While UVA Police quickly turned the investigation into their daughter's disappearance and death over to Virginia State Police, Dan and Gil Harrington say they believe serious felony crimes on college campuses should be investigated by local authorities not only in Virginia but nationwide.
When her assailant contacted her to apologize nearly 22 years after the assault, Liz Seccuro reached out to Susan Russell through her website, www.uvavictimsofrape.com. William N. Beebe was found guilty of sexual battery in March 2007 and served less than six months in jail.
File photo by Hawes Spencer
"Mom, I was raped."
The words hit Susan Russell like a fist to the stomach in late winter 2004, and she responded with a question to her 20-year-old daughter, Kathryn, who was home from UVA for the weekend.
"'Did you call the police?" Russell recalls asking, certain that law enforcement and school administrators would help her daughter through the ordeal and bring her attacker to justice.
That's not how things would go.
Prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to take the case. UVA's Sexual Assault Board agreed, issuing a not guilty verdict after hearing from Kathryn and the man she accused. But Russell believed her daughter's account, and the idea that her child's assailant would get away without any punishment sparked within her a transformation from anguished mother into fearless victim's advocate. Since 2004, her efforts have brought rape victims at UVA out of the shadows and helped instigate change to UVA's sexual assault policy. Most recently, Russell has pushed for a change in state law regarding how rape and murder investigations are handled at all state universities.
"I will not back down," says Russell, who's boldly placed her daughter's alleged rapist's picture and name on the front page of her website even though, without a conviction against him, such a move could elicit legal action against her.
"Let him sue me," she says. "I have nothing to hide."
It's a no-holds barred attitude that's won her enemies and friends, but she says there's only one thing that will bring her peace: the arrest and conviction of Curtis Ofori.
It's peace she's unlikely to find.
February 13, 2004
Russell knew something was wrong with her daughter, Kathryn, when she picked her up at her UVA dorm just after 6am on Friday morning, February 13, 2004 to go watch Kathryn's younger brother swim in a high school state championship meet at Radford University, about two and half hours southwest of Charlottesville. The usually cheerful 20-year-old "got in the car, and just huddled toward the car door," recalls Russell. When they got to the swim meet, the mother recalls, Kathryn didn't want to get out of the car, and even later in the day, when the family checked in to a hotel, the slender brunette college student remained withdrawn, although she had no fever or other sign of illness.
"She just laid down on the bed, curled up, and she wouldn't go to dinner with us," says Russell, who says she assumed it was just moodiness and still feels remorse that she didn't press her daughter to explain what was wrong: that she'd allegedly been raped only a few hours earlier.
"I'm haunted by that," says Susan Russell, who figures she'd have accompanied her daughter to the police station. "It could have made a difference in the case."
Instead, it was nearly a week later, and after she'd already filed a police report and spoken with UVA administrators, that Kathryn finally told her mother about the assault. If mother and daughter initially expected the perpetrator would be brought to justice, however, both were wrong.
"They didn't do anything," says Russell.
Is anybody listening?
The days following her assault are a blur, says Kathryn Russell, now 27 and living in Washington D.C. where she has worked as an education consultant to the mayor and in real estate investing.
"I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat," she recalls.
That, say mental health experts, is a nearly universal reaction to the trauma of rape. In the first hours after a sexual assault, the victim is initially in shock and "may seem stunned, dazed," and have difficulty processing what's happened, according to literature from Trauma Intervention Programs, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims. The trauma-induced cognitive impairment affects the victim's ability to advocate for herself or take the necessary steps to ensure evidence is collected.
Kathryn says that was true in her case, but although she didn't share what had happened immediately with her mother, she did speak to several friends by phone while she was away, and on Sunday, February 15, 2004, two days after the alleged assault and terrified she could have become pregnant, she called the UVA student health clinic to request a prescription for a so-called morning-after pill. She told a nurse that the sex had been nonconsensual, but the nurse didn't recommend she come in to the hospital for a forensic exam known as a PERK, which must be performed within 72 hours of an assault. That was only the beginning, Kathryn says, in a series of alleged failures from school and medical officials, police and prosecutors, to take the steps to ensure justice would be served.
