The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He said it was consensual. She said she blacked out. U-Va. had to decide: Was it assault?

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

When Haley Lind was found alone in a stranger’s bathroom, she was naked and in a drunken stupor, barely able to stand or speak, a raucous party raging around her. She awoke in her bed hours later, her head pounding, leaves in her hair, soaked in her own urine.

“I think I got assaulted last night,” she texted a friend the morning after the annual welcome-back-to-school Block Party at the University of Virginia. “Something just feels very wrong.”

In a dorm room about a mile away, a freshman athlete got up that same morning with a clear memory of his first college party, just days into his U-Va. career. At an off-campus residence where athletes lived, there had been the cups of a potent liquor drink and crowds of sloshed students. An alluring, petite blonde had led him into an upstairs bathroom for sex, a rash decision that would end up haunting him.

An epic first weekend at college, he said in an interview, turned into “living with a kind of shadow following you around in whatever you do.”

For both students, the night of Aug. 22, 2015, had not gone as planned. And their brief alcohol-drenched, party-fueled interaction — not unlike so many others on the nation’s college campuses — would derail both of their lives for much of an academic year and probably beyond. To him, in that moment, it was a thrilling hookup at a party. To her — as she now sees it — it was a terrifying assault. To U-Va., it was another drunken mess with no good answers.

College sexual assault: 1 in 5 college women say they were violated

The case is emblematic of the widespread frustrations faced by students, parents and administrators as they confront a problem that has existed for decades: the caustic combination of alcohol, drugs and sex, at times exacerbated by assault and predation. It also highlights the problems the Charlottesville flagship has had with alcohol and partying.

Recent misconduct investigations on the nation’s campuses, some involving NCAA athletes, have reinvigorated a widespread discussion about college sexual assault. Allegations involving the football program at Baylor University forced the resignation of its president and the ouster of its football coach. At Yale University, the captain of the basketball team sat out the school’s historic run to the NCAA tournament because he was fighting his expulsion for an alleged sex offense.

Expelled basketball captain sues Yale, saying alleged ‘sexual misconduct’ was consensual

And at Stanford University in June, a freshman swimmer’s six-month sentence after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party elicited heated debate about the ramifications of such attacks.

‘We’re horrified’: At Stanford, the impact of a sexual assault is searing

The Washington Post reconstructed the events of the night Lind says she was sexually assaulted at U-Va. — and the turmoil that followed — through a review of internal school records, witness statements and legal documents, as well as in numerous interviews, including with Lind, the freshman athlete she accused and their attorneys. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity about the events at Block Party because U-Va. officials instructed athletes, in a mass email, not to speak with reporters. According to internal U-Va. records, one coach instructed his athletes not to discuss what happened that night: “I told the team let’s just keep this in house,” the coach told U-Va., according to a transcript of a conversation with investigators obtained by The Post. “We’re just praying that that stays lidded up.”

U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

The Post generally does not identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Lind agreed to speak on the record about her ordeal and the trauma she said she endured as she sought justice. She told The Post that by identifying herself she is lending accountability to her experience on a campus that was labeled as having a “hostile environment” for survivors of trauma and sexual violence by the U.S. Education Department last year.

“I’m tired of hiding behind it,” Lind said. “It needs to be heard and I want my version of events to be told truthfully.”

The Post also generally does not identify people accused of sexual assault unless they have been charged with a crime or have been found responsible in a disciplinary hearing. The freshman athlete spent his entire first year under the scrutiny of a rigorous internal U-Va. probe that wrapped up in May and found that he was not responsible for any violation of school policy. The U-Va. administration also notified the Charlottesville Police Department, which opened an investigation that has since been suspended; the freshman athlete has not been charged with a crime, and because the investigation has been suspended it is unlikely that he will be. He agreed to speak to The Post on the condition of anonymity.

Their ordeal provides a sobering portrait of the real-world consequences of college party culture. It exposes the challenges students face in deciphering consent while drunk and in piecing together fragmented memories. It also shows how schools are placed in an almost untenable position of trying to determine what happened and who is at fault — if anyone.

Drinking is central to college culture — and to sexual assault

U-Va. investigators Maureen Holland and Suzan Garson conducted 25 interviews and wrote a final report spanning 96 pages. One aspect of the case quickly became clear: The two students knew each other for half an hour before ending the night naked together in an upstairs bathroom.

Block Party

Block Party is an annual drinking tradition, with swarms of students converging on Wertland Street to kick off the school year. It is a massive fete that flows from house to house, and it is a particular draw for the school’s close-knit athletes and for freshmen new to campus.

Lind, 19, a scholarship sophomore volleyball player from Southern California, started the evening in her apartment, eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich for dinner and nursing a Smirnoff Ice. She then downed two shots of tequila and two shots of vodka with her teammates.

