In December 2007, a doe-eyed young woman named Jamie Leigh Jones appeared on ABC’s 20/20 to tell a terrifying story. Two years before, she said, at the age of twenty, she went to Iraq to work in the Green Zone as a contractor for Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), then a subsidiary of Halliburton. Soon after arriving, she explained, men clad only in their underwear had begun harassing her in her nearly all-male barracks. On her third night in the country, some of those men invited her to a social gathering outside the barracks and offered her what they called a “special” drink.
As she described the fateful evening, Jones’s tone matched her somber, conservative dark dress. “I probably didn’t even drink the entire thing,” she told ABC’s Brian Ross. “Just a few sips. And I don’t remember anything after that.” She said she woke up groggy, confused, naked, and sore. “I felt like I’d been hit by a truck,” Jones said. She stumbled to the bathroom, where she said she realized she was bruised and bleeding between her legs. “Then I knew I had been raped,” Jones said, her voice shaking. A doctor at an Army hospital, she said, examined her, administered a rape kit, and declared that she’d been gang-raped. “She confirmed that I was raped both vaginally and anally,” Jones told Ross.
The ordeal continued. Jones said that after the doctor treated her, KBR security placed her in a shipping container, where two armed men—she referred to them as “Gurkhas”—stood outside her door and prevented her from leaving. “I felt imprisoned,” Jones said, adding that she thought KBR was trying to cover up the assault. She said she was not allowed to call her family until, finally, one of the guards felt sorry for her and let her use a cell phone.
Jones called her father in Texas and told him she’d been raped. He then called Texas Republican Representative Ted Poe, who sent the State Department in to rescue her. Jones went home, even though she said KBR told her she would lose her job for doing so. ABC reported that no one had prosecuted the men who allegedly violated her.
A few days later, Jones elaborated on her story to members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. She testified that one of the men who gave her a drink that night in Iraq had said to her, “Don’t worry. I’m saving my ‘roofies’ for Dubai.” As a result, she believed she’d been given Rohypnol, or “roofies,” otherwise known as the date-rape drug. The attack, she testified, had left her pectoral muscles torn and her breast implants disfigured. She blamed the State Department for failing to investigate the crime, and declared that parts of the rape kit, which the Army doctor had given to KBR security, had disappeared.
As an innocent abroad, Jones was a perfect heroine. And she confronted an unusually good villain. KBR had been plagued with allegations of fraud and overbilling involving its Pentagon contracts in Iraq. It also was closely associated with Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been Halliburton’s CEO before coming to the White House. The company was linked in the public mind with fraud, plunder, mismanagement, and a war gone wrong. It didn’t seem surprising that its employees might have gang-raped a guileless new arrival.
Jones soon appeared on Dan Abrams’s show on MSNBC and on CBS’s Early Show, and dozens of other news outlets featured her story prominently, including CNN and Keith Olbermann’s Countdown, where the outspoken host compared Halliburton to barbarians and pillagers. Senator Hillary Clinton, among others, wrote a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, demanding an investigation. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska petitioned both the Pentagon inspector general and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to look into the matter.
Jones’s decision to speak out encouraged other victims to come forward. A few months after her first appearance on Capitol Hill, Congress held hearings on closing legal loopholes in laws that protected American civilian contractors who commit violent crimes overseas. In April 2008, the congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus recognized Jones with an award for raising awareness of the plight of victimized American contractors abroad. The Pentagon started tracking assaults on civilian contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan, in large part due to Jones’s case.
In the meantime, frustrated with the Justice Department, Jones had taken action on her own; in May 2007 she had filed a civil suit against KBR. But her hopes for redress were stymied. When she signed up to go to Iraq, Jones had unknowingly signed a contract that contained a mandatory binding arbitration clause. The fine print required her to bring any claims against KBR before a private arbitrator—hired by the company—whose decision could not be appealed. Plaintiffs’ lawyers and consumer advocates who had long fought mandatory arbitration quickly gave Jones their support. What started as a personal struggle became a struggle for women and then a struggle for everyone denied their day in court.
In 2009, Jones’s advocacy work earned her a new ally: Minnesota’s newly elected Democratic senator and former Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken. Upon arriving in the Senate, Franken had been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where he quickly became interested in mandatory arbitration. Inspired by media accounts of her story, Franken accompanied Jones to the Hill to testify. “You’re an amazing young woman,” he gushed from the dais. Franken then lambasted the witness sent by the business community to defend arbitration. Franken grilled Mark de Bernardo, the president of the Council for Employment Law Equity:
You said that the result of arbitration is a better workplace. She has been housed with four hundred men. She told KBR twice she was being sexually harassed. She was drugged by men that KBR employment people knew did this kind of thing. She was raped, gang-raped. She had to have reconstructive surgery, sir.… She was locked in a shipping container, with an armed guard. If that’s a better workplace, what was it like before?
Franken soon earned his first legislative victory in the Senate by successfully inserting an amendment into a Defense Department spending bill that banned the Pentagon from contracting with companies that forced employees to arbitrate sexual assault claims. The thirty white, male Republican senators who voted against it were vilified in the media as rape apologists, lampooned on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, and mocked on a parody Web site, www.republicansforrape.org.
In October 2009, liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow hosted Jones on a segment of her show on MSNBC; during the show, headlines flashed on the screen of newspapers from Tennessee to Idaho, where editorials decried the votes of their home-state senators against the Franken amendment. She showed letters to the editor calling out senators who voted against the bill for embarrassing their state.
Maddow told viewers, “Now, much of the outraged response to that vote across the country is due to the fact that this legislation was prompted by a horrible real-life case, the case of Jamie Leigh Jones.” Before asking Jones about her reaction to the vote of the thirty senators, Maddow noted that none of the GOP members of Congress would come on the show to defend their votes. Jones repeated the story she had first told in 2007. In 2010, Louisiana Democratic senatorial candidate Charlie Melancon used clips from the Maddow interview and other TV footage of Jones in a campaign ad during his unsuccessful run against the incumbent, Republican David Vitter, who had voted against the Franken amendment.
Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which helps combat sexual assault in the armed forces, credits Jones with helping pass legislation that could help all women, military or civilian, serving in overseas war zones. Rape, she noted, is seriously underreported. In the military, she says, the Department of Defense estimates that only one in seven victims reports the crime. “By coming forward, she did an enormous service,” Bhagwati says.
Meanwhile, between 2007 and 2009, Jones was also fighting KBR to nullify her own arbitration clause. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have shown little sympathy for individuals attempting to get out of mandatory arbitration, and it’s rare for plaintiffs to succeed in such challenges. But in September 2009, Jones did just that, winning in the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that being sexually assaulted in her bedroom wasn’t part of her job, and thus wasn’t covered by the arbitration clause. “Jamie fought like hell to keep sexual assaults from being covered up by arbitration clauses, and she succeeded,” says John Vail, the Washington attorney who argued her case.
After four years of legal wrangling, Jones had overcome every obstacle to bringing her case to court, and the trial was set for the summer of 2011. She had won justice for other rape victims; she had won rights for other workers; now she could win justice for herself.
In early 2011, Jones was featured in Hot Coffee, a documentary film about corporations stifling people’s right to sue. (I was involved with the making of Hot Coffee, after I wrote a book about the civil justice system, and I appeared in the film with her.) In the movie, Jones tells her story from her living room in a Houston suburb as her young daughter coos happily near her and her husband works on the family Christmas tree. She lays out the raw, traumatic details of her four days in Iraq as the film cuts back and forth to footage of her 2009 trip to testify on Capitol Hill.
By far the most powerful moment in the film comes when Jones describes waking up on her fourth morning in Iraq, going to the bathroom, realizing that something horrific has happened to her, and then coming back to her room to find a man in her bed. “It was the worst moment in my entire life,” she says. “To actually see a man brazen enough to still be there in the room after raping me. I know now the reason why he was still in the room was because he would be able to get away with it.”
The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews. HBO then aired it nearly a dozen times over the summer of 2011 and again in the fall, giving Jones’s story a huge new audience just as her case was going to trial in June.
Jones was dressed in elegant pearls and a light gray suit when she arrived in court on the first day. She looked grave as she headed in to face an ordeal of intimate sexual scrutiny of the sort that often deters rape victims from coming forward. Jones spent three days on the stand, where lawyers grilled her about what sort of underwear she wore and showed the jury blown-up color photos of her breasts. She wept as she recounted waking up in Iraq and realizing that she had been raped. But Jones also demonstrated the same steely determination she’d shown on TV.
“[H]aving my entire life exposed, every bad thing I’ve ever done or every little inconsistency I may have told, if that’s the only sacrifice that I have to make to make KBR stop doing this to people, and so that the jury can decide that they need to stop, then it will all be worth it,” she declared. Her lawyers asked the jury to award Jones $145 million, money Jones had promised to donate to a foundation she’d established to help other victims.
After ten hours of deliberation, the jury gave her nothing at all. And in September of that year, the judge ordered Jones to pay KBR $145,000 for its legal costs.
Jones’s story got its start in the spring of 2004, when she was hired as an administrative assistant in the IT department at KBR in Houston. The job paid reasonably well, with lots of opportunity for overtime, as the company tried to meet the demand for its services created by the Iraq War. Jones was living with her mother, in a one-bedroom apartment, and sleeping on an air mattress. Money had been tight. But soon after gaining the new position, she traded in her Mustang for a Jaguar. In November 2004, she borrowed money from a credit union to have breast augmentation surgery. But a few months later the work at KBR slowed down, and Jones faced the prospect of being laid off; she transferred to another division, ended up on the night shift, and ultimately sought a position overseas. She requested posts in Kuwait, Afghanistan, or Uzbekistan. She got Iraq.
In July 2005, Jones was sent to a processing center in a mall in Houston, where she was briefed on the potential dangers of the job: sandstorms, camel spiders, enemy fire, biological warfare. She learned that Baghdad’s summer temperatures range from a low of 98° Fahrenheit to a high of 112°. Contractors worked twelve-hour days seven days a week, and they could be assigned to live in tents crammed with eight or ten people, large barracks, or containerized housing units. Many people didn’t last a year. Still, the money was good. When Jones agreed to go to Iraq, her salary tripled, to more than $100,000 a year.
A dust storm delayed her flight from Dubai to Baghdad; when she finally arrived, Jones got her first view of the country through the windows of a bulletproof car driving along Route Irish, which in 2005 was one of the most dangerous roads in the world. After arriving, Jones emailed her mom about the trip:
Getting here will make u puke. I did it was so scary because you do get shot at. I was in a hard car but still- its loud and a gun is pointed right at you! Its freaky as anything! There were some vbeds the same day as I got here. Those are when a terrorist will r+un into your car and explode his car once he hits you. You cant make it through one of those. And its very possible it could happen. But after you get inside the wire, they let you go in a hellicap for every time you leave camp which isn’t scary.
Jones was assigned to live in Camp Hope, a base near the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone. She got a second-floor room by herself in a two-story concrete barracks built by Saddam Hussein to house the Republican Guard. Although she had her own bedroom, the building housed 400 or so other men and women. And her room didn’t have a bathroom, which forced her to walk downstairs to get to the communal ladies’ room. She immediately started emailing coworkers back in Houston to try to get moved to a shipping container, which was more private.
Jones had gone to Baghdad to replace another staffer in the IT department, Sara Tumbarella, who was going back to the States. Tumbarella was a spunky twenty-three-year-old woman with long blond hair who’d spent four years in the Army before joining KBR as a contractor. On Jones’s first night there, Tumbarella introduced her to a couple of friends. They made drinks and then went to the Olympic-sized pool at one of Saddam’s former palaces.
Later that evening, Tumbarella introduced Jones to Charles Bortz, a twenty-eight-year-old firefighter who grew up in a small fishing and logging community near Astoria, Oregon. He had enlisted in the Air Force right out of high school and spent eight years serving in Afghanistan, Honduras, and elsewhere before joining KBR. Bortz was dating a woman who worked in Jones’s department but was on leave.
Two nights later, after work, Jones was outside the barracks talking on her cell phone when Tumbarella and Bortz came by and invited her to join some coworkers who were having drinks outside another barrack. She went up to her room, poured herself a cup of Bailey’s Irish Cream, and joined them. By all eyewitness accounts, Jones and Bortz spent the evening flirting. Tumbarella testified that she pulled Bortz aside to remind him that he had a girlfriend who worked in Jones’s department, and that their hooking up would not end well as a result. She gave Jones similar advice.
