Twenty years after her assault at a college party, Liz Seccuro received a letter of apology from her attacker. The correspondence that followed led her to pursue justice at last
It was late summer 2005 and we were about to set out on an extended vacation with our two-year-old daughter, Ava. "Hey, you got a letter," said my husband Mike, tossing it to me like a Frisbee. It smelled faintly of vanilla, nice paper. I ripped it open and began to read the very precise, almost feminine cursive script.
In October 1984 I harmed you. I can scarcely begin to understand the degree to which, in your eyes, my behaviour has affected you in its wake. Still, I stand prepared to hear from you about just how, and in what ways you've been affected; and to begin to set right the wrong I've done, in any way you see fit. Most sincerely yours, Will Beebe
In 1984, I arrived, like any other student, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. An only child, I was the first in my family to attend college. My parents were thrilled, although the university was far from our home town, a suburb of New York City. I had graduated top of my high school class and was prepared to make something great of myself. But those hopes and dreams were dashed about five weeks later.
A dorm friend, desperately wanting to join a fraternity, begged me to be his date to a party at Phi Kappa Psi, a massive pile of Georgian bricks and white columns at the head of fraternity row. Reluctantly, I climbed out of my sweatpants and donned a denim miniskirt, long-sleeved crew-neck sweater, navy blue flats and a pearl necklace. And then we set off on our five-minute walk with a few other friends from our dorm.
We arrived to the din of a party in full swing – a band, kegs of beer, jubilant collegians. Nothing out of the ordinary, but for the fact that my date was gay and, back in 1984, being gay was not as openly accepted as it is today. He needed to "pass", so I stuck to his side as we toured the property and listened to the brothers talk about tradition, academia and the honour that was bestowed upon the lucky few who would be chosen as Phi Kappa Psi brothers.
We got separated. My date was invited to smoke pot with some brothers. I had never done so, nor did I want to start. I decided to wait in the second-floor living room, thinking I'd be safer there than walking home alone. I sat on a sofa near a makeshift bar where two brothers, acting as bartenders, assured me that my friend would be back soon. And would I like a drink?
"It's our house special – here you go," said one brother, offering a green drink in a plastic tumbler.
"Thank you," I said. And sat back down, sipping my drink, waiting for my date to return. People milled about, greeting one another and dancing.
"When do you think my date is coming back?" I asked no one in particular.
"Oh, he'll be here in a few minutes. Just relax. You're fine here," said another brother.
Suddenly I noticed something was wrong. I could not feel my hands or feet; my arms and legs followed in numbness. What was happening? I started to panic. At that point, a very tall, owlish-looking man with glasses appeared, asking where I was from, what was my major, where did I live? I answered his questions perfunctorily, begging off that I was soon going home as I was tired. I had no idea what time it was or how long I had been there.
He grabbed my arm and said loudly, "I have something to show you!"
"No!" I said. I couldn't really walk. And I had no interest in what this stranger wanted to show me.
He dragged me down the hall like a rag doll, into a room, grabbed me around the waist, sat me on his lap and began reading to me from a volume of poetry. 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, running into the hall, screaming. At that precise moment, the music was turned up loud and one of the guys from the bar calmly walked over to me, picked me up like a sack of ashes and deposited me back into the waiting arms of the bespectacled stranger.
What happened next was unspeakable. He raped me repeatedly, despite my screams. I awoke sporadically throughout the night; hearing voices, feeling hands. I could not move. At last, light flooded the room. I saw that I was lying on a filthy orange couch, covered in a filthy sheet, across the room from where I was raped. The sheet was covered with large spots of blood. As I tried to get upright, I realised, with horror, that the blood was my own. It had dried in rivulets down my legs.
After cleaning up and finding my clothing, I gingerly walked down the stairs and out into a gorgeous October morning. I started to walk right, towards my dorm, but then realised I needed to get to a hospital. So I turned left, toward the university medical centre.
After hours of waiting and many stares, I was told that what I needed "could not be done here in Charlottesville" and that I should travel to a large city such as Richmond or Washington, DC for testing. Those tests today are called "rape kits".
