About that night
Aug. 11, 2006, was a sweltering Friday night in the midst of a long, fatally hot summer. A 16-year-old girl reported that she was raped that night, in a storage shed off a dirt road in my hometown of Arlington, Tex. Nobody was ever prosecuted for it, and nobody was punished except, arguably, her: By the end of the fall semester, she had disappeared from our high school, leaving only sordid rumors and a nascent urban legend.
I never saw her, the rising junior-class cheerleader who said she had been assaulted by two senior boys after a party. I only heard about her. People whispered about her in classrooms and corridors as soon as school started that year. The tension in the school was so thick that the gossip about what had taken place trickled down even to the academic decathletes and debate nerds like me, the kids who could only speculate about what happened at the parties of athletic seniors. I was a 15-year-old rising sophomore, and even I formed a notion of what had happened, or what was said to have happened.
The next day, people whispered about the word in the halls. It was an acronym, I learned, meaning “f--- Amber in the head,” or “f--- Amber in three holes,” which I awkwardly explained to my parents when they asked me one evening why so many cars around town were thus marked. The idea struck me as brutally, unspeakably ugly, and it was the ugliness that came to mind each time I saw some rear windshield dripping the word in streaky chalk at the local Jack in the Box or Sonic Drive-In. Eventually I heard the girl had recanted her allegations and then had gone away; the writing on the cars, too, went away, and the question of what had happened that night.
And then it was quiet, life was mundane, things resumed: Like an ancient society settling back to rights after a gladiatorial game or ritual sacrifice.
Yet despite the fortune of a happy life, I found it difficult, over the ensuing years, not to think about what had happened that August. I still remembered the taste of summer there, and the pregnant threat of storm clouds, among which flashes of lightning pulsed like veins of silver, and the sense that youth meant collecting inklings of things I couldn’t fully know. One of them was the impression I had gained that year, that vulnerability sometimes begets bloodlust and revulsion, even in seemingly ordinary people. Another was the sense that the damage that follows litters the underside of society, beneath the veneer of peace.
In April 2015, as a young writer, I was granted the rare opportunity to explore this notion. I was working at the New Republic magazine at the time, enjoying the warm auspices of an editor mostly content to let me pursue what I found most interesting. With his blessing, I reached out that spring to the girl whose name had appeared in acronyms and spray-painted slurs, and asked whether she was interested in talking to me about 2006.
Her name was Amber Wyatt, and she was.
On and off over the next three years, I reviewed police documents, interviewed witnesses and experts, and made several pilgrimages home to Texas to try to understand what exactly happened to Wyatt — not just on that night, but in the days and months and years that followed. Making sense of her ordeal meant tracing a web of failures, lies, abdications and predations, at the center of which was a node of power that, though anonymous and dispersed, was nonetheless tilted firmly against a young, vulnerable girl. Journalists, activists and advocates began to uncover that very same imbalance of power from Hollywood to Capitol Hill in the final year of this reporting, in an explosion of reporting and analysis we’ve come to call the #MeToo Movement. But the rot was always there — even in smaller and less remarkable places, where power takes mundane, suburban shapes.
There were personal reasons, too, for my investigation. I wanted to understand why it had to be as bad as it was — why she wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business, something I had meant to do but hadn’t. I wanted to look directly at the dark things that are revealed when episodes of brutality unfold and all pretense of civilization temporarily fades, and I wanted to understand them completely.
Otherwise, I thought, they could at any time pull me under. And I could watch mutely while something like this happened again.
East Texas is pine woods: subtropical growth, spindly trees rising out of green creeks as forest shades into bayou, the smell of drifting water. West Texas is arid, miles of prairie and stretches of red desert, with pale dunes rising just before you hit New Mexico. Arlington, population of roughly 367,000 in 2006, sits between Dallas to the east and Fort Worth to the west, suspended between Deep South and Wild West. Its current slogan is “The American Dream City,” and it’s true: a dream of anywhere in America, with suburban sprawl and yellow grass along the interstates and big-box stores.
That year, the “Friday Night Lights” television series premiered, putting the romance of Texas high school football in soft focus. There are towns in Texas where the whole city turns out for Friday night football games, but Arlington isn’t one of them, and James Martin High School wasn’t a football school.
Still, on the afternoon of Aug. 11, the Martin football crowd celebrated “War Party” — a kind of catered pep rally meant to kick off the football season before the start of school. For the kids, though, the main attraction was the after-party.
