It was hell for Niko Kollias, a former University of Rochester football player lured to a filthy, rundown house where he and a teammate endured torture, beatings, and thought they would die at the hands of men out for revenge – on the wrong people.
Kollias, from Chicago, outlined for ESPN’s Outside the Lines the terror they went through in 2015, trapped in the house, facing constant menace at the hands of a gang, so bad it led Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli, a former DEA agent, to say: “I’ve seen a lot of things. This one is really in a class by itself in terms of the level of physical and psychological torture. It was as bad as a horror movie.”
He survived gunshot wounds, a broken leg and being left tied naked and bleeding while they used ATM card to rob him and – police said – set for certain execution until their trail led them the house of horror where a SWAT team rescued them.
It unfolded with a Breaking Bad-like series of events set in motion by a drug-dealing teammate, Isaiah E. Smith, from the Bronx, recruited by the school to bolster its football program. A talented linebacker he led the team in sacks and turned it around but was, teammates said, a menace to everyone around him.
Another former Rochester player told Outside the Lines that he bought marijuana from Smith several times. He said Smith told him “he had connections in New York City” and could “get whatever I needed. As much as I would need.”
Kollias said he believes the Rochester coaching staff knew Smith was tangled up with drugs but chose to look the other way. Other players had faced harsh consequences when they violated rules, Kollias said. “Things happen, like drunk driving,” he explains. “And when those things happened, usually the players were all kicked off of the team.”
“The kids who were the better athletes were definitely on a longer leash,” the other teammate said. “He was one of the best players on the team. He wasn’t going to get kicked off the team.”
Kollias avoided Smith. He said he didn’t like how Smith bragged about being able to get marijuana for students. “He had a reputation for wanting to be the drug dealer on campus,” Kollias said. “That’s really what he took pride in more than his exceptional athletics, which was shocking to me.”
THE REVENGE PLOT
On the afternoon of Nov. 28, 2015, authorities said Smith went into a student apartment complex with four men who came to the campus carrying four pounds of marijuana and had here attackers beat and rob them and hit him to make it look as if he wasn’t involved.
Two of his football teammates lived in a seventh-floor apartment. Prosecutors say that they were away on Thanksgiving break but that Smith knew they kept a spare key hidden in a fire extinguisher box.
After receiving a report of assault, police sent an officer to the hospital. According to the police report, when the officer started questioning Smith, his story unraveled quickly and he told them about the set-up.
When Kollias returned to campus after Thanksgiving, he had no idea Smith had been arrested but a teammate who lived in the apartment told him what happened. They didn’t know that 19-year-old Eliot Rivera, a cousin of one of the drug dealers, was out for blood.
Officials said he told a friend, Lydell Strickland, what had happened and that the attackers were African-American, not white like Kollias.
They used Rivera’s girlfriend, Samantha Hughes, to lure the teammate who lived in the apartment where the attack occurred, using Facebook as the trap. The player said two girls wanted to go out and invited Kollias, a 6-1, 215-lb. Defensive End to go along.
The girls showed up drunk and high and the players got into the car with them. Kollias said he began getting nervous when they went into a bad neighborhood and went into the grimy house where he said he tried to run out when he saw a gang of masked men with bats, pipes, knives and guns.
He got halfway across the room when he felt his left leg shatter from a blow, broken almost in half, the same leg where he had suffered a devastating knee injury. He hopped to the door but he said two girls were outside holding it shut.
Kollias said the men in masks “dragged us into the bathroom, leaned us up against the walls and duct-taped our hands and legs together, binding us. They emptied our pockets — cellphones, wallets and car keys.”
A REAL HORROR MOVIE
The attackers recorded some of their assault on a cellphone, images showing them in masks but one said to be Rivera who is holding a sawed-off .22-caliber rifle and standing over Kollias’ teammate lying facedown in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor.
Strickland, in distinctive dreadlocks, is there too, holding orange hedge clippers when he asks the camera, “You recording, homie?” Soon after, he said, “This is what n—as going to do when they wanna take 4 pounds from a n—a. This right here.” He then jabs Kollias’ teammate in the head with the hedge clippers.
The camera pans to the right, revealing Kollias on the bathroom floor. Blood from a gunshot wounds to his legs completely saturates his khaki pants.
When Kollias pleads, “Please, I’ll do anything,” he’s hit in the head with the long fluorescent light bulb. As his attackers continue to hit Kollias with their improvised weapons, Strickland tells the camera, “Look at your boy. He got nothing to do with this; he started running.”
The video is only 30 seconds long. The players would be physically, sexually and psychologically tortured for at least 40 hours, according to prosecutors.
About three hours into the attack, Kollias said they threw him in the shower. “I was completely naked and just sitting in a chair and getting all this blood off me. I was just covered in so much blood.”
He said, ”I was pushing myself through to not give up and not close my eyes because I didn’t want to die.”
Police pieced together what happened after campus police questioned the two women and then turned over the investigation to the Rochester department and its resources. Detectives found ATM surveillance that showed Strickland at the scene of a withdrawal and the women, one of whom first led police in the wrong direction, later cracked and revealed the address of the torture chamber house.
It was only because Kollias couldn’t get money transferred from his investment account on a weekend that police said he was kept alive until they could get to him.
THE SWAT RESCUE
“There’s no doubt the absolute intent was, once they got the money from that account, these kids would have been killed,” Ciminelli said. “They certainly had no reason to keep them alive after that. And every reason to not keep them alive, frankly. It was now a race against time.”
Kollias almost didn’t make it before being saved in a dramatic rescue by the Rochester police who had also grilled Smith.
Kollias said just before that SWAT team broke down the doors of the house, whose windows had been boarded up that attackers came into the room where he was being held, angry they couldn’t get any more money off his ATM card and disbelieving he would have to wait until a Monday, the next day, to get more.
“They started shooting everywhere and putting the gun into our mouths and up to my skin and just shooting and pulling away at the last second. There were bullet casings flying everywhere. I’m not wearing a T-shirt, and all these casings are extremely hot, and we’re just flailing and they’re yelling at us to stay still.”
Kollias remembers grabbing his teammate’s hand and holding it. “I was pretty much fine with dying at that point.”
After blasting through the side door, about a dozen SWAT members rushed into the house. The officers quickly arrested at least two people who were watching over the football players: Rivera and Strickland weren’t there but were taken into custody within a couple of days.
In the minutes after the raid, Ciminelli caught a look at Kollias and his teammate. “The one thing that stood out to me is the almost blank stare they both had on their faces,” Ciminelli said.
Nine people went to prison for the kidnapping and torture of Kollias and his teammate. Three were sentenced for watching over the captives and acting as lookouts. Rivera was sentenced to 35 years in prison and Strickland got 155 years, laughing when he heard it.
Smith, who left school after his arrest, faced a judge three months later and was told after getting a 3 ½ year sentence: “This is all your fault.”