CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The warnings came in text messages from her friends: He’s outside the dorm. He’s at the student centre. He’s at Starbucks.
But for Alicia Gonzales, sometimes it didn’t matter where he was. She would often hide away in her room on the campus of Marshall University, overcome with fear that she’d run into him — or be subjected to his ridicule — even after reporting that he raped her on school grounds. Months later, she left the school altogether.
“Every time I saw him, it was horrible for me,” she told The Associated Press on Friday. “It was almost like I was in that same state of mind, reliving the assault itself and how fearful I was. I just felt like I was helpless.”
The Associated Press does not typically identify sexual assault victims, but Gonzales has chosen to be identified.
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Marshall this week expelled 22-year-old Joseph Chase Hardin amid new rape accusations involving two additional women and renewed scrutiny of the West Virginia school’s handling of Gonzales’ February 2016 case. The expulsion caps a lengthy disciplinary process during which Hardin was allowed to be on campus, according to Gonzales’ ongoing federal lawsuit against the university.
A spokeswoman for the college said it followed state law and federal regulations in its handling of Gonzales’ case, adding that it “took every legal measure available to it to protect the rights of all parties throughout the process.”
In announcing Hardin’s expulsion, University President Jerome A. Gilbert released a statement saying, “The safety of our students is our first obligation.”
Hardin was indicted and jailed last week on second-degree sexual assault charges related to two alleged rapes in 2018. A judge order Hardin to remain jailed Wednesday at a court hearing for violating probation from the earlier case. He was led into the courtroom in an orange jumpsuit and turned his face away from TV news cameras trained on him from the gallery.
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His lawyer, Kerry A. Nessel, said his client maintains his innocence.
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“He denies everything,” Nessel said. “To me, it’s just a he said/she said situation.”
Gonzales described a pattern of harassment by Hardin and his friends after the alleged rape. She said they mocked her on social media and once waited for her outside her on-campus job and sneered as she emerged. Hardin even wore one of her headbands at a basketball game to taunt her, she said.
“I felt completely betrayed by the university and I felt like I had absolutely no protection throughout it,” she said.
When she first reported the attack, the college expelled Hardin, but he was able to remain on campus during an appeal process, according to Gonzales’ suit. The school didn’t implement restrictions to prevent her from encountering Hardin, it added.
Marshall then assembled a student conduct panel, before which she was aggressively cross-examined by Hardin’s private attorneys, the suit says. She had no lawyer present. After the panel cleared Hardin, he winked at her and threw his fist into the air in celebration, Gonzales said.
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College administrators then reviewed the hearing process and suspended Hardin from campus grounds until his criminal case was resolved. He unsuccessfully appealed that decision but was allowed to return after he entered what’s called a Kennedy plea to a battery charge and was given three years’ probation after having originally been charged with sexual assault.
In a Kennedy plea, which is similar to what’s called an Alford plea in other states, a defendant maintains his or her innocence but acknowledges there’s evidence that might lead a judge or jury to reach a guilty verdict. Court paperwork says that upon entering the plea, he was judged guilty.
The whole process took about a year.
The newer charges of sexual assault against Hardin involve alleged rapes of two women last year in the county where Marshall University is located, according to an indictment. Marshall spokeswoman Leah Payne said the more recent charges didn’t occur on campus and didn’t involve the school’s police department.
Gonzales, 22, now attends a college in Pennsylvania, where she studies psychology. She said she hopes to become a victims advocate after graduation. She was relieved to hear Hardin was expelled.
“That makes me feel like at least some part of the community is now protected,” she said.