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January 18, 2011

A Bid for Justice

How Liz Seccuro's rapist apologized — and was finally prosecuted — after 20 years.

liz seccuro

Photo Credit: Mary Ellen Mrk

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The morning of September 8, 2005, begins like any other. Isn't it strange that the days that change your life always seem to begin so ordinarily? My family—my husband, Mike, an investment banker, and our 2-year-old daughter, Ava—is preparing for a much-needed three-week working vacation in East Hampton, where we have rented a house. That morning, in my home office, I furiously type e-mails to clients and vendors—I am an event planner—letting them know I'll be out of town. When I finally emerge from a steamy shower and jump into cargo pants and a tank top, I plunk a straw cowboy hat on my wet head as a final nod to the idea of vacation. I scoop Ava up under my arm, jostle her onto my hip, and descend the stairs. We're pulling down the driveway when I blurt it out. "Wait! Get the mail, get the mail!"

Mike sighs, puts the car in park, and ambles over to the mailbox. "Hey, you got a letter," he says, sliding it across my legs. It's an actual snail-mail letter—a relic! "Who writes letters anymore?" I ask as my eyes scan the postmark. Las Vegas. Funny, I know no one in Vegas. My eyes slide left to the return address, and the air is literally sucked out of my lungs. I struggle to catch just one cleansing breath, but it won't come. There on the return-address sticker, so neatly positioned in the upper-left corner, is his name: William Beebe. My rapist.

After what seems like an eternity, I unfold the sheet of paper and read.

Dear Elizabeth:

In October 1984 I harmed you. I can scarcely begin to understand the degree to which, in your eyes, my behavior 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

Out slides a shiny white business card with his address, phone, cell, and e-mail address. My heart skips several beats, and when it starts up again, tears slide down my face. I am subtly aware of rivulets of sweat escaping from under the silly cowboy hat. I start to hyperventilate and rummage in my handbag for a Xanax. Perhaps I am imagining this whole thing and it's some sick prank. Silently I hand the letter to my husband. He reads it with no expression. He knows. I can hear the hum of the car engine again and the sounds of Finding Nemo drifting from the backseat. Normal sounds; everyday sounds. Slowly, I exhale as the Xanax starts to take effect, but within a minute or two, the sobbing takes over. "Let's go," I say. Mike puts the car in gear while looking at me intently, as if to ask whether or not we should leave. I read his look and nod a silent "yes."

I WAS ALREADY in pajamas, enjoying a relaxing evening at my dorm, when my friend Jim invited me to the Phi Kappa Psi party. I didn't want to go. But he was rushing the fraternity, he said, and needed a date. So I relented. It was a Thursday night, October 5, 1984, and I was just weeks into my freshman year at the University of Virginia. I put on a sweater of aqua, pink, and white squares, a denim skirt, and a pair of navy flats. A strand of pearls, so popular among the preppy set, completed my ensemble.

The Phi Kappa Psi house was lit up like a Christmas tree, and we could see revelers gathered with cups of beer on the porch and dancing in the large rooms inside. I was introduced to several of the fraternity brothers, one of whom asked if Jim and I would like a house tour. We agreed and climbed the grand staircase. Upstairs, Jim was offered pot, and left me for a while to smoke. I saw people I knew from my dorm, so I felt comfortable. Someone offered me punch, calling it "the house special." Though I had a beer and didn't want to drink more, I didn't want to seem like a loser, either. So he poured the pale, citrusy green drink in a small, clear plastic tumbler, and I sipped it. Almost instantly I began to feel light-headed and dizzy.

A tall, owlish-looking young man introduced himself as Will and kept leaning in to whisper in my ear. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Everything was in slow-motion. Will took me by the hand and lifted me off the couch. I could barely walk. He began to yank me into a room, insisting that he wanted to show me something. Pulling. Dragging. As he tightened his grip on me and told me to relax, I broke free and ran. But another fraternity brother caught me, picked me up like a sack of autumn leaves, threw me over his shoulder, and shoved me back into the room. The door slammed shut loudly and the lights were cut. I swam in total blackness. Someone was holding me up and ripping my clothes off roughly, restraining me first by one arm, then the other. I had never been naked in front of anyone in my life. I screamed "No!" repeatedly. Then, with a wash of pain, I passed out.

Hours later, sunlight streamed through the window. I opened my eyes and assessed my situation. With horror, I saw the bloodstains from my thighs all the way down to my ankles. At 17, I had no experience with crime or with sex, but I knew that after something so unspeakably violent I needed to get to a hospital. In 1984, there were no cell phones, no easy way to call a friend, so I just willed myself to walk. When I arrived at the University of Virginia Medical Center, I approached a desk and stood there like a ghost. "I've been raped," I said. "I need to see a doctor." I was left waiting for what seemed like hours, and then the nurse on duty informed me that the hospital didn't have the tests that needed to be conducted on rape victims. I'd have to go to Richmond or Washington, D.C. for that. There was no way I could make the trip, so I gathered my things and walked out the door.

In the weeks that followed, I went many times to the deans and university police, who sat respectfully and listened but weren't hearing me. I was advised that the frat house wasn't in the jurisdiction of the Charlottesville Police Department, so the university would handle it internally. No one at the fraternity was speaking, and Beebe was gone—one of the deans said he'd been having academic problems and "left of his own volition." My case was cold. I'd call the university police every once in a while, but I was always told there was no new information. Finally, they stopped returning my calls and I, too, stopped calling them. It was over. They had won.

I was determined not to let the rape destroy the rest of my college years, and the remainder of my time at Virginia was pretty typical. I made lots of friends, partied, dated a little bit. I went to football games and movies and fell in love with Latin American literature. For a time, I steered clear of the Phi Kappa Psi house. Even with Beebe gone, I was scared and ashamed to be recognized by someone who had seen my assault. But eventually I felt as indistinguishable as the next coed.

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