The Anatomy of False Accusations: A Skeptical Case Study
February 26, 2014
Some boy-meets-girl stories are charming and romantic; others are chilling and repellent. This is a true story, fully documented in police reports and a handful of brief local news stories. Though this incident occurred at a small Iowa university, other false abduction cases like this happen far more often than most people realize. The relative obscurity of this case suggests its prevalence. This was not an extraordinary, sensational case that made national news, nor was it featured on one of many true-crime shows like Dateline NBC. Instead, it involved two relatively unknown, ordinary people that resulted in extraordinary circumstances.
False accusations are of particular interest to skeptics because skepticism has often been at the forefront of giving voice to the wrongly accused. From the Salem witch trials (in which innocent young women were falsely accused of being witches) to the Satanic Panic moral panic of the 1980s and 1990s (in which dozens of innocent men and women were falsely accused of sexually assaulting children and others) and hundreds of examples in between, skeptics have often been there to remind the public to ask for evidence before rushing to judgment. Indeed, the brilliant CSI Fellow Carol Tavris just recently wrote an e-skeptic piece about this in relation to recent accusations against Woody Allen.
Robin Levitski, an eighteen-year-old student at Clarke University, told police in late 2013 that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted by a man she had met online several months earlier, and who she had dated.
For the details we can look at the police report: "Levitski told Cpl. Welsh that she met a [twenty-year-old man, here named John] on the web site meetme.com in late October and began chatting with him. Levitski said that on October 23, 2013 at approximately 10:30 PM she was at a pumpkin carving event in Clarke's student activities center when she was approached by John. Levitski said that John displayed a knife and told her to leave the center with him. Levitski said that John led her to a waiting vehicle and made her enter it."
She was then driven to "a residence on Rhomberg Avenue. Levitski said that she was led by John at knifepoint to an upstairs bedroom at this residence where she was forced to perform sex acts on John. Levitski added that John was photographing this incident with his telephone. Once John was done sexually assaulting her, Levitski said she was driven back to the Clarke campus... around midnight on October 24. Levitski additionally told Cpl. Welsh that John sent the images he took during the sexual assault to her phone. However Levitski said that her grandmother saw these images on her phone and deleted them."
"Cpl. Welsh then located and interviewed John at his residence on Rhomberg. John said that he met Levitski on meetme.com a couple weeks prior and they started dating. John admitted that Levitski had previously spent the night at his residence but was adamant that she did not stay with him on the night of October 23."
It was a he-said / she-said story-except that the accused man had photographs of their encounter, taken during what Levitski described as a sexual assault. The photos provided independent documentary evidence of what happened between the two of them behind closed doors. The police officer accessed John's cell phone and "recovered images depicting sexual acts between John and Levitski." The police officer, however, immediately detected a problem: "The time date stamp on these images however was October 27 and Levitski could be seen smiling while lying next to John in one photo." Why would a woman be seen smiling next to a man who was sexually assaulting her, and why did the information in the photograph file indicate that the photos were taken on a different date than Levitski claimed?
There were other problems with Levitski's story. For example police "obtained key fob activity reports from Clarke University for Levitski's assigned campus keycard.... during the time of the alleged kidnapping Levitski had used her key at and within Clarke University." Unless Levitski's key fob was stolen and used by someone else-something she denied and never reported-clearly she could not be at an off-campus house being sexually assaulted by John while at the same time being on campus. Furthermore a friend of Levitski's told police that she had been with Levitski at the pumpkin carving event on the night of October 23. Instead of John arriving and abducting Levitski at knifepoint as she claimed, Levitski and her friend left the event together uneventfully.
In order to get to the bottom of the mystery, police re-interviewed Levitski at Clarke University on November 8. "Cpl. Welsh explained to Levitski that she had reported a Class A felony that was punishable by up to life in prison if John were found guilty. Cpl. Welsh asked if she thought this would be a fair punishment for John based upon what she was reporting. Levitski said that she didn't think he needed to serve that long a sentence but he should have to do ‘several years.' Cpl Welsh told Levitski that her honesty was imperative if this investigation were to continue and Levitski was adamant that the details she provided were true and accurate. Cpl. Welsh gave Levitski an opportunity to change or correct her statement if she thought at this time that there was something that may have been misreported. Levitski maintained that her story was accurate."
