Two USC Annenberg Media sports journalists are sharing their story after Missouri prosecutors dropped charges accusing them of stealing three NFL jerseys while covering the first day of the draft last April in Kansas City.
“It wasn’t until we were sitting in jail that I was told the person wasn’t authorized to give me the jerseys, and I had entered a room off-limits to the media,” said Eric Lambkins II, a specialized journalism master’s student, in a video filmed in the Annenberg Media Center. It is expected to be released at the end of this month.
Kansas City police arrested Lambkins, co-founder of the sports podcast Talk of Troy, and Jude Ocañas, a sophomore journalism student and aspiring sports commentator, on April 28. Five police officers boarded their Los Angeles-bound airplane, which had already left the gate on its way to the runway when authorities ordered it to return.
Within days of their arrests, USC Annenberg faculty, students and members of the community rallied behind the students. Some 33 faculty members and 200 others signed a public letter of support posted on change.org.
All charges — felony stealing, second-degree burglary and misdemeanor trespassing — have been dropped as part of an agreement reached with Jackson County. In return, the students agreed to produce a video offering wide-ranging advice to journalists covering sporting events.
The agreement, which the students’ attorney and prosecutor intended to keep confidential, also bars the students from criticizing the NFL, the police or the prosecutor’s office. The public information officer for the prosecutor’s office provided the document.
“I do feel vindicated,” Lambkins said. “I do feel that the outcome is just. I’m Black in America, so honestly I didn’t think I was going to get any type of grace.”
“I see it as an opportunity to tell people our story,” Ocañas said. “But, at the same time, educate people on being smarter when at professional events, or sporting events of any kind, as a teaching lesson for future journalists who want to get in the field.”
David Bell, the Kansas City lawyer who represented both students, said his clients’ experience will help student journalists in the future.
“Given the unique circumstances of this case, along with the manner of the arrests, the media attention and the extraordinary reputations of Mr. Lambkins and Mr. Ocañas, each party could have remained unwavering in their respective positions at the outset of this case,” Bell said.
“Instead, the parties sought to craft a solution together with the Annenberg School to turn this unfortunate situation into something positive for Eric, Jude and for future student journalists. We appreciate the discretion shown by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office as well as the outstanding support from professors at the Annenberg School. We look forward to seeing great things from Eric and Jude as sports journalists,” continued Bell.
Until now, few details emerged about the case beyond the sparse account alleged in police and court documents. Cursory stories appeared in the media from Los Angeles to New York, along with the students’ mugshots. They did not speak to the media until this month. Lambkins announced the resolution of the case in a LinkedIn post two weeks ago.
Police documents said surveillance footage showed the students around 1:20 a.m. on April 28 entering areas off-limits to them. The video showed Lambkins entering the “Nike Room” with a paper bag and emerging about five minutes later with the bag looking “fuller,” according to police.
Annenberg Media’s review of all 26 of the security videos, shot in the early morning hours after the first round of the Draft, tell a more complete story.
The official activities for that day had ended shortly before midnight. Surveillance videos shot throughout the sprawling complex show security officers and others milling about and the students walking unimpeded through various hallways and buildings. None of the videos show the inside of the “Nike Room.”
Lambkins described what he saw — and didn’t see — in the videos during a review of them last week. “I would like to think the DA considered the totality of all of the evidence in her willingness to drop it,” he said.
The post-draft scene
The video surveillance footage reviewed by Annenberg Media shows Lambkins and Ocañas walking through the expansive NFL Draft venue in Kansas City. Their NFL-issued media credentials were clearly visible throughout.
Lambkins and Ocañas, two in a group of five reporters from Annenberg Media’s Talk of Troy, left the “Media Room” on the third floor of the Westin Hotel in search of food, they said. The group had been working since the start of the Draft around 7 p.m. – including three hours of live, multiplatform coverage – until the time of the incident, which police documents say was around 1:20 a.m.
The footage reviewed does not include timestamps.
Lambkins and Ocañas are shown leaving the hotel and crossing through the intersection of East Pershing Road and Grand Avenue into a closed-off area outside Kansas City Union Station where a stage was set up. The police report describes the opening in the perimeter as “an emergency exit.” As they pass through it, a police officer on a motorcycle drives past slowly but does not interact with them.
The pair walked by the stage area into a lounge inside Union Station where they walked past another security guard. They are off camera and reappear a short while later. Lambkins is holding a brown paper bag. The pair said it was filled with snacks including Snickers, cups of Jif peanut butter, cookies and granola bars.
On their way back, they stop to take selfies on the stage. A dozen workers or so can be seen moving about the stage. In cellphone video captured by Lambkins and reviewed by Annenberg Media, a security guard is visible at the back of the audience area, in view of the stage.
The reporters then walk off stage-left following about 30 seconds behind a group of people through a doorway.
In the next frame, Ocañas and Lambkins are seen opening and passing through a door on their right. No surveillance video shows their activity for about five-and-a-half minutes. The police report refers to the area they enter as the “Talent Waiting Room.”
In the forthcoming video about the reporters’ experience in Kansas City, Lambkins said he asked permission from someone who did not have the authority to give him the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings jerseys.
“This is where I made a grave miscalculation,” Lambkins said in retrospect. “The person that I asked didn’t have the authority or the authorization to give the swag. And I didn’t do my due diligence in ensuring that that was the proper person to ask.” Communication is a key point that Lambkins underscores in the YouTube video he and Ocañas are preparing for student journalists.
