Get the best stories to your readers as they happen. The Washington Post News Service streams breaking news, enterprise and features with photos, graphics and video directly to you.

In western Afghanistan, villagers are fleeing not just war but drought

By Pamela Constable
In western Afghanistan, villagers are fleeing not just war but drought
Makeshift tents cover a barren hillside outside Qala-e Nau, Afghanistan, erected by farming families fleeing drought and conflict in western Badghis province. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Pamela Constable

QALA-E NAU, Afghanistan - Between a sandy cliff and a cracked riverbed on the edge of this small provincial capital, 380 families are camped in a cluster of hand-sewn, sun-bleached tents, waiting for rain and peace to let them return to their ancestral villages. But across drought-stricken, war-torn Badghis province in far western Afghanistan, the wait will not end soon.

One of the camp occupants is Reza Gul, a widow in her early 30s with four young children. Three months ago, with little food left and Taliban fighters harassing security posts near their village, she abandoned her only valuable possessions - a pair of donkeys - and fled in a rented truck. Now the family shares a tiny tent, where Gul shells pistachios all day with a small hammer, a chore for which local merchants pay about 50 cents a day.

"It is hard here, but it is harder at home. I can't go back," said Gul, who supported her family by harvesting wheat and melons after her husband died of cancer. "When the river dried up, we used wells, but now they are dried up, too. The fighting goes on and on, and we are caught in the middle. Winter is coming soon, and this is the only shelter we have."

Gul is among 120,000 people in Badghis who have sought refuge here in the past several months, according to a new report from the U.N. humanitarian agency for Afghanistan, nearly doubling the number of drought-displaced people in the far western part of the country to some 250,000.

Chronic drought, the result of a severe lack of rain and snowfall in many recent years, has now spread to 20 of the country's 34 provinces, where nearly 15 million people depend on agriculture.

This year, aid officials said, nearly 45 percent of Afghans are facing food shortages due to drought and other factors, a sharp increase from 33 percent last year. Close to a half-million have been receiving emergency food aid since July, and officials plan to assist at least 1.4 million as winter approaches. The worst-hit areas are five northwestern provinces, where more than 300,000 people received extra food aid last month, and conditions in Badghis are especially desperate.

"This is the epicenter of food insecurity and drought," Zlatan Milisic, country director for the World Food Program, said during a recent visit to the camps outside Qala-e Nau, where the agency is providing wheat flour, cooking oil and other food staples. He noted that poor farmers in this desolate region of low brown hills depend almost exclusively on rain to irrigate their crops. Last winter, aid officials reported, precipitation was so low in Badghis that the wheat harvest this spring fell by 60 percent.

Aid officials hope to persuade some of the displaced families to return to their villages by offering to send extra aid there. They worry that the newcomers will overwhelm towns with no facilities for them and become too dependent on donations at a time of dwindling foreign support.

"Morally, we can't stop aiding them" in the urban camps, Milisic said. But he stressed that with similar help at home, they have a much better chance of recovering.

In one of several tent colonies perched on the hillside fringes of Qala-e Nau, conditions last week seemed precarious indeed. Tents made of torn blankets and canvas were tied to poles and weighted down with rocks. They were tightly packed on the hard ground, some just inches apart, with nothing inside but sleeping mats and cooking utensils. There were no sanitation facilities except a few latrines. Camp leaders said between 1,500 and 2,000 displaced people were living there.

Children swarmed everywhere, with little to do but carry plastic jugs from a visiting water tank truck. New mothers swung infants in flour-sack cradles. Food and medical aid seemed adequate, and no one complained of hunger or pain. People who spoke with a visiting reporter said they missed their villages but no longer felt they would be safe or able to survive there.

"We have lost or sold everything - our land, our crops. The Taliban are there. We are better off sitting here," said an ailing man in his 60s who gave his name as Yagin. Asked whether extra aid would induce him to go home, he shrugged.

"If it is for a short time, there will be nothing again the next day. We need help until the harvest," he said, meaning next April.

Conflict between Afghan security forces and insurgents is a second major cause of internal displacement across the country. Tens of thousands of people from embattled regions as distant as Helmand province in the south and Kunduz province in the north have fled to Kabul, the capital, where many are housed in semi-permanent camps sponsored by U.N. agencies.

Nationwide, according to World Food Program officials, fighting has displaced more than 200,000 people this year alone, including thousands who fled a multiday Taliban assault on the eastern city of Ghazni. In the vast, sparsely populated northwest, Taliban attacks are more scattered and sporadic, but they have increasingly combined with drought to push people into urban centers, especially Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city, and Qala-e Nau.

Abdur Rehman, 37, a leader of one camp in Qala-e Nau, said the region's problems with drought date back to the years the Taliban held power, from 1996 to 2001. But he said conditions have recently grown much worse. He said the displaced villagers do not want to cause any trouble or bring the war with them from the countryside. Nevertheless, Milisic, the World Food Program official, was surrounded by armed security troops and vehicles during his brief visit here, and snipers were posted on the nearby hills.

"We would all like to be home. We miss our villages, our mosques, our mountains and clean air," Rehman said. "What we need most of all is food and money so we can go back and get ready for the winter. Here, people will just get colder and weaker."

But there has been no rain his village since March. "We are all praying that water will come soon," he said. "If not, we will have no choice but to stay."

Teen reported 2006 rape. Then nothing happened. In #MeToo era, what do we owe her?

By Elizabeth Bruenig
Teen reported 2006 rape. Then nothing happened. In #MeToo era, what do we owe her?
Amber Wyatt got married in March and is completing an undergraduate psychology program at Texas State University. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard

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, Texas. 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.

Leaving school one autumn day in 2006, I stood at the top of the concrete stairs at the back exit, with the senior parking lot spread out before me, cars gleaming in the still afternoon sun. Several of them bore a message scrawled in chalk-paint: FAITH. They looked to me like gravestones, brief and cryptic in neat rows.

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.

Wyatt was celebrating her inaugural year on the varsity cheerleading squad that evening. She performed routines at War Party, and around 9 p.m., arrived in her car at a 4,756-square-foot residence owned by the parents of another cheerleader. It was one of many fine homes within the gates of its upscale subdivision, with a spacious driveway out front and a lagoon-like swimming pool in back - a striking contrast to Wyatt's far smaller home in an aging neighborhood across town. Even if no one spoke openly about the class distinctions among the cheerleaders, they were well understood.

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 playerand 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.

- - -

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.

Aven wrote in the statement he provided to police that, as soon as Wyatt told him she had been raped, he "asked Mrs. Marks and a girl named Carlye Bowers to come over to where me and Amber were standing. Amber repeated exactly what she told me to Mrs. Marks and Carlye." Marks, 49 at the time, did not call the police. Instead, she suggested that Wyatt go to an upstairs room in her house, where she lay down. Bowers declined to comment for this article.

