Mother, dancer, accuser

Duke scandal peels back layers of Durham woman's identity

Staff WriterApril 16, 2006 


  • Security guard at Kroger on Hillsborough Road calls 911 at 1:22 a.m. on March 14 about a distraught woman. This is not the voice of the alleged victim.


    A woman calls 911 at 12:53 a.m. on March 14 about someone shouting a racial slur in front of 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. This is not the voice of the alleged victim.

She is a 27-year-old mother of two who married young, served in the Navy and was once in serious trouble because of an episode of drunken driving and assault that left her with a criminal record.

On the campus of N.C. Central University, where she is a full-time student, few people know her.

Today she may be the nation's best-known unnamed person. She is the woman whose report of rape at a Duke lacrosse team party, where she had been hired to dance, has riveted people here in her hometown and far beyond.

The accusation in the early hours of March 14 launched a police investigation. Defense lawyers say they expect the case to go before a grand jury Monday.

Although there are no formal charges, the allegations have prompted a vigorous defense by lawyers for lacrosse team members and have divided the Duke campus and the Durham community over nearly every aspect of the case, including the credibility of the woman who brought the accusation.

Lawyers for the players cite results of court-ordered tests that showed that no DNA from team members was found on the woman. They also cite 911 recordings that describe the woman as passed out and drunk. They say her condition at the time would affect her ability to identify the men she says attacked her.

Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong and police insisted early on that they had evidence of a crime, including a medical exam reporting injuries consistent with sexual assault. Nifong says he believes the woman, whose account is the heart of the evidence revealed so far.

Adding further divisiveness is that the woman is black, and she has accused three white men. That has drawn race, class and privilege into the debate.

The woman has given just one interview, speaking to a News & Observer reporter March 24. Since then, The N&O has spoken to former classmates and neighbors, friends and family members, and has examined several official documents where her name appears.

'She was quiet'

The petite, soft-spoken woman is described by friends as a caring mother and a hard worker. According to people who have talked with her about her studies at NCCU, she also is a serious student who recently received an A in a difficult course.

The youngest of three children raised in a working-class Durham neighborhood, she graduated from Hillside High School in 1996, according to her family. A school yearbook photo from her senior year shows a girl with chin-length black braids and dark brown eyes. Her lips are pursed in a shy smile.

The News & Observer is not naming her or her family members because it is the paper's policy not to identify people listed as victims of sexual assault on police reports.

"She usually kept to herself," said Frederica Thomas, 27, a classmate from Hillside. "She was quiet. ... When I saw her, she was usually with her sister." The sister, who is a year older, is described by former neighbors and family members as a smart overachiever.

The older sister attended NCCU, and her younger sister had plans to follow in her path after high school, according to family members and neighbors.

Those plans were delayed when she met a man 14 years her senior. The man, who became her husband (they later divorced), said in an interview the woman's parents didn't approve of the relationship. Neighbors say the parents expected their daughter to go to college.

With aspirations to travel the world, the former husband said, she signed up in the fall of 1996 for an eight-year enlistment -- two years of active duty followed by six years in the reserves. She began active duty in the summer of 1997 and was sent to school in Dam Neck, Va., near Virginia Beach, to train for her job operating radios and navigation equipment.

That fall, the couple got married in Virginia Beach. The union would allow the woman's husband to travel wherever the woman was stationed, he said.

The former husband said he was illiterate when he married the then-19-year-old woman. She taught him to read, he said, and was kind and patient during the process. After months of tutoring and many evenings spent paging through beginning-level books, he said, he was finally able to fill out his own job applications.

"She never downed me for that," he said. "She loved me for who I was." He said he saw her after the accusations of rape were reported and she appeared distressed.

As newlyweds, the couple moved to Concord, Calif., where the woman was assigned to the USS Mount Hood, an ammunition ship. She was often away at sea for days or weeks, and tensions flared in the marriage, her former husband said.

"She was young," he said.

Along the way, the woman became interested in another sailor, a man who would later father her children, the former husband said. The two separated as the new relationship began, he said. Six months later, she was discharged from the service.

A U.S. Navy spokesman would not release the reason for the discharge, though records indicate it came less than nine months before she had her first child, a boy, named after his father.

Court records show the divorce became final after she gave birth. She continued her relationship with the sailor, and the two had a second child. Soon after, the couple parted ways. In 2003, the children's father was ordered by a Durham court to have a portion of his paycheck, about $400 a month, withheld for child support, court records show. He was also ordered to pay more than $2,700 in public assistance to the children.

Back in Durham, where her parents still live, the woman tried several jobs to support her children, including working in an assembly line for a computer company and various sales jobs, her former husband said.

In trouble with the law

One summer night in 2002, excessive drinking led to charges that the woman stole a car and led officers on a reckless car chase.

