CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – William Beebe had been haunted by that night for years.
He'd tried to send the letter before — and failed. Just like he'd failed to stick with Alcoholics Anonymous. Just like he'd failed at so much in life.
This time, he was staying with the 12-step program. But should he really take that treacherous ninth step?
It told him to make amends to those he'd hurt — unless doing so would injure them further.
Some had warned him to leave it alone. But he'd prayed on it.
And so, on a sheet of vanilla-scented paper, he began to write.
The letter arrived on a Thursday morning, tucked among the usual barrage of catalogues and bills. Mike Seccuro tossed the envelope onto his wife Liz's lap as he climbed behind the wheel of the family minivan, their daughter's giggles bubbling over from the back seat.
Who lives in Vegas? she wondered briefly of the postmark before her eyes slid left, stopping on the sender's name.
It was a name she had not uttered in 20 years.
Her body suddenly felt cold, her brain fuzzy. With shaking hands, she opened the envelope.
"Dear Elizabeth," the letter began. "In 1984 I harmed you."
Images crackled through her mind with Technicolor vividness. The dark room. The man with the hazel eyes.
She was Liz Schimpf then, a petite, 17-year-old blonde from Yonkers, N.Y., just a few weeks into her first year at the University of Virginia.
The frat brother tending bar at Phi Kappa Psi handed her a pale green concoction. The house special, he said with a smile.
Exactly what happened next during the early morning hours of Oct. 5, 1984, remains unclear. This is what she remembers:
The drink tasted tart, like lime. After a few sips, she felt strange and panicky, her body a puppet she could not control. She'd been separated from her friends, like a sheep cut from its flock.
William Beebe, a student she didn't know, grabbed her arm and dragged her to his room. He pulled her onto his lap and read to her from a book of poetry bound in green fabric. He kissed her neck, her ear.
Repulsed, she pulled free and bolted from the room.
"HELP ME!" she screamed, pounding on a nearby bedroom door.
A brother barked at her to shut up, tossed her at Beebe, then left.
Beebe shut the door, killed the lights.
He tore off her clothes and threw her on the bed, not bothering to remove his plaid shirt or boots, or even his jeans, which he simply unzipped.
The party's booming music swallowed her screams. She was a virgin. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen.
His weight was crushing her, his smell a nauseating mix of alcohol and body odor. She fought him, clamped her legs shut. He pried them open, hissed at her to shut up and lie still.
The pain was blinding. She couldn't breathe.
Please, God, let someone know this is happening, she begged silently. I don't want to die.
She passed out.
Lights. Movement. Voices. Touching.
In the minivan, Seccuro was crying so hard her frightened daughter had begun to wail.
"I can scarcely begin to understand the degree to which, through your eyes, my behavior has affected you in its wake," Beebe had written. "Still, I stand prepared to hear from you about just how, and in what ways you've been affected, and to begin to set right the wrong I've done."
Over the next week, the letter rarely left her side. She felt afraid and vulnerable. He knew where she lived. Was her family in danger? Should she write back?
One evening, the questions overwhelmed her. She grabbed her BlackBerry.
"I am in receipt of your letter," she typed. "How can you live with yourself?"
She didn't expect a response. He e-mailed back the next day.
"You asked me to write about how I lived w/ myself in the wake of this incident," Beebe began. "So I will."
"I always felt tremendous guilt for the ways in which I imagined my conduct had damaged you, and for years too the only solution seemed to be the bottle, which worked less and less over time to assuage the guilt," he wrote. "This is to say that the way that I lived with myself was of course not really living at all. My spirit was dying in a body that had not yet quit."
"It appears I have laid the groundwork for a shattered life, and I simply do not know what to do, save for doing what you ask."
But Seccuro didn't know what to do either. The letter and e-mail had unleashed a rush of painful emotions. Yet she wondered: Why had he done what he'd done?
The only way to find out, she reasoned, was to write back. And so began a two-month e-mail correspondence. Seccuro told Beebe of the devastating effects of his actions; Beebe detailed the devastating effects of the bottle.
After that night in 1984, Seccuro was never the same. She reported the attack to university officials and campus police, she said, but immediately felt dismissed and disbelieved. She lost hope she'd ever see justice.
