‘Our Worst Nightmare’: New Legal Filings Detail Reporting of Rolling Stone’s U-VA Gang Rape Story
T. Rees Shapiro
July 2, 2016
Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely spent five months investigating a shocking claim of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, and the 9,000-word account of the brutal attack published online on Nov. 19, 2014, sent a tremor through the Charlottesville campus and beyond.
Then, on Dec. 5, at 1:54 a.m., Erdely sent an e-mail to the magazine’s top-tier editors, Will Dana and Sean Woods, with a simple subject line: “Our worst nightmare.”
The body of the message detailed how Erdely no longer trusted the primary source for the most striking anecdote in her article: a U-Va. junior named “Jackie,” who told Rolling Stone that she had been raped by seven men, while two others watched, during a date function at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012. She wrote that as questions arose about the tale, she tried to have Jackie help her verify the identity of her assailant, and “it spiraled into confusion.”
“By the time we ended our conversation, I felt nearly certain that she was not being truthful,” she wrote, noting that she had come to believe that “Jackie isn’t credible.” She ended her message by saying that the fraternity was planning to issue a statement denying that there was a party at their house the night of the purported assault. “We have to issue a retraction,” she wrote.
Erdely’s e-mail was a signal flare warning of turbulent months to come for the magazine, but, according to hundreds of pages of Erdely’s notes and other materials related to the case filed in court Friday, there were many other warnings — before the story published — that Jackie’s account was inconsistent.
The court documents, submitted as evidence in U-Va. Associate Dean Nicole Eramo’s $10 million defamation lawsuit against the magazine, reveal new details about the reporting that went into the story and show how Erdely deferred to Jackie’s wishes and account instead of digging deeper to verify the student’s claims.
The documents also show that aspects of Jackie’s account of her gang rape closely mirror details from prominent books about sexual assault survivors — including one that explores several gang rapes at fraternities — and the plotline of a “Law & Order: SVU” episode that ran about a year before Jackie first spoke to the reporter. According to Erdely’s notes, Jackie mentioned those books and the television show in her first interviews, and Erdely was warned that the nature of Jackie’s claims had changed over time.
Erdely did not respond to a request for comment Saturday regarding the documents; a spokesperson for Rolling Stone and attorneys representing Jackie also did not respond to requests for comment. Jackie’s full name is redacted from the court files.
In the court filings, Erdely acknowledges her missteps while reporting the article. She notes that as soon as she believed she could no longer trust Jackie, she alerted her editors.
“I cannot stress enough that at the time the Article was published, and until the early morning of December 5, I firmly believed that everything in it was true,” Erdely wrote, noting that she never intended “in any way to denigrate” Eramo. “It was never my intention to cause harm, and I feel nothing but sorrow and regret over the entire experience. If I had had any doubts prior to publication about the integrity of this story, or about Jackie’s credibility as a source, I would not have published it.”
Since that December 5 e-mail, the Columbia University journalism school and the Charlottesville Police Department issued extensive reports determining that the account Jackie gave to Rolling Stone was false. The magazine later retracted the story and apologized to readers. Last July, Dana resigned.
The magazine now faces lawsuits filed by undergraduate members of Phi Kappa Psi, as well as Eramo, who alleged in court documents that the story, titled “A Rape on Campus,” portrayed her as callous and indifferent to survivors of sexual assault.
Libby Locke, an attorney for Eramo, said the documents clearly show that the story was flawed and aimed to portray Eramo and U-Va. in a negative light, despite interviews that indicated sexual assault survivors had great praise for Eramo.
“Erdely’s reporting file demonstrates that there were numerous red flags that put Rolling Stone on notice that Jackie was not a credible source and that the gang rape story she told Rolling Stone was false,” Locke said, noting that Erdely knew Jackie’s story had changed over time, decided not to contact witnesses who could have dispelled aspects of the claims and had information that Eramo took Jackie to meet with police about her case. “But none of those facts stood in the way of Rolling Stone publishing a false and defamatory article, relying on a source who was not credible and painting Ms. Eramo as a callous and indifferent administrator.”
