Their Kinky College Romance Ended Badly. So Did the School's Sexual-Assault Investigation

Their Kinky College Romance Ended Badly. So Did the School's Sexual-Assault Investigation

When Keifer Johnson headed back to school after last year's summer break, he had reason to believe that the truly awesome part of his college experience was still to come. He was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, a Kerouac-spouting English major and a rising star on WSCU's highly regarded track team. He planned to train and run like hell, read stacks of books, write poetry and have fun.

The first clue that his life on campus was about to undergo a profound change came in a terse e-mail from an English professor. The note said that he would no longer be allowed to serve as a teaching assistant for a freshman writing course, a course for which he'd been a TA the previous semester. The professor urged him to contact Gary Pierson, the university's dean of students, if he had any questions about the decision.

Now in his junior year, Keifer Johnson is suing Western State Colorado University after what he claims was a badly mishandled sexual-misconduct investigation by school officials.
Now in his junior year, Keifer Johnson is suing Western State Colorado University after what he claims was a badly mishandled sexual-misconduct investigation by school officials.

Baffled, Johnson made an appointment and went to see Pierson. The dean told him that he was in possession of a letter that Johnson had sent to a girl who'd been in that writing class. Pierson wouldn't let him see the letter, but he let Johnson know that he found its content to be inappropriate and even disturbing. Come home prepared, I will devour you.... Expect pain. Expect pleasure. Expect both; they slide hand in hand too easily. Welcome to the jungle, baby. There will be fun and games.

Johnson acknowledged that he knew the girl. They had flirted a bit over the course of the semester, then hooked up during finals week. The relationship had quickly caught fire, the two of them engaging in some bondage-themed role-playing patterned after E.L. James's best-selling S&M romance, Fifty Shades of Grey. Johnson had written the eleven-page letter, a graphic and purplish work in the Jamesian mode, for his lover to read while she was in rehab in another state in June, trying to get clear of her drug and alcohol problems.

I sink my jaw frenzied, wolfing your essence, as I begin to tighten and pound away the calamity of you, the impossibility of you. I destroy myself into you, as I howl your name, as I rupture release profoundly deep within you. I explode myself into you, as we scrape transcendence, as your desperate failing body floods over me. Breathless, I look into you, into the essence [of] you.... The beauty of violence. Holding you there, unmoving, silence shackling the air, I gaze into you, you into me.

Johnson had broken up with the girl -- known here simply as Emily -- at the end of July. Now, barely three weeks later, here was Pierson, questioning him at length about the letter and the relationship. Johnson did his best to explain that the savage sex play described in the letter was pure fantasy, but he wondered why the dean was so interested in a freshman pas de deux that had played out over the summer, far away from campus.

"His questions were strictly about my relationship with her and my personal sex life," Johnson says. "It was definitely a condemning tone. I said, 'While this relationship may seem unsettling to you, it was entirely consensual.' I was frank and forthcoming. I had no reason not to be. I thought I would explain myself and that would be the end of it."

But the meeting with the dean was only the beginning of Johnson's journey through Western State's complicated process of investigating possible sexual misconduct involving its students -- a process that Johnson found infuriating and humiliating, as well as panic-inducing. A few days later he was summoned to the office of Chris Luekenga, the associate vice-president for student affairs, to respond to charges that he had violated policies outlined in the student handbook.

Two of the infractions -- accidentally pulling out Emily's meal card instead of his own in a campus cafeteria, and a "breaking and entering" charge for slipping through an open window into a dorm with other students to check out who was occupying the rooms they'd had the previous semester -- were relatively minor. The third, however, was more ambiguous. Johnson was being accused of "inappropriate behavior" toward another student, apparently based on the letter he'd written Emily.

Once again, Johnson fielded questions about his relationship with the girl and the wilder passages of his letter. Luekenga told him that he'd received a complaint from an "outside party" about Johnson's conduct but refused to provide more specifics. "He said, 'Tell me why you should stay here as a Western State student,'" Johnson recalls.

