Then there are the never-written tales that writers can’t get out of their heads.
For Elizabeth Bruenig, it was a story from August, 2006, when she was a 15-year-old student at James Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. That scorching summer and into the fall, rumors and harsh judgements ran wild through the corridors, locker rooms, fast-food joints and kitchen tables in the sprawling Dallas suburb about an incident involving a female cheerleader and two boys, who were both student athletes. Bruenig didn’t know the girl’s name, but what lingered in her mind was a cryptic but, when deciphered, obscene message, painted “like gravestones” on the rear windows of rows of the seniors’ cars that filled the school parking lot: FAITH.
The controversy boiled down to a simple, but dismayingly familiar equation. The girl said she’d been sexually assaulted after a drunken party. The boys denied it. The police had a strong case. But the community, with a few exceptions, a grand jury, and the local prosecutor’s office, sided with the boys. No one was held accountable. The girl, who felt her life was ruined, disappeared.
That was the horrific story that stuck with Bruenig through high school, into college and then graduate school. When she got a job writing for The New Republic nearly a decade after the event, she finally had the chance to do something about it. It took another three years, and a move to another journalism job, to complete her quest. But the result was a tour-de-force of narrative.
“What do we owe her now?” is an 11,000-word blend of blistering reportage and philosophical meditations into the nature of morality and culpability. Bruenig calls it an “essayistic reported piece.” It was published, along with videos by Gillian Brockell, in September 2018 by The Washington Post, which Bruenig joined in 2016 after The New Republic was put up for sale. She now is an opinion writer, focusing on religion, politics and morality in public life.
Her story on the unresolved rape case was her first foray into investigative work. But it’s an auspicious, elegantly written launch. It was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and a National Magazine Award. The Pulitzer judges cited Bruenig’s “eloquent reflections on the exile of a teen sexual assault victim in the author’s Texas hometown, delving with moral authority into why the crime remained unpunished.”But “What do we owe her now?” is much more than a think piece. Through social media she identified the victim, Amber Wyatt, who agreed to participate. Using the voluminous records of a painfully graphic police investigation, forensic and hospital reports, and extensive interviews, Bruenig was able to document with stunning granularity what happened to Wyatt that night, and, later, to the two boys accused of assaulting her. The post-assault fallout is equally brutal when Wyatt, as Bruenig observes, is not only “just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled.”
Bruenig, who has a master of philosophy degree from the University of Cambridge, was intent on writing more than a true-crime story. She also wanted to explore the moral implications of an alleged crime that left the victim scorned by a community who preferred to believe her assailants.
She told me that her training in ethics — “where you take facts and information and events in the world and you try to really understand them and what they mean morally for the people who are involved” — deeply influenced the her work.
She accomplished both goals with unflinching scenes of sexual assault and conveying the sting of being ostracized, delivered with precise diction and haunting cadences. Stringing clauses like pearls on a necklace, Bruenig spins luminous and searing passages that explore the moral as well as the physical and emotional abuse of Wyatt, who spiraled into alcohol and drug abuse, petty crime and a serious overdose before belief in a “spiritual power” pulled her back from the brink. Today she is married, pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology and has worked as a teaching assistant in a forensic psychology course. Wyatt never returned to Arlington, although after Bruenig’s story ran, some of her doubters reached out through social media to seek atonement.
The result of Bruenig’s indefatigable effort is a powerful reminder of the extended assault faced by victims who are met with disbelief and suspicion. As such, “What do we owe her now?” should be required reading, not only for students of narrative, but for anyone trying to understand the unrelenting realities behind the #MeToo era that was spawned in the circles of power and celebrity. In Wyatt’s case, as Bruenig concludes, “the rot was always there, even in smaller and less remarkable places, where power takes mundane, suburban shapes.”
We asked Bruenig to reflect on her long-delayed quest to pursue a story she couldn’t let go, and the challenges of blending journalism with philosophy. Our conversation is followed by an annotation of the story.
What led you to write this story after all these years?
Everybody has probably had an experience where they were on the periphery, or it was something they heard about or was kind of a town legend. That was the case here. When I was growing up, it was a major event at my school. And even when I went on to college, and then grad school, it just stuck with me, something that would come up periodically, or when I would visit home. I would remember the writing on the cars that year, but I never really knew the truth. And that bothered me. It was strange, because I had heard all the stories and seen all the writing and the graffiti and, at the same time, I knew nothing about what had actually happened. So I guess the mystery of it.
What professional and personal experiences influenced the story?
Editing in a section like Outlook (where Bruenig worked before being named an opinion writer) enabled it to a huge degree. We publish essays, but it’s also a place for hardcore reporting. We have newsroom standards for facts and, at the same time, the opportunity to bring peoples’ opinions and arguments. You see a very literary and illuminating mix of genres. Professionally, that was very helpful. When I did my graduate work at Cambridge, I studied Christian theology, focusing on ethics. It’s a world of scholarship. I took that sensibility into journalism.
Did you have any literary models in mind as you worked on the story?
Renata Adler. I’m a big fan.
David Carr’s “Night of the Gun.” That always stood out to me as being pretty major, even though you’re obviously dealing with a very different series of events and very different people. But the intent of not only explaining what happened, and in a factual and kind of granular way, but also why it happened.
And Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” was in the back of my mind. There have been a lot of questions about the factual accuracy there. But again, that mixture of reporting, and then that instinct to try to explain the why of an event, was important to me.
What were the most difficult challenges you faced reporting and writing the story?
The length of time that had passed between the events and the reporting presented some challenges. People had moved out of the area, gotten married, changed their names. That periodically made tracking them down hard. We had to compete with the sense that the matter was closed and convince people to talk about it. And of course, much of the actual physical evidence from Amber’s case had been destroyed shortly after the no-bill.
Were there any lessons you learned about your craft from writing the story?
It certainly took a lot of thinking about chronology, because there are actually several narrative timelines: 1996, 2006, 2018. I learned quite a bit about when to introduce information and how to write in a way that’s maybe not entirely chronological but is still intuitive and doesn’t disrupt a reader’s sense of time. That was very useful and was something I came in with almost no sense of whatsoever.
What was the reaction of readers?
We received thousands of comments, and I still get frequent emails about the story to this day. A lot of people, especially people from Arlington, reached out to Amber. Sometimes people email me to tell me about incidents that have happened in their own hometowns, or experiences they have had that are similar to Amber’s. Sometimes they are asking for help; oftentimes their cases are past statutes of limitation or were investigated, briefly, like Amber’s, without resolution. Sometimes people just want to tell someone else so someone else knows.
What roles did your editors play?
Ruth Marcus was my primary editor, and Fred Hiatt edited as well. There was also valiant copy-editing and fact-checking by Lydia Rebac. Ruth was absolutely instrumental in getting a good shape and rhythm down for the story (which meant cutting out a lot of fat, which I tend to put in.) She also guided the reporting in a huge way — letting me know where to push more, where to get more voices. Fred’s questions added a lot of depth, and helped me sense where thoughtful readers might want to know a little more. And of course, without Lydia the whole thing would be unreadable. Her copy-editing was essential for flow, consistency, meeting the requirements of the English language.
What emotional impact did reporting and writing this horrific story have on you? How did you cope?
It was pretty transformative. I’m glad I did it but I’m more somber then I was before, I think, and I come to conclusions more slowly than I once did. That could also just be a function of getting older. With this project and subsequent projects, trying not to get too immersed in the darkest details of life has been a challenge, definitely something I have to really refocus on periodically. Oddly, while working on Amber’s story, when I would get into periods of very black depression over the details and so forth — I remember telling myself, ‘everyone lived, everyone has a chance to go on…’
What ultimately is the answer to the question posed in the title? What do you think we owe her now?
I think we owe her this story, reading it, remembering it. Just bearing witness to the truth — that always seemed like a big part of it to me.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Bruenig’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
WHAT DO WE OWE HER NOW?Did you write the title? What was it intended to accomplish? I didn’t write the title. Actually, there was quite a bit of back-and-forth over how to title it. Headlines, we were used to — but this seemed to call for something different. I was always in favor of a very artistic, sort of abstract title, but that isn’t quite our style in editorial. So we discussed for a while as a team, and everyone eventually settled on this, which was just meant to highlight one of the biggest lingering questions of the piece.
About that nightAug. 11, 2006, was a sweltering Friday night in the midst of a long, fatally hot summer. Why did you call it “fatally” hot? Is it foreshadowing? 2006 was an extremely hot summer even by Texas standards — people died that year due to the heat. It’s not exactly foreshadowing for the story itself, but for me, Texas is a character here, and I wanted to set it up as a place of occasionally brutal conditions — climactic and otherwise. So I gestured to just how extreme that season had been. A 16-year-old girl reported that she was raped that night, in a storage shed off a dirt road in my hometown of Arlington, Tex. Nobody was ever prosecuted for it, and nobody was punished except, arguably, her: By the end of the fall semester, she had disappeared from our high school, leaving only sordid rumors and a nascent urban legend. What a wonderful turn of phrase in that last clause. Thank you! For me, part of the challenge was getting across just how odd it was that the whole thing evaporated so quickly.
