Handling of rape claim at Brown raises questions

Handling of rape claim at Brown raises questions

Published June 1, 2010

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – William McCormick III entered Brown University on a full scholarship, a wrestler from Wisconsin who expected to spend four years at an Ivy League institution known for educating generations of bright minds.

He lasted mere weeks.

In September 2006, he was accused of stalking, harassing and ultimately raping a female acquaintance — allegations he denies. The accuser was a legacy student who, when first reporting trouble, mentioned her father was an "alum and a big supporter of Brown."

The day after the rape allegations, McCormick was barred from campus and flown home pending a disciplinary hearing.

The following month, he was gone for good.

He signed a contract — under pressure, he says, from the accuser's lawyer — in which he agreed to leave Brown. In exchange, the accuser dropped the matter.

A Brown administrator told him his transcript would reflect that he had withdrawn for "medical reasons" but said he was ineligible for readmission, even though he had never been found responsible of rape. McCormick transferred to Bucknell University, where he remains.

Brown allowed the matter to be closed through a confidential contract instead of a fact-finding disciplinary hearing that could have absolved McCormick or established that an assault had occurred.

The arrangement was supposed to provide a tidy outcome to an emotional dispute fraught with divergent accounts. Brown insists it acted properly. But a federal lawsuit from McCormick and e-mails reviewed by The Associated Press raise messy questions about the handling of the case.

The lawsuit alleges administrators failed to adequately investigate the accusations, and permitted a blameless student to be railroaded off campus to placate a major donor.

There is another possibility, though — that Brown administrators deemed the allegations credible but allowed the complaint to be quietly disposed of, freeing someone accused of rape to wipe the slate clean as he transferred to another school.


Will McCormick — 6-foot-5 and more than 250 pounds — was a strong student and an undefeated state wrestling champion in his senior year at Milwaukee's Heritage Christian School.

The Waukesha, Wis., native was accepted early decision to Brown. Among his residence hall acquaintances was a freshman from an affluent, suburban New York City background — an accomplished student who during high school helped create a charity. Her father was in finance, a Brown alumnus and generous donor to and fundraiser for the university.

The AP generally does not identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, and is not naming the family to avoid identifying the woman.

On Sept. 5, 2006, the student and her roommate complained to their resident adviser that McCormick was following her around. At 2 the next morning the adviser spoke with Carla Hansen, an associate dean.

The student complained McCormick was falsely saying they were dating, that he was calling her obsessively and had punched a wall and said "I could have hurt you" after seeing her hug another guy, according to an e-mail Hansen sent administrators recapping the allegations.

McCormick's lawyer, J. Scott Kilpatrick, calls those accusations "exaggerations and half-truths," without responding to specific allegations. McCormick refused to be interviewed.

The student spoke with Hansen on the morning of Sept. 6, refusing to name her alleged stalker to avoid getting him into trouble. She also referenced her father.

"She said that her father was an alum and a big supporter of Brown, and that she wanted to love Brown, too, and did not want to have anything bad happen to this other student," Hansen wrote in an e-mail that night.

That same evening, the student talked with her father, who advised identifying the student. At 10 p.m., the father called the home of Russell Carey, a Brown administrator, according to an e-mail from Carey.

McCormick and his accuser were subsequently barred from contacting each other.

But new problems arose.

A Sept. 13 e-mail to administrators from the resident adviser accuses McCormick of violating the no-contact order. The e-mail also describes for the first time an encounter the woman said occurred on the evening of Sept. 6.

The student said William McCormick entered her room as she was studying. He forced her onto the bed, she said, tore her boxer shorts and raped her. She complained of bruising and sore ribs.

After the e-mail was sent, Michael Burch, the then-assistant wrestling coach and McCormick's adviser, was instructed by the head coach to pick up McCormick — who told Burch he had never been alone in the same room with his accuser — and host him for the night. Burch gave up his bed so McCormick could rest.

"I remember walking by my room and just seeing him laying in my bed, with his eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling," Burch said. "He was really scared, really terrified."

The next day, they attended a meeting with administrators, who told McCormick he was charged with "sexual misconduct." A letter from Margaret Klawunn, the dean of student life, barred him from campus until further notice.

Brown spokeswoman Marisa Quinn declined to discuss specifics but cited Brown policy that authorizes the immediate removal from campus of students believed to pose a danger to themselves or others.

"While every case is different, we are vigilant in taking action when circumstances warrant to ensure the safety of students," Quinn said in a statement.

Burch said McCormick was denied a chance to respond to the allegations. He was put on a plane back to Wisconsin.


Sexual assault accusations on college campuses invariably pose thorny issues. Accuser and accused can present irreconcilable versions; alleged victims often don't want to involve police; and a civil disciplinary hearing can be ill-suited for handling criminal accusations.

