Sensational Rolling Stone campus rape story completely unravels

The ground has truly shifted when a policeman actually says it's perfectly reasonable for a rape victim to just do nothing, or to let educational officials handle one of the most serious of crimes facing society today, Neil Macdonald writes.

In UVA case, police seem just as confused about what happened, as what rape victims should do

Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo told reporters Monday that a five-month police investigation into an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that Rolling Stone magazine described in graphic detail produced no evidence of the attack and was stymied by the accuser's unwillingness to cooperate. (The Associated Press)

For a group of young fellows who may never be able to scrub off the stench of rape allegations, the Phi Kappa Psi frat-boys at the University of Virginia are behaving like gentlemen.

"These false accusations have been extremely damaging to our entire organization," said the group's president in a statement after the local police chief sort of exonerated them of gang rape this week.

"But," he added, with a touch of noblesse oblige, "we can only begin to imagine the setback this must have dealt to the survivors of sexual assault."

I say "sort of exonerated" because, after a gullible, scoop-hunting journalist recounted a female student's tale of being gang-raped in 2012 on the floor of the UVA frat house, as shards of broken table glass tore into her back, and now after having endured nearly a year of investigations that not only turned up no evidence supporting the story, but actually seems to conclusively prove it false, neither the university nor the police could bring themselves to conclusively and explicitly declare anyone innocent.

Instead, after citing evidence that discredited just about every detail of the explosive story in last November's Rolling Stone magazine, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo nonetheless referred to the accuser as a "survivor."

He then expressed hope that eventually, the woman known only as "Jackie" finds "a place where she feels comfortable" so that she might reveal what, if anything, actually did happen on the night of Sept. 28, 2012.

Until then, evidence that her story was false, said Longo, "doesn't mean something terrible did not happen to Jackie … we are just not able to gather sufficient facts to conclude what that something may have been."

Investigation still 'open'

As of now, the investigation is suspended, but still open.

To close it, said Longo, would be "a disservice to Jackie," which, incidentally, is not the accuser's real name. Most news outlets are respecting her wish to accuse from under a cloak of anonymity.

Not one of the reporters at the news conference had the wit to ask how much of a disservice the chief thinks his open-ended inconclusiveness might be to the frat members, whose identities are not, unfortunately for them, shielded from the public. It's easy enough to research their names.

Given the permanent memory of the internet, any prospective employer down the road who makes any effort to research the past of some Phi Kappa Psi alum will immediately see references to rape, national scandal and continuing investigation.

Right after the Rolling Stone article appeared in November, UVA rector George Martin and University president Teresa Sullivan met students and promised to do a better job dealing with rape complaints on campus. (The Associated Press)

Here, briefly, are the findings of police so far.

Jackie originally told a story of sexual assault and battery to a university dean in 2013, but did not wish to pursue it. Nearly a year later, after telling the same dean another story of gang rape, she agreed to meet with police.

But she refused to provide specific details, other than naming the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. She was insistent: She wanted no police investigation. She feared retaliation by the rapists.

But she was, evidently, willing to co-operate with the investigation — if you can call it that — of Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdeley.

Last November, when Erdely published Jackie's account of being lured into a frat party and raped by seven fellow students, it made national headlines, explosively validating the "rape culture" that activists say permeates university campuses here in the U.S.

The account brimmed with telling details, such as the rapists referring to Jackie as "it."

The school was accused of ignoring predators. Fellow students were accused of encouraging her to keep her mouth shut. Frat-boys in general became national villains. The fraternity in question was vandalized. Students marched.


At the request of the university president, Charlottesville police reactivated their investigation.

More than 70 people eventually co-operated. Fraternity members rather sensibly hired lawyers, but consented to police searches, and submitted to interviews.

The police talked to Jackie's friends, co-workers and fellow students. They searched records and databases for corroborating evidence.

Jackie, though, refused to co-operate, says the official police report. She began communicating only through her lawyer.

"Despite numerous attempts to gain her co-operation, Jackie has provided no information whatsoever to investigators."

Police quickly discovered there had been no frat party on the night in question. The student who Jackie said lured her to the gang rape appeared not to exist. Neither did his phone number, provided by Jackie to her friends.

Essentially, her entire story turned out to be either false in its essentials or, charitably, unsupported.

By December, Rolling Stone was backing down. Almost unbelievably, the magazine admitted its reporter had agreed, out of some sort of weird courtesy, not to check Jackie's story.

Rolling Stone soon decided it could no longer stand by the story; it was a straight repudiation, declaring that the magazine’s naïve trust in Jackie was "misplaced."

 Then, this week Chief Longo appeared before the cameras with his extraordinary dual message: No evidence to support the story, but no evidence that something bad didn't happen, either.

Should someone be sued?

Would Jackie be charged with lying to police on the two occasions she did agree to speak with them? "Absolutely not," the chief said.

Would the force ever charge someone who falsely cried rape? Well, not unless the chief prosecutor agreed, said the chief, and maybe not even then. A charge like that might have a "chilling effect" on reporting sex crimes.

None of the reporters present asked why in heaven's name Jackie still qualifies as a "survivor" or what's wrong with "chilling" false claims.

Protesters picketed and vandalized the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville after the Rolling Stone article appeared. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

But there would probably have been no satisfactory answer. Under pressure from anti-rape activists, authorities are beginning to treat campuses as islands disconnected from the world, places where the normal rules establishing guilt, innocence, crime and punishment don't apply.

Hence the spectacle of Chief Longo on live TV, advising that a rape victim's options are, in this order: Doing nothing at all, seeking medical help, letting the university handle it, and, finally, perhaps, going to the police.

The ground has truly shifted when a policeman actually says it's perfectly reasonable for a rape victim to just do nothing, or to let educational officials handle a crime that is serious enough to rank with murder and kidnapping.

The University of Virginia's separate inquiry, triggered by the Jackie case, continues, meanwhile, even though, when asked if a rape culture exists on the campus, the police chief answered: "We could find no evidence that would corroborate such an assertion."

And the Phi Kappa Psi frat-boys are, as respectfully as possible, considering whether, and whom, they should sue: Jackie, who has since said she stands by her story, or the important magazine that decided her story was too good to bother checking. 


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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