The hallway outside the Talent Waiting Room, where the pair were last seen on camera, was empty for about two minutes and 10 seconds before two security guards, one Black female with shoulder-length hair and the other a white male wearing a hoodie under his neon jacket, walk into the frame past the door to the Waiting Room. The female security guard leaves through a door at the end of the hallway, the male security guard returns back the way they came. He is partially visible at the edge of the frame lingering in the hallway before Lambkins and Ocañas reemerge from the same door they entered about five-and-a-half minutes earlier.
The reporters are seen on camera returning to the Westin, slowly walking back across the intersection and into the hotel where security is still visible. Ocañas and Lambkins both said they went through a security checkpoint and a guard looked inside the paper bag and saw the jerseys and snacks. This interaction was not shown in the footage reviewed by Annenberg Media.
Surprised on the plane
In the early afternoon on April 28, the Talk of Troy reporters boarded their return flight to Los Angeles. By the time the plane was pulling back from the gate, Lambkins was asleep and Ocañas was zoned out on his phone, texting friends that he was on his way back to L.A.
Though the two didn’t notice at the time, after taxiing toward the runway, the plane had returned to the gate. The main cabin door opened and five Kansas City Police officers headed to the back of the plane, where the USC students were seated.
Lambkins was awakened by police asking for him and Ocañas. Confused, the two identified themselves. They were handcuffed on the plane after one officer told them they were being arrested for burglary.
They were each questioned briefly but declined to speak without an attorney present.
It remains unclear regarding who requested the plane to turn around.
“The decision of an airplane’s actions would rest with an airline and/or the pilot,” Jacob Becchina, a spokesperson for the Kansas City Police Department, wrote this month in an email. “We don’t have any ability to compel an airplane to do anything.”
It wasn’t until they were booked into the Kansas City jail that they realized they had been arrested on suspicion of stealing the three jerseys earlier that morning.
Lambkins and Ocañas were charged and transferred to the Jackson County Jail before each posted $2,500 bail and were released around midnight on April 29.
Within a week, news outlets around the country had reported the arrests.
When Lambkins saw these stories, most of which showed the students’ mugshots, he said he thought his professional dreams had been dashed. “I felt that my career had evaporated before my eyes.”
“Those are places I wanted to work for, not be in their headlines,” Ocañas said of the stories that ran in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
Ocañas, who spent most of his first summer after starting college at home in Los Angeles, said he tried to get jobs, including at UberEats, but a quick background check would reveal the charges in Kansas City.
Prosecutors agreed to postpone their arraignment, initially scheduled for May 12, the day of USC’s graduation, so Lambkins could walk with his class. He expects to complete his degree and his thesis project, “Life After Life,” a documentary about a group of individuals sentenced to life in prison, by the end of the fall semester.
Toeing the line
In the nearly five months since their arrest, Lambkins and Ocañas have been reluctant to speak publicly about the matter or to make comments seen as critical of the NFL or police.
The agreement each of them signed seeks to restrict what they can say about the charges and the other parties involved.
The agreement, signed on August 8, orders the students to “avoid making, either directly or indirectly, any public statements that may be viewed as an attempt to minimize the actions by Lambkins.” It also directs them to “avoid disparaging any organizations and/or individuals involved with the investigation and/or decision to file the Case.”
If the students violate any of the terms, “the Prosecutor may, in its sole discretion, re-file the Case” before the end of January 2024, the agreement warns.
This stern language is common in such agreements, said Katharine Tinto, a former public defender who now directs the Criminal Justice Center at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, where she is a clinical professor.
She reviewed the agreement and said it could prevent the reporters from declaring their innocence or accusing the police of making an error.
“There’s at least an argument that coming out and saying ‘It was a mistake’ is minimizing your actions and not taking responsibility,” Tinto said. “That might not be their truth, but they’re probably trying their best to abide by the terms of the agreement so they can get it dismissed and keep it dismissed.”
“A diversion agreement is in a defendant’s interest because it avoids the risk of trial, and it puts the ability to get a case dismissed in the defendant’s own hands, other than in the hands of a jury,” Tinto said.
Lambkins, who is a father of three children and an Iraq War veteran, worked in consultation with the director of the Annenberg Media Center to get graduate and undergraduate student reporters credentialed by the NFL for the first time to cover the Draft. USC Annenberg supported the students’ efforts and funded their travel, as it does for students covering USC away games.
Ocañas, a sophomore majoring in journalism, received a USC Dean’s Scholarship and the Jacki and Gilbert Wells Cisneros Endowed Scholarship, which is awarded to a new student of Latin American descent with outstanding academic performance.
This story was reported and written in accordance with the highest journalistic standards and ethics. We take our responsibility to truth and transparency seriously, especially when reporting on members of our own staff.
Professor Alan Mittelstaedt, a faculty advisor at the USC Annenberg Media Center, edited this story and advised me throughout the reporting process. Mittelstaedt organized and signed a letter in support of Eric Lambkins and Jude Ocañas, along with 33 USC faculty members. He has also advised and supported Eric and Jude since they joined the newsroom.
Professor Christina Bellantoni, the director of the USC Annenberg Media Center, also edited this story and advised me on the reporting process. As director, she advised the Talk of Troy students on the credential application process and helped organize the logistics of the trip. She did not sign the letter of support.
Professors Bellantoni and Mittelstaedt’s involvement in this story was strictly in an advisory capacity and their suggestions were just that – final decisions lay with student editors, Tess Patton and Mateo Gutierrez, and me.
– Jules Feeney
*** This story has been updated with the corrected bail amount of $2,500. ***