That night Wyatt was buoyant, thrilled and on the young side for the night’s crowd, mostly juniors and seniors. She had a natural beauty, golden-skinned with long, dark hair. She had always been athletic and happiest on teams, playing soccer and participating in competitive cheerleading. She was wildly sociable, with A’s and B’s in school and an overwhelming urge to be liked. She was earthy and indelicate, not remotely shy; friends came easily, and she leaned on their approval. Arlington cheerleaders were, by many accounts, a hard-partying crowd, and Wyatt partied with the hardest of them, drinking with her friends and occasionally indulging in drugs such as Xanax and marijuana.
“I partied a lot. I’m not going to lie,” Wyatt recalled in a 2015 interview. “I was 16, I wanted to be that popular girl, I wanted everyone to like me, I wanted to be social, I wanted to know everyone. And I wanted to be one of the cool kids. . . . And I found that in partying.”
Music blared by the pool that night. Wyatt would recount to police later that her friend Trey gave her a water bottle full of lemonade and whiskey; and her friend Hannah shared a few gulps of her red wine; and her friend Erin shared her Smirnoff and her friend Kyle shared his beer. She was feeling good, light and free — her mom had given her permission to spend the night at the party house, which meant she didn’t have to worry about driving home in her condition. The party wore on, and since Wyatt hadn’t brought a bathing suit, friends playfully tossed her in the pool fully clothed. When she got in the front cab of a classmate’s truck sometime after 11, her clothes were still wet.
The two boys driving her didn’t seem to mind. Both were 17 and seniors — a well-to-do, stocky football player and an outgoing soccer player with wide, dark eyes and curly black hair. Wyatt had met them only in passing before; she recalls that they told her they were going to get food, then return. The three of them chatted and listened to rap while they drove, and by this point Wyatt was feeling drunk. They had their pick of fast-food joints; the house was practically flanked by a pair of Jack in the Box locations, and a Wendy’s and a Whataburger weren’t far off. They passed a Pizza Hut and a McDonald’s en route to what turned out to be their actual destination, a storage shed on the rear of a friend’s property.
Later, the soccer player would tell his friends that Wyatt had said she needed to urinate, so they had pulled over into the dark woods to let her relieve herself on the ground, at which point she had fallen and scraped her elbow.
Wyatt’s account is far darker. As she told police at the time, and recounted to me, the boys told her they wanted to pick up some more beer when they pulled up outside a friend’s shed, hidden off a back road in tangled trees and undergrowth. Crime-scene photos would later show that a pair of doors fixed with a slide bolt opened to a cavernously dark space filled with the odds and ends of family life — sacked-up Christmas decorations, stacks of old photos, spare furniture and a series of buck heads mounted on opposite walls. A wooden ladder led to a loft with dirty pillows and blankets piled on the plywood. Wyatt slipped and fell on her climb up to the loft — that part, she would always remember. The beer stash wasn’t there.
Once Wyatt reached the loft, she recalled, the football player instructed her to remove her clothes. She was incredulous at first, assuming it was a joke. “What did you say?” a detective asked her in an hour-long interview five days later. “No,” the 16-year-old answered with a scoff. When the boy persisted, she took a step in retreat, but tripped and fell backward, bloodying her elbow. Wyatt remembered saying “stop,” and then the same boy tugging off her “skort” (an athletic skirt-and-shorts combo used in cheerleading) and panties, moving over her and penetrating her. “I was just like, ‘Stop, please. Stop,’ ” Wyatt told the detective.
The boy on top of her rolled to his back, pulling Wyatt with him, though she struggled; it was then that the other boy approached. He forced his penis into her anus, Wyatt told the detective, while the other boy was still raping her vaginally. Moments passed like that, with Wyatt frozen in shock, staring into darkness. “My body was there,” Wyatt told me in 2015, but “my mind was . . . somewhere completely different. And I just remember praying a lot and not taking in my surroundings. It was more like, I want to get out of my surroundings and out of myself.” When she mustered the ability to fight back again, she said, she was able to push the boy behind her away, roll off the other and then scramble against a wall.
Wyatt couldn’t immediately recall, in her conversation with police, if either boy had ejaculated; all she knew was that the football player told her to perform oral sex on them afterward, saying they hadn’t finished. But she refused and snatched a few pieces of clothing from the floor, then managed to climb down unsteadily from the loft. She had hastily redressed in just her skort and top, because she was unable to locate her sports bra or panties. She fell again as she staggered back to the truck, but she made it, and the boys followed. There was darkness and silence on the ride back, and the glow of blue lights from the truck’s dashboard. Back at the house, Wyatt stumbled out of the same pickup she had left in less than an hour before.