On Monday, accompanied by a friend and sorority sister who'd been raped several years earlier, Kathryn went to UVA police to file a report. From there, on her friend's advice, she says, she went to the ER where she was told the nurse who was trained to perform the PERK was not available. She waited more than three hours, she says, and while she was given a standard gynecological exam and a prescription for antibiotics to fight STDs, she was given no advice on what steps she should take next. She finally dressed and prepared to leave, and on her way out, she says, a nurse asked if she'd like to undergo an exam with a fluorescent light that reveals tearing. Not realizing the purpose of the exam, and that it might provide the only physical evidence she'd have to prove rape, Kathryn says she declined to disrobe a second time and undergo another exam.
"I just wanted to get out of there," she says, stressing her frustration that the medical personnel allegedly didn't explain the critical nature of the test they suggested to a traumatized 20-year-old.
Receiving updates from her daughter, Susan Russell says, she felt increasingly helpless– and a meeting with then assistant Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Moore didn't help, as he explained there wasn't enough evidence for local prosecutors to take the case.
Kathryn says her experience with the UVA Sexual Assault Board process was equally disheartening, as administrators offered mediation as an option and warned her that if she spoke about her case publicly, she– the victim– could face expulsion for an Honor Code violation.
That's when her mother's anger grew.
"You think something's going to be taken care of," Russell says. "And then you realize they're not going to do anything at all."
Desperate to bring attention to Kathryn's plight, and to see if any other women had similar experiences, Russell created a website, www.uvavictimsofrape.com, in March 2004. The original version of the site was simply an invitation for women who'd been raped at UVA to contact Russell, and at first, Russell recalls, the site had little traffic. But after she posted flyers around UVA and the Cavalier Daily wrote a story about Russell's website, the floodgates opened.
"I heard from 100 women in one week," she says. Most of them had stories that were just like Kathryn's: they'd been raped, and, they told her, nothing had been done about it.
Russell's journey to activism had begun.
"If no one else was going to do anything," she says, "I would."
Shining a national spotlight
Among the women who contacted Susan Russell in the months after she launched her website in March 2004 was Annie McLaughlin. Now a married mother and autistic education specialist living in Charlottesville, McLaughlin had a story strikingly similar to Kathryn's– particularly her account of UVA's handling of her case. And in fact, it was McLaughlin who'd guided Kathryn through reporting her assault to police and accompanied her to the Emergency Room.
In her first semester at UVA, in December 2001, McLaughlin, who then went by her maiden name, Hylton, accepted an invitation to go on a double date to a fraternity function with a third year student named Matthew Hamilton. During dinner before the event, McLaughlin would later allege in a lawsuit, Hamilton procured alcoholic beverages for the then-18-year-old McLaughlin, who claimed she drank a small amount but not enough to explain her extreme impairment later in the evening, when she became nauseous, vomited, and passed out in Hamilton's room in the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house. She awakened to discover Hamilton engaging in sexual intercourse with her.
Like Kathryn, McLaughlin was told by prosecutors that her case was unwinnable– a he said/she said– and although Hamilton was found guilty by the school's sexual assault board, McLaughlin says he was allowed to remain until his 2003 graduation, even though the school's vaunted Honor Code calls for expulsion of students found guilty of minor academic infractions.
Furthermore, McLaughlin was outraged by UVA's effort to silence her by requiring her to sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting her from speaking about her assault or the guilty verdict. Russell supported McLaughlin when she went public in a November 11, 2004 Hook cover story titled "How UVA Turns its back on rape" and criticized the school's requirement that rape victims remain silent about Sexual Assault Board proceedings. News of the policy prompted a massive protest by hundreds of students who donned gags and stood in silence, and UVA issued a revised sexual assault policy in January 2005. It wasn't enough for either McLaughlin and Russell, both of whom filed complaints against UVA with the Department of Educaton alleging violations of the Clery Act, the federal law that regulates the rights of victims on college campuses.
"They were breaking the law," says Russell.
Four years later, the Department of Education ruled that UVA could not require or in any way suggest that victims keep quiet about their sexual assault hearings or the outcomes. The Department also ordered that the sexual assault board weigh verdicts using the "preponderance of the evidence" standard rather than the more stringent "clear and convincing evidence" by which both Kathryn Russell and McLaughlin's cases were judged. UVA was among the first in the nation to completely revamp its sexual assault policy, doing away with mediation and broadening the definition of sexual misconduct.
"There is a sense of vindication," Russell says of the Department's ruling and UVA's improved policy, "but there's so much more that needs to be done."