The meeting turned into a disciplinary hearing, with Johnson found guilty on all counts. He was suspended from the track team for several days while Luekenga pondered what other sanctions to impose. A letter from Luekenga outlined his punishment: 48 hours of community service, a letter of apology to the dining-hall staff for the meal-card incident, and four hours of "counseling sessions that will address your decision-making skills and thought processes." Johnson was also placed on "judicial probation," which meant that he could be suspended from school if he committed any additional infractions . Johnson didn't entirely agree with the finding; he didn't see anything wrong with the letter to Emily, and he would later learn that there was nothing in the student handbook prohibiting possession of another student's meal card. But he had screwed up by going into the dorm without permission and figured he would just take his medicine.

Two days after he got Luekenga's letter, though, Johnson received a summons from a third Western administrator, Sara Phillips, demanding yet another meeting. Phillips was the school's Title IX coordinator, the point person responsible for enforcing provisions of the 1972 federal law that deals with issues of sexual discrimination, harassment or violence at educational institutions. Johnson was under the impression that the meeting was merely a followup to his discussion with Luekenga.

He was mistaken. This was not about the letter to Emily or a meal card. Phillips said she was investigating a new complaint filed by Emily herself, one that claimed that Johnson had engaged in non-consensual sex with her. Phillips didn't show Johnson the complaint or provide any specifics, he says. Instead, she began asking him to explain to her in detail the nature of the relationship, much as he had already done with Pierson and Luekenga.

Johnson left the meeting feeling as if he'd been ambushed. In less than two weeks, the complaint against him had morphed from accusing him of writing an off-color letter to an accusation of sexual assault. Alarmed, Johnson's parents hired an attorney to defend him in what was starting to look like a possible criminal matter -- and began asking a few questions of their own.

Emily didn't return to Western State after her breakup with Johnson, saying she "didn't feel safe" around him. Last December, after a formal conduct hearing before a three-member board of university officials, Johnson was found "not responsible" in the university's investigation of the alleged sexual assault -- a verdict that, in Johnson's eyes, fell far short of vindication. Although still a student there, he's now suing the university in federal court, claiming that the administration failed to adequately investigate the claims against him, denied him due process, treated him differently than they did the female complainant, violated his right to free speech, and turned him into a campus pariah, as well as costing his parents thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The case is part of a rising tide of litigation across the country by male students who claim they've been unfairly targeted by overzealous or badly mishandled Title IX investigations. Stung by criticism that they don't deal harshly enough with incidents of sexual violence, college officials have become more aggressive in recent years about investigating all forms of possible misconduct, from hazing rituals and online harassment to consent-impaired drunken hookups and blatant assaults. According to a recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of sex crimes reported on college campuses rose by more than half in the past decade.

But that increased vigilance has also generated protests that Title IX officials tend to favor alleged victims over the accused; have no reasonable process for separating legitimate complaints from false reports; impose punishment based on a much weaker standard of proof than a criminal case would require; and generally make a hash of things, leaving both sides disappointed in the outcome.

University officials have struggled to clarify their expectations in ever-expanding student-conduct handbooks. Recently, lawmakers in California even passed a bill, now awaiting the governor's signature, that requires students making booty calls to obtain explicit "affirmative consent" before proceeding rather than simply rely on the absence of a "no." But in many instances, the question of whether sexual misconduct occurred remains as murky as a frat boy's recall of the events of last Saturday's schnapps-athon.

Schools that fail to properly investigate misconduct complaints risk a possible federal investigation and sanctions -- not to mention lawsuits from aggrieved parties. The University of Colorado at Boulder is currently being probed for possible Title IX violations in the wake of a sexual-harassment debacle that's ravaged the school's philosophy department. In addition to accusations of bullying and gender discrimination in the department, one graduate student recently received an $825,000 settlement from the university over alleged retaliation by a professor. The professor -- who reportedly launched his own investigation of the woman's claims of being sexually assaulted by another student at an off-campus party and sought to repudiate them, labeling her as "sexually promiscuous" -- is now facing possible dismissal.

