The Lie That “Just Happens”
By Laura Onstot/published: April 15, 2009
Fake allegations of rape and other crimes—with no obvious motivation—are a particularly mysterious phenomenon.
In his small, shared cell at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Dawit Bekele went into a panic. His heart began to race. Finally a guard took him to a nurse.
As he underwent an exam, Bekele tried desperately to convince the nurse he had done nothing wrong, that he was an innocent man. The nurse tried to comfort him, saying that just because he had committed a terrible crime—namely, raped one of his students at a local community college—didn't mean he was a bad person.
"The first three or four days were complete hell," recalls Bekele (not his real name), who spent nine days behind bars and agreed to describe his experience to Seattle Weekly if we did not identify him. "Especially at night. It felt like the demons are coming to make you go crazy."
It was the summer of 2007, and Bekele, a popular psychology professor and licensed therapist, had been teaching a course on organizational behavior. One day he received a call from his union representative informing him that he was no longer allowed on campus and that a replacement instructor had been assigned to his class. When he asked for details, the rep said something about an investigation and disciplinary action. "He was very vague," says Bekele, whose accent bears a trace of his upbringing in Ethiopia, where he lived until age 18.
Though he didn't know exactly what was going on, Bekele understood his employment contract well enough to know that whatever it was, it must be a big deal for him to be removed from the classroom. He and his wife took a walk to talk about what might come next. He prayed with the priest at his Eastern Orthodox church. "Even if they come to kill you, don't lose your faith," Bekele remembers the priest saying. It wasn't all that helpful at that moment.
On July 12, after Bekele packed his 5-year-old daughter off to school, two King County Sheriff's deputies showed up at his door. They had been contacted by one of his students, Katherine Clifton. She told them Bekele had been stalking her, showing up frequently at her job, and had even struck her in a fit of rage. She showed investigators e-mails from Bekele expressing romantic interest in her, advances she claimed to have rebuffed. And she told them that on July 5, he had broken into her apartment, wrapped a strip of fabric around her neck, and raped her.
The deputies told Bekele the accusations against him, handcuffed him, and put him in the back of a squad car. Then they searched his house.
When they returned to the car, one of the detectives showed him printouts of the e-mails Clifton had supplied. "He said, 'This is your chance to come clean,'" Bekele remembers. "I said, 'That's not me.'"
They drove him to the Maleng Regional Justice Center, where he was booked. "Next thing I knew I was stripped and put on the orange suit," he says.
Fortunately for Bekele, even as prosecutors imprisoned him and filed charges against him, they continued to investigate the evidence. They determined that both sides of the e-mail exchange had been sent from Clifton's own computer. That's when her allegations began to fall apart. Bekele's friends provided an alibi, saying he'd been at a dinner party with them on the night of the alleged rape. Eventually, Clifton confessed to inventing the whole story.
"To this day, we have no clue why she made this up," says Bekele's attorney, Robert Flennaugh. While the charges were pending, Flennaugh had tried, as defense lawyers do, to come up with some reason why Clifton might have dreamt up a false claim—some motivation, a grudge. In rape cases especially, when it's one person's word against another's, jurors need to see some reason for the victim to lie, especially considering how painful it is to come forward with such a charge.
Clifton had once contested a grade from Bekele, thinking she deserved a 4.0 after receiving a 3.9. And she'd sent him one e-mail that seemed possibly inappropriate. But that was it, Flennaugh says. They'd had no other contact outside the classroom.
Flennaugh would have had a tough time raising doubts in jurors' minds about the accuser's motives, a fact that still makes him shudder. Had she not gone so far as to create the bogus e-mails, his client would likely be facing a possible prison term, Flennaugh says. "If she hadn't lied too much, where would we be? We'd be in trial."
The phenomenon of completely unmotivated lying—or, at least, lying with no readily understandable motive—is a rare one in the criminal justice realm. Most of the time people lie for clear and obvious reasons—to exonerate themselves or cover up some other misdeed. But as Flennaugh says, "Sometimes cases happen and it has nothing to do with motivation at all."
Seattle-based forensic psychologist David Dixon, who evaluates defendants during criminal trials—including people accused of filing false police reports—prior to their sentencing, says the few cases of this sort that he has come across suggest an underlying mental disorder that goes much deeper than telling a lie. And in his experience, most of those cases are set in motion by women. "I'm not exactly sure why," he says.
The most frequently cited major study of unsubstantiated rape charges was published in 1994, when Purdue University sociologist Eugene Kanin looked into sexual-assault reports at a Midwestern police department and determined that 41 percent were false. More recently, the Pentagon's 2008 report on sexual assault in the military noted that of 2,700 reported sexual assaults, most from women, 39 percent were dropped as unfounded or lacking evidence.