Around eleven p.m., Jones, having temporarily gone back to her room, sent an email to Peter Arroyo, one of the first people she’d met upon her arrival. She knew Arroyo from Houston, and he had been helping her get settled in Iraq. She complained to him, “I don’t know dude. This place is kinda messed up. Allready I have enemies and its day3.”
At the gathering, Jones had several drinks, but none of the people with them noticed that either Jones or Bortz was particularly intoxicated. The pair was seen by several people leaving the gathering together around midnight heading for Jones’s barracks. What happened next is a matter of dispute.
Jones has told different versions of her story from that night. Initially, she told an Army doctor who examined her, and a woman from KBR’s human relations department, that she was in her room when a bunch of firefighters knocked on the door, came in, and offered her a drink. After taking a few sips, she said, she blacked out and then woke up the next morning bruised and bleeding. Later, on other occasions and in her public appearances, she described going to a party with her coworkers, having two sips of a drink, and remembering nothing else until she woke up the next morning bleeding and bruised with a naked man in her bunk.
Bortz has a different story. After the party, he says he and Jones had vigorous consensual sex and then went to sleep in her barracks. He woke up early and went down the hall to the men’s bathroom. When he returned, one of Jones’s coworkers, Anthony Adams, was knocking on her door, ready to take her to work. Bortz said he and Adams exchanged knowing looks, and that he told Adams that Jones was in the bathroom and not ready to go. When she came back, Bortz said she looked at him and asked, “Did we have sex last night?” Bortz replied, “Are you serious?” Jones said she was joking, but Bortz said he told her, “That’s not funny, you know. We don’t joke about that.” She also asked him if they’d used a condom. He said no. Then he said he held a mirror for her while she put on makeup, walked her to the bus stop, and kissed her good-bye.
According to court testimony and depositions, Jones called Arroyo from the bus stop and asked him for a ride to work. He later said that, after she got into his Suburban, Jones told him about her budding relationship with Bortz, who she said was planning on breaking up with his girlfriend.
At work that morning, over the course of about two hours, Jones had a series of email exchanges with Arroyo. She thanked him for giving her a ride. He responded, “Not a problem. Just promise you won’t get caught up in camp gossip,” to which she replied, “Oh im sure I already am.” She told him, “The girls hate me here.”
About two hours later, she wrote Arroyo back, “Dude I am so like sad today-I miss my family!” Arroyo counseled her to be patient. Not long after, Jones told him she wanted to talk. “I don’t know it really sucks what happened- I don’t want you to like get pulled in or anything maybe be just a listening ear or something,” she said. Arroyo said he would come over. Meanwhile, word of Jones’s encounter with Bortz had spread through the small Camp Hope community, mostly because Bortz had told his roommates and Tumbarella about it.
Anthony Adams told State Department investigators that when Jones got to work that morning, she “looked normal, in fact, she went to her desk and was laughing and joking with her new coworkers and seemed to be fitting in just fine. That was until her cell phone started to ring.” Adams said after the phone calls, Jones stood up, announced that she didn’t feel well, and said she had to go.
When Arroyo met Jones outside her office, she added a new detail to her news about Bortz: she’d woken up with him in her bed. Arroyo expressed dismay and said, “Oh Jamie, what did you get yourself into now?” She told him that she’d had one drink and didn’t know what happened after that. She started to become hysterical and said, according to Arroyo, “Well, if I had just one drink and I didn’t even finish that drink, you know, what happened—what if, you know, the other guys had sex with me?” Arroyo testified that he didn’t observe Jones wincing in pain or demonstrating other evidence of injuries. But he decided to take her to the clinic and to alert the proper authorities at KBR. Whatever happened, Arroyo wanted it reported properly.
He eventually took Jones to the Army hospital at Camp Hope, where Army doctor Jodi Schultz examined her.
Schultz conducted a standard rape exam—which involves swabbing the mouth, genitals, and anal area for fluids, collecting hair and fiber from the victim’s body and clothing, and scraping underneath fingernails, among other things. She noted that Jones didn’t have any injuries that warranted a hospital admission. Schultz sealed the rape kit and gave it to a KBR security person, who soon gave it to investigators from the State Department. They, in turn, sent it to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia.
After she was discharged from the hospital, KBR security took Jones to a trailer: a housing unit used by other KBR staff, outfitted with a bed and shower. Unarmed security guards were placed outside the door for Jones’s own protection, according to KBR; the men who’d allegedly attacked her were still at large. From the trailer, Jones called her father, Tom Jones, in Houston, where it was still the middle of the night. He later called Jones’s office looking for her boss and by coincidence got Tumbarella on the phone. He told her his daughter had been gang-raped. Tumbarella was shocked. “I had just got an email from her saying, ‘I had a great night last night, let’s do it again.’ Next thing I know her father’s calling saying she’s been gang-raped,” she told me in an interview.
The State Department, summoned by KBR, took over the investigation from the company almost immediately, and brought Jones to the embassy, where they housed her in a trailer as well. Three days later, KBR and the State Department flew Jones back to Houston, and she soon found herself back on the air mattress in her mother’s living room. Two weeks after that, Jones asked KBR to return her to Iraq. The company declined.
In retrospect, Jamie Leigh Jones may not have been a good match for Operation Enduring Freedom. When she deployed, she was twenty years old, an only child who had never lived far from her parents for long. KBR contractors in Iraq tended to be military vets or foreigners willing to risk the danger for the high pay. She had spent time in high school on the drill team, not ROTC. After high school, and before joining KBR, she had worked administrative jobs and waited tables, and had even done a short stint at Hooters.
Jones had also had a difficult past. When she was sixteen, her parents, Tom and Cindy, went through a bitter divorce that involved allegations of affairs on both sides. Jones started seeing a psychologist, and in 2002 she reported herself to state child welfare authorities because of her fear of her mother’s new boyfriend. Eventually, the man beat Cindy so seriously that she ended up in the hospital and he ended up in jail for thirty days.
