07.01.11

The Maid’s Prison Connection

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser allegedly is in a romantic relationship with a mysterious Arizona inmate who has a reported penchant for fraud. No wonder her case is crumbling.

Consistency is what gives a rape victim credibility in the eyes of cops and prosecutors. She’s asked to repeat what happened to her again and again, “frame by frame,” Det. Steven Lane of the Manhattan Special Victims Squad told Newsweek shortly after he arrested Dominique Strauss-Kahn on criminal sexual assault charges in May. Lane’s partner on the case, Det. Alan Sandomir, said he asked victims to act like “a camcorder,” remembering every single thing they saw and heard and smelled.

And from the very first day—from the very first hours of the investigation after a hotel chambermaid claimed she’d been forced to perform oral sex on the man who was then the director of the International Monetary Fund and a leading contender for the presidency of France—the accuser passed that camcorder memory test.           

But, then, it turned out she’d had practice at this kind of storytelling before.            

In recent weeks, further investigation by New York City police detectives working with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. revealed that the African immigrant chambermaid had lied on her 2004 asylum claim about being gang-raped in her home country of Guinea. More damaging still, she had rehearsed the narrative of lies for asylum so often, listening to them over and over on an audiotape supplied by a male accomplice, that even years later she would break down crying as she told the story—until, finally, under very tough questioning by assistant district attorneys, she admitted the asylum narrative was a fabrication. She had been raped in Guinea, she said, but not the way she said it in the tales she told to win the chance to live and work in the United States.           

That information alone, contained in a letter Vance sent to Strauss-Kahn’s defense attorneys on June 30, was devastating to the case that had been built around the accuser’s credibility. But then the revelations got worse.           

The day after the chambermaid accused Strauss-Kahn of criminal sexual assault and attempted rape, she called a man incarcerated in Arizona, according to law-enforcement sources, and in a conversation that was recorded, the man discussed with her the possibility she could make money off the case against Strauss-Kahn.            

The accuser is part of the Fulla ethnic group which is widespread in West Africa. In New York, she frequented circles where people have extensive political connections and business ties to her home country of Guinea. But her relationship with the man in Arizona raised suspicions of serious criminal involvement. According to The New York Times the recorded conversation was in "a unique dialect of Fulani" and a full translation was not available until last Wednesday. The Times quotes a "well-placed law enforcement official": "She says words to the effect of, 'Don't worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I'm doing.'"

According to a law-enforcement source who monitors the activities of African communities in New York, the man in Arizona was described by the accuser’s friends as her “ex-husband.” He’s now in jail in connection with drug charges, but according to the same source, he is an African immigrant known for his involvement with credit-card scams and other fraudulent activities. He may also be linked to evidence that large amounts of money were placed in bank accounts with the accuser’s name, and several different cell phones were registered in her name. Police and prosecution spokespersons declined to comment on the man’s specific relationship with the accuser or to reveal his identity.           

The accuser’s attorney, Kenneth Thompson, insisted in a long speech outside the Manhattan Supreme Court Building Friday afternoon that there is still ample physical evidence to support his client’s claim that she was the victim of forced oral sex and attempted rape: bruises on her vagina, a torn ligament in her shoulder, and Strauss-Kahn’s DNA in sperm that she spit out in the suite. But Thompson provided no new information about the accuser’s phone call to Arizona. Thompson claimed that his client had actually come forward with much of the information now revealed by the prosecution, and Daniel R. Alonso, chief assistant district attorney, agreed that Thompson had brought them some of it, but, he said, "not all of it.”           

People who work closely with refugees say it is not extraordinary for them to rehearse their stories for asylum applications, including fictional tales of suffering that have worked for others before them. “When you’re going into a legal proceeding that hasn’t been explained to you and you don’t have adequate or ethical legal counsel and you know that your life or death may hinge on what you say, the temptation to use a story that worked for someone else is incredibly high,” says Emily Arnold-Fernandez, executive director of Asylum Access. “This is true even when your real experience actually offers stronger grounds for asylum under the law. We have had clients whose real circumstances are more compelling than the stories they have been advised by others to use.”             

