An Ugly Rape Case Involving Vanderbilt’s Football Team Could Get Much Uglier

This summer, five football players at the elite Southern school were arrested in association with the rape of an undergraduate. The events of the night in question are even more unsettling than had been previously reported.

Brooke Stevens

NASHVILLE — It began with a broken door. On the second floor of the Gillette House dorm at Vanderbilt University, a door had been knocked off its hinges and bent in the middle as if it had been kicked open, seemingly the kind of run-of-the-mill collateral damage that results from drunken hijinks on campuses all over the country. But officials reviewing security footage from the night the door was broken saw something suspicious, even sinister. Multiple men went in and out of one particular dorm room. Then Brandon Vandenburg, a highly rated tight end who’d just transferred to Vanderbilt’s football team from junior college, emerged and threw a towel over the hallway camera, and it went dark.

What officials eventually discovered about the events of that night would lead to the indictment of four football players for rape and another for alleged involvement in a cover-up. The players in question were swiftly dismissed or suspended, and the case has gotten relatively little attention despite the elite Southern university’s enormous local prominence and its football team’s status as an up-and-coming member of the country’s highest-profile conference. But many disturbing details about the alleged crimes — including what is described as a racially charged video and an allegation that Vanderbilt coach James Franklin told a player to delete footage of the incident, which he strongly denies — have not been reported until now. The following is an account of the night and its aftermath based on two dozen interviews with students, attorneys, and others with direct knowledge of the night and the ongoing investigation.

The Tin Roof bar in Nashville. Brooke Stevens

Vanderbilt, proudly called the Harvard of the South, is a literally and figuratively central institution in Nashville, a city whose economic engine is powered nearly as much by higher education as it is the music industry. Founded in 1873 by philanthropist Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the university and its medical center together employ around 25,000 people, making it the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee. Though it is a private institution, the school combines an excellent academic reputation with the kind of size (almost 13,000 students), social scene, and big-time athletic programs more commonly associated with major state universities.

On a Saturday in June, Vandenburg, a high-profile transfer to the school’s football team (ESPN pegged him as the top junior college tight end in the country), went out with a 21-year-old student from Oklahoma whom he had been casually dating. The two went to Tin Roof, a bar in a string of local college nightspots near the city’s Music Row. The 6’6”, 260-pound Vandenburg, who transferred from College of the Desert in California’s Coachella Valley, drove the pair to the bar in the woman’s vehicle. Sometime on the way back to campus, apparently, the woman passed out.

“She was in the passenger seat and it was all the way down. She was totally gone,” said a student who lived in Vandenburg’s dorm and saw the Oklahoma woman before she was taken to the second floor of Gillette House, a weathered brick building used primarily for freshmen, where Vandenburg and other football players lived over the summer. The student who saw her passed out didn’t know until weeks later that what was witnessed may have been the prelude of a rape.

Shortly after, several students in the dorm recalled hearing a loud bang, which they later discovered was the sound of the impact that broke a security door through which students entered the second floor. “The middle looked like it had been cracked through and the dry wall had fallen out. It looked like somebody kicked it. It was split right down the middle,” said a student living on Gillette’s third floor.

It’s still not clear why Vandenburg or anyone else involved in the incident would have needed to break down a door Vandenburg could’ve opened with his student ID, but the investigation of the damage quickly led to more serious questions. “Most laypeople cannot break a door frame, so they started looking at the football players,” said one person who is working on the case. Authorities eventually came to believe Vandenburg had intercourse with the Oklahoma woman while she was unconscious, while three other football players said to have been in room at some point in the night were charged as well. A Nashville grand jury is accusing all four of aggravated rape and sexual battery, for which they have all pleaded not guilty. Defense attorneys have pointed out that just because all four have been charged with rape does not mean all four had intercourse with the victim. To use an analogy, two suspects who enter a bank together can be charged with robbery even if only one pulls a gun and demands money.

Sources said that some time after the three other football players entered the room, objects were used to penetrate the victim, though it is not clear which defendants took part in this act. During the alleged assault, according to sources, Vandenburg took pictures and video on his phone, and later sent four individuals the graphic footage.

Vandenburg and the victim are white. The three other players are black. One attorney who has seen all the evidence in the case said the video footage has “a strong racial component” that goes beyond the mere fact of the skin colors of the individuals involved, but would not elaborate on specific details.

The three other football players in the dorm room that night were Cory Batey, 6’1”, 208 pounds from Nashville; Brandon Banks, 5’10”, 165 pounds from Maryland; and JaBorian “Tip” McKenzie, 5’7”, 175 pounds from Mississippi. None of them had ever played a game — Vandenburg was a transfer and the other three had been red-shirted during their freshman season.