For McLaughlin, there was some further vindication from a lawsuit she filed against Hamilton in 2003 for nearly $2 million, of which she'd eventually be awarded $150,000. With her mother's support, Kathryn Russell also sued Ofori in 2006. However, the overwhelming expense coupled with an attorney's advice that even if she were victorious, she likely wouldn't receive enough money to cover her legal expenses, led her to withdraw the Charlottesville suit two years later.
It does serve as a permanent record, however, of the night she says her life changed forever.
There was nothing unusual about the early evening of February 12, 2004. Kathryn and one of her suitemates had attended a Thursday night event at O'Neill's Irish Pub on the Corner, now the location of Trinity Irish Pub, where Kathryn encountered a fellow student, Curtis Ofori, whom she knew from a campus club.
"We weren't friends," says Russell, adding that she found Ofori to be "arrogant."
According to her suit, Ofori was flirtatious with her at O'Neill's, touching her leg and shoulder without encouragement. She claims to have avoided him until sometime around midnight, she says, when she and her suitemate headed home. As soon as the two women left the bar, Ofori, the suit states, called Kathryn's suitemate, who was driving, to ask for a ride. The suitemate agreed, and when she missed the turn to Ofori's apartment on Virginia Avenue, he suggested they take him to a dorm across the street from their own. Once there, however, the suit alleges, Ofori stated his plan all along had been to stay in their suite.
After parking the car, her suitemate went inside and to her room, leaving an irritated and intoxicated Kathryn alone to deal with Ofori. She took an air mattress from the trunk of her car, then went to her bedroom to retrieve the pump from under her bed. That's when, the suit alleges, Ofori came into her room behind her and began touching her from behind. Kathryn objected and tried to leave the room, but she alleges Ofori grabbed her, shut the door, turned off the light and pushed her onto the bed. The suit says he held her down as he removed her clothes and his own, then proceeded to rape her as she pleaded for him to stop.
The suit further alleges that when a roommate knocked on the door, Ofori "rested his body on her and whispered for her to remain quiet," an action that allegedly made her too fearful to scream. After raping her the first time, he forced her to perform oral sex, the suit alleges, then raped her a second time.
Ofori, who is a student at Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, did not respond to the Hook's emailed request for comment or to emails sent to a consulting company he heads, Certify Me Now. According to an investigative report on Kathryn's case by the Center for Public Integrity, Ofori's defense with the UVA sexual assault board was that Kathryn had "tacitly agreed to have sex" by not saying no, and by requesting a condom. Kathryn says one part of his account is true: that she asked him to use a condom. She agrees that she made the request 'because it was the only way I could protect myself." In his defense, Ofori agreed that "not all my actions would in a day-to-day situation be considered kosher, but none of my actions broached or even swept near the arena of rape."
In addition to objecting to the numerous reminders of the illegal confidentiality requirement, both Susan and Kathryn Russell are critical of way in which the school handled Kathryn's case. According to Kathryn, the dean of students waited weeks to interview Ofori. And during the actual hearing, Kathryn says, the questioning by student and faculty board members led her to feel they lacked training to be handling such cases.
"Why didn't you close the door?" one board member reportedly asked her, according to the Center for Public Integrity report.
There was another issue, as well.
During the hearing, Ofori was represented by his identical twin brother, Otis Ofori, who would later graduate from UVA Law School. Otis, a member of the UVA Honor Committee, had some personal experience with accusations from which to draw. The previous year, in November 2003, he was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl while traveling in Atlanta. An incident report taken by Atlanta Police and released through a Freedom of Information Act request details the girl's complaint– that Otis took her into a hotel conference room and sexually assaulted her. No official charges were filed and the Hook could not locate any records to explain the dispensation of the case.
Numerous efforts to reach Otis Ofori were unsuccessful. He did not respond to emailed messages, appeared to block a Hook reporter from messaging him a second time through Facebook, and a cellphone number provided by a D.C.-based real estate firm for which he works was answered by someone who claimed Ofori was unavailable. That person hung up on the reporter, and future messages went unreturned.
Susan Russell says she provided copies of the Atlanta incident report to UVA administrators in 2004, asking how someone who'd faced such accusations could be allowed to serve on the Honor Committee and to act as representation in his brother's case– what would turn out to be his brother's first case.
In April 2005– a month before the two Oforis graduated– a second female UVA student filed a sexual assault complaint against Curtis Ofori. He was initially found guilty in that case, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The alleged victim in that case did not respond to the Hook's emailed request for comment. The successful appeal, however, helped pave the way for Curtis Ofori to attend one of the most prestigious business schools in the country: Wharton, where he is one of 34 students profiled on the website.
