Alumna Who Alleged Sexual Assault by Campus Police Officer Speaks Out
The Frostburg State University alumna whose sexual-assault allegations led to a felony charge against a campus police officer has told her story publicly for the first time via an exclusive interview with The Bottom Line – including how she secretly recorded a conversation with the officer as part of an on-campus “sting” operation orchestrated by Allegany County police.
The alumna, Amber Haning, says she was assaulted by a campus police officer in his patrol car as an 18-year-old freshman, after accepting his offer of a ride to Sheetz, but she did not report it until days before her 2014 graduation. The Bottom Line contacted Haning after she was named in court documents.
Haning’s story is consistent with the information in those documents and the allegations made in police-investigation documents obtained by The Bottom Line.
The Bottom Line will not identify the accused officer, as criminal proceedings against him were halted in September 2014 when he agreed to resign from the force and cooperate in an investigation of misconduct allegations involving the FSU Police Department. The investigation found no evidence of misconduct.
The Haning case occurred just months after the announcement that FSU is under investigation for a possible Title IX violation in its handling of an unrelated sexual assault, after a FSU alumna Jerica Bennett filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
A number of officials responded to The Bottom Line’s request for comment and are quoted below, including: Jon Dudiak, operations supervisor of the Allegany County Combined Criminal Investigation Unit; Michael Twigg, Allegany County state’s attorney; Gina Cirincion, a prosecutor in the Washington County state’s attorney’s office; and Cynthia Smith, FSU police chief. Also contacted was Emily Caputo, FSU Title IX compliance coordinator, who had not responded at press time.
Asked for the investigators’ side of the story, Dudiak told The Bottom Line to file a Maryland Public Information Act request, which The Bottom Line did on Feb. 20, 2015. Dudiak provided C3I’s 31-page investigative report later that day.
The report, which is referenced frequently throughout this article, is based on interviews with Haning, the accused officer, Chief Smith, and other witnesses. Detective Craig Whitaker was assigned the report, and Sergeant Bryan Willetts was Whitaker’s supervisor.
A centerpiece of the criminal case against the accused officer, according to Haning, Dudiak and grand jury documents, was a conversation with the suspect officer that Haning secretly recorded May 27, 2014, in a classroom in the Fine Arts building at the request of the C3I unit, with C3I officers concealed in the next room just in case something went wrong. The officer was lured to the building via a call from a fellow campus officer who said a student needed to have a door unlocked. A four-page transcript of the recording is among the documents Dudiak provided The Bottom Line.
The officer’s lawyer argued, via pretrial filings, that the recording was inadmissible as evidence because it was obtained without a search warrant.
However, this was disputed by Dudiak, who stated that a search and seizure warrant is not needed to use a body wire to gather evidence for a sex offense case. He cited Maryland Courts and Judicial Proceedings Section 10-402, which states the following:
“It is lawful under this subtitle for an investigative or law enforcement officer acting in a criminal investigation or any other person acting at the prior direction and under the supervision of an investigative or law enforcement officer to intercept a wire, oral, or electronic communication in order to provide evidence: Of the commission of: … sex offense…”
Additionally, Dudiak stated that when the plea bargain was reached, the trial proceedings were not at the point where evidence could be suppressed. He added that, in 30 years of law enforcement, he has never had evidence from a taped phone call or a body wire suppressed.
The suspected officer was arrested May 29, 2014 on three charges, including a felony charge of second-degree sexual offense. He pleaded not guilty in August and resigned in September after all charges were placed on the stet docket, meaning prosecutors decided not to pursue them.
Haning, a fine arts major with minors in art history and chemistry, is now a 23-year-old art conservator who no longer lives in Allegany County. During her senior year in Frostburg, the Germantown native was well known as exhibit coordinator at the Frostburg Museum on Hill Street.
In agreeing to go on the record with The Bottom Line, Haning asked that the interview be published in a question and answer format. Below is our interview with her.
TBL: How did the incident begin?
