By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006
DURHAM, N.C. Four banners hang on the front lawn of North Carolina Central University. Hitched between poles a month ago, they have endured rain and wind. In sunlight they are shaded by weeping oaks and at night they are heavy with dew, always there, scrawled with dozens of handwritten inscriptions.
We are with you. We are outraged with you. We will fight back for you.
Audre Lourd said, Your silence will not protect you. We cannot lose our voice.
Rest assured, we will not rest until justice is done, especially the strong brothers.
Your Eagle family loves you and is behind you, no matter what.
No matter what.
In the days and weeks that have passed since a 27-year-old NCCU student told police she was raped by three Duke University lacrosse players, the banners have maintained a stubborn presence against the emerging details of the accuser's complicated life. She is a mother of two who moonlighted for an escort service. Once, while intoxicated, she stole a car from a patron at an adult entertainment club. She went to police when she was 17 and reported that she had been raped by three men when she was 14.
Her identity shielded in news accounts, her life was short-handed down to one word: stripper.
To her fellow students at a historically black college where 61 percent of students receive need-based financial aid and many work jobs on the side, she was a single mother who walked their hallways. Cash is what she needed, and who couldn't relate?
Kristiana Bennett, a junior with a child and a part-time job, knows what that means. Between classes, she uses the phone to check on her son at day care. They live in a Section 8 apartment off campus. Once, in a financially desperate moment, Bennett considered dancing at an adult club -- $400 in a night compared with the $11 an hour she earned caring for an elderly woman. Ultimately, Bennett decided she couldn't do it. But that feeling of desperation is what made her relate to the accuser, whom she had met only in passing earlier this year.
"We are the same age," Bennett said. "Both of us are single mothers. And both of us are poor."
Three miles from the Gothic splendor of Duke, NCCU is plunked down on a stretch of Fayetteville Street near a plaza with hot wings, hair salons and bail bonds. The student union has four vending machines. Single mothers sometimes bring their kids to class, setting them up with juice and crayons in the back of Mass Comm.
When the lacrosse scandal broke in March, students here were reminded of how different their world was from the Duke students' when they gathered around TVs to watch the two lacrosse players charged with rape each post $400,000 bond and drive away.
"It's preset in some minds that the white boys did it," said senior Carla Aaron-Lopez. "But we don't know the facts."
Even as the case gets murkier and the accuser has gone underground, the banners have stayed up in quiet defiance.A Dividing Line
Outsiders have compared the story of race, class and sex in the magnolia South to a Tom Wolfe novel. But to many on the NCCU campus, it seems straight from the mouths of grandparents and parents who passed along cautionary tales about how justice worked: A black woman's cry of rape was seldom believed, and whites always walked.
All they had to do was turn on talk radio or log onto the Internet. "The bottom line is this girl probably wanted to [have sex] . . . and [get] paid," someone posted on a Durham news forum. "Most black women enjoy that, I seen it in the movies. The only different about this is that she wanted to get paid the 'right' amount of money for it. What really happened, I believe, is she didn't get enough money after she did the work for those nice, innocent young men that just wanted to relax, take a load off and have some fun."
People on this campus realized how much was riding on the accuser's allegations. One name had resurfaced with a vengeance: Tawana Brawley, the black teenager who in 1987 claimed she was raped by six white men but whose story was discredited.
"So one black women lied 20 years ago," said LaHoma Smith Romocki, an assistant professor of public health education and a 1979 Duke grad. "It's like they can't believe that any white man could rape a black woman."
This is how the wagons came to circle a woman whom most on this campus did not know. There was a larger fight for justice at stake.
With 8,200 students, NCCU is a scrappy, willful place. The school was founded in 1910 by a black pharmacist named James E. Shepard who dreamed of a liberal arts college for black students. The hilly campus is undergoing extensive renovations under Chancellor James H. Ammons, but at a recent spring step show, a group of male students spoofed their raggedy dorm by dressing as janitors.
