Notre Dame's inquiry of alleged sex attack upsets parents of girl who accused athlete, killed herself
December 16, 2010|By Stacy St. Clair and Todd Lighty, Tribune reporters
The parents of a Northbrook teenager who killed herself a week after accusing a University of Notre Dame football player of sexually attacking her say they feel betrayed by the school they love and that several generations of their family have attended.
Speaking publicly for the first time since their daughter's Sept. 10 death, Tom and Mary Seeberg suggest that the campus police conducted a superficial investigation of their daughter's allegations. They question why, according to a timeline they received from the university, it took police two weeks to interview the player — even after Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg, 19, gave detailed statements and reported receiving a text message warning her about "messing with" the storied football program.
Concerned that the university's handling of reported sex crimes poses a public safety threat to women at Notre Dame and neighboring St. Mary's College, where their daughter was a freshman, the Seebergs decided to break their three-month silence. They say Notre Dame, a university named after the Virgin Mary, should be a leader in handling alleged crimes against women.
"We are parents fighting for our daughter. We're fighting for our sisters, our nieces and our granddaughters," Tom Seeberg said. "If not at Our Lady's university, then where? Where in the world would you fight for women? Where in the world would you fight for a cause like this?"
The parents say their disappointment intensified recently when the university indicated it may not give them access to records related to their daughter's accusations. University officials also signaled they believe the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents them from sharing information about any internal disciplinary proceeding, though their daughter would be entitled to those details if she were alive.
Discussing their unhappiness with Notre Dame's handling of the case is not easy for the Seebergs, whose ties to the South Bend campus date back nearly 100 years. Thirteen members — including their daughter — have attended Notre Dame or St. Mary's College, and they have a deep affection for the school.
"Ultimately, there's a sense of betrayal," said Tom Seeberg, a commercial insurance broker. "There's a sense of the university not living its values. … It is not our intention to take down this great institution. But it has disappointed us. That hurts, and it hurts our family."
The Seebergs provided the Tribune letters and e-mails between their lawyer and Notre Dame officials. They also shared a copy of their daughter's type-written statement to police that Tom Seeberg found on her laptop computer.
Notre Dame authorities have refused to publicly discuss what happened and how they handled Lizzy Seeberg's complaint.
"No matter how thorough, careful, timely and judicious any investigative process is, we understand it may never be enough for a family that has lost a child," the university said Wednesday in a statement. "We have privately expressed our deepest sympathies to the Seebergs and continue to keep them in prayer. We conduct all investigations of potential student violations of the law or university policies with the utmost professionalism and in the end make determinations on what, if any, action should be taken."
In a Sept. 6 typed statement she gave to campus police, Lizzy Seeberg, who battled depression and an anxiety disorder, described her account of what happened Aug. 31.
She said she and the player went to his room that evening along with a friend of the player's and the friend's girlfriend — both of whom Seeberg knew. She wrote that it appeared as though the player and his friend were communicating with their cell phones shortly before the other couple abruptly left.
Once alone with the player, Seeberg began to feel uncomfortable with the conversation. "I started feeling as though I was in danger," she wrote. "I didn't feel safe in his room."
Seeberg then described how she cried and her body froze as the alleged attack ensued. Her allegations did not describe penetration; the campus police log listed the complaint as an alleged sexual battery. Under Indiana law, a sexual battery is the unwanted touching of another person to satisfy one's own sexual desires.
The incident ended when the player's cell phone distracted him, Seeberg wrote.
Shortly afterward, the other couple returned.
Upon returning to her campus, Seeberg wrote a hand-written statement, documents show. She sought assistance the next morning from Belles Against Violence, a St. Mary's program that helps victims of sex crimesand whose name pays tribute to the nickname for the all-female student population. She also went to a hospital, where she reported the alleged attack to authorities and consented to a DNA evidence kit.
On Sept. 2, she received a text message from the phone of the player's samefriend, asking what happened. "Its not your business, sry," Seeberg replied, according to her cell phone records.
A few minutes later, a response came. "Don't do anything you would regret," the text said. "Messing with notre dame football is a bad idea."
Seeberg forwarded the message to a campus detective eight minutes after receiving it, records show. Her parents said university officials later told them that they called the player's friend soon after and said, "shut it down."
On the same night she received the text message, Seeberg sent to campus police an Internet link to the player's football profile. She put in the subject line "assault suspect," documents show.
The Tribune is not identifying the player because he has not been charged with a crime. He has not responded to messages seeking comment. The friend, who is not a football player, hung up when asked for comment.
According to the Seebergs and documents they provided, their daughter's account of the alleged attack remained consistent and she appeared to make efforts to move the investigation forward.
Privately, however, Seeberg began showing signs of strain. She told a counselor on Sept. 9 that she had suffered a panic attack earlier that evening. She also acknowledged having suicidal thoughts, though records show she insisted she would never hurt herself.
She killed herself the next day, overdosing on prescription medication.
Five days after her death, Notre Dame police for the first time interviewed the player, according to a timeline the Seebergs said university officials provided.