AH: It was a very cold, snowy, icy night about three months into my start at Frostburg in the fall of 2009. I had been at a party and had a few too many drinks. I wanted to get some cigarettes, but back then the 7-11 closed at midnight. I needed to get to Sheetz. So, with my impaired judgment, I stood outside of Frost Hall — where I lived at the time — and tried hitching a ride. A cop pulled up and asked if I’d been drinking. I told him I had and I needed a ride to Sheetz to get cigarettes. He told me to hop in and he took me to Sheetz.
Editor’s Note: FSU Police Chief Cynthia Smith confirmed that campus police officers are permitted to give rides to students.
AH: I remember thinking how lucky I was that with all the late-night creeps in town, this police officer was going to look out for me, bend the rules a little bit and help me out. After I got back in the car he didn’t drive back to campus. He drove in the opposite direction up to some dark spot about a mile from campus. I didn’t know the area back then, so I had no idea where I was or how I would get back drunk and lost in the snow in the middle of the night. He unzipped his pants and when I asked what he was doing, he asked if I wanted a ride home. He was wearing a gun and I was scared, so I did what I thought I had to do.
TBL: Was this an isolated incident?
AH: It was an isolated incident. I never hitch-hiked again, so I avoided putting myself in situations that could lead to things like this. I did see him around pretty regularly and every time it had a really serious effect on my psyche. I would start shaking and feeling like I was going to cry and throw up at the same time. He always avoided my eye contact if he could, but there were times I had to get into the department late at night to finish homework and he was the officer that was sent to unlock the door for me. That was really terrible.
TBL: We know from court records that he gave you an alcohol citation in 2010, after
the assault. Is this related at all to the 2009 assault?
AH: This was not related to the assault. It was another night I had been drinking — still being a freshman, and all — and had caused a bit of a ruckus in my dorm. I woke up in the morning and had been issued a citation I’d had no recollection of. I had been given something called “Too Intoxicated To Sign,” which I’ve still never heard of, and was put to bed without any medical attention. Seems like if I was too intoxicated to sign my own name I could have been in some pretty serious danger of alcohol poisoning, but that’s beside the point.
Editor’s Note: When asked for comment, FSU Police Chief Cynthia Smith stated: “Officers are trained to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning and seek medical attention when appropriate.”
AH: I went to court to fight it a few months later and the officer never showed up. It wasn’t actually until I learned his name this past May that I found out he had been the cop to issue that citation. I still wonder if that’s why he never showed up to court – he knew I’d recognize him. Or maybe he even felt guilty and decided to let that one slide.
TBL: Why did you wait until after you graduated to tell authorities?
AH: I was scared and embarrassed. Plus, he was in a position of authority. I originally planned to tell no one besides my closest friends that this event had ever taken place. As graduation got closer, I kept getting this gnawing feeling that it was my duty to say something. I doubt I was the first, or last, person it had happened to, and I knew I couldn’t leave without saying something because it was much, much bigger than me.
My only real regret is that I waited so long to turn him in. Although things didn’t quite go the way I’d hoped in the end, I still would have told and started this whole process much earlier if I’d understood the gravity of it and could have gotten past my shame sooner.
TBL: Did you feel uncomfortable telling anyone on campus about this?
AH: Luckily, I had a wonderful teacher that I confided in two days before graduation. He was my rock through the ordeal. He not only confirmed that I had to say something to the administration, but he even made the phone call for me. Even after putting five years between me and that horrific night, and knowing I would be moving in a few days, I was still scared. He made the start of everything exceptionally easier than it could have been. And he still checks in on how things are going infinitely more than any of the officials involved, combined.
TBL: Who’s the professor who persuaded you to report the incident to the administration and made the call for you? How did the teacher learn about it; how did the subject come up between you?
AH: I cannot give you his name, as he has asked to remain anonymous, but I went to him two days before graduation and told him I needed some advice on something. We had grown close over the past couple of years and he turned into somewhat of a mentor to me. I felt comfortable sharing my story with him and I explained that I felt like I couldn’t leave before saying anything. He agreed with me.