Johnson's lawsuit, too, suggests that hidden agendas are influencing the supposedly impartial way that state universities handle allegations of misconduct. His complaint doesn't just say that Western State bungled the investigation; it accuses an administrator and a professor of essentially colluding with Emily's mother to fabricate the sexual-assault claim -- and, when the mother's "outside party" complaint proved insufficient, encouraging Emily to get "more active" in the process herself.

Western State officials didn't respond to requests for comment about Johnson's lawsuit or the school's process for dealing with sexual-misconduct issues. Attorneys representing the university have emphatically denied that any of its employees conspired to advance Emily's complaint, calling the claim "naked assertions with no factual content."

Through their attorney, Sarah Croog, Emily and her mother also declined to comment for this article. "Because of the pending legal matter, my client has decided that it is better for her to wait to share her story," says Croog. In filings in the case, Croog has contended that Johnson is attempting to use the legal system to re-victimize her clients for reporting his bad behavior.

But Greg Stross, Johnson's attorney, says the lawsuit's claims are supported by a substantial volume of e-mails, text messages and Facebook exchanges between Johnson and Emily that indicate the relationship was consensual -- and e-mails from Western State employees to Emily and her mother that included an offer, by one female professor, to make Johnson's "life suck without him knowing why." "The best-case scenario here," Stross says, "is that the school lacks adequate Title IX training."

Johnson says the process he went through felt more like an inquisition than a fair hearing. The bias he detected may have stemmed from administrators' discomfort with the politically incorrect dimensions of the relationship that he and Emily were exploring, with its overtones of male dominance and female submission. Whatever it was, he insists, it wasn't about getting to the truth.

"I felt like it was a premeditated strike against me," Johnson says. "They just assumed the worst. No one said, 'Hey, let's hear his side before we take this any further.' They didn't do their job, and they trampled on my rights."

Continue to keep reading about fifty shades of grief at Western State.  

Attorney Greg Stross is seeking the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee the way Western State officials respond to future sexual-harassment complaints.
Attorney Greg Stross is seeking the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee the way Western State officials respond to future sexual-harassment complaints.
Anthony Camera

Keifer Johnson isn't someone you would readily confuse with Christian Grey, the billionaire, brooding control freak and heartthrob dom at the center of the Fifty Shades trilogy. He's more partial to Brooks athletic shoes than Brooks Brothers shirts, and his reading preferences incline more toward On the Road and Hunter S. Thompson than Psychopathia Sexualis and de Sade. For the past five years, he's been devoted to running; he now logs more than a hundred miles a week in training.

Until his sophomore year at ThunderRidge High School, Johnson had been a less-than-outstanding soccer player. "My best asset," he says now, "was that I could run all day." He decided to shift to track instead, particularly distance events. The first time he tried, he ran a 4:23 mile.

Johnson's efforts at cross-country and track at ThunderRidge earned him a partial scholarship to Western State, where he's continued to excel on the field. He's cut his mile time down to 4:03 and last spring earned All-American status in the 1500 meters, placing fourth nationally in the NCAA Division II finals. In the classroom, his performance in his first English class at Western State led to an invitation to serve as a teaching assistant the next semester, an unpaid position that involved tutoring students in a composition course.

That was how he came to meet Emily, a first-year student from Boulder. She texted him often, first for additional information about assignments or help with papers, then with friendly invitations to chill with her friends. "She was struggling in class pretty bad, but she had a true passion for writing," Johnson says. "She was really into Jack Kerouac. We became friends, and eventually we started hooking up physically."

According to Johnson, the relationship didn't become physical until early May, when finals week rolled around. Late one Friday night, Emily texted him that she was "drunk and sad" and in need of a hug. Johnson invited her to his dorm. In the complaint she filed with Western State several months later, Emily described the encounter as unpleasant: "He started to make out with me without my consent. I told him to stop and he didn't. I was angry that he was taking advantage of me so I left."

But Johnson denies anything happened that night: "She broke up with her boyfriend and had nowhere to stay. She was drunk and I was tired. I let her have the bottom bunk, I took the top, and she left in the morning. She started coming over more often, and one thing led to another."