Jones changed schools a number of times as she bounced from parent to parent during high school. At the same time, she was in and out of emergency rooms for physical ailments. In the four years before Jones deployed to Iraq, she saw doctors for endometriosis, pelvic pain, earaches and hearing loss, stomach problems, insomnia, mood swings, memory loss, anemia, headaches, fainting, seizures, and allergies. She had a colonoscopy. She went to the ER suggesting she had appendicitis. Her medical records show that her gall bladder was removed, even after she underwent diagnostic exams that showed it was perfectly healthy. She had multiple tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and was treated for depression. She was prescribed Valium for a spastic colon, Ambien for sleeping, antiseizure medication, and drugs for anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression.
In August 2002, she spent five days in the hospital after she went to the ER complaining of a fever, headaches, and other neurological ailments. She had diagnosed herself with West Nile virus, but doctors found no evidence of the infection. While she was in the hospital, her father often carried her to the toilet because she claimed her legs were weak. But one day, a nurse spotted her walking unassisted to the bathroom. When Jones saw the nurse watching her, she started to stumble and grab for the wall, according to the records. Doctors concluded that her symptoms were potentially psychosomatic.
A few months before Jones deployed to Iraq, she went to the ER and told doctors she’d passed out while driving and crashed her car into a wall. She complained of having blacked out on several other occasions and that she was having memory problems. A neurological work-up, however, didn’t find anything wrong. Jones also told her doctor that she’d been out drinking with a man she was dating, blacked out, and wasn’t sure whether they’d had sex.
Her complicated medical history would have certainly disqualified Jones from going to Iraq; because of the limited medical facilities available in Iraq, applicants for overseas posts had to be mentally and physically fit before KBR would take them. But KBR didn’t know about Jones’s health problems. In the medical questionnaire she filled out as part of the application process, Jones noted that she’d had her gall bladder removed and her breasts enhanced, but her only other notable medical disclosure was that she’d had the flu when she was five years old.
When Jones landed in that Camp Hope Army hospital in 2005, it was the fourth time in five years that she had told a medical professional that she’d been raped. The first instance came in 2000 when she was sixteen, on the day her parents’ divorce was supposed to become final. Cindy Jones took her daughter to the hospital and told doctors her daughter had been raped a few days earlier. Cindy notified her husband, who didn’t believe her. “It was what I thought was to be a stall tactic to stop the divorce,” he said in a deposition, noting that no criminal charges were ever brought.
In 2002, Jones’s father took her to a doctor after she claimed that her boyfriend had raped her in her car a few days earlier while parked near the Boardwalk in Galveston. After the attack, Jones said, she drove her boyfriend to his trailer home in Spring, Texas, eighty miles away, where he raped her again. Jones claimed the attack left her bruised and bleeding, though the exam turned up no evidence of any injuries, and doctors told Jones it was too late to take a rape kit. (A rape kit generally must be performed within seventy-two hours of an assault.) She never filed criminal charges, she said in a deposition, because “I loved him before this happened.”
Two years later, in 2004, after going to work for KBR, Jones began a relationship with her boss, Eric Iler, a man nearly twice her age. KBR barred such relationships, but the two ignored the policy. (In her lawsuit, Jones alleges that Iler coerced her into sexual relations using his power as her boss.) Photos from that time show a smiling Jones deer-hunting with Iler. She accompanied him to his high school reunion. When his father died, she went to the funeral, and afterward accompanied him to his mother’s house. Over Thanksgiving in 2004, when Jones was recovering from breast implant surgery, Iler says he brought her food.
Not long afterward, in December 2004, Jones went to her doctor and claimed that Iler had raped her. She requested a rape kit then, too, but was told, again, that it was too late to take one. Even after telling doctors that she’d been raped, Jones continued seeing Iler for several months. They broke up in early 2005, but after she came back from Iraq, Iler says they hung out and went shopping one day. Jones even sent Iler photos of her friend’s babies and artwork she’d done. Iler, who vehemently denies the rape allegation, says he had no idea that Jones claimed he’d raped her until she filed her lawsuit against KBR and named him as a defendant.
After Jones returned from Iraq in August 2005, she sought out lawyers, therapists, and psychiatrists. She immediately started writing letters to members of Congress about her plight, particularly to Representative Ted Poe, the Texas congressman she credited with springing her from imprisonment in the shipping container in Iraq. Poe would become her leading advocate and repeatedly appear on television as her surrogate. She filed claims for workers’ compensation and a sexual discrimination complaint against KBR with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She requested arbitration with KBR.
During extensive therapy sessions, Jones complained that she suffered from insomnia, panic attacks, and flashbacks. She was unable to drive, and couldn’t even go to the mailbox alone. She said she would flee Walmart if men looked at her the wrong way. She would go to therapy only if her mother came. Eventually, at least a half-dozen mental health professionals, including two working for KBR’s workers’ comp insurer, would diagnose her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and deem her unable to work.
Meanwhile, Jones was remarkably busy. Even as she was reporting to mental health professionals that she was totally debilitated with PTSD and essentially unable to function normally, she enrolled in school online, getting As and Bs, and eventually earned both a bachelor’s degree and an MBA. She started teaching in a private religious school. She started dating a man in her apartment building, and married him in September 2006. Meanwhile, she was in regular contact with the State Department investigator who was preparing her case for prosecutors in Florida, where Bortz had his official residence.
Jones also started writing a book called Deserted: Raped at War and the War of Rape, the Jamie Leigh Jones Story, which she copyrighted in early 2007. Even before her first public interview, Jones had sold the rights to her story. She would later collaborate with Patricia Meyer, an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter who has written screenplays for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions and produced the ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, starring Oprah Winfrey. Together they drafted a script for a docudrama producer who planned to make a movie out of it.
After Jones became a media sensation, she got a New York agent who found an accomplished ghostwriter to help with her book. In a draft proposal, she declared that Senator Al Franken had promised to write the introduction. Jones also started a foundation dedicated to helping other women working as contractors overseas who have been victims of crime.
In early 2007, KBR offered Jones $20,000 to settle her case. Facing the prospect of unfavorable odds before a KBR arbitrator and the high cost and even longer odds of fighting to get out of arbitration, her lawyer, George E. “Buck” Cire, urged her to take it. But Jones refused, fired Cire, and through the National Crime Victim Bar Association connected with a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer named Stephanie Morris. She, in turn, brought in Paul Waldner, a former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, and Todd Kelly, a former Marine and medical malpractice lawyer.