TBL: Who, specifically, was that professor’s call made to? What specific university employees, were you in touch with about your case? How helpful were those individuals, and how much time did you spend with them? How much of it was face-to-face time, how much via phone, how much via email or other correspondence? How satisfied were you with these individuals’ responses, and the university’s administrative response, to your case?
AH: I don’t remember who the first call was made to, but they referred us to Beth Hoffman. She was the Title IX co-ordinator at the time. I didn’t realize from her name that she was the mother of a very close friend of mine and Dean [Joseph] Hoffman’s wife. We were told to come to her office and give a written statement. I think she may have even teared up a little when we got there and she realized I was the Amber this was all about.
We spent about 15 minutes in her office. I told her my story and she asked if she could contact Chief Smith about it. I told her that was fine, and I went home. I got a call from Chief Smith about 20 minutes later, asking me to meet with her and some C3I investigators in a meeting room in Hitchins. I was satisfied with the response at the time. I felt that the school was really working with me, and that feeling remained until a few weeks later when I stopped hearing from anyone about it.
Editor’s Note: Dudiak confirmed that C3I was immediately contacted by Chief Smith after Smith learned of the incident. Chief Smith immediately suspended the officer due to the investigation.
TBL: What was your role in C3I’s investigation?
AH: Well, I was brought in to a sit-down meeting with the investigators and they had me identify who he was by looking through pictures of all the FSU officers. They had me tell my story over and over and eventually let me go home saying it would be a slow process and they wanted to take their time moving forward so that everything could be handled properly.
I got a call the next day telling me that they needed to move quickly because they knew I’d be leaving after graduation (although I was only moving two hours away and would have gladly traveled back to help in any way I could, any time they needed). They said they wanted me to wear a body wire and confront him face-to-face the day after graduation. So, I stayed in town to help with the investigation.
TBL: Court records indicate that evidence was gathered with a body wire. Did C3I have you use the body wire to collect evidence? When did this happen? Did you feel comfortable doing this?
AH: First off, I was absolutely terrified. It’s still, by far, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I felt like I was going to throw up the entire time, but I was willing to do anything I could to help these investigators because they were on my side and knew what they were doing. The day after graduation, I was given a cell phone to record with and a purse with a camera on it and they had me wait in the department.
They called the police department and had him dispatched to come unlock a door for me under the premise that I needed to pick up some last minute things before leaving town. They had a couple of officers in the room next door listening in case something went wrong and some more waiting around the corner to pick me up. When that man walked down the hallway, I remember I could hear his footsteps echoing before he even turned the corner. I was so scared I was shaking. I mean really shaking. When he saw me, he immediately looked down at the floor while he walked towards me. I told him which room I needed to get into and when that key went in the lock I realized if I didn’t just say something I would never, ever get my chance.
So, I asked him if he remembered me and after denying it a couple of times, I probed him a little harder and asked if he remembered that night. He finally confessed he did and begged me not to tell anyone. He said he could lose his family and his job. I told him I had had to carry that night around for five years, and his response was, “Well, me too…”. I wanted to smack him. I had to ask him if he was sorry. He finally said he was and then I realized I didn’t know how to get out of the situation. I wasn’t coached on how to end that conversation. I actually thanked him for apologizing because I didn’t know what else to say. It made me sick. I went into the room and pretended to get the things I needed and he left.
TBL: Who proposed the plan to send you, with a recording device, back into your assailant’s presence? To what extent did you have to be persuaded of this? To what extent did you feel physically endangered during that episode?
AH: This was a plan that the C3I investigators devised. Although I was absolutely terrified at the idea, I was more than willing to do anything asked of me to bring justice to the situation. I didn’t feel physically endangered during the incident. There was a small team of investigators in the room next door who I just needed to yell for if anything happened. Regardless of physical harm, it was the scariest, hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Editor’s Note: Dudiak stated that “we do this all the time” when asked about recording evidence with a body wire. He also said he “would never put a victim in a situation where they would feel uncomfortable.” Chief Smith also supported the use of a body wire to record evidence, according to Dudiak.