Within days of that first visit, e-mail and text exchanges between the two became a babble of intimacy, the passionate byplay of a carnal tango. The summer break was an obstacle, with Emily returning to Boulder and Johnson dividing time between Gunnison and his parents' house in Highlands Ranch. But the two made plans to see each other frequently, and the relationship quickly moved into a stranger phase. Amid quotations from Kerouac ("The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved") and torrid bursts of aching need (Emily: "You make me feel the untouchable emotions that were locked up in my own prison") are teasing references to handcuffs, a belt and "rules."

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Johnson says it was Emily's idea to inject some Fifty Shades of Grey into their evolving relationship. The erotic best-selling trilogy has been described as "mommy porn" because of its core audience of married women over thirty, but it also has a substantial readership among adolescent girls and college women. (Before being picked up by a major publisher, James's work was self-published in serial form on Twilight fan-fiction websites.) Its appeal is far from universal, however; while critics have given James a brutal lashing for bad writing, feminists and BDSM devotees have taken issue with the trilogy's bubble-brained heroine -- whose response to any emotional crisis seems to be exclaiming variants of "Holy crap!" -- and its portrayal of dom-sub relationships as unimaginative forays into what many would consider abuse and manipulation.

But Emily was enthralled with the book, Johnson says: "She said she was into that world, with bondage and whatever. She said she liked the whole idea of it, she'd done it before. I read a little bit of it to get some idea of what it was about. I thought it was drivel, kind of a Twilight teen book. But she was into it; it made her happy. It kind of kept the relationship going after a while."

"Mr. Johnson, I think I have been exceptionally good today," reads one of Emily's e-mails from late May, now part of the public court record in the lawsuit. "I look forward to seeing you tonight."

"Don't call me Mr. Johnson," Johnson replied. "Refer to me, with respect, as Sir. You may think you've been exceptionally good today, however you, in fact, have broken rules...For which, I will not sway you gentle. For which, you will be punished."

Emily: "Sir. Considering the promises you have been making, you have had me in a typhoon of confusion."

Johnson: "Sir? Good girl. You do, in fact, have the capacity to adapt, to apply...Have my belt ready."

Emily: "You never specified the rules darling. You might need to spank me now, cause damn this rum and wine are good. Punish me for that."

And another exchange, a couple of days later:

Emily: "I want you to use the belt again."

Johnson: "That'll depend on how good you've been. Since you seem to drip every damn time I use it, looks like you'll get a new punishment...be good and go back to work." Emily: "I've been bad. Punish me. Hard."

Just how much actual "punishment" was involved is a matter of continuing dispute. Johnson insists that the S&M aspects of the relationship were far more talk than action, and that the "rules" were his way of supporting her in her quest to cut back on her drinking, her marijuana use and her reliance on prescription medication. He denies ever physically abusing Emily. "I spanked her during sex, but there was no, like, punishment," Johnson says. "It was more like, 'Here are your rules: Don't drink, don't smoke.' Because it was demanding, she enjoyed it. I was trying to help her out."

Emily would later complain that Johnson frequently threatened her "in a sadistic creepy way," stalked her and frightened her, and berated her in front of her friends. "When I didn't obey his orders, I would be punished...either with his belt whipping me across my back, or taunting me with it, and saying BDSM things," she stated. But there is little in the digital communiqués between the two at the time that suggests fear or resentment on her part. While she occasionally chafes at what she calls the "'Keifer in command' bullshit," the dominant (so to speak) theme of her messaging is that she wants to see him again. And again. When Johnson urges her to stay sober and not be bad, she quips, "That just makes me wanna be bad, Keifer. Your punishments are sexual, passionate, erotic."

In June, Emily entered an inpatient treatment program for substance abuse and eating disorders. Although the couple had already broken up once and then gotten back together, Johnson figured it was his duty to stand by her in her battle to get well. He wrote an encouraging erotic letter -- the same one that would later be the cause of so many meetings with Western State administrators -- and asked Emily's mother to forward it to her.