I never saw her, the rising junior-class cheerleader who said she had been assaulted by two senior boys after a party. I only heard about her. People whispered about her in classrooms and corridors as soon as school started that year. The tension in the school was so thick that the gossip about what had taken place trickled down even to the academic decathletes and debate nerds like me, the kids who could only speculate about what happened at the parties of athletic seniors. I was a 15-year-old sophomore, and even I formed a notion of what had happened, or what was said to have happened. You paint yourself in a less-than-flattering light? Why? One reason is that it helps explain why I didn’t have more proximity than I did to the principal figures. But another reason was that I didn’t want to appear to come off as a saint or a hero. I wasn’t then, and am not now.
Leaving school one autumn day in 2006, I stood at the top of the concrete stairs at the back exit, with the senior parking lot spread out before me, cars gleaming in the still afternoon sun. You open with a summary of the event, then segue directly into a scene? Why did you choose this way to open your story? Did you consider other entry points? We went through a few different openings, because there are several in-roads into the story — where Amber is today, or the 1996 case, or the party itself, etc. I think I eventually settled on this because I wanted to draw the reader from the general description into the action as quickly and concretely as possible, so that they would feel as invested in this story as I did. I thought that putting them there on the scene, in the middle of a mystery, would help with that. Several of them bore a message scrawled in chalk-paint: FAITH. They looked to me like gravestones, brief and cryptic in neat rows.
The next day, people whispered about the word in the halls. It was an acronym, I learned, meaning “f— Amber in the head,” or “f— Amber in three holes,” Why didn’t you use the complete word? We were up against Post style there, and we rarely, if ever, print out profanity. which I awkwardly explained to my parents when they asked me one evening why so many cars around town were thus marked. The idea struck me as brutally, unspeakably ugly, and it was the ugliness that came to mind each time I saw some rear windshield dripping the word in streaky chalk “Dripping” is such an evocative verb. Why did you use it? Something about the humidity of my part of Texas, and the way people wrote that stuff on and then neglected it — it got at the entanglement of a harsh, unsympathetic climate with a harsh, unsympathetic society. at the local Jack in the Box or Sonic Drive-In. Why did you use the proper names of the fast food place the students favored? For me it was partially about capturing what that suburban landscape really felt like — it’s not a small Texas town, which I worried might be assumed because of the involvement of football players etc, but it’s also not a city like Dallas or Houston with a lot of interesting hot spots for teenagers to hang out at. And part of it was about recreating this teenage world, where kids hang out at fast food places and that’s where gossip and rumors spread. Eventually I heard the girl had recanted her allegations and then had gone away; the writing on the cars, too, went away, and the question of what had happened that night.
And then it was quiet, life was mundane, things resumed: Like an ancient society settling back to rights after a gladiatorial games or ritual sacrifice. You used an analogy, comparing the chalked rear windows to gravestones. Here you employ a simile? What is the value of these literary devices? Do they take a lot of work/time to craft or pop-up unannounced? The literary stuff, which did bug my editors to some degree (rightfully so; there was a lot more of it before they got finished!) was, for me, about imparting the feeling of being there as much as the facts on the ground. Some of the literary devices I was less happy with after tinkering with them for a while, and some were very immediate — the gravestone thing was very immediate, and I never messed with it after laying it down initially.
Yet despite the fortune of a happy life, I found it difficult, over the ensuing years, not to think about what had happened that August. I still remembered the taste of summer there, and the pregnant threat of storm clouds, among which flashes of lightning pulsed like veins of silver, and the sense that youth meant collecting inklings of things I couldn’t fully know. You give the reader a lyrical, tactile description of a Texas summer, followed by a wise description of the limitations of youth. Did that undergo revision? There was a little bit of revision right here, but not much. I think the section mostly came about when my editor asked: What is most important for readers to know here before we get into the facts of this very complicated, very detailed story? And the climate and the sensation of being there were important for me. One of them was the impression I had gained that year, that vulnerability sometimes begets bloodlust and revulsion, even in seemingly ordinary people. Another was the sense that the damage that follows litters the underside of society, beneath the veneer of peace. Here the story moves from reportage to an, to use your term, essayistic exploration of life and morality with shifts in tone and voice. How would you describe the change and why did you decide to take this approach? I think of it as going from more introspective to more external — here’s how I’ve thought about all of this up to now, and here’s what I can tell you about it for sure. I felt like both pieces were part of the story in their own way and wanted to incorporate them both, but we also wanted to be sure the reporting was crystal clear and very solid. So I thought a tone shift was important to signal that movement.
In April 2015, as a young writer, I was granted the rare opportunity to explore this notion. I was working at the New Republic magazine at the time, enjoying the warm auspices of an editor mostly content to let me pursue what I found most interesting. Why were you compelled to pursue this story? What was your goal setting out? Actually, I asked about working on Amber’s case after the Rolling Stone fiasco with UVA. I pointed out to my editor that most everyone has heard these stories in their hometowns or on their campuses, and now, because of the severe mistakes that were made with the UVA story, everyone is going to have that much more reason to suspect those stories are just rumors. But I don’t think all of them are. With his blessing, I reached out that spring to the girl whose name had appeared in acronyms and spray-painted slurs, and asked whether she was interested in talking to me about 2006. How did you find her? On Facebook. I had never really heard her full name clearly — I thought maybe her name was Amber White. All I knew was her first name and the sound of the last name, because these really had been rumors passed along in whispers. I asked an old teacher of mine what her name had really been, and she told me. And then I found Amber and contacted her through Facebook messenger.
Her name was Amber Wyatt, and she was. Were you surprised Amber was willing to talk? Yeah. If it were me, I’m not sure that I would have had the guts. You take the worst thing that ever happened to you. You’ve already been through the denial and the response of the legal system and the society you were in at the time and then someone comes in and says, “How about we do it all again?’ How involved was she in your reporting process? It wasn’t passive involvement. The only way we were able to get the police files which were sealed because she was16 was to have Amber request them. She submitted a request for her hospital records. And then, of course, interviews upon interviews about what happened: What do you remember? Who was there? What was their name? We did a big interview, where I got her recollection of events before I had the police file, so I could compare. She had to agree to go through that. That was really impressive. On and off over the next three years, I reviewed police documents, interviewed witnesses and experts, and made several pilgrimages home to Texas to try to understand what exactly happened to Wyatt — not just on that night, but in the days and months and years that followed. Making sense of her ordeal meant tracing a web of failures, lies, abdications and predations, at the center of which was a node of power that, though anonymous and dispersed, was nonetheless tilted firmly against a young, vulnerable girl. Journalists, activists and advocates began to uncover that very same imbalance of power from Hollywood to Capitol Hill in the final year of this reporting, in an explosion of reporting and analysis we’ve come to call the #MeToo Movement. But the rot was always there — even in smaller and less remarkable places, where power takes mundane, suburban shapes.
There were personal reasons, too, for my investigation. I wanted to understand why it had to be as bad as it was — why she wasn’t just doubted but hated, not simply mocked but exiled — and why it had always lingered on my conscience like an article of unfinished business, something I had meant to do but hadn’t. I wanted to look directly at the dark things that are revealed when episodes of brutality unfold and all pretense of civilization temporarily fades, and I wanted to understand them completely. Would you consider those two graphs your nut graph? Yeah, for me it was essentially to lay them down early on, to help guide the shape of the story as I wrote out the rest. So they developed pretty quickly. My editor, Ruth Marcus, was key in getting these paragraphs together precisely because the story is so long and so complicated. She felt like readers needed some signposting to navigate the story — and I think she was right about that. Her questions helped a lot in structuring these grafs. I am not always the most natural nut graf writer, especially with long, complicated stories…My urge is always to say, “This is complicated!” but everyone knows that. The challenge is telling them something they don’t know. When you wrote the paragraphs about your personal reasons, did you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and then seek to answer it, polishing, and revising as you went along? They came along early, probably in the very first draft I ever wrote down, and was kind of a prototype of a nut graf — it tells you why I felt so strongly about working on this, though it didn’t succeed in telling readers why they ought to care. So in subsequent revisions, I did end up thinking more about how readers would be better served by a few lines that got more at what the story could tell them, and what it says more broadly, than just letting them in on why I had felt so fixated on it for so long.
Otherwise, I thought, they could at any time pull me under. And I could watch mutely while something like this happened again.East Texas is pine woods: subtropical growth, spindly trees rising out of green creeks as forest shades into bayou, the smell of drifting water. West Texas is arid, miles of prairie and stretches of red desert, with pale dunes rising just before you hit New Mexico. Arlington, population of roughly 367,000 in 2006, sits between Dallas to the east and Fort Worth to the west, suspended between Deep South and Wild West. Its current slogan is “The American Dream City,” and it’s true: a dream of anywhere in America, with suburban sprawl and yellow grass along the interstates and big-box stores. This is such a savvy way to open this section, with its blend of geography, topography and cultural identity. Where did you get the idea for this? I love Texas, and I always wanted Texas to be a figure in the story, so topping a section with it made sense for me. I think Cormac McCarthy, honestly, and a few other Texas writers have really influenced my sense of the place as an obvious setting for the epic — though maybe all Texans naturally feel like Texas is an epic place. The different climate zones of Texas and how they meet in this odd stripe in the middle was something I thought about growing up, noticing how different our weather was than Louisiana (where my mom’s family is from) and West Texas.
