As Another Accusation Bites the Dust, Columbia Rape Saga Takes New Turn

The accused now takes his case to the civil courts


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This week's graduation at Columbia University caps the bizarre, often sordid saga involving the two most famous members of the Class of 2015: Emma Sulkowicz, the activist who protested the school's alleged mishandling of her alleged rape by carrying a mattress around campus, and Jean-Paul Nungesser, the German scholarship student she accuses of raping her. On Tuesday, Sulkowicz carried her mattress across the stage at Class Day, despite half-hearted attempts by Columbia officials to enforce a regulation against bringing "large objects" into the ceremonial area—and despite the fact that the "mattress performance" was for a senior visual arts thesis she had already completed. Her activism was also lauded (with no mention of her name) by two commencement speakers, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power.

This isn't quite the end of the story: Nungesser is suing Columbia, university president Lee Bollinger, and Sulkowicz's thesis supervisor for allowing him to be subjected to "gender-based harassment" which severely damaged his educational experience and future prospects, even though a campus panel found him not culpable on the sexual assault charge. Meanwhile, there is new information related to one of this story's many strange twists: another sexual assault complaint brought against Nungesser late last year by a male classmate. The charge was made public in February, on the heels of my article in The Daily Beast questioning the pro-Sulkowicz narrative.

Now, I have learned that after a hearing in late April, Nungesser was found "not responsible" in this latest case—altogether, the fourth time he has been cleared of a sexual assault charge at Columbia. When Sulkowicz first went public a year ago, the fact that her alleged attacker was still on campus and had never been subjected to any formal sanctions despite being accused of sexual assault by three different women helped fuel the outrage. Yet the latest investigation strongly supports Nungesser's claim, made in media interviews and in his lawsuit, that the multiple complaints were not independent of each other and may have been part of a vendetta stemming from the original charge by Sulkowicz. 

Several days after my Daily Beast piece, which featured not only Nungesser's account of his relationship with Sulkowicz but social media messages tending to support his version, the feminist blog Jezebel ran a purported rebuttal titled "How to Make an Accused Rapist Look Good." Much of the story, by Jezebel editor Erin Gloria Ryan, dealt with Sulkowicz's not entirely convincing explanation of her friendly messages to Nungesser days after what she says was a terrifyingly violent rape. But the piece also contained a new revelation meant to bolster the claim that Nungesser was a serial sexual predator: the existence of a hitherto unknown male victim, identified by the pseudonym "Adam."

Adam, who also graduates this week, told Jezebel that "he was close friends with Paul during his freshman year in 2011" and that "one fall night, in the midst of an emotional conversation in Paul's dorm room…Paul pushed him onto his bed and sexually assaulted him." He claimed that after much self-doubt and internal struggle, he finally reported this incident, first to a student society to which both he and Nungesser belonged and then in a formal complaint to the university in the fall of 2014. Adam rather melodramatically lamented that my Daily Beast piece "invalidates and completely erases [his] experience." It should be noted that, as accuser and accused in a sexual misconduct case, both Adam and Nungesser had presumably received the usual instructions from the university to "make all reasonable efforts to maintain the confidentiality/privacy of the involved parties."

About three weeks prior to graduation, the hearing panel made its decision. It found for Nungesser. As is now the norm in campus sexual misconduct proceedings, the charge was considered under the "preponderance of the evidence" standard. Thus, Adam could not meet the very complainant-friendly burden of showing that it was even slightly more likely than not that the offense was committed. Since there was no appeal, the case is over, and as far as Nungesser's formal record at Columbia is concerned he is entirely in the clear.

Nungesser declined to be interviewed for this story, due to concerns that statements to the media might affect his lawsuit. However, through a source close to the case, I was able to review several documents related to Adam's complaint—including, crucially, the report prepared by a two-person Title IX investigative team.

The gist of the complaint was that in November 2011, Adam, who lived in the same dorm as Nungesser and was part of the same social circle, went to Nungesser's room to tell him he was upset about being "caught in the middle" of relationship drama between Nungesser and his then-girlfriend. (This girlfriend later became one of Nungesser's accusers, known in several media accounts under the pseudonym "Natalie"; she claimed that Nungesser had psychologically and sexually abused her throughout their relationship. The case was eventually closed after she stopped cooperating.)

According to Adam, during this conversation Nungesser asked him to sit on the bed, rubbed his shoulder and back, then "gently" pushed him down and proceeded to stroke his leg and finally massage his crotch "for approximately 2-3 minutes" while Adam froze in shock. He was finally able to muster the will to get up and leave.

Adam told investigators that he spoke to Nungesser's girlfriend about this; however, he didn't seem to remember when, or what her reaction was. At one point, he said that he "assumed" he had told her immediately afterward, and "it wasn't until months later that I realized that I had not and she was unaware." He also claimed that he avoided Nungesser after the alleged assault, and that Nungesser eventually texted him and then messaged him on Facebook; according to him, Nungesser was upset with him for telling Natalie about their sexual contact, but also suggested that they get together for coffee.

Nungesser's story was quite different. He said that he confided in Adam about his and Natalie's relationship troubles, that there was no sexual contact of any kind, and that later on he was dismayed to learn that Adam had recounted their conversation to Natalie.