The lawsuit Jones filed in a Houston federal court in May 2007 went well beyond the sexual discrimination filings made by Cire to the EEOC and in a request for arbitration. It charged that KBR was guilty of a massive pattern of unchecked sexual discrimination and assault—information the company had negligently hidden from potential employees like Jones. The suit named as defendants the company, Eric Iler, and “several John Doe rapists.” The lawsuit also raised new charges not included in Jones’s previous legal filings: that Jones had been pressured into a sexual relationship with Iler in order to keep her job, and that KBR retaliated against her for reporting her rape by imprisoning her in a shipping container.
Rallying cry: After claiming she’d been violently raped while working as a contractor for a former Halliburton subsidiary in Iraq, Jamie Leigh Jones, right, became a cause célèbre in the media. Credit:CNBC
Jones, meanwhile, continued her publicity campaign. In May 2007, she sent letters to members of Congress complaining that she’d been gang-raped in Iraq and that the government refused to do anything about it. Six months later, she was on 20/20.
Women alleging rape often find themselves on trial. For centuries, the courts have allowed testimony about a victim’s sexual history as a way for men to prove an accuser’s “loose moral character,” as Susan Brownmiller explained her seminal 1975 work, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. She described a legal culture infused for centuries by the wisdom of the likes of Matthew Hale, a seventeenth-century jurist who famously wrote, “Rape is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.” Officially, the U.S. Justice Department estimates that more than 200,000 women report being sexually assaulted every year, but that figure is assumed to be vastly lower than the actual count. Justice Department surveys suggest that more than 50 percent of sexual assaults go unreported to law enforcement.
And yet there’s a strange paradox about sexual assault. The crime is massively underreported to law enforcement, but at the same time, a fair number of people lie about it. The best official estimates suggest that between 8 percent and 10 percent of all rape claims are false. And unfortunately, sometimes when people lie about rape, they lie spectacularly. Crystal Mangum did so in 2006 when she brought charges against members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Tawana Brawley did so in 1987 when, as a teenager, she nearly sparked race wars in New York by falsely accusing six white men, including police officers and a prosecutor, of raping her.
As told in the media, Jones’s story neatly fit the feminist rape scenario. Brushed off by law enforcement, she sought justice with a civil case, only to be victimized again by defense lawyers using her sexual history to try to discredit her. Her story was both haunting and familiar. Even so, there were some glaring departures from the standard narrative: law enforcement did not, in fact, brush off Jones’s case, a fact that reporters glossed over in the early coverage of her story.
In January 2008, Jones’s case was presented to a federal grand jury in Florida, along with testimony from Jones, Bortz, and nearly two dozen other people who’d been brought in from around the world. One key piece of evidence available for the grand jury was the rape kit. Despite media reports and assertions in Hot Coffee suggesting that the rape kit had been tampered with or discarded by KBR security, the kit had been sitting safely in Quantico in an FBI lab since a few days after Jones’s alleged attack. Its contents and other forensic evidence taken from Jones’s barrack had all been processed by early March 2006.
The physical evidence effectively debunked much of Jones’s story. A urine test done in Iraq had found no sign of Rohypnol, the date-rape drug she alleged had been put in her drink. The swabs taken in Iraq showed no proof that she had been “penetrated anally” or by multiple assailants. The rape kit showed DNA from a single person: Charles Bortz, who had never denied having sex with Jones. Prosecutors didn’t ask for an indictment, and in December 2008, Jones was personally informed that the Justice Department was dropping the case.
Information about the grand jury was publicly available after October 2009 at least, when KBR started to push back against Jones’s media campaign. If reporters mentioned it at all, however, it was generally as a minor afterthought in a story about Jones’s salacious allegations. But the grand jury investigation should have been a tip-off for reporters covering the case, because it signaled that the evidence in Jones’s case wasn’t nearly as strong as she had indicated in public interviews.
Laurie Levenson, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles who prosecuted many sexual assault cases in the criminal division, explains that “[e]ven though the grand jury might have indicted because the standard is so low, prosecutors know that they will eventually need a strong case for trial.” She says it’s likely that the prosecutors didn’t ask for an indictment because they knew if they took the case to trial, they would lose.
Jones’s former coworker Sara Tumbarella (who no longer works for KBR) testified before the grand jury, and is still angry about the case. “If I honestly thought Charles Bortz raped her, I would have been standing by her side, no questions asked, if I truly believed it happened,” she says. But she says Jones’s allegations were outrageous from the first minute she made them. “Everybody knew it never happened. Everybody. It’s women like that that make real-life victims suffer, and that’s why it’s so hard for real women who have been raped to get justice.”
In June 2011, Jones finally got her wish: her civil case went to trial before a jury in a Houston federal court. Almost immediately, however, most of her case was thrown out on basic procedural grounds. The retaliation claim, the sexual harassment charges against Iler, and the shipping-container imprisonment issues were all tossed, because they had not been raised in her initial filing with the EEOC. Then Jones’s own lawyers dropped the gang-rape charge because they couldn’t prove it. In the end, the civil jury was asked to answer one basic question: Did Bortz rape Jones? If that answer was no, according to the judge’s instructions, the jury was not to address the other questions of sexual harassment or whether KBR allowed a hostile workplace.
Jones’s case continued to flounder when the judge refused to allow her lawyers to introduce mug shots of Bortz, who after returning to the U.S. from Iraq had been arrested twice for allegedly assaulting women he’d been dating. In 2006 in Florida, the charges against him were dropped, but in 2009 in South Carolina he pleaded guilty to simple assault charges, and had to pay a fine and attend anger-management classes. But none of that information was allowed into the trial.
While Bortz’s criminal history was banned, much of Jones’s past was fair game, and subjected to a brutal excavation. Her medical records were so damaging to her case that any rational plaintiff’s lawyer would have been begging for a settlement once they came to light. But Jones’s lawyers had attacked KBR relentlessly in the media for four years, and the company wasn’t about to settle before airing its side. In the end, KBR made sure Jones got her day in court.
