After Rush to Judgment on Rape Allegation, Steve Roberts Seeks to Clear His Name

Feb 22, 2017 at 12:21 pm
click to enlarge Cora Faith Walker, left, and Steve Roberts are both freshman Democrats serving in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Cora Faith Walker, left, and Steve Roberts are both freshman Democrats serving in the Missouri House of Representatives.

After state Representative Cora Faith Walker (D-Ferguson) accused fellow Rep. Steve Roberts (D-St. Louis) of rape, the vitriol aimed at Roberts came fast and furious.

The unusually public accusation — made in a letter to House leadership and a sit-down interview with Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, both on September 30, 2016 — left some elected officials and political operatives unwilling to take the usual "wait and see" approach. Even after the special prosecutor announced he didn't see enough "credible evidence" to bring a case, the denunciations of Roberts came with vehemence.

"You sick fuck, you should be in jail," one political operative tweeted at Roberts in the hours following the prosecutor's announcement. "Oh and heyyyy, @RobertsforSTL, there's no room for predators on my ballot," a voter tweeted a month later.

Fellow state Representative Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-University City) vowed to make Roberts' service in the statehouse an issue. "You need to step down immediately," she tweeted. "I'm going to remind you every single day. And I'll give speeches using your name."

But the certainty of commenters has masked a more complicated reality behind the scenes. Roberts has sued Walker for defamation, and his lawsuit has documented details that differ starkly from what Walker told Messenger. Even as Messenger has publicly proclaimed that he still believes Walker, others who know both her and Roberts aren't so sure. One close friend of Walker's even contacted Roberts, alleging that Walker had previously boasted to her about making a false accusation of rape against another man. And the police report made by Walker shows some key discrepancies between what she told Messenger and what she told police.

Walker did not respond to messages seeking comment yesterday and today.

Clayton attorney Jeremy Hollingshead, who is representing Roberts in his defamation case against Walker, believes the truth is clear: Walker lied. And that, he says, does a disservice to rape victims everywhere.

"My firm represents a lot of rape victims around the state of Missouri," he says. "One of the toughest things for me in jury selection is getting them to believe this actually happens. Sometimes they become so jaded — with things like the Rolling Stone story, the Duke lacrosse case — that they won't believe it even when there's clear evidence. This is another example of that — a high-profile falsely reported case that makes things harder for real victims."

Walker has doubled down on her allegations, filing a counterclaim against Roberts. And, as Messenger has detailed, a woman who previously accused Roberts of fondling her at a bar has since come forward to publicly tell her story. (The allegations were previously public, but the woman had not been identified. Roberts has not been charged with any crime.)

For Roberts, who like Walker first took office as a state representative in January, what should be an exciting time has become a nightmare. He's angry, hurt and convinced that there's nothing he can do to clear his name.

“This is going to follow me for the rest of my life,” he says.

It was 7 p.m. on a Friday when Steve Roberts got the call from the Post-Dispatch's Messenger. The columnist, who is widely considered one of the daily's top reporters, asked if Roberts was aware the police were investigating him for rape. Did he have a comment?

Roberts told Messenger he was not aware he was under investigation. Then he quickly got off the phone – and called criminal defense attorney Scott Rosenblum.

Rosenblum strongly encouraged Messenger not to publish, to wait until he could provide information that he believed would clear his client. He said he he’d seen “documentary evidence” to show that the encounter between Roberts and Walker was consensual.

Yet Messenger would publish his column just a few hours later. “He’d already made up his mind, and there was nothing we could say or do that would change that,” Roberts says.

In his column, Messenger reported that Walker had written a letter to House leadership, demanding that Roberts not be allowed to take his seat. He wrote that police sources confirmed there was “an active investigation” into Walker’s report to police.

Anyone reading the column might have assumed that the investigation had begun a few days, or even weeks, before. But that was incorrect.

Walker and Roberts had their fateful encounter more than a month before, on August 26. Yet when Walker went public with her letter, and sat down with Messenger, the police investigation was at most a few hours old. In fact, Walker had yet to sign the release form that would allow police to obtain her rape kit. She wouldn’t do that for four more days – four days after talked to Messenger and four days after she sent her letter to House leadership.

For Hollingshead, the timing is odd. Since a month had already passed, why not give the police a little time to investigate before going public? He also questions why the Post-Dispatch was in such a rush to publish — "without having any information from our side of the story," he says.

"As a lawyer, if I exhibited this level of gross incompetence, they'd disbar me," he adds. (Reached for comment, Messenger writes, "I stand by my reporting. The column was fair, accurate and well-sourced.")

According to what Walker would tell Messenger, she met Roberts at his apartment around 9:30 p.m. on Friday, August 26 to discuss "how they might work together in the upcoming legislative session." She said she had two glasses of wine and remembered nothing after the second glass.

"She told her husband, Tim, the next day about what happened," Messenger reported, "but it took the couple several weeks to decide whether to go to the police."

In fact, it took a month. And the story she told police differed on a few key details.

According to the report Walker would make with police on September 27, 2016, she and Roberts were old friends. Eight years before, they'd hooked up, although it never progressed to sex. (Walker would later insist to Messenger that she "never had an intimate relationship" with Roberts, but that is not what Walker told police in her initial report.)

On Thursday, August 25, they were both in Kansas City for a House Democratic Caucus event and ended up in his hotel room. Roberts made "a clumsy sexual advance," Walker told police. She rebuffed him and "made it clear to him that she was a married woman and no longer interested in him sexually." She thought he understood.

