'I harmed you': 21 years, 12 steps later, rape apology backfires
Step Nine of the famous 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous requires the member to "make amends" to those he had harmed through his addiction. Former UVA student William Nottingham Beebe may wish he'd stopped at Step Eight.
After he tracked down and apologized to the woman he allegedly raped at a UVA fraternity house more than 20 years ago, the 41-year-old Nevada man was arrested last week in Las Vegas. His attempt to make amends answered with an arrest warrant, he now faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
"This is really complex territory," says Phoebe Fliakos, a Charlottesville trauma and substance abuse counselor. Making amends for a felony that can carry jail time "seems to me to be outside the scope of AA," she says. "He should have been getting outside counsel."
Reached at his Las Vegas home before his January 4 arrest, Beebe declined comment. He was incarcerated in Clark County Detention Center in downtown Las Vegas until Tuesday, January 10, then released on $20,000 bond, according to his Las Vegas attorney, Brian Fisher.
Beebe's two options now, says Fisher, are to voluntarily turn himself over to Virginia officials, or to fight extradition. At presstime Tuesday, Beebe had not announced his intention, and a "status check" hearing in Las Vegas was scheduled for February 9, says Fisher.
If Beebe's "amends" have backfired on him, they didn't bring peace to his alleged rape victim, either.
According to the AA website, aa.org, Step Eight encourages the member to make a list of "all persons we had harmed," and Step Nine states that members must make direct amends to such persons, "except when to do so would injure them or others."
The woman who says Beebe attacked her 21years ago likens his contact to "reopening a wound."
Now 39 and living in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, Liz Seccuro has had one unhappy marriage and, after years of therapy, is remarried with a two-year-old daughter and a career as a successful event planner.
Four months ago, while preparing to leave her home for a two-week vacation, Seccuro ran out to the mailbox and found a cream-colored envelope. She stared at the return address, shocked.
"It was a name," she says, "I hadn't spoken aloud in 20 years."
Trembling, Seccuro read a short note Will Beebe had penned on vanilla-scented paper.
"In October, 1984," he wrote, "I harmed you." He invited Seccuro to contact him "anywhere, at any time, with anyone," and included a business card. "My prayer," he wrote, "is that you be free and happy in your life."
The next several days were anything but free and happy for Seccuro, who eventually sent Beebe an email asking him why he had raped her, and if he could fill in details of the assault that she could not recall. Over the next two months, they exchanged lengthy emails– an enraged Seccuro peppering Beebe with questions, and Beebe offering explanations of how and why he did what he did that night.
What he did that night, Seccuro says, was cruel and brutal.
On Thursday night, October 5, 1984, Liz Schimpf was a 17-year-old UVA first-year who had been invited to a fraternity party.
A slim blond from Yonkers, New York, who had been valedictorian at an all-girls Catholic high school, she says, she had attended few parties since her arrival at UVA a month earlier. "I was a good girl," she says, "still a virgin."
Seccuro says her outfit that evening– a long-sleeved crewneck sweater, Guess mini-skirt, Mia flats, and a pearl necklace and earrings– was typical of the mid-1980s and was not revealing.
"We were really conservative back then," she remembers, contrasting her attire that night with the current college girl trends of low-rider pants and form-fitting tank tops.
The party was at the Phi Kappa Psi house, a stately classical mansion at the end of Mad Bowl on Rugby Road known simply as "Phi Psi."
Seccuro was accompanied by a fellow first-year who was rushing Phi Psi. She says the two mingled while she drank "a beer-and-a-half."
As the night wore on, Seccuro says, the brothers offered a house tour, which she says was typical during rush season. "They asked us if we wanted to smoke some pot, and I declined," she says, "but [my friend] went with them." When her friend didn't come back, she started looking for him, and that's when some of the men offered her a drink they called the "house special."
Soon after she began sipping the drink, Seccuro says, she began to feel that the men were watching her. Then she felt "panicky and immobilized, like my arms and legs didn't work well."
When she tried to leave the party room, one of the men picked her up and deposited her in Beebe's bedroom. Although he lived at the house, Beebe was never an official member of Phi Psi, according to Shawn Collinsworth, executive director of the national fraternity.
Beebe, Seccuro says, "grabbed me, pulled me into his lap, and started reading me poetry." She says that at that point she felt more irritated than fearful.
"I remember thinking, 'This is kind of loser-ish,'" she says.
Finally, she broke free, she says, and ran out into the hall looking for her purse and another of her male friends who was a Phi Psi brother. But both purse and friend, she soon learned, were padlocked inside another room.
Seccuro assumed that her friend had passed out and could not hear her calls. Now a pediatrician in Atlanta, he did not return the Hook's call.
