16 years after Oregon State football gang-rape allegation, Brenda Tracy steps from the shadows
by John Canzano | The Oregonian & OregonLive
November 14, 2014
Her name is Brenda Tracy.
We met downtown over coffee on a weekday morning a couple months ago. And I was struck that nobody in the passing parade of briefcases, lattes and workday stares appeared to notice the 40-year-old as she adjusted her ponytail, wiped the tears and unloaded a story that she's carried like a bag of bricks for years.
"I'd decided I was going to kill myself," she said.
She emailed me a few days earlier, up late one night, unable to sleep. In a chilling account, she detailed how she reported to police that she was sexually assaulted in 1998 by four men, three of them college football players. She said she was gang raped, sodomized, robbed, and then, re-victimized -- her word -- when a college football coach suspended two of the players for one game and was quoted as saying his players had made, "a bad choice."
That phrase burns her, still. All these years later, it sends her hurtling back to the rape examination at Salem Hospital, the police interview, having to tell her boyfriend and mother, and the whispers, guilt and shame. For years, she's been hung up on that three-word hook -- "a bad choice" -- as if violating her body was like knocking on the wrong door in the right neighborhood.
She reported the gang rape to police in 1998. She'd told investigators the men stood around, watching it happen and cheering the others on. At one point, she said she begged one of the men to make it stop. "A bad choice?" she asked herself over the years. "I get sick of reading articles about how great a guy the coach is."
That coach is Mike Riley.
The team was Oregon State.
Tracy's report to police and the ensuing investigation led newscasts, raised questions and divided public sentiment when it occurred 16 years ago. She has never before been identified as the victim and has never before talked publicly about it.
• • •
Brenda Tracy worked in Keizer as a waitress at Bray's Family Restaurant in 1998. She stood 5-foot-10, weighed 140 pounds and had shoulder-length hair. She was 24, a single mother to two boys, ages 4 and 5, and she said, "I had victim written all over me."
Tracy said she was sexually abused as a minor, up until age 5 by a family member, then again at 9 by a neighbor. She has not talked publicly about the earlier incidents. And while it's the practice of The Oregonian to not name victims of alleged sexual assault, Tracy insisted she be identified here.
"I've spent all this time trying to prove to the world that I belong here," she said. "That it's OK to take up space, that I'm not garbage."
As a young woman she found herself in abusive relationships, a partner to men who were volatile, angry and dangerous. She'd been emotionally and physically abused. She remembers wearing a turtleneck in the summer once to cover bruising on her neck after being choked by a boyfriend. The father of her children was incarcerated, first for drugs, then a Measure 11 sentence for robbery. She was prey, and the predators often found her.
"My self-esteem was gone," Tracy said. "I didn't think I was worth anyone really loving me."
Tracy sees herself so clearly now. In fact, in September when that terrible video of NFL running back Ray Rice's elevator assault went viral, Tracy watched in horror, just like you and me. Only, she wasn't focused on Rice or his fists in the frames of the video. Instead, she studied the movements of Rice's then-fiancee. Janay Palmer had her chin down, shoulder raised, and she was half-turned away from Rice in the instant before the Ravens' running back punched her out.
"She knew him, didn't she? He'd hit her before. I recognized that immediately. You know why I noticed it? Because that was me."
• • •
File No. 98-06590 of the Corvallis Police Department spanned 28 pages. It detailed the events of the early morning hours of June 24, 1998. The report outlined a weekday late-night excursion from Keizer to Corvallis by Tracy and her best friend, Karmen McFadden. It was supposed to be a fun night spent hanging out with McFadden's boyfriend and some others. But that dissolved into an alleged gang rape and sex assault after which four men would be arrested, handcuffed and booked.
Two Oregon State football players, defensive back Calvin Carlyle, then 18, and running back Jason Dandridge, then 20, were named as suspects in the report. Also identified as suspects were an 18-year-old Southern California high school football recruit named Michael Ainsworth and Nakia "Ken" Ware, a 23-year-old community college defensive back who was on probation for armed robbery in California.
