'Undetected rapists' on campus: A troubling plague of repeat offenders

A chilling case at a friendly school — sexual assault at Texas A&M

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Elton Yarbrough was a young man seemingly on his way up: An economics major at Texas A&M University; a member of the university’s military cadet corps; a musician in the marching band; the pride of little Palestine, Texas; and soon to be an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

But police say he was also one other thing: A serial rapist.

The one-time Texas A&M senior is now sitting in a Texas prison until at least 2015 for felony sexual assault. Five women, including four female A&M students, testified Yarbrough raped or sexually assaulted them between 2003 and 2006, although he was only tried on one assault charge. Yarbrough says he is innocent.

Yarbrough is one of six alleged serial offenders at colleges across the country the Center for Public Integrity found during its year-long investigation of sexual assault on college campuses. The six were accused of assaulting multiple women in court records, campus records or other public documents.

However, students who reported being raped by fellow students told the Center of at least five other men whom they suspected of, or had heard of, assaulting other women. Those men probably look a lot like Yarbrough did to Texas A&M administrators and to his fellow students: A promising young student with an outstanding resume of achievements. As one of his accusers would later write in a statement read at a university judicial proceeding, “If you cannot trust another student with a record which appears as impeccable as Elton’s, then who can we really trust in life?”

The number of serial offenders did not surprise psychologist David Lisak, a University of Massachusetts-Boston expert on campus sexual assault.

“This is the norm,” said Lisak, who co-authored a 2002 study of nearly 1,900 college men published in the academic journal Violence and Victims. “The vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders who, on average, have six victims. So, this is who’s doing it.”

Yarbrough’s story, and those of the women who accused him, share several commonalities with cases of other alleged repeat rapists. For example, records show that Texas A&M, the nation’s seventh-largest university, was slow to realize it had a possible repeat rapist on campus. Administrators were not aware of Yarbrough’s arrest on a sexual assault charge until more than a week after it had happened and by then police considered him a suspect in another attack months earlier. Once those women came forward, the university eventually became aware of two other women who said they had been assaulted by him. One told the Center for Public Integrity that she had reported the assault a year before to A&M’s student health center and, after getting little support from the university, transferred to another school.

Likewise, all five women testified the assaults occurred after they had been drinking heavily, which blurred their memories. And the university responded by pitting one victim against Yarbrough in a he said, she said “student life conduct” hearing that was surrounded in secrecy and left both the woman and Yarbrough disappointed with the procedure and its outcome.

But Yarbrough’s tale — and the fact that he’s now in prison — also bucks a trend. The Center’s research, and Lisak’s as well, shows that many prosecutors are hesitant to deal with campus sexual assault cases . Police and prosecutors in the middle-sized city of College Station, Texas, charged Yarbrough, put him on trial, and convinced a jury to sentence him to 18 years in prison, of which he must serve at least nine.

Shock at Texas A&M

With 48,000-plus students on the campus near College Station, outsiders might think a school the size of Texas A&M would be impersonal and unwelcoming.

But this is a place where the official university greeting is “Howdy,” and every A&M student — still called an “Aggie” even though the “A&M” no longer stands for “Agricultural and Mechanical” — is famously required to swear to the code of honor: “Aggies do not lie, cheat, or steal, nor do they tolerate those who do.” Aggies have a reputation for being community-minded. And once you’re an Aggie, you’re always an Aggie. Fallen Aggies are remembered each year at an event called the Aggie Muster that is observed around the world by groups of former students. Included in the “roll call” at the 2000 Muster were the names of the dozen students killed the previous November in the collapse of a giant bonfire tower built of logs.

Despite that welcoming culture, sexual violence does occur. Twenty-two “forcible sex offenses” were reported at A&M in the three-year period ending with the 2007-08 academic year, according to the university’s most recent annual campus security report. Still, the Aggieland community was shocked by news reports that an A&M student — and a senior member of the cadet Corps — was arrested in early December 2004 and charged with raping another student.

By the time it was over, there would be a total of five women, all testifying they were assaulted by Yarbrough in the same circumstances: After drinking heavily, each said she passed out or fell asleep and woke to find Yarbrough having sex with her or touching her sexually.