That year, the “Friday Night Lights” television series premiered, putting the romance of Texas high school football in soft focus. There are towns in Texas where the whole city turns out for Friday night football games, but Arlington isn’t one of them, and James Martin High School wasn’t a football school. Sense of place infuses the story whether it’s Arlington or the rape scene? Why is that critical for the story? I thought it was just critical to concretize it — oddly, that seems to make it more generalizable, to me. This happened in a very specific place, but it could’ve happened anywhere in America. The more abstract a place is, the harder it is, I think, for readers to relate.
Still, on the afternoon of Aug. 11, the Martin football crowd celebrated “War Party” — a kind of catered pep rally meant to kick off the football season before the start of school. For the kids, though, the main attraction was the after-party.
Wyatt was celebrating her inaugural year on the varsity cheerleading squad that evening. She performed routines at War Party, and around 9 p.m., arrived in her car at a 4,756 square-foot residence, How do you know the square footage? Real estate listings! owned by the parents of another cheerleader. It was one of many fine homes within the gates of its upscale subdivision, with a spacious driveway out front and a lagoon-like swimming pool in back — a striking contrast to Wyatt’s far smaller home in an aging neighborhood across town. Even if no one spoke openly about the class distinctions among the cheerleaders, they were well understood. Much in this story revolves around status, doesn’t it? Was that a conscious decision? It does, and that was something I didn’t have as strong of a sense of going in. It’s something that permeates culture — talk about ‘trashy girls’ versus ‘nice girls’ and ‘nice boys from nice families.’ I wanted to capture that as it became clear to me from reading and conducting interviews that it had been a factor here in determining public opinion.
That night Wyatt was buoyant, thrilled and on the young side for the night’s crowd, mostly juniors and seniors. She had a natural beauty, golden-skinned with long, dark hair. She had always been athletic and happiest on teams, playing soccer and participating in competitive cheerleading. She was wildly sociable, with A’s and B’s in school and an overwhelming urge to be liked. She was earthy and indelicate, not remotely shy; friends came easily, and she leaned on their approval. Arlington cheerleaders were, by many accounts, a hard-partying crowd, and Wyatt partied with the hardest of them, drinking with her friends and occasionally indulging in drugs such as Xanax and marijuana. Did you worry that by describing her drug use that it would immediately give some people a reason to excuse her assailants’ behavior? Yeah, I knew that it would strike some people that way. I felt like those same people would probably be even more skeptical if they felt I had tried to hide it from them. Because addiction and substance abuse become such a big part of the story, I didn’t want to hide them at all — I just wanted to give them a chance to unfold in a way that might surprise people who would initially find them wholly discrediting.
“I partied a lot. I’m not going to lie,” Wyatt recalled in a 2015 interview. “I was 16, I wanted to be that popular girl, I wanted everyone to like me, I wanted to be social, I wanted to know everyone. And I wanted to be one of the cool kids. . . . And I found that in partying.”
Music blared by the pool that night. Wyatt would recount to police later that her friend Trey gave her a water bottle full of lemonade and whiskey; and her friend Hannah shared a few gulps of her red wine; and her friend Erin shared her Smirnoff and her friend Kyle shared his beer. She was feeling good, light and free — her mom had given her permission to spend the night at the party house, which meant she didn’t have to worry about driving home in her condition. The party wore on, and since Wyatt hadn’t brought a bathing suit, friends playfully tossed her in the pool fully clothed. When she got in the front cab of a classmate’s truck sometime after 11, her clothes were still wet.
The two boys driving her didn’t seem to mind. Both were 17 and seniors — a well-to-do, stocky football player and an outgoing soccer player with wide, dark eyes and curly black hair. Wyatt had met them only in passing before; she recalls that they told her they were going to get food, then return. The three of them chatted and listened to rap while they drove, and by this point Wyatt was feeling drunk. They had their pick of fast-food joints; the house was practically flanked by a pair of Jack in the Box locations, and a Wendy’s and a Whataburger weren’t far off. They passed a Pizza Hut and a McDonald’s en route to what turned out to be their actual destination, a storage shed on the rear of a friend’s property.Later, the soccer player would tell his friends that Wyatt had said she needed to urinate, so they had pulled over into the dark woods to let her relieve herself on the ground, at which point she had fallen and scraped her elbow.
Wyatt’s account is far darker. As she told police at the time, and recounted to me, the boys told her they wanted to pick up some more beer when they pulled up outside a friend’s shed, hidden off a back road in tangled trees and undergrowth. Crime-scene photos would later show that a pair of doors fixed with a slide bolt opened to a cavernously dark space filled with the odds and ends of family life — sacked-up Christmas decorations, stacks of old photos, spare furniture and a series of buck heads mounted on opposite walls. A wooden ladder led to a loft with dirty pillows and blankets piled on the plywood. Wyatt slipped and fell on her climb up to the loft — that part, she would always remember. The beer stash wasn’t there.
Once Wyatt reached the loft, she recalled, the football player instructed her to remove her clothes. She was incredulous at first, assuming it was a joke. “What did you say?” a detective asked her in an hour-long interview five days later. “No,” the 16-year-old answered with a scoff. When the boy persisted, she took a step in retreat, but tripped and fell backward, bloodying her elbow. Wyatt remembered saying “stop,” and then the same boy tugging off her “skort” (an athletic skirt-and-shorts combo used in cheerleading) and panties, moving over her and penetrating her. “I was just like, ‘Stop, please. Stop,’ ” Wyatt told the detective.
The boy on top of her rolled to his back, pulling Wyatt with him, though she struggled; it was then that the other boy approached. He forced his penis into her anus, Wyatt told the detective, while the other boy was still raping her vaginally. You don’t shy away from the graphic details, which are startling in their horror. What was your rationale for describing the assault in such detail? We wanted to be as clear about what had happened as possible, in part because so much about the story had been veiled for so long — no contemporaneous news reports included this level of detail, or anything approaching it, for instance. I think that factored into a lot of locals dismissing the whole thing; they just did not know what had happened. We also didn’t want to sensationalize it, so it’s as matter-of-fact as it appears in the police reports. Moments passed like that, with Wyatt frozen in shock, staring into darkness. “My body was there,” Wyatt told me in 2015, but “my mind was . . . somewhere completely different. And I just remember praying a lot and not taking in my surroundings. It was more like, I want to get out of my surroundings and out of myself.” When she mustered the ability to fight back again, she said, she was able to push the boy behind her away, roll off the other and then scramble against a wall.
Wyatt couldn’t immediately recall, in her conversation with police, if either boy had ejaculated; all she knew was that the football player told her to perform oral sex on them afterward, saying they hadn’t finished. But she refused and snatched a few pieces of clothing from the floor, then managed to climb down unsteadily from the loft. She had hastily redressed in just her skort and top, because she was unable to locate her sports bra or panties. She fell again as she staggered back to the truck, but she made it, and the boys followed. There was darkness and silence on the ride back, and the glow of blue lights from the truck’s dashboard. Back at the house, Wyatt stumbled out of the same pickup she had left in less than an hour before.
There were a few partygoers still gathered in the driveway. Wyatt approached them immediately. According to her account and that of one of the classmates present, Wyatt told an adult and two classmates right then and there what happened. And she reported her rape to police the next day, when she underwent a sexual assault exam at the hospital. Police were at the shed taking crime-scene photos in less than 24 hours — so quickly, in fact, that Wyatt’s sports bra and panties were still damp on the floor. What made it possible to reconstruct the assault and other events from so long ago? The police reports containing Amber’s original account was critical, as was the account she gave me in 2015, which was more or less identical to her 2006 interview. We were able to corroborate the account with other pieces of the police record: crime scene photos, hospital records, contemporaneous witness interviews. And we corroborated all of those pieces with further interviews with experts — clarifying, for instance, what we could deduce from Amber’s injuries as listed in her sexual assault exam, from her toxicology report, etc. It became the kind of Bible of the story because it was only extremely lightly redacted. The only stuff that was taken out of it was Social Security numbers, basically. Because of that, it was very easy to go back and find things. And we had whole records of interviews, interviews transcripts with other students, witnesses. We had the police narrative, the incident reports. Their handwritten notes from the interviews that they did, as well as the kind of transcripts themselves; we had tapes, which appears in the story of an interview. And we had forensics. We had everything. So, you know, we could go back and even talk to, you know, the very nurse who conducted the sexual assault exam.
Forces of habitThe story of Amber Wyatt’s assault begins in some sense a decade earlier, with another assault — and another failure of irresponsible adults and their children to face consequences. In 1996, another 16-year-old Arlington girl was allegedly sexually assaulted at another high school party, and another opportunity to prosecute those responsible was ignored. And, with that, another moment of clarity that could have turned toward reform instead degenerated into a rally for the guilty. How did you learn about this earlier assault? I learned about this earlier assault in the process of conducting interviews with different Arlington school principals about the alcohol policy. They let me in on the Lynn Hale policy, and investigating the origins of the Lynn Hale policy led to contemporaneous news reports about this assault. I was pretty stunned by how similar the stories were.
