EMU officials covered up dozens of 'brutal rapes,' lawsuit alleges

Robert Snell Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Eastern Michigan University officials are accused of covering up a series of sexual assaults involving more than 10 victims who were allegedly raped on or near campus, some details of which emerged during a ritualistic ceremony at a fraternity, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court.

Eleven women, using the alias Jane Doe, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the university’s board of regents, police department and several fraternities, including Alpha Sigma Phi and Delta Tau Delta.

Their 166-page lawsuit alleges fraternity members covered up sexual misconduct by their members that was revealed at the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity house during a so-called "Mystic Circle" event created as a judgment-free confessional involving members sitting in a ring in an unlit room. During one "Mystic Circle" event, an accuser was placed in the center of the circle and accused a fraternity brother of raping her.

“This case is all about fighting for these victims’ rights and changing the culture of what exists today to recognize the difference between right and wrong,” said attorney Todd Flood, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the women Wednesday.

Named in the lawsuit is Melody Werner, who previously served as Eastern Michigan University’s Title IX director and allegedly failed to report accusations to law enforcement in 2018, allowing one former student "to continue his serial sexual assaults," the lawsuit says. She joined the Michigan State University Office of Institutional Equity in November 2019.

She also “was neither an investigator nor trained in conducting forensic interviews of sexual assault victims. Regardless, Defendant Werner was the gatekeeper of sexual assault claims at EMU,” according to the lawsuit.

Werner allegedly told one woman who shared that she had been raped: “There is no point in reporting it. They’re in a fraternity. Greek community is going to back them up.”

According to the lawsuit, Werner continually interrupted Jane Doe 1 when she was telling her story and made comments including, “that’s not what they said happened.”

Werner also told the woman that she would have to report to the Ypsilanti Police Department since the incident happened off-campus, allegedly adding “no one is going to believe (her)” and “it’s not even worth reporting,” according to the suit.

A message was left for Werner at her home. EMU spokesman Geoff Larcom released a statement on behalf of Werner: "Melody Werner categorically denies ever saying anything of that nature to any individual reporting a sexual assault. Her career as a Title IX professional is dedicated to exactly the opposite — encouraging survivors to come forward and report what happened to them and to support them in any way possible."

Eleven women, using the alias "Jane Doe," filed a civil rights lawsuit against the university’s board of regents, the police department and several fraternities, including Alpha Sigma Phi, seen here, and Delta Tau Delta.

Larcom on Wednesday also rejected the idea of a cover-up by the university, saying: "The accusation in the lawsuit that the university covered up any such crimes is false."

In a letter sent to the campus community Wednesday afternoon, EMU President James Smith said the university stands by those coming forward and the school has cooperated with authorities and media inquiries.

“Our initial review of Title IX and Department of Public Safety records indicated that in no case did a complainant come forward who wished to proceed with a formal investigation by our Title IX or Public Safety office,” Smith wrote.

“When a complainant came forward to university police last summer, we immediately and proactively contacted the Ypsilanti Police Department, which has investigative jurisdiction because the incidents occurred off-campus and in the city of Ypsilanti. The university has actively provided information and supported the Ypsilanti Police investigation throughout the fall and into this winter.”

The Delta Tau Delta fraternity house across the street from Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, March 24, 2021.

EMU hired Philadelphia law firm Cozen O’Connor to review and audit the university’s Title IX and related policies, procedures and actions. A report is expected this spring, Smith wrote.

“We initiated this review to determine whether proper processes were followed by university offices in the reporting of sexual assault cases and, if not, why not, and to identify recommendations as to what steps should be taken to ensure that our students are protected and supported,” he added.

Jerrod Rabb, chapter president of Alpha Sigma Phi-Gamma Upsilon at EMU, declined to comment.

The EMU lawsuit comes as sexual assaults of the past are being reported across the nation, and Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have grappled with massive sexual abuse scandals over the past four years. Both involved former doctors, Larry Nassar at MSU, and the late Robert Anderson at UM, who has been accused of molestation by former students of both genders.

MSU settled with about 500 victims of Nassar in 2018 in a historic $500 million settlement. Meanwhile, lawyers representing about 850 accusers of Anderson are in mediation with UM.

The EMU lawsuit alleges nine women were sexually assaulted by former Alpha Sigma Phi member Dustyn Durbin. Another former student named in the lawsuit, D'Angelo McWilliams, is accused of sexually assaulting a woman while attending the university and working as a deputy with the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department. 

