The rest of Jackie’s account was equally precise and horrifying. The lifeguard coached seven boys as they raped her one by one. Erdely hung up the phone “sickened and shaken,” she said. She remembered being “a bit incredulous” about the vividness of some of the details Jackie offered, such as the broken glass from the smashed table. Yet Jackie had been “confident, she was consistent.” (Jackie declined to respond to questions for this report. Her lawyer said it “is in her best interest to remain silent at this time.” The quotations attributed to Jackie here come from notes Erdely said she typed contemporaneously or from recorded interviews.)2
Between July and October 2014, Erdely said, she interviewed Jackie seven more times. The writer was based in Philadelphia and had been reporting for Rolling Stone since 2008. She specialized in true-crime stories like “The Gangster Princess of Beverly Hills,” about a high-living Korean model and self-styled Samsung heiress accused of transporting 7,000 pounds of marijuana. She had written about pedophile priests and sexual assault in the military. Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, considered her “a very thorough and persnickety reporter who’s able to navigate extremely difficult stories with a lot of different points of view.”
Jackie proved to be a challenging source. At times, she did not respond to Erdely’s calls, texts and emails. At two points, the reporter feared Jackie might withdraw her cooperation. Also, Jackie refused to provide Erdely the name of the lifeguard who had organized the attack on her. She said she was still afraid of him. That led to tense exchanges between Erdely and Jackie, but the confrontation ended when Rolling Stone‘s editors decided to go ahead without knowing the lifeguard’s name or verifying his existence. After that concession, Jackie cooperated fully until publication.
Erdely believed firmly that Jackie’s account was reliable. So did her editors and the story’s fact-checker, who spent more than four hours on the telephone with Jackie, reviewing every detail of her experience. “She wasn’t just answering, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ she was correcting me,” the checker said. “She was describing the scene for me in a very vivid way. … I did not have doubt.” (Rolling Stone requested that the checker not be named because she did not have decision-making authority.)
Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” on Nov. 19, 2014. It caused a great sensation. “I was shocked to have a story that was going to go viral in this way,” Erdely said. “My phone was ringing off the hook.” The online story ultimately attracted more than 2.7 million views, more than any other feature not about a celebrity that the magazine had ever published.
A week after publication, on the day before Thanksgiving, Erdely spoke with Jackie by phone. “She thanked me many times,” Erdely said. Jackie seemed “adrenaline-charged … feeling really good.”
Erdely chose this moment to revisit the mystery of the lifeguard who had lured Jackie and overseen her assault. Jackie’s unwillingness to name him continued to bother Erdely. Apparently, the man was still dangerous and at large. “This is not going to be published,” the writer said, as she recalled. “Can you just tell me?”
Jackie gave Erdely a name. But as the reporter typed, her fingers stopped. Jackie was unsure how to spell the lifeguard’s last name. Jackie speculated aloud about possible variations.