Tuition, room and board are about $8,000 a year. After-school jobs are common. Derek Pantiel, an NCCU student and newly elected president of the student government association of North Carolina universities, works at Stein Mart on weekends. Some students are the first in their families to attend college. One recent Sunday morning outside a women's dorm, a father in muddy boots with a horse trailer was loading his daughter's suitcases into his truck for summer break. "I'm carrying her home," he said. Every bit of his extra money was paying for the privilege of this moment.
"People died on our behalf; their blood, sweat and tears were put into our even going here," said Brittany Scott, a sophomore.
The woman at the center of the rape case is a 27-year-old psychology major taking a full load of courses. The Washington Post does not publish names of alleged rape victims.
After news of the rape allegations broke in March, Ammons, the school's chancellor, urged his students to stay measured and let the legal system play out. There were vigils and forums at NCCU. District Attorney Mike Nifong, who is white, came to campus and assured students that the case he is prosecuting will not go away, and students filled the room with applause.
Kristiana Bennett is a reporter for the Campus Echo, NCCU's student newspaper. Early on, Bennett went to the accuser's house to talk. The woman was not at home, but Bennett spoke with neighbors. One told of a barbecue where the woman behaved in an unflattering manner. Bennett could not bring herself to include the details in the article for her paper. She knew the woman's past would be dredged. The notes from the interview stayed in her purse for weeks.
The woman's parents live two miles from the NCCU campus. Reporters swarmed the small house with aluminum siding and a screened wooden porch. Her father had gray hair and worn hands, and he seemed dazed in the heat of the frenzy. "We are just concerned about her, that's all," he said recently. He would not disclose where his daughter and her children were staying.
The most mundane beginnings explain her life. The youngest of three children, she grew up in Durham. Her father drove trucks and worked a second job cleaning cars on an auto lot. Her 1996 graduation photo from Hillside High School shows a girl with shoulder-length braids and a placid expression, neither serious nor smiling. In the space where other seniors included their hopes for the future, hers is blank.
She was 18 when she met a man 14 years her senior. In an interview recently, the man said he was illiterate when he fell in love with the woman, and she taught him to read. "She wanted to see the world," he said. "The only thing I knew to tell her was to join the Navy."
After enlisting at 19, she married the man in Virginia Beach before moving to Concord, Calif., where she was assigned to the USS Mount Hood, a munitions ship. "Our honeymoon was driving out to California," he said. "We just didn't have the tin cans tied behind the car."
Things fell apart when the woman met another man. The couple separated, and she became pregnant. She was discharged from the Navy in 1998. When she returned to Durham, she was the single mother of two children. She found work at a nursing facility, according to her father. Pay records show that she later earned $10.50 an hour on an assembly line making catalytic reducers. She would go to court to force the children's father to pay child support.
On a summer night in 2002, the woman -- brown-eyed, full-figured and broke -- showed up at Diamond Girls, a strip club in a weedy patch of industrial Durham. According to the manager, the woman wanted to try out as a dancer. While giving a table dance for a taxi driver, she stole his car keys and sped off in his cab. Sheriff's deputies gave chase, finally boxing her in when the taxi got a flat. Her blood alcohol level was 0.19, according to court records, twice the legal limit in North Carolina.
Under a deal with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors. She spent three consecutive weekends in jail and was placed on two years' probation.
"She took responsibility for what she did," said Woody Vann, her attorney, who found the woman "very credible." She brought in pay stubs and school records when asked.
Vann said the woman, over time, paid her legal bills and $4,200 in restitution and court fees. All the while she was enrolled full time at Durham Technical Community College, graduating in 2004 with an associate degree, according to the school. Last fall, she enrolled at NCCU, living in a rental house with her children, ages 5 and 7.
"She would bring the children over here to catch the school bus and then go to over to the college," her father said.
She was also moonlighting with an escort service. Nearly two dozen such services are listed in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill yellow pages. One owner who agreed to be interviewed but identified only by her first name, Jamie, operates escort services under six names. She employs three to four women. Escort fees are $160 an hour -- $100 for the escort and $60 as Jamie's take. Occasionally, a customer will request a dancer for a party, a complication because the job requires a bouncer for safety. "We can't send one girl for five guys," Jamie said.
But often no bouncer is available, and the escort needs the cash.
