EAGLE, Colo. – Kobe Bryant is off the hook – and saying he’s sorry.

In an eleventh-hour stunner, grim-faced Colorado prosecutors dismissed a rape charge against the Los Angeles Lakers’ superstar on Wednesday night, after his accuser yanked herself out of the criminal case and he issued an emotional – yet carefully worded – apology.

“I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year,” Bryant said in a written statement.

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual. … I now understand how she feels she did not consent to this encounter.”

Bryant, who kept a sphinx-like silence during his many pretrial appearances, also wrote, “Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure.”

The reversal in the criminal case, and Bryant’s apology, do not affect a civil suit the 20-year-old woman recently filed against the super-rich basketball player, and her lawyers said there have been no talks about a cash settlement.

Neither Bryant, 26, nor the woman, 20, was in the packed courtroom when Judge Terry Ruckriegle signed the dismissal order at 6:25 p.m. CDT, ending at least one chapter in a 14-month saga of sex, celebrity and small-town America.

And the judge pointed out that without a criminal trial, what happened between the basketball player and the pretty young concierge at the posh Lodge and Spa at Cordillera on June 30, 2003, may remain a mystery forever.

Since the start of the case, Bryant has insisted he had consensual sex with the woman in his hotel room, while she charged that after some kissing and hugging, he grabbed her by the neck, bent her over a chair and raped her from behind.

“It will, of course, always leave a question in the mind of everyone because, as several jurors stated, only two people know what happened,” Ruckriegle said.

The dismissal came on the fourth day of jury selection and just a few days before both sides were set to present opening arguments.

Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said he was dropping the case only at the request of the accuser, who did not want to testify or cooperate with the trial.

“She has indicated her unwillingness to appear,” Hurlbert said. “At no time will this case be refiled.”

As her parents sat silent in the front row, the woman’s civil attorney, John Clune, said his client could not go forward with the criminal case because her life has become a living hell.

“If anybody associated with this case had any sense of what a single week in the life of my client entails, they would be astounded . . . as to why she had the will to continue for as long as she did,” Clune told the court.

Since pressing charges against Bryant, the accuser has received death threats, moved from state to state, and twice had her name mistakenly publicized by the court.

Her trip to a rehab center was documented by the press, and her lawyer said at one point the FBI was probing her crime-victims counselor for trying to see her case file.

“The difficulties this case has imposed on this young woman in the last year are unimaginable,” Clune said. “It is her sincere belief that when this case ends, she does not want to be brought back into the criminal process.”

By the time of the announcement, Bryant had already returned home to be with his wife, Vanessa, and their baby daughter.

“Mr. Bryant is thankful this proceeding has come to an end,” said his lawyer, Pamela Mackey. “It has been a long and painful process.”

The NBA said it would have no comment on anything about the Bryant case.

The small courtroom was jammed with reporters and courthouse workers who showed up to offer support to the beleaguered district attorney’s office.

Outside, a small group of teenage girls who know Bryant’s accuser gathered, including Lindsey McKinney, who was slated to be a defense witness against her former friend.

“I’m glad it’s over,” McKinney said, adding that she never believed the accuser’s story. “I hope he doesn’t end up giving her a bunch of money.”

(c) 2004, New York Daily News.

Visit the Daily News online at http://www.nydailynews.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-01-04 2244EDT

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