On Sept. 13, 1996, a 16-year-old junior at Arlington High School was allegedly sexually assaulted at a party while she was drunk. According to contemporaneous news reports, she alleged that dozens of her peers stood by as others assaulted her with a condom-topped broomstick, exposed their genitals and urinated on her. Any reluctance about using these details? How would you explain it to a reader who might complain, “This is a family newspaper?” Again, I just felt like it was necessary to be clear to drive home that we weren’t dealing with minor incidents here, but serious, shocking, brutal stuff. Nobody complained about that. (Someone did complain about our use of ‘panties’ instead of ‘underwear,’ which they found infantilizing and somewhat sexualized. I just used the word because it was how the police and Amber had referred to the evidence.) The girl was hospitalized, but no sexual assault charges were filed against her assailants. The town helped see to that.
Police interviewed some 35 students after the incident; none supported the girl’s allegations. Coupled with the victim’s broken memory, this meant police were never able to bring any perpetrator to justice for the sexual assault. Instead, police issued simple assault and disorderly conduct citations to a smattering of teens who had been at the party, a light reprimand given the circumstances. Nonetheless, some parents resented even those meager reprisals.
The parents’ objections might have remained at the muted level of privileged suburbanites grousing over traffic tickets had it not been for Lynn Hale, then superintendent of the Arlington Independent School District, who took it upon herself to try to prevent another such episode.
Less than two weeks after the girl’s report, Hale told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News that she wasn’t convinced the district was “implementing the appropriate consequences . . . for students who drink.” And she followed through, instituting a district-wide policy under which any student caught at a location where alcohol or drugs were being used would be banned from extracurricular activities for the entire school year, regardless of whether police cited them for use. It seems like you spent a lot of time in the archives of the local papers. Did you find any surprises as you were going through them? I did. They were digitized, fortunately. The biggest surprise I found was this: There was another story from that same year, 2006, that I had heard but never really believed — that police had found three dazed, partially naked girls in the woods outside a park in my city at dawn one summer morning. And that turned out to be true. They, too, had been drinking alcohol; some boys had apparently been with them, and then left them there.
Parents revolted. Seven families of students affected by the policy filed suit, and in January 1997, a local judge invited them to debate the policy with members of the school board. After meeting with the students and their parents and considering the arguments of the school board and its attorney, the judge, saying he was speaking “as a parent,” thanked Hale for her attempt to do something — anything — about the problem. And then the judge effectively overturned Hale’s policy, reinstating some 20 students to their extracurricular activities.
Hale didn’t remain in her post much longer to see what would become of the phenomenon she had observed and tried to halt. By the summer of 1998, she had already been replaced as superintendent by Mac Bernd, who eased the anti-drinking policy to include a penalty of just six weeks for first-time offenders. “I have a somewhat jaundiced view of how much control we do have over teenagers,” Bernd, several years retired, told me in 2015 in an Arlington restaurant lined with framed drawings of Texas college and high school mascots. He wanted to preserve, Bernd said, “an opportunity for redemption.”
It’s impossible to know whether Hale’s tougher policy would have given pause to anyone present at the 2006 party that Wyatt attended. Did you interview Hale? I tried but wasn’t successful. She’s since left Arlington for the Galveston area, and is retired. For a deterrent to be effective, consequences must seem real. And it’s easy to see how, with Hale’s rule a vanquished memory and the case that sparked it an item of urban legend, a pair of Arlington teenagers with ample opportunity and bad intentions might have reasonably concluded no harm would come to them should they wantonly violate rules, policies or people. They would have been exactly right. This is another paragraph that separates this story from traditional reportage. What gave you the authority to draw these conclusions and to do so without any attribution? Partially, just the freedom of the form — that we did this in editorial, where the author has more room for voice. And then partially because I was there, and I lived in that environment, and I remembered what it felt like. And so it came to pass that August evening that Martin senior Arthur Aven stood in a suburban driveway facing a decision too momentous for his years: Believe the girl who had pulled him aside to tell him that she had just been sexually assaulted — or believe one of her alleged assailants, who was among his closest friends. Did you learn their names? If so, why not use them? We did know their names. Deciding whether or not to name them was a pretty long, protracted thing. We went back and forth a lot. Ultimately, because the charges were not brought against them and they were 17 at the time, the decision was made not to use their full names.
About 45 minutes earlier, by Aven’s recollection, homeowner Cindy Marks had asked him to take Wyatt home. (Marks would later explain to police that unnamed kids had asked her to make Wyatt leave, because Wyatt was being, in her words, “obnoxious.”) But Aven didn’t have his car; he had planned to spend the night with the soccer player and was counting on him for a ride. And so the soccer player had volunteered to take Wyatt home, along with the football player, then circle back and pick up Aven.
Perhaps Aven was relieved. He told police that Wyatt had been hanging on him all night, flirting with him in the pool, loudly declaring to no one in particular that she was “gonna f— this guy tonight.” But he wasn’t interested; he just wanted to enjoy the party. With the two boys and Wyatt on their way home, it had seemed as if the night was winding down.
But then the soccer player returned to the Marks residence with Wyatt — and she immediately took Aven aside, sobbing hysterically, brandishing a bleeding wound on her arm and telling him that she had just been raped.
“It was hard for me to really believe anything at the time,” Aven told me, sitting in a Fort Worth Starbucks this April. His short-cropped blond hair swept up from his forehead in a stubborn cowlick, just as it had in his varsity basketball yearbook photo back in 2006. Was this your yearbook? Did you have other sources that enabled you to recreate those days/these characters? This was my 2006 yearbook. I also used old Facebook and MySpace photos and videos to recreate the characters as they had been at the time. In school, he had been well liked and quietly bright. He had been close with the soccer player at the time, and they remained friendly enough years later that the soccer player was part of Aven’s wedding party. But Aven still seemed deeply troubled, both in 2006 and when I spoke to him, by what had happened that night. What made you conclude that he still seemed troubled? He was willing to talk to me, for one, and willing to talk to the police at the time. That made him one of a very small number of people, especially boys, who were willing to do that. And he’s a very thoughtful, reflective person — meeting with him, it was clear he had seriously considered all of this, and that he had a very mature perspective on it.
Aven wrote in the statement he provided to police that, as soon as Wyatt told him she had been raped, he “asked Mrs. Marks and a girl named Carlye Bowers to come over to where me and Amber were standing. Amber repeated exactly what she told me to Mrs. Marks and Carlye.” Marks, 49 at the time, did not call the police. Instead, she suggested that Wyatt go to an upstairs room in her house, where she lay down. Bowers declined to comment for this article. How did you track these people all these years after the assault? I had a phone book from my hometown from around that time, actually that my Mom had and we had an updated one. They became really useful in finding these folks. I would also use white pages.com., a premium subscription. Sometimes I had to find people’s family members first and then I would be able to get a phone number for them.
Wyatt was disoriented and confused, Aven recalled in his statement. She even misidentified one of the two boys she said assaulted her — the football player — instead naming a third boy who had been at the party as one of the perpetrators. But according to Marks, the football player had come back with the soccer player and Wyatt, and then left in his own truck. And those were the two boys Wyatt would tell the police had raped her: the ones who had been with her in the truck.
In his statement, Aven recalled standing in a nearby hallway with Bowers, Marks and his friend, discussing what had happened. The friend seemed surprised by Wyatt’s accusation, Aven said, and offered a competing version of events: On the way to Wyatt’s house, she said that she needed to urinate. Rather than stopping at a local fast-food joint or gas station, the boys figured it would be best to pull over behind a friend’s storage shed and let Wyatt pee on the ground. She fell down as she got out of the truck, Aven recalled his friend saying, which was how she had come by the bloody abrasion on her arm.
Somewhere near the close of this narration, Wyatt appeared in the door of the guest room, “too afraid to be alone,” Aven wrote. She asked whether Aven would stay with her until she fell asleep, and he agreed. Aven went into Marks’ guest room with Wyatt, helped her into bed and did his best to comfort her. He pulled out a trundle bed alongside her and lay down facing her. Wyatt recalled in her interview with police that Marks appeared at some point and gave her boxers and a T-shirt to sleep in, which she changed into. With Aven at her side, Wyatt eventually fell asleep.
The next day, Aven woke up alone. Wyatt was gone, the party was long over, and the nightmarish evening had given way to an ordinary summer morning in suburbia. And the boy who had been trusted with the markedly adult task of comforting a terrified, injured girl now called his father to come pick him up from the Marks home. This section is relentless accretion of facts. What were your sources? Contemporaneous police interviews and subsequent interviews, along with the different physical descriptions in the police reports — in the hospital records, for example, a nurse notes Amber isn’t wearing her own clothing, but rather boxers shorts and a t-shirt that don’t belong to her; the police describe those pieces of clothing in their evidence collection notes the same way. So a lot of the very small details came from that kind of cross-checking.
When police arrived there a day and a half later, after Wyatt filed a complaint, they found Cindy Marks polite and respectful while they gathered the bedding Wyatt had slept on and searched for any additional clothes she may have left behind. But when Marks made her sworn statement several weeks later — after canceling her initial appointment with police — the story she supplied differed vastly from the version of events Aven and Wyatt had related.
