Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was in the process of driving the Seminoles 80 yards in 1:06 to win a national championship, and Ashley Witherspoon, class of '91, was getting loud.
"I was excited and proud my team was playing for a national championship," Witherspoon says. "I was on the edge of my seat, wearing garnet and gold, cheering as they marched down the field."
This put Witherspoon in the company of just about every other 'Noles backer on the planet. What separated her is that she had every reason not to root for a Florida State football team, particularly one quarterbacked by a man who had been accused of raping a fellow student.
Nineteen years ago, Witherspoon was shot, raped, and left for dead by Michael Gibson, a former Florida State running back. The state attorney handling the case was Willie Meggs, the man who two decades later decided there was insufficient evidence to file charges against Winston. Witherspoon's assailant was convicted and sentenced to six life sentences, five of which were upheld despite then-FSU coach Bobby Bowden's writing a letter of reference on Gibson's behalf.
Today, Witherspoon is a lawyer. She's married and lives in South Carolina. I spoke with her in January, and what follows are her reflections on the incident, culled from our interview.
[On Dec. 12, 1993, Ashley Witherspoon had recently taken her LSAT and was in the middle of filling out law-school applications. She was living in an apartment near campus, taking an accounting class at a local community college, working as a state employee, and enjoying her last days in Tallahassee. At 7 a.m., someone knocked on her door.]
I was upstairs and figured it was my boyfriend on his way to work, stopping by for something. There was no peephole, and I couldn't see through the blinds who was at the door. I opened it, and Gibson was standing there. He asked if "John" was home. I said, no, he had the wrong apartment and started to close the door. He asked again, "So John's not home?" At this point, I knew something was wrong and didn't care if I appeared impolite or rude. I went to shut the door. He immediately slammed into it with his shoulder. I was pushing with my back against the door, my feet wedged against stairs leading up to second floor, but I couldn't hold it. He pushed his way in. He had a gun in his hand by that point and a blue bandana covering his nose and mouth.
We struggled. I was shot twice at point-blank range. I could smell smoke and my ears were ringing so bad. The bullet went into my left breast and came out the right side. I was standing at such an angle that the bullet passed right through me—it carved a little tunnel, but didn't damage anything. If you looked at me in a bikini, you could see a scar right about the bikini line, but when I went to the emergency room, they spent more time doing the rape exam than treating the wound.
Looking back, I realize I was in shock because I said, "Did you just shoot me?" I saw a gun, but thought if I'd been shot I'd be bleeding, on the floor, or dead, not standing there breathing in smoke. In my 911 call, I kept saying I must have been zapped by a stun gun because I had this burning sensation.
Michael Gibson in 1992 and 2013.
What I've never gotten over, never been able to stomach, is that at that point, after shooting me, he made me lie down on the bed and raped me. How sick is that? I was already compliant, already doing what he asked, and for him to be that gross and inhumane …. The only things I used to beat myself up about were opening the door, and not playing dead or falling into a heap and screaming hysterically. But that's not how it happened.
On the way out, Gibson stole my Christmas presents, the proverbial Grinch. I had some presents wrapped for friends and family. He tore them open to see what they were, then took them when he left.
I didn't know Gibson, had never laid eyes on him. He lived a few blocks away from my apartment complex and saw me going inside. He was driving home after being out all night and our paths crossed that way. At the trial, he didn't take the stand, but his lawyers tried to come up with some crazy story that this was consensual and I knew him somehow. I never had relations with him, or anyone on the football team for that matter. That was not my world.
It's such a weird, awful, awkward experience to have to talk about it, to tell strangers about being forcibly ... I hate the word "rape." But you're talking and hoping like hell they will believe you. I knew I was stating facts. But it's still a feeling of "Please, listen to me."
It was a slam-dunk case. I was the perfect victim. I wasn't drunk or high. It happened during the day. Willie Meggs was my attorney. He was a bulldog. I felt like he was going to help protect me and make it right. I remember him saying something like what they needed was to set up an electric bleacher, fill it with offenders, and have a "lights-out party"—that it would really help in crime prevention.
[Gibson received six life sentences: four for rape, and one each for armed burglary and for attempted felony murder. But in 2003 Florida's Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that there is no such crime as attempted felony murder, and, as a procedural matter, Gibson received a new sentencing hearing. Then-FSU coach Bobby Bowden wrote a letter of reference on Gibson's behalf. It concluded: "Thank you for reading my letter and may God direct you in your decision." Ultimately, Gibson's other five life sentences were upheld. Bowden has never contacted Ashley Witherspoon.]