Both men, as well as Thomas Hernandez, face sexual assault charges in Washtenaw County over related allegations. Hernandez, former president of EMU's Interfraternity Council, which is the governing board for fraternities, allegedly gang-raped an EMU student in 2018 after a fraternity party, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims he forced a woman to give him oral sex even while another assailant allegedly simultaneously penetrated her as she begged them to stop.

William Amadeo, an Ann Arbor lawyer representing Hernandez, said he stands behind his client's innocence.

He said he believes the alleged victim is using Hernandez's criminal case involving multiple first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges to "falsely profit financially."

The cases involving Durbin and McWilliams emerged last summer. At the time, the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department suspended McWilliams, then a deputy, after the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office charged McWilliams with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual assault, both allegedly involving accomplices, and one count of third-degree criminal sexual assault, involving coercion for offenses that allegedly took place between Oct. 1, 2016, and Jan. 19, 2018, at the EMU fraternity house of Delta Tau Delta.

After nine women testified during a preliminary exam for Durbin in October, Washtenaw County’s 14A-1 District Court Judge J. Cedric Simpson bound him over to trial court with 13 charges, according to published reports.

McWilliams' attorney, Doug Gutscher, declined to comment Wednesday, while Durbin's lawyer did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The EMU lawsuit Wednesday alleges university officials ignored or were deliberately indifferent to more than 30 rapes on or near the Ypsilanti campus from 2015 to 2020. Many of the alleged rapes happened at university fraternity houses, including Alpha Sigma Phi and Delta Tau Delta, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also alleges university police officials knew about systemic sexual assaults at EMU and around Ypsilanti since 2016 but deliberately failed to file reports from victims. The filing identifies EMU Police Chief Robert Heighes as being made aware of the "Mystic Circle" rituals by his nephew, Lucas Coffey, chapter president of Alpha Sigma Pi, according to the lawsuit.

EMU's Larcom denied this allegation.

"I can assert that the first Chief Heighes heard of that term was this past summer, in detail conveyed to him by an EMU police officer, who first heard it from the investigating detective at the Ypsilanti Police Department," Larcom said. "This occurred after EMU had relayed the June Title IX report that served to begin the investigation by (the Ypsilanti Police Department)."

The 13-count lawsuit seeks more than $75,000 in damages for civil rights and other violations, including sexual assault, retaliation and gross negligence.

One accuser, Jane Doe 9, describes two separate incidents at the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity house in fall 2018 and spring 2019 involving Durbin, and accuses him of fondling her breasts and rubbing his hands on her body. The woman alleges that she woke up after falling asleep in his room to find him “violently pinching her nipples” even though she did not want any sexual contact with him. At one point, she woke up to find Durbin “biting her neck above the collarbone,” Flood wrote

After the spring incident, Jane Doe 9 asked a fraternity official to hold a “Mystic Circle” so she could report Durbin’s behavior.

“Jane Doe 9 believed that the ‘Mystic Circle’ would function as an avenue to report her sexual assaults,” Flood wrote. “Jane Doe 9 then went and sat in the middle of the room, in the dark … and told her story.

The allegations later spread on social media until unnamed law enforcement personnel contacted Jane Doe 9 in June. 

“These victims have had to tolerate not only the sexual assaults and the repercussions that come with that, but also retaliation by others,” Flood said. “Many victims would not have been victims had (the defendants) done the right thing at the very beginning.”

An EMU sorority member, Jane Doe 3, accused Durbin of multiple sexual assaults during a party at the fraternity house in December 2016.

She fell on a patch of ice and hit her head before Durbin took her to his room, according to the lawsuit. Once there, Durbin fondled her while Jane Doe 3 was crying and “continued to verbally resist Durbin’s advances,” her lawyer wrote.

Instead of stopping, Durbin removed her shorts and shirt and held her down on the bed by choking her, Flood wrote.

“Durbin continued to assault Jane Doe 3 by penetrating her vagina with his erect penis as (she) continued to resist and was uncontrollably sobbing,” Flood wrote.

Durbin then forced his penis into her mouth and she eventually lost consciousness, according to the lawsuit.

Jane Doe 3 did not believe that the university, regents and EMU’s police department “had created a protected environment for sexual assault victims…” Flood wrote.

She did tell her sorority sisters.

“Welcome to the club,” they told her, according to the lawsuit. “It happens to everyone.”