Why Jamie Leigh Jones Lost Her KBR Rape Case

Her story of a brutal attack in Iraq sparked a national outcry—but how much of it is true?

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/publiccitizen/3489190650/">Public Citizen</a>/Flickr

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UPDATE July 8, 2011 5 p.m.:

After fighting for four years to reach the inside of a courtroom, Jamie Leigh Jones has lost her rape and sexual harassment lawsuit against military contractor KBR. After a day and a half of deliberations, a federal jury in Houston answered “no” to the question of whether Jones was raped by former firefighter Charles Bortz while working in Iraq in 2005. It also found that KBR did not engage in fraud in inducing Jones to sign her employment contract to go overseas.


The allegations were explosive when they first hit in 2007: A 20-year-old woman named Jamie Leigh Jones alleged that four days after going to work in Iraq for contracting giant KBR in July 2005, she was drugged and gang-raped by fellow contractors. She accused the company, then a subsidiary of Halliburton, of imprisoning her in a shipping container after she reported the rape, and suggested KBR had tampered with some of the medical evidence that had been collected at an Army hospital. The harrowing story has made international headlines. It’s been the subject of congressional hearings and has inspired legislation. Jones even plays a starring role in the new documentary Hot Coffee, about efforts to limit access to the justice system.

Jones’ charges fell on fertile ground, compounding KBR’s reputation as a corporate scofflaw—all the more so when it came out that the firm’s contract had included a mandatory arbitration clause intended to block employees from suing it. Jones spent years fighting for a jury trial, and now, six years after the alleged attack, she is finally getting her day in court in a civil suit that accuses KBR of knowingly sending her into a hostile workplace. The verdict could come as early as Thursday. And—in a twist that’s likely to shock her numerous supporters—there’s a good chance she will lose.

Jones’ trial, which started on June 13, is highlighting significant holes and discrepancies in her story. Not only has the federal trial judge already thrown out large portions of her case, evidence introduced in the trial raises the question of whether Jones has exaggerated and embellished key aspects of her story.

None of this means that Jones was not raped in Iraq. But the evidence does undermine her credibility and could create serious doubts in jurors’ minds.

“Oftentimes the truth is in between,” says Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. “The truth may be that this wasn’t rape as we come to understand it in the law, but it wasn’t something that was appropriate. It doesn’t mean that something didn’t happen.” However, if Jones hasn’t been entirely truthful and the jury rules against her, it could be a major setback for sexual assault victims, particularly women serving in war zones. “The problem with cases like this is, if it turns out that she’s making it up, it really does a disservice to the many women who really are raped who have trouble coming forward,” Levenson says.

The company claimed that Jones was a relentless self-promoter who “sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress.”

When Jones first went public with her allegations, they sparked an immediate public outcry. Her charges seemed to confirm the worst about the war in Iraq—whose key promoter, Dick Cheney, was a former Halliburton CEO. She was invited on a host of news shows to tell her story. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton called for an investigation. Jones started a foundation to bring to light abuses against female contractors working in conflict zones. She also became a poster child for the push to limit workers’ rights to sue their employers. Thanks to the fine print in her employment contract, Jones was required to take her case against KBR to a private arbitrator hired by KBR, rather than to a civil court and jury.

After 15 months of arbitration, Jones went to federal court to argue that the arbitration clause in her contract should not apply to cases of sexual assault. Her fight caught the attention of newly elected Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), among other lawmakers. Franken parlayed Jones’ case into his first major legislative coup, a bill barring the military from contracting with companies that require employees to arbitrate sexual harassment or assault claims.

In 2009, the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowed her case to move forward. KBR then asked the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court’s decision and send Jones back to arbitration. It claimed that Jones was a relentless self-promoter who has “sensationalize[d] her allegations against the KBR Defendants in the media, before the courts, and before Congress.” KBR also suggested that much of Jones’ story was fabricated. The company said in a footnote, “Many, if not all, of her allegations against the KBR Defendants are demonstrably false. The KBR Defendants intend to vigorously contest Jones’s allegations and show that her claims against the KBR Defendants are factually and legally untenable.” (KBR eventually withdrew the petition because of the Franken amendment.)

The media (me included) largely wrote this off as a sign that KBR was headed to the gutter to disparage a rape victim. But now that the case has gone to trial, it’s clear that KBR wasn’t just trying to scare Jones into settling. The court filings portray a very different version of the story. Here are some of the most sensational claims Jones has made, contrasted with the evidence that has emerged at trial:

Roofies: Jones claims that she was dosed with the date rape drug Rohypnol, which she believed was slipped into her drink by one of the KBR firefighters she was partying with in the Green Zone. In one of her congressional appearances, Jones said a contractor handed her a mixed drink and that “I took two sips from the drink, and don’t remember anything after that.” She testified before Congress in 2009 that “[w]hen I awoke in my room the next morning, I was naked, I was sore, I was bruised, and I was bleeding. I was groggy and confused and didn’t know why.”

