Melinda Henneberger

KU student charged with false rape report: ‘No one asked my side of the story’

Even when she was handcuffed and charged with making a false rape report, “I still thought that it was a big misunderstanding” that would be cleared right up, the KU law student said in a long interview on Tuesday.

We’d planned to talk last week, right after the charges against her were finally dropped, but then her PTSD kicked up, and she had to postpone.

She has panic attacks and nightmares in part because the false charge that she’d made a false charge was not a misunderstanding. It was not quickly cleared up. And after the year she’s been through, it can never — please hear this, Lawrence, Kansas police and Douglas County prosecutors — ever fully be made right: “My doctor says this isn’t where it ends,” she said in the interview, in her lawyer Cheryl Pilate’s Kansas City office.

The first in her family to attend college, the woman is in law school on an academic scholarship while also working in return for room and board. Months away from graduation, she’d already accepted a job offer from her first-choice firm. Preserving her future there was her first priority even after she reported being raped while in a blackout, by the friend of a guy she’d been seeing.

All the cops could see in her, though, was a woman hellbent on keeping her boyfriend. Or punishing him. Or making him jealous.

“I had a very promising career path,” she said, cracking her knuckles and then rubbing her eyes. And one “terrible thing is having to explain why I’m not graduating on time and having to relive how much this has derailed my life every time somebody asks” why she took a semester off.

What she doesn’t say, but thinks? “Because I was sexually assaulted and then retraumatized by every system that was supposed to protect me.”

Including, she says, by KU, where officials in her view sided with the male classmate who she says raped her in September 2018.

“There was a lot of support for him, and no one asked my side of the story, or how I was doing. A law school administrator said I needed to think about what I was doing, and deans were listed as witnesses for the prosecution. A couple of professors have been supportive, but that’s the exception. At multiple points, I’ve said this can’t get any worse, but to find out the institution I go to every day” was among those letting her down was hard. A spokeswoman for KU said they don’t comment on Title IX complaints.

Another low point, the student said, was reading the court documents that explained how police had from the first seen her as motivated by some weird keep-your-man-by-turning-his-best-friend-in-for-rape scenario, like she was straight out of some boil-the-bunny thriller made before she was born.

She was only reporting, as she kept telling them, to document what had happened for the sake of any other woman who might report this same man in the future. “I had everything to lose and nothing to gain” by coming forward.

As Lawrence Detective Charles Cottengim testified in a preliminary hearing, he and his colleagues saw texts from her that made light of what had happened — while she was still in the situation — and concluded after only about 90 minutes that she was lying and had not been raped.

They by their own account never again looked into that possibility, ignoring medical records and a rape exam that showed bruising and a vaginal tear. They never contacted the witnesses she’d told them about, who’d seen her the night she said she was raped and the next day. And as Cottengim testified, he still does not believe she’s been under a doctor’s care since that night.

They did not look at her bar bill from that evening, or at video of her stumbling, or at texts between the man she accused and his friends about about how drunk she was. None of this was done before concluding that she was somehow not too intoxicated to give consent.

When she woke up the next morning, “I really did not remember what had happened, and most of what I was told happened came from the assailant: ‘No, you’re remembering it wrong.’ ’’

“I had a sick feeling in my stomach that something bad had happened, but I didn’t want to look into it” right away.

As soon as she got home, though, “I fell apart.” A friend who was with her noted that her bruises didn’t look too consensual. As the day went on, “I started remembering, but I still didn’t want to admit what had happened, so I used the phrase, ‘He took advantage of me.’ ”

Finally, the next day, “I said, I think I was raped,” and called the police, who met her at the hospital, where she had a full exam.

According to a transcript of one of the police interviews that followed — well after the rape investigation had unbeknownst to her become a false rape report investigation — Detective Kim Nicholson suggested that this was just a case of day-after regrets: “I mean, it happens a lot in college towns, just things like that where females mess up or males mess up and sleep with the wrong person.”

That’s not what happened, the student told her, but no one was listening.

“And it looks like you cheated on your boyfriend,” the female detective continued, “and you’re like, ‘Oh, shit,’ and then your friend was like, ‘Well, you were raped,’ and that’s why we were called.”

The investigator also urged her to contact the man she’d accused to tell him that she’d filed the report: “He may want to have a heads up.” No doubt about that.

What kind of sex crimes cop asks a victim to contact her attacker? One who doesn’t believe her. And one who like others in her department, and in District Attorney Charles Branson’s office, needs some training asap.

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Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.