The once-outgoing girl became a loner, riddled with anxiety and depression, unable to trust others. Her grades plummeted. At 22, she entered a tumultuous marriage that quickly unraveled.
Part of her felt dead. She cocooned herself from pain, accepting low-level jobs to avoid failure. Panic attacks were frequent and frightening.
Gradually, life improved. She fell in love with a man she met in a train station, a fellow U.Va. alum named Mike. They married in 1999 and beautiful Ava was born in 2002. Seccuro found success as an event planner in Greenwich, Conn.
But there were still bad days. She feared Beebe would come after her or Ava. Some nights she slept in the living room so she could keep an eye on the front door.
She never stopped wondering what had become of him.
His life, too, had been filled with miseries, he wrote. After that night, he was disgusted with himself. He was summoned to the dean's office and told of possible judicial proceedings. He knew his fraternity's reputation and his academic future were at risk. He felt like dying.
"I was pinned by my failure as a person," he wrote. "A day or so later I withdrew from UVA, unwilling to step up to the plate."
Even then, he wrote, his drinking was a problem. One afternoon as he sat, alone and drunk, in the frat house, it hit him: Was he an alcoholic?
Within a few days, he wrote, he'd entered rehab. He emerged in six weeks and moved home. A month later, he was drinking again.
Over the next nine years, he exhausted his parents, employers and friends.
"Wife? Hardly," he wrote. "Fortunately for them, the occasional women i'd meet in those years quickly realized who and what i was, and summarily dismissed me as a drunken, selfish slob, and an emotional black hole. They too were quickly drained and disgusted. I applaud them all!"
"i have always secretly felt, consciously and unconsciously as though i didn't deserve true unity w/ another woman after what i did to you."
He arrived at AA on Sept. 19, 1993, after years of trying to get sober in the fellowship, he wrote. This time, he stayed.
"I did not know how I was going to set about repairing wrongs I believed I could never fully right," he wrote, "most especially in the situation with you, which haunted me most of all."
From the moment he read AA's eighth step — making a list of those he'd harmed — he wanted to contact Seccuro. But his sponsor said that would only dredge up pain for her before she was ready.
Beebe argued with him, and consulted other AA members. They warned him off.
As the years passed, Beebe wrote, his sponsor fell off the wagon. The man later told him he'd started drinking again over unfinished amends.
Beebe's new sponsor told him to pray and search for Seccuro. Twice he wrote her, but the addresses were wrong and the letters returned.
In 2003, an AA friend connected Beebe with a woman in Los Angeles.
"She has had experience with what you have," Beebe wrote. "I make no moves without consulting her first."
"You will always find me open to honest communication, and to do what i can to begin to set things right for you, including anything I might compensate you for regarding therapy sessions, and so forth."
Seccuro read Beebe's e-mails with growing unease. What initially appeared to be the words of a tortured soul, now struck her as ... insincere.
Was this apology meant to help her — or him?
Her skepticism grew when they broached the topic of what happened that night in 1984. While most of the details remained painfully fresh, she wrote, she needed to know everything in order to heal.
"Were you my only attacker?" she asked. "I clearly have an impression of this being either a gang rape or a 'spectator sport' for the rushees. No names, please. But the nightmares for me must end."
Beebe's account, however, was disturbingly different from hers.
"I 'convinced' you after what seemed like hesitation, that staying w/ me in my room upstairs was better than walking all the way back to the suites," he wrote. "Of course, seeing opportunity to have a good time w/ you overrode any gentlemanly efforts to return you safely back to the dorms."
"We started to make out in my room a while," he continued. "There was no fight and it was all over in short order. When we awoke in the morning it was still chilly out, so i lent you my jean jacket, and you walked home."
"There were no other men present. I was the only one."
Seccuro was outraged. If this was his account, what was he atoning for?
There was certainly a fight that night, she responded angrily. She woke up naked, wrapped in a bloody sheet, then walked to the emergency room.
"I really am not understanding any of this," she typed. "I thought after all this time, you realized you had raped me and were apologizing. I trusted that your apology came from a good and honest place and I see this is not the case."