Suddenly afraid, Seccuro says, she began kicking and pounding on the door, but Beebe found her.
"He came back, grabbed me, turned out the light, threw me on the bed, and ripped off my clothes," she says. "I started screaming, and he covered my mouth. He said, 'Shut up and lie still.'"
As Beebe allegedly assaulted her, Seccuro remembers thinking, "This is what it feels like to die. I'm going to die here, and no one's going to find me."
Twenty-one years later, Seccuro tearfully says she knows the truth: "Part of you does die."
Since its founding in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous has reportedly helped millions of people mend their lives and find sobriety. In this case, however, its advice has disrupted lives and led to a felony charge.
Through his emails to Seccuro, 21 years after that 1984 night, Beebe reveals he was already abusing alcohol when he met her.
"I perceived myself as a victim of a hostile world," he wrote last fall. "The one escape I used, the one I could seemingly best rely upon to make the world a more hospitable place, was to drink."
During the semester after the incident, Beebe reveals, he voluntarily dropped out of UVA and checked into an Arizona rehab center. But it didn't stop his drinking– or advance his career.
Two years after the incident, one of Seccuro's sorority sisters ordered a pizza for the Alpha Phi sorority house where Seccuro was then living. Beebe, back in Charlottesville but not enrolled at the University, was the pizza driver. "I opened the door, and I wanted to die," she says. "I'd had no idea he was still in town."
That was the last time they saw each other.
In his recent emails, Beebe explained he'd had "tremendous guilt" over his actions and that his "spirit was dying in a body that had not yet quit."
Unmarried and without children, Beebe came to Alcoholics Anonymous in 1993, he wrote, and got sober for good.
"I did not know how I was going to set about repairing wrongs I believed I could never fully right," he explained, "most especially in the situation with you, which haunted me most of all."
Based on teachings by Christian proselytizers, AA was the first self-help group to promote a 12-step program. For many, the biggest controversy is the quasi-religious Step Two: a demand that participants acknowledge God, or at least a "higher spiritual power." But in this case, it was Step Nine that led Beebe into dangerous water.
Beebe reveals that before approaching Seccuro, he sought counsel from both his AA "sponsor," or mentor, and from a woman in AA who, he informed Seccuro, "has experience with what you have had."
If he relied on just one rape victim for advice, says Fliakos, he may not have understood the profound effect his reentry into Seccuro's life could have.
For nearly a decade, Beebe wrote, he had kept track of Seccuro's address through UVA's office of Alumni Affairs, which releases alumni addresses to anyone who requests them. His first few letters to Seccuro were sent to old addresses and were eventually returned, but he finally located her in Greenwich.
While Greenwich is an affluent address, Mariposa Avenue in Las Vegas, where Beebe owned a one-story ranch-style house, is a more modest neighborhood.
"His house would probably go for a couple hundred thousand," says Sergeant Dan Flaherty of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who arrested Beebe. Flaherty says Beebe's arrest at his home last week was without incident and describes Beebe's demeanor as "somewhat surprised" and "apathetic."
Though his current digs may have been modest, Beebe, according to his letters, was no stranger to a life of privilege, as he attended an exclusive prep school (which Seccuro identifies as Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts) before entering UVA.
Authorities characterize Beebe as a real estate agent, yet two days after his arrest, the manager of his office can't picture him or find anyone in the office who can.
"He's licensed here as a realtor," says Ron Macko of Liberty Realty, the largest real estate firm in Nevada. "Sometimes," says Macko, "agents will come in and hang their license, never to be heard from again."
And although Seccuro says she wishes Beebe had "never been heard from again," he offered her financial assistance, ostensibly to help compensate her for therapy or other expenses related to the assault.
"My welfare is of no concern here," Beebe wrote.
Fliakos says the offer "smacks of a bribe," and seems to minimize the actual damage done.
On the contray, in an email, Beebe said, "I'm not intentionally minimizing the fact of having raped you. I did."
"The step of making amends," says a man who will identify himself only as "Julio" in the AA General Services office in New York, "is intended to help the individual find balance and spiritual serenity."
Whatever his intentions, Beebe's offer gave no serenity to Seccuro.
"I think in recovery," she fired back in an email, "they don't really teach you about how your admission now causes turbulence in the victim/survivor's life. I did not get to choose being raped and having my virginity taken from me so brutally. Now I don't get to choose having this wound reopened."
But Beebe insists inflicting pain was not his intention in writing, and he apologizes for the difference in their accounts of the incident.
"I want to be clear again that I believe what you say actually happened to you," he wrote. "I can also say that what I recall is only my version and is sincere and as truthful as I understand at this time."
