LAST JULY 8, SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY, a writer for Rolling Stone, telephoned Emily Renda, a rape survivor working on sexual assault issues as a staff member at the University of Virginia. Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.
Renda told Erdely that many assaults take place during parties where “the goal is to get everyone blackout drunk.” She continued, “There may be a much darker side of this” at some fraternities. “One girl I worked with closely alleged she was gang-raped in the fall, before rush, and the men who perpetrated it were young guys who were not yet members of the fraternity, and she remembers one of them saying to another … ‘C’mon man, don’t you want to be a brother?’”
Renda added, “And obviously, maybe her memory of it isn’t perfect.”
Erdely’s notes set down her reply: “I tell her that it’s totally plausible.”
Renda put the writer in touch with a rising junior at UVA who would soon be known to millions of Rolling Stone readers as “Jackie,” a shortened version of her true first name. Erdely said later that when she first encountered Jackie, she felt the student “had this stamp of credibility” because a university employee had connected them. Earlier that summer, Renda had even appeared before a Senate committee and had made reference to Jackie’s allegations during her testimony – another apparent sign of the case’s seriousness.
“I’d definitely be interested in sharing my story,” Jackie wrote in an email a few days later.
On July 14, Erdely phoned her. Jackie launched into a vivid account of a monstrous crime. She said, according to Erdely’s notes, that in September 2012, early in her freshman year, a third-year student she knew as a fellow lifeguard at the university’s aquatic center had invited her to “my first fraternity party ever.” After midnight, her date took her upstairs to a darkened bedroom. “I remember looking at the clock and it was 12:52 when we got into the room,” she told Erdely. Her date shut the door behind them. Jackie continued, according to the writer’s notes:
My eyes were adjusting to the dark. And I said his name and turned around. … I heard voices and I started to scream and someone pummeled into me and told me to shut up. And that’s when I tripped and fell against the coffee table and it smashed underneath me and this other boy, who was throwing his weight on top of me. Then one of them grabbed my shoulders. … One of them put his hand over my mouth and I bit him – and he straight-up punched me in the face. … One of them said, ‘Grab its motherfucking leg.’ As soon as they said it, I knew they were going to rape me.
The rest of Jackie’s account was equally precise and horrifying. The lifeguard coached seven boys as they raped her one by one. Erdely hung up the phone “sickened and shaken,” she said. She remembered being “a bit incredulous” about the vividness of some of the details Jackie offered, such as the broken glass from the smashed table. Yet Jackie had been “confident, she was consistent.” (Jackie declined to respond to questions for this report. Her lawyer said it “is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.” The quotations attributed to Jackie here come from notes Erdely said she typed contemporaneously or from recorded interviews.) [Footnote 1]
Between July and October 2014, Erdely said, she interviewed Jackie seven more times. The writer was based in Philadelphia and had been reporting for Rolling Stone since 2008. She specialized in true-crime stories like “The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills,” about a high-living Korean model and self-styled Samsung heiress accused of transporting 7,000 pounds of marijuana. She had written about pedophile priests and sexual assault in the military. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, considered her “a very thorough and persnickety reporter who’s able to navigate extremely difficult stories with a lot of different points of view.”
Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely’s calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone’s editors decided to go ahead without knowing….(read more)