Police "then presented Levitski with the evidence that they had uncovered which was contrary to her statements. After maintaining that she was telling the truth for approximately thirty minutes Levitski finally admitted that the entire story was fabricated to act as some sort of cover for the images that her grandmother had located on her cell phone. These images being of her and John engaged in sex acts. Levitski admitted that these photos were taken during a consensual sexual encounter between her and John on a date later than October 23, contrary to what she had reported."
A Closer Look
This case is fascinating and offers insight into the rarely-discussed dynamics of a demonstrably false report of abduction and sexual assault. This is not a case in which the circumstances are ambiguous, or authorities concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish the accused person's guilt. This is an open-and-shut case in which all of the evidence, including the alleged victim's statements, clearly demonstrate that the accusation was false.
It also provides insight into how easy it is to make a claim, and how difficult it can be to disprove it. It took Levitski only a few minutes to make her claim to her grandmother, and then perhaps an hour to repeat the accusation to police. Investigators, however, spent many days on the case conducting multiple interviews, researching phone records, analyzing key entry data, and so on. This is as it should be: a thorough investigation into a young woman's serious accusations and a young man's life and liberty were on the line. But it does demonstrate the gross imbalance between the time and effort it takes to make a claim and the time and effort it takes to prove or disprove it. It is much easier to prove that something did happen (a positive claim) than to prove that something did not happen (proving a negative). False reports drain an enormous amount of time and money on police departments-time and money that could have been spent on investigating real crimes, with real victims.
What would make a person think that falsely accusing another person-much less a friend and former lover-of sexual assault and abduction was acceptable? There is no indication that Robin and John had any sort of falling out, or that her accusations were made in retaliation for his infidelity or abuse. It would be comforting to think that Levitski is the rare exception, but there is nothing in the record suggesting that she is aberrant in any way; Robin has no previous criminal record, and appears to be a typical young college student, whose interests include cheerleading, The Big Bang Theory, Kanye West, Kesha, and photography.
Why Make a False Accusation?
Why would a person make it up? Only a person with a truly blinkered moral compass would even think of using a false accusation-much less one as serious as sexual assault-as a tool of revenge or convenient excuse for engaging in consensual sex. There is only one circumstance in which an accusation of sexual assault is appropriate: in the case of a genuine sexual assault. Not as a way to get back at someone you're upset with for other reasons. Not as a way to explain away embarrassing photos to your grandmother. False accusations are also a slap in the face to real victims of sexual assault.
Actually, Levitski's reason is mundane and common: the false report of a sexual assault is often used as cover story for consenting (but illicit) sexual activity. There are any number of reasons why a person might falsely claim to have been sexually assaulted, including revenge, seeking sympathy or attention, or to cover up for some crime, indiscretion, or infraction. Here's a few examples.
In 2007 a thirteen-year-old North Carolina girl told police that she had been abducted from her school bus stop by four Hispanic men in a dark red Ford Explorer, taken to nearby woods, and raped. Police canvassed the neighborhood but found nothing, and no eyewitnesses saw the incident. A medical exam revealed no evidence of any assault. Eventually the girl admitted that she had lied about the abduction and assault because she didn't want to get in trouble for skipping school.
On January 22, 2014, a twelve-year-old girl reported that she was approached by a white male as she was walking home from school; she said the man grabbed her and pulled down her pants before she was able to get away. Police searched the area but found no evidence that anything happened; the following day the girl confessed that she had not been assaulted at all; she had made up the story because she didn't want to get into trouble for missing her school bus. She is fortunate that an innocent man who happened to be in the area and who matched her general description was not pulled over and arrested on suspicion of attempted sexual assault.
In mid-February 2014 Alexandria Westover, a Florida woman, told police she had been assaulted on the Florida Turnpike after getting a flat tire. She claimed that a man pulled over to help her but eventually raped her. After police spent over 100 man-hours of investigation in a fruitless search for evidence, Westover eventually admitted to having fabricated the story because she didn't want to get in trouble for missing work.
Then there's the tragic case of Darrell Roberson, a Texas man who arrived at his home to find his wife Tracy underneath another man in the back of a pickup truck in their driveway. Tracy Roberson cried that she was being raped, upon which Mr. Roberson pulled out a gun and killed the other man with a shot to the head. It was soon determined that Tracy Roberson and the dead man, Devin LaSalle, had been caught in the middle of a consensual sexual affair. Though most cases do not result in anyone's death, false accusations of sexual assault often stem from an attempt to hide sexual infidelity from a partner.