And in one of his final emails, sent Wednesday, November 30, Beebe seems to recognize that his apology has begun backfiring.
"It seems no matter what I say, you are dissatisfied that I am all about the business of accountability and taking full responsibility as I can for having raped you," he wrote. "And you conclude I want forgiveness, neatly tied up in a bow. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Now," he wrote, "it appears from your latest response that I'm actually doing more harm than good, which is not what I want to do."
Another AA controversy
This is not the first time AA has made headlines for its role in a confession. Coincidentally, another incident happened about 30 minutes' drive from Seccuro's hometown.
In 1988, after a night of drinking, 21-year-old Paul Cox broke into his childhood home in Larchmont, New York, and murdered the couple who were sleeping there, in what had formerly been his parents' bedroom.
"I knew him," says Seccuro. "It was absolutely shocking."
Although Cox confessed his crime over subsequent years to "at least seven" AA members and was convicted, his conviction was overturned on appeal, according to documents at law.com, because the confessions were protected by the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which grants confidentiality to clergy. Eventually that ruling was overturned, and Cox remained in jail.
Like Cox, Beebe admits in his emails that he had spoken over the years to his sponsor and other AA members about the incident, yet no evidence has surfaced that anyone reported him. Seccuro finds the confidentiality aspect of AA "a little creepy."
When Seccuro returned to her UVA dorm the morning of October 6, 1984, she wasn't sure what to do. She couldn't remember going to sleep after the assault, and assumes "my body allowed me to pass out in the middle of it."
Earlier that morning, Seccuro says, she had awoken "naked, and wrapped in a bloody sheet" on a sofa in Beebe's room in the Phi Psi house.
Unable to find her underwear, she dressed and borrowed a denim jacket from Beebe, retreived her purse from the now un-padlocked and vacant room where her allegedly passed-out friend had been, and then walked nearly half a mile to the Emergency Room. She believes some of her ribs were cracked and says her face was bruised, her foot was swollen from kicking the locked door the previous night, and the insides of her legs were covered with dried blood.
She says she waited five hours for someone to see her. "I said, 'I've been raped, and I need a doctor to see me.' They were kind and brought me some tea." But no doctor ever came.
Seccuro says a nurse came and told her that UVA hospital was not equipped at the time to do a so-called "rape kit," and that she would need to go to D.C. or Richmond to have the evidence collected.
"Eventually, I just left," she says. "I wanted to be home."
UVA medical center spokesperson Peter Jump says he can't comment on Seccuro's case specifically and what she recalls hearing, but he says UVA was equipped to do forensic rape exams in 1984. "We had the same capabilities as the hospitals in Richmond and D.C.," he says.
According to a 1999 FBI report, rape is the most under-reported crime in America. In the mid-1980s, there was still a debate over whether there was even such a thing as "acquaintance rape."
While the University Journal, a now-defunct UVA newspaper, ran several rape awareness articles in the fall of 1984, Seccuro says students didn't talk openly about the issue. But she confided in several friends, who suggested she speak to UVA administrators. That, she says, was a mistake.
Seccuro took her story to then-Dean of Students Robert Canevari, who "immediately acted like he didn't believe me," she says. She recalls the dean asking, "Are you sure this wasn't consensual sex that just got a little too rough?"
She claims the dean told her that Charlottesville Police didn't have jurisdiction over the fraternity house, and so she would have to go through UVA's police department. In fact, the contrary is true. Seccuro says Canevari suggested she "take some time off or transfer." Contacted for this story, the now-retired dean declines to address the allegations.
Then-associate dean of students Sybil Todd, who Seccuro calls "very supportive," took her to file a report with the UVA police, but Seccuro says the fact that she had never been examined at the hospital combined with the fact that Beebe denied the incident both worked against her.
What might have worked in her favor was an event several days after the assault, when Beebe allegedly came to her dorm to retrieve his jacket when she was not at home. When Seccuro arrived with a friend, she says she saw him leaving the building and then discovered a note she believes he had written with a permanent marker on her door.
"It's in your best interest to call me," the note allegedly said, and it contained his phone number.
In the end, says Seccuro, the school took no action against Beebe, who withdrew from UVA of his own accord before the end of the semester.
"I felt completely shut down," Seccuro says.
She did not, however, remain silent. In a November 19, 1984 University Journal article by a reporter named Gayle Wald, Seccuro told her story using the alias "Kate."
The University responds
At a press conference last week, as Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo recounted the incident, UVA's lack of action brought some harsh words.
"It seems to me like someone seriously dropped the ball here," said one television reporter at the January 6 press conference.