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."

On the same October day that Marks wrote her statement, a detective interviewed her on camera for an hour and 45 minutes. In the video, Marks chewed gum while crisply answering questions. "No one seemed out of control to me except for Amber," she said, "and she seemed kinda, I don't know what it was, drugged up or something."

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.

- - -

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 himand 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' 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' 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.

Wyatt became the bull's eye of an angry backlash. As Liz Gebhardt, a close friend of Wyatt's who remained by her side throughout the tumultuous period that followed, recalled: "Everyone started blaming [Wyatt] because she said something, and if she would have kept her mouth shut then nothing would have ever happened." With 3,350 students, it was hard to contain the spread of malicious recrimination and even harder to maintain a sense of proportion.

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.

- - -

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.

So Johnson began to keep track of what became of her cases once she sent them to the district attorney's office. Journalist Tim Madigan at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram caught up with Johnson during his own investigation into Tarrant's no-bill rates and incorporated her findings. Published in 2012, Madigan's report found that Tarrant County's no-bill rate for alleged acquaintance rapes was 51 percent. By contrast, the city of Austin's no-bill rate for the same crime was 13 percent. For whatever reason, Tarrant County simply wasn't deciding to indict in such cases at the same rates as other locales.

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.

Montaigne and Wordsworth lived near enough to the bloody indifference of nature to spare a thought for its victims. But the veneer of civility painted over modern life has paradoxically revealed a certain contempt for victims and the condition of victimhood. And perhaps, lurking in all the complaints about our putative culture of victimhood, there is something uglier than generalized contempt: a disdain for the weak.

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.

- - -

Wyatt's drug habit worsened after she was moved from Martin to an alternative high school in Arlington. She was arrested in December 2006 for driving while intoxicated, which she pleaded guilty to in a county court, and again in 2009, on charges of possession of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana, to which she pleaded no contest. Her record states that she was arrested for a final time in 2010 on a charge of driving while intoxicated, this time in Denton, Texas. Again, she pleaded no contest. For a time, she lost her driver's license. Her 2010 mugshot, posted online by the Texas Department of Public Safety, shows her disheveled and on the verge of tears, bearing only a passing resemblance to the bright and outgoing cheerleader she had been only four years before.

Late in November of 2010, Wyatt overdosed on a cocktail of Klonopin, vodka, cocaine and methadone, bringing her to the brink of organ failure. On Dec. 1, Wyatt posted a despondent Facebook status: "In ICU for the past 2 days. I'm having kidney failure. Please pray for me." Once she made it out of the hospital and into addiction treatment, Wyatt's counselors told her she needed to invest her trust in a higher power - to have faith.

With all that had come before, that word in particular stung more than it soothed. And her past followed her. "Even four years after I graduated," Wyatt told me in 2015, "I would meet people and they would be like, 'Oh, you're Amber Wyatt.' " By which they meant, as Wyatt interpreted their response, the girl who "lied about being raped."

Still, the incidents of normal life returned in hard-won bits and pieces: a car, a home, a steady job. Last March, she married Stephen Wilson, a man she encountered in recovery. The two met on an outing to Six Flags Over Texas, an amusement park in Arlington, where they sat side by side on a Batman-themed roller coaster. They live quietly now in the Texas city of San Marcos with a dog named Stitch, abandoned by Wilson's former roommate when he went back to using. Wyatt has taken Wilson's surname.

The last time I see her, we meet on a warm Dallas evening in April. The city is wide and magisterial, with a crest of glittering lights marking its heights in the darkness. On a clear night with bright stars, the city and sky can lose their seam. It's a night like that, and she rounds a corner in a quiet restaurant to see me waiting for her in a booth.

Wyatt is completing an undergraduate psychology program at Texas State University. This year, she's serving as a teaching assistant for a forensic psychology course; from there, she's considering pursuing a master's degree. I notice, as we sit in the restaurant, a peace sign tattooed on the underside of Wyatt's wrist. Has she found it, I wonder? Faithis still a tender word. But she trusts "in a spiritual power," she tells me. "I let myself believe."

In the years since that ill-fated pool party, society has made important cultural and legal strides in treating victims of sexual harassment and assault with dignity and respect - much thanks to feminist-led movements such as #MeToo. Indeed, Wyatt's decision to cooperate with my reporting when it began in 2015 was an anticipatory #MeToo moment - she hoped, by speaking out publicly, by giving her name to a grimly familiar story, that she would help some other girl in some other city.

It is tempting to imagine that, if all of this really had happened now, in the wake of #MeToo, things would have been different and justice better served. And some things have certainly changed. Over the past several years, attention paid to sexual assault cases outside the stranger-rape mold has increased thanks to a changing consciousness about the realities of coercion and consent. With stories like the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio,rape case and the 2012 prosecution of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, we have begun to understand how systems of power can warp the consciences of otherwise ordinary people when it comes to prosecuting or even reporting sexual assault.

Likewise, the #MeToo phenomenon has resulted in accountability for high-profile perpetrators of sexual abuse who were, sometimes for decades, protected by edifices composed of their own power, prestige and wealth. That figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Steve Wynn have faced serious repercussions after accusations of sexual misconduct testifies to a real and growing revolt against sexual abuse at society's highest echelons. Still, progress is slower and abuse more frequent lower down the socioeconomic ladder, where poor and working-class people have relatively little recourse when it comes to suffering sexual misconduct, both because the costs of speaking out are often unbearable and because their abusers rarely grab headlines the way Hollywood rainmakers and politicians do.

So I look back uneasily, unconvinced that we have come such a long way after all. Because there will always be opportunities to do evil and evil opportunists. There will always be acts of cruelty prepackaged with plausible deniability, or the easy cover of crowds to disperse responsibility. There will always be people nobody believes: people with lesser reputations, people who struggle with addiction, people without much capital, social or otherwise, to credit them. And there will always be cases of offenses that are real and true but hard to prosecute, which means that justice in the world - if it's to exist at all - will have to take some other form than the formalized and official, and peace will have to arise from some other reckoning than a proper settling of accounts.

This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now - it will always be unresolved - and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing.

Wyatt doesn't have much interest in pressing for a trial or other remedy after all this time. Even if she did, it would be impossible; Lucero's files indicate that all the physical evidence relating to Wyatt's case was destroyed - common with no-billed cases - in 2009. All that remains are the urban legends and the memories, the wounds and their scars, a stack of documents in a Texas public safety office, what you know now, and the hope that you will carry it with you into the world.