There were a few partygoers still gathered in the driveway. Wyatt approached them immediately. According to her account and that of one of the classmates present, Wyatt told an adult and two classmates right then and there what happened. And she reported her rape to police the next day, when she underwent a sexual assault exam at the hospital. Police were at the shed taking crime-scene photos in less than 24 hours — so quickly, in fact, that Wyatt’s sports bra and panties were still damp on the floor.
Forces of habit
The story of Amber Wyatt’s assault begins in some sense a decade earlier, with another assault — and another failure of irresponsible adults and their children to face consequences. In 1996, another 16-year-old Arlington girl was allegedly sexually assaulted at another high school party, and another opportunity to prosecute those responsible was ignored. And, with that, another moment of clarity that could have turned toward reform instead degenerated into a rally for the guilty.
On Sept. 13, 1996, a 16-year-old junior at Arlington High School was allegedly sexually assaulted at a party while she was drunk. According to contemporaneous news reports, she alleged that dozens of her peers stood by as others assaulted her with a condom-topped broomstick, exposed their genitals and urinated on her. The girl was hospitalized, but no sexual assault charges were filed against her assailants. The town helped see to that.
Police interviewed some 35 students after the incident; none supported the girl’s allegations. Coupled with the victim’s broken memory, this meant police were never able to bring any perpetrator to justice for the sexual assault. Instead, police issued simple assault and disorderly conduct citations to a smattering of teens who had been at the party, a light reprimand given the circumstances. Nonetheless, some parents resented even those meager reprisals.
The parents’ objections might have remained at the muted level of privileged suburbanites grousing over traffic tickets had it not been for Lynn Hale, then superintendent of the Arlington Independent School District, who took it upon herself to try to prevent another such episode.
Less than two weeks after the girl’s report, Hale told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News that she wasn’t convinced the district was “implementing the appropriate consequences . . . for students who drink.” And she followed through, instituting a district-wide policy under which any student caught at a location where alcohol or drugs were being used would be banned from extracurricular activities for the entire school year, regardless of whether police cited them for use.
Parents revolted. Seven families of students affected by the policy filed suit, and in January 1997, a local judge invited them to debate the policy with members of the school board. After meeting with the students and their parents and considering the arguments of the school board and its attorney, the judge, saying he was speaking “as a parent,” thanked Hale for her attempt to do something — anything — about the problem. And then the judge effectively overturned Hale’s policy, reinstating some 20 students to their extracurricular activities.
Hale didn’t remain in her post much longer to see what would become of the phenomenon she had observed and tried to halt. By the summer of 1998, she had already been replaced as superintendent by Mac Bernd, who eased the anti-drinking policy to include a penalty of just six weeks for first-time offenders. “I have a somewhat jaundiced view of how much control we do have over teenagers,” Bernd, several years retired, told me in 2015 in an Arlington restaurant lined with framed drawings of Texas college and high school mascots. He wanted to preserve, Bernd said, “an opportunity for redemption.”
It’s impossible to know whether Hale’s tougher policy would have given pause to anyone present at the 2006 party that Wyatt attended. For a deterrent to be effective, consequences must seem real. And it’s easy to see how, with Hale’s rule a vanquished memory and the case that sparked it an item of urban legend, a pair of Arlington teenagers with ample opportunity and bad intentions might have reasonably concluded no harm would come to them should they wantonly violate rules, policies or people. They would have been exactly right.
And so it came to pass that August evening that Martin senior Arthur Aven stood in a suburban driveway facing a decision too momentous for his years: Believe the girl who had pulled him aside to tell him that she had just been sexually assaulted — or believe one of her alleged assailants, who was among his closest friends.
About 45 minutes earlier, by Aven’s recollection, homeowner Cindy Marks had asked him to take Wyatt home. (Marks would later explain to police that unnamed kids had asked her to make Wyatt leave, because Wyatt was being, in her words, “obnoxious.”) But Aven didn’t have his car; he had planned to spend the night with the soccer player and was counting on him for a ride. And so the soccer player had volunteered to take Wyatt home, along with the football player, then circle back and pick up Aven.
