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Lacrosse players' case a trial for parents

Feeling abandoned, angry and distraught over their sons' futures, the parents Duke lacrosse players accused of rape have bonded most through the shared conviction that everyone on the team is innocent.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

As the mother of a Duke University lacrosse player, Tracy Tkac endured her worst moment while watching the news at home in Gaithersburg. There on national television was her son Chris's face on an outlaw-style wanted poster.

A woman hired to strip at a team party had told police she had been raped by three lacrosse players, and the police in Durham, N.C., accused the team of stonewalling the investigation. "Please come forward," said the poster, which featured nearly every one of the 47 students on the team and was shown hanging on a campus wall.

"The people that I entrusted my son's education to, allowing those posters to go up on the walls of their private institution," Tkac said.

In Chevy Chase, Sally Fogarty and her husband, parents of Gibbs Fogarty, hunkered down, avoiding social settings where the Duke case was the topic of discussion. "I could not risk hearing my friends express doubt over my son, because I was afraid the friendships would be ruined," Fogarty said.

John Walsh watched what he called a "rolling tide" wash over his son Johnny's team in a presumption of guilt. "In a fell swoop -- a lightning bolt -- everything is taken from them," said Walsh, a health administrator who lives in Bethesda.

Feeling abandoned, angry and distraught over their sons' futures, the parents bonded most through the shared conviction that everyone on the team is innocent.

Nine players are from the Washington area, and five are graduates of the Landon School in Bethesda. Their parents, who had spent years together on bleacher seats and carpool duty, were suddenly each other's counselors -- as well as detectives and legal experts, Googling criminal procedure and DNA research. They were careful with e-mails, fearful they could be intercepted and somehow used against their sons. Their nights were spent glued to cable to see what had happened in Durham that day.

Over the months, tensions erupted over legal strategies and fears of which son might be handcuffed next. The less-affluent parents have worried about how to pay legal bills. The wealthy ones swore they would spend every last penny clearing the names of the indicted.

The hardest part has been remaining silent as their sons were cast as thuggish, racist, elite jocks.

"I know these boys," Walsh said.

Whether the parents' view of their sons is the full picture will come out in court. District Attorney Michael B. Nifong has stopped making statements and would not comment for this report. He is proceeding with his cases against three Duke players accused of first-degree rape and kidnapping.

Four local families -- all of players not charged -- agreed to interviews, providing a window into an ordeal that for many began with a simple phone call from a son saying that there had been a party.

Dancers hired for party
On the first weekend of Duke's spring break in March, many parents flew to San Diego to watch their sons play Baltimore's Loyola College in an invitational tournament. The idea was to play golf, sit in the sun and take in the game, but rain and sleet made for a miserable weekend. After beating Loyola, the team returned to an empty Duke campus and a week of practice.

A team spring tradition was to go out to a strip club, but many of the younger players didn't have ID's. So that Monday, March 13, one of the team captains hired two exotic dancers to perform at a party at the off-campus house he shared with two other team captains.

By the next morning, there was a report waiting for Duke's campus police director from the Durham police saying a woman had said she was raped by white lacrosse players. It was relayed up the university chain of command that the accuser's credibility was in question, an assessment that would slow Duke's responsiveness to the situation. Also omitted from the discussion was the fact that the woman is black.

Police served a search warrant on the lacrosse house, and team captains gave voluntary statements and DNA samples while denying to the police and Duke administrators that any assault had taken place. Several days would pass before parents learned there was trouble, not from Duke but from their sons. Police investigators wanted to bring the team in for questioning.

Tkac got a call from her son, who denied that anything had happened. She trusted him, but alarmed, she called Sally Fogarty.

"Oh, come on, Tracy, there is no way," Fogarty recalls saying.

Slim and tan from golf, Fogarty is a powerhouse fundraiser for Duke who last year raised $2 million for the Class of '75 reunion. Two of her four kids played varsity lacrosse at Duke. Her husband is Robert H. Fogarty, president of Sport Chevrolet Co., and many a Duke lacrosse player has spent time at their beach house. She knew the inner workings of Duke as well she knew lacrosse, and she believed the university would have contacted the parents if something was seriously wrong. Besides, the allegations seemed preposterous.