“He would pick the most intoxicated female, whether he’d be at a bar or at a party,” recalled Lt. Brandy Norris, the lead investigator on the case for College Station police. “He’s a serial rapist. He was smart enough to know he didn’t have to hide in the bushes and grab them as they were walking by.”

Yarbrough disagreed. “I don’t believe it. I know for a fact it’s not true,” he said in an interview at Ferguson Unit, a Texas prison about two hours north of Houston. “My family knows it’s not true. My friends know it’s not true.”

A European foreign exchange student, the first woman to accuse Yarbrough by name, had been a friend of a friend of his. The two had chatted on what police would call “The Facebook” and played pool together at a local nightspot. During the 2004 Thanksgiving break at her off-campus apartment, she and her roommate couldn’t get Yarbrough to take the hint to go home after a night of drinking and they all lay down to sleep in the same bed.

The exchange student testified she woke up to find him on top of her, having sex with her. She screamed and demanded he leave, and he did. Her roommate called 911, and at the prompting of police, she called Yarbrough two days later and confronted her assailant on the phone — while police recorded the conversation.

Some excerpts from the tape that were read to the jury:

Victim: “I was passed out, Elton, and you knew it. I don’t care if you were drunk. I was out cold. Why would you do that? Had you planned it, or was it just something that came to you spontaneously? What?”

Yarbrough: “No, I didn’t plan it. I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.”

Victim: “Why did you do it?”

Yarbrough: “I don’t know why … Look, I’m sorry.”

Victim: “You made me feel so sick, so violated, so helpless …”

Yarbrough: “I don’t really — I don’t even know what to say. It was my fault. It’s no excuse but I was drunk. Sorry for making you feel that way.”

The tape became a key piece of evidence that helped put Yarbrough in prison. And news of his arrest would lead three other women to testify that Yarbrough had assaulted them prior to the foreign exchange student.

Other Alleged Victims Speak Out

One of the three women was a hometown friend of Yarbrough’s from Palestine who followed him to A&M. They had sex once during her college freshman year while she was drunk . She told jurors that on another occasion, one night before playing drinking games together in his dorm over the 2003 Thanksgiving break, she said she told him she did not want to have sex with him. She passed out, she would later testify, and when she came to, she found him assaulting her.

The next day, she recalled for the Center for Public Integrity, she went to the A&M student health center. “When I went and I did my rape kit, the lady said, ‘Well, were you drunk?’ — like, ‘It’s your fault because you were drinking.’ It made me feel bad. She gave me a pamphlet, and she said, ‘You can go talk to a counselor on campus about this.’”

That was the last she heard from Texas A&M about it, she said. Meanwhile, she told only three people about what happened. Her grades dropped because of it, and she left A&M and later graduated from another university. “I haven’t been able to really trust anybody since then,” she said.

Another woman who would testify against Yarbrough was a high school pal of one of his friends. She had just arrived on campus for her freshman year in 2004. After getting “extremely drunk” on Long Island iced teas at Hurricane Harry’s in College Station, she later testified, she passed out at Yarbrough’s off-campus fraternity house, Chi Phi, and awoke to find him performing oral sex on her.

A month later, according to trial testimony, he raped another woman at the fraternity house. She was a friend of the girlfriend of one of Yarbrough’s fraternity brothers. After drinking “trash can punch” — traditionally made with pure grain alcohol — and beer, she testified that she laid down to sleep with friends in a common room. She woke up, she said, to find a dark-skinned man having sex with her.

“I said, ‘Who are you?’ And they” — her assailant — “stood up and they walked out of the room,” the victim testified.

She later realized her panties and tampon were missing — and her friends said they found Yarbrough’s cellphone, with its cracked display, where her attacker had lain. One of Yarbrough’s fraternity brothers testified that Yarbrough showed off a pair of women’s underwear the following morning.

The fifth, and last, woman to accuse him said she was raped after Yarbrough was charged with assault and was out of jail on bail. The woman was a co-worker of Yarbrough’s at a local restaurant and attended a party at his apartment. She testified that after playing eight rounds of “beer pong,” she passed out on a sofa and regained consciousness to find Yarbrough assaulting her.