Perhaps Aven was relieved. He told police that Wyatt had been hanging on him all night, flirting with him in the pool, loudly declaring to no one in particular that she was “gonna f--- this guy tonight.” But he wasn’t interested; he just wanted to enjoy the party. With the two boys and Wyatt on their way home, it had seemed as if the night was winding down.
But then the soccer player returned to the Marks residence with Wyatt — and she immediately took Aven aside, sobbing hysterically, brandishing a bleeding wound on her arm and telling him that she had just been raped.
“It was hard for me to really believe anything at the time,” Aven told me, sitting in a Fort Worth Starbucks this April. His short-cropped blond hair swept up from his forehead in a stubborn cowlick, just as it had in his varsity basketball yearbook photo back in 2006. In school, he had been well liked and quietly bright. He had been close with the soccer player at the time, and they remained friendly enough years later that the soccer player was part of Aven’s wedding party. But Aven still seemed deeply troubled, both in 2006 and when I spoke to him, by what had happened that night.
Wyatt was disoriented and confused, Aven recalled in his statement. She even misidentified one of the two boys she said assaulted her — the football player — instead naming a third boy who had been at the party as one of the perpetrators. But according to Marks, the football player had come back with the soccer player and Wyatt, and then left in his own truck. And those were the two boys Wyatt would tell the police had raped her: the ones who had been with her in the truck.
In his statement, Aven recalled standing in a nearby hallway with Bowers, Marks and his friend, discussing what had happened. The friend seemed surprised by Wyatt’s accusation, Aven said, and offered a competing version of events: On the way to Wyatt’s house, she said that she needed to urinate. Rather than stopping at a local fast-food joint or gas station, the boys figured it would be best to pull over behind a friend’s storage shed and let Wyatt pee on the ground. She fell down as she got out of the truck, Aven recalled his friend saying, which was how she had come by the bloody abrasion on her arm.
Somewhere near the close of this narration, Wyatt appeared in the door of the guest room, “too afraid to be alone,” Aven wrote. She asked whether Aven would stay with her until she fell asleep, and he agreed. Aven went into Marks’s guest room with Wyatt, helped her into bed and did his best to comfort her. He pulled out a trundle bed alongside her and lay down facing her. Wyatt recalled in her interview with police that Marks appeared at some point and gave her boxers and a T-shirt to sleep in, which she changed into. With Aven at her side, Wyatt eventually fell asleep.
The next day, Aven woke up alone. Wyatt was gone, the party was long over, and the nightmarish evening had given way to an ordinary summer morning in suburbia. And the boy who had been trusted with the markedly adult task of comforting a terrified, injured girl now called his father to come pick him up from the Marks home.
When police arrived there a day and a half later, after Wyatt filed a complaint, they found Cindy Marks polite and respectful while they gathered the bedding Wyatt had slept on and searched for any additional clothes she may have left behind. But when Marks made her sworn statement several weeks later — after canceling her initial appointment with police — the story she supplied differed vastly from the version of events Aven and Wyatt had related.
“At approx 11:30 pm I was shutting down the party,” she wrote. “The kids told me Amber was being obnoxious and to get her to leave. I asked [the soccer player] to take her home. He agreed and left. At approx 20-60 minutes [the soccer player] arrived back at the house.”
Marks’s answers appear curated to emphasize her lack of culpability in the underage drinking that had transpired in her backyard. She claimed she didn’t believe Wyatt to be under the influence of alcohol. “I didn’t feel like she was drunk because I didn’t know they were drinking,” she said. “I figured she was on drugs, because I’ve also heard that her stomach has been pumped for drugs.” (Wyatt says that her stomach had never been pumped after drug use as a teen.) Yet Aven and Wyatt each admitted to having been drinking at the Marks party, and the school’s investigation would later conclude there had certainly been alcohol consumption in Marks’s backyard that night.
Even more striking, Marks also denied ever hearing anything about a rape that night, from Wyatt, Aven or anyone else. “You know, I just felt like she needed to go to sleep,” was her final analysis of Wyatt’s condition in her interview with police. Reached by phone in the summer of 2015, Marks declined to comment for this article. She also has not responded to many other recent attempts I’ve made, including over this summer, to get her side of the story.
In her video interview, Marks mocked how Wyatt had spoken that night, heavy and slow. The main fact about Wyatt circulating among the cheerleading moms, Marks said, “was that she does quad bars,” a street name for the prescription drug Xanax. She claimed that Amber had stolen her daughter’s sunglasses a year or more ago, though another student had returned them. She told the detective the alleged rapists were “good boys,” emphasized Wyatt’s “horrible reputation” for drug and alcohol use, and said she found it “odd” that Wyatt’s mother never called to ask what had happened, as if that had been the greatest abdication of responsibility to take place during that long night.