For years, Jones had been telling the dramatic story of how she woke up in Iraq bruised and bleeding, and how her pectoral muscles had been torn and her breast implants ruptured. But Army doctor Jodi Schultz testified that she never told Jones she’d been raped, much less by multiple attackers, and her notes from that night supported those facts. She had observed some swelling and redness as well as tiny cracks in the skin in Jones’s genital area, but couldn’t speculate as to the cause; the fissures could easily have resulted from consensual sex, she said. She also testified that there was no evidence of anal rape, as Jones had long claimed in the media. Lawyers for Bortz and KBR suggested that the few injuries Jones did have might be the result of treatments Jones had recently had for serious cases of both herpes and genital warts that at one point put her in the hospital for intravenous antibiotics.
Unlike reporters who covered her story in the early days, the jury saw photos of the bruises on Jones the morning after the allegedly brutal attack by a gang of muscle-bound firefighters. Her own lawyers had to concede they were underwhelming. While Jones was on the stand, Todd Kelly showed her the photo of a tiny bruise on her wrist and said, “I understand that you told the media you had severe bruising?”
“Right,” Jones replied.
“When I look at your bruise on your wrist, I don’t see a severe bruise. Can you tell me what you meant by ‘severe bruising’?” Kelly asked.
“I don’t get bruises on wrists and in between my legs, on my thighs, and all the locations where they were located, during any everyday situation,” Jones said. “And when they’re connected with a crime, it makes them severe to me. Because those bruises weren’t supposed to be there when I woke up. And it was a severe situation, which made that severe to me.”
Evidence also showed that her breast implants were not ruptured and her pectoral muscles weren’t torn. And it would be hard to call them “disfigured,” as Jones has dramatically described them. Defense lawyers described her problem as a common complication called “bottoming out.” That’s when a breast implant slips down below the muscle and makes the nipple unnaturally high. Defense experts testified that the condition is more likely to happen in women who get implants that are too big for their frames, as they suggested Jones had done.
More problematic, Jones’s lawyer could not produce a single witness from Iraq who said Jones had complained at the time about her chest being injured. She didn’t mention it to the Army doctor. A KBR security officer who helped Jones leave the country testified that she put on a seven-pound flak jacket and climbed aboard a helicopter with no trouble at all, which would have been impossible if her pectoral muscles had been torn. Even when Jones got back to the U.S. and saw her regular gynecologist a few days later, she told the doctor she’d been raped but didn’t mention anything about her chest or breast implants. About three weeks after she went to see her plastic surgeon, a receptionist for her surgeon recorded a message from Jones that said “per her attorney, the doctor should not put any specifics into her report, only that she was raped.”
Because of the extensive and often conflicting medical and psychological expert testimony in the case, the judge appointed forensic psychiatrist Victor Scarano to conduct an independent examination of Jones. Scarano saw in her paper trail a serious effort by Jones to manage her medical information to reflect favorably on her case, depending on the person she was talking to. He proved a devastating witness. He concluded that she had had consensual sex with Bortz, and that she likely had fabricated her story and faked symptoms of PTSD in the pursuit of financial gain and to support the role of national victims’ advocate she had created for herself. He diagnosed her as suffering from somatization disorder, a condition in which people have unexplained physical symptoms to evoke sympathy from others, and that she had developed it at a young age, as well as narcissistic personality disorder.
He testified that Jones couldn’t possibly be suffering from PTSD. Even if, as she said, she was unconscious during the alleged rape (which he didn’t believe), she would not have had any memories to repress. He added, “You find that people with post-traumatic stress disorder are—usually withdraw and don’t go out a lot. Ms. Jones has created a life and has gone to the public media, 20/20, The Rachel Maddow Show, testified before Congress, helped with a bill, which I think was great.… But people with serious, significant post-traumatic stress disorder don’t do that.”
On the stand, Jones backtracked somewhat. She denied ever telling anyone she’d been gang-raped and blamed 20/20 for using the term in connection with her case. Defense lawyers produced an enormous pile of evidence to the contrary. Even her own father contradicted her account.
When Andrew McKinney, the lawyer representing Bortz, cross-examined Jones, he read her a quote from the State Department’s official investigative report, which found no evidence that she had been raped by more than one person. He said, “You know that there was no evidence found whatsoever in your room, of torn clothing, of items misplaced or displaced, of the bed clothes being unduly scattered about the room, nothing that would indicate signs of violence or that some sort of altercation took place or that anything of that nature might have happened. You know that there’s absolutely no evidence of that, correct, Ms. Jones? Isn’t that so?”
Jones replied, “The story was told on my body, Mr. McKinney.”
After sixteen days, the defense lawyers closed early. Joanne Vorpahl, representing KBR, ended her arguments by declaring, “I know it might make a better manuscript or a book or a play or a movie or screenplay to tell the story that Jamie Jones was gang-raped and locked in a shipping container. But I’m asking you to reject that fiction and do justice in this case.”
When the jurors did just that, they came under a fair amount of criticism from feminists for rejecting Jones’s claims. One blogger at Care2 wrote that the verdict was simply another illustration of the country’s rape culture, in which the jurors found that “Jones had it coming.”
But the jurors, who spent four weeks reviewing all the testimony and evidence, were hardly a bunch of cretins. One juror, Paul Oldenburgh, was so disturbed by the trial and the contradiction between the evidence and Jones’s claims that he published an e-book on his experience to try to explain the jury’s reasoning to the critics.
Oldenburgh is a cherubic middle-aged Houston systems engineer who is originally from Maine. A self-described liberal, he was surprised to find himself on the jury after reporting to the lawyers during the selection process that he had seen gay friends of his harassed because of their sexual orientation. He has been stung by the criticism of the jury. “I took it a little personally. We’re not a bunch of hicks. We looked at the evidence and we evaluated it,” he said during an interview in 2012 in a Houston Spaghetti Western restaurant. “I believe we made the right decision.”