TBL: Court records indicate that a search and seizure warrant was not obtained. What was your reaction to that? Did you know whether or not C3I had a warrant?
AH: I was shocked. You guys are actually the ones who told me that. I was never told the investigators didn’t get a warrant and that none of it was able to be used as evidence. Never told that the hardest thing I ever did in my entire life meant nothing. It seems like a mistake that an investigator wouldn’t make. If they needed to get a warrant and knew I was only moving two hours away, why didn’t they take their time and do things correctly? That’s what they originally promised that they were doing.
It was almost like they just wanted me to think they were taking it seriously or that they just wanted to know that he did it, but not burn him for it. I know I can’t make those accusations, because I still to this day don’t know the story, but it’s really hard to look back on it and feel like that terrifying experience meant anything at all. It feels like it was just unnecessary hardship.
Editor’s Note: As noted earlier in this article, Dudiak stated that a search and seizure warrant is not legally necessary in Maryland to use a body wire to record evidence of a sex offense.
TBL: Maryland law says that crime victims must be notified of suspects’ arrests, all court hearings, and the outcome of the case, as well as the suspects’ status throughout (i.e., jailed or free on bond); they also must be allowed to be present and heard at all criminal proceedings. Were you notified of any or all of these stages of the judicial process, and if so, by whom?
AH: I was notified of all of the steps that were taken and the outcome of the events through phone calls. I was never sent any physical or digital document of anything that happened. There’s a lot of information that I would still really like to have, at the very least for record-keeping.
TBL: What C3I detectives and supervisors, and what personnel in the various state’s attorney’s offices, did you primarily deal with during the investigation and prosecution of your case? Who in those offices would be most familiar with your case?
AH: I worked with two men on this case: Craig Whitaker and Jon Dudiak. There was an initial state’s attorney that I got a call from saying they would be handling my case. I don’t remember his name because after that first phone call, he just vanished. I called him a number of times because I had caught wind from Chief Smith that a plea agreement had been set into motion. But, I had never consented to any kind of plea agreement. I didn’t know that negotiations were being made. As it had turned out, that state’s attorney had supposedly set some plans for a plea agreement up, and then he took a leave of absence without telling anyone.
A new state’s attorney was assigned to my case named Gina Cirincion. She explained that she wanted to go through with the plea agreement made to place the accused officer on a stet docket, meaning the charges would be suspended, and if he got in any legal trouble over the next three years they would be brought back up. He was also required to give full disclosure in helping the investigators track down any other police offers who had been abusing their power in the same way (although I was told he had already lied about it, saying that I had pursued him and called his phone multiple times after the incident – which, of course was untrue. I didn’t even know his name until I turned him in, let alone his phone number).
I wanted some time to consider it all and she reminded me that it was ultimately her decision. Which was absolutely true, but that statement still stung. I’d say out of all of those people, the C3I investigators would be the most familiar with my case. I worked the most closely with them.
Editor’s Note: Michael Twigg, the Allegany County state’s attorney, stated in an email: “The case was reassigned to the Washington County State’s Attorney’s office since the suspect in the matter was a sworn police officer in Allegany County. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, cases against law enforcement officers are regularly paneled out to a visiting prosecutor who would otherwise have no other contact with that officer and avoid any potential conflicts.”
A Washington County prosecutor was then assigned the case, but that person took a leave of absence due to personal reasons. The case was then assigned to Cirincion, who is also on the staff of the Washington County state’s attorney.
Cirincion said she told Haning in late August that a plea bargain was being discussed, and, after taking time to mull it over, Haning agreed that the plea bargain was the best course of action. The plea agreement was made on Sept. 9.
“Because of the time lapse [between the incident and the report being made], there were evidentiary concerns. Also, there was an agreement that [the officer] would resign from the FSU police force,” said Cirincion on the reasons for the plea bargain.
