Megan Rondini's story had largely been ignored or covered up in Alabama for more than a year. But that changed last Thursday when BuzzFeed News broke a stunning story, "How Accusing a Powerful Man of Rape Drove A College Student to Suicide." Here is the sub-title to reporter Katie J.M. Baker's story: "When an Alabama college student told the police she was sexually assaulted, she did everything she thought she was supposed to do. She ended up killing herself."
Did that get your attention? It certainly got the attention of BuzzFeed readers. As of last night, the article had almost 1.9 million views in less than four days.
Why has the story generated a mixture of sympathy, disbelief, disgust, and outrage? Maybe it's because Rondini had leveled rape allegations against one of Tuscaloosa's elites -- T.J. "Sweet Tea" Bunn Jr., part of the family behind ST Bunn Construction, which works on projects statewide and claims to have paved every street in Tuscaloosa. Sonny and Terry Bunn, the brothers who currently run the company, were major donors to former Gov. Robert "Luv Guv" Bentley, and Terry ("Sweet T's" father) served on the Bentley transition team. The Bunns are about as entrenched in Tuscaloosa culture as you can get. Reports BuzzFeed, about Terry Bunn:
He’s also listed on rosters for the secretive “President’s Cabinet” at UA, an “invitation-only” alumni group that advises the president of the university. ST Bunn Construction says it helped build Tuscaloosa’s Crimson Tide practice field, and the brothers belong to the booster foundation that paid for renowned UA football coach Nick Saban’s $3.1 million home. Flight records show the Bunn's private jet often touched down near Crimson Tide away games last fall.
The booster group in question is the Crimson Tide Foundation, founded and chaired by Paul Bryant Jr., son of the late Hall of Fame coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant. ST Bunn Construction is listed as part of the Crimson Alliance, for donors who have given from $100,000 to $499,999 to UA athletics. The foundation is closely aligned with Bryant Bank, which Bryant Jr. founded. In 2004, the Crimson Tide Foundation reported $34 million in revenue, but since has stopped reporting to the IRS in public documents.
When Megan Rondini had a sexual encounter in July 2015 at T.J. Bunn's mansion -- Bunn claims the sex was consensual -- she unknowingly walked into a swamp of big money, white privilege, secrecy, and entitlement. The BuzzFeed article suggests that the Tuscaloosa Sheriff's Office made only a half-heart attempt to pursue Rondini's claim. Even a therapist at the University of Alabama said she could not help because she knew the Bunn family.
Since the BuzzFeed story broke, multiple news outlets have followed in recent days with accounts that portray Tuscaloosa as a dysfunctional college town where one is not supposed to report the misconduct of white elites. Here are examples:
* "A town comes together to protect man accused of sexual assault and his accuser commits suicide," Daily Kos, 6/22/17;
* "Alabama rape victim who killed herself was ‘failed by people meant to protect her’, says campus sexual assault campaigner," The Tab, 6/22/17
* "Alabama rape victim committed suicide after being ‘bullied’ by police protecting wealthy alleged attacker," Raw Story, 6/24/17.
The story went international over the weekend with this report:
* "Parents of University of Alabama honors student, 20, reveal she was driven to suicide after accusing son of local influential family of rape," UK Daily Mail, 6/24/17.
From the Daily Mail report:
Under Alabama's rape law, victims must prove they 'earnestly' resisted their attackers, and the investigator who interviewed Megan, Adam Jones, decided that she hadn't done so against Bunn.
According to him, she hadn't 'kicked him or hit him,' so the investigator would conclude that no rape occurred.
Extensive news coverage apparently was enough to awaken the University of Alabama and the state's mainstream press from their slumber.
"The University of Alabama has been deeply saddened by the death of Megan Rondini, and we continue to offer our sympathy to her friends and family.
Information published by news outlets this week has unfortunately ignored some significant facts. When Megan went to the hospital, a University advocate met her at the hospital to provide support and stayed with her throughout the examination process. Megan also received information from University representatives regarding services available to her on campus, including counseling through the University's Women and Gender Resource Center. When she sought counseling and her first therapist identified a potential conflict as defined by her professional obligations, Megan was immediately introduced to another therapist, who provided care and support. Additionally, the UA Title IX Office was in contact with Megan, including offering academic accommodations and helping to streamline her withdrawal when Megan elected to return to Texas. Because the reported incident occurred off-campus, the University's police department was not involved in the formal criminal investigation.
We hope these recent news accounts, which do not tell the full story, will not discourage others from reporting sexual assault or seeking help and support."
The Tuscaloosa News and al.com, both of which apparently were clueless about the story until BuzzFeed arrived on the scene, published stories on Saturday. (See here and here.) The al.com story states the Rondini family has hired Birmingham attorney Leroy Maxwell, and litigation is planned:
Her parents have hired Birmingham lawyer Leroy Maxwell Jr. of the Maxwell Firm to represent them in filing a federal Title IX complaint against the university, and with possibly other complaints.
Maxwell told AL.com the complaint will be filed by the end of June.
"Megan was loved by everyone who came in contact with her. Her loss is everyone's loss. Title IX, the University of Alabama, the Tuscaloosa Sheriff's department and the overall judicial system in Tuscaloosa let her down on every level. Through litigation our firm is committed to doing everything in our power to shine a light on Tuscaloosa's systemic problem with sexual assault," he said.
It appears Tuscaloosa's toxic culture helped deny Megan Rondini justice in life. Will her family receive some measure of justice now that she is gone?