“At approx 11:30 pm I was shutting down the party,” she wrote. “The kids told me Amber was being obnoxious and to get her to leave. I asked [the soccer player] to take her home. He agreed and left. At approx 20-60 minutes [the soccer player] arrived back at the house.”
On the same October day that Marks wrote her statement, a detective interviewed her on camera for an hour and 45 minutes. In the video, Marks chewed gum while crisply answering questions. “No one seemed out of control to me except for Amber,” she said, “and she seemed kinda, I don’t know what it was, drugged up or something.”
Marks’ answers appear curated Interesting word choice. What did you mean by it? I think Marks had certain goals in her interview. We knew from internal police emails recovered in the police record that they had considered charging her, because minors had been consuming alcohol on her property. The information she gave police seemed to be selected to convey a certain impression that other information from the police file didn’t appear to support. to emphasize her lack of culpability in the underage drinking that had transpired in her backyard. She claimed she didn’t believe Wyatt to be under the influence of alcohol. “I didn’t feel like she was drunk because I didn’t know they were drinking,” she said. “I figured she was on drugs, because I’ve also heard that her stomach has been pumped for drugs.” (Wyatt says that her stomach had never been pumped after drug use as a teen.) Yet Aven and Wyatt each admitted to having been drinking at the Marks party, and the school’s investigation would later conclude there had certainly been alcohol consumption in Marks’ backyard that night.
Even more striking, Marks also denied ever hearing anything about a rape that night, from Wyatt, Aven or anyone else. “You know, I just felt like she needed to go to sleep,” was her final analysis of Wyatt’s condition in her interview with police. Reached by phone in the summer of 2015, Marks declined to comment for this article. She also has not responded to many other recent attempts I’ve made, including over this summer, to get her side of the story.
In her video interview, Marks mocked how Wyatt had spoken that night, heavy and slow. The main fact about Wyatt circulating among the cheerleading moms, Marks said, “was that she does quad bars,” a street name for the prescription drug Xanax. She claimed that Amber had stolen her daughter’s sunglasses a year or more ago, though another student had returned them. She told the detective the alleged rapists were “good boys,” emphasized Wyatt’s “horrible reputation” for drug and alcohol use, and said she found it “odd” that Wyatt’s mother never called to ask what had happened, as if that had been the greatest abdication of responsibility to take place during that long night. A not-so-subtle dig, yet another example of the way opinion permeates the story. What gave you the authority to render these judgments? Just a moral conscience, I think — being upfront about my role as a bystander as well as a reporter helps to ground the fact that these moral judgments are mine. I hope so, anyway.
Writing on the wallsWyatt’s mother, Lisa Wyatt, knew something was wrong when her daughter parked her car in front of their home early that morning. For one thing, her daughter hadn’t slept late, as Lisa Wyatt had expected. And she was acting strangely. “And finally, I’m like, what is going on with you?” Lisa Wyatt recalled when we spoke this year. “And she just blurted it out. I mean, she just said, ‘I got raped last night.’ ” Some narratives eschew attribution, under the belief that it interrupts the flow. Instead, a note about sources will often be appended. You attribute throughout the story. Why? Style, mainly, although I wasn’t always happy with how the attributions did interrupt the flow But we wanted to be clear with readers.
By a little after noon, Amber Wyatt and her mother were at Arlington Memorial Hospital, where Wyatt awaited a sexual assault exam. She began the process of reporting her assault to the police, who met the pair at the hospital. Once on the scene, Officer Pamela Halferty observed Wyatt to have visible bodily injuries and found her to be “sporadically tearful in increasing intensity” as she recounted the events of the preceding night. In the waiting room prior to her exam, Wyatt also received a disturbing call on her cellphone: the football player, angrily demanding to know why she was saying he had raped her. (“Because you did,” Wyatt told police she replied.)
Nurse Della Schiavo provided sexual assault exams at Arlington Memorial Hospital for more than 10 years and was on call the day Wyatt arrived. Schiavo conducted Wyatt’s exam and took detailed notes, sketching her injuries on annotated diagrams while Wyatt laid on an exam table with her feet in stirrups. Schiavo noted that Wyatt had abrasions to her elbow, both ankles, and buttocks, along with a scratch on her inner thigh. She also recorded vaginal and anal tearing, along with redness and abrasions.
“The examination that I did was consistent with what [Wyatt] said,” Schiavo told me when I contacted her this May to discuss her findings. “That girl was raped.” As I read her exam notes aloud to her over the phone, Schiavo began to fill in the details on her own. She remembered Wyatt’s case all these years later, right down to the fact that she was never called to court to testify about it. Why did the nurse speak with you? Initially, she was kind of skeptical. When I told her this never went to court, that’s when she wanted to be involved.
Schiavo took a total of 12 swabs and smears from Wyatt’s genitals, and swabbed her saliva twice. She also collected urine for toxicological analysis. Even though Schiavo collected Wyatt’s urine sample more than 12 hours after the estimated time of her assault, there was still a small amount of alcohol in her system, along with evidence of cannabis and prescription sedatives. Wyatt told police she hadn’t ingested any of those drugs that day but that she had earlier in the week.Bruce Goldberger is chief of forensic medicine at the University of Florida College of Medicine, where he has practiced forensic toxicology for nearly 25 years and provided expert testimony in hundreds of court cases. I read Wyatt’s toxicology report to him and asked what could be gleaned from it. “Barring a [urinary tract infection] or other confounding factor,” Goldberger said, “the concentration of alcohol in the urine supports a blood-alcohol concentration earlier in the day that would be sufficient to impair.”
In other words, Wyatt was arguably too drunk, under Texas law, to be able to legally consent to sexual activity. At trial, prosecutors would have had to prove both that Wyatt was too intoxicated to properly assess the situation and render consent, and that the boys knew Wyatt was in such a state. And given that multiple people, by Aven and Marks’ accounts, had commented on how intoxicated Wyatt seemed at the party, and that Marks herself had deemed Wyatt too affected to drive, it seems they would have had ample reason to consider her thoroughly inebriated.
Goldberger also pointed out that the injuries to Wyatt’s genitals suggest that what occurred wasn’t consensual. “Trauma to the genitals can be used as a sign of sexual assault, particularly in the case where the victim is impaired,” Goldberger explained; when a victim is heavily intoxicated, “there’s no possibility of the physiological response that facilitates intercourse.” Jamye Coffman, medical director of the Child Advocacy Resources and Evaluation Team at Cook Children’s hospital in Fort Worth, agreed that Wyatt’s injuries were consistent with her story, though not necessarily diagnostic, as is common in sexual assault cases. “I tell all our victims,” Coffman told me this August, “Don’t count on the legal system to give you your closure.” Here you veer for the first time from personal recollections and details from records to opinions from experts? Why did you break from the narrative to do so? How did you select these two sources? We just wanted to give readers maximal context to judge the reported details we were providing. That was the logic behind bringing in expert voices — to help interpret these details. I chose Goldberger for his expertise in toxicology and Coffman for her experience in dealing with these specific kinds of sex crimes — against minors — and her relationship to the region.
While Wyatt was examined, Arlington police officers set out to gather evidence. Some went to the shed, where they found her black sports bra on the particleboard floor of the upper loft, and her panties on the concrete below. Others went to Marks’ house, where they searched for the T-shirt and skort she had worn the night before; all she had worn home were the boxers and T-shirt she said Marks had given her to sleep in. Police recovered the sheets Wyatt had slept on in Marks’ guest bedroom, as well as two T-shirts that matched the description of Wyatt’s — from Marks’ washing machine. (“I find that very strange,” Lisa Wyatt, Amber’s mother, told me in an interview this May. “If one of my daughter’s friends was here in the same situation, am I going to wash the child’s clothes? Nope.”) Wyatt’s skort, as far as police evidence records reflect, was never found.
With her body searched, swabbed and documented and her urine sample sent off for analysis, the next task for Wyatt was to give a thorough recounting of her assault to Ricardo “Rico” Lucero, a detective in the Arlington Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit. Lucero, an earnest and serious investigator, questioned Wyatt about the night’s events as conscientiously as possible. But their interview, which lasted more than an hour, was grueling nonetheless.
For Wyatt, some memories were clearer than others. She could remember the ladder to the loft inside the storage shed, and the guest room she had slept in after it was all over. She knew she had never found her sports bra or panties; police would later ask her to identify them, having recovered them from the shed.
Throughout her interview, Wyatt seemed stunned still, dazed. “I was just laying there,” she said at one point, trying to account for why she didn’t struggle harder than she had. “I just felt like there was nothing I can do.”
By Aug. 18, Lucero received a memo from the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office confirming that Wyatt’s vaginal and anal swabs had both been positive for “acid phosphatase and spermatozoa, which confirm the presence of semen.” (Coffman speculated that semen could have migrated during the several hours between Wyatt’s alleged assault and the exam.) On Sept. 28, a judge signed bodily fluid search warrants for both boys’ saliva; Lucero took the swabs himself that afternoon.
It wasn’t until November that the lab returned a report comparing the boys’ swabs with the samples taken as part of Wyatt’s rape kit. It showed the semen was a match for the soccer player.
