February 16, 2004 12:00 PM

It might be a stretch to call them one big happy family, but Kobe Bryant and his loved ones have been looking less forlorn of late. He and wife Vanessa invited Kobe’s once estranged parents to celebrate their daughter Natalia’s first birthday Jan. 19 at their home in Newport Beach, Calif. Earlier in the month, the couple were spotted dining and dancing at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, seemingly unburdened by concerns over the sexual-assault charges that were filed against him last July. Asked lately how things are going in Camp Kobe, the Laker star’s sister Shaya replied with a cheery, “All good!”

Given recent developments, that optimism may be ill-founded. On Jan. 28 the TV program Celebrity Justice reported that Bryant had a romantic encounter with a female room-service attendant in a Portland, Ore., hotel last April. The woman reportedly described Kobe as “a perfect gentleman” and said he respected her wishes to end the interlude before it turned sexual. Bryant, 25—who had to get 10 stitches in his right index finger after cutting it in what he said was a household accident the day the news was released—could not be reached for comment about the report. Some legal experts doubt the alleged incident could be used by prosecutors in the Colorado case to suggest that Bryant has a history of extramarital affairs, but the potential damage to his reputation has already been done.

And there may be another bombshell headed Bryant”s way. PEOPLE has learned that a couple staying at the upscale Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo., on the night the attack allegedly took place say they saw Bryant’s accuser after she had visited the basketball star’s room—and that she looked highly distraught. “They could see something was wrong,” says a source close to the witnesses, who have talked to prosecutors but have so far not spoken out publicly. The source adds that the couple have “no doubt in their minds” that the charges against Bryant are true.

Their testimony could prove critical in the case against Bryant. All along, there has been sharp dispute regarding the accuser’s emotional state after visiting Bryant’s room. A bellman, Bobby Pietrack, has told police she looked upset. But at the preliminary hearing in October it was revealed that the hotel’s night auditor said the accuser seemed fine when she saw her. In the parlance of rape cases, such observers are known as outcry witnesses, and their accounts are often crucial in helping a jury determine whether a sexual encounter was consensual. “Outcry witnesses become incredibly important,” says Karen Steinhauser, a former Colorado prosecutor. “Jurors have a notion of what someone should act like or look like after they have been sexually assaulted.”

The new witnesses, who are in their forties, have stayed at the inn at least 50 times while building a home in the Cordillera area and are well acquainted with the staff, including the accuser. On the night in question, they say they were relaxing in the lobby and struck up a brief conversation with Bryant. After he left, the couple say they saw the accuser leave the lobby and then come “rushing” back “not more than 20 minutes later,” looking shaken.

Of course, even the couple’s testimony—assuming it is eventually delivered in court—doesn’t give the prosecution an airtight case. As attorney Roy Black, who isn’t involved in the case, points out, the defense can present alternate scenarios to explain why Bryant’s accuser looked distraught. “She may have had [consensual] sex with him, and then he escorts her to the door and dumps her in the hallway,” says Black of one possibility. “She’s going to get very upset.” What’s more, according to a defense motion, Bryant’s lawyer Pamela Mackey wants permission to introduce evidence that the accuser suffers from bipolar disorder, a condition that can lead, according to a defense brief, to “increased sexual drive” as well as “sexual indiscretions.” (At press time the judge in the case had yet to issue a ruling on Mackey’s request.)

In the same vein, Mackey seems determined to focus on the yellow underpants the accuser was wearing when she went to the hospital the day after the alleged assault. When they were tested, it was found that they didn’t contain Bryant’s semen but that of another—unidentified—man. The prosecution has said the other semen is the residue of a sexual encounter the accuser had well before meeting Bryant. But Mackey maintains the accuser told police the underpants were clean when she put them on, which the defense contends raises the possibility that she had sex after the incident in Bryant’s room. It’s yet another controversial detail in a case that promises to have many more before it comes to a close. “Are we talking about relevant evidence or character assassination here?” asks former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman. “In reality, it appears to be both.”

Bill Hewitt. Jason Bane in Denver, Vickie Bane in Eagle, Lorenzo Benet in Las Vegas and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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