- - -

The day after her 29th birthday, which was also the day after this story first appeared online, Amber Wyatt, now Wilson, stood in the shower in her San Marcos home and sobbed - hard, wrenching, wrung-out tears. They had been a long time in coming.

"I'm trying to face my emotions, because the last time, I didn't. I numbed myself," Wyatt explained in a Thursday afternoon phone call. She sounded tired, and she was: She had just arisen from a midday nap - the good counsel of her husband, Stephen, who had come home to be with her after her breakdown in the shower.

The publication's timing - not just on Wyatt's birthday, but in the midst of yet another convulsive national debate about the treatment, or mistreatment, of women and girls, and how to reconcile conflicting stories - was one of those accidents of perfect cosmic coincidence. But it found Wyatt as the unexpected, somewhat overwhelmed recipient of gifts - not in the form of material goods but in the shape of words and, more important, of emotions, of comfort, of respect, of regret. In short, the opposite of what had greeted her in the dark days - the dark years, really - after the party that August night a dozen years ago.

Wyatt had quite a bit of giving to do, herself. There was, of course, the enormous effort of having shared herself - her story, her pain, her face, her name, all in the hopes that her act of self-giving could rescue someone in need. On her Facebook page, she set up a fundraiser for a Dallas-area rape crisis center; she asked her friends to donate to the group in lieu of presents for herself. The goal she set was $200, a fine amount. By Thursday night, a day and a half after this story was posted and curious readers found their way to her profile, Wyatt had raised $1,275.

That felt good. But for all the old saw about it being better to give, the gifts that Wyatt received felt better, even more so for how long they were in coming. The influx of support was sudden and drastic, almost surreal. In the illuminated scroll of Wyatt's life, those old, cruel inscriptions - the spray-painted slurs on the school wall and the declarations of "FAITH" scrawled on cars - were superseded this week by new words: The hashtag #IBelieveAmberWyatt appeared on Twitter hours after the article went live, amplified by hundreds of messages echoing the same sentiment. I had shared the final version of the article with Wyatt a few days before it was published, and reading her story brought its own sense of satisfaction and closure, but neither of us had anticipated anything like this outpouring of support. If anything, she had been braced for more anger and ugliness.

"It's an amazing feeling," Wyatt told me. "There's a side of me that's so excited that everyone's opening up and listening. But there's still a 16-year-old girl inside of me who's just overwhelmed. . . . It's overwhelming to go from nobody believing me at all, to how many people believe me now."

The new believers weren't all strangers. Some voices came from the past, and that, it turned out, was the most powerful gift of all. "I was at Martin at the time of Amber's rape and was a team captain on the football team," one former student wrote in a lengthy email to me. "I also attended the party in the article. I wanted to share my thoughts on what I think I owe Amber. I owe her my regret of not doing more in the moment and after. While I did not participate in the after-effects of writing on the wall and FAITH, I didn't do anything to stop it, and I had a voice that might have been listened to."

Other Martin students and Arlington residents have contacted Wyatt to apologize for how they treated her back then, and to disavow their loyalties to those who hurt her. In the Martin High School Class of 2008 reunion Facebook group where she posted her story, several former students sounded similar notes of regret. "Amber, I'm not sure why I pretended to know what happened," one male classmate wrote, "and then even how vastly incorrect my understanding of the situation was. ... I'm sorry we all thought 6 months of sports was more important than your livelihood." A female classmate added: "I am so sorry we all failed you when you needed help." And another: "I'm disgusted by my own behavior at the time and I apologize."

Still others shared accounts of their own assaults, including one email that arrived in my inbox the evening the article was published from a woman who had attended Martin not long before Wyatt. "Like Amber I was a cheerleader and like Amber, I have a similar experience," she wrote. "She was brave enough to immediately come forward, but I was not. This happened to me and it happened to other girls I knew. We never talked about it after the parties. We just went on, I guess accepting what happened as a consequence of being intoxicated. Embarrassed to hear talk of it in school the following week, the best thing I felt I could do was minimize the experience. I didn't see it as a violation until much later in life."

She concluded on a point both hopeful and haunting. "I hope my children will have a very different experience than we did," she wrote. "It never leaves you after all."

---

Video Embed Code

Video: Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig discusses how she started reporting a story originating from rumors in her Texas high school in 2006.(Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Embed code: <iframe src="https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/a3080d8e-bab4-11e8-adb8-01125416c102?ptvads=block&playthrough=false" width="480" height="290" data-category-id="opinion" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Video: Elizabeth Bruenig explains why she reached out to Wyatt nine years after she reported being raped.(Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Embed code: <iframe src="https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/5d9e1840-bab6-11e8-adb8-01125416c102?ptvads=block&playthrough=false" width="480" height="290" data-category-id="videoelements" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Video: Sexual assault victims are often left feeling the effects for years afterward.(Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Embed code: <iframe src="https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/7008478e-bab7-11e8-adb8-01125416c102?ptvads=block&playthrough=false" width="480" height="290" data-category-id="videoelements" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

Across the Arctic, lakes are leaking dangerous greenhouse gases

By Chris Mooney
Across the Arctic, lakes are leaking dangerous greenhouse gases
Methane gas released from seep holes at the bottom Esieh Lake ripples the surface. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

ABOVE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, ALASKA - Katey Walter Anthony has studied some 300 lakes across the tundras of the Arctic. But sitting on the mucky shore of her latest discovery, the Arctic expert said she'd never seen a lake like this one.

Set against the austere peaks of the Western Brooks Range, the lake, about 20 football fields in size, looked like it was boiling. Its waters hissed, bubbled and popped as a powerful greenhouse gas escaped from the lake bed. Some bubbles grew as big as grapefruits, visibly lifting the water's surface several inches and carrying up bits of mud from below.

This was methane.

As the permafrost thaws across the fast-warming Arctic, it releases carbon dioxide, the top planet-warming greenhouse gas, from the soil into the air. Sometimes, that thaw spurs the growth of lakes in the soft, sunken ground, and these deep-thawing bodies of water tend to unleash the harder-hitting methane gas.

But not this much of it. This lake, which Walter Anthony dubbed Esieh Lake, looked different. And the volume of gas wafting from it could deliver the climate system another blow if lakes like this turn out to be widespread.

The first time Walter Anthony saw Esieh Lake, she was afraid it might explode - and she is no stranger to the danger, or the theatrics, of methane. In 2010, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks posted a video of the media-savvy ecologist standing on the frozen surface of an Arctic lake, then lighting a methane stream on fire to create a tower of flame as tall as she is. It got nearly half a million views on YouTube.

