Crime

Lawrence comic book writer banned from KU, accused in 4 sexual assaults, but no arrest

She was looking for a mentor. Instead, she says, Jai Nitz assaulted her

Hannah Strader, 24, was a junior at the University of Kansas when comic book writer Jai Nitz, 43, allegedly forcibly kissed her in 2017. She was one of three women who have issued reports to the Lawrence Police Department in the past year.
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Hannah Strader, 24, was a junior at the University of Kansas when comic book writer Jai Nitz, 43, allegedly forcibly kissed her in 2017. She was one of three women who have issued reports to the Lawrence Police Department in the past year.

She can’t forget the sound of “Across the Universe,” by The Beatles, playing over the speakers. The way his foot brushed against her thigh as he asked her, “How often do you masturbate?”

It felt wrong to Hannah Strader, then a junior at the University of Kansas, for a guest speaker from her journalism class to ask her that.

She had agreed to meet with Jai Nitz, a 43-year-old comic book writer who created a character in the hit movie “Suicide Squad,” because she hoped he would be her mentor.

But after the meeting, she said, Nitz trapped her against her car and forcibly kissed her.

Strader’s account is one of several that have emerged in the past year accusing Nitz of sexual violence. A Kansas City woman told police Nitz raped her in a parking lot. A woman in Lawrence said Nitz routinely coerced her into sex.

Nitz has spent a lot of time on the KU campus in recent years. He was hired to lecture on creative writing and graphic novels, and returned at the invitation of professors and campus organizations, according to university documents and officials.

But despite a “pattern of predatory behavior towards female students” dating back to 2014, including Strader’s complaint in 2017, KU did not ban Nitz from campus until this year, according to a letter from the provost’s office.

In all, four women have filed police reports this year accusing Nitz of sex crimes. The Star spoke with three of them and one agreed to be named. The Star generally does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission.

Nitz has not been arrested or charged in any criminal case.

Strader and the two women said police let them down, putting the burden on them to solve their own assaults.

“It’s harmful to everyone to be told that the responsibility for your own protection is up to you, and that when something does happen, you’re not going to get help in the way that you need it,” Strader said.

“It puts the victims through a lot more trauma, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Lawrence police and law enforcement officials in Kansas City said they did the best they could with the information they had.

It’s a common problem, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology who researches sexual violence prevention at the City University of New York. The burden of proof in criminal cases is high, and prosecutors say winning convictions at trial in sexual assault cases can be hard.

After allegations against Nitz surfaced online in April, he withdrew from public life and his comic book series was canceled.

He spoke to comic book industry outlet Bleeding Cool:

“This is a very difficult time for me and my family,” Nitz was quoted as saying. “I apologize for my past behaviors and any pain they caused. I am stepping away from comics and public life. I am seeking counseling and trying to live a better life for my loved ones.”

Nitz did not respond to The Star’s requests for comment.

But Strader said she has not found it easy to walk away from what happened.

‘It was scary’

A new guest walked into Strader’s journalism class in March 2017.

The professor told students they had five minutes to prep for a mock news conference.

Strader looked up the guest’s name, “Jai Nitz,” online.

He was a successful comic book writer and an advocate for Latin American representation in media. One of the comic book characters he created, “El Diablo,” would make an appearance in “Suicide Squad,” a film that earned over $700 million at the box office.

Strader, then a junior in college, saw an opportunity for a new writing mentor, she said. She followed Nitz on Twitter and they began talking casually online.

He messaged her with an invitation: “Let’s meet for drinks.”

A few days later, they met at Zen Zero, a restaurant in downtown Lawrence.

She sat at the bar. Behind her, KU’s basketball team played on the television screen. It was the beginning of March Madness.

Nitz was 15 minutes late, as she remembered. By then, Strader finished her first drink. To apologize, Nitz bought her a second.

“That’s when he really started working on me,” Strader said. “And it was scary.”

He kept telling her she was beautiful. He asked her questions about her sex life, like whether she was a virgin, she said. He told her what it was like meeting celebrities such as Margot Robbie and Will Smith on the set of “Suicide Squad.”

As they talked, they heard the cheers of Jayhawk fans from the bar TV. Nitz told Strader he graduated from KU in 1998, a big year for the basketball team.

“You would’ve been pretty young,” Nitz said.

“I would’ve been 3 years old,” Strader replied. Nitz didn’t seem bothered by the age difference, Strader said.

It was almost closing time. Nitz invited Strader to The Burger Stand, just down the street.

Strader wanted to go home, she said. But she felt indebted because Nitz paid their tab.

So she tagged along.

At Burger Stand, “Across the Universe” was playing on the restaurant’s sound system, Strader remembers.

Nothing’s gonna change my world, the song goes, again and again. It was her favorite Beatles song.

