CHARLOTTESVILLE — During her freshman year at the University of Virginia in 1984, Liz Seccuro was gang-raped at a date party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity here.
Seccuro wrote a memoir decades later about facing her main attacker and became a prominent advocate for sexual assault awareness and speaker about violence against college women.
Beginning in July, Seccuro gave hours-long interviews to Rolling Stone writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who sought her help for an explosive magazine account that would center on an alleged 2012 gang-rape at Phi Psi, an attack that resembled the sex assault of Seccuro. After the article was published in November, Seccuro emerged as a stalwart supporter of the account when reports began to question its veracity.
In a Time magazine piece in December, Seccuro urged people not to doubt the Rolling Stone allegations just because they sounded horrific, writing: “The similarities between my experience and Jackie’s story are astounding because the culture has remained almost identical in the three decades separating our rapes.”
“I was quick to defend the fact that these things can and do happen because they happened to me,” Seccuro, 48, of Southampton, N.Y., told The Washington Post this week.
But now Seccuro no longer believes the allegations described in Rolling Stone, she told The Post. Seccuro said she changed her opinion in recent days after evidence appeared in news reports highlighting inconsistencies in the magazine’s account.
“I think it’s important, for a gang-rape survivor at U-Va. who was portrayed in this story, to say what was a red flag to me,” Seccuro said. “I became frustrated in that I felt like the work of so many other people in the article went down the toilet.”
Seccuro is the latest among a growing group of sexual assault survivors, U-Va. students and fraternity members to raise concerns about the Rolling Stone account.
In interviews with Rolling Stone and later with The Post, a U-Va. student named Jackie, who is now a junior, said she attended a date party at the Phi Psi house in 2012 and was lured to a bedroom, where seven men took turns raping her while two others watched. The Rolling Stone account alleged that the attack was part of a hazing ritual — referring to Seccuro’s rape decades earlier at the same house — an allegation that members of the fraternity vehemently denied in recent interviews as “animalistic and totally unrealistic.”
On Monday, the Charlottesville Police Department announced that detectives had cleared Phi Psi of the allegations. Stephen Scipione, the fraternity president, said Wednesday that Phi Psi had determined within 24 hours of the article’s publication online in November that the account was deeply flawed.
Rolling Stone editors have since apologized for inaccuracies in the article, and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is doing an independent review. Kathryn Brenner, a spokeswoman for the magazine, declined to comment, and Erdely did not return a message seeking comment. Palma Pustilnik, an attorney for Jackie, also declined to comment.
Seccuro said that at first, she felt confident that the Rolling Stone article would empower women to speak about their own rapes. Now, she said she’s worried that survivors will suffer because it focused on an account that has come under so much scrutiny.
“I knew this piece was going to rock the world and shake it to its core, just not in the way it ended up doing so,” Seccuro said, noting that had it not included Jackie’s account, “the story could have been just as powerful and just as meaningful.”
Seccuro said she was closely involved in Erdely’s efforts to report the article. Besides interviews, she also helped arrange for Erdely to speak with experts on college sexual assault, she said. Speaking on the phone with Erdely the night before the story’s publication online, Seccuro said, “we were so excited about it and proud of this piece.”
But when the story went live, Seccuro said, she couldn’t find the will to read it.
“I decided I was not strong enough to read the entire article,” Seccuro said. “I had no reason to read it because I knew what was going to be in there.”
When Seccuro finally sat down to read the magazine in early December, she immediately spotted red flags in the narrative, she said.
“I decided to take it apart with a fresh eye,” Seccuro said.
Armed with a highlighter and pen, Seccuro began to circle, underline and annotate in the margins. She highlighted the detail that the room where Jackie alleged she was attacked was pitch-black. She underlined a section that described how Jackie crashed through a low glass table, causing shards to cut into her back as the men raped her. In another section, Seccuro wrote in the margins: “Not possible.”
Seccuro said she scrutinized the piece based on her experience at Phi Psi on Oct. 5, 1984, the night she was attacked by a student who lived at the house — William Beebe. Shawn Collinsworth, executive director of Phi Kappa Psi’s national office, said that “Mr. Beebe has never been an initiated member of our organization.”
Details still escape her, but Seccuro said she remembers waking hours later wrapped in a bloody bedsheet.
Years later, seeking to make amends, Beebe wrote a letter to Seccuro and ultimately admitted to raping her in a series of correspondences. She then filed charges against him, and Beebe eventually served five months in prison. Two other men who allegedly attacked her have not been charged because of a lack of evidence.
In 2011, Seccuro published a book “Crash into Me,” about her rape. She told The Post that she was struck by how her own story was “similar in so many, many ways,” to Jackie’s account in Rolling Stone. Seccuro, who has spoken on the U-Va. campus about her attack, said she does not know whether Jackie’s story was influenced by her book.
“It’s been suggested to me,” Seccuro said. “It’s a horrifying thought. . . . I don’t want the attention to be on me. But there’s only been one documented gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi, and it’s mine, so do the math.”
Seccuro, who has never interacted with Jackie, said she believes that the student “suffered a trauma of some sort” and that she would like “to know the real story, whatever it may be.”
Seccuro said she is now focused on helping sexual assault survivor groups regain credibility.
“If they don’t believe even a small part of it, then they will discount the whole of it,” Seccuro said. “That’s the tragedy of it.”