While at the rehab center, Emily discovered that she was pregnant. She returned to Boulder and wavered for several days over her plans. Johnson says he quit a job in Gunnison to be near her and expressed his willingness to support her in whatever decision she made. They talked about being together forever. But the situation had become strained and painful on both sides; Emily's complaint to the university states that she felt pressured by both her mother and Johnson to have an abortion. Less than a week after that procedure, Johnson drove to Boulder with his father to hand-deliver a letter to Emily, wishing her well and breaking up with her for good.

"She was upset, but I think she understood it," Johnson says. "The things we went through were pretty hard on both of us. I still cared about her, but I knew we couldn't keep this going. I wanted her to get better, and I couldn't be her crutch."

The two were headed in different directions: Johnson back to school in Gunnison, Emily to another inpatient treatment program. But the break wasn't as clean as Johnson had hoped. Within days of the breakup, Emily e-mailed one of her former professors at Western State, wondering what could be done about the "douche lord" that got her pregnant.

Continue to keep reading about fifty shades of grief at Western State.  

Keifer Johnson running at Western State,
Keifer Johnson running at Western State,

The person Emily first contacted at Western State about her relationship with Johnson was Susan Coykendall, a professor in the psychology department. Johnson and his attorney weren't provided the e-mails exchanged among Emily, Coykendall, Emily's mother and other Western State faculty and administrators until months later, and Stross says he believes there's more correspondence than he has been able to obtain so far. But the content of those e-mails has helped fuel Johnson's claims of malicious prosecution.

Coykendall was a logical confidante for Emily; not only had Emily taken a course with the professor, but Coykendall and Emily's mother, both licensed psychologists, had also been conferring about Emily's welfare. On July 30, 2013, Emily wrote to "Suzie" that "this summer has been one hell of a ride." She mentioned her battle with substance abuse, the abortion ("which broke me to pieces"), and feeling "traumatized, hurt and lost" after "the guy who got me pregnant ended up breaking up with me and headed back to Gunnison...Right now it's all about my recovery and not letting douche lords like him get in the way."

Coykendall wrote back a few days later, offering sympathy and encouragement: "The guy that got you preggers sounds like a douchebag...If you want me to bring a complaint on your behalf (even anonymously) to student affairs, I am more than willing to do so. I am not real comfortable with a TA who works with first year students acting so inappropriately, but I also will respect your choice to handle it how you want."

Emily wasn't sure how she wanted to proceed. "If I did disclose the information to you about the guy who got me pregnant, what would the consequences be?" she asked. "And, would I have to be part of it (would I have to talk about it, or say something)?" Coykendall outlined several options. She could file a report with student affairs without disclosing Emily's identity. She could also "let the English faculty know on the down low that one of their TAs is an asshole and to watch him." If Emily wanted him to lose his job, an anonymous complaint probably wasn't sufficient. "But if you want me to sort of make his life suck without him knowing why, I can probably get that accomplished!"

At this point, Coykendall had no proof that Johnson had violated any Western State policies. Like all colleges, the school frowns on sexual relationships between employees and students, but Johnson wasn't a paid employee. His work as a TA didn't give him any say over Emily's grades, and she'd acknowledged that the physical relationship between the two first-year students hadn't commenced until finals week, at a point at which he had no class interaction with her at all. Still, Coykendall felt sufficiently outraged on Emily's behalf to convey her concerns to an English professor, a move that led to Johnson's being relieved of his TA position.

The conversation soon turned from whether Johnson had "abused his position of power," as Coykendall put it, to graver allegations. Emily's mother sent Coykendall a copy of the letter that Johnson had written to Emily while she was in rehab, as well as a three-page synopsis describing what she and her daughter had been through. She claimed not only that Johnson had hit Emily with a belt and choked her, but that "four days after the abortion, he snuck into our house while I was asleep and had sex with [Emily]. She did not say yes, she did not say no, she laid there numb."

The allegation of non-consensual sex was something Coykendall felt the administration should hear about, and she told Emily's mother that she would contact Western State's student-affairs office. "This was a much more serious set of events [than] I ascertained from [Emily's] account alone," she wrote. "I think she sanitized it for me."

