Countdown for Kobe

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Yes, Kobe Bryant is supposed to be at the Lakers' training camp in Hawaii. But he might also be sweating it out at the Oct. 9 preliminary hearing in his Colorado rape case. Certainly his 19-year-old accuser is already feeling the heat. She's been holed up with friends in the college town of Greeley, afraid that a Bryant fan may try to harm her—a concern that crystallized recently with the arrest of a Swiss bodybuilder on charges that he offered to make Bryant's "problem" disappear for $3 million. "That really frightened her," says her friend Rachel Yandle, 18. "She's scared because of how crazy people are."

Emotions seem destined to run even higher in what's shaping up as a sad and ugly case. If the preliminary hearing proceeds as scheduled, both Bryant and his accuser will likely suffer swipes at their reputations. The prosecution will have the chance to present some of its strongest evidence against the hoops star, while at the same time defense attorneys are fighting fiercely to unseal the accuser's medical records, which could include details of a widely reported overdose earlier this year. Even though on Sept. 29 Judge Frederick Gannett directed Vail police to hand over records of 911 calls made from the home of the accuser, some experts believe the medical documents will remain off-limits.

In the months since he was charged with sexual assault on July 18, Kobe, 25, and his wife, Vanessa, 21, have kept a relatively low profile. On Sept. 21, according to the Daily News of L.A., the couple dropped by for 45 minutes at a party at teammate Shaquille O'Neal's Beverly Hills mansion. Meanwhile, in Greeley, his accuser—who has taken a year's leave from the University of Northern Colorado—also goes out only rarely. These days she appears even more wary of everyone around her. "If someone wants her to go out with them, she takes a long time to think about it," says her friend Yandle, a student. "Usually she ends up saying no."

There may be one person she can count on—Bob Pietrack, who was working for the summer as a bellboy at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, in Eagle, where the rape allegedly took place. According to press reports, Pietrack, 22, has told investigators that shortly after the alleged attack on June 30, he encountered the accuser, and she looked disheveled and upset.

That crucial testimony could prove tough for Bryant's lawyers to shake. Around the campus at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., where he's a senior, Pietrack enjoys an unblemished reputation. "I've been in higher education for 25 years, and he's in the top percentile in terms of integrity, character, honesty, discipline," says Sheri Rochford, the college's dean of development and alumni relations. Fellow students praise Pietrack, who is on the dean's list and plays point guard on the school's basketball team, as the ultimate straight arrow. "Bob goes to class, comes home and does his homework," says friend Rob Gunkelman, a center on the team. "Even on road trips he's the first guy to be in bed, preparing for the game."

Pietrack, who went to the same high school in Eagle as the accuser but knew her only slightly, has refused to give interviews. "Bob's not seeking any publicity," says his father, David, a field technician for Orkin pest control. All the same, Pietrack, whose goal is to become a college basketball coach, has had to deal with a couple of death threats. If they've rattled him, says his friend Gunkelman, it hasn't showed: "He doesn't talk about it a lot."

Bryant's lawyers will be sure to have alternate explanations for Pietrack's testimony. According to defense attorney Roy Black, who isn't connected to the case, Bryant's team could argue that the accuser looked upset because she thought Bryant was dumping her after consensual sex.

But will the case even come to trial? With the stakes so high, both sides may decide a plea deal is more attractive than a jury trial. (Though criminal charges are the prosecutors' call, the accuser could have some influence over how, or whether, they proceed.) While there is no indication that a deal is in the works, one scenario, according to L.A. attorney Steven Cron, would include Bryant pleading guilty to a lesser charge—sexual battery, say—that would avoid jail time. The settlement of any civil suit would be included as a package deal. But even if he pleads guilty to a misdemeanor charge, Bryant would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life, a condition he would surely find hard to accept. Still, says Cron, "you look for the best possible outcome—and that might be as good as it gets."

BILL HEWITT
Lyndon Stambler, John Hannah and Ron Arias in Los Angeles and Vickie Bane in Denver

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