"UVA is now looking into what was done back then," said Longo. "It was not reported to city police."
UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says UVA has been "cooperating fully" with police, and has found documentation in the Office of Student Affairs verifying Seccuro's complaint. However, Wood says, "We don't comment on criminal investigations."
Seccuro says UVA has had plenty of time to investigate her claim. Even before contacting police, she says, she emailed several top officials including President John Casteen.
Wood says Casteen has been in communication with Seccuro and offered to meet with her to discuss her case. "He also extended to her an invitation to stay in a University residence when she came to Charlottesville to deliver her statement to the commonwealth's attorney," Wood says. Seccuro declined Casteen's invitation.
UVA has experienced turbulent times over sexual assaults recently. In March 2004, Susan Russell, the mother of a victimized UVA student, launched the website uvavictimsofrape.com. Although nearly 60 rapes had been reported at the school over the previous five years, no perpetrator had been expelled or even suspended from the school for sexual assault, while 38 had been expelled for "honor" offenses such as cheating or stealing.
"You get kicked out for stealing a pencil, but you can stay if you rape someone?" asked Russell. "It just makes no sense."
More than 100 women came forward to share their stories with Russell, and one, Annie Hylton, went public in the Hook's November 11, 2004 cover story "How UVA turns its back on rape." Hylton's case went national last month when she appeared on Dateline NBC.
The alleged assault on Hylton– which, like the one on Seccuro, occurred at a fraternity house– led more than 400 students to don gags to protest what they saw as UVA's silence on the issue.
Soon after, UVA overhauled its policies on sexual assaults, and in August 2005, Casteen tackled the issue at the fall convocation.
"You have the right to the integrity of your own person," Casteen told UVA women. "If you say no, no means no."
To the men, Casteen spoke sternly. "I want you to look around you tonight at the women sitting beside you," he said. "These women are your sisters for the next four years. You have an obligation to protect them, and I want to be sure that you understand that when you hear no, it means no and that there is no further discussion."
Up in Connecticut, Seccuro had read about Hylton's case.
"What really pushed her over the edge was when she read all this stuff about Annie Hylton and realized it's still going on 20 years later," says Seccuro's husband, Mike Seccuro. A 1995 UVA grad, he says it's been difficult watching his wife dealing with the trauma of her own rape.
"When that letter arrived, it upended our entire lives," he says. He says his wife– whom he describes as previously "happy and fun-loving"– has become "much angrier and more emotional."
Both Seccuros say they love their alma mater, but they would not send their daughter to UVA unless the school further improves its policies regarding sexual assault.
"I want to change my opinion and say, 'yeah, I'd send my daughter there,'" says Mike Seccuro. "I'd want to know that she would feel comfortable coming forward, and she would be treated appropriately."
And he'd like to say a few things to UVA officials about his wife. "You didn't believe her 20 years ago," he'd tell them. "Now let's talk."
A convincing man?
Although Beebe refused requests for an interview, in a Thanksgiving Day email he sent to Seccuro he offered his version of the night in question, one that differs starkly from hers.
"You had woken up from passing out early in the evening after the band had started," he wrote. Around 3am, he recalled, he'd struck up a conversation with her.
Then, he wrote, "I 'convinced' you after what seemed like hesitation, that staying with me in my room upstairs was better than walking all the way back to the suites. Of course, seeing an opportunity to have a good time with you overrode any gentlemanly efforts to return you safely back to the dorms."
His roommate was away that night, and Beebe wrote that he and Seccuro began kissing in his room with the door closed.
"There was no fight, and it was all over in short order," he wrote. "When we awoke in the morning it was still chilly out, so I lent you my jeans jacket, and you walked home."
Beebe's Charlottesville attorney, Rhonda Quagliana, says Beebe's version is the truth.
"It was a too-much-to-drink college sex event," Quagliana says, "and it was something that had plagued his conscience for a long time."
When Beebe admitted the rape, Quagliana claims, he was simply following the advice of another victim "who was trying to help him understand where [Seccuro] was coming from and what her thinking was."
When Beebe learned Seccuro was filing charges, "It was a terrible shock for him because this is a man who was trying to do the right thing," says Quagliana. "Unfortunately, young people in college do things they regret. He was trying to apologize for one of those things."
Quagliana promises that details will emerge to exonerate her client. "This was bad behavior, poor judgment, immature, and all those other things," says Quagliana, "but it was not a rape."
Seccuro says that Beebe's refusal to acknowledge the extreme violence that she recalls led to her decision to file the criminal complaint.
And one AA member says she thinks Beebe should come clean and accept whatever punishment comes his way.