Emily's mother shared Johnson's letter and her account of the relationship with Luekenga, the student-affairs veep. In short order, Phillips, the Title IX coordinator, and Pierson, the dean, were also notified of the complaint. In other words, Western State administrators already knew about the alleged sexual assault at the time they first questioned Johnson about the letter he'd written Emily -- but didn't bring it up.

In an affidavit filed in the lawsuit, Phillips states that she didn't think the third-party complaint made by Emily's mother was sufficient to initiate a sexual-harassment investigation. She says she "reached out" to Emily and explained "that if she wished for this matter to proceed further, she would need to submit a complaint, not her mother." She denies assisting Emily in writing that complaint. Coykendall, too, told Emily's mother that her daughter needed "to be more active" to move the investigation forward.

Phillips received Emily's written complaint on August 29, 2013 -- a month after Emily first contacted Coykendall. The statement was unsigned and ended in mid-sentence. It was similar in several respects to the synopsis that her mother had written, and even used the same language to describe the alleged non-consensual sex, as if simply revising her mother's account: "I never said yes, I never said no, but simply I laid there till it was over with." But she also claimed, in the same confusing paragraph, that she did say no: "I told him I did not want to have sex, but he got undressed and started to press his naked body against mine. I told him to stop but he wouldn't."

This was apparently what Phillips needed to launch a Title IX investigation. Upon receiving the complaint, Phillips wrote to Pierson, "I think the door is now open to investigate Keifer's behavior with her, as well as previous/current relationships." Stross contends that Western State officials improperly launched not one, but two investigations of Johnson, based on the same allegations -- one for "inappropriate behavior" under the code of student conduct, the other a sexual-misconduct investigation under Title IX -- and used the first one to try to gather evidence for the second. Johnson wasn't informed of the sexual-assault allegation until after he'd met with officials several times, and he wasn't allowed to read Emily's statement until a meeting on September 10; at that point, realizing that the matter could evolve into a criminal prosecution, Stross advised him not to answer any questions.

With Johnson maintaining his right to remain silent, Western State officials decided that Emily's complaint had merit, "based on preponderance of the evidence," and should move forward to a formal hearing. Yet it's difficult to discern what sort of evidence the investigation had yielded, beyond the somewhat conflicting allegations made in the unsigned statement and a brief interview conducted with Emily. She'd also provided photos purportedly showing bruises inflicted by Johnson, but the officials had declined to act on Stross's offer to inspect the entire digital record of messages between his client and Emily, which he considered highly exculpatory.

"There's no question in my mind that this was a two-way street," Stross says. "But they never asked her for her text messages and e-mails. They never asked her for anything, basically."

A fundamental contention of Johnson's lawsuit is that Western State didn't have the authority to prosecute a Title IX complaint on Emily's behalf in the first place. A non-student can't pursue a Title IX claim for misconduct, and Emily was no longer a student when the relationship became problematic. (The only claim of on-campus bad behavior was the alleged instance of non-consensual kissing at the beginning of the romance -- which, if it did occur, didn't deter Emily from embarking on a consensual sexual relationship days later.) It may be that officials believed they had a duty to launch such an investigation rather than ignore an allegation of sexual assault against one of the university's star athletes -- but if that's the case, it's strange that no one involved saw fit to notify law enforcement of such a serious claim.

A police inquiry would have involved, at minimum, some review of the texts and e-mails between Emily and Johnson, to determine if they were even in the same place on the days in question. Emily told Western State officials that Johnson broke into her home in Boulder on May 14; Johnson's parents have documents that indicate he was with friends in Englewood on that date and then at a hospital in Littleton until early the next morning. It's possible, of course, that Emily was mistaken about the date -- but was she also mistaken about the date of the alleged sexual assault, two months later? That evening, there are messages from Emily asking where Johnson is and saying they need to talk -- and nothing from Johnson indicating that he's on his way or planning to see her. In fact, he maintains almost a complete blackout on communication for several days -- until he delivers the breakup letter.