When they sat down, the height of the booths kept the two secluded from other patrons.

Nitz kept on persuading Strader to order more beers, she said. One after the other after the other. Strader felt she ordered far beyond her limit.

Nitz asked: “How often do you masturbate?” His leg was propped up, she said, with his foot against her thigh.

She thought the question was inappropriate.

“I was just curious,” Nitz said. He told her he would think of her that night when he masturbated.

When Nitz left to go to the restroom, Strader thought about sneaking away before he came back. She was uncomfortable with a 43-year-old man asking about her sex life.

But she was taught to be polite, she said. So she didn’t get up.

When Nitz returned from the restroom, he invited Strader to a strip club, she remembers. She said no. But he kept prodding her. Then, she says, he began asking her to kiss him. She told him, “No.”

“This isn’t what I came here for,” she said. She wanted to talk about writing. “Why are you doing this?”

“You had to have known what this was,” Nitz told her.

It finally felt like the time for Strader to leave. She told Nitz she had class the next day.

Nitz walked her to her car.

He asked her to kiss him, she said, and when she again refused, he pushed for a hug instead. Strader accepted out of fear.

He backed her up against her car, she said.

“You can kiss me if you want,” Nitz said, as she recalled.

When she tried to kiss his neck to appease him, he told her, “Not like that.”

Strader pulled away and pushed him off her, she said. She got into the driver’s seat of her car.

When Nitz called out her name, she turned reflexively in her seat. He was leaning over, and he forcibly kissed her, she said.

When Nitz stepped back, Strader shut the door to her car, she said. He started tapping at her window, trying to get her to roll it down. She put her car in reverse, ignoring him, and drove away. She sped to a friend’s house a few blocks away. She started crying.

Later, she drove to her parents’ house in Overland Park, she said, because she was too afraid to be alone that night.

Days later, she reported the incident to her journalism professor.

The professor told her he was obligated to report it to the university’s Title IX Office, which investigates sexual assault complaints.

Shane McCreery, then the director of the Title IX office, told Strader that Nitz was subsequently banned from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications after she reported. Nitz would continue to show up on campus for the next two years in different schools on campus.

Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a KU spokesperson, confirmed Nitz was banned from the journalism school in 2017.

“At the time I felt like I didn’t have enough to go to the police,” Strader said. “Nothing besides a forced kiss and forced groping happened.”

But other women would accuse Nitz of far more violent sexual assaults.

‘I could be a predator’

Strader couldn’t get away from the Planet Comicon ads.

They reminded her Nitz was regularly invited to the event.

Two years after her encounter with him, after she had left Lawrence and started a new job in Kansas City, she was drinking a cup of coffee on her balcony and scrolling through Instagram when she saw another ad. There he was again.

It was enough. She was angry. She said she wanted people to know what he did.

She decided to share her story through Her Campus, an online magazine she worked for while she was a student at KU. Her story published March 30, 2019.

The reaction was instant. Women started reaching out to Strader with similar tales of sexual assaults allegedly committed by Nitz. Strader got many of them organized in a group chat.

A Kansas City woman read Strader’s article. She didn’t recognize the name, so she searched “Jai Nitz” on Google.

When she saw his face, she thought, “That’s him.”

The memories started coming back.

It was meant to be a simple date, she said. Two strangers found each other online and met in person.

He told her his name was “Jay,” she said. He was an hour late. She sipped a gin and tonic while she waited.

She planned to stop drinking when “Jay” arrived. She had to drive home. He bought her a second drink to apologize for showing up late, she remembers him saying.

Minutes in, she started to think he was odd, she said. He didn’t ask her name.

He showed her an article about the difference between predator and prey in the animal kingdom, how antelopes jump over water holes even though they know lions are on the other side, she said.

“I could be a predator and you don’t even know it,” he told her, as she remembered. “You just showed up.”

That’s when she knew she wanted to leave.

But she wanted to be polite, she said, and figured she would stay longer, at least to give him a fair chance.

“Jay” jumped to talking about sex as he finished his drink, she said.

She fumbled through her brain for excuses to get out of there.

“I need to let my dogs out,” she told him. “I should probably go.”

“Jay” didn’t argue, she said. When he got up to pay for drinks, she tried sneaking out of the bar.

But when she reached the door, he grabbed her by the neck, she said.

“Where are you going? We’re not done. We’ve got more to talk about,” he told her, as she remembered.

She couldn’t fathom what was happening as the man forced her into the passenger seat of his car, parked only a few paces away, she said.

He got in the driver’s seat and started driving to an empty business parking lot in an unfamiliar area, she said. His hand still gripped her neck and she started to cry.

He parked the car and forced her to give him oral sex, she said. Her face was pressed against the steering wheel.

