TALLAHASSEE — State Attorney Willie Meggs was traveling out of state Nov. 13 when the calls started flowing.
He couldn't catch the details immediately, but between static-filled conversations from the road, he got the gist of it: Florida State star quarterback Jameis Winston was a suspect in a sexual assault reported 11 months earlier.
"I had enough to know we got an issue we got to deal with," Meggs said in an interview last week.
Now Meggs, the 70-year-old Florida State grad and son of a jailer, is at the center of a national story. He will decide, possibly next week, whether to bring charges against Winston, who has not been arrested and whose attorney says has done nothing wrong.
A Heisman Trophy and possible shot at the Seminoles' first national championship since 1999 hang in the balance.
"I don't think FSU's football fortunes will weigh one bit in that decision," said Glenn Hess, the state attorney for the 14th Judicial Circuit in Panama City.
Meggs, a Democrat, has a reputation as a tough-as-nails prosecutor who has been around the justice system his whole life.
As a kid, he lived at the Leon County jail, where his father worked. Meggs climbed the ladder from police officer to deputy sergeant to Tallahassee Police Department investigator, eventually earning criminology and law degrees from FSU.
"He came up the hard way — law enforcement," said Hess, who has known Meggs since they worked together more than 30 years ago. "He has seen what happens to the victims of crimes. I think that has hardened him in his approach as a vigorous prosecutor."
Meggs' demeanor is reflected in some of the cases he has fought since he was first elected to the 2nd Judicial Circuit in 1985.
In the early 1990s, he filed criminal charges against two dozen lawmakers for failing to report trips to places like Alaska and Mexico.
Meggs charged former House Speaker Ray Sansom with grand theft and conspiracy after alleging that Sansom tried to steer $6 million in public money to build an airport building for a Destin businessman. The charges were dropped in 2011, and Sansom filed an ethics complaint against Meggs and accused him of manipulating the grand jury. The complaint was dismissed.
"He believes in doing what's right, regardless of what people say," said Brad King, the state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit in Ocala and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
Many of Meggs' biggest cases have involved Seminole football players, from Darnell Dockett to Greg Dent.
A decade ago, he pursued a rape case against FSU defensive lineman Travis Johnson. A six-woman jury acquitted Johnson after 30 minutes.
In 1999, Peter Warrick's Heisman campaign ended after Meggs charged him and a teammate with grand theft for paying $21 for $412 in clothing at Dillard's. Warrick eventually pleaded guilty to petty theft, and the 'Noles went on to win their second national championship.
"A lot of people are calling to express their opinions," Meggs told the Times then. "Some say I'm costing them the national championship, but most people are telling me to stick to your guns and treat him like everyone else."
The Winston case is drawing similar outcries. Meggs said he has been accused of being a Gators fan and a racist.
Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox said he trusts Meggs to be unfazed by the publicity and to do the right thing — whatever that is.
"We want a just outcome," said Maddox, a former Tallahassee mayor. "We want justice to be done."
Meggs has been tight-lipped about details of the case. No publicly available search warrants have been filed for Winston or his accuser, and Meggs said he has not issued any subpoenas. He said Tuesday afternoon that he has "quite a bit left" to do, but the case could be resolved next week.
No matter what Meggs does, he said he knows skepticism will follow. The records will become public, so everyone can scrutinize a decision that will deeply impact two lives — and millions of college football fans.
"At some point in time, a decision has to be made," Meggs said. "I know who has to make the final decision, and that's me. But I'm going to try to make the best decision I can make."
Times staff writer Tia Mitchell and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]