So now, in the Arctic's August warmth, she had come back to this isolated spot with a small research team, along with her husband and two young sons, to see what secrets Esieh Lake might yield. Was it simply a bizarre anomaly? Or was it a sign that the thawing Arctic had begun to release an ancient source of methane that could worsen climate change?

One thing she was sure of: If the warming Arctic releases more planet-warming methane, that could lead to. . . more warming. Scientists call this a feedback loop.

"These lakes speed up permafrost thaw," Walter Anthony said. "It's an acceleration."

There was only so much the team would learn from the instruments they had hauled here. To get a firsthand look, they would have to get in.

They'd brought their wet suits.

- - -

Walter Anthony, who grew up close to Lake Tahoe, was captivated by Arctic lakes at 19, when she spent a summer at Siberia's picturesque Lake Baikal.

"I love the solitude of remote lakes and the mystery of what lies beneath the water surface."

Two decades and several academic degrees later, she was asked by a Native Alaskan group, the NANA Regional Corporation, to search for methane seeps in northwest Alaska, since the gas, despite its climate downsides, could provide a fuel source for remote communities.

How do you find a lake in Alaska that leaks methane? Well, there's one telltale sign: They don't fully freeze over.

In April 2017, Walter Anthony put out word among residents of Kotzebue, Alaska, that she was looking for weird lakes. An email that month from a pilot led her to the Noatak region, not far above the Arctic Circle. Last September, she made her first visit to the lake - set against sloping hills covered with rust-colored mosses and blueberry bushes. She brought her family and a graduate student to the spot, so remote it required several days of camping and was completely off the grid.

At first, the sheer volume of gases at Esieh Lake was slightly terrifying, but as Walter Anthony grew accustomed to the lake's constant spluttering, her fear gave way to wonder.

Her sounding devices picked up huge holes in the bottom of the lake. Pockmarks, she called them, "unlike anything I've ever seen in any Arctic lake."

Most of Esieh is quite shallow, averaging only a little over three feet deep. But where the gas bubbles cluster, the floor drops suddenly, a plunge marked by the vanishing of all visible plant life.

Measurements showed that the lake dips to about 50 feet deep in one area and nearly 15 feet in another. When they first studied them, Walter Anthony and her graduate student Janelle Sharp named these two seep clusters W1 and W2, short for "Wow 1" and "Wow 2."

The next discovery came from the lab.

When the scientists examined samples of the gases, they found the chemical signature of a "geologic" origin. In other words, the methane venting from the lake seemed to be emerging not from the direct thawing of frozen Arctic soil, or permafrost, but rather from a reservoir of far older fossil fuels.

If that were happening all over the Arctic, Walter Anthony figured - if fossil fuels that had been buried for millennia were now being exposed to the atmosphere - the planet could be in even deeper peril.

- - -

For the second trip, Walter Anthony had brought a larger team of researchers, more equipment and her family - her husband, Peter Anthony, and sons, Jorgen, 6, and Anders, 3.

The team brought instruments for sampling gases, four inflatable boats, large crates of food, eight tents, a satellite phone for emergencies, and two shotguns. As with much of the Alaskan wilderness, the lake is frequented by grizzly bears, and the bear scat around the camp kept everyone keenly aware of their surroundings.

A week before the trip, Walter Anthony had published a major study delivering worrisome news about Arctic lakes in general. Her husband - also a scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks - was a co-author.

The research tackled the central question now animating scientists who study permafrost soils, which can reach depths of nearly 5,000 feet and were laid down over tens of thousands of years or more as generations of plants died and sank beneath the surface. Because of the cold, those carbon-rich remains never fully decomposed, and the soil preserves them in an icy purgatory. Now, though, as the Arctic warms, decomposition is starting up - and it gives off greenhouse gases.

Scientists know the permafrost contains an enormous amount of carbon - enough to catastrophically warm the planet if it were all released into the atmosphere. But they don't know how fast it can come out and whether changes will be gradual or rapid.

That's where Walter Anthony's work came in.

The authors examined the prevalence of thermokarst lakes, which form when the wedges of ice within permafrost melt and create voids that then fill with water. And they found that the continuing growth of these lakes - many of which have already formed in the tundra - could more than double the greenhouse gas emissions coming from the Arctic's soils by 2100. That's despite the fact that the lakes would cover less than 6 percent of the total Arctic land surface.

Scientists have been puzzling over a dramatic spike in atmospheric methane levels, which since 2006 have averaged 25 million tons more of the gas per year. Walter Anthony's study found that Arctic lakes could more than double this increase as well.

Overall, if Walter Anthony's findings are correct, the total impact from thawing permafrost could be similar to adding a couple of large fossil-fuel-emitting economies - say, two more Germanys - to the planet. And that does not take into account the possibility of more lakes like Esieh, which appears to be a different phenomenon from thermokarst lakes, emitting gases faster.

The landscape around Esieh Lake itself bears the mark of rapid thermafrost thaw.

Along the shore, a large section of the hillside had collapsed, a change that, according to two members of the team, had occurred just since May, when they were last here.

This "thaw slump" was a textbook example of fast-moving permafrost thaw. It had left behind an exposed wall of muddy ice and small islands of peat and mosses.

- - -

If it weren't for the bubbles, the large patches of silty water they create and the slightly unsettling fact that you could light the emerging gases on fire (at one point, Walter Anthony did just that), Esieh Lake might be an idyllic scene. But these features, combined with the fact that it appears to be frequented by grizzly bears, render it more alien than bucolic.

But Walter Anthony and her research technician Philip Hanke, 25, were determined to explore it from within. On the second day of the trip, they donned wet suits and snorkels and plunged into the cold water, which was below 60 degrees.

They wanted to see the methane seeps up close and learn what they could by swimming among the bubbles.

Hanke went first, venturing into the more vigorous bubble site, Wow 2. There was very little visibility. But, groping in the darkness, Hanke could feel the shape of things.

"It's kind of freaky," he reported after he surfaced. "Right where the hole goes in, it slopes, and it's flattened out, and it coned back down, and that was where some really loose sediment was, and I could stick my hands into it."

"So there's different ledges, you're saying?" Walter Anthony asked.

"Yeah, it was a ledge."

The second, much deeper site was less murky, more peaceful. Walter Anthony was still in awe when she came up for air.

"You're just looking down into this stream of bubbles coming up right into your face, and they're so soft they go all around you," she said. "And the sunlight's on them. It's like out of this world but under this world."

Another scientist, Frederic Thalasso, had traveled from Mexico City and spent days taking gas measurements around the lake. His initial results: Emissions from Esieh were very high - and clearly had something to do with fossil fuels.

The lakes where he had witnessed similar bubbling activity were in the tropics and polluted - ideal conditions for the production of methane, said Thalasso, a scientist with the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico.

