I Was Gang Raped at a U-VA Frat 30 Years Ago, and No One Did Anything
I was gang-raped at the University of Virginia. I was gang raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.
We are all left with questions and opinions in the exhausting wake of the now-infamous Rolling Stone article about campus sexual assault, and how victims are treated at the University of Virginia.
This is my story.
In August 1984, I arrived at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, eager to jump into college life. As a sheltered, shy, but ambitious child growing up in suburban Westchester County, New York, my choice struck some as very far away, very “Southern.” Most of my contemporaries from my all-girls high school in Rye, New York, were headed north to Boston or other parts of New England, to so many of the liberal arts colleges in much colder climes. My parents were thrilled with my choice, even though I had never even paid the campus a visit during the application process. I knew I wanted to go to UVA for one major reason: It had the country’s most highly ranked English department, my major of choice.
I had graduated as valedictorian, and as I packed my belongings for the trip the Charlottesville, I was prepared to make my mark at the wonderful institution founded by Thomas Jefferson. But, those hopes were to be dashed about five weeks into my college career. I was 17 years old.
A dorm friend, Jim*, who desperately wanting to join a fraternity, begged me to accompany him as his date to a rush party at the Phi Kappa Psi house on Oct. 5, 1984. We lived in a coed dorm, with the first and third floors housing the young men, and the second floor housing the girls. Jim had to cajole me, as it was already late, and I was lounging around in sweats, book in hand. Reluctantly but with good humor, I changed into a Guess denim miniskirt, a colorful sweater, navy leather flats, earrings, and, yes, a string of pearls. A quick check of hair and makeup, and we were out the door, accompanied by about five other dorm friends—some rushing the fraternity, some as dates.
We arrived to the din of a party in full swing: a band, multiple kegs of beer, dancing, foosball, and mantle diving. There was nothing out of the ordinary, but for the fact that Jim was gay. In 1984, gay men were not openly accepted in Southern Greek culture. I’m certain they still are not. Jim needed to “pass,” so I stuck by his side as we toured the massive Georgian property, listening to the brothers bloviate about traditions, academia, and the honor that was bestowed upon the lucky few who would be chosen as Phi Kappa Psi brothers. I was bored, but I grabbed a red Solo cup, filled it with beer, and stayed with my group, chatting with the brothers about Jim.
Jim and I got separated after we climbed the grand staircase to the second floor, where we were invited to smoke pot with a few of the brothers. I never had, so I declined, and told Jim I’d be waiting in the large living area on the second floor. The party was full and I found a sofa near a makeshift bar in the corner. Waiting there, I thought, was safer than walking home alone. Two men, who identified themselves as brothers, were tending the bar. Would I like a drink? Not wanting to seem like an outsider, or worse, a first year girl, I accepted a green drink in a clear tumbler with a straw that the taller of two young men offered me. He called it the “house special.” I thanked him, sat down on the sofa, and sipped it through the straw. People milled about in various stages of inebriation, dancing, and shouting.
I asked a few people when my date would be returning. I was told not to worry, that he’d only be a few minutes, to relax. Suddenly, after a few sips of the green drink, I noticed something wrong. Extraordinarily wrong. I could not feel my hands or feet. My arms and legs began to feel numb. I started to panic, breathing shallowly and rapidly. At that point, a tall, brown-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses came over to me, sat down, and peppered me with questions. Where was I from? What was my major? Where did I live? I answered his questions perfunctorily, begging off that I was soon to return to my dorm, as I was tired. I had no idea what time it was or how long I had been on the second floor. I felt dizzy and disconnected.
He grabbed my arm aggressively. “I have something to show you.”
I shouted “no!” but he dragged me off the sofa like a rag doll, down a long hallway. He pulled me into a room at the end, sat me on his lap, and began reading to me from a volume of poetry bound in green cloth—it could have been Yeats. I squirmed, trying to set myself free. He stuck his tongue in my ear and told me to settle down.
