In Scandal's Shadow

Last April, Duke lacrosse star Reade Seligmann huddled with his dad at a Durham, N.C., law firm. A stripper hired to perform at a team party on March 13 claimed several players raped her. In a lineup, she'd identified three of them as her alleged assailants. Seligmann now awaited a call from the prosecutor that would tell him if he was one of the players she'd singled out. He felt certain he would be cleared. The call came. Reade, 20, was being indicted for first-degree rape, kidnapping and sexual offense. He had a strong alibi--cell-phone records would show he was busy calling his girlfriend at the time the alleged crime was taking place--but the D.A. declined to hear it. As he heard the news, Reade looked at his dad. It was the first time he'd ever seen his father cry. Then it hit him: how was he going to tell his mom? Kathy Seligmann was home in New Jersey with her three other boys. He dialed her number. "Mom," he said, "she picked me."

Just before the new year, Reade sat with NEWSWEEK for an exclusive four-hour interview, the first time any of the players has spoken in depth about the hellish months since the party that March night. Even now he gets emotional thinking about what his parents have gone through. Remembering that first call to his mother, he says, "It was like the life was sucked out of her." Before he hung up, he made her promise not to watch his arrest on TV. The next day, at home, she went to look for her 14-year-old, Ben. She found him in his room, sobbing in front of the TV. "Why are they doing this to him, Mom?" he asked. Kathy looked over and Reade was on the screen, handcuffed and being led into jail.

Out on bail and suspended from Duke, Seligmann went home nine months ago to cope with the prospect of serving 30 years in prison. The case is headed for trial, possibly this spring, even though there appears to be no convincing evidence that a crime was committed. District Attorney Mike Nifong, who did not respond to a request for comment, dropped the rape charges last month after the accuser, who has changed her story numerous times, said she was no longer certain of key details. But Seligmann and two other players, Collin Finnerty and David Evans--all of whom maintain their innocence--still face kidnapping and sexual-offense charges. The guilt of the players is enough in doubt, however, that last week Duke invited Seligmann and Finnerty back to school. (Evans graduated last spring.)

Nifong has other problems as well. The state bar has filed ethics charges against him for disparaging the defendants in public. And his legal tactics are also under scrutiny. Next month the judge in the case will decide whether the police lineup the accuser used to identify the defendants is admissible in court; Nifong had suggested that officers include only members of the lacrosse team and no "fillers," as is common practice.

The lineup marked the beginning, really, of nearly a year of purgatory for Seligmann and his family. The morning he was taken into custody and saw for the first time the back seat of a police car, it was surreal, he says. While he was getting fingerprinted, he momentarily found himself marveling at how cool the machine was before he snapped back and realized it was his finger in the ink. Sitting in his jail cell, he still didn't comprehend how completely his life had changed. Spotting a sign in Spanish, his first thought was that he had to study for an exam in the subject.

He was let out of jail after an hour, but he couldn't go home to Essex Fells, N.J.: TV trucks were closing in. The family arranged to stay at a friend's house in Connecticut for a few weeks. After two days, Seligmann said to his mom, "What are we doing? I didn't do anything wrong. There's no reason for us to hide." They left that day.

When he got home, Seligmann found the neighbors had tied ribbons around their trees for him. That week, the letters piled up. One included a $50 bill. "I want to know that I've helped in some way," wrote the stranger. Benched from his team and his life, Seligmann channeled his competitive streak by cheering his twin 18-year-old brothers' high-school football team. Duke allowed him to finish the semester from home, and he made the athletic-conference honor roll amid the turmoil. Determined not to waste the year, he volunteered at a soup kitchen and coached football at his old junior high, which had faith in his innocence from the start.

Though he won't discuss specifics of the ongoing case, Seligmann can never put it far from his mind. "It's there in the morning and it tucks me in at night," he says. "Every time you're happy, you'll remember why you weren't happy." Sometimes the case so dominates household conversations that Seligmann's brother Cameron begs his family to talk about something else. Yet one day in school, he raised his hand and asked his teacher, "I need to know why bad things happen to good people.''

Seligmann now finds solace where he can. An old coach told him to read Rudyard Kipling's poem "If." Seligmann isn't a "poetry guy," he says, but he admits the lines resonate: "If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you ... " Sometimes, he says, it's the only thing that can help him go to sleep.

The three accused players talk regularly, and their mothers are in close touch, too. Everyone in the Seligmann family has tried not to become bitter, and Reade promised his dad he wouldn't let the case ruin his life. "I always believed that the truth will trump everything," he says. "I have to believe that." He'd already planned to go to law school, but now, he says, it's gotten personal: he wants to become a criminal defense lawyer.

Seligmann has a peculiar fame, so he still gets stares. (NEWSWEEK published his mug shot on its cover at the time of the arrests.) Sometimes he'll be on the treadmill at the gym and his face will come across the row of TV screens in front of him. He can feel everyone turn his way. Even homeless men at the soup kitchen recognize him. "You're a football player, aren't you?" one guy said to him. "Good luck, man." He doesn't mind being noticed but gets upset when people say his reputation is ruined. He told his mom, "You know something, my reputation is mine. No one else can ruin it for me."

Seligmann says he hasn't decided if he'll go back to Duke. He's certainly nostalgic for the blissfully mundane concerns of his old life there: "I miss more than anything staying up and worrying about a miserable midterm." He also wishes he could go back to the days when his name was in the local paper for Pee Wee football. A few guys from the lacrosse team sent him a care package with his jersey and the nametag from his old locker. He put it all downstairs in the basement. There, dozens of lacrosse cleats and helmets from all four Seligmann boys are arranged neatly on the shelves. He hung the tag on the wall. READE SELIGMANN, it says, DUKE BLUE DEVILS, #45. It's a reminder of a team and a school that he still misses, but also of a past that is not yet behind him.