The letter seemed to be boilerplate. Bowden came off as stand-offish. He wasn't saying, "Please, please, please, you have to reduce this guy's sentence." It was a fluke that we even had that hearing, dropping the attempted felony murder charge. I now tell people "I got shot for free."
When I gave my statement to the police I said Gibson was so calm about the whole thing. He wasn't a bit worried and I knew he'd done it before. At the re-sentencing, I learned that Gibson held a screwdriver to a woman's throat and raped her because he tried to use that same woman as his alibi in my case. She'd never mentioned the attack to anyone because they'd gone out on a consensual date. After they caught him, they found out he'd also held a man at gunpoint while raping his girlfriend. I met the boyfriend and the father. They were no longer together and he explained how Gibson had destroyed their relationship. The father talked about how his daughter was a shell of a person, hasn't had a life since the rape. I'm glad I put a stop to it. He was only going to get worse.
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden is escorted off the field after the Seminoles' victory over Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl.
There's a pattern. We keep looking the other way because these guys are a frigging commodity. Football is a fraternity, a club for life for these people. The thing that sticks in my craw is that he signed the letter "Coach Bowden," as if we all wouldn't know who Bobby Bowden was. Who signs "Coach Bowden" unless you're signing a poster or a football? And you're signing this to a judge? Maybe it was a secretary, but someone signed it with his authorization. It bothers me there was no thought to find out from me, or the other victims …. On the one hand, I want to remember the school, the team and Bowden fondly, but if I did sit down and think about it …. I don't know, it's always pissed me off.
[On Nov. 13, 2013, word leaked that Jameis Winston was the subject of a sexual battery investigation. The next month, Willie Meggs, now a state attorney, announced that no charges would be brought.]
The Winston charges did sting and hit close to home, so by choice, I didn't pay close attention. I hope for his sake and the victim's that nothing did happen, but I feel powerless. What can I do? So, why let it get to me? I tuned it out. Honestly, when it first came up, and given the little bit I allowed myself to hear, I did think the timing of it was strange. Like maybe someone was trying to derail Winston's Heisman campaign or the national championship. And it wasn't because I root for Florida State. It could have been the Auburn quarterback, or A.J. McCarron. I'm fairly jaded about our media. I feel like people want to sling mud and knock another one off the stand.
When I was at Florida State there were these "Bat Girls"—maybe they're still there—and they were used for recruiting purposes for the baseball team. Why do high school seniors and college freshmen need beautiful girls to show them around and take them out? What's really going on? What are we teaching them? What are we offering them? I'm not making excuses for offenders, but sex, drugs, and rock and roll is a big part of it.
[I filled Witherspoon in on some of the details she had missed: that the victim claimed a detective had warned her against pressing charges because "Tallahassee is a big football town," and that Meggs and reporters had laughed their way through their press conference announcing that Winston would not be charged.]
I guess we'll always be a football school in a football town. I believe a detective could have said that. It hurts me to think that's the truth, but it is possible, as important as football is to Florida State. That's the identity of that school. I didn't know she reported it right away. I'm a little embarrassed now. In hindsight, I guess I should have paid attention.
I did read up on the Willie Meggs press conference, I was flat-out surprised that Meggs is still the state attorney after all these years. I was upset and disgusted. This isn't a speeding ticket. After that, I went the opposite direction: This is not just someone trying to dig up dirt. These are serious allegations. This isn't Facebook or Twitter. We're not here for Tallahassee to say, "Hooray, the Florida State quarterback can play in the ACC championship."
Everything about it stunk and put a completely different spin on it, in my mind. When I had dealings with Meggs, he was a protector. He was incredibly invested in my trial. Hardcore. So to hear that he could laugh and not take it seriously, so it became a media joke session—it hurt me. That wasn't the Willie Meggs I knew. He was my knight in shining armor way back when. That luster is gone.
I have a sticker on my car. I'm proud of my university and that my team won, but I'm not a Seminole fanatic. I love sports, all college football. My husband went to Clemson, so we go to a lot of games up there. I wear orange, except when they play Florida State and I'm in our colors, doing the war chant and all that stuff. This year, that game was a lot of fun. … No, it wasn't even that much fun because it was such a thrashing, but I'm not a crazed fan who lives and dies with the 'Noles.
