WHEN EVERYTHING WAS falling apart for Wander Franco, the incandescent star shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays, prosecutors in the Dominican Republic allege he opened WhatsApp on his phone and sent a message to the teenage girl with whom he carried on a monthslong relationship and paid to remain quiet about it.
“My girl,” Franco allegedly wrote in Spanish. “If my team realizes this, it could cause problems for me. It is a rule for all teams that we cannot talk to minors, and yet I took the risk and I loved it.”
After a nearly six-month investigation, Franco was arrested on New Year’s Day for not appearing in court to answer a summons from a governmental child-welfare unit in his native Dominican Republic. Prosecutors later accused him of having sex with the 14-year-old girl when he was 21 years old and presented charges of commercial sexual exploitation and money laundering. He could face up to 20 years in prison and is reckoning with the possibility of his MLB career ending at age 22.
In a nearly 600-page document presented to the judge at a hearing this month and obtained by ESPN, prosecutors shared the evidence they have found in their investigation into Franco, underway since a formal complaint was first filed on July 10, 2023. The file includes transcripts of interviews with the girl and her relatives, messages between Franco and the girl, and more.
“There are serious questions regarding the authenticity of particular documents and references contained in the prosecutor’s confidential file, which was inappropriately disclosed to certain media outlets,” said Franco’s United States-based attorney, Jay Reisinger, in a statement to ESPN. “We are in consultation with Mr. Franco’s legal counsel in the Dominican Republic, and we intend to take the necessary legal measures in response.”
A spokesperson for the Puerto Plata Prosecutor’s Office said the office “declines to make any comment regarding an open investigation, as is the case with Wander Franco.”
For all of its salaciousness, Franco’s circumstances are rather straightforward: An All-Star with Hall of Fame aspirations and a nine-figure contract has allegedly committed a crime that could land him in prison for years. The story of the girl, unnamed by ESPN because these are sexual exploitation charges, includes alleged abuse not just from Franco but also her mother, who herself faces charges of money laundering based on gifts and payments from Franco.
In the document, the girl detailed a toxic relationship with her mother, who the girl said “see[s] me as an object to make money.” During an interview with a forensic psychologist, the girl said her mother drinks heavily and “gets violent.” By the time the complaint was filed against Franco, the girl had moved out of her home, away from the woman who raised her.
“I don’t see her as a mother,” the girl told the psychologist. “A mother doesn’t do what she has done with me.”
THE GIRL, now 15 years old, met Franco online, according to prosecutors. According to the documents, he “took her from her home” in Puerto Plata, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, on Dec. 9, 2022, for two days. During that time, they had sex twice, prosecutors said, and started a relationship that lasted four months.
A cousin who grew up with the girl’s mother later told authorities that Franco would send a helicopter to Montellano, a town near Puerto Plata, to pick up the girl and bring her to see him. Other times, she said, Franco’s driver would ferry the girl from Puerto Plata to Franco’s hometown of Bani, a 3½-hour car ride. One time, the cousin said, the mother paid a taxi driver 16,000 Dominican pesos ($275) so the girl could meet with Franco in Bani.
Franco, the girl told the psychologist, was not shy about being seen in public with her. They went to “various social events,” she said, and she relied on his money “to be formal and groomed and not repeat clothes.” When her mother found out about the relationship, the girl said, “she suddenly started telling him that I needed things” and asked for 100,000 pesos a month.
“Since I was little, my mother has seen me as a way for her to benefit from both the partners she has had and my partners and it is something that I really dislike,” the girl said. “The way she did it with her partners was by telling them that I needed money for my education, the purchase of school supplies or some need related to me.”
For most of the final two months of their relationship last year, Franco was in spring training with the Rays. After the season began, the relationship strained, and she started seeing someone else. After she told Franco, they talked over WhatsApp, according to the file presented to prosecutors.
Franco wrote: “I would like you to forget everything you have learned to raise you my way.”
She responded: “And what is your way? Without love? Without respect?”
Franco replied: “There was more to it but you’re just a girl and you don’t know how to get along with me, that’s why you failed, but I’ll give you only one chance, you must be only for me. Don’t look at anyone, I know you’ve been with someone else, but no one will know how to use you the way I want.”