I went back to my dorm, where I told my dorm mates and resident adviser what had happened to me. Some sympathised, some rolled their eyes and many just walked away. I was bruised from head to toe – my head, my cheekbone, my foot, my ribs, my legs and of course my private areas. I finally showered, had some soup and slept for a good 12 hours.
On the following Monday, it was arranged that I would meet with the dean of students, Robert Canevari. Still smarting from the pain, I arrived at the appointed time and told him what had happened to me at the Phi Kappa Psi house. He looked at me, nonplussed.
"Are you sure you didn't have sex with this man and you don't want to admit that you aren't a 'good girl'?"
"No, that's not what I am saying. I am saying I was raped."
The dean told me, when I asked, that the Charlottesville police could not be called as the fraternity house fell under "university jurisdiction" and that I should make my report to them. But not before he volunteered to have me transferred to another school because of my "distress". I said no. I had always said no.
Nothing ever came of the investigation by the university police. I was the one calling them, always greeted with a terse, "Someone will call you back." No one ever did. The deans said that they had spoken with the young man in question and told me, "He said it was consensual." He, the rapist, withdrew from the university and was thus "no longer a danger" to me. One night, I took the bag of clothes I had worn that night and saved in the back of my closet, walked to the edge of the local cemetery and set them on fire. I had lost.
But then, in 2005, William Beebe, my rapist, wrote a letter to my home to apologise.
After thinking and stewing and not sleeping, I make a decision: I am going to reply. I need to know that Beebe is in Las Vegas, as it says on the return address, and not creeping outside my door. A day after receiving the letter, after putting Ava to bed, I'm sitting with my legs dangling in the pool of our Hamptons house, puffing surreptitiously on a cigarette (I'd quit years earlier) as I tap out the email on my BlackBerry.
Mr. Beebe: I am in receipt of your letter. My life was terribly altered by the fact that you raped me, and I want to know why you did it and why you are reaching out to me now. Every decision in my life has been coloured by wanting to feel safe. Now I don't feel safe again. How can you live with yourself?
I don't sign it. He'll know who it's from.
As Mike, Ava and I try to enjoy our vacation, I obsessively check the BlackBerry. And then it arrives. I see the new mail icon, see his name and click on it. He describes the selfishness of his youth, a time when he rarely thought about the consequences of his actions, especially when he had been drinking. He'd joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He wanted to right the wrongs in his past. It seems that he regards his crime against me as just one more instance of collateral damage from the alcoholic life he has put behind him. He says he prays for me.
This is torture. I can't let this email be the last word. Shamefully, I haven't discussed with my husband the correspondence – can't he tell something is wrong? That night, I email Beebe back.
Are you married? Does your wife know what you did? My life was a living hell after the rape.
Almost 24 hours later, my BlackBerry buzzes. Again, he speaks mainly about himself. He rambles on and on about his "spiritual awakening" and various trips to rehab. Not once does he really answer my questions, except to admit that he has never been married because he couldn't find "true union with a woman; especially after what he did". He refers to a much more romantic scenario than the brutal rape it was. He writes, "You were a natural blonde, as I recall." After reading those words, I almost drop the device in the pool. I have no idea what fantasy he is reliving. His emails become erratic.
The end of November brings many emotions to my household. The emails from William Beebe continue, and I intermittently email him back. The correspondence is never friendly, although my questions are sometimes benign.
One night I finally tell Mike about the emails. He stares at me, his expression changing from sympathy to anger to fear in the time it takes for me to sputter out what is happening.
In early December, I pick up the phone, hesitate, then punch in the number of the Charlottesville police department and ask for the chief. I am transferred to the voicemail of Timothy Longo. "Hi, you don't know me, but I was a student at the university, and I was raped by a fellow classmate in 1984 at the Phi Kappa Psi house. I reported it to the deans and the university police. Nothing was done. This person has made contact with me again and knows where I live. Sir, I think I need your help."