“For a person like Elton, it appears that a university campus is like a playground, where he goes to parties or to bars and chooses his victim for the night,” the foreign exchange student would say in a statement read on her behalf at the university judicial proceeding. “… He knew he could not have me with my consent, so for him I suppose it was enough to have me while I slept, just a limp body laying there, obviously a playground for him to satisfy his sick pleasures.”

Yarbrough says the allegations against him are untrue. Speaking with a reporter in the drafty prison interview room, he says he had consensual sex with four of the five women. In the case of the one whose underwear went missing, he said he wasn’t in that part of the fraternity house that night.

“I was pretty promiscuous in college. I don’t know too many people who weren’t. I guess when you combine a lot of drinking and partying in college you’re going to have a lot of” sex going on, he said.

And when people drink, their inhibitions are lowered — and, he said, sometimes they have sex with people with whom they wouldn’t normally. “It’s college. You walk around Northgate,” he said, speaking of one of College Station’s most popular bar areas, “you’re going see a lot of drunk men and women. And then, at the end of the night, you’re going to see a lot of drunk men and women going home together.”

But he says he never forced anyone to have sex, and says the four women with whom he admits to having sex were willing participants. He recalled one having participated in foreplay before intercourse, and another came into his bedroom and initiated sex with him, he said. His childhood friend testifying he’d raped her was “a big shock,” in particular, he said.

“Pretty much all of them said they were too drunk to remember the details of that night, but the only details they could remember were the details that were incriminating against me,” he observed. “They didn’t remember any of that other stuff that happened.”

As for why they might lie about it, he has some theories, he said. For one, they were white women who drunkenly had sex with a black man and may have regretted it the morning after. College Station, Texas, is still an overwhelmingly white town, and at least one of the women testified her parents had forbidden her from dating Yarbrough because of his race. The foreign exchange student’s father is an executive with a multinational company who, Yarbrough thinks, may have influence. And the system, he said, is just more inclined to believe the girl, and not the guy.

He also questioned why prosecutors only tried him on a single charge — assaulting the foreign exchange student. He was indicted on a charge of assaulting the restaurant co-worker but was never tried on it, and he was never charged criminally with assaulting any of the other three women.

“It seems that if I were the serial rapist they claim I am, they would have been trying me on everything they could possibly try me on, to get me as much time [in prison] as they could,” he said.

Prosecutors held on to the charge regarding the assault of the restaurant co-worker and would have sought to try Yarbrough on it if he had won a new trial during his recent appeal, said Danny Smith, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. As for why they didn’t seek to prosecute him on charges of assaulting the other three women, Smith said they “went forward with the strongest” of the cases, that of the foreign exchange student.

‘Undetected Rapists’

Repeat offenders may have struck several college campuses in recent years.

In one of the initial stories published as part of the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation, former University of Virginia student Kathryn Russell recounted that she was assaulted and that the university found her alleged assailant not responsible for sexual assault, issuing him a verbal reprimand for using bad judgment. The following year, Russell recounted, she learned her alleged assailant was accused of raping another woman. For the second complaint, he was found responsible, but that finding was overturned after he appealed.

Russell has described additional alleged victims of the same man identifying themselves to her after she went public with her description of how the university offered her little support and shrouded the campus judicial process in secrecy.

In Ohio, a woman known publicly only as Jane Doe, who settled a lawsuit with Ohio State University in 2007, alleged in court records that the male student who raped her in her dorm had raped another female student less than three weeks earlier. According to the records, the previous victim had reported the assault to the university’s residential staff, who punished the alleged attacker by merely moving him to a new dorm.

Ohio State found the male student responsible for Jane Doe’s rape allegation and expelled him. He was then charged criminally with rape stemming from her allegations. He pleaded guilty in a plea bargain to misdemeanor assault. In interviews, the woman told the Center for Public Integrity that other alleged victims of the same man came forward after she began speaking out at rallies against rape and sexual violence. Jane Doe settled in 2008 for an undisclosed amount of money under a confidentiality agreement.