None of the four suspects interviewed asked for legal representation. All were read their rights. The four suspects pointed fingers at each other to various degrees. Everyone agreed that gin, orange juice, video games and a quiet late-night gathering at Carlyle's No. 3 apartment on Northwest 20th Street ended up with Tracy naked, in various degrees of consciousness, on the living room floor.
There was a search warrant served and evidence logged, including five used condoms retrieved from a bathroom wastebasket, alcohol bottles and a bag of marijuana. DNA samples were taken, hair and fibers were collected and clothing was gathered up.
"I remember not being able to move my arms and legs," Tracy said. "I've always wondered if I was drugged. I was like a rag doll. They were picking me up and tossing me around the whole apartment."
Tracy's toxicology report the following day came back negative for drugs. The suspects told police Tracy vomited in the restroom, asked to be left alone and said "No," at different points of what she described as a seven-hour ordeal. Tracy remembered waking up with someone pouring alcohol down her throat. She said her clothes were strewn around the room, she was assaulted with a flashlight, and with their fingers, and someone put ice on her groin.
Tracy told investigators that she woke up at another point and found Ainsworth on top of her, having sex with her. The others, she said, were standing around the room, cheering. She told police she heard someone shout, "Yea dog!"
Ainsworth told police he took Tracy's clothes off and had consensual sex with her. He said he didn't understand why Tracy would believe she was violated. When detectives asked Ainsworth if the other men in the room had violated her, he said, "Yea, but I know I didn't."
Carlyle, Oregon State's defensive back, minimized his involvement to investigators. At first, he denied any sexual contact with Tracy. Then, he told police he'd touched her body, requested sex acts and participated in brief oral sex. According to the report, Carlyle said Tracy told him "No" repeatedly before and after the oral sex. Carlyle "heard her tell the other males 'No' when they requested sex acts also," the report noted.
Dandridge, the Beavers running back, was said by Carlyle to be among those touching Tracy's body all over and requesting sex acts. Tracy knew Dandridge as an acquaintance from a local nightclub. She remembered looking up at one point, asking him to make it stop. Dandridge told investigators during his interview that he felt the entire event was "a risky situation."
When asked by police why it was risky, Dandridge said, "I know if she was not saying 'No,' but you repeatedly ask her to do something and she doesn't want to, you have to be cool."
Ware denied having any kind of sexual intercourse with Tracy. He told police he put on a condom at one point and asked Tracy for intercourse, but she declined. Detective Jeff Forrester wrote in his report, "Ware said he then finished eating his bowl of cereal, which he was holding at the time."
Other men in the room tell investigators, however, that Ware had intercourse with Tracy and participated in other acts that violated her. According to the report, Tracy's friend, Karmen McFadden, came out of the back bedroom in the early morning and found her asleep on the floor, nude, but covered by a blanket. She told police she looked outside and observed Ware and Ainsworth rummaging through Tracy's vehicle, stealing money. They later returned it.
Tracy told police that she cried the entire drive back to Salem the following morning. Once home, she called her mother, who was at work. Her mother drove to her apartment and found Tracy curled into a ball on the couch, sobbing.
Jenenne Stanley, the on-duty emergency room nurse at Salem Hospital that day, examined Tracy. Her testimony appears on page 16 of the police report. After her exam, the nurse told investigators, "By all indications this was a case of non-consensual sex." The on-call physician, Dr. John Messer, indicated in the police report that he did not like to testify in sex-assault cases, but he told investigators this would be one case he would most certainly testify.
All four men were booked and taken to the Benton County Jail. The two Oregon State football players were accused of sodomy I, unlawful sexual penetration and sex abuse II. Ware and Ainsworth received the same charges but were slapped with the additional accusation of rape I. If convicted, the latter two faced as much as 16 years in prison.
Potential release date: 2014.
Tracy said: "I wish I'd have pressed charges."
• • •
By all appearances, Pete Sandrock, district attorney of Benton County in 1998, had a solid case on his hands. He had suspects who had implicated each other during interviews with police. He had a credible victim who had reported the crime in a prompt manner and had a thorough rape examination. He had piles of evidence gathered from the apartment and medical personnel willing to testify. But he also had a problem.
The DA needed Tracy's cooperation to get a conviction, and she wavered from the beginning.