Adrenaline kicked in, and I freed myself from the strange man, ran into the hallway, and began banging on the door where I had earlier set my handbag for safekeeping. The door was padlocked from the outside. I began to scream and kick the door with the pointed toes of my shoes. At that moment, the music cranked up loudly and one of the guys from the bar in the corner of the living room—the tall one who had given me the drink—walked calmly over to me, picked me up like a sack of ashes, and deposited me back into the arms of the bespectacled stranger.
What happened next was unspeakably horrible. After pinning me down with his arms and legs, he raped me repeatedly. He beat me, despite my screams and my begging. I passed out from the fear and pain.
Waking briefly a few times throughout the night, I heard sounds, voices, slamming doors. I felt hands on me. I could not move. Suddenly, light flooded the room, and I found myself lying on a filthy orange sofa across the room from where my rape occurred. I was covered in nothing but a filthy sheet. The sheet was covered with large spots of blood. As I tried to get upright, I realized with horror that the blood was my own.
After cleaning up the copious amount of blood on my body in a bathroom, I found my clothing and got dressed. The padlocked door down the hall was now open, and I found my purse. I gingerly walked down the center staircase and out into what was a chilly, sunny October morning. The house was eerily silent on a Friday morning after a huge party. There are two sets of steps leading from the front doors of Phi Kappa Psi house. I began walking right, towards my dorm, when I realized I needed to go to the hospital. I turned left, and began the long, painful walk to the emergency room at the University of Virginia medical center.
At the hospital, I was told to wait, and was given some tea by a nurse. No one gave me any paperwork to fill out. There were stares, gestures, and quiet conversations at the desk. I assumed that far more serious cases had come into the E.R. Finally, after waiting for a few hours, the nurse approached me and told me that they could not help me, that I had to travel to Richmond or Washington, D.C. for what I needed. Apparently, I needed “tests.”
I bailed before she even finished her sentence, and began the long, sad walk back to my dorm, where I told my hall mates what had happened to me. Some sympathized, some rolled their eyes, and many simply walked away. I was bruised from head to toe—my head, my cheekbone, my toe, my ribs, my legs, and of course, my genitals. By nightfall, I had showered, eaten some soup that a friend brought me, and I slept in my room for 12 solid hours.
On the following Monday, it was arranged by my Resident Adviser that I would meet with the dean of students, Robert Canevari. Still fearful and smarting from the pain, I arrived on time and was led to chair in his office.
In great detail, I told him what had happened to me. I was covered in visible bruises as I sat before him. He dismissed me and told me I had “had sex with a young man and didn’t want my parents to know I wasn’t a good girl.” He suggested I needed mental help, and offered to help me transfer to another college.
Dean Canevari would not call the Charlottesville Police for me, because, he said, Phi Kappa Psi fell under “University jurisdiction,” so I was allowed to report the attack internally. Canevari passed me off to Dean Sybil Todd, who accompanied me to the University Police Department. I gave statements to then-Captain Michael Sheffield on several different occasions.
Nothing ever came of the “investigation.” I called Sheffield’s office regularly, and I was routinely told someone would get back to me. There was snow on the ground when I made my last trip to see Sheffield. The Christmas holiday was quickly approaching.
No one ever called me back.
Dean Todd, a motherly figure, took me under her wing. We ate lunch together. I had dinner at her home. She arranged for me to meet a student journalist, so that I could tell one of the student newspapers my story. I did. Dean Todd arranged for me to sit behind a screen and talk about my rape for a group of student leaders and activists. I wanted to be anonymous, as some of these people were friends of mine. Dean Todd remained my friend until I graduated in 1988, with my degree in English literature.
Thinking there was another way, I met a few times with the president of the Interfraternity Council. He was a fourth year, from Atlanta, and very kind to me. But he couldn’t do anything for me.
I made as much noise as I could have, but no one heard me. Until 2005.
That young man in the glasses had a name: William Beebe. I knew because I rifled through his mail that terrible October morning. In September 2005, Beebe wrote a letter to my home to apologize. It became a firestorm of inexplicable proportions.
From September through November 2005, I corresponded with him via email to find out what had happened to me that night. How many attackers? He wrote that he was the only one. What was in my drink? He didn’t know. Why did he rape me? He thought it was a “romantic” encounter. Why was he apologizing? It was part of Steps 8 and 9 in his Alcoholics Anonymous program.