Interviews with student victims and reviews of records in select cases identified alleged repeat offenders at Indiana University, Towson University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Research by Lisak, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, showed that 58 percent of male college students who admitted in a survey to actions that amounted to rape or attempted rape also reported having multiple victims. And those serial rapists committed 91 percent of the rapes reported by the survey group. Lisak and his collaborator, Brown University’s Paul M. Miller, referred to the phenomenon as that of “undetected rapists.”

In Yarbrough’s case, the women who say they were his first two victims reported the assaults only after Yarbrough was charged with assaulting the foreign exchange student. His childhood friend from Palestine had transferred to another university by then; aside from telling three friends and the student health center nurses, she kept the secret from even her parents.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to get my friend in trouble,’” she recalled. “In retrospect, I know I should have said something to the police. I know that I should have gone forward — regardless of if he was my friend or not, no means no. It is what is. I’m older and I’m smarter now. But back then I was 18. I was young and dumb, I guess.”

Another woman testified that she didn’t tell police or the university for months about the assault because she had hoped to pursue a romantic relationship with a friend of Yarbrough.

Experts say it’s common for rape victims not to come forward because they feel fear or humiliation. The majority of rapes are never reported to law enforcement, Lisak and Miller wrote. One in five college women will become the victim of a rape or an attempted rape by the time she graduates, according to a study funded by the Justice Department.

The woman whose underwear went missing did call police in neighboring Bryan, Texas, where the fraternity house is located. Records show investigators there were working the case, and considered Yarbrough a suspect ,when he was arrested two months later on the charge of assaulting the foreign exchange student.

When campus rapes are reported to police, local prosecutors “aren’t doing a very aggressive job” prosecuting these cases, Lisak said. Alcohol is often involved. “Very often the prosecuting office drops the case because they feel that they can’t prove it, they can’t get a jury to convict. So the vast majority of these rapists never face a trial.”

Seated around a conference table in the Brazos County district attorney’s office in Bryan, just minutes from the Texas A&M campus, Norris, the lead investigator, and Smith, the assistant DA, were asked why they pursued criminal charges in the assault of the foreign exchange student.

Norris had an immediate answer: “The victim. She made a world of difference.”

Smith interjected: “The strength of the case. We also had the ‘sneaky tape’ [of the recorded phone conversation]. Part of it was, we actually had his own words. … We still had him apologizing to her on a phone call.”

Norris continued: “It’s not easy to make a phone call to the person who’s just assaulted you and confront them. It’s not an easy thing to do. … She was just a very strong person who was able to do what needed to be done.”

The prosecutor went on: “I have been presented with cases … involving alcohol and allegations of sexual assault, where it’s not necessarily that I don’t believe that it happened, it’s just that there’s not enough proof. And this case was different in that regard — frankly, one, because the night that it happened was the night that she called police. Often time where we see things is days, if not weeks, later.”

When they drew up the arrest warrant for Yarbrough, they suspected him of only one assault. Within days of his arrest on Dec. 1, 2004 , Norris and a police detective in Bryan had compared notes and attributed three assaults to Yarbrough.

Texas A&M Responds

After turning himself in on Dec. 1, Yarbrough was booked on a charge of assaulting the foreign exchange student, posted bond and was freed . Nine days went by, police records indicate, before the university learned of the criminal charge against him and banned him from the campus pending the outcome of A&M’s own internal judicial proceeding, known as a “Student Life Conduct Conference.”

The available public records shed little light on how the university reached out to the exchange student and what services or support she was offered prior to the university’s proceeding, held about six weeks after the assault. Ann Goodman, the A&M administrator who police records say represented the victim at the university’s judicial hearing, and Carol Binzer, the university’s current director of student life, declined to comment on the case, citing federal laws intended to keep private students’ educational records. Texas A&M has cited the same law in denying requests for access to records of Yarbrough’s case.

The campus proceeding at Cain Hall wasn’t a court or a trial and the hearing panel was made up of three A&M administrators, including an assistant Corps commandant.