According to that timeline, a detective first tried to reach the player in his room on Sept. 9, more than a week after Seeberg filed her complaint. However, the athlete was not there so the officer left a voice message on his cell phone. Another unsuccessful attempt was made four days later.
Two weeks after the alleged attack was reported, police interviewed the player on Sept. 15. The Seebergs said authorities later told them the player described the interaction with Lizzy as consensual and said he was the one who decided to stop.
The Seebergs traveled to South Bend on Sept. 23 to receive an update. Mary Seeberg said she specifically asked if head football coach Brian Kelly knew about the investigation and was told that the athletic department was made aware.
According to the couple, officers also told the Seebergs that given the circumstances surrounding the case, it was unlikely prosecutors would file charges because of her death. The Seebergs understood but said they asked for a thorough and transparent investigation. They never insisted on charges against the player or that he be kicked off the team, they said.
"Never in this process have we demanded a result," Tom Seeberg said. "Our attitude was, 'We're good people, you're good people.' I thought we both wanted what is fair."
The day after meeting with police, Tom Seeberg opened his daughter's laptop for the first time since her death and found the type-written statement on her hard drive. Tom Seeberg said police told him Lizzy had provided the statement to detectives.
"You feel the fear in the room," he said of his daughter's account.
While reading the statement, he also learned about the alleged use of the cell phones between the player and his friend. Seeberg said he quickly contacted police to ask whether they had obtained phone records, and officers told him they had not, he said.
At Seeberg's urging, police obtained the phone logs with help from the prosecutor's office, according to documents. Though the records do not show text messages between the men shortly before the alleged attack, they show both phones had some kind of activity during that period, the Seebergs said.
In the weeks that followed, the Seebergs' frustrations grew as their questions went unanswered.
They were determined to give their daughter a voice in the process and in late October hired Zachary Fardon, a former federal prosecutor who tried ex- Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
Fardon wrote to Notre Dame's top lawyer on Nov. 5. He asked for three things: a full and vigorous investigation surrounding the allegations; transparency of the investigative process; and an "appropriate disciplinary response" from the university.
"From a family standpoint, it feels like a betrayal," Tom Seeberg said. "Should a grieving family trying to learn the truth have to hire a high-profile attorney just to get their questions answered or just to get someone to talk to them?"
Fardon met with university officials on Nov. 17 but left without a commitment on how they would respond. The campus police, however, provided the timeline, which showed they did little to further the investigation in the week following Lizzy's death, Fardon said.
They did not seek the phone records or speak to a friend who co-signed Lizzy's first statement until after Tom Seeberg called the department, according to the timeline.
"We're not detectives," Tom Seeberg said. "We're not law enforcement experts, but it raises concerns."
On Nov. 19, Fardon sent another letter. This time he addressed it to Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, and to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, vice president for student affairs. Fardon detailed the case and explained the Seebergs' request for transparency.
Doyle replied, saying he did not read the letter because it contained facts about the case and could interfere with his role in the school's disciplinary process. Doyle said he would not forward the letter to Jenkins.
"When I opened your attachment, I could see immediately that significant portions of you(r) letter contained information about the case," Doyle's e-mail said. "When I recognized this, I stopped reading."
Doyle, however, praised Tom Seeberg's dealings with the university. "He has been poised, honest, remarkably reasonable, plain talking and driven by common sense," he wrote in the e-mail.
Fardon wrote back to Doyle the same day. He urged him and Jenkins to read the letter, saying the university failed to aggressively investigate Lizzy Seeberg's claims.
"It is past time for the university to show leadership here," Fardon wrote. "And it is precisely because you are in decision-making positions that you should have access to all of the facts."
A Nov. 21 Tribune story first raised questions about the urgency of the university's investigation into the alleged attack.
After the story was published, two Indiana law enforcement agencies abruptly changed their longstanding accounts of interactions with campus police on the case, claiming there were internal misunderstandings about what information the university provided to them and when.
After the Tribune notified the university it was publishing a story revealing the alleged attack, Notre Dame police forwarded the case to St. Joseph County prosecutors. The Seebergs met with prosecutor Michael Dvorak on Dec. 1, when he candidly told them it would be difficult to bring charges in a case where the victim was dead.
The Seebergs said they were appreciative of Dvorak's sincerity and his promise of a thorough review. A final decision on charges is expected soon, a source said.
The player, meanwhile, remains on the team, which plays later this month in the Sun Bowl in Texas. It stings the Seebergs to see him on the field, but they insist their daughter's story is a public safety tale and not a commentary on the school's football team.
"There's an undeniable emotional reaction," Tom Seeberg said. "While we're working hard to get answers, football still goes on. Life still goes on."
As they search for answers, the Seebergs take solace in the stories Lizzy Seeberg's friends share about her kindness and from a scholarship fund that has raised more than $120,000 for Christ the King Preparatory, a West Side high school where she helped with fundraising.
The Seebergs also have found comfort in the St. Mary's community. They said St. Mary's — unlike Notre Dame — did not hesitate to provide documents and answer questions. And on the night of a campus memorial service, college President Carol Mooney gave them the class ring Lizzy would have received upon graduating.
Once a Belle, always a Belle, Mooney told them.
"Lizzy has that ring on her finger today," Tom Seeberg said.