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'Catfishing' over love interest might have spurred U-Va. gang-rape debacle

By T. Rees Shapiro

January 8, 2016 at 5:26 PM

Students stand to have their pictures taken in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.(Photo by Joel Hawksley/For The Washington Post)

Ryan Duffin was a freshman at the University of Virginia when he met a student named Jackie.

Both teenagers were new to campus in September 2012, and the pair quickly became friends through a shared appreciation of alternative rock bands such as Coheed and Cambria and Silversun Pickups. Early on, Duffin sensed that Jackie was interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with him. Duffin valued her friendship but politely rebuffed Jackie's advances for more.

Just days after he met her, Duffin said, he was goaded into a text message conversation with a U-Va. junior named "Haven Monahan," whom Jackie said she knew from a chemistry class.

What followed was what lawyers for Nicole Eramo, an associate dean at U-Va., described in new court documents as an elaborate scheme to win Duffin over by creating a fake suitor, Monahan, to spark romantic interest — a practice known as "catfishing" — that morphed into a sensational claim of gang rape at a U-Va. fraternity that Jackie said was instigated by the fictitious upperclassman, and finally a Rolling Stone story that rocked the U-Va. campus and shocked the nation.

A Charlottesville Police investigation later determined that no one named Haven Monahan had ever attended U-Va., and extensive efforts to find the person were not successful. Photographs that were texted to Duffin that were purported to be of Monahan were actually pictures depicting one of Jackie's high school classmates in Northern Virginia. That man, now a student at a university in another state, confirmed to The Post that the photographs were of him.

Police ultimately determined that no gang rape occurred, and Rolling Stone retracted its story.

"All available evidence demonstrates that 'Haven Monahan' was a fake suitor created by Jackie in a strange bid to earn the affections of a student named Ryan Duffin that Jackie was romantically interested in," Eramo's lawyers wrote in court papers filed this week.

[Lawyers for U-Va. dean: Jackie lied to Rolling Stone about gang rape, 'invented' story]

In an interview Friday with The Washington Post, Duffin said that he also believes Haven Monahan was a fictional character Jackie created.

"I was wondering how I didn't see through it way earlier," Duffin said.

Jackie and her lawyers have not responded to requests for comment. The Washington Post generally does not identify people who are purported victims of sex crimes.

Jackie had told Duffin that a date with Haven Monahan on Sept. 28, 2012, had gone terribly wrong, claiming that the upperclassman had forced her to perform oral sex on five other men. That fall night, Duffin was among a group of friends who rushed to be by Jackie's side as she cried; Duffin described her as being hysterical and appearing traumatized. Duffin said Jackie appeared not to be injured — a red dress that she had worn on the date was not disheveled or torn — and she declined to go to police or the hospital that night to report the assault.

Jackie became the central figure of a sensational 9,000-word story published two years later in Rolling Stone, describing a brutal gang rape in a campus fraternity house that allegedly occurred that same night.

But the account in Rolling Stone differed significantly from the facts she relayed to Duffin in 2012. She told Rolling Stone that the attack involved nine fraternity brothers participating in a hazing ritual. And the name Jackie later gave of her alleged attacker also did not match the Haven Monahan identity she gave to Duffin in 2012.

After these discrepancies and other inconsistencies arose in reporting by The Washington Post, Rolling Stone retracted the story in April. At least three defamation suits have been filed related to the story since, including Eramo's.

[Jackie's friends challenge Rolling Stone account of alleged sexual assault]

Court documents indicate that a crush Jackie had on Duffin freshman year was the spark for all that has happened since, that the attention-seeking events on Sept. 28, 2012 spiraled into a sensational tale that evolved, made its way into a national magazine's pages, and then took on a life of its own.

Duffin said that his friendship with Jackie began to take a turn quickly as she pursued a deeper relationship with him. Though she had only known Duffin for a few weeks, Jackie spent $350 on a birthday trip to Washington D.C. and tickets for the two of them to see the Silversun Pickups at the 9:30 Club.

Once he began exchanging text messages with "Haven Monahan," Duffin said he was struck by how the supposed U-Va. junior was infatuated with their mutual friend.

"He immediately started talking about Jackie," Duffin told The Post in 2014.

But then Duffin noticed that Haven Monahan began talking about a freshman who Jackie had a crush on.

