My twin daughters are subscribers to Seventeen magazine -- they're only fifteen, which goes to show how advanced they are -- and last night, Lora, the older of the pair (by fourteen minutes), curled up with the just-delivered March issue, which sports a cover photo of Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester (pictured). Upon turning to the Meester profile, she came upon what struck her -- and me -- as a surprising passage: "When she was a teen, her brother was involved in a high-profile sex scandal while he was at the Air Force Academy."
True enough. Meester's older brother, Douglas Meester, was the only Academy member to be charged with rape in connection with events detailed by former Westword staffer Julie Jargon in her award-winning January 2003 feature "The War Within" and many subsequent reports. But the story's considerably more complicated than that. Jargon and other journalists saw Meester as something of a scapegoat who was made to pay for the sins of others in addition to his own.
Jargon first looked into the Meester case in the May 2003 piece entitled "The Accused." At the time, Meester was waiting to find out if he would be court martialed over charges by fellow cadet Justine Parks that he had raped and sodomized her. But the circumstances behind the accusation -- particularly the severe intoxication of both Meester and Parks -- muddied the waters considerably. As Jargon wrote: "Parks says she was too weak to resist and doesn't recall ever saying 'no.' However, she told investigators that she 'knew for a fact that he probably thought what we were doing was consensual.'"
These factors didn't make much of a difference in the highly charged atmosphere at the Academy during this period. In "On the Prowl," a July 2003 followup, Jargon reports that "new commandant of cadets Brigadier General Johnny Weida ordered the court-martial for Douglas Meester, a sophomore cadet whom freshman Justine Parks had accused of assaulting her after they had both been drinking and making out in his dorm room last year... even though the Article 32 hearing officer recommended against it, saying there was insufficient evidence." Jargon put an even finer point on this development in May 2004's "It Won't Fly," an offering structured as a letter to President George W. Bush in advance of a visit to the Academy. "It would appear that this court-martial is an attempt by Air Force officials either to show the public that they don't tolerate behavior such as Meester's or to discredit not only Parks, but all victims," she declared.
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In the end, Meester was allowed to cut a deal. In June 2004, the rape charge was dropped in exchange for Meester pleading guilty to conduct unbecoming of an officer, dereliction of duty and committing an indecent act. He was fined $2,000 and given a written reprimand. According to the Denver Post account linked above, "Members of Meester's family cried in each other's arms after Air Force Col. Barbara Brand announced the sentence. Had he been convicted of the original rape charge, he could have gotten life." Leighton Meester is not mentioned by name in the article, but her Hollywood.com bio says she attended the trial.
A note: Douglas Meester's cause received a boost from 5280, which published "Conduct Unbecoming" in its February/March 2004 issue. The article, which included Meester's first comments on the charges against him, was a big factor in the magazine's move to add greater journalistic heft to its presentation. As described in the 2006 Message column "Altitude Check," Maximillian Potter, the author of "Conduct Unbecoming," originally began researching the opus while working as a freelancer for Men's Journal, and when that publication passed on the fruit of his labor, 5280 boss Dan Brogan offered to give it a home. The feature was subsequently named a finalist in the prestigious National Magazine Award contest, and Potter became 5280's executive editor -- a position he still holds.
To say the least, her brother's previous notoriety gives Leighton Meester a more interesting background than most Hollywood starlets -- and he's not her only familiy member with a colorful past. The same Seventeen cover story points out that "her parents are convicted drug traffickers. When Leighton was an infant, she was sent to live with relatives while her mom served time in Texas."
That's a lot of gossip for one girl...