I brought the correspondence to the Charlottesville Police, thinking they should know about it in the event that other victims were to come forward. I had no idea I was actually building a case against Beebe. I was shocked to find out from Chief Timothy Longo that Canevari had given me the wrong information. The Charlottesville Police did indeed have jurisdiction over the Phi Kappa Psi house. Another bombshell: There is no statute of limitations on rape in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Beebe was arrested in January 2006 and charged with two counts of felony rape. I testified merely eight feet from this monster at a preliminary hearing. Beebe was indicted by a grand jury, and, as the investigation continued, it was revealed to me through my prosecutor, Claude Worrell, that just as I had suspected, I had been the victim of a gang rape.
Beebe’s defense team, Rhonda Quagliana and Francis Lawrence, had hired a private investigator. The investigator uncovered the identities of the other two rapists and the details of that night. It was shocking to find out that the rape by Beebe was actually the last one of the night. I had no memory of the other two, and that information was used to discredit my recollection of what had happened to me. The other two rapists hired an attorney and appeared before a grand jury, each pleading the Fifth Amendment to each of the questions asked. When my husband and I asked to see the report, we were told we could purchase the report for $30,000 from the defense. We declined.
Police contacted dozens of witnesses from that night. Many were interviewed. Many declined to be interviewed. The bonds of Phi Kappa Psi brotherhood were too strong to break. There were witnesses who are sons of powerful men; congressmen, senators, captains of industry. It was—and is—heartbreaking.
Two weeks before trial, Beebe pleaded guilty to a single charge of aggravated sexual battery. His defense attorneys said that he was innocent, that he was only guilty of “a thoughtless college sex encounter during which he acted ungentlemanly.” He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but two and a half years suspended. He served less than six months.
Is that justice?
I say yes. When I think of the many rape victims who never come forward, who have been silenced in the same fashion, I am saddened. When colleges and universities systematically lie to victims and shuttle them toward administrators whose jobs depend upon protecting the good names of their employers, all of us lose. But I fought, and I fought hard, so that others after me have hope, and a chance. I received justice in many ways. Someone finally believed me. It took a letter from a rapist—an admission of sorts—to make that happen, but it happened.
The funny thing about the concept of forgiveness is that it does not begin to change what happened that night, or erase the memories I have. The human heart, in order to grow, needs to forgive. I forgave William Beebe decades ago. I don’t forgive people who send hate mail and death threats. Those people have no soul and are not important. I do not forgive those who saw the attacks and have refused to cooperate with law enforcement. These are men who now have wives and children, and their silence so many years later shows how morally bankrupt they remain. I cannot begin to understand it.
But they know.
Dean Canevari claims to have no memory of meeting with me. Dean Sybil Todd passed away from pancreatic cancer before she could testify. The IFC president denied meeting with me. I received an email from a friend some days ago after the Rolling Stone article was published, who, without prompting, wrote that he knew something terrible had happened to me when he saw me meeting with the IFC president in the lounge of my dorm. Leonard Sandridge of the University of Virginia wrote to me that records of my meetings with University Police and Captain Sheffield “could not be located.” The current administration has refused to speak with me about making change. They have refused to apologize, which is all I have ever wanted. I have not sued Phi Kappa Psi, the University of Virginia, or any of the individuals involved.
As survivors, we can punch the sky and howl at the moon for so long, but we all die alone, and we all live alone with our fears and lingering trauma. But we also live with healing, with love, with activism, with a voice. Accepting the good is how we get by. I was touched by something divine that night. I did not die. I may be missing some time and there are memories that will never be retrieved. Does that make me lost? No. I am whole, lucky, blessed—the whole nine yards. It is not a pity party when you can stand up and say, “I am,” to be counted, reaffirmed, human. Rape does not diminish that. And I am. I am.
*Names have been changed.
Editor’s note: Liz’s account of her rape was briefly recounted in the November 17th issue of Rolling Stone, in the story ‘A Rape on Campus’ by Sabrina Rubin Erdely.
Liz is the author of Crash Into Me: A Survivor's Search for Justice.