Her initial call to police came anonymously, asking only for advice. After speaking to a detective, she reluctantly agreed to get the rape-kit. Also, Tracy said her friend, Karmen McFadden, was dating Michael Ainsworth's older brother, Greg, which complicated matters. McFadden told investigators that she blamed everyone for the activities in the apartment and believed "Brenda may have gotten in over her head." McFadden also told police she "does not think the suspects should lose everything because of this incident."
Tracy's then-boyfriend was a former OSU football player. He stood by her, she said, but also expressed concern the incident would cause everyone embarrassment. Tracy wondered if he'd stay with her if she prosecuted.
"We eventually broke up anyway," she said.
Tracy had already lived a life littered with betrayal and abuse. But here were the closest people to her, wavering.
She was 5... she was 9... she was 24. It didn't matter.
She was a victim, on her own again, and she says, not strong enough to deal with any of it.
"What happened to me was not my choice," she said. "What they did to me was not my choice. They violated me. I was garbage to them. I'd made my mind up after talking to police that I was going to do the rape examination, then I was going to go kill myself. I was going to commit suicide.
"I was already dead."
• • •
Mike Riley's football team posted a 5-6 record in 1998, and the coach would be gone to the NFL after the season. He left Oregon State for a stint coaching the San Diego Chargers. He departed, leaving behind Carlyle and Dandridge and the terrible mess of that June evening six months earlier.
Riley is back in Corvallis. And all these years later, when I asked the coach for a private interview about the sex-assault case involving two Oregon State football players, I wondered if he would dodge and dart. I wondered if Riley would say he didn't remember 1998, or cite student-privacy law, or hide behind what has become a disappointing football season.
Instead, he called me.
"It's so sad to me that it still haunts her. It's scary what that means to a lady," Riley said. "Maybe retribution would have helped that. I don't know. I just reminded our team here recently about those things that will change their life and others in a blink of an eye."
Riley revealed he'd once kicked a player off the team at Oregon State who went on to play in the NFL.
"Had to, he had a gun in his car. That's part of you, your identity. That's the thing with marijuana, it's socially acceptable, but it's still a team rule. You're going to miss a game. You don't think the fans know? You don't think the media notices you're not out there?
"It becomes you. It's in your book."
After the arrests, Riley ignored the cries for due process and immediately suspended Dandridge and Carlyle from all team activities.
"What I hope I've learned through the years is 'What are we really doing here?' There are deals, you have to look at it case by case, and gather information. I don't necessarily think you have to wait for the courts to say 'guilty' when you're talking about guns, when you're talking about abuse of women, when you're talking about assault, DUI, drugs and you usually know enough to know that these guys have disrespected the program.
"I'm in the business of helping these guys grow, but some guys refuse that and you have to cut them loose totally. Some guys you have to suspend, see how they do from there. ... It's a hard world to be in. You're judge and jury. But if there were a baby sitter that was accused of molesting kids, would you continue to let them babysit your kids and wait for a jury to decide?"
Riley said he doesn't recall exactly what his two players, Dandridge and Carlyle, told him about the incident that summer. But he said, "Very rarely have I been told in a case, 'I was wrong, I did it.' "
Pam Hediger, a deputy district attorney for Benton County in 1998, announced 20 days after the arrests that criminal charges would not be filed.
"The witness has not recanted or changed the statements she originally gave to the police,'' Hediger told reporters, "but without her assistance, the district attorney's office does not have sufficient evidence to file criminal charges."
Riley was on vacation when the case was dropped. When he returned, the coach decided the players would still serve a one-game suspension, missing the season opener against Nevada. "I felt I needed to do something there to send a message," Riley said. "Maybe I should have done more."
The coach said he regrets making the "a bad choice" remark. Not because he believes his players had made good decisions that night, but because all these years later, Riley feels loyalty and compassion for a woman he's never met.
"It's pretty powerful of her to step forward."
Said Tracy: "I dropped the charges and the only one who suffered was me. They went on like nothing happened. Did they learn anything? Did they suffer? Did they even think of me once?"
Those are questions I'd ask one of her alleged assailants days later.