There are conflicting reports about where the woman awoke the next morning. Some say she was brought to another room and others think she was kept in Vandenburg’s dorm. Multiple sources say she was moved through the hallway, at least temporarily, while the towel covered the security camera.

Many people close to the investigation told BuzzFeed that the victim did not know what had happened until word of the pictures and video made its way back to her. She saw the images for the first time when shown them by the District Attorney’s Office.

Individuals who know the victim described her as a fun-loving but hard-working student — she’s pursuing ambitious academic goals — who often socialized with and was close to many players on the football team.

After the incident, a somber atmosphere overtook Gillette, students who lived there said. Police went door-to-door questioning students about the night, creating confusion for those who had more questions than answers. Describing the mood in the dorm the next weekend, typically a boisterous time, one student in Gillette said: “It was totally silent. It didn’t make any sense.”

Days after the episode, Vanderbilt announced that four members of the football team had been dismissed from the team in connection with a sex crimes investigation. Soon after, the District Attorney’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation joined the probe. Almost a month later, on July 15, authorities released the names of the four dismissed players and arrests followed.

In early August, a Davidson County grand jury indicted the four players on five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery. In addition, prosecutors charged Vandenburg with tampering with evidence and unlawful photography. On Aug. 21, the four players plead not guilty at their initial arraignment.

A second indictment was handed down on Aug. 16 implicating three additional men: one with being an accessory after the fact for supposedly telling Vandenburg via text message to delete the video, and two others with tampering with evidence for, according to sources, deleting video and images of the incident from their phones. One of the men is Chris Boyd, Vanderbilt’s 6’4”, 205-pound star wide receiver who has been suspended. The other two are former teammates of Vandenburg’s from Southern California, Miles Finley and Joey Quinzio.

Gillette House. Brooke Stevens

University officials and prosecutors have taken pains to keep details about the case under wraps. All supporting documents in the indictment have been filed under seal. One source on the prosecution side mentioned the Duke lacrosse case as a cautionary tale in which the disclosure of incendiary details backfired. Police have spoken few words about the night beyond calling the incident a “sexual assault” which was discovered following an “unrelated situation” involving “unusual behavior” on hallway cameras.

Vanderbilt’s football team was traditionally a pushover in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference alongside national powers like Alabama and LSU. James Franklin has changed that. In 2010, the year before his arrival, the team won two games. Last year they won nine, the school’s winningest season since 1915. Franklin has told reporters that the rape case breaks his heart professionally and personally, and has been quietly making the rounds of campus groups to reassure the community that the allegations are not a reflection of wider problems with his program.

“Despite what’s happened, students generally really respect Franklin and what he is doing here at Vandy,” said a junior majoring in political science who heard one of Franklin’s private talks. “I don’t think many students at all have changed their perspective on Franklin or the team.”

Franklin’s self-described “extreme personality” is the marvel of players and fans alike. His voluble nature has also garnered unwanted headlines. During a radio interview last June, he said that he doesn’t hire an assistant coach until he sees his wife. “If she looks the part, and she’s a D-1 recruit, then you got a chance to get hired. That’s part of the deal.”

On Twitter, Franklin, who has more than 24,000 followers, backpedaled from the comment: “My foot does not taste good, I hope I did not offend any1, I love and respect ALL, have a great day, enjoy the fam & don’t forget to #AnchorDown,” citing the Commodores’ de facto slogan — which Franklin came up with and popularized.

A source close to one of the defendants said he believes that Franklin encouraged a player to delete a video of the incident after the player showed it to Franklin.

“I’m 99.9 percent sure that Franklin saw the video,” the source said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if the public finds this out soon.”

“Coach Franklin denies that emphatically,” said Hal Hardin, Franklin’s attorney. “People always speculate and gossip. There is no truth to that accusation whatsoever. It’s inflammatory.”

“He has been cooperating fully with the investigation,” Hardin said. Prosecutors believe they have recovered all the images associated with the incident and that no potential evidence was lost before or during the investigation.

All seven individuals accused in the case have posted bail and are no longer in custody. Vandenburg was released Wednesday evening on a $350,000 bond.

On his Twitter page, which has been inactive since a day after the dorm incident, Vandenburg’s bio reads: “Blessed to have such great family and friends. Vanderbilt Football Player. Honors Student. Aspirations to go to the NFL. Praise God! #IAMSECOND #GODFIRST.”

One tweet from Dec. 19 reads: “It’s amazing what happens when you put complete faith in God. He will always open doors for you that you could never open yourself.’”

Vanderbilt has sent a letter to student athletes banning them from the Tin Roof bar. The alleged victim has begun her senior year of classes.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman is prosecuting the case for the state. Known as “The Thurmanator,” he is often called on for high-profile murder cases. The players’ next court date is in two weeks. The case is proceeding toward trial, and if plea deals are not reached, the evidence prosecutors have collected could become public.

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