"There's no evidence at all that he was ever there," Stross says.

"It never happened," Johnson insists.

Officials at Western State didn't see any of the texting material until Johnson himself produced a stack of it, along with e-mails and Facebook messages, at his disciplinary hearing last December. The university called no witnesses. The second and critical page of Emily's statement was missing from the packet of "evidence" distributed to the three-member panel.

For approximately three hours over two days, the panel quizzed Johnson about his definition of consent and related matters. One of his inquisitors asked him, "How can we be sure you won't do this again?" Johnson's parents, who attended the hearing as his advisors, saw the question as a good indicator of the assumptions of guilt underlying the entire investigation -- and, perhaps, a measure of the academy's distaste for the graphic, outré letter Keifer had sent to Emily in rehab.

"I don't believe they knew what they were doing, and that was reflected in the entire process," says Keith Johnson, Keifer's father. "Schools don't know what to do in these situations. They should not be police. They really failed in investigating this."

Keifer Johnson read a prepared statement for the record, denying any wrongdoing and urging the panel to review the documents he'd provided. The messages between him and Emily "show that she took the active and aggressive role in our fantasy-based sexual relationship," he said. She frequently begged him to visit her, and even went so far as to urge him to "steal a car, rob a bank" if necessary.

"I feel that I have never been provided with some of the basic information behind these allegations and the school's investigation," he added, wondering what notes were taken at meetings with Emily. "Was there any kind of investigation undertaken that might have turned up evidence to show she was not being truthful? Has she been scrutinized and repeatedly interviewed in the same way that I have?"

Two days later, the panel informed Johnson that he had been found "not responsible" for violating Western State's sexual-harassment policy.

Continue to keep reading about fifty shades of grief at Western State.  

After being named an All-American in the 1500 meters, Johnson now displays a tattoo of his school's logo on his thigh.
After being named an All-American in the 1500 meters, Johnson now displays a tattoo of his school's logo on his thigh.

Emily didn't appeal the board's decision. According to her Facebook page, she's attending a different school, is married and is expecting a child. Her posts express gratitude for the supportive people in her life and her sobriety.

Last February, with the distractions, anxieties and sleepless nights of the investigation behind him, Keifer Johnson posted a time of 8:07 in the 3000 meters to place first in his bracket at the Husky Indoor Classic. He followed that up with his All-American performance in the 1500 meters in May, and recently smoked several Division I and II All-Americans in the 5K at the Colorado State Invitational. He is considering a transfer to a Division I school but says he pledged to his coaches and the team that supported him to finish out this year at Western State.

Johnson is no longer an English major; he's "developed a pretty severe distrust" of the mostly female faculty in that department as a result of the sex-harassment investigation, and felt his classwork was being devalued. Western is a fairly small school of 2,300 students; he's keenly aware that many people there have heard rumors about his troubles and that some students regard him as a kind of unindicted predator. He's now studying business marketing and communications and is unsure about future plans. "The two passions I have in life are to get an education and running," he says, "and I feel like I'm being forced to go elsewhere."

Further discovery in Johnson's lawsuit is on hold pending a ruling on motions by Western State and individual defendants to dismiss it. There have been preliminary discussions of settlement, but Stross says he doesn't expect a speedy resolution. He's seeking the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee how Western State enforces its Title IX obligations, as well as compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees. "A trial would probably be several years off," he says.

Johnson thinks the school's system for investigating sexual-misconduct complaints badly needs an overhaul: "They weren't just negligent in my case; they were blatantly negligent. I think it's happened before and will keep happening unless someone forces them to change."

Yet his disenchantment with the adults in charge hasn't prevented Johnson from displaying his school spirit. All-Americans frequently get a tattoo of their college logo to express pride in their program and their teammates. Johnson's tat is huge, a giant W on his right thigh that he picked up two months ago. It was a painful procedure, but a good kind of pain.

"The coloring wasn't bad, but the lines, cutting into the skin, basically scarring -- it hurt pretty bad," he says. "But it was worth it."

Have a tip? E-mail alan.prendergast@westword.com.


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