Both Cirincion and Dudiak said that Haning supported a plea deal, after thinking about it. Dudiak stated, “All she wanted was to get [the officer] out of law enforcement.”
C3I’s report, written by Whitaker, stated, “Haning confirmed her goal is to ensure [the officer] is no longer a police officer at any department. I confirmed Haning was not seeking incarceration in which she told me if [the officer] refuses to admit what he did, she would appear in court to assist in attempting to secure a criminal conviction although she stated she would be satisfied if [the officer] is no longer able to be a police officer.”
TBL: What do you think should have been done differently in the investigation?
AH: Well, obviously they should have gotten a warrant or they shouldn’t have put me through that. But even aside from that, I think they should have kept up better contact with me after the fact. I called them [C3I] about a month later because I’d caught wind that two other girls had told a friend of mine the same officer had hurt them in the same way. They said since I had already turned him in, they didn’t need to. Which obviously isn’t true.
Everyone should stand up to injustices like this even if it feels like it’s too late. But I was never called back by the investigators. I left a message telling them about those girls and they never called back. I never heard from them again. In fact, I still to this day don’t have a single piece of paper from the investigators or the school saying that any of this ever took place.
TBL: Did you feel that FSU had sufficient resources (counseling, student services, etc…) to help you? Did you feel you had support on this campus?
AH: I went to counseling about a week after that night. The counselor I spoke with encouraged me to turn him in, but I was really stubborn and scared. I went one more time after that and then I stopped going. I was never checked in on or reached out to, I just held onto it silently for five years and tried to tuck it away somewhere in my brain so that it wasn’t screaming at me every time I stepped out of my house and onto campus. After I turned him in, the school turned everything over to the county investigators. They offered some phone numbers and websites for crisis centers and rape hotlines, but I felt that I had handled it pretty well on my own up to that point, so I never used those resources. I got a few texts and a couple of phone calls from Chief Smith at the beginning of the summer and haven’t heard anything since.
TBL: What would you like to see more of from the university?
AH: I think they should be reaching out to students and educating them on how all of this went down rather than trying to keep it quiet. They should be holding public forums and not only opening their phone lines to students after the fact, but encouraging questions from the students on what has already happened and how things like this can be avoided. Evasive, political responses aren’t enough.
Students have a right to know that even the cops on that campus can hurt them if they aren’t careful, and the school wants to know if they’ve been abused, especially by their staff. We pay for those uniforms and those cars and those guns that in this case were used to bully me into submission.
The administration should be taking every avenue possible to protect their students, and that starts with opening a line of communication, even when it means losing some face. Imagine being a parent and sending your kid off into the world for the first time and feeling like at least there would be this greater entity to watch over them no matter how stupid their kid acted. Then their baby comes home three months later to say they were sexually abused by a police officer.
That administration should be breaking their backs to make sure that no parent has to have a conversation like that ever again. Not on their watch. I hope the administration realizes that these things are never really swept under the rug. They become engrained in what makes a person who they are, so they should be doing the most they can to make sure that that growth is positive.
TBL: Do you have any additional comments?
AH: I just want to really emphasize that the only thing I really regret through all of this is that I waited five long years before I said anything. This thing is so much bigger than me. It’s about all the girls it ever happened to and could happen to. I couldn’t accept or maybe even realize it for five years. I also want to say that I don’t feel the school did enough by letting that officer resign. Even though my original goal was to get him off of that campus, I can’t lie and say I wasn’t disappointed with how gently things unfolded for him.
Unless students step forward and force the school to face what is happening on their campus, the administration doesn’t even have to consider its accountability. Committing to this interview was really hard because all of this is still incredibly difficult to talk about, and I’m just desperately hoping it urges students not to make my mistake and wait, or worse yet, never step forward about injustices like this.
These are our lives, and no one is going to take responsibility for them anymore. We have to stand up for ourselves when we have been wronged, because if I took anything more than a degree away from FSU, it’s that we are really, truly responsible for looking out for ourselves in this life.