The next day, the two again found themselves together, this time at an event at Troy's Jazz Gallery in St. Louis. Walker "took the opportunity to discuss legislative-related ideas with the suspect during the event," she told police. Two gin and tonics later, he invited her to come to his apartment "to continue the discussion related to their profession." They drove together to Straub's to get some wine, but it was closed. They tried again at Schnucks, and he bought two bottles of wine and a pizza. She thought it was around 9:30 p.m.

Back at his apartment, she had a glass of wine and then decided to summon an Uber for the drive home. But he persuaded her to have one more glass, she told police.

This one tasted funny, she said. She reported feeling dizzy and confused. She began losing consciousness — but not before she remembered the sensation of being strangled. In flashes of memory the next day, she told police, she recalled being in a rear chokehold and threatened with anal rape. She told him "no" and then lost consciousness.

She woke up around 6 a.m., sore, confused and wearing only a T-shirt. A day later, she told police, she'd told her husband what had happened. She went to the hospital that day, Sunday, to have a rape kit administered, although she initially declined to talk to the police.

One month later, she changed her mind and sat down with police. In that meeting on September 27, however, she stressed that the report had to be confidential. She didn't want them to investigate and would not allow them to attach her name to the report. Nothing could come of it, she said.

Three days later, she called them to say she'd changed her mind.

She wanted to go forward with a criminal investigation after all. She would fill out her authorization for release of her rape kit on Monday (she eventually did so a day later, on Tuesday). She also wanted to amend her previous statement — she'd had three gin and tonics at Troy's, not two.

That very night, Messenger published his story, complete with a portrait of Walker and her husband.

The new detail Walker gave police about the drinks she'd had that night wasn't a big deal. But another part of her story would also soon change.

After Rosenblum got involved, records show that he provided police with the "documentary evidence" he'd mentioned to Messenger. One was a receipt from Schnucks on August 26: It showed that in addition to the pizza and the wine, Roberts had bought a toothbrush and condoms. (It also showed it was 10:33 p.m. at the time of their checkout, not 9:30 p.m.)

The other was a nude photo, taken of Walker in Roberts' Kansas City hotel room the night before. It was time-stamped 1:19 a.m. of the morning that he'd allegedly made "a clumsy pass" at her, the one Walker said she rebuffed.

In his defamation suit, Roberts would allege that not only did Walker willingly hook up with him that night in the hotel room, but that they were naked — and that she posed for the photo.

Confronted by police in days following her interview with Messenger, Walker acknowledged that the photo was her — and that it was taken in Roberts' hotel room. She said that she was naked because she'd just taken a shower, but insisted she had no idea he was taking a photo.

"She stated that she feels that the suspect is like a 'little brother to me' and that she was comfortable being naked in front of him," the police report notes. "The victim explained that she was sharing a hotel room with two other females and she did not wish to disturb them so she showered in the suspect's room."

Whether Walker ever really considered Roberts her "little brother," it's clear that at one point, they had a friendly relationship. Text messages between the two — later provided as part of his defamation suit against her — show cheerful banter. When each won a primary race in August, becoming shoo-ins by nature of the fact that no Republican was running in either district, she texted him a happy face and a hashtag: "#molegbesties."

So what really happened between their cheerful interactions in Kansas City and at Troy's Jazz Gallery — and the allegations to the media that would incite an angry mob of online commenters? She, of course, alleges rape. He alleges something a bit more complicated.

In his defamation suit, Roberts says that they hooked up in Kansas City. Then, the next night, they had sex three times in his apartment and fell asleep in his bed. He alleges that they woke up, between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., to the sound of her phone ringing.

"Oh fuck, oh fuck," his lawsuit quotes her saying.

The suit says he asked her if everything was OK. "She responded that everything was fine, but she was supposed to 'go home last night,'" the lawsuit alleges. That's when she summoned an Uber and fled. She later didn't respond to his text message, although phone records show she called him around 5 p.m. and they chatted for a few minutes.

"It was a pretty short conversation," Roberts says. "Basically 'sorry I didn't text back.' She was very friendly."

The next day, she went to Mercy Hospital to have the rape kit administered. A few weeks after that, he started hearing rumors that she was telling people she'd been raped. That's when he called Rosenblum.

It was only after Roberts filed his defamation claim that he got a call from an old friend of Walker's. The friend, Fawziyya Fox, said she'd heard about Walker's allegations at a party on election night.

During her time at law school in St. Louis, Fox had been very close with Walker, and through that friendship, got to know Roberts too. She says she was even present on the night eight years ago when the two hooked up. But after learning of Walker's allegations, she contacted Roberts to offer her assistance.

In a statement given to Roberts' lawyer, Fox reported a disturbing incident from 2008 involving Walker. "She told me she had claimed rape on at least one person because she was caught cheating. She decided to tell the current boyfriend, 'Oh, it wasn't cheating, it was rape,'" Fox recalled in a taped interview she agreed to have provided to the RFT.

Hollingshead says he first thought the allegation might be too good to be true. But after talking to Fox, he found her believable, and the key to the case against his client.

"She threw the guy under the bus, claiming it was rape," Fox told Hollingshead. "She was laughing with me about it. That's why I remember it so vividly — because I was highly disgusted by it. How could you tell somebody that you were raped? No. 1, you shouldn't be cheating. But No. 2, that could ruin somebody's life."

Hollingshead knows that Fox's testimony won't change some people's minds about his client. But he thinks it should.

"I just don't know how you get out from under this," he says. "There will always be somebody, somewhere who believes he did this. Even if she recants — people will believe this, no matter what we do. We're just hoping we can reach the majority of people and restore his reputation as much as possible."

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