The moment that Rolling Stone realized the gang rape story was a hoax

Emails from the reporter who wrote the UVA gang rape story to Rolling Stone editors show the moment that the magazine realized they'd been had.

The emails and texts were filed in court on Friday as part of a lawsuit brought by UVA Associate Dean Nicole Eramo’s that seeks $10 million in damages against the magazine for defamation. 

Reporter Rubin Erdely at first backed the presumed "victim's" story of the gang rape by a fraternity. But inconsistencies in the narrtive told by "Jackie" finally led Erdely to the conclusion that she was lying.

Washington Post:

Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely spent five months investigating a shocking claim of a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity, and the 9,000-word account of the brutal attack published online on Nov. 19, 2014, sent a tremor through the Charlottesville campus and beyond.

Then, on Dec. 5, at 1:54 a.m., Erdely sent an e-mail to the magazine’s top-tier editors, Will Dana and Sean Woods, with a simple subject line: “Our worst nightmare.”

The body of the message detailed how Erdely no longer trusted the primary source for the most striking anecdote in her article: a U-Va. junior named “Jackie,” who told Rolling Stone that she had been raped by seven men, while two others watched, during a date function at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012. She wrote that as questions arose about the tale, she tried to have Jackie help her verify the identity of her assailant, and “it spiraled into confusion.”

“By the time we ended our conversation, I felt nearly certain that she was not being truthful,” she wrote, noting that she had come to believe that “Jackie isn’t credible.” She ended her message by saying that the fraternity was planning to issue a statement denying that there was a party at their house the night of the purported assault. “We have to issue a retraction,” she wrote.

Erdely’s e-mail was a signal flare warning of turbulent months to come for the magazine, but, according to hundreds of pages of Erdely’s notes and other materials related to the case filed in court Friday, there were many other warnings — before the story published — that Jackie’s account was inconsistent.

Even before the story was published, Erdely suspected Jackie was not being truthful:

The notes show that after Erdely learned of Jackie’s allegations involving Phi Kappa Psi, she uncovered the story of Liz Seccuro, who was drugged and raped at the same fraternity house at U-Va. in the 1980s. Erdely mentioned the connection to Renda.

“It’s a little too much to believe, to be honest, that somehow it’s not part of the institution and that it accidentally happens twice in similar ways,” Renda told Erdely. “It begs you to suspend your disbelief.”

In her notes, Erdely describes the moment when Jackie tells her of the apparent connection. Jackie’s description of her assault strongly resembled aspects of Seccuro’s, including that she believed the fraternity had served her a spiked drink.

“Every hair on my arm is standing up,” Erdely wrote in her notes describing her reaction. “Seems like more than a coincidence.”

Jackie told Erdely that she learned of two U-Va. students who also were attacked at Phi Kappa Psi.

“Two other girls who were gang raped at the same fraternity?” Erdely asked.
“Yes,” Jackie said.
“Shocking,” Erdely said.“I don’t know the stats on gang rape but I can’t imagine it’s all that common? So the idea that three women were gang raped at the same fraternity seems like too much of a coincidence.”

There were other warning signs. An episode of the NBC drama "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" portrayed a gang rape eerily similar to Jackie's story. She even mentioned it to Erdely. A couple of books on sexual assault also gave details that mirrored Jackie's account.

Bottom line: Erdely's reporting, while thorough in some areas, completely fell apart when she tried to tell Jackie's story. She failed to follow basic journalistic precepts. And for that, she and the magazine she wrote for are likely to suffer the consequences.