And that was the paradox of the episode. The rumor — at least initially, and certainly in the soccer player’s initial account to Aven — wasn’t that Wyatt consented to sex with the two boys, but that they never had sex at all. Yet the tone of murmurs around the school indicated that students believed the exact opposite: that Wyatt, perhaps intoxicated, had agreed to sex and then regretted it, and that, in accusing the boys of rape, caused trouble not only for herself but also for her classmates at Martin. Aven, in his statement to police, said he thought, despite the soccer player’s denials, that some consensual sexual encounter took place in the shed that night. Meanwhile, at the school, an internal investigation quickly began into students’ alcohol use, which resulted in athletes from four different sports being removed from their extracurricular activities for six weeks. The videos that accompany the story are especially compelling. How would you describe your collaboration with videographer Gillian Brockell? Gillian came with me to Texas for one leg of reporting, to shoot on-scene; she is an extremely hard worker, very creative, imaginative and skilled. The story just flatly would not be the same without her; it wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful or wholly told. I did what I could with images in the writing, but she really brought them across.
Wyatt became the bull’s eye of an angry backlash. As Liz Gebhardt, a close friend of Wyatt’s who remained by her side throughout the tumultuous period that followed, recalled: “Everyone started blaming [Wyatt] because she said something, and if she would have kept her mouth shut then nothing would have ever happened.” With 3,350 students, So specific. Source? AISD (Arlington Independent School District) data from the time. it was hard to contain the spread of malicious recrimination and even harder to maintain a sense of proportion.
Kids hurled insults at Wyatt in the halls and casually chatted about the news in class. Many of her former friends would no longer associate with her. Wyatt says she received threats and slurs by text messages, people telling her to kill herself, saying she got what was coming to her. Wyatt’s friendships with her former cheerleading pals grew brittle and strained. “Maybe it was me,” she speculated in 2015. “I mean, I totally changed.”
One night in September, text and MySpace messages began circulating among Martin teens who wanted to show support for the accused by writing “FAITH” on their cars. The lurid acronym — “f— Amber in the head” — began appearing on rear windows the following morning, metastasizing Your diction is inspired, inspiring — “nascent” for instant, and the cancer terminology here, even though it might drive a less sophisticated reader to a dictionary. Does that worry you? Yeah, my own writing bothers me more than anyone else’s writing bothers me. I aspire to a nice, elegant, bare simplicity that my actual writing isn’t even close to. as quickly as the rumors had. Even Arthur Aven wrote “FAITH” on his car.
On Sept. 29, a Friday morning, spray-painted graffiti appeared on Martin’s exterior wall. It read something like, “Amber is a Whore”; the exact verbiage has been lost to time. Contemporaneous news reports didn’t record the vulgar wording, and Wyatt’s father, Mark Wyatt, who spoke with school authorities about it that morning, didn’t commit it to memory. By the time I saw the wall that day, heading inside from health class in a temporary building behind the school, custodians had already covered it with butcher paper. The events seem seared in your memory. Did you take any steps to confirm their accuracy? This was all sourced from contemporaneous local reporting, and confirmed in interviews with Mark Wyatt, Laura Jones, and others. We also went back to the school in person, where I checked my memory against the actual physical layout of the building. District officials issued a $1,000 reward for information about who was responsible, but the money was never claimed, and the culprits were never punished.The graffiti infuriated Laura Jones, Martin’s principal at the time. She took to the morning announcements, broadcast by loudspeaker throughout the entire school, and pleaded with students to consider how their actions reflected on them and affected others. “But they all laughed” at the announcement, Juliann Warner, a Martin teacher for some 20 years, recalled to me in a May interview. “Even at the end of the year, they were just always making fun of that thing.” Was all the reporting done before you started writing? No, I drafted quite a bit before finishing up the reporting. My editor was extremely helpful in recommending further and further avenues to pursue in terms of reporting — we just didn’t want to leave anything undone.
For Pam Millican, the mother of two Martin cheerleaders, Wyatt’s case became an eerie and unsettling cautionary tale. “What really ticked me off is the herd mentality of everybody,” Millican said in an interview this April, “of the cheerleaders and football players and all those queen bees and wannabes who basically sided with the football players and said that, oh, she wanted it, and it was consensual.”
Elsewhere in Arlington, Sharon Kale, the mother of Wyatt’s friend Liz Gebhardt, argued with one of her employees, who suspected Wyatt had lied. “And I just said, ‘But I know Amber, and why would she say something like that and go through the whole examination and all of that?’ ” Kale recalled in a 2015 interview. By then, adults had joined in on the rumor-spreading and ostracizing. Lisa Wyatt, Wyatt’s mother, found herself cast out of the small group of cheerleading moms she had dined and spent time with since Amber Wyatt was in junior high.
Wyatt, meanwhile, was moved to an alternative education campus after the graffiti incident, where she would stay for the remainder of the school year, an exile in her own city. The febrile climate that had consumed Martin since school began gradually cooled. But the criminal investigation was still ongoing. It was up to the criminal-justice system to do its work, or not.
Prey among preyDid you name the parts? I titled them, because I was working from an outline structure. A couple of the titles changed draft-to-draft, but most of them stayed. Former sergeant Cheryl Johnson of the Fort Worth Police Department started counting around 2007, the year that Wyatt’s father said her case went before a Tarrant County grand jury. As head of Fort Worth’s adult sex crimes unit, she was sending dozens of rape cases to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office to be presented to the county’s grand jury. But again and again, the grand jury had “no-billed” her cases, deciding not to indict — even when they seemed open and shut to Johnson.
“We had cases where there were photographs and confessions from the suspects that were no-billed,” Johnson told me in 2015 in the tidy living room of her Fort Worth home. One case in particular stuck with her: A man admitted to giving a woman drugs that would render her unconscious — and then raping her after she had passed out and photographing the act. The victim was sent the photographs of her own rape, which she turned over to police. Still, the grand jury decided not to indict.
So Johnson began to keep track of what became of her cases once she sent them to the district attorney’s office. Journalist Tim Madigan at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram caught up with Johnson during his own investigation into Tarrant’s no-bill rates and incorporated her findings. Published in 2012, Madigan’s report found that Tarrant County’s no-bill rate for alleged acquaintance rapes was 51 percent. By contrast, the city of Austin’s no-bill rate for the same crime was 13 percent. For whatever reason, Tarrant County simply wasn’t deciding to indict in such cases at the same rates as other locales.
To this day, different stakeholders have different theories about the cause of the discrepancy — and some dispute whether it even existed.
Johnson cited prosecutors’ failure to call detectives to testify before grand juries as a matter of routine procedure, pointing out that, sometimes, assistant district attorneys’ presentations of these complicated cases to grand jurors took only a few minutes.
Former Tarrant prosecutors pointed to the grand jurors themselves, who, before 2015, were appointed on a non-random basis labeled the “pick-a-pal” system by critics. Tarrant’s large volume of cases demanded that grand jurors sometimes meet several times a week, meaning that those selected to serve often fit a particular profile: older, retired, male and perhaps, as Fort Worth defense attorney and former prosecutor Leticia Martinez told me, more willing to believe that “oh, these young people today . . . they’ll do anything.”
Then there was the matter of the district attorneys, and whether they took allegations of acquaintance rape seriously.
Tim Curry, the district attorney at the time of Wyatt’s case, died in 2009. But when Madigan’s investigation was published, during then-District Attorney Joe Shannon Jr.’s tenure, Shannon penned an op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram disputing Madigan’s report on the problem. When I spoke with him this year, Shannon still insisted that, with “this consensual rape stuff,” victims frequently elected not to participate in prosecutions after their initial reports, accounting for Tarrant’s high number of no-bills. “I’m not going to try to prosecute somebody knowing full well that I can’t prove it,” he said. Did this outrage you? You lay it out without comment instead of bringing the essay voice into it. Why? After Madigan’s exposé, a new district attorney, Sharen Wilson, won the office in Tarrant County. Despite repeated requests for an interview, Wilson never agreed to speak with me for this article. But she offered a statement through a spokeswoman which seemed to suggest that, under her administration, whatever had gone awry in past eras has been set right now: “Since DA Wilson implemented changes upon taking office,” the statement read, “the indictment rate for sexual assaults in Tarrant County has dramatically increased, from 60.92% in 2015 to 81.25% in 2017.” In Wyatt’s case, it isn’t exactly clear what happened. But signs of the troubled system Johnson detected and Madigan exposed emerge. Detective Lucero confirmed to me that he was not called to testify to a grand jury in Wyatt’s case. Wyatt herself was willing to testify before a grand jury but was never called.