Oldenburgh says that the jurors were a very diverse group, and that one juror actually suffered from PTSD and broke down a bit during the trial. He says the jurors wanted to believe Jones, but in the end it didn’t take very long to decide that Jones had not been raped. He says there was simply too much eyewitness testimony that contradicted Jones’s account. “How do you get that many people to do a cover-up?” he asks. And the witnesses Jones brought in, notably her own mother, hurt her case more than they helped. (At one point, Jones’s mother exclaimed that KBR had forged some of her emails entered into evidence, even though there was no proof or other testimony that supported her allegation. That fact wasn’t lost on the jurors, Oldenburgh said.)
Jones’s primary expert on KBR’s alleged history of ignoring rampant sexual harassment overseas, Amy Katz, had only worked for KBR for about eighteen months, in the late 1990s, in the Balkans. She had never even been to Iraq. Worse, on the stand, she talked about her resume, which listed skills in “clairvoyance” and “dream tending,” and the spiritual work she did through the International School of Clairvoyance.
The jurors weren’t particularly sympathetic to KBR. Oldenburgh says he’d heard the stories about the $500 toilet seats and thought KBR was a “big beast.” And that view didn’t really change during the trial. “We truly believed that there was a hostile work environment,” Oldenburgh said, noting that testimony about KBR’s history of ignoring sexual harassment in the workplace was convincing. The jurors felt that KBR “wasn’t in the clear” on that front, Oldenburgh says. But none of that was relevant if Jones wasn’t actually raped. And Jones’s own case was just so weak and some of her testimony was so incredible that Oldenburgh said the jurors had to suppress laughter while she was testifying. There was no way they could believe she was raped. “It didn’t happen,” he says.
The media, which had played such a major role in publicizing Jones’s story, all but ignored the grand finale. Not a single reporter covered the trial from beginning to end. On the eve of the trial, 20/20 reran its original award-winning 2007 exposé on Jones, but never followed up with a similarly hyped exposé of equal length explaining how the jury could have reached such a different conclusion than ABC’s initial report. Yet the verdict represented an epic media failure, and one that could have been avoided if reporters—myself included—had heeded some of the early warning signs.
In the years before the trial, I wrote a number of stories sympathetic to Jones for my employer, Mother Jones magazine. The plaintiff lawyers who were promoting Jones were good sources, and her story sounded plausible. In addition, KBR’s attempts to defend itself from her charges all seemed sexist and smacked of the old “blame the victim” strategy so common in rape cases.
In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court before the case went to trial, KBR essentially said that Jones was a relentless self-promoter and claimed that she had “sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress.” The petition suggested that much of Jones’s story was fabricated and “that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable.” Rather than take a closer look at what evidence KBR had in its defense, I wrote a blog post about this petition entitled “KBR Calls Jamie Leigh Jones a Liar.”
In June 2012, I attended the Washington, D.C., premier of Hot Coffee, along with Al Franken. During the event, producer Susan Saladoff informed the audience that the Jones trial was under way. Since I was unable to cover the trial in person, the dates had slipped my mind. But as I walked out of the theater and listened to people fuming about the injustice heaped on Jones and ticking off the damning evidence—the shipping container, the lost rape kit, etc.—I decided to look at the trial records to see what sort of smoking guns Jones’s lawyers had come up with.
As it turned out, I found smoking guns, but not of the sort I was expecting. The next morning, I started looking through the filings posted online on PACER, the federal judiciary’s Web site. There I found expert witness reports filed by KBR, psychological evaluations of Jones conducted by workers’ comp companies, medical records, and much of what later came out at trial about her many previous rape claims and complicated mental health history. The trial record was so at odds with Jones’s public story that I was simply dumbfounded.
At the same time, she certainly wouldn’t have been the first deeply flawed individual to change the law for the better. Some of the most famous Supreme Court cases are named after people who weren’t what we thought they were. John Lawrence, the defendant in the famous Texas case that helped end the persecution of gay men through sodomy prosecutions, never even had sex with the man he was arrested for sleeping with. Ernesto Miranda, whose name will forever be attached to the right to remain silent, spent almost his entire life in and out of prison before dying from a knife wound during a bar fight. The history of the law is littered with cases like these.
Even so, Jones’s wasn’t a story anyone really wanted to hear. If she had fabricated her story, and lied about it for years, even before Congress, the ramifications were extensive. It was bad for rape victims, bad for the beleaguered civil justice system, and even bad for Hot Coffee, which was proving an unexpected and smashing success in defending the legal system from charges that it’s plagued with baseless claims. My editor at Mother Jones cringed when I told him I wanted to write about it, saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
With the records I had, before the trial was over, I wrote a story for Mother Jones predicting that Jones was going to lose. It wasn’t well received, especially by feminists. A writer for the blog Feministe wrote a long post lecturing me about the ins and outs of the legal system and noting, “Women can be raped more than once.”
The story has continued to nag at me, even two years after the trial and a decade after the start of the Iraq War. Now that the trial is over, and the evidence the jurors used to come to their decision is publicly available, there haven’t been many mea culpas from the reporters who helped put Jones in the limelight. Brian Ross, who scored the first on-air interview with Jones back in 2007, and whose exposé prompted Congress to act, referred my requests for an interview to a flack for ABC News, who called to ask what I was writing about and then never answered a single question. Rachel Maddow, who essentially used Jones’s story to accuse thirty Republican senators of being rape apologists, never responded to repeated requests for comment. Only the Houston Chronicle, which failed to cover more than a day or two of the sensational trial in its own backyard, went back a few months later to revisit the verdict with a serious story.
Without extensive media scrutiny of what came out during the trial, Jones’s version of her story has retained significant staying power. Hot Coffee was released on DVD in early November 2011 and is still being featured on HBO occasionally, as well as on college campuses and Netflix. As a result, nearly two years after the verdict, people are still talking about Jones on Twitter and Reddit, where the movie is featured in the “NetflixBestOf” roundups. The story has even seeped into popular culture. In January 2012, the TV crime show Law and Order: SVU aired a “ripped from the headlines”-type episode based loosely on Jones’s allegations.
And Jones’s supporters remain steadfast. After the trial, Representative Poe released a statement reaffirming his support for Jones. When I talked to Susan Saladoff in 2012 about the possibility that Jones wasn’t entirely truthful, she expressed disbelief. She hadn’t examined the trial evidence, but she had spent hours with Jones and found her totally believable. Other people she trusted had trusted Jones. She said, “Clearly Al Franken lent credibility to her story.… I still believe her.”