"These kids are not capable of this," Fogarty said. "I am not being naive."

Parents scrambled to find lawyers in Durham for their sons. The team interviews with Durham police investigators were called off.

"Unfortunately," Walsh said, "that's the way our society is now, and it doesn't imply guilt. It implies good sense."

Authorities said the team was hiding behind a wall of silence. Police ordered the entire team, except for the lone black player, to submit DNA samples and be photographed shirtless, presumably because the accuser said she had fought off her attackers during a 30-minute assault.

The gravity of the situation became clear two days after the DNA roundup, on March 25, the Saturday Duke was scheduled to play Georgetown. Many parents had made the trip to Durham. The ritual for some was to tailgate under the oak trees next to Koskinen Stadium and then take their sons out for an early dinner.

An hour before the game, with Georgetown warming up on the field, the game was canceled.

Jeff Clute was driving down from Potomac when his son Tom called. "My son was very upset," Clute said. "He asked me to turn around and go home."

Tkac was just outside Durham when Chris called. She knew something had to be terribly wrong. She got a speeding ticket as she raced to Duke.

For six hours that Saturday, parents crowded inside the lacrosse facility with then-Coach Mike Pressler and school administrators to hear about the status of the rape investigation.

Clute said his son told him that he had not witnessed anything at the party, and was so concerned about the allegations that he had gone to the captains to ask whether anything had happened. "The captain looked him the eye and said nothing happened," said Clute, a government contractor.

The parents went on faith, unable to reconcile the children they know with the deeds alleged.

That weekend, Durham exploded with protests and vigils. In the days that followed, Nifong, running for election in a heated campaign in a city evenly split by race, was emphatic in his public pronouncement of guilt, talking about "gang-rape activity" and "racial slurs."

"Even our close friends said, 'Something must have happened in that house,' " Walsh said.

Life on modern campus
The parents themselves went on trial. Their affluence, their child-rearing, their world of private schools, the careful pipelines to success that they had laid for their sons, were scrutinized and judged. They were pummeled daily with harsh caricatures of their kids.

The party at the lacrosse house had been no cotillion. Besides the drinking and hiring of strippers, a player reportedly held up a broomstick when one of the dancers asked for a sex toy. There was the now-infamous comment a neighbor heard, "Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt." And there was the e-mail, sent by a player after the party saying that "after tonights show," he planned on killing and skinning some strippers while sexually fulfilling himself in his Duke shorts.

Parents would later say they had their eyes opened to modern campus life. Walsh said he had no idea that hiring strippers for parties was so prevalent. "You see it in New York; it's the preferred type of entertainment for Wall Street," he said. "I'm not advocating it. It's open for discussion. But it's not behavior that is totally deplorable."

Tkac took a dimmer view. "Hiring a stripper is just as inappropriate as being a stripper," she said.

Fogarty said one of the dancers hurled her own racially and sexually demeaning remarks.

The vile e-mail was a reference to the violent cult movie "American Psycho," they later learned. "I don't know how you could ever justify that," Walsh said. "He was trying to be funny. He wasn't."

"Stupid," said Clute, summing up the entire night.

But a long way from the heinous allegation of rape, according to Walsh, who said these "tangential issues" obscured the essential fact that no assault had occurred. "I'm not saying these aren't important issues to talk about, but the fate of these boys' lives are being lost in the shuffle."

Their lawyers told the parents to keep quiet, no matter how difficult. There were former headmasters, coaches and priests who spoke on their sons' behalf.

The contrast was sharply drawn: privileged white athletes against a black single mother putting herself through college while moonlighting for an escort service. The 27-year-old accuser wasn't talking, but her elderly parents, with only a screened porch on a shotgun house to protect them from the TV cameras, came out to say how much they loved their daughter. The NAACP was calling for justice.