And, despite the soccer player’s semen found in Wyatt’s body and the injuries she sustained, neither of the boys were questioned by police. When I asked Lucero how he felt reading over Wyatt’s case file in 2015 and reflecting on the non-indictment, his mind immediately went to the fact that he was never able to speak with either boy. “Speaking to the perpetrator, the suspect, it’s huge,” he said, “and it can make or break a case.” But aside from presenting the boys for DNA swabs when subpoenaed, Lucero said, the boys’ attorneys did not make their clients available for questioning. When Lucero communicated with the boys’ attorneys, they refused even to answer whether their clients argued that any sexual encounter had been consensual. I attempted to contact both boys by telephone, email and mail and through family for this article; though a friend of the soccer player reported he knew I was trying to get in touch, neither of them returned my messages seeking contact. You certainly went the extra mile to be fair. We wanted to give everybody involved maximal opportunities to respond to our questions, so that took patience and some creativity. From my point of view, getting to the truth was always the point, so I was extremely hopeful about eventually hearing back, though that didn’t end up happening. But I wanted to try everything.
Why did the district attorney’s office not pursue the case? Alicia Cooper, the assistant district attorney who handled Wyatt’s case, declined repeated requests by telephone, email and letter to comment for this article.
No doubt, it would have posed a challenge for prosecutors. “I know the DA’s office would’ve been faced with an uphill battle at trial,” Malcolm Bales, a retired former U.S. attorney for Texas’s Eastern District, which borders Tarrant, told me. Defense lawyers, he said, “would seize on her intoxication, her inability to clearly recall things.” But Bales was still surprised that Tarrant’s prosecutors hadn’t managed to so much as indict anyone involved. “If it had been me, I definitely would have prosecuted [the soccer player] with the physical evidence,” Bales said, “and I would have gone to trial. With some cases, it’s hard — they’re hard to prosecute. But you prosecute them for the victims, for accountability and for the State of Texas.”But that wasn’t how it played out. Wyatt’s father, Mark Wyatt, remembered receiving a call that he believes came from Cooper in February 2007, advising him that there would be no legal consequences for the two boys Wyatt had accused of the rape. “I got a call . . . that they’ve chosen not to indict because it was a ‘he said, she said’ thing,” he said. Mark Wyatt was furious, disconsolate.
Because the case never went to trial, rumors that Amber Wyatt had either recanted or dropped charges blossomed, bolstering the notion that she had invented the entire thing. Mark Wyatt still believes that if his daughter’s case had gone to trial, the years of suffering that followed for her— the spiral of drug abuse and addiction — would not have been so severe. “Even if it had gone to trial and they would have found them not guilty, at least they would have been on trial for it,” he said. “I would hope that she would have been able to put this behind her much sooner.”
Amber Wyatt had used drugs before 2006, and, once the rumors spread, those with knowledge of Wyatt’s drug use seemed to view her reputation as a reason to doubt her version of events. But Deborah Caddy, director of rape crisis and victim services at the Women’s Center of Tarrant County, suggested a different kind of relationship between victimization and drug abuse.
Stranger rapists — the kind of attackers who victimize people they don’t know — hunt for victims who exude vulnerability, Caddy said. Acquaintance rapists exhibit similar behaviors, Caddy pointed out, scanning their social milieus for people who are in some way incapacitated, available for the taking: people whom nobody will believe, people who can’t fight back. You cover so much territory in this story. How conscious were you of rhythm and pacing as you structured and wrote? Aspirationally, very. In practice, I tend to lag. I had to force myself to be cognizant of pacing in this piece, because we knew it was going to take a lot of space even to get the bare story down.
It’s like hunting, in other words. The whole thing was something like a hunt, and Wyatt was easy prey You use a source’s expertise to set up a damning conclusion. Why take that approach? In part because it was a point I hadn’t thought about before, so it was just as revelatory to me as I assumed it would be to some readers. In the crime-scene photographs taken inside the shed where Wyatt said she was assaulted, you can count the buck heads — 12 mounted neatly on the first floor, another half dozen strewn on the ground of the loft, antlers tangled like bramble, eyes wide and staring. Wyatt’s panties are there, too, on the concrete under the empty watch of the beheaded deer. How blunt it seems, overstated almost— prey among prey.
Many a treatise on brutality has taken deer as its subject, because the pleasure derived from killing them is so disturbing in light of their docile grace. Montaigne laments the dying cries of a wounded heart in his essay on cruelty; so does William Wordsworth in his poem “Hart-Leap Well.” Both Montaigne and Wordsworth meditate on the deer’s last stagger, the long prelude to death, the moment when the light leaves its eyes. One doesn’t expect to find Montaigne and Wordsworth appear in a contemporary article on a botched rape case Why did you use these classical figures in your description of Amber? I just kept thinking of those eerie deer heads in the dark. I dreamed about them, actually. And I guess that led me to think about why I would respond to them that way, and of course that was something Wordsworth and Montaigne had each considered, so I brought them in almost like experts.
Wyatt had eyes like that: thick-lashed, wide and dark, dimmed to vacancy at times by drugs and alcohol. She was beautiful, and she was vulnerable. And everyone knew it.
Indeed, Wyatt’s case remains a dark reminder that vulnerability to predation occurs on more than one axis. Wyatt was young. But she was also someone who struggled with drug and alcohol use, and someone her peers understood to be working-class. For the assault itself, and for everything that followed, she was easy to discount.
Montaigne and Wordsworth lived near enough to the bloody indifference of nature to spare a thought for its victims. But the veneer of civility painted over modern life has paradoxically revealed a certain contempt for victims and the condition of victimhood. And perhaps, lurking in all the complaints about our putative culture of victimhood, there is something uglier than generalized contempt: a disdain for the weak. These philosophical passages are among the most unusual and powerful in the story. Why did you write them? Laying down the story felt incomplete without them…I think by this late point in the piece, it became especially clear to me that we didn’t just owe the readers a recitation of what really happened, but also an effort at understanding why and how, and that’s where the philosophical passages come in. The cadence and pacing are spot-on. Did you read your story aloud? I did, yeah, to my husband, after our toddler was in bed.
It’s obvious that vulnerability will elicit viciousness from predators. But then there are the rest of us — the cast of Arlingtonians beginning with midnight partygoers and ending with high school rumor-listeners who, with honorable exception, ridiculed Wyatt at worst and ignored her at best. Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it? Without attribution, you ask the reader to consider the moral implications of the rape case and its aftermath. Unusual for a case of reportage, no? Unusual, yeah. Not unheard of. That move is one I have admired in other work I’ve read, and it felt natural here, since we’d already taken readers such a long way with us.
To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Or they make you feel helpless, just by dint of how little you can do to stop what’s being done to them. The temptation in that case is to look away, let it all be someone else’s problem, or deny that there’s a problem in need of resolution in the first place.
As I reported on her story over the course of three years, Wyatt was alternately patient and frustrated. She wondered, in a series of private Facebook messages to me, whether this article would ever be published, and whether revisiting that period in her life was worth the emotional cost. It was, she told me last year, “a wound that has been reopened.”
Sometimes I replied; sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t know whether the article would ever be published, either. But I didn’t want to be the last person to look away. Did you share Amber’s concerns? What kept you going? I had already put so much work into it, I couldn’t just leave it; that was part of it. Another part of it was a sense of obligation to everyone I had recruited in that work — the interviewees, etc. And then I just knew what I had learned mattered, that it was important.
What you know nowWyatt’s drug habit worsened after she was moved from Martin to an alternative high school in Arlington. She was arrested in December 2006 for driving while intoxicated, which she pleaded guilty to in a county court, and again in 2009, on charges of possession of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana, to which she pleaded no contest. Her record states that she was arrested for a final time in 2010 on a charge of driving while intoxicated, this time in Denton, Tex. Again, she pleaded no contest. For a time, she lost her driver’s license. Her 2010 mugshot, posted online by the Texas Department of Public Safety, shows her disheveled and on the verge of tears, bearing only a passing resemblance to the bright and outgoing cheerleader she had been only four years before.
Late in November of 2010, Wyatt overdosed on a cocktail of Klonopin, vodka, cocaine and methadone, bringing her to the brink of organ failure. On Dec. 1, Wyatt posted a despondent Facebook status: “In ICU for the past 2 days. I’m having kidney failure. Please pray for me.” Once she made it out of the hospital and into addiction treatment, Wyatt’s counselors told her she needed to invest her trust in a higher power — to have faith.
With all that had come before, that word in particular stung more than it soothed. And her past followed her. “Even four years after I graduated,” Wyatt told me in 2015, “I would meet people and they would be like, ‘Oh, you’re Amber Wyatt.’ ” By which they meant, as Wyatt interpreted their response, the girl who “lied about being raped.”
Still, the incidents of normal life returned in hard-won bits and pieces: a car, a home, a steady job. Last March, she married Stephen Wilson, a man she encountered in recovery. The two met on an outing to Six Flags Over Texas, an amusement park in Arlington, where they sat side by side on a Batman-themed roller coaster. They live quietly now in the Texas city of San Marcos with a dog named Stitch, “Get the name of the dog” is shorthand for complete and detailed reporting. What do you think is the value of getting Stitch’s name? I asked about it initially. What people name their pets just strikes me as very revealing. abandoned by Wilson’s former roommate when he went back to using. Wyatt has taken Wilson’s surname.
