by circling back to a prosecutor's tenet: He felt he represented the people of Eagle County and the woman to the best of his ability. In the end, both he and Kobe Bryant were trained to move on. And so Hurlbert moved on, both for his constituents and for himself, a man who would always be known as the DA who took on one of the world's most famous basketball players.

"You can't get emotionally invested in your cases," he says. "You get too close and it destroys you as a prosecutor."

The bus dropped off Hurlbert near his house. His wife was out. His son was back at college. The only one home was his 17-year-old daughter, Cydney. She was watching television and staring at her phone.

"Did you hear?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said.

He followed the news on his phone. In remembrances, many reporters and news outlets skipped -- or glossed over -- what had been a seminal 14 months, for both Bryant and Hurlbert. And that night he learned that the Bryant tragedy was even more tragic. The retired star's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, had died, in addition to seven others. Right then it hit him hard. He thought back a few years, to when he had almost lost his son in a climbing accident, and the boy had to be rescued by a Black Hawk helicopter. Some accidents never leave you, even if you're a DA. People responded to the news about the helicopter crash in Calabasas in their individual ways, some with memories of basketball and championships but many in the way that Mark Hurlbert of Parker, Colorado, did: by briefly setting aside his personal feelings about Bryant and imagining a family forever broken, by imagining his family going through the same thing as the Bryants of Newport Beach, California. In the end, Hurlbert was left with the same moral, both empty and universal.

"Life is precious," he says. "Relish every single day you have with your family."