When he was done, he passed her a Lysol wipe, she said. As she cleaned the area around her mouth, she noticed part of her front tooth was gone — the pressure from being held against the steering wheel had chipped it.

She tried to stop crying and compose herself. She didn’t want him to gain any enjoyment from seeing her tears.

The man told her, “Oh, you’re not crying. You clearly liked that,” as she remembered.

She cried again. Since he let go of her head, she got ready to open the door to leave.

He grabbed her again by her neck and told her to get in the back. She tried again to open the door, but he slapped her and told her to get in the backseat again, she said.

He wouldn’t let her leave.

She assessed her options: He was bigger and stronger than her. She didn’t know where she was. There wasn’t anyone around. Her best option, she thought, was to do as he said.

She crawled through the middle of the car to the back. She hoped someone would drive by and see what was happening. No one did.

He got out of the driver’s seat and came to the back. His hand returned to the back of her neck, and he pushed her into the cushions of his backseat, she said. She kept trying to tell him she couldn’t breathe, and he told her, “That’s the point.”

Then, she said, he raped her vaginally and anally.

She started thinking she wasn’t going to make it out of the car alive, she said. She couldn’t process what was happening.

When he was done, he pulled her out of the vehicle by her hair, she said.

He said something to her that she can’t remember. He tried to push her down, she said. He drove off.

She started looking for familiar buildings, to find her way back to her car.

Days later, the woman confided her story to a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy in a park, according to a sheriff’s office report. But she felt like she was being accused when she gave her statement, she said, as recorded in medical records, and she ultimately decided not to continue filing the report.

She became suicidal. She quit a job she worked for years. She checked into a psychiatric hospital.

When she was admitted, doctors found bruises across her chest, according to her medical records.

She spent months looking online, trying to find out who was the man who did that to her.

He told her that night he had some affiliation with the University of Kansas. His name was “Jay.” He loved comic books.

If she dug enough, maybe she would find him, she thought.

But she couldn’t figure out who he was, she said, until she saw Strader’s story.

She decided to take action.

Probable cause

The women came forward to police about Nitz earlier this year to seek justice, but they were quickly disappointed by a system they felt hardly heard them.

The Kansas City woman returned to file a report with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office April 18, 2019, after seeing Strader’s story. She didn’t hear back for months.

Strader reported the 2017 incident to Lawrence police on April 20, 2019.

Within weeks, two other women went to Lawrence police to report being sexually assaulted by Nitz.

One woman told police on April 22 about Nitz’s repeated aggressive behavior while they were dating.

She reported how Nitz constantly showed up to her workplace. Once, when customers weren’t around, she said, he grabbed her hand and forced it into his pants. She said Nitz made her give him a handjob.

Another day, Nitz would not allow her to leave her office until she had anal sex with him, she said.

Whenever they were in a vehicle together, Nitz would drive to a secluded area, grab her by the neck and force her to give him oral sex, she said.

Later, she moved away from Lawrence and cut ties with Nitz. She hasn’t talked to Nitz in years, she said. With the distance, she came to realize how many times Nitz violated her trust and space, she said.

Another woman reported to police May 15, 2019: Nitz had “non-consensual sexual relations” with her around September 2018, according to her police report.

Strader returned to police and asked them to pursue the investigation, she said. An officer told her they couldn’t guarantee charges would be filed, but said police would start looking into Nitz.

Weeks passed. Strader contacted Lawrence police three times through email, and multiple times by phone, to ask whether law enforcement talked to Nitz. It felt like all the burden was on her, she said.

It would be weeks until police contacted Nitz.

Police initially told Strader they were having difficulty finding him. He moved recently, authorities said, and they needed to find his new address.

Police couldn’t find Nitz’s new home address. But the women did.

Strader and other women used social media to find it in June, and turned it over to police.

The officer Strader talked to previously promised to call Strader later, after they were able to talk to Nitz.

But she didn’t get a phone call back. When she tried calling the police officer, he didn’t answer.

On June 16, about a month after the last report, Strader emailed the officer assigned to the investigation to ask if they talked to Nitz.

An officer on June 17 wrote her back:

“I have not had a chance to pay Jai a visit since learning his new address. Unfortunately, we have been short handed on patrol and busy here these last few days. I am hoping to do this Sunday when things are (knock on wood) usually a little quieter.”

Weeks earlier, Strader had requested a copy of her own police report from the Lawrence Police Department.

Lawrence police didn’t give it to her. An officer told her, “Some reports need a subpoena or a court order.”

In fact, Kansas law says the front pages of incident reports are public records.

“I cried afterwards,” Strader said. “It felt like I’d submitted something to the police that was out of my hands; that I didn’t even have access to look at anymore.”

