NORRISTOWN, Pa. — Bill Cosby was charged Wednesday with drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his home 12 years ago — the first criminal charges brought against the comedian out of the torrent of allegations that destroyed his good-guy image as America’s Dad.
The case sets the stage for perhaps the biggest Hollywood celebrity trial of the mobile-all-the-time era and could send the 78-year-old Cosby to prison in the twilight of his life and barrier-breaking career.
Prosecutors accused him of rendering former Temple University employee Andrea Constand unable to resist by plying her with pills and wine, then penetrating her with his fingers without her consent, when she was unconscious or unaware of what was happening.
She was “frozen, paralyzed, unable to move,” Montgomery County District Attorney-elect Kevin Steele said. In court papers, prosecutors said the drugs were the cold medicine Benadryl or some other, unidentified substance. Steele noted that Cosby has admitted giving quaaludes to women he wanted to have sex with.
The TV star acknowledged under oath a decade ago that he had sexual contact with Constand but said it was consensual. Calls to his attorneys were not immediately returned.
He awaited arraignment in the afternoon on a charge of aggravated indecent assault, punishable by five to 10 years behind bars and a $25,000 fine.
The decision came down just days before Pennsylvania’s 12-year statute of limitations for bringing charges was set to run out.
The case represents an about-face by the district attorney’s office, which under a previous DA declined to charge Cosby in 2005 when Constand first told police that the comic violated her by putting his hands down her pants at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham.
Prosecutors reopened the case over the summer as damaging testimony was unsealed in Constand’s related civil lawsuit against Cosby and as dozens of other women came forward with similar accusations that made a mockery of his image as the wise and understanding Dr. Cliff Huxtable from TV’s “The Cosby Show.”
“Reopening this case was not a question. Rather, reopening this case was our duty as law enforcement officers,” said Steele, a top deputy in the DA’s office who will take over as top prosecutor in January.
In court papers, prosecutors said there are probably other women who were similarly drugged and violated by Cosby. Steele urged them to come forward as well.
Constand, now 42, lives in Toronto and works as a massage therapist. Her attorney, Dolores Troiani, welcomed the charges.
“She feels that they believe her, and to any victim, that is foremost in your mind: Are people going to believe me,” Troiani said.
The case adds to the towering list of legal problems facing the TV star, including defamation and sexual-abuse lawsuits filed in Boston, Los Angeles and Pennsylvania.
A key question if the case goes to trial is whether the judge will allow supporting testimony from other accusers to show similar “bad acts,” even though it is too late to bring charges in most if not all of those instances. The judge could decide that the testimony is too prejudicial.
Cosby in 1965 became the first black actor to land a leading role in a network drama, “I Spy,” and he went on to earn three straight Emmys. Over the next three decades, the Philadelphia-born comic created TV’s animated “Fat Albert” and the top-rated “Cosby Show,” the 1980s sitcom celebrated as groundbreaking television for its depiction of a warm and loving black family headed by two professionals — one a lawyer, the other a doctor.
He was a fatherly figure off camera as well, serving as a public moralist and public scold, urging young people to pull up their saggy pants and start acting responsibly.
Constand, who worked for the women’s basketball team at Temple, where Cosby was a trustee and proud alumnus, said she was assaulted after going to his home in January 2004 for some career advice.
Then-District Attorney Bruce Castor declined to charge Cosby, saying at the time that the comedian and his accuser could be portrayed in “a less than flattering light.” Constand eventually settled a lawsuit against Cosby in 2006 on confidential terms.
Her allegations and similar ones from other women in the years that followed did not receive wide attention at the time but exploded into view in late 2014, first online, then in the wider media, after comedian Hannibal Buress mocked the moralizing Cosby as a hypocrite and called him a rapist during a standup routine.
That opened the floodgates on even more allegations.
Women mostly from the world of modeling, acting or other entertainment fields told of being offered a drink by Cosby and waking up to find they had apparently been sexually assaulted. Cosby, through his representatives, accused some of the women of trying to extract money from him or get ahead in show business.
Earlier this year, The Associated Press persuaded a judge to unseal documents from the Constand lawsuit, and they showed the long-married Cosby acknowledging a string of affairs and sexual encounters.
Cosby, a longtime resident of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, testified that he obtained quaaludes in the 1970s to give to women. He denied giving women drugs without their knowledge and said he had used the now-banned sedative “the same as a person would say, ‘Have a drink.'”
Constand said she was semi-conscious after he gave her pills he said would relax her. In his deposition, Cosby said he fondled Constand that night, taking her silence as a green light.
“I don’t hear her say anything. And I don’t feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped,” Cosby testified. He said Constand was not upset when she left.
Prosecutors on Wednesday said Cosby used wine and drugs to render her incapable of resistance after “the much younger, athletic victim” blocked two previous sexual advances.
Constand’s lawyer has said Constand is gay and was dating a woman around the time she met Cosby in the early 2000s.
The AP generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they agree to have their names published, as Constand has done.