Dad faults police, College of Charleston in investigation of sex assault involving athletes
Back in April, a 19-year-old College of Charleston softball player looked forward to an evening of revelry with some guys she knew on the C of C baseball team.
Forcible sex offenses reported on the College of Charleston campus since the Jessica Horton Act was passed in 2007:
They danced in a dormitory suite. The underage students drank Absolut vodka, she said. They planned on heading to downtown nightclubs.
Of the alleged sex-crimes victims on the College of Charleston campus, the number of those who reported the incident to the police:
Notes: The rest of the victims sought help from the school or prosecuted through the campus conduct system.
College of Charleston
But for the freshman, the partying got out of hand.
The number of arrests on forcible sex offense charges on the College of Charleston’s campus:
She remembers being lured into a bedroom and being forced to perform a sex act, according to her father’s descriptions of case documents and disciplinary hearings. Two other men took advantage of her at the same time, her father told The Post and Courier.
By comparison with the College of Charleston’s 18 reports of forcible sex offenses on campus from 2009 through 2011, the University of South Carolina (three times the size of C of C’s student body) reported four such incidents, and Clemson University (twice the size of C of C’s student body) reported seven.
She soon vomited and passed out. Nearly two hours later, a fourth student again forced her to have sex, according to her father.
She awoke in the morning wearing only a bra. Shaken and injured, she reported the incident to the campus police and agreed to forensic testing.
In the more than six-month investigation that followed the April assault allegation, school officials found one of the accused students in violation of a sexual conduct policy and expelled him. But the campus police department’s investigation ended Nov. 9 with no arrests. Three of the suspects remain on campus.
The young woman’s father blamed a “botched” investigation by a college administration more concerned with guarding a sports program’s image rather than seeking justice. He also faulted inexperienced investigators and thinks the State Law Enforcement Division should have handled the case because its agents are independent from the college and more versed in sex crimes.
The college insists that its police officers are fully trained to handle sex assaults.
Of the seven investigations handled by the department from 2009 to 2011, one resulted in an arrest and a charge that eventually was dropped.
“The college police controlled the investigation, and that, to me, is a conflict of interest, especially when their athletes are involved,” the father said. The Post and Courier does not name alleged victims of sex crimes or their families. “It has been a circus of a process.”
His complaints mirror what advocates call a nationwide perception that students implicated in on-campus sex assaults rarely face punishment and are protected by their schools. Their accusers instead are often faulted, advocates said, and no move is afoot to change that culture.
After the allegation, the softball player dropped out of school and went home. Her father is considering a lawsuit against the school.
Mike Robertson, the school’s senior director of media relations, declined to address the father’s contentions and accusations. The father also refused to hand over the reports he obtained from the college, citing advice from his own attorney and a fear of being sued by the school.
The college denied a Freedom of Information Act request by The Post and Courier for the suspects’ names, further details of the incident and any disciplinary action taken.
In a statement Friday, the college said the criminal investigation was closed because of “insufficient evidence to establish probable cause.” The case could be reopened if new information develops.
“The college has been committed to pursuing a complete understanding of the facts and has taken appropriate actions as a result of the findings,” the statement said. “The appropriate college staff have worked to provide for the safety, well-being and privacy rights of all of our students.”
The woman had planned to visit friends April 23 at the McAlister Residence Hall, a 530-student co-ed dormitory at St. Philip and Vanderhorst streets.
She later told police that one of the eventual suspects signed her in as a visitor about 8:45 p.m. They went to his suite.
Her father said that one of the party attendees had been seen in surveillance video using a fake identification to buy vodka from a downtown store.
He brought it back to the suite, where five fellow baseball team members and the softball player started drinking. She was the only woman.
One of the baseball players left, the father said.
“Everyone was drinking and dancing,” an incident report stated.
The woman’s father said his daughter quickly became intoxicated through “hazing.” She believed someone may have placed a “date-rape drug” in her drinks, he said.
She recalled to authorities that later in the night, she had sat on a bedroom couch and performed a sexual act on one of the men while another watched. Her father said she was overpowered by the men and forced to submit to their wishes.
The report stated that she remembered nothing else until she woke up the next day.
But information that came to light during the investigation indicated that two other men soon got involved, the father said.
A fifth had sexual intercourse with the woman “basically while she was passed out” after the first encounter, he said.
She began recalling bits of the evening in the days after that initial report, her father said. She cooperated with the campus police.
One other man might have witnessed sexual acts, she told the investigators. The fifth student present acted as a “voyeur,” the father said, and would later face discipline for doing nothing about what he saw.
She awoke about 6:45 the next morning dressed only in a bra. She couldn’t find her shirt or underwear. She was in pain, as if she had been forced to have sexual intercourse.
That morning, she went to the school’s Office of Victim Services. After several interviews with school officials, her father said, she was taken to Medical University Hospital, where the campus police were called about 8 p.m.
The decision to report an assault was hers alone to make.
The woman underwent an examination. Blood was drawn, but the father said the College of Charleston Public Safety Department refused to provide him with test results. He said investigators photographed her vomit in the dorm room but didn’t test it for the presence of a drug.