Writing on the walls
Wyatt’s mother, Lisa Wyatt, knew something was wrong when her daughter parked her car in front of their home early that morning. For one thing, her daughter hadn’t slept late, as Lisa Wyatt had expected. And she was acting strangely. “And finally, I’m like, what is going on with you?” Lisa Wyatt recalled when we spoke this year. “And she just blurted it out. I mean, she just said, ‘I got raped last night.’ ”
By a little after noon, Amber Wyatt and her mother were at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where Wyatt awaited a sexual assault exam. She began the process of reporting her assault to the police, who met the pair at the hospital. Once on the scene, Officer Pamela Halferty observed Wyatt to have visible bodily injuries and found her to be “sporadically tearful in increasing intensity” as she recounted the events of the preceding night. In the waiting room prior to her exam, Wyatt also received a disturbing call on her cellphone: the football player, angrily demanding to know why she was saying he had raped her. (“Because you did,” Wyatt told police she replied.)
Nurse Della Schiavo provided sexual assault exams at Arlington Memorial Hospital for more than 10 years and was on call the day Wyatt arrived. Schiavo conducted Wyatt’s exam and took detailed notes, sketching her injuries on annotated diagrams while Wyatt laid on an exam table with her feet in stirrups. Schiavo noted that Wyatt had abrasions to her elbow, both ankles, and buttocks, along with a scratch on her inner thigh. She also recorded vaginal and anal tearing, along with redness and abrasions.
“The examination that I did was consistent with what [Wyatt] said,” Schiavo told me when I contacted her this May to discuss her finding. “That girl was raped.” As I read her exam notes aloud to her over the phone, Schiavo began to fill in details on her own. She remembered Wyatt’s case all these years later, right down to the fact that she was never called to court to testify about it.
Schiavo took a total of 12 swabs and smears from Wyatt’s genitals, and swabbed her saliva twice. She also collected urine for a toxicological analysis. Even though Schiavo collected Wyatt’s urine sample more than 12 hours after the estimated time of her assault, there was still a small amount of alcohol in her system, along with evidence of cannabis and prescription sedatives. Wyatt told police she hadn’t ingested any of those drugs that day but that she had earlier in the week.
Bruce Goldberger is chief of forensic medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, where he has practiced forensic toxicology for nearly 25 years and provided expert testimony in hundreds of court cases. I read Wyatt’s toxicology report to him and asked what could be gleaned from it. “Barring a [urinary tract infection] or other confounding factor,” Goldberger said, “the concentration of alcohol in the urine supports a blood-alcohol concentration earlier in the day that would be sufficient to impair.”
In other words, Wyatt was arguably too drunk, under Texas law, to be able to legally consent to sexual activity. At trial, prosecutors would have had to prove both that Wyatt was too intoxicated to properly assess the situation and render consent, and that the boys knew Wyatt was in such a state. And given that multiple people, by Aven and Marks’s accounts, had commented on how intoxicated Wyatt seemed at the party, and that Marks herself had deemed Wyatt too affected to drive, it seems they would have had ample reason to consider her thoroughly inebriated.
Goldberger also pointed out that the injuries to Wyatt’s genitals suggest that what occurred wasn’t consensual. “Trauma to the genitals can be used as a sign of sexual assault, particularly in the case where the victim is impaired,” Goldberger explained; when a victim is heavily intoxicated, “there’s no possibility of the physiological response that facilitates intercourse.” Jamye Coffman, medical director of the Child Advocacy Resources and Evaluation Team at Cook Children’s hospital in Fort Worth, agreed that Wyatt’s injuries were consistent with her story, though not necessarily diagnostic, as is common in sexual assault cases. “I tell all our victims,” Coffman told me this August, “Don’t count on the legal system to give you your closure.”
While Wyatt was examined, Arlington police officers set out to gather evidence. Some went to the shed, where they found her black sports bra on the particleboard floor of the upper loft, and her panties on the concrete below. Others went to Marks’s house, where they searched for the T-shirt and skort she had worn the night before; all she had worn home were the boxers and T-shirt she said Marks had given her to sleep in. Police recovered the sheets Wyatt had slept on in Marks’s guest bedroom, as well as two T-shirts that matched the description of Wyatt’s — from Marks’s washing machine. (“I find that very strange,” Lisa Wyatt, Amber’s mother, told me in an interview this May. “If one of my daughter’s friends was here in the same situation, am I going to wash the child’s clothes? Nope.”) Wyatt’s skort, as far as police evidence records reflect, was never found.
