University of Florida backup QB Jalen Kitna played the season while secretly under investigation
The University of Florida’s backup quarterback played his whole season in the shadows of struggling starter Anthony Richardson — and now, it turns out, a sensational child pornography investigation, too.
The criminal investigation, which began in June and unfolded slowly over five months during a disappointing 6-6 season, has redirected national attention on the Florida Gators – under new head coach Billy Napier – and quarterback Jalen Kitna, 19, of Burleson, Texas.
Kitna was released from jail on an $80,000 bond late Thursday, after his first court appearance in a case involving five felony counts of possessing and distributing child pornography online. Kitna’s parents said in court they intended to take him home to Texas, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether he had left Gainesville on Friday.
Days before his arrest Wednesday, Kitna made a brief appearance on the football field when Richardson was injured in Florida’s final game Saturday night against Florida State University. He also played small amounts in three other games over the season.
In a new statement, the football program said it was entirely in the dark until Kitna’s arrest. Steve McClain, the school’s senior associate athletic director, said late Thursday no one on the team learned any information about the investigation or Kitna’s arrest before Wednesday.
The Gainesville Police Department confirmed Friday that it first notified the university about Kitna after he was arrested early Wednesday.
The team suspended Kitna indefinitely, and by Friday it went further: It erased all references to Kitna, including his game statistics and photographs, from the team’s official website. His page on the team’s website displayed the message: “The page you are looking for no longer exists.”
It wasn’t clear when Kitna realized he might be under criminal investigation, but there were clues as early as late June. Police said he had shared two pornographic images on June 21 he said he believed were legal over Discord, a social media platform. The reaction from the unidentified recipient of those images – captured in court records disclosed this week – made clear the girls were under 18: “Bruh, nooo.”
Within days, Kitna said, his Discord account had been shut down for violating the company’s terms of service. Kitna told police this week he assumed someone had reported him for distributing child pornography. Discord notified the National Center for Missing Exploited Children about Kitna’s online activities on June 23, and the center notified Gainesville police on July 8.
McClain’s statement about the program not knowing anything about the investigation means Kitna never notified coaches that his account had been shut down or that he suspected someone had reported him for sharing child pornography.
Court records also revealed that police had secretly watched the off-campus apartment Kitna shared with teammates “on multiple occasions” to make sure Kitna was living there, after investigators had traced the online activity to that location. Police said they saw Kitna at the apartment, but apparently neither Kitna nor his teammates noticed the apartment was the target of surveillance.
Why did the police investigation take five months, the entirety of the football season?
Court records showed police Det. Donna Montague followed digital breadcrumbs across the internet for months before officers arrested Kitna this week. She obtained records under subpoenas tracing the internet account used to share the images over Discord, confirmed that Kitna’s phone number – registered in his father’s name – was the same one linked to his Discord account and found Google payment records linked to Kitna.
Montague also served subpoenas on Discord to turn over copies of the images and records about Kitna’s account activity, court records showed. Those subpoenas, served on communications providers across the U.S., can take weeks or months.
The university athletic program – which spends $90.2 million on the football team – has close ties behind the scenes with area law enforcement agencies. On the football side, Napier promoted Vernell Brown Jr. as senior director of player development and alumni relations in January. Vernell has previously been the first phone call for football players in legal trouble.
Brown, who previously played cornerback for the Gators two decades ago, has for years built close relationships with police in his previous role as director of football student athlete development, according to interviews and a review of years' worth of his email exchanges with city police.
Those emails showed Brown requesting personal meetings with police lieutenants, organizing police ride-alongs for football staff, fielding requests from a police charity to invite former coach Dan Mullen to speak at a banquet and inviting law enforcement to be honored by the team as first responders. He also has requested copies of police records on UF players.
When cornerback Jaydon Hill was arrested last year on felony theft charges that he stole a debit card and used it to pay more than $1,600 in overdue university parking tickets, among other purchases, Hill asked the officer arresting him whether the officer knew Brown and would call him, according to body camera video of the exchange. Hill pleaded in July 2021 in the case under a deferred prosecution agreement, and prosecutors in May agreed to wipe the felonies off his record.
Kitna waited largely on the sidelines through the season, away from the intense spotlight on Richardson, for rare opportunities to take snaps and make a name for himself – like his famous father, NFL player Jon Kitna. He completed 10 of his 14 passes for 181 yards and rushed one time for six yards this season and was a candidate to fill Richardson’s position if the starter were drafted into the NFL.
Around the same time police began investigating Kitna, Richardson was fighting a 105 mph speeding ticket in traffic court and professed the importance of accepting responsibility for his actions to his teammates, coach and fans. Richardson at the time expressed how badly he felt for disappointing people around him.
Napier, who said he imposed unspecified in-house discipline for Richardson over his speeding ticket, praised his starting quarterback: “He’s taken complete ownership,” Napier said at the time. “He can be a great example to the team how he handles himself.” Napier added: “There are a lot of lessons to be learned here.”
This week, police cruisers flooded Kitna’s off-campus apartment complex after the investigation linked him to an account that shared two images of what they described as underage, pubescent girls in graphic sexual positions. They served a search warrant and took Kitna into custody as his roommates watched. They found three more images they described as child sexual abuse material on his iPhone after Kitna gave them his password.
Caleb Kenyon, Kitna’s lawyer, declined to say Friday where Kitna and his family were, and the former football player’s next court date hasn’t been set. The State Attorney’s Office is expected to determine whether to formally file criminal charges – which ones and how many of them – against Kitna in coming weeks.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com. You can donate to support our students here.
Copyright 2022 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.