In McCormick's case, Brown considered the allegations credible enough to immediately suspend him but says it followed the accuser's wishes in not calling the police. Though college administrators say they routinely defer to self-identified victims on involving law enforcement, the judge hearing McCormick's lawsuit said he was troubled police weren't called.

"The thought that with all of the people involved in this matter at different levels, a determination is made to not tell law enforcement, even the Brown Police — I'm having trouble getting that," U.S. District Judge William Smith said at an April hearing.

Some experts say schools' options are limited if students choose to resolve serious allegations through a private agreement, but others say universities must still thoroughly investigate sexual assault accusations to determine whether a crime occurred or if someone was wrongly accused.

In preparing for McCormick's hearing, Burch requested the accuser's phone logs to see how she spent the day and evening of the alleged rape, but said he never got them.

He asked for a police report, but there was none.

In another e-mail, he complained he wasn't allowed to see the boxer shorts the accuser said she was wearing during the alleged rape and that he couldn't arrange for DNA testing. An administrator said the boxers wouldn't be entered as evidence — but that references to them were admissible at the hearing.

E-mails reflect growing frustration with the process. Burch accused administrators of not making students available for interviews and stonewalling efforts to gather evidence.

"I am doing my best to advocate for a student who has been put at a tremendous disadvantage in this hearing process responding to charges that carry with it the possibility of a life sentence in prison," he wrote on Sept. 28.

Burch said he and the McCormicks became increasingly concerned that McCormick couldn't receive a fair shake, convinced the accuser's father had the administration's ear.

Their attention turned toward a proposed arrangement, negotiated between the lawyer for the accuser's family and their own attorney, that would resolve the matter and permit McCormick to withdraw while maintaining his innocence.

McCormick agreed to leave Brown and not return to Providence for as long as his accuser lived there — unless it was while wrestling for his future college.

She agreed to drop the matter.

Both agreed not to speak disparagingly of each other.

McCormick, however, wavered. He wrote his lawyer, Walter Stone, on Oct. 4 — the day he signed the contract — to express reservations.

"This is a huge decision for me to make, and I need more time to consider, reconsider, and then go over everything again to make sure that I make the best possible decision regarding this matter," he wrote.

"There has been an awful lot of pressure put on me throughout this whole process, and for once, I would like to have the full perspective to properly make a decision of my own."

The message was forwarded to Joseph Cavanagh, the accuser's lawyer, who said it was "unconscionable" for McCormick to renege.

He said the hearing would proceed without a contract, later making what the McCormicks interpreted as a threat of possible criminal charges.

"The resolution we worked out would be exactly what he would need to give him the best chance to move forward with his life," Cavanagh wrote Stone. "I can only hope that you are able to persuade him and his family of what a mistake this is. As you well know, the Brown disciplinary matter is the least of his possible perils."

McCormick returned the contract.

On Oct. 18, McCormick, who suffers from seizures, wrote Brown to withdraw for medical reasons due to "stresses" he experienced as a student. He said he wouldn't return, a condition of the contract with his accuser.

Though colleges generally allow students withdrawing for medical reasons to return when their condition improves, McCormick was not offered that opportunity.

"Given the circumstances of your initial separation from the University," replied Klawunn, the dean of student life, "you will not be eligible for readmission to the University. Per your request we will have your transcript reflect that you withdrew for medical reasons."


William McCormick enrolled in 2007 at Bucknell, where he wrestled team until sidelined by injuries. He just completed his junior year.

Federal education laws permit but don't require disclosure of disciplinary records on transfer students to their new school. Bucknell Dean of Students Susan Hopp said she has no record that Brown notified Bucknell of the allegations. Wrestling coach Dan Wirnsberger said he didn't known anything until he got an anonymous phone call from someone opining about what might have happened at Brown. Wirnsberger made minimal inquiry of McCormick.

"He just said, `It's a personal, private matter that I'd like to keep personal and private,'" Wirnsberger recalled.

McCormick sued last fall, before the statute of limitations expired, accusing Brown of failing to follow its policies, bending to a donor's influence and failing to properly investigate the allegations.

Brown President Ruth Simmons told the AP the allegations are "utter poppycock" but wouldn't comment further.

A judge dismissed some counts, but left in claims of breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence against Brown. The accuser, a member of Brown's graduating class, and her father remain defendants.

Nearly four years after McCormick left Brown under the cloud of rape allegations, the lawsuit offers a chance to start clearing his name, his lawyer, Kilpatrick, has said. Though the case obviously wouldn't have become known had McCormick not made it public.

"The public," Kilpatrick wrote in court papers, "has the right to know about this case."

Written by ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press Writer


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