The Evidence: After reporting the alleged attack to a KBR co-worker, who drove Jones to the Army hospital at Camp Hope, she was examined by Dr. Jodi Schultz. Schultz took urine and blood samples, which tested negative for Rohypnol or any other date-rape drug. Jones’ legal team has challenged the lab work, arguing that it was never done properly, and also hired an expert to testify that just because the lab tests didn’t turn up the drugs doesn’t mean they weren’t there. But KBR has offered an alternate explanation for her memory loss: Jones was drunk.

There is no eyewitness testimony or other physical evidence in the case supporting the allegation that Jones was attacked by multiple people.

The company hired experts to comb through Jones’ statements in investigative reports, psychological exams, media appearances, medical records, as well as depositions from witnesses in the trial, to ferret out inconsistencies. One of those experts, Dr. Thomas Kosten, a psychiatry professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, observes in his report that Jones acknowledged having up to five alcoholic beverages over three hours on the night in question. Noting that Jones weighed 120 pounds at the time, he concludes that booze could have caused her amnesia.

Gang rape: Jones claimed in her lawsuit as well as in congressional testimony that she was the “subject of a brutal sexual attack by several attackers.”

The Evidence: There is no eyewitness testimony or other physical evidence in the case supporting the allegation that Jones was attacked by multiple people. A lab analysis of the rape kit shows DNA from a single man, firefighter Charles Boartz, the only person Jones has identified in her lawsuit as one of the assailants. (Boatz is no saint; since returning from Iraq, he has had run-ins with the law related to domestic violence.) Several witnesses have testified to seeing Bortz and Jones drinking, flirting, and heading to her barracks together the night of the alleged attack, and Bortz has testified that the sex was consensual. That testimony, along with the physical evidence, has reduced the case from a black-and-white national scandal to the gray area of a he-said she-said case of potential acquaintance rape. Todd Kelly, Jones’ lawyer, told Mother Jones that while he and Jones believe she was raped by multiple assailants, that issue will not be presented to the jury. “Although it is clear that she was raped by at least one person, we don’t have the evidence to prove she was gang raped,” he says.

The shipping container: Jones has claimed that after reporting the alleged rape to her employers, KBR employees locked her in a shipping container, refused to let her call her family, and denied her food and water for at least 24 hours. She has said that she convinced one of the “gurkhas” guarding the door with machine guns to let her call her father, who in turn contacted Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and got her sprung from “prison.”

The Evidence: KBR claims Jones was never imprisoned, and that she encountered no obstacles calling her family after seeking medical treatment. KBR also says that its employees, including security staff, don’t carry guns. A 2006 investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) backs up KBR’s story that the company placed Jones in a secure location before getting her home to Texas.

This set of disputed facts, however, will not really be hashed out by the jury. The judge threw out Jones’ charges that the supposed imprisonment constituted “retaliation” by KBR for reporting the rape, because Jones never mentioned this accusation in her original legal filings with the EEOC. (Federal law requires a plaintiff to exhaust administrative remedies with the EEOC before pursuing a sexual harassment claim in federal court.) The false-imprisonment allegation didn’t surface until two years after Jones’ original rape complaint, when Jones hired a new lawyer.

Disfigured breasts: Jones’ civil lawsuit alleges that during the gang rape she was so severely beaten that her breast implants ruptured and her pectoral muscles were torn, requiring extensive reconstructive surgery.

The Evidence: The Army’s Dr. Schultz testified in her deposition that Jones didn’t report any problems with her chest during the exam, and Schultz did not observe any implant leakage or rupture. Franklin Rose, a Houston plastic surgeon who reviewed the records from Jones’ original breast implant surgery for KBR, found no evidence that the implants had ruptured. Witness lists submitted by the defendants indicate that Jones’ surgeon was expected to testify that in September 2005 he told Jones that she did not have torn pectoral muscles or ruptured implants. Kelly, Jones’ lawyer, takes responsibility for creating some confusion over anatomy. He says Jones suffered from a torn pectoral capsule, which held the implant, and that witnesses in the trial have indeed testified that she had such an injury and that it was caused by trauma.

“Torn up down there”: Jones claims that on the morning after her attack, she woke up with no memory of the event but “found her body naked, severely bruised, with lacerations to her vagina and anus, blood running down her leg, her breast implants were ruptured, and her pectoral muscles torn,” according to her complaint filed in US District Court in Houston. Jones says Schultz “confirmed that I had been penetrated both vaginally and anally.”

Evidence: According to expert reports in the court files, Dr. Schultz found some fissuring, redness, and irritation in the pertinent areas. Schultz also reported finding four small bruises on Jones, but she said in her deposition that Jones “had no medical findings that needed hospital treatment.” She also noted that while “Jamie had physical findings, I can’t tell you if they were consistent with rape.”

KBR has introduced evidence in court that shortly before deploying to Iraq, Jones underwent medical treatments that would have made her skin vulnerable to trauma for several months and could have led to “fissuring” during sex.

All of these issues, and more, have created obstacles to Jones winning a favorable verdict. In a civil trial, the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal case—but, even so, it’s not enough for Jones to prove that she was raped to prevail. She also has to prove that KBR was responsible for her injuries, and that she has measurable damages.

Jones has maintained that the attack in Iraq has rendered her agoraphobic, afraid to leave the house alone, unable to work, and unable to sleep. She has filed disability claims to this effect. As a result of these claims and her lawsuit, Jones has undergone extensive psychological evaluations. That paper trail contains several land mines.

Some of the conflicts are fairly obvious. At the same time Jones was telling therapists and psychiatrists that she was virtually disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder and could not work, leave the house, drive, or have meaningful relationships with men, she has completed three college degrees, including an MBA; gotten married; had two babies; worked as a teacher and now as a part-time college professor; testified repeatedly before Congress; gone on TV; appeared in a documentary; and started a foundation to support women working as contractors overseas. It’s not the résumé of someone as paralyzed by trauma as Jones has claimed to various therapists and psychologists.

One of the other issues the jury will have to consider is whether Jones’ current symptoms predate the alleged rape. In psychological exams ordered by KBR’s insurance company, Jones repeatedly denied any history of mental health problems. According to news coverage of the trial, Jones also denied such a history in the KBR medical questionnaire she filled out before she went to Iraq.

But medical records produced in discovery show that in the year or so before she deployed overseas, Jones was treated with Effexor, an anti-depressant; Ambien, a sleeping pill; Lamictal, a drug prescribed for seizures and bipolar disorder; Vicodin, a painkiller; and Zoloft, an anti-anxiety drug. KBR lawyer Joanne Vorpahl questioned Jones about this omission on the witness stand. Jones replied that she had taken the drugs “a long time before” she deployed to Iraq, and that she thought the condition was resolved so that “I did not need to disclose it.” Vorpahl shot back that Jones had disclosed medical issues dating back to kindergarten.

Jones’ medical records are full of information that could cause jurors to question her credibility. Perhaps most significantly, about two months before Jones went to Iraq, according to court records, she told her doctor that she might have had sex with someone; she’d had several drinks, passed out, and couldn’t remember what had transpired.

Jones’ medical records are full of information that could cause jurors to question her credibility.

While on the witness stand, Jones was also confronted with doctors’ reports from a hospital admission when she was 17, just a couple of years before she signed on to go to Iraq. She had complained of a fever and multiple neurological symptoms, including difficulty walking, but after a battery of tests, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her. Medical records indicate that doctors thought Jones’ symptoms might be a psychosomatic response to stress at home. That’s because, according to the medical records, some of her symptoms disappeared when no one was looking. A nurse reported that she saw Jones walk to the bathroom, only to stumble and grab the wall once she saw the nurse, for instance.

The evidence in her medical records indicates that Jones has alleged rape before. The records, according to KBR experts who reviewed them, show that in 2002, she and her mother told a doctor that a boyfriend had raped her. Later, just a few months before going to Iraq, she told a doctor that her 40-year-old manager at KBR in Houston had sexually assaulted her. She asked about getting a rape kit but was told that too much time had passed to collect evidence. In her civil suit, Jones accused the KBR manager of sexually harassing her, a charge KBR planned to counter with evidence suggesting that Jones was having a consensual relationship with him. In any case, the judge dismissed all of Jones’ sexual harassment claims related to her employment in Houston, so these allegations were never presented to the jury.

Kelly, Jones’ lawyer, concedes that his client has some issues in her past. “Jamie never claimed to be a perfectly clean slate when she walked in the door,” he says. But her history, he says, is irrelevant. “The fact that they’ve brought in everything they can of Jamie’s past is frankly disgusting. I think the jury will probably see through it.”

One thing Jones has working in her favor is that her story seems so incredible, her pursuit of justice so sincere, that it’s almost unimaginable that she would make it up. After all, why would anyone put themselves through that kind of torture? But KBR and Bortz also have a ready answer to that question. It’s The Jamie Leigh Story: How my Rape in Iraq and Cover-up Made Me a Crusader for Justice, the working title of her book.

For years, Jones has been in discussions with book agents, screenwriters, and production companies. In 2008, Paul Pompian, a film producer with dozens of docudrama credits to his name, bought the rights to her story. He says that his company is working on film version of Jones’ story and that a book is also in the works. “Frankly, we’re waiting for the outcome of the trial,” he told me. “We’re hoping for a verdict that will give us a third act. Hopefully it will be an outcome that’s good for us and the movie and especially for Jamie Leigh.” Both the screenwriter and Jones’ coauthor were expected to be in Houston watching part of the trial, according to Pompian.

When KBR’s lawyers first learned of the book deal, they went to court seeking access to the manuscript and other documents. Jones fought the disclosure, arguing that it would diminish the work’s financial value. Jones’ lawyers filed a motion with the court declaring that the manuscript was a work of fiction.


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