According to the documents, the girl said she was upset by the conversation and contacted a reporter, after which her mother filed the official complaint to prosecutors in the Dominican Republic. “I feel sorry because I didn’t want to hurt [Franco],” the girl said. “He was good to me.” About a month later, allegations of the relationship leaked on social media on Aug. 14, prompting Major League Baseball to investigate Franco. The league placed him on administrative leave for the remainder of the 2023 season.
Meanwhile, the girl’s relationship with her mother worsened. Another relative interviewed by authorities told prosecutors that the girl wrote a letter saying she was going to kill herself, alarming family members. She moved out of her home, prompting her mother to file a kidnapping complaint, according to sources. The mother alleged the girl once pulled a knife on her, but the girl said both sides of her family “know that she is the one who has always attacked me because she has alcohol problems and when she drinks and you don’t do what she wants, she gets violent.”
At a relative’s birthday party in August, the girl saw her mother, who she said was drunk, according to the documents. The girl said her mother threw a rock at her and called her a Spanish word for “c—s—er.” That same day, the cousin said, a person driving a Hyundai Sonata rolled by, recording the house. The mother called the cousin two minutes later and warned that people associated with Franco “were going to kill everyone here in the house,” said the cousin — who later realized that the car belonged to the girl’s mother.
In July and August, Franco had given the girl 2.7 million pesos (about $46,000) to support herself until college. With it, she bought an iPhone, an iPad, her school uniform, supplies and personal items. Her cousin helped her open a bank account to deposit the remainder, around $37,500.
Franco had furnished the girl’s mother with even more money. The mother’s receipt of monthly 100,000-peso payments from Franco — about $1,700 — and a new car (a 2023 Suzuki Swift) were discovered by prosecutors during a September raid. Authorities also found $68,500 in American dollars and another 800,000 pesos ($13,700) in her home.
The investigation continued, and in late December, police sought to question Franco, who had returned to the Dominican Republic in December after being placed on leave. They looked for him at his home and his mother’s, then at his uncle’s. Police told Franco’s wife he needed to appear at the prosecutor’s office on Dec. 28. He didn’t show. He did the same Dec. 29. When he finally met with authorities on Jan. 1, he was booked and remained in jail through Jan. 8, when he paid bail after the prosecution’s hearing a few days earlier for coercive measures, a pretrial procedure in which officials try to prevent the accused from fleeing, destroying evidence or intimidating accusers and witnesses.
AFTER THE ALLEGATIONS surfaced in August, the girl posted on social media: “Look, I’m going to tell you in confidence why I do all this. He used me and as you saw in the messages, he bribed me a lot and they took me out of the school I was in because of him, he has damaged my life and he has not even tried to fix it.”
She then deleted all her accounts.
Franco denied the allegations on Instagram Live that day and hasn’t spoken officially since; his only comments were during a break at the hearing, telling reporters, “It’s all in God’s hands.” Whether he is found guilty, he faces a potentially lengthy suspension from MLB, after which securing a visa to allow him to play in MLB could be more complicated, according to legal sources familiar with the matter.
Both the Rays and the league declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigations.
It’s a dramatic fall for a player around whom the Rays thought they would build their franchise. Franco dropped out of school at 12 years old to pursue a baseball career full time. A switch-hitting shortstop with power and speed, and the nephew of former big leaguers Erick and Willy Aybar, he fetched a $3.8 million bonus in 2017 to sign with the Rays and debuted with them in 2021, just after he turned 20.
The Rays gave him an 11-year, $182 million extension that fall, just 70 games into his major league career. But his true breakout came in the 2023 season, when he was named an All-Star for the first time.
Whether Franco can make a case to collect the $174 million Tampa Bay owes him for the final nine years of the contract remains unresolved. If Franco can’t play because he is imprisoned, the Rays could get out of the deal arguing clause 7.(b)(1) of the league’s uniform player contract, which states teams “may terminate this contract … if the Player shall at any time fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship.”
Until a trial — and that won’t come for months, as prosecutors have up to six months to investigate — Franco is free to leave the country, as long as he checks in with police once a month. Officials in the Dominican Republic are divided on how to approach Franco’s prosecution, according to sources. Some would prefer charges of statutory rape to the counts of sexual exploitation and money laundering. The judge in the case, Romaldy Marcelino, suggested Franco instead face counts of sexual and psychological abuse, suggesting the prosecution is being tougher on Franco because he is an MLB player. Sexual abuse convictions carry a two- to five-year prison sentence.
In the meantime, the girl awaits resolution.
“I just wanted to talk,” she told the psychologist, “because I want all of this to end.”