Franken refused multiple requests to be interviewed, but his staff told me that he originally got interested in the Jones case because of the media coverage, showing just how complete the media-political feedback loop can be. (And he did, in fact, offer to write the introduction to Jones’s book.) Franken and his staff did not do any independent investigation of her case. While he declined an interview, Franken provided a written statement saying, “We may never know the full truth about what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones. But the most important thing to me is that she got her day in court, as will countless victims of sexual assault, because of my legislation.”
Many feminists and other supporters continued to defend Jones after she lost at trial, especially after KBR took the aggressive move of suing her for legal costs and pushed her into bankruptcy. Jennifer Abrahamson, the ghostwriter who was working with Jones on her book, sat through a couple of days of the trial while Jones was on the stand and told me afterward, “All the evidence presented to me is truthful. This is not the first time we’ve seen this, not the first time somebody who has been raped has not been a saint in the past, has not had other sexual encounters, had a drink…. I definitely believe she was raped or violated in some way.”
She said the book she still hopes one day to write would explore the way KBR tried to discredit Jones because of her sexual history. Just because someone was “naughty in the past, doesn’t mean they weren’t raped,” she explains. Abrahamson believes that the Jones saga is “about much more than Jamie herself. It’s really about an individual up against an entity much more powerful than herself.”
Jones’s lawyer Todd Kelly, who invested more than $150,000 and thousands of hours of his time in her case, says, “I will go to my grave believing that Jamie was raped by Charles Bortz. That’s not what the jury got to hear. Jamie’s motives were always to make change for the good. This was a cause that I was proud to be part of because we were trying to make positive change for the good.”
Since the trial, Jones’s once-bright media future has dimmed considerably. Gone are the book and movie deals. In October 2011, Jones filed for bankruptcy to avoid paying the $145,000 she owes KBR for its legal costs. But she didn’t come out of the whole ordeal penniless. Two weeks after she lost the civil trial, she won $175,000 from her workers’ compensation claim, money set aside in an annuity that was protected from creditors in her bankruptcy filing.
She has continued teaching. I caught up with Jones one night in the early spring of 2012 at the University of Houston’s Northwest campus, where she had just finished teaching a class on leadership in organizations. The classroom was in a charmless suburban office building that used to house Compaq Computers.
Glamorous for a professor, Jones stood out among the casually dressed students, in a formal ivory suit with matching satin pumps and pearls that seemed better suited for Easter Sunday. Her hair was swept up in the kind of tight twist favored by Sarah Palin, and she sported heavy, dark-framed glasses.
Jones was reluctant to talk to me. Her family, she said, had been through enough. But she eventually relented, and talked for nearly two hours about everything, from what life has been like since the trial to the reasons she sees for the adverse jury verdict. She finds a lot of blame to go around. She thinks she didn’t get a fair trial because the judge refused to allow Bortz’s mug shots into evidence, and because some of her witnesses weren’t allowed to testify. She thinks her lawyers were overmatched and that they failed to coach her properly for her time on the witness stand. “It was a David-and-Goliath thing. To be honest with you, I had attorneys that were small potatoes, and they had these lawyers that were sharks. I was eaten alive in there,” she says. “If you go against KBR, they could make anybody look crazy…. They wanted to give that impression to people and to the jury that I’m just a liar. And that’s not true,” she insisted.
For instance, Jones says, she does not have bipolar disorder, as KBR suggested. Rather, the antiseizure medicine she was given, which can be used as a mood stabilizer, was for seizures. She also said there was no merit in KBR’s assertion that her treatment for STDs had caused the fissures in her genital area. “I was healed before I went. I wouldn’t have gone to a war zone with fissures and crap. I mean, who does that?” she said with a chuckle.
When I asked her about some of the more damning material in the case, including her previous rape allegations, she declined to discuss them, offering me a media-savvy “No comment.” I wondered how she could explain that not a single person in Iraq gave testimony that supported her version of events, either during the trial or to State Department investigators. She responded, “I think they had each other’s backs. They had forty-eight hours to talk about what they’d say to authorities, forty-eight hours to figure out what they were going to say.”
As for her extensive medical history, Jones concedes that she went to the doctor a lot, especially when she was younger. “I did have a very protective mother. If I bonked my head I would be rushed to the hospital. A lot of that was due to overprotectiveness on her part. But she was just trying to be a good mom.” Jones insists that before she went to Iraq, she was perfectly healthy, and that it was the KBR recruiter who urged her not to disclose her past illnesses on her employment form.
Jones said she had hoped that the jury would be able to see beyond her previous sexual and medical history to focus on what happened in Iraq. “I was hoping that when I laid it all out there, with the jury, that they would be able to see that I do have warts—literally—and yes, I wasn’t the ideal victim for this to happen to, but it happened. I have children now. I’m married. I just thought they would see that.”
She has tried to move on, after many years of doing little but concentrate on her legal case. She’s focusing on her two young daughters. When I spoke with her in Houston, Jones told me then that she was still running her foundation, which sexual assault victims would still contact for help, and she said she does her best to aid them. But the Web site for the foundation has since vanished.
Chatting away outside her classroom last year, she was articulate and intelligent, and sitting with her as she described her efforts to sneak tofu into her daughter’s mac and cheese, it was hard to square that image with the Jones in the legal filings and on the witness stand, the one who may have told a spectacular lie, repeatedly, over the course of nearly seven years, in dozens of high-profile forums, and to the highest reaches of the federal government.
Jones still maintains that her allegations are true. When I asked her whether there was a chance that she had simply misinterpreted what happened that night in Iraq many years ago, she said adamantly, “No. It’s not possible. I woke up needing reconstructive surgery and down there was tore up like it never has been before.… It’s not possible that I got it wrong. And I still have flashbacks.… [W]here do those come from if I got it wrong?… If this didn’t happen, I would have never gone to trial. I wouldn’t want to tell the world I have STDs.”
She continued, “It’s hard to swallow the outcome, it really is. But, like I said, I have to move forward in a positive way and show my children that even if things don’t go the way they should you have to be a strong woman and move on.… I have to show my girls that even if a jury didn’t believe me it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.… I did the right thing by coming forward. It did help others.”