The Facebook exchange, which Adam himself eventually found and turned over to the investigators, did not exactly help his story. Far from showing avoidance of Nungesser, it showed Adam seeking him out, complaining that "our friendship has been negatively affected" by Nungesser's relationship problems and that "we're less close/you're preferring it that way." It also showed Nungesser saying, "It was obviously pretty hard for me when I found out that you shared my entire conversation that I had with you with [Natalie], because I had assumed that it was confidential."

The investigators' report noted numerous contradictions in Adam's account, as well as its drastic discrepancy with the Facebook record. Nungesser's account, on the other hand, was not only consistent but matched by corroborative evidence. Adam's credibility was further sunk by his rather fanciful complaints of "retaliation" by Nungesser in a class they shared. These "deliberately aggressive acts" consisted of sitting too close to Adam or to his friends, which left Adam "distraught and traumatized," and complimenting some points Adam had made in a class discussion (which "felt like he was claiming a collective sense of power"). I am happy to report that, even on the trauma-happy modern campus, such claims of harassment are still recognized as, in the words of the report, "hyperbolic and illogical."

In the end, the investigators concluded that Adam was "unreliable" and that his story simply did not add up, and recommended that Nungesser be found "not responsible." But there is another fascinating wrinkle to the story.

Adam did have a corroborating witness of sorts: a woman who had held a governing position in a fraternity to which both he and Nungesser had belonged—Alpha Delta Phi, a coed Greek organization with an intellectual and literary bent. This woman confirmed that during the 2012/2013 academic year, she heard a rumor that Nungesser had "engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior" toward Adam; she said she had questioned Adam about it and written a report based on his verbal statement. The report, an undated Word document she had saved on her computer, added more inconsistencies to Adam's  account; among other things, it placed the alleged misconduct in February 2012 rather than November 2011.

The record leaves virtually no doubt that this witness is the same ADP officer—I'll call her Leila—who played a fairly important supporting role in the case against Nungesser in the spring and fall of 2013. As I reported in The Daily Beast, after learning about the complaint brought by Sulkowicz in late April of that year, Leila sent out an email on the ADP listserv announcing that a male society member and house resident stood accused of raping a female member. In rather florid language, the email declared that the accused had "flagrantly violated his vows, disregarded his obligations as a Member, and…transgressed the rules of life," and that if he did not resign from ADP voluntarily the executive board would seek his immediate expulsion.

The next day, after Nungesser informed Leila that the university had assured him he could stay at the house while the case was pending, she sent a sheepish follow-up email noting that "all members deserve due process, as well as an opportunity to tell their side." Shortly after that, however, Nungesser found himself facing another accusation—this time from an ADP resident, identified as "Josie" in several media reports, who claimed he had grabbed her and tried to kiss her at a party over a year earlier. As a result, he was ordered to move out of ADP.  

According to both Nungesser and a student advocate who attended the hearing on Josie's complaint, Leila testified at that hearing and acknowledged that she encouraged Josie to come forward. The record in Adam's case provides additional confirmation that she was actively collecting allegations against Nungesser. Interestingly, while the investigators' report stated that Adam didn't have an apparent motive to falsely accuse Nungesser, it took note of the fact that "at the time of the Complainant's initial disclosure, at least several of his close friends and co-fraternity members were engaged in a process intended to evict the Respondent from the fraternity house." For a university document, this comes startlingly close to an admission that Nungesser may have been the target of a group vendetta.

Nungesser's lawsuit, which briefly mentions Adam as "a fourth accuser," alleges that he is a "close friend" of Sulkowicz's, that she instigated his complaint after Nungesser began to tell his side of the story to the media, and even that she mentioned this new accusation to reporters before Nungesser was officially notified of it. At present, these are unproven charges. Nonetheless, the circumstances under which Adam told his story to the media certainly support the claim of an agenda to discredit Nungesser after he made some headway in the court of public opinion.

After my Daily Beast article, a number of people said that while they found some of the evidence in Nungesser's favor persuasive, they found it hard to believe that three women would collude for no apparent reason to accuse an innocent man of rape. Feminist pundit Amanda Marcotte, in her commentary on Nungesser's lawsuit, sneered that my article painted him as "a hapless victim of a coven-like conspiracy of wicked women who make false accusations" for no apparent reason except "misogynist stereotypes about the inherent wickedness of women."

But the collusion scenario in this case requires no irrational and groundless malevolence. If Nungesser is innocent, it is entirely plausible that Sulkowicz and Natalie, who met at a party and discussed their history with him shortly before they filed charges, may have genuinely goaded each other into the conviction that he abused them (or, as Sulkowicz put it to Jezebel, "Together, we [came] to a better understanding of our shared trauma"). It is also entirely plausible that Josie and Adam either reinterpreted their past encounters with him, or even fabricated stories in the sincere belief that they were helping eject a rapist from the house and supporting his victims. The problem is not female "wickedness"; it is a campus culture that fetishizes trauma and turns "survivorship" into a cult.

In time, Nungesser's lawsuit—assuming that he is in it for the long haul—will probably reveal more about the facts of this convoluted story. In the meantime, the new charge, originally hauled out as a counterattack to Nungesser's defense, seems instead to bolster his case.