At FSU, like a lot of schools, football is what get the public's attention, in both a positive and negative way. Free Shoes University, right? I love it when athletics are the key to a kid staying in school, using his or her talents to advance and get an education, in addition to sports. We, universities in general, not just FSU, don't get much national attention for Rhodes Scholars or winning a debate/math/science bowl. However, I think that overall we're doing a majority of these athletes a disservice by promoting them as some kind of demigods, allowing them to think that they are making a significant impact in the world because of their physical prowess. The realistic part of me understands that they are helping to fund an industry: They help employ contractors to build stadiums, guards to secure it, vendors to sell hot dogs, IT companies to manage ticket sales, so on and so forth. But football is technically not a degree.
I almost got into a fistfight with a soccer coach friend of mine who believes athletes should get paid. It offends me. I love sports, but it's ridiculous that we idolize athletes. I don't care if football raises money for other college sports. If college football is just a mini-NFL training ground, then put them in the goddamn NFL. I just wish athletics in college were clean and pure. But they're not. We're not stupid. You can't tell me these programs aren't crooked as hell. I hope there's an overhaul. If Florida State covered something up, shut them down.
And yet, there I was rooting for them to beat Auburn, excited for them because it's my school. I guess that will always be with me. The Winston charges hurt, and I will say after the game …. Well, it's great that he was smiling and excited, that he's talkative and not a lump, but I wanted him to shut his mouth. The "adversities" he kept referring to—Florida State didn't have a tough season, no bad losses, major injuries, no quarterback controversies other than the question of if he's another rapist. That was the only adversity.
[Witherspoon doesn't mind talking about her own attack; sometimes, she's even grateful for the chance.]
The way my mind works is I tell people, "You'll never believe this story." I watch their mouths go up and down as they hear the details, but to me, it has a happy ending. Not that I don't think about the attack, get melancholy, or get spooked by it, but I'm the one who came out on top.
You may not believe me, but I feel sad for Gibson. I feel sad for the dumb, dumb decision that he made, but he had a choice. I never believed he shot me intentionally, but what he did afterward …. He could have left right away. He could have said, "I'm so sorry," or even, "Shit! I gotta get out of here!" Instead, he saw me alive and breathing and finished what he started. He saw a woman and wanted sex.
I don't blame his upbringing or society or whatever. He could have stopped then and there. He didn't, so he's the idiot in jail for the rest of his life, missing out on raising a child, Christmases, birthdays ...
The attack didn't bring me down. Even back then, I kept right on, finishing my law school applications and enrolling at LSU. I didn't miss any school except for the week I had to testify.
And it's not because I made a conscious decision. I have little to no willpower. For whatever reason, I never had to wake up and make a daily choice to go on about my business. I had a hard time in the re-sentencing trial because I wasn't able to give some dramatic presentation on how much this event traumatized me. It happened for some reason, and I'm able to deal with it. I feel guilty or awkward sometimes that I'm not the "victim" people expect. In no way am I downplaying this for other people who've experienced an assault or rape. This is just the way I perceive my event.
I'm not deeply religious. I don't practice, read the Bible, or preach to anyone. As I get older, I've become more spiritual, and the Gibson thing did make me believe in something bigger. I'm sincere when I say I'm lucky. It could have been worse. He didn't sodomize me, he didn't beat me...Before I got shot, I tried to use the phone. He ripped it out of the wall and hit me on the cheek. I'd never been hit intentionally by anybody. That hurt worse than anything. I will never understand why guys fight. I had an awful yellow bruise on my face and I couldn't smile, but when I put on a tank top and see the scar. How did it miss my heart? How did I not die? There was some higher power at work.
When I first got your email, I didn't know what to say, but I was glad you sent it. Nobody's ever paid any attention. One of the reasons I'm talking to you is that I'd like to help women who've been attacked. If my story offers any comfort, or if I can be a role model in some way …. I wish I could do more for people. I have a loving husband, a daughter in seventh grade, and a son in fifth. I have a great life. A normal life.
Patrick Sauer writes as a hobby and stays-at-home-dads for a living. He can be found at The Classical, Biographile, SB Nation, Narratively, ESPN, and a bunch of magazines that no longer exist. Lenny Dykstra still owes him money. For more, go here or here or follow him @pjsauer.