Last January, the Virginia-based American Prosecutors Research Institute published a report arguing that such studies are based solely on whether or not the initial investigators drop the case, and ought to be independently evaluated. The Institute points to another, ongoing study by the nonprofit End Violence Against Women International, which has been collecting data from eight different U.S. law enforcement agencies since 2005. Of the more than 2,000 cases examined thus far, researchers have classified about 7 percent as false.
Whatever the frequency, false claims, like the one that put Bekele in jail, do happen—and often in an extremely public way. From the notorious Tawana Brawley case of 1987 to the Duke lacrosse-team fiasco two decades later, there have been a number of horrific and high-profile instances of false rape claims, often with extremely hard-to-discern motives. The cases not only have been destructive to the accused, but undermine longstanding efforts to get rape accusations taken more seriously.
"One of the horrors of the Duke case was that it actually set the rights of women in this area back maybe 15 years," says Joe Cheshire, an attorney for one of the Duke players, speaking from Raleigh, N.C. "Now people question rape allegations more than ever—which of course makes more women afraid to come forward."
Just this week, the King County Prosecutor's office declined to file charges against Sounders FC player Fredy Montero, who'd been accused by a Sammamish woman of raping her on two separate occasions. A spokesperson for the office said there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against the 21-year-old Colombian. News of the allegations against Montero was first leaked to Seattlepi.com, and received extensive media coverage.
Bekele himself says he tries to keep the episode he went through from coloring his view of other women claiming to be victims of rape and other crimes. As a therapist, he says, he knows it's already extremely difficult for real victims to speak up. "But yes," he adds, "because of my personal experience, I also know that there are false accusations."
There isn't a named diagnosis for someone who fakes being the victim of a crime, according to Dixon, the forensic psychologist. But the phenomenon resembles another disorder, Münchausen syndrome by proxy, wherein a parent, almost always the mother, deliberately makes their child sick to receive attention from doctors and elicit sympathy from friends and neighbors. In some instances, Dixon says, the line between fantasy and reality starts to blur. "In extreme cases, the fantasy I've seen, the wish, may reach delusional proportions," Dixon says. "They actually believe what they're saying."
Dixon adds that he generally recommends psychological care for women convicted of inventing a crime. "Without treatment, I've seen re-offenses," he says. According to various news reports, Crystal Mangum, the Duke accuser, had alleged more than a decade earlier that three men had kidnapped and raped her—an assertion that was never proven, and which some members of her family later told Fox News they doubted. She also once accused her now-ex-husband of taking her out to the woods and attempting to kill her; again, an investigation turned up nothing to support her story.
In Washington state, there's been something of a rash of recent cases.
Last fall, a female student at Ferris High School in Spokane accused social-studies teacher Don Van Lierop—one of the most successful men's high-school basketball coaches in state history—of rape. Van Lierop is a local hero in Spokane's South Hill neighborhood, a place of single-family homes, manicured lawns, and soccer fields. Last year his team swept the state tournament after going a record-setting two seasons without a loss. That made it all the more shocking when the student, who wasn't in any of his classes, showed up in a police station on November 5, just before the team's first practice, and said the married father of three had raped her.
The school district immediately suspended the coach, and he had to stay away from his players while investigators sorted it all out. But over the next two weeks, the girl stopped cooperating and eventually recanted. By November 21, Van Lierop, who had immediately sought to take a lie-detector test, was back on the basketball court.
"The past two weeks of my life, and the life of my family, can only be described as a person's worst nightmare," Van Lierop said at the time in a press release sent out by his attorney Kevin Curtis. "Any husband, father, coach, or teacher can only imagine what a person and his family go through when falsely accused of this kind of conduct."
Curtis says the allegation came as a shock. The girl had been dating one of the basketball players and come to a couple of practices. Other than that, he says, Van Lierop had had almost no contact with her. "We never received a statement or clarification from the girl herself as to why she made the allegations against Mr. Van Lierop," he says.
Filing a false police report is a misdemeanor in Washington. According to Spokane Police spokesperson Jennifer DeRuwe, police declined to charge the girl after her parents promised she would receive treatment.
A few weeks after the incident in Spokane, 911 received a call from a woman outside Issaquah. Her 10-year-old daughter had disappeared on her bike. It had been over a half-hour, she told the dispatcher. Within 20 minutes, a neighbor four miles down the road called to say they had the girl—pink helmet, lime-green bicycle, and all. She was safe, but that wasn't the end of it. The girl told her parents and police she had nearly been the victim of every parent's worst nightmare—a kidnapping.
A mysterious man with long stringy hair in a blue pickup had snatched her, she said, throwing her in the cab and her bike in the back. But the girl wouldn't go quietly, she told sheriff's deputies. She screamed and kicked at her captor until finally he pulled over, pushed her out of the cab, dropped off the bike, and drove away.
The Sheriff's department has staff who are specially tasked with determining whether or not an alleged victim is credible. A woman in the department sat down with the girl and carefully listened to her story to evaluate its veracity. That officer came away convinced. So did the department's sketch artist. For the next week, police issued press releases describing the incident and the truck. Using the girl's description, the department distributed an image of a man with wide-set, droopy eyes and long stringy hair. News outlets, including this one, posted it to their Web sites.