The last time I see her, we meet on a warm Dallas evening in April. The city is wide and magisterial, with a crest of glittering lights marking its heights in the darkness. On a clear night with bright stars, the city and sky can lose their seam. What a beautiful scene! Thank you. I don’t think I’ll ever be finished writing about Texas. It’s a night like that, and she rounds a corner in a quiet restaurant to see me waiting for her in a booth.Wyatt is completing an undergraduate psychology program at Texas State University. This year, she’s serving as a teaching assistant for a forensic psychology course; from there, she’s considering pursuing a master’s degree. I notice, as we sit in the restaurant, a peace sign tattooed on the underside of Wyatt’s wrist. Has she found it, I wonder? Faith is still a tender word. But she trusts “in a spiritual power,” she tells me. “I let myself believe.”
In the years since that ill-fated pool party, society has made important cultural and legal strides in treating victims of sexual harassment and assault with dignity and respect — much thanks to feminist-led movements such as #MeToo. Indeed, Wyatt’s decision to cooperate with my reporting when it began in 2015 was an anticipatory #MeToo moment — she hoped, by speaking out publicly, by giving her name to a grimly familiar story, that she would help some other girl in some other city.
It is tempting to imagine that, if all of this really had happened now, in the wake of #MeToo, things would have been different and justice better served. And some things have certainly changed. Over the past several years, attention paid to sexual assault cases outside the stranger-rape mold has increased thanks to a changing consciousness about the realities of coercion and consent. With stories like the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, rape case and the 2012 prosecution of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, we have begun to understand how systems of power can warp the consciences of otherwise ordinary people when it comes to prosecuting or even reporting sexual assault.
Likewise, the #MeToo phenomenon has resulted in accountability for high-profile perpetrators of sexual abuse who were, sometimes for decades, protected by edifices composed of their own power, prestige and wealth. That figures such as Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Steve Wynn have faced serious repercussions after accusations of sexual misconduct testifies to a real and growing revolt against sexual abuse at society’s highest echelons. Still, progress is slower and abuse more frequent lower down the socioeconomic ladder, where poor and working-class people have relatively little recourse when it comes to suffering sexual misconduct, both because the costs of speaking out are often unbearable and because their abusers rarely grab headlines the way Hollywood rainmakers and politicians do. You often climb up the ladder of abstraction from the detailed description of the rape and what followed to philosophical reflections. Were you aware that it’s a departure from traditional reportage? Did you feel at this point that you were writing an opinion piece? I knew that there were several ways we could have told this story. I guess now that I’ve used ‘we’ several times, I should say by ‘we’ I mean me, my editors, the designers and videographer, Gillian Brockell, since all of us played a role in telling this story — and I knew one way would be just straight reporting: Here’s something that happened. And I think we all knew pretty early on that wasn’t going to be exactly how we did it.
So I look back uneasily, unconvinced that we have come such a long way after all. Because there will always be opportunities to do evil and evil opportunists. There will always be acts of cruelty prepackaged with plausible deniability, or the easy cover of crowds to disperse responsibility. There will always be people nobody believes: people with lesser reputations, people who struggle with addiction, people without much capital, social or otherwise, to credit them. And there will always be cases of offenses that are real and true but hard to prosecute, which means that justice in the world — if it’s to exist at all — will have to take some other form than the formalized and official, and peace will have to arise from some other reckoning than a proper settling of accounts.
This is my imperfect offering toward that end: a record of what happened, and the willingness to have been troubled by it all these years. It still troubles me now — it will always be unresolved — and I hope that it troubles you, because the moral conscience at ease accomplishes nothing. For the first time you address the reader directly. Why? In gratitude for making it all the way to the end with me, more or less. A nod of thanks.
Wyatt doesn’t have much interest in pressing for a trial or other remedy after all this time. Even if she did, it would be impossible; Lucero’s files indicate that all the physical evidence relating to Wyatt’s case was destroyed — common with no-billed cases — in 2009. All that remains are the urban legends and the memories, the wounds and their scars, a stack of documents in a Texas public safety office, what you know now, and the hope that you will carry it with you into the world.
Hope and hauntThe day after her 29th birthday, which was also the day after this story first appeared online, Amber Wyatt, now Wilson, stood in the shower in her San Marcos home and sobbed — hard, wrenching, wrung-out tears. They had been a long time in coming.
“I’m trying to face my emotions, because the last time, I didn’t. I numbed myself,” Wyatt explained in a Thursday afternoon phone call. She sounded tired, and she was: She had just arisen from a midday nap — the good counsel of her husband, Stephen, who had come home to be with her after her breakdown in the shower.
The publication’s timing — not just on Wyatt’s birthday, but in the midst of yet another convulsive national debate about the treatment, or mistreatment of women and girls, and how to reconcile conflicting stories — was one of those accidents of perfect cosmic coincidence. When you began this project could you have imagined the #MeToo movement? Not at all — that was just fortuitous, in terms of context for the piece. But it found Wyatt as the unexpected, somewhat overwhelmed recipient of gifts — not in the form of material goods but in the shape of words and, more important, of emotions, of comfort, of respect, of regret. In short, the opposite of what had greeted her in the dark days — the dark years, really — after the party that August night a dozen years ago.
Wyatt had quite a bit of giving to do, herself. There was, of course, the enormous effort of having shared herself — her story, her pain, her face, her name, all in the hopes that her act of self-giving could rescue someone in need. On her Facebook page, she set up a fundraiser for a Dallas-area rape crisis center; she asked her friends to donate to the group in lieu of presents for herself. The goal she set was $200, a fine amount. By Thursday night, a day and a half after this story was posted and curious readers found their way to her profile, Wyatt had raised $1,275.
That felt good. But for all the old saw about it being better to give, the gifts that Wyatt received felt better, even more so for how long they were in coming. The influx of support was sudden and drastic, almost surreal. In the illuminated scroll of Wyatt’s life, those old, cruel inscriptions — the spray-painted slurs on the school wall and the declarations of “FAITH” scrawled on cars — were superseded this week by new words: The hashtag #IBelieveAmberWyatt appeared on Twitter hours after the article went live, amplified by hundreds of messages echoing the same sentiment. I had shared the final version of the article with Wyatt a few days before it was published, and reading her story brought its own sense of satisfaction and closure, There’s still a view in some newsrooms that you never share a story with a source before publication. Why did you do so in this case? On one hand, it was the decent thing to do, seeing as this story was in large part her story, and she had a right to be prepared for what was going to be said about it. I also wanted her to be able to prepare for any backlash — we didn’t know how the public was going to respond to all the information here. Of course, people responded very positively. But I had no idea whether that was going to be the case ahead of time. but neither of us had anticipated anything like this outpouring of support. If anything, she had been braced for more anger and ugliness.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Wyatt told me. “There’s a side of me that’s so excited that everyone’s opening up and listening. But there’s still a 16-year-old girl inside of me who’s just overwhelmed … It’s overwhelming to go from nobody believing me at all, to how many people believe me now.”
The new believers weren’t all strangers. Some voices came from the past, and that, it turned out, was the most powerful gift of all. “I was at Martin at the time of Amber’s rape and was a team captain on the football team,” one former student wrote in a lengthy email to me. “I also attended the party in the article. I wanted to share my thoughts on what I think I owe Amber. I owe her my regret of not doing more in the moment and after. While I did not participate in the after-effects of writing on the wall and FAITH, I didn’t do anything to stop it, and I had a voice that might have been listened to.”
Other Martin students and Arlington residents have contacted Wyatt to apologize for how they treated her back then, and to disavow their loyalties to those who hurt her. In the Martin High School Class of 2008 reunion Facebook group where she posted her story, several former students sounded similar notes of regret. “Amber, I’m not sure why I pretended to know what happened,” one male classmate wrote, “and then even how vastly incorrect my understanding of the situation was. … I’m sorry we all thought 6 months of sports was more important than your livelihood.” A female classmate added: “I am so sorry we all failed you when you needed help.” And another: “I’m disgusted by my own behavior at the time and I apologize.” Did the apologies surprise Amber? You? Of all the reactions to the story were these the most important? Amber took everything very much in stride — I do think she felt overwhelmed at first. I was surprised that there wasn’t more defensiveness from the kids who had been at Martin at the time; sort of the opposite, in fact. Maybe spending so much time focused on that period made me a little cynical. But people do grow and change.
Still others shared accounts of their own assaults, including one email that arrived in my inbox the evening the article was published from a woman who had attended Martin not long before Wyatt. “Like Amber I was a cheerleader and like Amber, I have a similar experience,” she wrote. “She was brave enough to immediately come forward, but I was not. This happened to me and it happened to other girls I knew. We never talked about it after the parties. We just went on, I guess accepting what happened as a consequence of being intoxicated. Embarrassed to hear talk of it in school the following week, the best thing I felt I could do was minimize the experience. I didn’t see it as a violation until much later in life.”
She concluded on a point both hopeful and haunting. “I hope my children will have a very different experience than we did,” she wrote. “It never leaves you after all.” How did you decide on this ending? When I read that email, I thought that line was the one to end on. I wanted an ending that was hopeful, but also one that was honest. And I thought that line encapsulated that twilight pretty well.
Originally published Sept. 19, 2018.
Videos by Gillian Brockell. Video graphics by Danielle Kunitz. Portraits by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post. Header video photos by George Shiras/National Geographic Creative. Police photos courtesy of Arlington (Tex.) Police Department. Copy editing by Lydia Rebac. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design and development by Courtney Kan.