He had been drunk that night, he acknowledged, though not so drunk he couldn't remember what happened. But he didn't doubt her version.
"I am alarmed at best at what you say happened to you, which I believe did, make no mistake," he wrote.
Seccuro remained unnerved.
"I did not get to choose being raped and having my virginity taken from me so brutally," she wrote. "Now, I don't get to choose having this wound reopened."
"I feel raped and betrayed a second time."
And something else bothered her.
"I have the most difficulty in your careful choice of words," she wrote. "'Harm', 'what I did to you', et al. don't really feel like coming clean to me."
"I want to make clear that I'm not intentionally minimizing the fact of having raped you," he wrote.
Beebe was starting to wonder: Was he doing more harm than good?
"It seems no matter what I say, you are dissatisfied that I am all about the business of accountability and taking full responsibility as I can for having raped you. And you conclude that I 'just want forgiveness, neatly tied up in a bow.'" he wrote. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Seccuro was confused and drained. A few days later, she stumbled across a Web site dedicated to victims of rape at the University of Virginia.
She was floored. The problem suddenly seemed bigger than her own.
Minutes later, at 12:40 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2005, Seccuro left a voicemail message for Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo.
On Jan. 4, 2006, Beebe was arrested in Las Vegas and later extradited to Virginia.
There is no statute of limitations on felonies in Virginia, and with Beebe's written confession, it appeared to be an open and shut case.
Except Beebe, facing a sentence of life in prison, suddenly denied raping Seccuro.
She couldn't believe it.
They were headed for trial.
Seccuro was in for another shock. While much of the public reaction was supportive, some of it was not.
E-mails and letters arrived, threatening her with everything from rape to dismemberment. Other messages were less extreme but still stung — mainly from Christians condemning her for pressing charges, admonishing her to forgive.
But she was a Christian, too, and she HAD forgiven Beebe. Couldn't she forgive and still want justice? Couldn't she forgive and still feel anger?
Her panic attacks returned. Some friends stopped calling. She suffered a miscarriage while nervously awaiting Beebe's arrest.
Any leftover energy went to Ava, not her husband. Some days, he felt like a stranger. Despite his efforts to understand, her experience remained alien to him.
It seemed Beebe was hurting her again.
And could she forgive him for that?
Two decades had passed since they'd seen each other. But turning to identify him at the preliminary hearing on March 24, Seccuro felt 17 again. Heart slamming, she raised her arm to point, then quickly looked away.
The judge found probable cause to certify the charges. On April 17, Beebe was indicted on two felony counts: rape and object sexual penetration.
Seven months later, Beebe stood in the hushed courtroom.
"Guilty as charged," he said calmly as Seccuro wiped away tears of relief.
But he was pleading guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated sexual battery; the other charges had been dropped. The prosecution's recommended sentence: two years in prison.
Why had they agreed to a plea?
Then prosecutor Claude Worrell dropped the bombshell: Investigators believed Seccuro was gang raped.
Seccuro had long suspected it. And prosecutors knew Beebe's cooperation could be key in bringing other possible attackers to justice.
Outside the courthouse, Beebe finally spoke.
"This began as an effort to make amends," he said. "In pleading guilty today to a lesser charge, I acknowledge formally what I tried to acknowledge in my letter.
"Twenty-two years ago, I harmed another person — and I have tried to set that right."
The investigation into the events of that night continues. How well Beebe cooperates with authorities will be a consideration when he is sentenced March 15. He remains free on bond and has been ordered to continue attending AA meetings.
Seccuro went public with her story, hoping to raise awareness of sexual assault and inspire victims to seek help. She launched a donor fund called STARS — Sisters Together Assisting Rape Survivors — to raise money for rape victims and their families.
She is grateful for a second chance at justice. But there are days when Beebe's letter feels like a curse.
Some still tell her to accept his apology and move on. Forgiveness, however, isn't so simple, she says. She has forgiven Beebe for attacking her, and for disrupting her life. But she sometimes struggles to remain merciful.
She does not forgive those who knew about or witnessed the events of that night and have remained silent for so many years. Nor does she forgive the university.
But to Seccuro, forgiveness was never the issue. To her, it's very simple.
The apology was for him. Justice is for her.