Likewise, Bekele's accuser also underwent a joint interview with prosecutors and investigators, and also came off as credible, according to Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff in the King County Prosecutor's office. That's why prosecutors decided to file charges in the case.
Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender-studies instructor at Marymount Manhattan College whose book, Little White Lies, Deep Dark Secrets: The Truth About Why Women Lie, was published last year, says women who choose to lie do so in part because they're good at it. "We're raised to tell little white lies," Barash says. "Part of the reason women can lie about something big is because they've been taught to lie about small things."
For her book, Barash placed an ad on Craigslist asking women to take a questionnaire about lying. More than 500 responded. Three-fourths said they had to lie to keep their position at work; about the same number said they lied about money. Men lie about these things too, of course, but Barash says the women responding to the ad believed themselves cleverer about it than men. Because of that, she says, she isn't surprised that a woman might carry a falsehood to the point that it prompts a police investigation.
Cheshire, the Raleigh attorney, says he never really could figure out much motive for the alleged victim in the Duke case to invent the lie, except that she had been taken to a police station after being found drunk in a friend's car that night. "As best we can tell, her motive was that she did not want to get locked up that night for being drunk and obnoxious and refusing to follow police orders," he says.
Cheshire says he's seen fallout from Mangum's lie in other cases that hinge on a woman's credibility. Some defense attorneys take advantage of doubts inspired by the Duke case. Rather than argue against the case presented by the prosecutor, he says, they do everything they can to cast the woman as a liar, even if there's no evidence whatsoever to suggest she isn't telling the truth.
This kind of approach leaves rape survivors especially vulnerable, says Dr. Kimberly Lonsway, a California-based psychologist and Director of Research at End Violence Against Women International who runs training programs for police officers and others who work with female victims.
Lonsway says that it isn't only juries who need convincing—it can be difficult just to get police to launch a serious investigation into crimes like rape which depend heavily on a victim's testimony. In cases like robbery, she says, where there is readily available physical evidence that a crime has been committed, cops are willing to overlook inconsistencies in victims' and witnesses' statements. But in rape allegations without strong physical evidence, law-enforcement officials jump on any inconsistencies. "We understand that a burglary victim might get the story wrong," Lonsway says. "But if it's a rape, we go immediately to this: 'Ah, are you lying to me now, or were you lying to me then?'"
Lonsway and her training partner, Joanne Archambault, a retired police sergeant living in eastern Washington, do an exercise in which they distribute a series of alleged rape reports to small groups of people, asking them to decide the veracity of each. In most of the cases, there are enough inconsistencies in the victims' statements that the groups deem them to be false. But the reports were in fact generated after a serial rapist attacked women throughout California, Lonsway says. Each of the reports was initially dismissed by officers, until one investigator finally saw enough similarities among the different incidents to suspect the same person was behind the crimes.
On his fourth day behind bars, Bekele says, his background as a therapist finally kicked in. He might be in for a while, he realized—years, if found guilty. So it was time to find a way to cope. He got to know his cellmate—he uses the slang term "celly"—who gave him pointers: Stay invisible and never tell anyone what crime you're accused of, especially if it's rape. Bekele laid low, sticking close to a group of inmates who passed the time reading Bible verses. Ultimately, he says, his priest was right about the clinging-to-faith part—behind bars, that's all he had.
On the ninth day, guards cuffed Bekele and loaded him onto a windowless bus for a trip to Seattle. Someone on the bus knew about the rape charge and started shouting about it. Bekele says he started praying harder than ever.
At the courthouse where the bus arrived, King County prosecutors had received the investigators' conclusions about the e-mail. Bekele's ordeal was almost over.
He finally got to the waiting area outside the arraignment room at the King County Courthouse. Then he saw Flennaugh on the other side of a glass window. Flennaugh indicated for him to come out and talk. The prosecutor's office had dropped the charges, he told Bekele (though for a while they left open the possibility of refiling).
Bekele went back to the Regional Justice Center and changed out of the orange jumpsuit. His clothes were still being held as part of the ongoing investigation, so a jail employee gave him a pair of jeans. The first thing he saw when he walked out was his daughter. "She was so happy to see me," he says. "And that was a beautiful sight."
Clifton pleaded guilty to filing a false police report. Her plea agreement included the provision that she receive mental help. A judge sentenced her to eight days on a work crew; she served no jail time. She remains on probation through 2010.
Bekele is now back in the classroom, though he says he's changed some things about the way he operates, keeping careful records of where he is and whom he's with. There is lingering fear that something like this could happen again, he says. "To this day, at times, that feeling comes up."
Bekele never filed any kind of lawsuit against Clifton or members of the community-college district, despite overtures from attorneys who would have represented him. He says he had to forgive Clifton and move on with his life. How did he do that? Like the rape charge itself, "It's something that just happened."