She had planned to drink that night but had spoken with a teammate about making sure they did not over-imbibe. The two students even wrote out an hour-by-hour drinking schedule that the athletes dubbed their “shot clock.”

Lind headed out to begin Block Party at a small house on Wertland sometime after 10 p.m.

The freshman athlete, too, joined friends for beer pong at the same house. There, members of the wrestling, soccer, swim, football and volleyball teams — among others — circulated, mingled, drank.

“There were, like, police vans like trying to break up the crowds,” a female athlete told U-Va. officials later. “It looked like a riot.”

A U-Va. spokesman said that Block Party is not condoned by the university, and in a statement provided to The Post, Sullivan acknowledged that “alcohol abuse, including underage drinking, is a challenge facing colleges and universities across the nation.”

From the archives: U-Va.’s entrenched fraternity culture at tipping point

The residents of the house had prepared for a chaotic night, purchasing five kegs of beer and a dozen 59-ounce “handles” of liquor for the house’s signature cocktail. They also had a four-gallon backpack sprayer that the investigators noted in their report was designed for spreading agricultural chemicals.

“It was like a mobile bartender,” one of the hosts told investigators.

One older student spent part of the evening patrolling the house.

“I wanted to make sure no one was like punching walls or you know, stealing stuff,” he told the U-Va. investigators. “I just made sure no one was puking anywhere, that no one was passed out in the front yard or anything like that.”

Amid the chaos, Lind and the freshman found each other about 11 p.m. As the freshman athlete introduced himself, another athlete walked over with the pesticide sprayer.

Both of the students opened their mouths for a squirt. Lind said the mixture flowed rapidly, ultimately dousing her white tank top. She remembers nothing more from that night, she told The Post.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about that night,” Lind said. “Imagining what could have happened, and that I will never know what happened that night, is the worst part of all.”

Lind, her friends and U-Va. investigators were left to piece together the rest in retrospect. Investigators found Lind’s description of her memory loss “credible” but also wrote that they were left to rely on the freshman athlete’s account of certain aspects of the night because he and Lind were, at times, alone.

Both were drunk

The freshman athlete said that he drank five beers and one and a half cups of the liquor drink. Lind said she had a few drinks, and witnesses differed on how she appeared at the party; one said she was “belligerent, like really, really drunk,” and another said that she was tipsy but that “it wasn’t like she was falling over or anything.”

After drinking the liquor concoction from the sprayer, Lind’s teammate left early, vomited the rest of the night and also had trouble remembering the party they had attended. Lind remained with the freshman athlete.

He told The Post that he and Lind were flirting, and he believed she was attracted to him — witnesses said they saw the two kissing, holding hands and caressing. He said Lind asked him back to her apartment, an invitation another student overheard. Instead, the freshman athlete suggested finding a room inside the house. She smiled, he told investigators, and agreed. They headed upstairs.

On the second floor, the athlete said, Lind walked into a bathroom and led him inside by the hand. They discussed using a condom, he said, and he took one out of his wallet. She unwrapped the condom and placed it on him, he said.

At one point, according to the report, the freshman athlete attempted to stop because he believed he heard someone try to enter the bathroom. He told investigators that Lind put her arm around his waist and said “keep going.”

According to the U-Va. report, an older resident of the house became aware that Lind and the freshman athlete were inside the bathroom and angrily climbed out onto a second story roof to slam on the window and get their attention. He yelled at them to break it up.

“Would you just give us a minute?” Lind said, the older resident told investigators.

How does someone give consent to sexual activity? Is it as simple as "no means no" or "yes means yes"? We asked local college students to define the word. (Video: Jayne W. Orenstein and Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Startled, the freshman grabbed his clothes and bolted for the door, leaving Lind behind.

A few minutes later, a wrestler found Lind in the bathroom, naked but for her shoes. He said she stumbled drunkenly into the bathtub, apparently hitting her head, and said she was “too drunk to, like, realize what was going on.”

“Because [Lind] has no memory she is unable to offer any facts that support or refute others’ descriptions of the events,” Holland and Garson wrote. “We note that [the freshman athlete] is the only person who described what occurred in the bathroom.”

The wrestler helped Lind get dressed. Once outside, Lind and the wrestler began walking arm in arm when they were spotted at 11:45 p.m. by a Charlottesville police officer, who noticed that Lind was “very intoxicated,” was unable to walk without assistance, and had slurred speech and a vacant look in her eyes. Lind says she had no recollection of interacting with a police officer; she was allowed to continue home to her apartment.

When she woke up in the morning, Lind sensed something amiss.

“I felt like I had been violated in some way, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said, noting that when she realized she had wet the bed she became more concerned. “That scared me because I was so unconscious I could not wake myself up to get to the bathroom.”

Lind cautiously began trying to re-create her night. She reached out to the wrestler who had found her in the bathroom, and he told her that she was “very out of it” when he found her.

