“We can get out of this. There’s nobody right now that can say that we paid Pat Dennehy. Because he’s dead.”
Former Baylor University men’s basketball coach Dave Bliss spoke those immortal words just five days after his newly recruited 21-year-old player was found dead in a grass clearing outside of Waco, Texas. Dennehy was murdered by his teammate in 2003, and Bliss was worried authorities would discover he had paid Dennehy’s tuition and car downpayment, in a clear violation of NCAA rules. So he portrayed the dead player as a drug dealer to conceal the transactions and save his own skin.
Bliss’s career was almost destroyed when he was caught on tape asking his players to slander Dennehy after he died. But 14 years later, he’s still lying about the young man in Disgraced, a new documentary about the murder.
The film premieres on Showtime on March 31 at 9 p.m. ET, and it features interviews with key characters in the scandal. It was shown Sunday evening at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Disgraced calls into question the guilty plea of Dennehy’s convicted killer, Carlton Dotson, who was his best friend, teammate, and roommate. Filmmakers also show new interviews that support the theory that another player, Harvey Thomas, may have been somehow involved in the murder.
“Carlton may have pulled the trigger, but there may have been other forces at work,” says Dennehy’s family friend, Daniel Okopnyi, in the documentary.
Dotson told authorities and family members that he was the son of God and claimed Dennehy was trying to kill him because of it. The then-21-year-old, who was initially found incompetent to stand trial, was eventually sentenced to 35 years in Dennehy’s death. He will be eligible for parole in 2021. He has spent a portion of his prison term in a psychiatric facility.
Dennehy and Dotson were recruited by Bliss to Baylor’s team in the hopes that they would reinvigorate the Baptist university’s at-the-time lackluster program.
In particular, Dennehy, a 6’10” NBA hopeful, had high ambitions. He was from Santa Clara, California, and is portrayed as a driven, funny, and kind athlete who is still, 14 years later, dearly missed by his family and friends.
Basketball “came easy to him, like everything else,” said his stepfather, Brian Brabazon, who proudly noted that Dennehy picked up his first basketball at 13 and learned how to play “overnight.”
“He knew who he was; he was going to be a basketball star,” said family friend Okopnyi.
A few days before he went missing, Dennehy told various contacts—including his then-girlfriend, his roommate, and Okopnyi–that he felt threatened by another player, Harvey Thomas. Dennehy and his best friend, Carlton Dotson, reportedly went to buy guns because they were concerned about their safety. Dennehy was last seen June 14, 2003, when he said he and Dotson were going to take a trip to visit a family friend. They never showed up. For more than a month, officials investigated Dennehy’s missing-person case.
On July 21, Dotson called police and confessed to shooting his friend; he was charged with murder. Five days later, on July 26, a badly decomposed and unrecognizable body was found in the county, in a spot that Dotson described.
That’s when Bliss started his campaign to slander Dennehy. He was worried that authorities would uncover the money he gave Dennehy—so he sought to paint the dead player as a drug dealer. And he asked some of his newer recruits to tell those tales.
“It doesn’t have to be the same story. It just has to have the same ending,” Bliss told his players, six days after Dennehy’s body was found. Bliss didn’t know it at the time, but he was being recorded by his assistant coach, who took issue with slandering a newly dead player.
Assistant Coach Abar Rouse blew his boss’s chilling coverup by wiring himself with a $25 tape recorder under his polo and khakis.
“What we have to do is create reasonable doubt,” Bliss said, in recorded meetings with the assistant coach. “What we want to do is, they tell the story.”
“Dennehy is never going to refute what we say,” Bliss said on tape. “If we say something about him, he’s dead so he isn’t going to argue with me at all.”
When Rouse asks if Bliss thinks one of the players, Harvey Thomas, will go along with the plan, the coach replies: “Fuck yeah. Harvey will throw himself on the grenade. That fucker will lie when the truth’s easier. He’ll do anything—and the reason is because we did it for Harvey. You know? I mean we stuck up for him. That’s why we’re in this jam, is we stuck up for Harvey. OK? I said there’s no threats.”
Thomas tells interviewers in the film that he never threatened Dennehy, but family and friends who knew the player say Dennehy called them in the days before his death in a panic over alleged threats from Thomas. The true motivation behind Dennehy’s murder was never uncovered.
The coach, who had more than 500 victories under his belt, was essentially banned from the NCAA for 10 years for violations related to Dennehy’s recruitment, the murder, and the subsequent coverup. The movie shows that the 73-year-old was also probed for his role in a 1987 athletics scandal at Southern Methodist University. Though he was never officially cited for it, private investigator Denny Kelly says in the film he has “no doubt” that Bliss was aware of basketball players getting paid, if not directly involved in the violations.
Despite all of his misdeeds, Bliss has just released a new book, called Fall to Grace, and obtained a new job as the head basketball coach for Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma, where he was hired last year.
Rouse, who saved Dennehy’s legacy and solidly cemented Baylor as the site of the most shocking scandals in college athletics, is employed as a teacher at a federal prison and has never been rehired as a coach.
“I love what I do, and I’m proud of what I do,” Rouse said. “If I was coaching, could I say the same thing? Coach Bliss has that said he is sorry and he deserves a second chance and has asked for redemption. I can’t buy into it, I can’t believe. It’s not because I don’t believe in redemption or second chances. It’s because I work with criminals on a constant basis.”
He added, “I know what fake redemption looks like and what real redemption looks like.”
The film’s creators show interviews with friends, family, past roommates, and detectives who all testify that there was no evidence Dennehy was involved in any drug deals or heavy usage. Then they show Bliss perpetuating the lie again.
“This is off camera but—he was selling drugs. He sold to all the white guys on campus,” Bliss says. “Yeah, he was the worst… but you’ll never be able to use this.”
Bliss gets up from his interview seat after he starts discussing the alleged illegal activity, seemingly unaware that he’s still being recorded.
“They knew all that stuff,” Bliss says of the police. The main detective on the case, Waco Police Officer Bob Fuller, disputes this claim during his interview.
“Unfortunately the parents also knew that he was a druggie,” Bliss adds.
Dennehy’s stepfather responded bluntly to that claim.
“If I ever meet him in public, I don’t care hold old he is, I don’t care how weak I am—I’m going to knock his teeth in,” Brabazon says.
Bliss says in the film: “A question that a man always has to ask himself when he goes through something like I went through, are you in a better spot than you were before? Was it worth it? And the answer to me is yes.”