Among the trove of documents released Friday evening are Erdely’s 431 pages of notes that she used to build her story. The cache illustrates Erdely’s meticulous note-taking and the breadth of her reporting at U-Va.; Erdely interviewed Jackie at least six times, accumulating hours of recorded interviews.
At one point, she even talked her way into the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house and ventured to the top floor — where Jackie said she had been raped — saying that she and other students acting as her guides needed to use a restroom. The notes show that Erdely did not identify herself as a reporter when confronted by members of the fraternity who saw the women in the house.
The notes also show that Erdely was aware of inconsistencies in Jackie’s account — including the number of men who allegedly assaulted her and the sex acts that took place during the attack — prior to publication.
Early on in her reporting, Erdely was adamant about the importance of naming the fraternity where Jackie said her assault took place in order to “take them to task” and hold them accountable, according to her interview notes. Yet the documents also show that Erdely made just minor efforts to persuade Jackie to provide Rolling Stone with the full name of the ringleader of her alleged rape.
“I don’t even want to get him involved in this,” Jackie told her. “I just kind of wanted him to never exist again.”
Erdely told her: “I’m going to have to make this phone call. Our lawyer is going to insist.”
Because Erdely didn’t locate or identify the men who allegedly assaulted Jackie, Erdely had to rely on a single point of view for the narrative: Jackie’s.
“Hers was the only eyewitness perspective I had,” Erdely wrote later in an internal Rolling Stone statement, which was never publicly released, acknowledging errors in her reporting. “After much internal debate we ultimately decided not to push her any farther, in order to protect her mental health, and honor her bravery for coming forward.”
In the original account, Jackie identified three friends who came to her aid on Sept. 28, 2012, a month into her freshman year, when she said she was attacked by a group of fraternity brothers after a date with a handsome upperclassman turned into a nightmare.
According to Erdely’s notes, she was unable to find the three friends, partly because Jackie told her she had a falling-out with them after the incident. But in interviews with The Washington Post in December 2014, the three friends said that the events portrayed in Rolling Stone vastly differed from what Jackie had told them occurred that night.
Erdely eventually acknowledged the error in the unreleased statement.
“In my focus on nailing down many other elusive facts, perhaps I stopped pushing as hard as I could for those names,” Erdely wrote.
A review of Erdely’s notes show that even mundane facts obtained from Jackie appeared to be false. At one point, Jackie told Erdely that her best friend freshman year was a woman named Kathryn Hendley and that they had known each other for “years.” In an interview with The Post, Hendley said that she had known Jackie only for three months before the alleged incident.
Jackie told Rolling Stone that during her attack, she was shoved through a glass table and that numerous fraternity brothers took turns raping her while she was on top of the shards of glass, Jackie told Erdely. She also told Erdely that her dress was soaked in blood as a result; her three friends said she appeared uninjured that night.
During a reporting trip to Charlottesville, Erdely asked Jackie to see the scars on her back.
“I was trying to look for them earlier, and they’re not distinct anymore,” Jackie told Erdely.
Erdely’s notes show that Jackie’s boyfriend quickly chimed in: “I haven’t really seen any marks on your back.”
Erdely also asked to see scars on her arm. Jackie rolled up bracelets around her wrists to show the reporter.
“In the dim lighting,” Erdely wrote. “I see nothing.”
The copious notes also describe the blueprint Erdely followed in her reporting. At first, she interviewed advocates and attorneys with experience in sexual assault cases. Her reporting eventually led her to settle on U-Va. after she learned that the school had not expelled any students for sexual assault in a number of years.
In July, she interviewed Emily Renda, a sexual assault survivor and 2014 U-Va. graduate who joined the faculty to work on programs to prevent gender-based violence. Renda eventually introduced Erdely to Jackie, who willingly described her allegations of the gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi.
Later that month, Renda wrote an email to Erdely cautioning the reporter about naming Phi Kappa Psi in print and expressed her concern that doing so might weaken the university’s ability to possibly sanction the fraternity.
In interviews with Erdely, Jackie said she met two other students who also had been gang-raped at Phi Kappa Psi. But Renda warned Erdely that no one from the university had met the two other women and that their accounts were uncorroborated. The notes show that the only person who apparently knew the other two alleged gang-rape survivors was Jackie, who repeatedly failed to produce contact information for them at Erdely’s request.