I don't expect an answer. Forty-five minutes later, Chief Longo calls me back. I give him a synopsis of what happened in 1984, and what has since transpired. He is polite, strong and businesslike. He tells me that, contrary to what the dean of students had told me two decades earlier, the fraternity house is indeed under the jurisdiction of the Charlottesville police department and always has been. My brain freezes. Had they lied to me? I am stunned. Longo also tells me that there is no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia, that Beebe can still be charged with the crime. Longo and I exchange email addresses, and he tells me that he or one of his detectives will follow up.
The next evening, the phone rings. It is detective Nicholas Rudman asking if I'd be willing to come to Charlottesville to give a statement. I phone Mike and we agree to go that Friday night. At noon on Saturday 10 December 2005, detectives Rudman and Scott Godfrey are in the hotel lobby to meet me. "Liz, could you take us to some of the places you mentioned in your statements to Chief Longo?" asks Godfrey. Sure, I say. As we drive, I point out the salmon-coloured building that housed the university police and tell the detectives of my visits there. I point to the Phi Kappa Psi house, sitting gracefully on Madison Lane. "That's the room I was raped in," I say, gesturing toward the second-floor window on the far right. "There's a window overlooking Madison and the bed was flush against that window."
We double back and drive toward campus, to my freshman dorm. On the second floor, at the end of a long hall, I see the door to my room. I'm overwhelmingly sad as I stand there, feeling so much older, but still so scared.
Finally, we begin our drive to the police department. They ask if I am ready to tell what happened to me that night in October 1984. It has been 20 years since I have spoken about it in such detail, from beginning to end. Telling it now, especially back in Charlottesville, is the oddest sensation. I ask for a piece of paper and draw a layout of Phi Kappa Psi, the room in which I was raped and myself as a stick figure on the bed and on the sofa. I stand up and ask Godfrey to stand in order to describe Beebe's height and weight. I take off my boots to demonstrate my own height. I can hear the clock on the wall ticking softly.
And then we come to the part where I have to describe the rape itself. My whole statement takes more than two hours. The story I had kept buried comes pouring forth, the details fresh. People are listening to me, hearing me, and I will never be silent again. "I think we have enough here," Rudman says, clicking off the tape. Enough for what, I wonder.
"Would you like to press charges against William Nottingham Beebe for your rape in October of 1984?"
I begin to sob. "Yes," I say, "I would like to press charges, please."
William Beebe was arrested on 4 January 2006 for felony rape. I was told that when he was arrested, there was packed luggage and a passport in his foyer, but he went without incident. He was extradited from Nevada to Virginia, where he was released after six days on a $30,000 bond.
In March 2006, I testified at a preliminary hearing, sitting a mere eight feet away from my monster. Beebe had hired a very costly and prestigious team of lawyers to defend him. As it turned out, he had found my home address by merely dialling the University of Virginia alumni office – they gave it to him without question.
I didn't look at Beebe, except when I had to identify him as my assailant. When I did, he was exactly as I remembered. The years fell away and I was 17 again and vulnerable and frightened, despite being surrounded by friends, family and the legal team.
Beebe was indicted by a grand jury and, as the investigation went on, it was revealed that I had actually been the victim of a gang rape, just as I had suspected. There was, however, not enough hard evidence to indict the other two.
Two weeks before trial in November 2006, William Beebe pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated sexual battery. The plea took two hours and he stared at me the entire time, so that the judge later told his defence team that he was not allowed to look at me. His attorneys had said that he was innocent; that he was guilty only of "a thoughtless college sex encounter during which he acted ungentlemanly".
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, all but two and a half of them suspended. He served less than six months. I was told that he was never even transferred to a maximum security prison, that "human error" had misclassified him as non-violent. He was released early as a result of this mistake and overcrowding at the city jail. Also, he was white and educated, so they figured they should set him free. I think of all the people in prison for far lesser crimes, serving far lengthier sentences, and wonder if justice was served.
Crash Into Me: A Survivor's Search for Justice by Liz Seccuro is published by Bloomsbury.