With her body searched, swabbed and documented and her urine sample sent off for analysis, the next task for Wyatt was to give a thorough recounting of her assault to Ricardo “Rico” Lucero, a detective in the Arlington Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit. Lucero, an earnest and serious investigator, questioned Wyatt about the night’s events as conscientiously as possible. But their interview, which lasted more than an hour, was grueling nonetheless.
For Wyatt, some memories were clearer than others. She could remember the ladder to the loft inside the storage shed, and the guest room she had slept in after it was all over. She knew she had never found her sports bra or panties; police would later ask her to identify them, having recovered them from the shed.
Throughout her interview, Wyatt seemed stunned still, dazed. “I was just laying there,” she said at one point, trying to account for why she didn’t struggle harder than she had. “I just felt like there was nothing I can do.”
By Aug. 18, Lucero received a memo from the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office confirming that Wyatt’s vaginal and anal swabs had both been positive for “acid phosphatase and spermatozoa, which confirm the presence of semen.” (Coffman speculated that semen could have migrated during the several hours between Wyatt’s alleged assault and the exam.) On Sept. 28, a judge signed bodily fluid search warrants for both boys’ saliva; Lucero took the swabs himself that afternoon.
It wasn’t until November that the lab returned a report comparing the boys’ swabs with the samples taken as part of Wyatt’s rape kit. It showed the semen was a match for the soccer player.
And that was the paradox of the episode. The rumor — at least initially, and certainly in the soccer player’s initial account to Aven — wasn’t that Wyatt consented to sex with the two boys, but that they never had sex at all. Yet the tone of murmurs around the school indicated that students believed the exact opposite: that Wyatt, perhaps intoxicated, had agreed to sex and then regretted it, and that, in accusing the boys of rape, caused trouble not only for herself but also for her classmates at Martin. Aven, in his statement to police, said he thought, despite the soccer player’s denials, that some consensual sexual encounter took place in the shed that night. Meanwhile, at the school, an internal investigation quickly began into students’ alcohol use, which resulted in athletes from four different sports being removed from their extracurricular activities for six weeks.
Kids hurled insults at Wyatt in the halls and casually chatted about the news in class. Many of her former friends would no longer associate with her. Wyatt says she received threats and slurs by text messages, people telling her to kill herself, saying she got what was coming to her. Wyatt’s friendships with her former cheerleading pals grew brittle and strained. “Maybe it was me,” she speculated in 2015. “I mean, I totally changed.”
One night in September, text and MySpace messages began circulating among Martin teens who wanted to show support for the accused by writing “FAITH” on their cars. The lurid acronym — “f--- Amber in the head” — began appearing on rear windows the following morning, metastasizing as quickly as the rumors had. Even Arthur Aven wrote “FAITH” on his car.
On Sept. 29, a Friday morning, spray-painted graffiti appeared on Martin’s exterior wall. It read something like, “Amber is a Whore”; the exact verbiage has been lost to time. Contemporaneous news reports didn’t record the vulgar wording, and Wyatt’s father, Mark Wyatt, who spoke with school authorities about it that morning, didn’t commit it to memory. By the time I saw the wall that day, heading inside from health class in a temporary building behind the school, custodians had already covered it with butcher paper. District officials issued a $1,000 reward for information about who was responsible, but the money was never claimed, and the culprits were never punished.
The graffiti infuriated Laura Jones, Martin’s principal at the time. She took to the morning announcements, broadcast by loudspeaker throughout the entire school, and pleaded with students to consider how their actions reflected on them and affected others. “But they all laughed” at the announcement, Juliann Warner, a Martin teacher for some 20 years, recalled to me in a May interview. “Even at the end of the year, they were just always making fun of that thing.”
For Pam Millican, the mother of two Martin cheerleaders, Wyatt’s case became an eerie and unsettling cautionary tale. “What really ticked me off is the herd mentality of everybody,” Millican said in an interview this April, “of the cheerleaders and football players and all those queen bees and wannabes who basically sided with the football players and said that, oh, she wanted it, and it was consensual.”