The episode started at the Diamond Girls club on Angier Avenue in Durham. According to Larry W. Jones, the owner of Diamond Girls, the woman appeared at the club that night and "tried out," giving lap dances to a few men.

Jones said the manager at the time did not offer the woman a job because she was "acting funny."

She started dancing for a taxi driver, whom she asked for a ride, according to a report from the Durham County Sheriff's Office. While dancing, she took the keys from the driver's pocket without his knowledge and, minutes later, drove off in his taxi.

The cab driver called 911 and a sheriff's deputy responded and saw the blue 1992 Chevrolet Caprice heading east on Angier Avenue near Page Road. The headlights were off and the woman was driving on the wrong side of the road, according to the deputy's report.

The woman sped up to pass the officer, and he began to chase the taxi, which ran a stop sign and veered across the road, weaving across a grass median, onto the shoulder and back. The car sped from Angier Avenue onto U.S. 70, the report said.

According to the report, the woman drove down the center of the highway, a 55 mph zone, at 70 mph, heading into Raleigh. She kept speeding, drove the wrong way down Brier Creek Parkway and turned into a dead end, where she tried to drive the taxi through a fence.

The sheriff's deputy said he got out of his car and told the woman to turn off the car. She laughed, backed up the car, then drove forward again and nearly hit the deputy, the report said.

The taxi slammed into the deputy's car and kept going, turning back onto Brier Creek Parkway into oncoming traffic, the report said. Another deputy continued to chase her until the taxi got a flat tire. Officers boxed in the car, pulled the woman out and arrested her.

Her blood alcohol level was 0.19, according to court records, more than twice the legal limit to drive in North Carolina.

The woman was charged with driving while impaired, driving with a revoked license, felony speeding to elude arrest, felony assault with a deadly weapon on a government official, and felony larceny of a motor vehicle. Court documents and her criminal and driving records show that her driver's license had been revoked before the incident, but they do not indicate why.

Under a deal with prosecutors, she pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors in the car chase: larceny, speeding to elude arrest, assault on a government official and DWI, according to court records. She was required to serve three consecutive weekends in jail and was placed on two years' probation. She paid restitution and court costs, and completed her probation.

Woody Vann, a Durham lawyer who defended the woman, said recently that when the case went to court in 2003, he was ready to present 10 character witnesses for his client. She struck him as responsible because she admitted wrongdoing in the case, he said.

Facing obstacles

Rebounding from the incident, the woman tried a job at a nursing home, following in the footsteps of her older sister, who had taken on similar work.

In the summer of 2004, she landed a position at a rest home. But the job was short-lived, because part of her employee file was missing. When she didn't receive a paycheck after a few weeks of work, she filed a complaint with the Durham County Sheriff's Office. Her employer told her to submit a criminal record in order to get paid, the report said. No further action was taken by either party to resolve the issue, the report said.

Her criminal record -- the misdemeanors and traffic charges from the 2002 event -- never stood in the way of her getting other jobs, the woman's father said in an interview.

The father said he did not know that she had taken a job with an escort service until after she made the rape allegations. In an earlier interview, the woman said she thought he knew about the job.

The former husband said that when they were married, they fell behind on bills. His former wife, he said, suggested she take a job dancing; she would be nearly nude but would make some quick money. She visited a club but decided she wasn't ready for that kind of work, he said.

He said he worked during the marriage, but not steadily. "I couldn't fault a woman for taking care of her family and trying to pay the bills," he said.

The night of March 13

The March 13 lacrosse party at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. was supposed to net her $400, according to lawyers for the lacrosse players. But the dancing lasted only a few minutes, according to the woman, police and lawyers for the players.

The woman said she and another dancer sent by a second escort service stopped dancing because several men at the party yelled a racial slur. In a court document used to obtain DNA samples from lacrosse team members, the woman said one man in the room threatened to sexually assault her with a broom handle.

Lawyers for the players say the dancing stopped because the woman now making the rape allegations was too impaired to perform. They say they have photos and video showing she was impaired, and they say no sexual assault occurred at the party.

On March 24, when The News & Observer reported that 46 lacrosse players had been ordered to submit DNA, the woman spent the morning inside her parents' home as her two young children explored the yard.

As she stepped off the screened-in porch, a gym bag slung over one shoulder, she was met by a reporter. Upon learning that reports of her allegations had surfaced in the newspaper, she put a hand over her mouth and gasped. Tears welled in her eyes.

She reported the incident, she said, because many men don't believe forcing a woman to have sex is a "big deal." She pulled her 7-year-old son toward her on the sidewalk.

"I'm just trying to get on with my life," she said softly.

Since then, she has not spoken publicly.

(Staff writers Jay Price, Benjamin Niolet, Eric Ferreri and Janell Ross and news researchers Brooke Cain and Lamara Williams-Hackett contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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