What these cases have in common is that the person making the false report did not think through the consequences of their accusations. In fact this is a recurring theme in false claims of many serious crimes, including carjackings, robberies, school shootings, and even sexual assaults and kidnappings. When asked by police or reporters why a person made false report of a crime, typical responses are "I didn't realize it would be that big a deal" or "I didn't think it would get this far."
Of course, this is nothing new; people routinely do things without thinking about their consequences. Drunk driving is a classic example: Millions of people drink and drive despite ads and ubiquitous public awareness campaigns warning of the dangers (and the severe penalties) associated with DUIs. It's not that drunk drivers don't know that what they're doing is wrong or illegal, or that they don't know that the consequences can be severe. Instead, the knowledge of what they will have to go through if caught does not act as deterrent because they don't think they will get caught, and they aren't thinking about the consequences of impaired driving. People routinely make decisions about whether to do countless things, from moving to a new state to dating someone new to running a red light, without thinking about the consequences.
What are those consequences? Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this case is Levitski's utter indifference to the consequences of her claims for the man she recently dated. John might have been convicted of Sexual Abuse in the Second Degree (Iowa Code §709.3), which as a class B felony would have been punishable by up to 25 years in prison; or Sexual Abuse in the Third Degree (Iowa Code §709.4), which as a class C felony would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of between $1,000 and $10,000. On abduction charge, he could have faced Kidnapping in the First Degree ("when the person kidnapped...is intentionally subjected to torture or sexual abuse"), which is a Class A felony and is punishable by life imprisonment (Iowa Code §902.9).
When Robin Levitski is told that her statement might imprison an innocent man for life, she hedges a bit and states that such a punishment may be extreme; perhaps only "several years" in federal prison for her abduction and rape would be sufficient to teach him a lesson. The phrase "several years" may roll off Levitski's tongue as a trifling, abstract punishment for something that never happened, but pause for a moment and consider what that really means for the true victim in this case: the innocent man she falsely accused.
It means that the man she slept with is arrested and charged with a crime. His family, friends, co-workers, and others find out, through rumor, gossip, and the local news, that he was arrested for abducting and sexually assaulting a young college woman. His name and mug shot in the local newspaper and on web sites, easily available to anyone with internet access. Once John is arrested he may be disenrolled and banned from campus by the university; what administration needs the negative publicity of allowing a man accused of abducting and raping another student back on their campus?
He loses his job when he goes to prison, if not long before during his arrest and trial. If he is married or has a family, he may lose them too. He and his family may have to pay tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend him-and why wouldn't they? Who wouldn't spend all they have to avoid a conviction and prison time for a crime they did not commit? These legal fees, of course, are non-refundable; even if he was found not guilty, he and his family may be left bankrupt by the accusations. His friends view him with suspicion: in their eyes he is a rapist-human garbage only a step or two removed from murderers and child molesters. John will be subject to the stress and dangers of prison life, possibly including rape or murder.
Because of his conviction and after he has served his "several years" for something he didn't do, he will have to register as a sex offender for years or possibly the rest of his life. Anyone who calls the local police station or looks online can find his name and address, and see that he served a prison sentence for abduction and rape. Think of how you would react if you found that information out about your next door neighbor, how you would treat him from then on, what you might say to warn other neighbors or visiting friends, about the predator next door. That (and much worse) is the reality of what "several years" in prison means. When you don't have to pay-or even think about-the consequences of your accusation it's easy to dismiss or minimize the damage done to an innocent person.
It's also easy to assume that Levitski's accusations are less serious because the case against the man never would have gone to trial, or that he never would have been convicted. However such faith in the justice system rests on shaky ground; the fact is that innocent men and women have been convicted of serious crimes on the basis of little more than the alleged victim's word. While it is likely that the man Levitsky accused would not have been indicted or convicted, it is far from a certainty-especially if he is poor or underprivileged and must rely on a public defender.
If she would do this to an innocent man who had done her no wrong, who else might she do it to, in response to some real or perceived slight? We like to hope that Levitski has learned her lesson, but maybe not. This seems to be Levitski's first and only false accusation, but the situation is far more grave if the person has a history of making false claims. Once may be chalked up to incredibly poor judgment or remarkable malice. But repeated false accusations against innocent people may be a sign of mental illness, perhaps a dissociative disorder (inability to distinguish truth from fiction); factitious disorder (creating dramatic personal narratives, often of victimhood, for attention or personal gain); or even paranoid schizophrenia (delusions of persecution and paranoia). This does not, of course, excuse the behavior, but it may provide a framework for addressing it and getting help. If left untreated, he or she may not only do extensive damage to those they falsely accuse, but also to their own lives and careers and those of loved ones.