"Wharton has helped me develop a leadership tool kit, helped me figure out how I relate to people and get things done," writes Ofori, who describes his typical day starting with a phone call to his mother and ending with a phone call to his girlfriend.
Russell says she placed Ofori's name and photo on www.uvavictimsofrape.com several years ago after learning about the second case. She says she expected a cease and desist letter, or some threat of legal action, but has received none, although her website is the fourth item that appears on a recent Google search of his name.
"What does that tell you?" she asks, noting that Ofori offered Kathryn a $10,000 settlement when she sued him. Kathryn declined his money.
"It was insulting," says Kathryn.
Hook legal analyst David Heilberg says the placement of Ofori's name and likeness certainly could prompt a civil suit for libel, but it would also invite further public scrutiny of incidents Ofori might prefer not to revisit.
"The truth," notes Heilberg, "is a valid defense."
Wharton administration says they didn't know about the allegations against him during his time at UVA.
"We of course would take seriously any disclosed felony conviction or suspension from an academic institution and would consider them as part of our admissions process," says Wharton spokesperson Malini Doddamani.
Of course, there wasn't any conviction or suspension– but Susan believes a proposed state law she helped inspire will ensure more frequent prosecution of rapes in the future.
Taking the fight to Richmond
Also known as Kathryn's Law, in honor of Kathyrn Russell, HB2490 is a "victims' law," says Susan Russell, who found a sponsor for the bill in Delegate Paula Miller (D-Norfolk). The early version of the bill called for campus police departments to hand over the lead in rape and murder investigations to local departments. If it didn't win fans among University officials, it did find support from a variety of victims and their families who believe there is an inherent conflict of interest when campus police investigate such cases.
"They report to the school administration," says Russell of campus cops, "and the administrations have a vested interest in keeping crime stats low in order to attract the best new students."
Statistics from the Virginia Crime Commission show that of 28 sexual assaults reported to campus police in 2010, not one resulted in an arrest.
"I'd tell women who've been raped to go straight to local authorities and stay away from campus police," says Kathryn. "Those numbers tell the story."
Last February, the bill was passed over by the Militia, Police and Public Safety committee and sent to the Virginia Crime Commission for review. That review took place at hearings this fall, when victims and police representatives offered their testimony.
"We very strongly feel that this bill should pass and be applied nationally," says Gil Harrington, mother of Morgan Harrington, who disappeared after attending a Metallica concert in October 2009 and whose remains were found on an Albemarle County farm three months later. In addition to avoiding any conflict of interest, Harrington says, local police departments have access to greater resources necessary for fully investigating felony crimes.
Another victim of sexual assault at UVA also voiced her support for the bill.
"Perhaps, as a nation, we are ready to admit that self-policing by colleges and Universities simply does not work in cases of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking," says Liz Seccuro, who found justice for her 1984 sexual assault at UVA more than two decades after it occurred, after her assailant sent her a letter of apology as part of a 12-step program.
On the recommendation of Security on Campus, a nonprofit campus safety organization, the language of the bill was revised to require collaboration between local and campus police departments.
Furthermore, the revised bill would require felony crimes on campus be reported to the Commonwealth's Attorney within 24 hours.
That piece is "critical," says sponsor Delegate Miller, who says the bill "has the potential for being a great victory for everyone– local law enforcement, campus police, and anyone who finds themselves in a situation like Kathryn's."
As the Hook went to press on Tuesday, December 6, however, the Crime Commission endorsed only a portion of Kathryn's Law, requiring campus and local police departments to enter into voluntary "mutual aid agreements" in which each would provide support and resources to the other if asked. The Commission voted down the portion of the bill most important to Susan Russell: the requirement that campus police report felonies to the Commonwealth's Attorney. Russell expressed surprise the Commission members rejected it, even after hearing testimony in support of that portion of the bill from Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford. Lunsford could not be reached by presstime.
"I'm going to try to stay optimistic," says Russell, who says she wishes more college students would join her fight and expresses disappointment that more don't report their sexual assaulters.
"Until women learn that silence breeds sexual assault," she says, "it will never be stopped."
While Russell says she'll find great satisfaction if the legislation becomes law, she knows it won't accomplish the one thing that drove her to become an activist in the first place.
"I'd like someone to redo her investigation," she says of Kathryn's assault, noting that there is no statute of limitations on felony crimes. "I'd like someone to acknowledge that what he did to her that night was a crime."