Elsewhere in Arlington, Sharon Kale, the mother of Wyatt’s friend Liz Gebhardt, argued with one of her employees, who suspected Wyatt had lied. “And I just said, ‘But I know Amber, and why would she say something like that and go through the whole examination and all of that?’ ” Kale recalled in a 2015 interview. By then, adults had joined in on the rumor-spreading and ostracizing. Lisa Wyatt, Wyatt’s mother, found herself cast out of the small group of cheerleading moms she had dined and spent time with since Amber Wyatt was in junior high.
Wyatt, meanwhile, was moved to an alternative education campus after the graffiti incident, where she would stay for the remainder of the school year, an exile in her own city. The febrile climate that had consumed Martin since school began gradually cooled. But the criminal investigation was still ongoing. It was up to the criminal-justice system to do its work, or not.
Prey among prey
Former sergeant Cheryl Johnson of the Fort Worth Police Department started counting around 2007, the year that Wyatt’s father said her case went before a Tarrant County grand jury. As head of Fort Worth’s adult sex crimes unit, she was sending dozens of rape cases to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office to be presented to the county’s grand jury. But again and again, the grand jury had “no-billed” her cases, deciding not to indict — even when they seemed open and shut to Johnson.
“We had cases where there were photographs and confessions from the suspects that were no-billed,” Johnson told me in 2015 in the tidy living room of her Fort Worth home. One case in particular stuck with her: A man admitted to giving a woman drugs that would render her unconscious — and then raping her after she had passed out and photographing the act. The victim was sent the photographs of her own rape, which she turned over to police. Still, the grand jury decided not to indict.
To this day, different stakeholders have different theories about the cause of the discrepancy — and some dispute whether it even existed.
Johnson cited prosecutors’ failure to call detectives to testify before grand juries as a matter of routine procedure, pointing out that, sometimes, assistant district attorneys’ presentations of these complicated cases to grand jurors took only a few minutes.
Former Tarrant prosecutors pointed to the grand jurors themselves, who, before 2015, were appointed on a non-random basis labeled the “pick-a-pal” system by critics. Tarrant’s large volume of cases demanded that grand jurors sometimes meet several times a week, meaning that those selected to serve often fit a particular profile: older, retired, male and perhaps, as Fort Worth defense attorney and former prosecutor Leticia Martinez told me, more willing to believe that “oh, these young people today . . . they’ll do anything.”
Then there was the matter of the district attorneys, and whether they took allegations of acquaintance rape seriously.
Tim Curry, the district attorney at the time of Wyatt’s case, died in 2009. But when Madigan’s investigation was published, during then-District Attorney Joe Shannon Jr.’s tenure, Shannon penned an op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram disputing Madigan’s report on the problem. When I spoke with him this year, Shannon still insisted that, with “this consensual rape stuff,” victims frequently elected not to participate in prosecutions after their initial reports, accounting for Tarrant’s high number of no-bills. “I’m not going to try to prosecute somebody knowing full well that I can’t prove it,” he said.
After Madigan’s exposé, a new district attorney, Sharen Wilson, won the office in Tarrant County. Despite repeated requests for an interview, Wilson never agreed to speak with me for this article. But she offered a statement through a spokeswoman which seemed to suggest that, under her administration, whatever had gone awry in past eras has been set right now: “Since DA Wilson implemented changes upon taking office,” the statement read, “the indictment rate for sexual assaults in Tarrant County has dramatically increased, from 60.92% in 2015 to 81.25% in 2017.”
In Wyatt’s case, it isn’t exactly clear what happened. But signs of the troubled system Johnson detected and Madigan exposed emerge. Detective Lucero confirmed to me that he was not called to testify to a grand jury in Wyatt’s case. Wyatt herself was willing to testify before a grand jury but was never called.
And, despite the soccer player’s semen found in Wyatt’s body and the injuries she sustained, neither of the boys were questioned by police. When I asked Lucero how he felt reading over Wyatt’s case file in 2015 and reflecting on the non-indictment, his mind immediately went to the fact that he was never able to speak with either boy. “Speaking to the perpetrator, the suspect, it’s huge,” he said, “and it can make or break a case.” But aside from presenting the boys for DNA swabs when subpoenaed, Lucero said, the boys’ attorneys did not make their clients available for questioning. When Lucero communicated with the boys’ attorneys, they refused even to answer whether their clients argued that any sexual encounter had been consensual. I attempted to contact both boys by telephone, email and mail and through family for this article; though a friend of the soccer player reported he knew I was trying to get in touch, neither of them returned my messages seeking contact.