But those lakes have gas flows that are "probably 100 times lower than in this lake," he said.

His instruments also detected ethane, butane and propane - classic signatures of a fossil origin.

Later, after processing his data, he produced an initial estimate that the lake was producing two tons of methane gas every day - the equivalent of the methane gas emissions from about 6,000 dairy cows (one of the globe's biggest methane sources). That's not enough to be a big climate problem on its own, but if there are many more lakes like this one - well, that's another story.

- - -

After four nights of camping, the team packed up to make the two-hour boat trip to Kotzebue, Alaska, the first leg on the journey home. Walter Anthony wouldn't have all the new data processed for a while, but she did have a pretty good hypothesis about what is happening at Esieh Lake.

Permafrost contains a lot of carbon - but in some locations, permafrost soil, and its characteristic wedges of embedded ice, also sits atop ancient reserves of fossil fuels, including methane gas. So as the Arctic warms - which it is doing twice as fast as the rest of the Earth - these gases could be liberated into the atmosphere.

The holes in the bottom of Esieh Lake could therefore be an underwater cousin of odd craters that have appeared in the Siberian tundra in recent years, suspected to have been caused by underground gas explosions.

If this is right, then Esieh Lake becomes a kind of hybrid - and a worrying one.

It's not a pure thermokarst lake, though some thermokarst appears to be forming around the lake's expanding edges, tipping shoreline trees as the ice in the permafrost melts and the ground destabilizes. But the thawing of permafrost at the lake bed might also have unleashed older fossil gases from a reserve that had been sealed - creating another kind of worrisome lake.

"This is an additional source," Walter Anthony said.

Carolyn Ruppel, who leads the Gas Hydrates Project at the U.S. Geological Survey, said Walter Anthony's theory makes sense. Permafrost thawing could indeed release ancient fossil fuels in areas where they intersect.

But it would take more study to prove that this phenomenon is leading to widespread emissions across the Arctic, she cautioned.

Nobody knows how long ago the seeps started bubbling or what the trigger was.

From a scientific perspective, the fact that these lakes are emitting methane rather than carbon dioxide does have an admittedly limited upside.

Methane hits the atmosphere hard and fast and then mostly dissipates after a decade or two - far different from carbon dioxide, which is less potent but lingers for centuries or even millennia. So while methane impedes climate progress and amps up the planet's immediate temperature, it does not leave the same long-term legacy.

Meanwhile, some scientists say they're not sure yet how bad Arctic lakes will be for the climate or whether they will indeed cause emissions from permafrost to double.

"It's not the final number," said Vladimir Romanovsky, one of Walter Anthony's colleagues at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and a noted permafrost expert.

At this point, it would be premature to call Esieh Lake a sign of climate doom. It is a strange and dramatic site, but its message remains partly veiled.

The coming years will probably reveal what's behind Esieh and whether it has many cousins across the top of the world.

By then, we may also see whether the Arctic's great thaw will have thwarted attempts to stop global warming.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

A smear, pure and simple

By marc a. thiessen
A smear, pure and simple

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, Sept 26, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Sept 25, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Thiessen clients only)

By MARC A. THIESSEN

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats seeking to derail Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination knew they had a problem. In other prominent cases of the #MeToo era, multiple victims had come forward to corroborate each other's stories and present a pattern of predatory behavior. But in Kavanaugh's case, not only was there no corroboration for Christine Blasey Ford's accusations, no other women had come forward to accuse him of misconduct.

Democrats needed another victim.

Enter, Deborah Ramirez, a former Yale classmate of Kavanaugh's. She apparently didn't want to accuse Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her at a college party, but as Ronan Farrow, co-author of the New Yorker article with Jane Mayer in which Ramirez makes her stunning accusation, admitted on ABC News's "Good Morning America," she "came forward because Senate Democrats began looking at this claim. She did not flag this for those Democrats."

Why didn't she want to accuse Kavanaugh? Maybe it's because she wasn't sure it was him. Ramirez, the New Yorker said, was "hesitant to speak publicly, partly because her memories contained gaps because she had been drinking at the time of the alleged incident," the article said. She told the magazine that during the party "she was on the floor, foggy and slurring her words." The New York Times, which also looked into her allegations, writes that before coming forward, Ramirez "contacted former Yale classmates asking if they recalled the incident and told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself."

But according to the New Yorker, "after six days of carefully assessing her memories and consulting with her attorney, Ramirez said that she felt confident enough of her recollections to say that she remembers" what Kavanaugh allegedly did. "Confident enough"?

What happened in those six days? It appears that Ramirez had to convince herself -- or be convinced.

Given her hesitancy, surely the New Yorker found some eyewitness corroboration before going to press? Nope. "The New Yorker has not confirmed with other eyewitnesses that Kavanaugh was present at the party," the article said. The New York Times reports that it also tried to verify Ramirez's account and could not. "The Times interviewed several dozen people over the past week in an attempt to corroborate her story, and could find no one with firsthand knowledge."

In fact, two of those allegedly in attendance during the incident disputed Ramirez's account. The New Yorker reported that "one of the male classmates who Ramirez said egged on Kavanaugh denied any memory of the party," and another said, "I have zero recollection." The article continued, "In a statement, two of those male classmates who Ramirez alleged were involved in the incident, the wife of a third male student she said was involved, and one other classmate, Dan Murphy, disputed Ramirez's account of events." Their statement said in part: "We can say with confidence that if the incident Debbie alleges ever occurred, we would have seen or heard about it -- and we did not. The behavior she describes would be completely out of character for Brett," adding that "Some of us knew Debbie long after Yale, and she never described this incident until Brett's Supreme Court nomination was pending."

Yet, despite these denials, her own admitted uncertainty and the failure of a single witness to back her story, the New Yorker went ahead and published her sensational, hesitant, uncorroborated account anyway -- a stunning breach of journalistic ethics. This was a story even the New York Times deemed not fit to print. It is a smear, pure and simple.

There is no pattern here of bad behavior by Kavanaugh toward women. The only pattern of bad behavior is the Democrats' shameful willingness to destroy a person's reputation based on unsubstantiated allegations. This new attack on Kavanaugh reeks of desperation. There is no evidence to back Ramirez's claims, just as no evidence has emerged to corroborate Ford's account. None of the people Ford named, man or woman, has confirmed that the gathering in question took place at all, much less that any assault occurred.

So the question for the Senate is this: Is the new standard for those in public life that accusations of misconduct with no corroboration are enough to destroy someone's reputation and career? Every sensible senator -- and every sensible human being for that matter -- should quake at the thought. As Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told Fox News on Monday, "There has to be something more than an allegation." He's right. If allegations without evidence are enough to kill Kavanaugh's nomination then no one is safe -- including the senators who will decide his fate.