"Get this she said she likes some other 1st year guy who dosnt like her and turned her down but she wont date me cause she likes him," Haven Monahan wrote in a text to Duffin. "She cant turn my down fro some nerd 1st yr. she said this kid is smart and funny and worth it."

Duffin's conversations with Haven Monahan continued, and according to transcripts submitted in Eramo's case, the text messages extensively detailed Jackie's unrequited feelings for Duffin.

At one point, Haven Monahan confronted Duffin about his lack of interest in dating Jackie, urging Duffin to have more sympathy for her, claiming that she had a terminal illness. Surprised by the revelation, Duffin texted Jackie, who confirmed the diagnosis.

"Ryan, it means I'm dying," she texted.

Duffin replied: "I had no idea. Do you want to talk?"

In late September 2012, Jackie announced that she had a date at the Boar's Head Inn with Haven Monahan. In an interview with The Post in 2014, Jackie said that the red dress she wore on the date — which Rolling Stone reported was later covered in her blood after the gang rape — had actually been purchased especially for the trip with Duffin to see the band in D.C.

At 10:23 p.m. on the night of the alleged rape, Jackie texted Duffin: "Just wondering. What are you doing now?"

Duffin said he was busy, but when Jackie alluded to something being amiss, he texted: "I want to know what's going on."

"Nothing is going on I promise I feel really stupid cause I ran to you and I always run to you," Jackie replied. He and two other friends then went to meet Jackie near the dorms and found her hysterically upset, making the claims about being forced to perform oral sex.

The next morning, Sept. 29, Jackie texted Ryan about the alleged assault, according to the transcript:

"Ryan you know you are my favorite person of all time and I trust you more than anything in the world. I just need time to clear my head and I will go and report it. I need to do it when I'm ready though. And right now I'm not. Right now I just need someone to hug me and give me chocolate or something and in a few hours or a few days I'll be ready"

According to archived text messages between Duffin and Jackie, the episode involving Haven Monahan appeared to pass quickly. Jackie told Duffin two days after the alleged attack that Haven Monahan had met her in person to apologize.

"I told him I forgave him for what happened friday night and then he thanked me for not reporting him which made me feel weird but the bottom line is I'm bad at being angry at other people so all I can do is forgive them," Jackie wrote to Duffin. "And in spite of everything, I still think people are really good at heart and just make bad choices but that doesn't make them bad people, right?"

But Duffin quickly grew suspicious of Haven Monahan. In a text message to Jackie, Duffin wrote: "I refuse to believe that somebody like this could actually exist."

Jackie replied: "Haha oh believe it. He's a frat boy. There are about 3000 more like him. It's guy like haven monahan who give other guys a bad reputation."

That October, Duffin finally confronted Jackie about Haven Monahan's true identity. But Jackie stood her ground and accused Duffin of calling her a liar.

"You know what Ryan, I've always trusted you and put you first and believed you over everyone," Jackie texted to Duffin. "Why would I lie about something like that?"

Jackie continued: "All I want is for you to be happy. I appreciate you and adore you more than you'll probably ever know and I'd do pretty much anything on the off-chance it'd make your life a little bit better."

But Duffin said their relationship soured and he did not talk with her again until after the Rolling Stone article was published. Once the Rolling Stone account was revealed to be erroneous in late 2014, Duffin exchanged a last series of messages with Jackie.

Duffin wrote: "So if I can just ask a question, then … Why did you tell us before the date ever happened that his name was Haven? Haven Monahan? A name that belongs to no UVA student ever? Why has the name changed since then?"

Jackie wrote back: "His last name was Monahan and he called himself Haven. His first name was John or jake or something. And he was there that night but he was a bystander. He wasn't involved. Not really."

In an interview Friday, Duffin lamented that the unfortunate episode that was an integral part of his freshman year at U-Va. became the central focus of police investigations, newspaper accounts and now lawsuits in state and federal court.

"Had any of us been contacted it never would have blown up like this," Duffin said of the Rolling Stone account. noting that he and two others who met with Jackie the night of the alleged attack were not interviewed prior to the story running. "It's weird to think that an entire portion of my life was consumed by these events that looking back looks so dumb. Given the way everything's turned out, I don't think that's the way I want to describe it, but I had a lot of naivete three years ago. It's just weird all around."


T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.

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