Sources on the school’s board of trustees and in the athletic department have acknowledged that baseball players were accused in the incident; those officials asked not to be identified.
The Post and Courier also chose not to identify the suspects because their names were redacted from all official documentation released by the college. They were identified only as 18- and 19-year-olds.
Lack of action in on-campus sex crimes has long been an issue nationwide.
In late 2009, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington found that students deemed responsible for sex assaults face few or no consequences. The internal disciplinary process is routinely shrouded in secrecy, the center’s study also concluded.
One in four female students are sexually assaulted at U.S. colleges, said Pamela Jacobs, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Oftentimes, she said, the crime is aided by alcohol in sports settings.
“A lot of times, athletes feel they can get away with more than an average student,” said Jacobs, who declined to comment on the College of Charleston case. “And, unfortunately, many times they can.”
At the University of Montana, local authorities and school administrators were accused of not doing enough to handle reports of gang rape against football players during the past three years.
The revelations earlier this year prompted resignations of athletic officials and a federal investigation.
False reports also have led to skepticism of accusers.
A woman hired in 2006 as a stripper at a party for Duke University’s lacrosse team accused three players of rape. But an investigation ruled that the woman had fabricated the tale.
It’s the general mishandling of such cases and the tendency to at least partially blame the victim, Jacobs said, that has resulted in parents lacking peace of mind.
“Many schools are afraid of the ramifications of reporting and properly investigating sex assaults,” Jacobs said. “That means we end up with a lot of perpetrators that are never held accountable.”
In the local case, the four suspects and the student who reportedly saw what happened went before a College of Charleston disciplinary board.
Though he wouldn’t discuss specifics of the case, school attorney Thomas Trimboli said one of the four accused students was found in violation of a sexual harassment policy for having “inappropriate contact with another student.”
The student was expelled, but he had “planned to leave anyway,” Trimboli said.
Trimboli would not discuss the three other suspects, but the father said they were not punished, despite the honor board’s recommendation to suspend two of them. The witness was ordered to write a 10-page research paper, the father said.
Reached by telephone, a member of the board declined to comment.
Because one student was found in violation, the father said he believes the police have enough evidence for an arrest.
But that didn’t happen, he contended, because the school was trying to protect its athletes. When an on-campus sex assault poses a possible conflict of interest, he argued, an exception should be made to a state law requiring a college police force to lead the investigation.
On-campus sex assaults were handled only initially by the College of Charleston Public Safety Department. After that first report, the Charleston Police Department took over.
But the passage of the S.C. Jessica Horton Act in 2007 required school authorities to investigate the cases. They must notify SLED agents, who “participate in a joint investigation,” the statute says.
The city police no longer play a part.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said state agents provided assistance to the college, but he wouldn’t detail their efforts. Sometimes, their role entails conducting a single interview that the campus police couldn’t get to. Sometimes, they are simply informed that the police are investigating.
“It just depends on what the investigative agency wants, what they tell us they need,” Berry said. “In this case, we assisted, but they maintained lead on the investigation.”
The campus police consulted with prosecutors on the case, but Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said her office can do nothing unless an arrest warrant is issued. The department’s closing of the investigation without an arrest is its prerogative and does not indicate any sort of cover-up, she said.
The two officers investigating the case have a combined 35 hours of training specific to sex crimes, according to portions of their personnel files released by the school.
Public Safety Department Director Robert Reese, who also serves as an adjunct business professor, is the least experienced. Seven of his 71 total hours of investigations training deal with sex assaults and were completed in the 1990s.
He assisted Cpl. Edmond Dixon, who has 28 hours of training in sex-crimes investigations over the past five years. Dixon also has appeared on Web pages dressed as the school’s athletic mascot, Clyde the Cougar.
By comparison, a typical investigator with the Charleston Police Department has about 40 hours of training in sex crimes over the past three years.
Campus-wide, school police officers have handled 18 reports of sex assaults in dorms during the past three years, according to statistics reported to the federal government. But only seven of those alleged victims decided to pursue charges through the campus police.
Only one person has been arrested.
A West Ashley man was accused in 2010 of repeatedly sexually assaulting a college student in her dorm room, where she had passed out after drinking at a Halloween party. The woman reported an attack weeks later, and police made an arrest that December. Her mother also told The Post and Courier at the time that school administrators were trying to “keep it hush-hush and sweep it under the rug.”
The charge he faced was eventually dropped. Prosecutors cited a lack of evidence.
The current case dragged on because it involved five students facing reprimands, attorney Trimboli said. Each had a separate case that needed to be investigated both criminally and internally, he explained, and the students were allowed to appeal any disciplinary action.
Additionally, he said, the witness hired an attorney and refused to cooperate.
That all adds up to a painstaking process that’s unique to the college law enforcement world, the college’s attorney said.
“I understand there has been some criticism about how our police have handled the matter,” Trimboli said. “But from what I’ve seen, our police are doing the best they can.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.