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

Kavanaugh circus includes plenty of sideshows

By kathleen parker
Kavanaugh circus includes plenty of sideshows

KATHLEEN PARKER COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)

By KATHLEEN PARKER

WASHINGTON -- If the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process has revealed anything, it is that there's an antidote for disaffection toward Republicans: Give Democrats the upper hand for about five minutes.

Anyone tuning in to the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearings earlier this month surely thought they had flipped to a circus show featuring Cory Booker as Spartacus. Then later, Dianne Feinstein entered as the fire-juggler, who, in the eleventh-hour jumps through a blazing hoop to magically produce a damning accusation of sexual assault against the Supreme Court nominee

Attendant sideshows this past week have included protesters crowding Senate office buildings and, Monday night, chanting "We believe survivors!" at Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and his wife at a Washington restaurant until the couple left.

In turn-the-other-cheek fashion (or was it tongue-in-cheek?), Cruz said to his tormentors: "God bless you," which was pretty cheeky. What could they say to that?

Watching video clips of the hecklers, I kept thinking of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Has some alien army filled with hatred and self-importance hijacked the bodies of ordinary-looking American citizens, turning them into angry, arrogant, sniping hoodlums? The scene also brought to mind "Zorba the Greek" (sorry, I've seen a lot of movies), in which crones dressed in black visit a woman's deathbed and begin picking at her belongings and clothes, impatient for her demise and the appropriation of her worldly goods.

Monday night's mini-mob was like a flock of crows, picking, pecking and screeching at the still very-much alive Cruz, all because? He's a longtime friend of Kavanaugh's and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is the reward we give to those who choose to serve the public. One female protester who claimed to be a victim of sexual assault demanded to know if Cruz would vote for Kavanaugh. Let me help you here: They've been friends for 20 years, Cruz is a pro-life Republican, yes.

In a snit of levity, another heckler shouted that Cruz's opponent in his bid for re-election, Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, "is way hotter than you are!"

You see, life really is a continuous re-enactment of high school -- a "Groundhog Day" reordering of how things should have been. A group calling itself #SmashRacismDC celebrated Monday's hecklefest with a promise on Facebook: "This is a message to Ted Cruz, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump and the rest of the racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic right-wing scum: You are not safe. We will find you. We will expose you. We will take from you the peace you have taken from so many others."

They also tweeted, "Fascists not welcome!"

Irony, meet your executioner.

While these virtual and real tantrums were taking place, Kavanaugh (along with his wife, Ashley) was making a public appearance from the safety of Fox News. At times, Kavanaugh visibly struggled to maintain his composure and stick to the three points he clearly came to make: "I've never sexually assaulted anyone"; "I just want a fair process"; and "I'm not going anywhere."

One might have hoped for something less-scripted, but obviously he wasn't about to make headlines with speculation about his accusers' motives or character. Christine Blasey Ford, who claims Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a party in the early 1980s, is scheduled to testify before the Judiciary Committee Thursday -- as is Kavanaugh.

One also wouldn't expect Kavanaugh to comment on Deborah Ramirez, who told The New Yorker, "after six days of carefully assessing her memories," that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a Yale party when they were undergraduates there. Apparently, drinking was involved. The New York Times, which had also researched her claim, was unable to find anyone to corroborate the tale. In a complicating wrinkle, Kavanaugh's Yale roommate has said that he believes Ramirez, even though he provided no reason other than he liked her.

There's nothing good about any of this.

Those who come forward as survivors of sexual assault deserve our respect and a fair hearing, without qualification. But so do the accused. To conflate support for due process in a trial-like setting with attacking the alleged victim is to misunderstand the exquisitely designed presumption of innocence -- the liberal core of our justice system.

What we have now amounts to gossip until both sides can be heard. In the meantime, before they switch places with the benighted GOP, Democrats would do well to loudly condemn hecklers. These misguided champions of chaos do harm not just to the social order but to the very causes with which they align themselves.

They also remind us that civilization hangs by a thread -- and is unraveling before our eyes.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The GOP's counternarrative on 'Russia collusion' doesn't add up

By david ignatius
The GOP's counternarrative on 'Russia collusion' doesn't add up

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)

By DAVID IGNATIUS

WASHINGTON -- President Trump and his allies like to claim that the real "Russia collusion" story involves Justice Department and FBI officials, investigators hired by Hillary Clinton's campaign, and Russians who were feeding them information.

After reviewing scores of documents and messages released by Trump supporters in Congress, I find that this GOP counternarrative doesn't add up. It doesn't undermine the credibility of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller -- or the guilty pleas and convictions he has racked up. And it doesn't discredit Mueller's key witnesses.

Yet the GOP's evidence does reveal some puzzling interconnections among major players in the Russia probe. The FBI and the Justice Department were sometimes conducting negotiations with the same people they were also investigating for possible wrongdoing. Contacts between private investigators and government officials were occasionally incestuous.

The most intriguing example of overlapping relationships involves three key players who were represented by a peripatetic American lawyer named Adam Waldman. This unlikely trio includes: Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who once did business with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort; Christopher Steele, a British former MI6 officer who wrote the famous dossier alleging connections between Trump and Russia; and Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which released Clinton campaign and other Democratic emails that U.S. intelligence agencies say were hacked by Russia.

In April 2017, Waldman texted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., with an update on all three: "Hi. Steele: would like to get a bipartisan letter from the [Senate Intelligence] committee; Assange: I convinced him to make serious and important concessions and am discussing those w/ DOJ; Deripaska: willing to testify to congress but interested in state of play w/ Manafort." These efforts appear to have come to naught.

Waldman is a character Hollywood couldn't invent. His clients have included Deripaska, Steele and Assange, but he has also represented movie-star Johnny Depp. He's friendly with Warner (a Martha's Vineyard neighbor) but also with GOP grandee C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush. (As a personal disclosure, I should note that I've known Waldman since the 1990s.)

Waldman wouldn't talk for the record about his contacts, citing attorney-client privilege. But he doesn't challenge the accuracy of a series of texts and emails about his activities that have been published by columnist John Solomon in The Hill.

The most intriguing chapter of this story may be Waldman's effort to negotiate a deal on behalf of Assange. At the same time the WikiLeaks founder was being investigated last year as a conduit for Russian-hacked documents attacking the Clinton campaign, he was also trying through Waldman to negotiate a secret "risk mitigation" deal with the Justice Department.