Making amends "can be an agonizing process," says Barbara, an AA member (the organization asks its members not to use their last names in the press). But "ideally," Barbara says, "it can also be profoundly liberating."
In many states, murder is the only crime with no statute of limitations. But Virginia allows all felonies to be prosecuted indefinitely, according to Chief Longo.
Seccuro says she wasn't sure what she wanted to do after the first letter from Beebe. "I actually felt bad for him for a while," she says. But as she thought more about what he had done, her anger grew. So too did her wish to see justice, not just for herself, she says, but for all women who have been raped.
"I'm willing to put myself out here," she says, "so that other women can see that you can come forward."
In early December 2005, Seccuro returned to Charlottesville to file her complaint with Charlottesville Police. She turned over Beebe's letters and emails and met with detectives. They visited the Phi Psi house and returned to Gwathmey dorm, where she lived during her first year.
A week later, two Charlottesville detectives flew to Las Vegas with a search warrant for Beebe's home and returned to Virginia with his computer, which Seccuro says was sent to a state lab for analysis.
Seccuro says authorities confirm that the ISP address of the computer matches the emails.
At press time Beebe was in custody in Las Vegas. Charlottesville Police detectives Nicholas Rudman and Scott Godfrey did not return the Hook's calls, and Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman declines comment on the case, which he calls an "ongoing investigation."
In the days since Beebe's arrest, blogs have erupted with questions over the wisdom of Beebe's actions. L.A.-based psychologist and occasional 12-step critic Marc F. Kern says he's not surprised the apology didn't go over well.
"I can see how that might really open wounds for this woman and backfire on the perpetrator," Kern says. "He didn't think this through, and his sponsors weren't psychologically sophisticated."
But Quagliana says Beebe had no way of knowing he was stepping into a legal minefield. "In his case, he was acting on a sincere desire to say he was sorry for something that was not a crime," she explains, "so he didn't think he had anything to worry about."
Should Beebe be sentenced to the maximum penalty rape carries, life in prison? Or should his voluntary confession earn him leniency?
Apart from his use of the word "rape," most of Beebe's correspondence on the specifics of the fateful night downplays his culpability. Fliakos says he may be telling it the way he recalls it, but in so doing he's not validating Seccuro's experience.
"They both know she got hurt," says Fliakos. "At this point, trying to convince her it was less than she thought it was is moving away from the [purpose] of the Ninth Step."
Seccuro says she has no opinion of what Beebe's legal punishment should be, and says she had no choice but to turn the case over to authorities.
"I rail against people who say this was a youthful indiscretion. It's a felony," she says. "If you break the law, you have to face the consequences.'
Twelve-step veteran Barbara believes that even if, as in this case, making amends may involve serving time in prison, Beebe may eventually be glad he contacted his victim.
"One of our basic texts says, 'half measures availed us nothing,'" Barbara explains. "I hope that if he's guilty of what she says he is, that he'll go through with it all the way. I think he'll be glad in the end that he did."
She also thinks a judge will look favorably on Beebe's voluntary confession. "If he tries to back out of it now," she says, "he'll probably end up getting a stiffer sentence."
Whatever happens, this case shines a harsh spotlight on AA's continuing practice of encouraging its members to follow the words of Step Nine without getting formal legal counseling. And although Beebe's apology didn't win the result he may have hoped for, even 12-step critics see value in AA's concept of making amends.
"It often is a helpful methodology," says psychologist Kern. "It's not appropriate for everybody; it's not one size fits all. And it was a wrong call here. On one level, though, I'm pleased. He was arrested, and I don't support the concept of men raping women."
Just one year ago, UVA released revised– and strengthened– guidelines for dealing with sexual assault on campus after a student, Annie Hylton, shared her story of sexual assault on UVA grounds in the Hook 's November 11, 2004 cover story, "How UVA turns its back on rape." A week after that story ran, more than 400 UVA students participated in a silent protest against the university's polices regarding sexual assault.
William N. Beebe in his January 4 mugshot
COURTESY LAS VEGAS METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPT.
In mid-December, Seccuro came to Charlottesville to meet with police and file her complaint against Beebe.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Liz Seccuro, then known as Elizabeth Schimpf, in her 1987 Alpha Phi sorority composite
COURTESY LIZ SECCURO
The Phi Psi fraternity, at the north end of Mad Bowl, is the site of the alleged rape.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
In mid-December when she was in Charlottesville, Seccuro turned down UVA President John Casteen's offer to meet with her.
COURTESY UVA NEWS SERVICES/DAN ADDISON
Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, flanked by Sergeant Richard Hudson, speaks to reporters at a January 5 press conference announcing Beebe's arrest.
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER