In 1987 a 15-year-old black girl from upstate New York became the center of a national media circus. Tawana Brawley had gone missing, which, of course, wasn’t the story. It was when she was found that all hell broke loose.
After her four-day absence, a neighbor discovered Brawley, seemingly unconscious and unresponsive, lying in a trash bag. Her hair had been cut, and her clothes cut and burned. Her body was smeared with feces, and the n-word and “bitch” were written upside down in charcoal on her chest. She was taken to the hospital, where she indicated to an officer that she’d been dragged into the woods and repeatedly raped by six men, one of them a cop.
Seven months and a media firestorm later, a grand jury investigation found “there was no medical or forensic evidence that a sexual assault was committed on Tawana Brawley.” It’s believed that Brawley created the elaborate hoax to avoid being punished by her stepfather for staying out late and missing school.
In 1998 Steven Pagones, a former New York prosecutor and one of the men Brawley accused of raping her, sued Brawley for defamation. She was found liable for $190,000 at 9 percent annual interest. The ruling judge said of Brawley, “[She] appears caught up in her own fiction and unwilling or unable to recognize the grief and hurt she caused those she wrongly accused.”
She never paid her debt. Instead, Brawley promptly disappeared, changing her name and Social Security number. From then until now, she’s never explained what happened, never provided proof to back up her claims, never apologized to the men accused of raping her, their families or anyone who believed her story.