Overcome with worry, Lind confided in a friend, a U-Va. football player, telling him in a text message that she believed she had been assaulted but had no idea who the person was.

“R U ok?” He replied.

“No I have no memory,” she wrote. “No I’m physically okay but I don’t feel mentally okay. Something just feels very wrong.” She wrote that she was concerned someone at the party might have drugged her.

The investigators wrote that they determined there was no evidence that the liquor drink was tainted with drugs and that there was no evidence the freshman athlete had provided Lind with any alcohol.

A surprise meeting

Desperate for answers, Lind spoke to other athletes who attended Block Party, and they arranged a meeting between her and the freshman athlete so she could confront him.

The meeting caught the freshman athlete by surprise. He was taken to an off-campus apartment shared by two older athletes on his team. Aware that the conversation would involve a sensitive topic with potentially serious consequences, two students recorded the conversation in an effort to showcase their own innocence and to protect themselves from any possible allegations of misconduct. The recording was made without the knowledge of Lind or the freshman athlete; Virginia is a “one-party consent” state, which allows people to record conversations they are in without letting others know they are doing so.

The 30-minute recording, which was part of the U-Va. investigation and was obtained by The Post, captured the freshman athlete’s recounting of the events from 48 hours before. Lind said the meeting was perhaps the most embarrassing and awkward moment of her life; she listened to details of a sexual encounter she didn’t know had happened.

“All I wanted was answers, and I thought no matter how hard it is, I still want to know what happened to me,” she said.

The freshman athlete said that he also felt uneasy talking about what had happened: “It’s not a topic you’re comfortable talking about with people I didn’t know very well.”

The meeting quickly turned to the issue of consent.

“We need to hear what, what you said to her, what she said to you from your perspective, what you can remember, all that stuff,” said an upperclassman, whom The Post is not identifying to protect the freshman athlete’s identity.

The freshman athlete replied that “nothing in my mind, at any point, do I remember her telling me to stop something.”

“So you were under the impression through this that she was on board?” an older student asked.

“Yes,” the freshman replied, before emotion entered his voice. “When I woke up in the morning I was just not okay. If it hurt you, I’m sorry.”

Lind said she was so drunk that there’s no way she could have consented to sex: “I just think I was so incoherently drunk that like, there was, like, no way that this was okay.”

A teammate who accompanied Lind to the meeting then asked the freshman if there was any sign that Lind was incoherent. The freshman athlete responded: “I mean, I was so drunk myself.”

College students remain deeply divided over what consent actually means

The older athletes then demanded that the freshman apologize.

“You need to make damn sure that she knows this is never going to happen again, that you, like, repent for what you did,” one older student said.

The freshman athlete then said that right before the surprise meeting he had attended a mandatory orientation session for all members of the Class of 2019 hosted by Allen Groves, the university’s dean of students, concerning sexual assault on campus. It had been “probably like one of the hardest things to listen to,” the freshman athlete said. “But I want you to know how sorry I am for what I did.”

“Thank you,” Lind said. “I really appreciate it.”

When the meeting ended, Lind stood up to leave. The audio recording captures the sound of the door shutting before the older students start speaking again.

“You know what? You are one lucky motherf----r, holy s---t boy,” one upperclassman said.

Another older student said: “I’d buy a f-----g lottery card if I were you.”

The freshman athlete told The Post that the meeting overwhelmed him and that he “broke down and started crying” as soon as it ended.

He said he decided to apologize partly out of pressure from the older athletes and because he believed it would help Lind find peace.

“I think that they wanted this to be resolved just as much as I did and that my apology would help her move through this,” he said. “I felt bad she was upset, but I never thought I did anything wrong to her.”

Although Lind had attended the meeting to seek closure, she left unsettled. The emotional pain lingered. Her performance on the volleyball court suffered. She found it hard to concentrate on coursework. She lost her appetite and became withdrawn.

Lind said she struggled to come to terms with what happened and the shame that she believed she’d face as she considered taking her allegations to the administration, partly fearing that she’d be seen as a traitor for implicating another student athlete.

“I would have rather just forgotten about it and moved on,” Lind said. “But it doesn’t work that way. It was more of a psychological thing that affected me over time.”

The decision was taken out of her control in mid-September, when two seniors on the volleyball team told a female assistant coach about the incident. Obligated by strict policies, the coach used an online system called “Just Report It” on Sept. 14 to notify the U-Va. administration about the alleged assault.

Later that same day, Lind met with Associate Dean Nicole Eramo, the same U-Va. administrator who had worked with the woman who told Rolling Stone magazine that she had been gang raped in an account that was later disproven.

“She is concerned about reporting this more broadly because it will be hard on her,” Eramo wrote in her notes, according to the U-Va. report. “She is also concerned about causing problems between the teams and athletes.”

