NEWS- Dealing in tricks?: Critics talk as Beebe prepares to walk

William N. Beebe, pictured outside Charlottesville Circuit Court in December 2006 with attorney Rhonda Quagliana, will be released from jail September 17.

On September 13– four days earlier than was recently announced– the man convicted of aggravated sexual battery for his role in a UVA fraternity house assault in 1984 will leave the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail after serving less than six months for his crime. His release marks the end of a controversial case that has made international headlines for its twists and turns, but which also has critics questioning whether William N. Beebe and his attorney manipulated prosecutors into giving him a lighter sentence than he deserved.

"His assault, and his ability to snooker the court to negotiate a plea bargain shows the lack of sincerity he has," says Susan Russell, sexual assault prevention activist and founder of the website. 

Russell says the facts of the case cause her to question his sincerity. Beebe assaulted his then-17-year-old victim, Liz Seccuro, when they were students at UVA (he was 19). Twenty-one years later, Beebe– by this point a recovering alcoholic in a 12-step program– tracked her down with a letter and apologized for raping her. In a series of subsequent emails the two exchanged, Beebe promised to do whatever she asked to "make amends."

When Seccuro took the apparent confession to police, an investigation was launched, and Beebe was charged with rape. But at that point, through his attorney, Rhonda Quagliana, he changed his description of the events of that night, calling them a "too much to drink college sex event." But while he backpedaled on the confession, he continued to insist his feelings of remorse were genuine.

Russell doesn't buy it.

"If he was sorry, why did he negotiate a plea deal pretending to have information she needed?" Russell wonders.

Indeed, the biggest bombshell of the case was dropped at a December 2006 hearing in Charlottesville Circuit Court, where Beebe entered a guilty plea to a reduced charge of felony sexual assault and accepted the Commonwealth's recommendation that he serve two years.

"Other assaults occurred in that fraternity that night," said deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Claude Worrell during that hearing, referring to the Phi Kappa Psi house at the north end of Mad Bowl on Rugby Road. "Mr. Beebe has agreed to cooperate."

At Beebe's sentencing hearing in March, however, Worrell told Judge Edward Hogshire that while Beebe had complied with investigators' requests for interviews, he hadn't provided any useful information. Worrell asked Hogshire to consider that when imposing the sentence. Instead, however, Hogshire– who'd listened as nearly a dozen character witnesses testified to Beebe's good samaritan deeds over the past decade– handed down 18-months, less time than the plea deal called for. 

There was a further reduction in the sentence: because Beebe was sentenced under the more lenient laws that existed in 1984, his "mandatory parole" date arrived after just six months, according to the Department of Corrections, where officials say a computer calculates release dates and that Beebe received no special treatment. Credit for time served in Las Vegas moved his release date from September 17 to September 13, according to a jail spokesperson.

Seccuro says she was "shocked" by the brevity of Beebe's sentence and maintains she was never told he'd be released so quickly. "We thought he'd serve 10 to 12 months," she says, adding she wouldn't have agreed to the plea deal had she been better informed.

Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman says he understands her pain, but insists Seccuro was told how the sentence would likely turn out and stands by his department's handling of the case.

"You might know intellectually because someone has told you the release could be between three and 12 months, and the great likelihood is six," he says. "It's another thing ... coming to the realization that release is going to happen so soon in such a significant case."

Chapman says the difficulty of prosecuting even a present-day rape case should not be underestimated. Getting a felony conviction in a case two decades old, he says, is "tremendous," and he praises the Charlottesville police department for being willing to pursue the case aggressively.

In an interview about the decisions he and his staff made over the 18-month course of the investigation and prosecution, Chapman reveals that the case was not a slam-dunk, despite Beebe's apparent written confession. Among the challenges: Seccuro's recollections of the night and the assault were not reliable, he says, since she was intoxicated after unwittingly drinking what prosecutors believe was grain punch.

Indeed, at the preliminary hearing, Seccuro testified that she believed Beebe was the first and only assailant. Through the course of witness interviews and examination of a UVA file on the incident, prosecutors now believe Beebe was just one of several to assault Seccuro, and that he likely was the last. Beebe, too, was intoxicated that night after returning from a Grateful Dead concert in Richmond, making his recollections of the night unreliable as well.

"There was an immense difference between apparent evidence [at the preliminary hearing] and what subsequent investigation established," says Chapman. "You can never lose sight of how dramatically that affects a case."

Proving the brutality of the assault was also impossible, Chapman says, since witnesses gave varying accounts of what they saw that night, including the amount of blood on a sheet the unconscious Seccuro, who had been a virgin, was wrapped in. And although Seccuro went to the UVA emergency room the following day, no "rape kit" was ever performed, and because of the passage of time there was no other physical evidence on which prosecutors could rely.

As for the plea deal, Chapman says Beebe never promised he had information that would lead to other arrests– he simply agreed to be interviewed and to share anything he could recall. 

Legal analyst David Heilberg says he's not surprised Beebe couldn't contribute any significant additional information.

"How helpful could he have been after so many years?" he asks. 

Chapman says prosecutors made the plea offer because they believed the lesser charge was more appropriate given the facts of the case they felt they could prove. If other information ever surfaces, Chapman says, his office is prepared to reopen an investigation and pursue convictions of anyone else involved.

Quagliana also denies she or Beebe engaged in any trickery  to reduce his sentence. Beebe, she says,  is "sincerely remorseful" for the assault, but he wasn't willing to admit to deeds he hadn't committed. Among them: beating Seccuro, who has long maintained she awoke after the assault bruised and bloodied. 

Quagliana says Beebe didn't object to serving time for his crime, though the price he paid for that sentence grew exponentially in late August when his mother, who had been terminally ill, died in Florida. His request for a "furlough"– an unsupervised temporary release from jail so that he could settle her affairs– was denied, further proof, says Quagliana, that he did not receive special treatment.

While Beebe had planned to move to Florida following his release to be near his mother– he has already registered as a sex offender in that state– his mother's death has thrown those plans into question. "He's devastated," Quagliana says.

So, too, is Seccuro, who says the entire process has not brought closure but has only brought her pain to the surface. Beebe's speedy release, she says, makes it that much harder.

"It makes no sense to have an 18-month court fight," she says, "and end up with a six-month sentence."

Liz Seccuro first went public in the Hook on January 12, 2006.