On July 2, an investigator from the police department told Strader he knocked on Nitz’s door, but Nitz wasn’t home. Days later, Nitz called the investigator.

The officer told Strader in an email:

“Jai refused to meet with me to discuss the investigation. He pushed for some details and when I told him I would be happy to discuss those details in a meeting, he said he would have his attorney contact me (aka, not going to talk). I told him to please do, but obviously won’t hold my breath for that.”

Patrick Compton, a spokesperson for the Lawrence Police Department, said, “This individual changed residences and their contact information, making it difficult for officers to locate him. Officers did eventually make contact, but the specifics of that interview are not something we can discuss.”

In an email, an officer suggested Strader secretly record a phone call with Nitz.

He might admit he’d sexually battered her, the officer wrote, and it would help affirm a crime was committed. Then, an affidavit could be forwarded to the prosecutor and charges could be filed.

Strader declined to do that.

“To ask me to do that, it just doesn’t feel like my responsibility,” Strader said. “I’ve given as much information as I possibly could.”

Jeglic, the New York psychology professor, said she had not heard, in her years of studying sex crimes, of police asking victims to contact their alleged offender.

“That is not normal,” Jeglic said. “Given this is a sex crime, there is trauma involved.”

Generally, most sex crimes don’t result in a conviction, Jeglic said.

“It’s usually her word against his word,” Jeglic said. “There’s not a lot of physical evidence, and it’s difficult to get corroborating information.”

Compton, the Lawrence police spokesperson, declined to talk about the techniques used by investigators.

He provided the following statement:

“Sometimes investigations don’t progress as fast as everyone would like, but we don’t want to rush it. We investigate every report of an alleged crime thoroughly and with equal scrutiny.

“Investigations are dynamic and constantly evolve over time. In many investigations, probable cause may be lacking, a victim may want to document but not pursue charges, or there may be subjects that need to be interviewed who are either not easily accessible or refuse to speak with investigators.”

KU campus ban

In a letter dated May 15, 2019, KU officials told Nitz he was banned from the Lawrence campus for three years. He was already banned from the journalism school.

Nitz had previously been employed by the university as a lecturer in the Department of Film and Media Studies, from January 2012 to March 2015, according to Barcomb-Peterson, the KU spokesperson.

“You have reportedly engaged in a series of predatory sexual behaviors over the last five years in which you have targeted female students after meeting them on campus,” said the letter, signed by Interim Provost Carl Lejuez.

It was during those five years that Strader reported Nitz in 2017.

While Nitz was banned from the journalism school, he was free to go anywhere else on campus. In April 2018, KU hosted him for a panel in the student union.

That fall, he was reported again for “predatory behavior” against a female student in a different department.

The May 15 letter means Nitz cannot return to campus until May 15, 2022.

“Your pattern of conduct towards young women on campus demonstrates that your presence on campus creates an imminent threat of danger to KU students,” the letter said.

Once the campus-wide ban was implemented, campus police were notified, Barcomb-Peterson said, as well as certain departments deemed appropriate by the administration.

Nitz is not supposed to step foot on any campus facilities or parking lots. If he’s seen doing so, he’s subject to a citation for criminal trespass, said Deputy Chief James Anguiano of KU’s Public Safety Office.

The women accusing Nitz said they feel they’ve been let down by the justice system. Despite all of their reports, and the similarities among many of their accounts, police have not arrested him and he has not been charged with any crime.

In Lawrence, police said they could not prove a crime occurred.

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges in the rape case in Kansas City. Prosecutors said there was “insufficient evidence” to prove a crime was committed.

“While the State understands the allegations made by the victim, the facts are such that the State does not feel that it could prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt. The facts lend themselves to a defense that would be very difficult to overcome at trial,” the prosecutor’s office said.

The women’s sense of security is destroyed, they said.

The Kansas City woman said she had difficulty walking in grocery stores for months after her assault. She can’t handle hearing loud noises anymore. Other victims worry Nitz will retaliate against them for speaking out.

“What we wanted was to look into the eyes of our community members and be told that we’re safe,” Strader said. “We’re not getting that.”

But with their stories now public, Jeglic said, Nitz will be aware people are watching him.

“These women are helping stop him,” Jeglic said.

Reader feedback can be sent to breaking news editor Ian Cummings by email at icummings@kcstar.com or by phone at 816-234-4633.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

Reporting intern Nicole Asbury learned that Jai Nitz had been accused of sexual assault by several women. One of the women who made a report against him reached out to her in June. Asbury met with women who made the allegations. She gathered police reports, emails from police departments, medical records and a letter from the KU that banned Nitz from campus. She interviewed law enforcement and university officials and an expert in sexual violence prevention. She attempted to reach Nitz for an interview but he did not respond to requests for comment.

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