On Sept. 15, the university told the Charlottesville police and the prosecutor’s office about the sexual assault allegations. On Sept. 25, the administration sent letters to Lind and the freshman athlete to inform them that the university had opened an official inquiry, which would last months.

For the freshman athlete, the wait for a decision became a time to reflect. One night, he watched a feature-length ESPN documentary on the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal, “Fantastic Lies.” The freshman athlete was mesmerized and found himself drawing comparisons to the Duke players who were alleged to have participated in the gang rape of a stripper. Eventually, the Duke lacrosse team members were exonerated.

“I thought, ‘If they can make it through that then I can make it through,’ ” he said.

Nobody wins

There is one thing about which both Lind and the freshman agree: Nobody wins.

“Since this event, I do not feel safe on Grounds and I do not feel safe for any of my friends,” Lind said, referring to the U-Va. campus. “I do not think anyone truly understands the situation that I was in that night or the long-term effects this has had on my life.”

During a hearing in the case, Lind said: “I am not the same and probably never will be the same happy positive person I used to be. It has consumed my life.”

The freshman athlete told The Post that the investigation left him drained.

“I was shocked, taken aback and really scared out of my mind to be accused of something so serious and that I knew wasn’t true,” he said.

The freshman athlete, meanwhile, saw his first year on campus derailed days after he arrived, and he quickly felt like an outcast.

“There were times I’d put my ball cap over my eyes and hope not to be noticed,” he said. “I grew wary of other people, and I kind of lost some trust in the system.”

A decision in the case came on April 13, when Holland and Garson issued their report. They wrote that even though Lind was drunk and had blacked out, she still might have been capable of providing consent.

According to U-Va.’s sexual assault policy, “incapacitation means that a person lacks the ability to make informed, rational judgments about whether or not to engage in sexual activity. A person who is incapacitated is unable, temporarily or permanently, to give Affirmative Consent because they are mentally or physically helpless, asleep, unconscious, or unaware that sexual activity is taking place.”

The policy also defines signs of incapacitation as “slurred or incomprehensible speech, unsteady gait, combativeness, emotional volatility, vomiting, or incontinence.”

Ultimately, the investigators concluded that the freshman athlete had no way to know that Lind had blacked out. Because he had just met her, and because she was capable of carrying on a conversation, walking upstairs and performing “fine motor tasks, such as unwrapping a condom,” he was unaware of her “possible incapacitation.”

In short, how was he supposed to know how drunk she was? The investigators determined that there was insufficient evidence to determine that the freshman was responsible for sexually assaulting Lind.

Mark Schamel, an attorney for the freshman athlete, commended U-Va. for what he said was “the most thorough and complete university investigation I have ever seen.”

“The investigation revealed what we knew from the beginning: My client was completely innocent and did nothing wrong,” Schamel said. “I have a great deal of respect for how my client faced these false allegations with such maturity and his cooperation with the investigation that exonerated him. U-Va. and Charlottesville law enforcement determined that my client did absolutely nothing wrong and had affirmative consent; the evidence proved that.”

Lind’s attorney, James Marsh, said he also believes U-Va. did a thorough job investigating the case, but he thought it would not be difficult to prove that Lind had been assaulted. The outcome shocked Marsh, who has handled dozens of cases during the past several years, including at U-Va. A final appeal in Lind’s case failed on May 23 before a three-member panel.

“Someone had to work very, very hard to reach a finding of no responsibility,” Marsh said. “Clearly, someone somewhere sees this case very differently from everyone else we’ve talked to. I’m at a loss to explain how U-Va. reached this decision. It just doesn’t make sense.”

The drawn-out investigation demoralized Lind, who has concerns about a process that found that someone as intoxicated as she was could give consent for sex to a total stranger. Prior to the university’s findings, Lind said she believed the freshman athlete should be held to account for what happened

“I’m not doubting myself for a second,” Lind said in December, months before U-Va. cleared the athlete. “He shouldn’t go on to live a normal life like he does now. He should have a consequence for it.”

Charlottesville Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Libby Killeen declined to comment on the possibility of charges against the freshman athlete. Charlottesville police Capt. Gary Pleasants said last week that the investigation into the matter has been “suspended,” effectively meaning that it is no longer active.

Warner “Dave” Chapman, the top prosecutor in Charlottesville, said that his office typically chooses to prosecute only “a handful” of sexual assault cases referred from U-Va. each year, largely because of a lack of evidence and because cases involving students frequently involve alcohol, which can complicate witness testimony.

“An incident affected by alcohol or other substances of abuse means the clarity of the evidence can be affected, and that can translate into, at times, a decision that a matter can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Chapman said. “That’s just the reality. If you can’t prove certain things, then you can’t bring a charge.”

See reader responses: Who should adjudicate cases of sexual assault on college campuses?

Julie Tate contributed to this report.