Why did the district attorney’s office not pursue the case? Alicia Cooper, the assistant district attorney who handled Wyatt’s case, declined repeated requests by telephone, email and letter to comment for this article.
No doubt, it would have posed a challenge for prosecutors. “I know the DA’s office would’ve been faced with an uphill battle at trial,” Malcolm Bales, a retired former U.S. attorney for Texas’s Eastern District, which borders Tarrant, told me. Defense lawyers, he said, “would seize on her intoxication, her inability to clearly recall things.” But Bales was still surprised that Tarrant’s prosecutors hadn’t managed to so much as indict anyone involved. “If it had been me, I definitely would have prosecuted [the soccer player] with the physical evidence,” Bales said, “and I would have gone to trial. With some cases, it’s hard — they’re hard to prosecute. But you prosecute them for the victims, for accountability and for the State of Texas.”
But that wasn’t how it played out. Wyatt’s father, Mark Wyatt, remembered receiving a call that he believes came from Cooper in February 2007, advising him that there would be no legal consequences for the two boys Wyatt had accused of the rape. “I got a call . . . that they’ve chosen not to indict because it was a ‘he said, she said’ thing,” he said. Mark Wyatt was furious, disconsolate.
Because the case never went to trial, rumors that Amber Wyatt had either recanted or dropped charges blossomed, bolstering the notion that she had invented the entire thing. Mark Wyatt still believes that if his daughter’s case had gone to trial, the years of suffering that followed for her— the spiral of drug abuse and addiction — would not have been so severe. “Even if it had gone to trial and they would have found them not guilty, at least they would have been on trial for it,” he said. “I would hope that she would have been able to put this behind her much sooner.”
Amber Wyatt had used drugs before 2006, and, once the rumors spread, those with knowledge of Wyatt’s drug use seemed to view her reputation as a reason to doubt her version of events. But Deborah Caddy, director of rape crisis and victim services at the Women’s Center of Tarrant County, suggested a different kind of relationship between victimization and drug abuse.
Stranger rapists — the kind of attackers who victimize people they don’t know — hunt for victims who exude vulnerability, Caddy said. Acquaintance rapists exhibit similar behaviors, Caddy pointed out, scanning their social milieus for people who are in some way incapacitated, available for the taking: people whom nobody will believe, people who can’t fight back.
It’s like hunting, in other words. The whole thing was something like a hunt, and Wyatt was easy prey.
In the crime-scene photographs taken inside the shed where Wyatt said she was assaulted, you can count the buck heads — 12 mounted neatly on the first floor, another half dozen strewn on the ground of the loft, antlers tangled like bramble, eyes wide and staring. Wyatt’s panties are there, too, on the concrete under the empty watch of the beheaded deer. How blunt it seems, overstated almost— prey among prey.
Many a treatise on brutality has taken deer as its subject, because the pleasure derived from killing them is so disturbing in light of their docile grace. Montaigne laments the dying cries of a wounded hart in his essay on cruelty; so does William Wordsworth in his poem “Hart-Leap Well.” Both Montaigne and Wordsworth meditate on the deer’s last stagger, the long prelude to death, the moment when the light leaves its eyes.
Wyatt had eyes like that: thick-lashed, wide and dark, dimmed to vacancy at times by drugs and alcohol. She was beautiful, and she was vulnerable. And everyone knew it.
Indeed, Wyatt’s case remains a dark reminder that vulnerability to predation occurs on more than one axis. Wyatt was young. But she was also someone who struggled with drug and alcohol use, and someone her peers understood to be working-class. For the assault itself, and for everything that followed, she was easy to discount.
It’s obvious that vulnerability will elicit viciousness from predators. But then there are the rest of us — the cast of Arlingtonians beginning with midnight partygoers and ending with high school rumor-listeners who, with honorable exception, ridiculed Wyatt at worst and ignored her at best. Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Or they make you feel helpless, just by dint of how little you can do to stop what’s being done to them. The temptation in that case is to look away, let it all be someone else’s problem, or deny that there’s a problem in need of resolution in the first place.
As I reported on her story over the course of three years, Wyatt was alternately patient and frustrated. She wondered, in a series of private Facebook messages to me, whether this article would ever be published, and whether revisiting that period in her life was worth the emotional cost. It was, she told me last year, “a wound that has been reopened.”
Sometimes I replied; sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t know whether the article would ever be published, either. But I didn’t want to be the last person to look away.