Waldman's contacts with Assange began in mid-January 2017. On his way to meet Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, Waldman called Justice Department official Bruce Ohr's number in Washington and left a voicemail message describing what he was doing, according to a knowledgeable source who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive legal matters. Ohr later asked Waldman to contact other Justice officials, the source said. (Sarah Isgur Flores, the DOJ director of public affairs, wouldn't comment.)

Assange offered through Waldman to help vet potential dangers in a cache of leaked CIA documents WikiLeaks was about to release under the rubric "Vault 7." In exchange, Assange wanted some form of "safe passage" to leave the embassy. The mediation collapsed: On April 7, WikiLeaks revealed some especially sensitive details about CIA hacking, and Justice quickly ended its contacts.

Deripaska offers a final example of how characters in the Russia tale sometimes appear to walk both sides of the street. In September 2015, Deripaska talked to the FBI about Russia issues, and in September 2016, he talked with the bureau about its nascent Trump-Russia investigation, according to the knowledgeable source. The 2016 meeting came just a month after Manafort (then running Trump's campaign) allegedly tried to send Deripaska a message (which Deripaska's lawyer says he never received).

The oligarch now takes the same line about the Russia investigation as Trump and his defenders in Congress: Deripaska argued in a March 2018 op-ed that it's all the work of a "deep state" conspiracy, centered on Fusion GPS, the company that hired Steele to compile his dossier on behalf of the Clinton campaign.

The players in the Russia story are intertwined like the strands of a double helix. This might someday make a lively noir thriller for one of Waldman's Hollywood friends. But none of it affects the center line of Mueller's investigation. That probe continues, as the evidence and convictions mount.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Here's what I won't do for a discount

By michelle singletary
Here's what I won't do for a discount

THE COLOR OF MONEY COLUMN

(Advance for Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, and thereafter. Web release Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Singletary clients only)

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

WASHINGTON -- I am a lifelong penny pincher, and yet there are many things I won't do to save money.

We've become a nation of discount hunters. Sale signs have become like a drug. We can't resist the high from snagging a sale item.

But in our bargain hunting, we can lose more than we gain.

I was thinking about this as I read news accounts that John Hancock is adding a fitness-tracking feature to all its life insurance policies. Under its "Vitality" program, policyholders can earn discounts for exercising and reaching certain physical-activity goals.

"For centuries, the insurance model has primarily provided financial protection for families after death, without enhancing the very quality it hinges on: life," said Marianne Harrison, John Hancock's president and chief executive, in announcing the change. "We fundamentally believe life insurers should care about how long and well their customers live."

Sounds so altruistic.

But, of course, John Hancock makes more money when people live longer, because they keep making payments on their premiums. Yet there are also benefits to customers who live healthier lives -- including lower health care costs.

All policies will come with a basic level called "Vitality GO" at no additional cost. If they choose to, customers can log their healthy activities through an app or website. At this level, people have access to fitness and nutritional resources and can set up personalized health goals. They can earn points toward various discounts, the company said.

Pay an extra monthly fee -- a cost that varies depending on the policy -- for "Vitality Plus," and a policyholder can receive up to 15 percent off his or her annual premium, as well as a free Fitbit Alta or an Apple Watch for as little as $25, plus shopping and entertainment gift cards.

So what's the downside of this discount bait?

I have an Apple Watch and try my best to walk 10,000 steps a day. I also use the device to track my swim laps and heart rate. There is a lot of physical and medical data on my device that I don't want to hand over for a 15-percent policy discount or free fitness magazine.

Let's say I stop exercising regularly. Or maybe my physical activities are considered too risky. Will the company punish me with higher insurance rates? Or, at some point, could the company use the information to deny me coverage?

It's for these reasons I don't opt to let my auto-insurance company track my driving. There's a premium discount if I allow the company to download information about how fast I'm driving, how hard I brake or even how late at night I drive. The company offers up to 25 percent cash back every six months for its safe-driving reward program. This isn't an insignificant savings.

Still, I'm concerned that eventually such data could cost me more in higher premiums if the company deems my driving reckless based on its dictated norms. I get that the company wants to reduce claims, but I would rather pay the regular premium than sacrifice giving out more of my personal data. Companies already know way too much about us.

I have, like so many others, game apps on my smartphone. Some prompt me each time I play with offers for free hints, tokens/coins or bonus points if I get my friends to download the game or if I link the games to my social-media accounts. As much as I love saving money, I won't do it. If that means I get stuck on level 254, so be it.

And there are the ubiquitous retail discounts if you sign up for a credit card. However, you can ding your credit score by accepting a discount in exchange for signing up for the card.

If you've got a super high credit score, applying for the new credit may not matter much. But if you're in subprime territory -- meaning you have a low credit score -- or you fall just below the threshold for being considered a prime-lending customer, the discount isn't worth it in the long run.

For example, FICO scores range from 300 to 850. Many lenders set a benchmark for their best customers. Let's say that's 750. Consumers with scores of 750 or higher get access to the better interest rates. But adding a new card could knock you back just enough to go below the threshold.

Not all discount deals are worth the savings. In your quest to save money, think carefully about what you're giving up.

--0-- --0-- --0--

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Kavanaugh confirmation process needs a good scrubbing

By ruben navarrette jr.
Kavanaugh confirmation process needs a good scrubbing

RUBEN NAVARRETTE COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE. Normally advance for Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018, and thereafter. )

(For Navarrette clients only)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

SAN DIEGO -- How I miss the good ol' days, when the process of confirming a Supreme Court justice was boring and technical -- and didn't make you feel like you needed a shower.

There is a new allegation of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump's embattled choice for the Supreme Court. The latest charge -- dating back to when Kavanaugh was a freshman at Yale during the 1983-84 academic year -- involves a college classmate.

While initially reluctant to come forward and tell her story, Deborah Ramirez has now had her identity revealed, because The New Yorker contacted her after learning about the incident. She told the magazine that after six days of sorting through gaps in her memory and consulting with her attorney, she felt confident that Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face at an alcohol-fueled dormitory party.

Time out. We are right to be suspicious of those who consult with an attorney to help them remember something this politically sensitive. A therapist, fine. But not an attorney. How much of what Ramirez is now charging comes from the recesses of her mind as opposed to whatever political leanings her lawyer might have?

Ramirez wants the FBI to investigate the alleged incident. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford also wants the FBI to look into an alleged incident that supposedly occurred when Ford was 15 and Kavanaugh was a 17-year-old student at Georgetown Preparatory School.

We're going to need a bigger FBI. Besides, let's give the bureau a break. These are cops, not psychics. It won't be easy to get to the bottom of any of this, given that so much time has passed.

