Male students charged with rape are hiring private investigators to follow their accusers
‘They wanted to know how much of a whore was I? Did I get around? Did I like older men?’
Emma thought she was going crazy – she kept feeling like people were following her. She would be walking home at night from her classes at the University of Southern California, when she distinctly felt the sensation that someone was tailing her. Cars would slow down next to her as she turned onto her quiet street in Los Angeles.
“I had this sense for a whole month that I was being followed when I was walking home,” said Emma, whose name has been changed for anonymity. “I felt like I was losing my mind.”
She wasn’t. Emma had recently reported to USC that a male student sexually assaulted her after a night out. Looking to contest his charges, he hired a lawyer famous for defending men accused of rape. The lawyer in turn hired a private investigation firm, which put at least two PIs on her case. She wasn’t imagining being followed – she was being followed.
The hiring of private investigators in criminal cases is common. Legal experts babe interviewed for this article explained PIs are often hired for essential evidence gathering like finding security camera footage from crime scenes, speaking to witnesses, scouring social media for posts from the night in question.
But their use in Title IX cases isn’t that well-known, especially by the students who step forward to report sexual assault.
“It’s not unusual for accused students to hire investigators," said Laura Dunn, a top Title IX attorney.
She told babe how in cases she's worked on, PIs have invited themselves into residence halls and even turned up at parents’ homes looking for information, often not revealing they have been hired to dig into sexual assault cases on behalf of the accused. “It’s very intimidating and upsetting,” she explained.
The young women (and men) who step forward to report their sexual assaults aren’t often prepared that they might have to deal with a private investigator hired by their rapist’s lawyer. A PI who might speak to them, their friends, their family, and in Emma’s case – follow her outside her home.
While they can be sent to find evidence, like in criminal cases, their impact can often be to frighten accusers – an echo of Harvey Weinstein’s case, in which the disgraced Hollywood mogul hired former spies to put pressure on his victims.
“It can be done to intimidate and harass and discourage Title IX complaints,” added Elizabeth Rodgers, an attorney who specializes in student sexual assault cases.
Emma was first able to pin down that PIs were involved in her case after reading confirmation from witness testimonies, and then when one of them called up her best friend Sarah’s parents.
Sarah (not her real name) is a student at Scripps College in Claremont, California. A female private investigator got hold of her parents' home phone number and called them, making it sound like they were Scripps administrators who wanted to speak about Sarah's education.
“They talked to my mom and suggested it was about my school,” Sarah remembers. “By this point Emma told me she was being followed by a private investigator. I thought she was being paranoid – it just seems insane. But all of the sudden someone was contacting me about her Title IX case, and I knew there was no other reason for that to be happening.”
After questioning her on the phone, Sarah got her to admit she was a PI. She told her she had been hired by Emma’s assailant and added: “I’m just trying to find the truth.”
But the PI’s line of questioning deviated from just asking about the night of the sexual assault. “She asked me a lot of questions about prior relationships and the way Emma conducts herself. How many people she had been with.”
Or, as Emma remembers it: “the gist was: how much of a whore is this girl? Does she get around? Does she like older men? Does she like men her age? Has she ever alleged anything like this before? Is she unstable? Did she ever have therapy? They tried to discredit me as a witness and argue that I was crazy."
Lawyers who spoke to babe for this story explained that sort of evidence – former relationships, hook-ups and drinking habits – should be irrelevant in Title IX hearings.
"A lot of schools don’t allow character evidence because it’s not about people going out a lot or dressing a certain way or dating people,” said Laura Dunn. "It’s about whether the sexual assault occurred at a specific point in time."
Another tactic that we noticed private investigators use is speaking to key witnesses and not admitting who they were on the phone.
Ashley, a student at Brown University, spoke to a PI about her friend Olivia's sexual assault case. She spoke to the investigator for over an hour, thinking she was a university administrator, before she admitted she had been hired by the male student who sexually assaulted her friend.
“I said a ton of stuff I wouldn’t have said had I known who she actually was,” said Ashley, who blocked the private investigator after she received repeated phone calls from her. “I knew the school investigator was going to call me, so when the PI called, I thought it was Brown. An hour into the phone call, she said something I thought was a little weird and biased towards the guy, so I stopped and asked who she was.”
That’s when Ashley heard the truth. But not before she had given the PI the names and numbers of Olivia’s circle of friends, who the PI would call to discuss the assault.
“She not only called them but outed Olivia as the survivor of sexual assault,” said Ashley. “It was a very personal and traumatic issue and Olivia didn’t necessarily want all her friends knowing what had happened. I unintentionally outed her to all of them. I felt terrible.”
The whole incident left her feeling "incredibly intimidated.”
Daniel Ribacoff is the CEO of a private investigation company on Long Island, who says Title IX cases are one of his “specialities.” He did not work on either of the two cases mentioned above. While Ribacoff explained he is hired to perform polygraph exams on the accused and gather evidence like surveillance camera footage and witness interviews, he says he always tries to "be respectful" and identify himself as a PI.
Title IX attorneys we interviewed advised students to remember they can file complaints against private investigators who overstep the mark.
"What students need to do is be aware of what's going on,” said Felice Duffy, a New Haven lawyer who works on Title IX cases. As an attorney who uses PIs in her investigations, she said she always asks them to identify themselves when speaking to students.
Advising students who might come into contact with PIs, she said: "They should always ask for identification and ask to be called back at the school. But I think kids are vulnerable if investigators aren't being respectful and being truthful."
If you have a story that you'd like to share with us, email email@example.com