• • •
I reached Calvin Carlyle in the field at his job as an investigator for the U.S. Department of Labor. It's his task to enforce labor laws such as minimum wage, medical leave, overtime and record keeping. He's married, and has three children, two girls ages 8 and 2, and a 5-month-old son.
He was a long way from apartment No. 3 on Northwest 20th Street in Corvallis.
I asked Carlyle if he remembered Brenda Tracy and the events of that late-June night. I asked if he learned anything, if he suffered, if he thought of her, even once in the last 16 years?
"I haven't thought much about that crazy stuff at all," he said. "One day, I'm a model citizen. The next day, I'm an accused rapist on TV. There was no proof. We have to live with the consequences. I wouldn't say scary is the word. I would say I was humiliated."
Carlyle went undrafted after his career at Oregon State. He signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2003, lasting four summer months with the team. He spent a few weeks practicing with Washington later that season, then bounced around the practice squads in Green Bay, San Francisco and Baltimore. Ultimately, his childhood dream to play in the NFL ended there.
Carlyle's connection to football now is as an assistant at his alma mater, Dorsey High School, in Los Angeles. He said he hasn't had contact with any of the other men who were accused. Carlyle was adamant that he didn't believe he'd done anything wrong.
"I remember coach Riley saying that 'alcohol, women and late nights don't mix,'" Carlyle said. "Don't let there be no questions. Get a verbal confirmation. The (expletive) is not worth it."
Carlyle, who was a freshman at the time, said the arrest changed his mindset. He'd only been in Corvallis for four months. After the case was dropped, he vowed to be careful about who he surrounded himself with.
"One accusation can change your life," he said. "Whether it's true or not. We see it with politicians. The amount of stuff you have to go through to defend yourself. Surround yourself with the right people. That's the most valuable thing. Show me your friends now and I can show you your future."
Jason Dandridge, the OSU running back, had a brief stop with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League after college. He now lives in Victorville, Calif., where he works as a personal trainer and with a company that sells "ionized wrist bands." He has three children. He did not return messages seeking comment.
Michael Ainsworth was offered scholarships by Oregon, Ohio State, Arizona and Cal. He landed in Berkeley for the 1999 football season. As a freshman he caught 34 passes at Cal, three of them for touchdowns, prompting then-coach Tom Holmoe to tell reporters, "There have not been any issues of character with Mike. I think a lot of people jumped to the wrong conclusions."
Ainsworth was soon caught up in an NCAA investigation into academic fraud at Cal. His statistics were wiped off the books, and the Bears were slapped with a two-year bowl ban. An associate professor retroactively enrolled Ainsworth and two other football players in an ethnic studies course and gave them credit for work they didn't do to keep them eligible, the NCAA found. Ainsworth flunked out at Cal after one year. He did not respond to messages.
Public records reveal that Nakia Ware allegedly violated a restraining order in 2005 and was found guilty the following year on a domestic violence charge. There is no record of Ware playing football beyond a community-college career that ended in 1997 in the California state championship game for Mt. San Antonio College. He could not be reached for comment.
Said Tracy, "Talking through all of this is healing for me. I've lived my entire life in a prison of silence."
• • •
When she sat down for the medical examination as part of her rape kit at Salem Hospital, Brenda Tracy wondered how she'd kill herself.
"I'd made up my mind that I was going to do it after I left the hospital," she said.
First, though, there was a meeting with Jenenne Stanley, then a 44-year-old registered nurse who performed rape-kit exams for the hospital as part of her duty in the emergency room. During an intrusive, extensive forensic examination of Tracy, the two women spoke. They talked about Tracy's traumatic early morning. They also spoke about life.
"I asked her why she got into nursing. I asked her how she liked her job," Tracy said. "I was horrified by how awful the whole experience was. I just kept asking her questions as she was asking me questions. Talking with her got me through the shame and the embarrassment. Pretty soon, we were just two people talking."
That nurse, now 60 and known by her married name, Jenenne Aguilar, has worked full time for 26 years at Salem Hospital. Aguilar perked up when I recounted the details and said she absolutely remembered Tracy coming into the emergency room in 1998.