But for a case that largely pitted the accuser’s allegation that she was forced into sexual acts against Strauss-Kahn’s expected claim that she consented, the record of fabrication was devastating. She had certainly told a consistent story to hotel staff, to the police, to prosecutors, and to the grand jury. "The most seasoned professionals in the office working on this case were brought to tears by this woman’s life story. I mean literally brought to tears,” says Linda Fairstein, former chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit. “She was so convincing that cops, advocates, professionals, bought the story. And then the prosecutors got to work." But with the Arizona phone call and the asylum stories as background, the more investigators examined the accuser’s story, the more anomalies began to multiply.                 

A source directly familiar with the hotel’s key records shows the maid used her card to get into Strauss-Kahn’s suite 2806 at 12:06 p.m. on May 14, swiping the card at least twice before it opened. A colleague in room service told investigators that shortly before noon, he knocked on the door of Strauss-Kahn’s suite and no one answered. The room-service staffer says he told the maid the room was empty before she entered.

“The biggest factor was she lied directly to the district attorney’s office about an earlier rape that she now says didn’t happen. That is a red flag for any prosecutor,” said one source.

The maid has consistently alleged the attack occurred between that time and around 12:28 p.m., when Strauss-Kahn officially checked out of the hotel. The maid said that after she left his room, she ran around the corner back near room 2820, where she had been cleaning earlier, and that she did not leave the area until her supervisor found her shortly before 12:30 p.m. outside a linen closet, according to sources familiar with the record.           

Hotel records show, however, that the maid used her security card to access the neighboring room 2820, near Strauss-Kahn’s suite, at 12:26 p.m. and then was found by her supervisor in the hallway just a couple of minutes later. The supervisor reported the maid appeared to be in a state of shock as she told of the alleged assault. In her initial account and in many subsequent repetitions, the maid did not mention keying the second room. Under normal circumstances, this two-minute lapse would not have been surprising for a badly traumatized woman. But prosecutors, spooked by a raft of other lies, were disturbed by the omission.           

On the other hand, hotel key records also show the maid had gone to room 2820, near Strauss-Kahn’s room, three times earlier in the morning—around 10 a.m., again shortly before 11 a.m., and then around 11:30 a.m., all consistent with her original account, the sources said.           

“The biggest factor was she lied directly to the district attorney’s office about an earlier rape that she now says didn’t happen. That is a red flag for any prosecutor,” said one source familiar with the prosecutors’ decision. Or as Fairstein puts it: "Once she said she’s lied, and she’s lied in an official capacity, that’s kind of a red flare. If she could lie under oath on an asylum [application], could she lie under oath about anything and everything else? Then they find out the boyfriend is in federal prison. How serious is that? What’s he in for? Is she implicated?”            

Prosecutors are required by law to deliver all potentially exculpatory information to the defense, which they did on Thursday. At the same time, they agreed not to oppose a defense request to significantly ease Strauss-Kahn’s bail. They also made clear they weren’t ready to drop the charges yet, seeking more time to resolve questions in their own minds.

One issue that authorities had raised concerns about is why the housekeeper was on the 28th floor where Strauss-Kahn’s suite was located that day. The Beast reported back in May that the maid normally worked another floor, but took the 28th floor on behalf of a colleague who was on leave. Authorities had wondered whether the switch was innocent or a troubling effort to get near the IMF director for some nefarious reason, the sources said.  Employees at the Sofitel have told authorities the woman began working on the 28th floor about a month before the incident, when her colleague went on leave, one source told The Beast on Friday. The switch was routine under union seniority rules, and the hotel has found no evidence that she had ever cleaned a room where Strauss-Kahn had stayed at the hotel previously, the source said.

At present, prosecutors suspect the maid’s general account of the attack has merit but her record could well make it impossible to convince a jury of Strauss-Kahn’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The camcorder just doesn't work anymore. 

—With Mike Giglio and Jesse Ellison