But right-wingers defending Kavanaugh are also off-base. First of all, they don't have the foggiest idea what happened at these specific parties in the 1980s. They also put too much stock in the fact that Kavanaugh has undergone a half-dozen background checks. So what? Those knowledgeable about such inquiries have told reporters that they're meant to find any kind of current problem, not something from the distant past -- especially if there were no criminal charges.

In a statement, Kavanaugh responded to Ramirez's claim as follows: "This alleged event from 35 years ago did not happen. The people who knew me then know that this did not happen, and have said so. This is a smear, plain and simple."

Both Kavanaugh and Ford are expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are investigating Ramirez's allegation, and no doubt hoping that there will be more women coming forward with additional new accusations against Kavanaugh. Republicans are pushing for a vote on the nomination as soon as possible -- perhaps trying to head off additional claims.

You have to pity everyone involved. This is like one of those science-fiction movies where machines rise up against people. In this case, the institution of government -- which is supposed to serve and represent constituents like Kavanaugh and Ford -- now seems determined to destroy them. And why is that? Because doing so serves the interest of the political parties. Kavanaugh and Ford are both collateral damage in this drama, which is being completely driven by politics and politicians.

People are asking why anyone in their right mind would accept a nomination to anything in this climate. But it's also fair to ask why anyone in their right mind would dare to speak out against a nominee to anything in this climate. Either way, you'll be raked over the coals.

Conservatives are not thinking clearly. Many reflexively shrug off every allegation against Kavanaugh. There ought to be a trigger number. For me, as a journalist who has covered many scandals, the tipping point is the number five. One or two instances might be explained away. But by the time you get to five, you're looking at a pattern. Besides, if Republicans are right that Kavanaugh is innocent and this is just politics, why didn't Trump's first Supreme Court nominee -- Neil Gorsuch -- meet a similar fate?

Liberals are also not thinking clearly. They tend to believe wholesale every woman who comes forward with any accusation against Kavanaugh. They do so, they say, because women don't make this stuff up or because the same thing happened to a woman they know. The hashtag -- #WhyIDidntReport -- is trending, as scores of women share their stories of being sexually abused or harassed. How long before we see another hashtag trending among men: #TheTimeIWasFalselyAccused?

Showers all around. But if the goal is to get totally clean, I doubt the country has enough soap.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

(c) 2018, The Washington Post Writers Group

I smell a rat

By dana milbank
I smell a rat

DANA MILBANK COLUMN

(FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE)

(For Milbank clients only)

By DANA MILBANK

WASHINGTON -- I smell a rat.

Apparently I'm not the only one. Recent reporting by The Washington Post's Rachel Chason and others confirmed what the rest of the country has long suspected: "Rats are overrunning D.C."

Complaints increased 50 percent in 2017 -- which by complete and total coincidence is the year President Trump came to town -- and are scurrying to another record in 2018. Of particular note: a 430-percent increase in rat complaints on Capitol Hill.

Orkin, the exterminator, reports that Washington is the fifth "rattiest" metropolitan area in the United States. But because three of those ahead of us (Chicago, New York and Los Angeles) have larger human populations, it would appear that Washington is vying with Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco for most rats on a per capita basis. Or would that be a pro rata basis?

Most suspect that the culprit is the common brown rat (Rattus norvegicus), not to be confused with the black rat (Rattus rattus), the Himalayan field rat (Rattus nitidus) or others.

I have a different theory. The capital has, since Jan. 20, 2017 (give or take), been overrun by another species: Rattus lutreolus, the swamp rat. This species feeds mostly on political action committee contributions, and though native to Australia, was recently spotted living in a lobbyist's condo at below-market rates.

The rat problem has come to the attention of Trump himself, who recently expressed his pleasure that his aides wouldn't be "a John Dean type 'RAT.'" A few weeks later, Trump's former campaign manager turned into a rat.

It's spreading like the plague.

In the days since John McCain died, there have been increased sightings of Rattus erraticus. This species, native of South Carolina, exhibits submissiveness toward certain large male rats and is unpredictable in behavior. One Rattus erraticus specimen, Lindsey O. Graham, spent two years defending the integrity of the same Justice Department he now claims is staging a "bureaucratic coup" against Trump.

But the Brett M. Kavanaugh confirmation battle is really bringing the rodent from its burrow. Here's a taxonomy to better understand Washington's newest residents:

At the top of this animal kingdom is an extremely large species with yam-tinged fur. Under the scientific name Rattus potus, it is highly aggressive with other rats (except for immediate family members), often for no apparent reason and even when not in its self-interest. Such behavior was exhibited by Trump when he ignored advisers and suggested Kavanaugh's alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford was not "as bad as she says."

The behavior exhibited by Rattus potus has prompted similarly odd comportment among lesser species, including:

Rattus slanderus. Kavanaugh pal Ed Whelan was put on leave by his right-wing think tank after he sought to pin the assault -- falsely but publicly -- on another man.

Rattus imbecilis, now listed as electorally endangered. Specimens include Dean Heller, who proclaimed the allegation against Kavanaugh to be a "hiccup"; GOP Senate candidate Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who called Ford's allegation "even more absurd" than Anita Hill's because Ford's involved teenagers; and Ralph Norman, who joked that Ruth Bader Ginsburg claimed "she was groped by Abraham Lincoln."

Rattus misogynus. Commonly known as the "naked male rat," Rattus misogynus is exemplified by Steve King, who warned an audience that "no man will ever qualify for the Supreme Court again."

Rattus paranoius. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told CBS News on Monday that "this is starting to feel like a vast left-wing conspiracy."

On the opposing side of the Kavanaugh affair are two other species:

Rattus opportunis. This species, native to New York, nests in green rooms and spends hours grooming itself. Specimen Michael Avenatti, the Stormy Daniels lawyer, injected himself into the Kavanaugh matter by claiming without any substantiation to "represent a woman with credible information regarding Judge Kavanaugh."

Rattus spartacus. This species is known for a highly verbal behavior rodentologists describe as "grandstanding." One specimen appeared during the initial Kavanaugh hearings, when Cory Booker announced he would martyr himself by releasing documents it turned out were already cleared for public release.

The nominee himself is described in The New Yorker by a Yale roommate as being "frequently, incoherently drunk." This attribute is common among the species Rattus inebrius.

Rattus inebrius enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the powerful, beady-eyed species Rattus ginormus, commonly referred to as Mitch McConnell. If Rattus ginormus doesn't like a Supreme Court nominee, even an impeccably qualified one, he refuses to budge for a year. If he likes a nominee, even one accused of sexual assault, he says "We're going to plow right through it."

He is the biggest rat of all.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

The sharpest pens in the industry serve up points of view to chew on.

Bury your dead-tired strips and grab something fresh, meaningful and hilarious.

Serious therapy and serious fun to give readers a break from breaking news.