In the court of public opinion, the lacrosse players were losing. Walsh talked to his cousin, Bob Bennett, President Bill Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones case. Some parents felt bringing Bennett on as an adviser was a good idea, but others feared his prominence would somehow imply guilt. Bennett worked behind the scenes.

He could do nothing to stop Nifong's prosecution. Even though the DNA tests showed no clear matches, a grand jury indicted Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J., and Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y., both sophomores whom the accuser apparently identified in a photo lineup.

"That made me know that this whole thing was a spin of the roulette wheel," Fogarty said.

Nifong said a third indictment is likely.

The parents went to Durham to cheer their sons, and held group meetings. The mother who used to assign parents' tailgate duties was now e-mailing daily news coverage. The one news outlet they felt was challenging the prosecutor's narrative was "The Abrams Report" on MSNBC, hosted by Dan Abrams, a Duke alumnus. They started funneling him tips.

Just when they thought the evidence was breaking their way -- a second round of DNA testing that provided no conclusive matches, ATM and taxi records for Seligmann that showed he was not in the house during the time frame the woman provided, the toxicology report that never materialized to show the woman may have been given a date rape drug, and conflicting medical records about the woman's physical condition during her rape exam -- a third player was indicted. He was David Evans, a team captain and Landon grad from Bethesda.

For the Washington parents, Evans was the hardest to accept. Many had known him from childhood.

They turned on the television as he stood outside the Durham jail and denounced the "fantastic lies" that had been told against him and each one of his teammates. Beside him were several teammates and his parents, David C. Evans, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist, and his mother, Rae F. Evans, a lobbyist and chairwoman of the Ladies Professional Golf Association board of directors.

Rob Bordley, Evans's coach and history teacher from Landon, called Evans's parents to say they had nothing to be ashamed of. "When you come back to Washington, you gotta get back out there," Bordley said. "We are going to be here for you."

Defense fund
On a muggy Memorial Day, the Walsh house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Bethesda was a clatter of grown children and a grandchild. The family's chocolate Lab lumbered through the chaos. At the front door was a stuffed brown bear, the Landon mascot, a gift from the Evanses years ago, wearing David Evans's old jersey and cap. "We put the hat on him the day David Evans was indicted," Mary Walsh said.

The Walshes and other parents said they felt somewhat vindicated by the release of a Duke-commissioned report last month that found the lacrosse team "academically and athletically responsible students" who performed community service. The report said that team members drank too much and showed poor judgment when under the influence, but their reported conduct had not involved fighting, sexual assault, harassment or racist behavior, and was no different than the "the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol."

A defense fund has been started to pay legal bills that could be in the millions for the three team members facing trials. Parents of non-indicted players already have legal fees exceeding $12,000.

Finnerty has additional troubles. He faces charges in D.C. court that he and two other lacrosse players from other schools jumped a man in Georgetown last fall, shouting anti-gay taunts. The case was to have been dismissed if Finnerty performed community service and stayed out of trouble, but it was reopened after his rape indictment.

Walsh said Finnerty's case has been blown out of proportion in the Duke frenzy. "Look at this kid," he said. "Does he look like a mean kid?"

The victim's lawyer, Chip Royer, bristled at Walsh's comments. "All I'll say is, that as parents, we have an idealized version of our kids and whether they live up to that idealized version can be a disappointment."

Walsh steered the conversation back to the central issue: the innocence of the three young men. He holds no ill will, he said, for the accuser. His anger is toward a district attorney he thinks is using a troubled woman to further a political career.

Wearing his blue and white Duke shorts, Johnny Walsh wandered through the living room. Tall, tan, boyish and friendly, he was packing to leave for a summer internship on Wall Street where he'll earn $14,000. In the fall, he'll return as a senior to Duke to play for his reinstated lacrosse team.

But on this afternoon, it's almost time for the 1 o'clock start of the national championship lacrosse game between the University of Virginia and the University of Massachusetts.

"We should have been there," Johnny Walsh said.