Aguilar said, "Those are hard patients to know what to say to. You never know if you're going to say the right thing or the wrong thing. You just do your best and rely on your instincts."
Tracy said Jenenne Aguilar saved her.
Not only did Tracy change her mind about suicide but said it was the compassionate, dignified interaction with Aguilar that jarred her awake.
Brenda Tracy, lifelong victim, decided that day to become Brenda Tracy, nurse.
"She was so kind to me," Tracy said. "I decided there must have been a reason she was sent into my life. She was an angel."
By September 1998, Tracy was enrolled at Portland Community College, where she earned an associate degree in nursing. After that, came a bachelor of science in nursing from Oregon Health & Science University, then an MBA. She's now the coordinator of an acute mobile dialysis team, overseeing several Legacy Health sites and the county jail, among other health-care facilities.
"I lived on welfare with my boys while I went to school," she said. "Section 8 housing, food stamps, state medical, everything we could qualify for."
Tracy wrote an essay for a scholarship application in 2000 about the ER nurse who had changed everything for her. It was titled, "Coming Back from Rock Bottom." She still has the essay.
"I was too embarrassed to turn it in."
On a recent weeknight, Aguilar, home after her shift at the hospital, answered the telephone in her home in Scio. I told her about the life she saved and how she'd inspired a 16-year journey.
"I'm so happy for her that she did well," said Aguilar, who asked if I might pass her number to Tracy.
"That case haunted me for a long time for a lot different reasons."
Later that night, Tracy left a message for the nurse who saved her.
"I'd like to get coffee if you're up for it," she said.
And so the two women ended up on the telephone together, catching up like two old friends who hadn't seen each other in 16 years.
Tracy thanked Aguilar. Aguilar told Tracy she remembered how calm she was that day during the exam. She told her that she's thought of her often over the years, especially after she saw so much public support for the suspects. Soon, the conversation melted into two nurses, talking about the world of hospital life, and dialysis, as if they were old friends.
"You handle dialysis?" Tracy asked. "I do, too."
"Hold on," Aguilar said.
There was a long pause.
"Are you that Brenda?"
Tracy shot back, "Wait. Are you that Jenenne?"
The last name had changed. The hair color was different. Time had done what it sometimes does. There was no reason that either of them would have recognized the connection, but it turns out they moved in the same nursing orbit.
Said Tracy: "She was not far away all along."
• • •
Mike Riley, the football coach who Brenda Tracy resented so much all those years, is contemplating the unthinkable. He wonders if Tracy, nurse and survivor, might stand in front of his football team someday and share the gravity of her terrible experience.
"What do you think?" he asked me.
I told the coach she'd be powerful.
"I always try to research the right people to talk to our team and do it throughout the year," Riley said. "That would be a compelling talk. A real-life talk. Instead of just talking about rape and sexual assault, actually having someone talk about how things can change for everyone in a moment like that."
Tracy contacted Oregon State last August, curious if there was a student-conduct inquiry launched after the arrests in 1998. The request, she said, was met with apprehension and triggered a series of telephone messages from the university, one wondering if she planned to sue.
"I just wanted to know if anything happened to them," she said.
Federal requirements have evolved so dramatically since 1998 that the office that now handles student conduct issues and advocates for victims existed under a different name and with an alternate focus.
Steve Clark, OSU's vice president of university relations, said, "This is something we take seriously, even 16 years later. ... These are matters that should not occur in America." Clark thought, too, that Tracy might be an intriguing fit for the university's sex-assault prevention and education focus.
When I told Tracy about OSU's reaction and Riley's wish to think about having her speak to his team someday, she broke down. Of course, she'd love to be part of an educational program, not just for the football team but for any group interested in hearing her story.
"Maybe that's where this was supposed to go all along," she said.
She'd speak out not because she wants justice. She'd talk not because she wants someone to pay off her therapy bills or student loans. Her desire isn't for blood, an apology or retribution. She has no interest in a lawsuit, in case anyone wonders.
Instead, she wants to talk about domestic violence and gang rape. She wants to let 16 years of confusion and pain bleed out in a room filled with strangers because for the first time, maybe ever, Brenda Tracy is liberated.
She said, "I feel like I just went free."