"Everybody loves money," Jamie said.The Night's Events
By now, a basic outline of the night is familiar. A captain of the Duke lacrosse team called an escort service and placed an order for two strippers for a party at a house rented by three lacrosse captains. He used a fake name and gave a vast undercount of the number of partygoers. The women would dance for two hours and earn $400 each.
The dancers arrived at the house -- owned by the university -- between 11:30 and 11:45. Some of the men referred to one another by their jersey numbers. The dancers were given drinks, according to the second dancer, Kim Roberts. They danced briefly in the living room until the audience got too rowdy. The accuser would later tell police that a player held up a broomstick and threatened to "shove this up you."
The accuser said she was separated from Roberts and pulled inside a bathroom by two young men. She said she was held down by three young men for 30 minutes while she was raped and sodomized. After the assault, she said, $400 in $20 bills was taken from her purse.
The dancers left together, and Roberts drove to a grocery store, where police were called. An officer described the woman as "passed-out drunk." She was first taken to a substance-abuse center and then to Duke University Medical Center, where a doctor and forensic nurse said her injuries and symptoms were consistent with vaginal and anal rape.
When Durham police searched the house two days later, they seized five red fingernails, a purse and a cellphone belonging to the accuser. They also took a bathroom rug, a monogrammed bathroom towel, digital cameras, several laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices. They found $160 in $20 bills.
The lacrosse team captains denied that any assault had taken place. They volunteered to be interviewed at a police substation and then agreed to go to Duke hospital for tests. Days later, lacrosse players gave DNA samples. No matches were found.
A week later, police charged Reade Seligmann, 20, of Essex Fells, N.J., and Collin Finnerty, 19, of Garden City, N.Y., with rape, kidnapping and a sexual offense.
Lawyers for several of the players -- including some of the top criminal defense lawyers in North Carolina -- saw a district attorney up for reelection pushing a case with scant evidence. The defense said Durham police had violated their own policy by showing the accuser a photo lineup that included only lacrosse players and no fillers. Members of the defense team also had time-stamped photos from the party that they said contradicted the accuser's timeline of events, making her statement that she was assaulted for 30 minutes virtually impossible.
The accuser said almost nothing on her own behalf.
For NCCU students who watched the case unfold, the images of Duke's wealth -- the emerald lacrosse fields, students dining at the Whole Foods across from campus, the glow of laptops at coffeehouses -- laid out a powerful contrast to their own lives.
"If that was a basketball team full of mostly black players? Jail first and questions later," said NCCU junior Keyon Satterthwaite. "Do you think they'd be roaming free?"
They did not regard the digital photos offered by the defense as an alibi.
"You can modify a time stamp," said sophomore Janera Federick. "Digital photos can be manipulated. I watch 'Law & Order.' "
What they saw was a photo of a black woman lying on the floor as white men stood around her holding cups of beer.
What rang in their ears was something a witness said he heard the night of the lacrosse party. "Hey, bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt."Avoiding the Spotlight
Last week, the New Black Panthers held a rally outside Duke, but few from NCCU attended. It was exam week. Besides, students were wary of exploitation. The hot TV camera lights had melted away the sweet spring of Durham. Duke absorbed the brunt of the stereotyping about privilege and arrogance, but NCCU got its share, too. "It was like some news executive somewhere was saying, 'Find me an angry black man!' " said Rony Camille, a junior.
The vigils, forums and panels were over. A campus production of "The Barber of Seville" was underway, and Durham's hip-hop stations kept T-Pain's "I'm N Luv (Wit a Stripper)" in full rotation.
"If I hear that song one more time . . ." said sophomore Brittany Scott.
Still, she thinks about the accuser. "She was doing what she had to do," said Scott. "She's thinking, 'How hard do I have to shake it? Am I gonna get that 20 or that 100 out of his pocket?' That's sad."
Kristiana Bennett -- the single mother who once considered dancing but has just started a summer internship at a public policy center in Durham -- thinks about the woman, too.
"When this is over [the woman] will be forgotten and people will go back to the way they were," said Bennett. "Oblivious."
Graduation was Saturday. The banners were still up.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.