Olympic equestrian Darren Chiacchia was exactly where he wanted to be on Saturday - “out at a horse show jumping horses around.”
This wouldn’t seem that remarkable except that nine years ago the Hamburg native and summer resident of Springville suffered “what was deemed an unrecoverable brain injury” in a riding accident, and then was caught up in a long battle against unfounded criminal charges that threatened his career and reputation.
Coming just a few years after he won a bronze medal in Athens, Chiacchia says, it all amounts to “quite a story.”
Putting last things first, Chiacchia, now 52, finally obtained his long-sought legal victory this month when, after seven years of court proceedings, the Florida State Attorney’s Office dropped a criminal case against him that alleged he had sexual relations with a partner without telling him he was HIV positive. Under Florida law, the offense - called “unlawful acts prior to sex” - can be considered a felony if the individuals involved have sexual relations more than once.
Just as the case was heading to trial under a new judge, prosecutors dropped the charges, saying that new evidence had come to light that did not support the accusation.
“It was dismissed because facts developed through further investigation caused the state to lose confidence in the case,” is how Chiacchia’s attorney Paul Guilfoil put it in an email he sent while traveling.
Chiacchia, trying not to be bitter, questions a legal system that only looks at one side of a story before bringing charges, but is grateful to those who came forward to refute the alleged “victim’s” version of the relationship.
He also sees his case as a wake-up call to anyone who comes to conclusions too quickly.
“The accusation was judge, jury and executioner,” Chiacchia said. “He (the victim) had no power, but there were others that gave the accusation power: the court, the police, the media. Nobody ever asked me a single question.”
Chiacchia was arrested in January 2010. The relationship had begun early in 2009, eight months after Chiacchia came out of a coma from his riding accident, and because of his fame the charges made news in and out of the equestrian world.
Chiacchia became known as part of the event team that won a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and he gained even more notice after his riding accident four years later, in a year when equestrian sports saw a dozen riders die in accidents.
He stood out as a survivor, and not just for living but for literally getting back in the saddle and riding again.
That was incredible, considering what happened on March 15, 2008. Chiacchia was in Florida, competing in trials before the Beijing Olympics when his mount somersaulted over a jump, landed on its back and crushed Chiacchia beneath it. Chiacchia suffered the head injury, plus broken ribs, a broken hand and a punctured lung. He was in the hospital for two months.
But by that summer, he was riding again (a little, anyway) and doing some training and teaching.
Chiacchia says now that he didn’t realize how much he still was at risk at the time, and how much his traumatic brain injury was affecting him.
“They call it a childlike vulnerability,” he said - a condition that makes a person feels like he is functioning normally even though his decision-making ability is compromised.
That’s when he met the man who later accused him of deception about HIV.
The tumultuous relationship lasted less than four months, and even while it was ongoing, Chiacchia said, his partner would make threats, saying things during heated moments like, “You don’t know what I’m capable of,” and, “I’ll ruin you.”
“Maybe is was my own arrogance, but I ignored it,” Chiacchia said. “I thought, ‘I’m Darren Chiacchia, what can he do to me?' ”
As it turned out, quite a lot.
The angry ex tried to file charges immediately after the two broke up in June 2009, and eventually in 2010 Chiacchia was arrested in Florida, his winter home. He pleaded innocent and in 2011 a state circuit judge dismissed the charge based on a technical interpretation of the law.
Even then, Chiacchia said, he felt a backlash that he hadn’t anticipated. Some people still believed he was somehow “beating” the charge, not disproving it.
Two years later an Appellate Court reinstated the charge and he started over. But by then, time was on his side. Chiacchia’s memory was returning. He hired Guilfoil in 2014 and they started to build a case.
Ironically, it was more bad fortune that helped Chiacchia piece things together, he said. The accident hadn’t only harmed him physically. His injuries also wrecked him financially.
“Traumatic brain injury often equals bankruptcy,” he said, and that’s what happened to him.
“As I began to function again, I started seven years of forensic accounting, and it really was that that helped bring back the memories,” he said. “I could remember what happened, and I could help in my own defense.”
That was what it took to refute the charges and find witnesses to back him up, leading prosecutors to drop the case.
One benefit from all his personal and legal trials, Chiacchia said, is that he knows who his real friends are - those who believed in him, including some “surprise guardian angels.”
He still enjoys that support, enabling him to continue training horses and teaching. He is working with young horses now, building a foundation for future show animals, and he hopes to compete in dressage himself soon.
Chiacchia also is giving back by staying involved with HIV awareness efforts to update laws related to the condition. Too many states still have laws that are rooted in the time 20 or 30 years ago when HIV/AIDS was a death sentence, he said.
He also wants to improve awareness of how traumatic brain injury can affect the behavior of sufferers who are in and out of the legal system. One way is to share his own experience.
“I’ve had a long journey to my recovery, a journey many people don’t get to travel,” he said. Even so, rebuilding his health wasn’t as bad as his legal fight.
“The criminal charges were harder, of course, because you feel so out of control,” he said. “My (physical) recovery was about setting goals, which I’ve been doing my whole life, but this - boy oh boy, am I grateful to have it behind me.”