According to police records, Yarbrough described to the panel in detail fondling and penetrating the woman with his penis but said the sexual contact was consensual . He was allowed to directly question the woman , who was participating via conference call from overseas, and Yarbrough recalled one administrator objecting to the detailed nature of the questions he posed to her. Yarbrough’s lawyer was also present but could not ask questions.

Goodman, the A&M administrator — who is trained in crisis management — read the victim’s statement out loud to the panel: “What probably hurts me the most … is that I know I am not the only girl which he has preyed upon, ” the woman wrote. She denounced him as “a disgrace to the Corps and to Aggies as a whole,” telling him, “You do not exemplify the Aggie spirit.”

Yarbrough was found “responsible” for breaking three student conduct rules, including sexual assault and conduct unbecoming a Corps member: “The hearing panel felt that it was more likely than not the victim in the incident was not able to give consent to any intimate relationship during the incident, therefore, the student will be responsible for the charges pending.” The panel suspended him for a year and assigned him 150 hours of community service, records show.

“Universities are not equipped to do an appropriate investigation of a rape case,” Lisak said. “She says he did it and he says he didn’t, and they throw up their hands and say, ‘How are we supposed to figure this out?’”

Yarbrough described it in similar terms: “She told her story, I told my story, and whoever they believed, that’s what they went with.” He recalled being told that the standard for the university panel wasn’t “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” but the lighter “preponderance of evidence” benchmark. “If they believe her 51 percent and me 49 percent, I’m guilty.”

The public record does not address how the university dealt with the other women once they came forward. One had already transferred to another school, but two were still students at A&M when Yarbrough went on trial in September 2006. Neither of those women responded to messages requesting interviews for this story. The foreign exchange student spoke to the Center for Public Integrity on background only, confirming much of what is in the public record.

After the arrest, Yarbrough’s fraternity also held an internal meeting regarding the allegations that he had assaulted one of the women — the woman whose panties went missing — at the off-campus fraternity house . Evan Dews, a Chi Phi member who was friends with three of Yarbrough’s victims, testified in court that he attended the chapter meeting and didn’t buy Yarbrough’s alibi for the underwear he’d displayed the morning after the alleged attack.

Dews, now an A&M graduate working overseas in the construction industry, said via e-mail that the meeting led to Yarbrough being suspended by the fraternity and temporarily banned from the fraternity house pending the outcome of the criminal case against him.

At his criminal trial, Yarbrough’s lawyer sought to persuade jurors that the foreign exchange student consented to the sex. He also tried to portray some of the victims as sexually active, if not promiscuous — by playing “strip pool” with male and female friends — and said they made poor choices by drinking too much and having premarital sex.

Jurors deliberated less than two hours before returning a guilty verdict. Court records show the jury asked the judge for, and received, a compact disc player so they could re-hear the audio recording of the phone conversation between Yarbrough and the exchange student.

He was sentenced to 18 years, of which he will have to serve at least nine. The Air Force cancelled its offer to commission him as an officer. The A&M chapter of Chi Phi expelled him permanently, Dews said, although Yarbrough’s name was still on the chapter website’s “distinguished alumni” listing as of this month. Michael Azarian, executive director of Georgia-based Chi Phi’s national office, said he believed Yarbrough was expelled from the A&M chapter, but that he remains a member of the national fraternity.

At Ferguson Unit, Yarbrough is now inmate No. 1397217. He rises by 6:30 each morning and is at work in the prison kitchen by 7 a.m., except for Tuesdays and Thursdays, which are his days off, and Fridays, when he attends business speech class. By 11:45 a.m. on weekdays, he’s heading to a cabinetmaking class that lasts until 6 p.m.

Some friends and fellow Corps members shunned him, but other friendships have grown stronger while he’s been in prison, Yarbrough said. His family has stood by him, including his mother, a veteran guard supervisor at another Texas prison. When he gets out, he dreams of obtaining a commercial truck driver’s license or owning a small fleet of trucks. And he hopes to go back to A&M to complete his degree.

Jennifer Peebles is a deputy editor for Texas Watchdog. Kristen Lombardi is a staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity. Kristin Jones, staff writer for the Center for Public Integrity, contributed to this story.