The notes show that after Erdely learned of Jackie’s allegations involving Phi Kappa Psi, she uncovered the story of Liz Seccuro, who was drugged and raped at the same fraternity house at U-Va. in the 1980s. Erdely mentioned the connection to Renda.
“It’s a little too much to believe, to be honest, that somehow it’s not part of the institution and that it accidentally happens twice in similar ways,” Renda told Erdely. “It begs you to suspend your disbelief.”
In her notes, Erdely describes the moment when Jackie tells her of the apparent connection. Jackie’s description of her assault strongly resembled aspects of Seccuro’s, including that she believed the fraternity had served her a spiked drink.
“Every hair on my arm is standing up,” Erdely wrote in her notes describing her reaction. “Seems like more than a coincidence.”
Jackie told Erdely that she learned of two U-Va. students who also were attacked at Phi Kappa Psi.
“Two other girls who were gang raped at the same fraternity?” Erdely asked.
“Yes,” Jackie said.
“Shocking,” Erdely said.“I don’t know the stats on gang rape but I can’t imagine it’s all that common? So the idea that three women were gang raped at the same fraternity seems like too much of a coincidence.”
Jackie responded: “It happens a lot more than people think.”
In other interviews with Erdely, Jackie said she was an avid fan of “Law & Order: SVU,” a network drama that specializes in law enforcement investigations into allegations of sexual assault.
Jackie told Erdely that at one point, her father suggested that they watch an episode together. Jackie said that the one he randomly picked happened to be about rape claims at a college campus. The episode, “Girl Dishonored,” originally aired in April 2013.
“It’s this girl who’s at a fraternity party and one guy takes her into a room and calls his friends in and like four of them gang rape her and no one believes her and they find out that this has been going on for a very long time,” Jackie told Erdely.
Jackie told Erdely that her father then asked if such attacks happened at her school.
“I was like, ‘Yes, Dad — this happens at U-Va. This happened to me,’ ” Jackie said.
During a dinner at a restaurant in Charlottesville, Erdely pressed Jackie to consider allowing Rolling Stone to name Phi Kappa Psi in the story.
“I feel like if we can get these guys, we should,” Erdely said. “We have a chance to make a difference. If their name was out there in public, they’d have no choice but to clean up their act.”
Throughout her reporting, Erdely wrote in her notes that she developed an opinion about the administration’s handling of Jackie’s claims, particularly the role played by Eramo.
“I’ve been hearing these women talking about her, they love her, she’s so warm and responsive to them and yet in each of their stories they don’t go to police,” Erdely wrote. “The perpetrators walk free. And yet they love her.”
Erdely noted later: “She’s preserving the status quo while giving the illusion that she’s helping the victims.”
Erdely even admitted to Jackie and her friend Alex Pinkleton that Eramo likely would not look good in the story.
“Is this going to make Dean Eramo look bad? It might. It might make her look bad,” Erdely told them.
Jackie responded: “I just don’t want her to lose her job over it. I would feel responsible for that.”
Erdely then said: “If it makes you feel better, I can make clear how much you guys all love her.”
In the weeks after the story’s publication, and as doubts began to mount about the veracity of Jackie’s account, Erdely and her editors began to prepare a lengthy response that ultimately was never released.
“Obviously, we regret any factual errors in any story,” the statement read. “But Rolling Stone believes the essential point of Jackie’s narrative is, in fact, true: a young woman suffered a horrific crime at a party, and a prestigious university reacted with indifference to her claim. This happens too often at college campuses all over America. Any mistakes we made were honest ones, trying hard to create a narrative and an investigation that would improve the prevention, investigation and prosecution of sexual violence. For that we would never apologize.”
In April 2015, the Columbia University journalism school issued a report detailing the flaws with the Rolling Stone article. The magazine published the Columbia report, accompanied by a note from the editor, Dana.
“We are officially retracting ‘A Rape on Campus,’ ” Dana wrote. “We would like to apologize to our readers and to all of those who were damaged by our story and the ensuing fallout, including members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and UVA administrators and students.”
This story has been updated.