Why We Believe the ‘Victim'
Not just John and Robin's lives have been affected by her lies. What of those who rallied behind Robin Levitski, her family and friends who consoled her and supported her during the investigation, and those who joined her in accusing John? They of course had no reason to doubt Levitski's claims-why in the world would she make it up if it wasn't true?
Even those who knew both Robin and John might not have completely believed all the accusations, but assumed that he must have done something inappropriate to her. Maybe he didn't actually "abduct" her in the usual sense of the word, but maybe he held her against her will despite her repeated requests to leave, and she was scared of him. Even if John hadn't actually abducted or sexually assaulted her, there must surely be something to it; after all, where there's smoke there's fire, and people don't just make up these sorts of serious accusations out of thin air. It was much easier to "believe the victim" and assume that some sexually aggressive college boy had gone too far. No rational, sensible, moral person would falsely accuse an innocent man of abduction and sexual assault-and certainly not to hide the fact that the eighteen-year-old was sexually active. Yet, as bizarre and implausible as it sounds, that is exactly what happened.
Of course, most reports of sexual assault, abduction, and other serious crimes are true. The vast majority of the time when a man says he was carjacked, or a woman says she was assaulted, it really did happen. No one doubts or denies that, and that is part of the reason that victims are believed-as they should be, unless further evidence and investigation reveals that it did not happen. As Alan Dershowitz pointed out during a recent appearance on BBC News, most people who are accused of a crime are in fact guilty. We would not want to live in a world where most people, or even half of the people, who are accused of, or arrested for, a crime were innocent. We give lip service to the presumption of innocence of the accused, but the simple fact that someone in a position of authority took a claim seriously enough to investigate it suggests to many reasonable people there is likely some basis to it.
Most people do not go around accusing other people of things they did not do, and as a result we tend to assume that there must be some reasonable basis for the allegation-even if it ends up being a misunderstanding. A friend of mine noted that part of the reason that sexual harassment and assault claims are believed (on their face, even in the absence of evidence) is that they are so extreme and outrageous that the thought of the accusations being false is itself a violation of social norms. To falsely accuse an innocent man of sexual harassment and assault is so patently unethical and beyond the pale of acceptable behavior that many assume it pretty well must be true. "Why in the world would she make it up if it wasn't true?" is likely the first and only thought needed to accept her claims. No rational, responsible, moral person would do that, and therefore the question is then framed as either the college student who'd never been in trouble before and presumably had no reason to lie is lying, or there is at least some truth to it. We saw this in the decades-old rehash of allegations against Woody Allen in early 2014. The assumption that a grain of truth must exist somewhere amid the claims is a powerful one.
Saul Kassin, a social psychologist who appears in the documentary film The Central Park Five, explains why it is often very difficult for people to change their minds once they have decided that a person is guilty: "The problem is that once you form a strong belief that someone is guilty of a crime, the contradicting details are just that: they are details that don't fundamentally change our belief in their guilt."
It may be hard to sympathize with a man or woman falsely accused of a crime unless you've been in that situation yourself. Many people may assume that they would never be in relationship with a person who would falsely accuse them of something as serious as sexual harassment or sexual assault. However the fact is that any of us could be in that position; the man Levitski accused of abduction and assault was a friend and recent sex partner, who presumably had no idea what she was capable of. Think about how you would feel if this happened to your wife, husband, daughter, son, brother, sister, mother or father.
Not only was Levitski completely indifferent to the damage she did to the man she accused, but perhaps even more shocking was Levitski's adamant refusal to admit that she lied. Over and over, on at least three occasions, police asked if there was anything she wished to admit or correct about her statement. She said no, sticking to her story over and over, denying and denying the truth. The fact that it took nearly half an hour of police questioning before Levitksi finally admitted her lies is a fair measure of how determined she was to stick to her story, regardless of the consequences for John.
Telling the truth and admitting that a person made a false accusation can surely be a terrifying prospect. It requires a person to accept responsibility for their choices and behavior and admit having done a grievous injustice to an innocent person. It can't be easy, but often doing the right thing-even eventually-is not easy. It means giving up the status of victim, admitting mistakes, and trying to undo the damage done. For falsely accusing an innocent man of crimes that could have left him imprisoned for the rest of his life, Robin Levitski was given probation and fined $315 (the minimum allowed by law) plus court costs.
As of January 2014, her meetme.com profile was still active.
* The third sentence has been edited to clarify that "these cases" refers to false abductions specifically.