A Rape Trial Is Revealing the Details of a Competitive Sex Ritual at an Elite New England Prep School

Secrecy and denial at all costs.

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Aug 25 2015, 4:00pm

St. Paul's prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. Photo via Flickr user Walker Carpenter

"Welcome to an eight-week exercise in debauchery, an exploration into the innermost meaning of the word sleeze-bag."

Owen Labrie, then 18, was writing to a group of male peers at St. Paul's, a prestigious New Hampshire prep school. It was March 31, two months before graduation, and the height of the season students called "Slaypril and Slay."

"We will be exploring the several essential questions. Is life on earth heaven? Are there any gazelles left in this savannah?" Labrie added.

Five men in their teens and early 20s took the stand in a rape trial Monday and testified about the rites of a secret culture, one that until now has been decipherable only to students living in the gothic-style dormitories at the elite prep school.

Previously: The Trial of an Alleged Elite New England Prep School Rapist

Together, the young men told an all-too-familiar story of male bravado and rape culture intertwined with the strange and perverted customs of a New England institution whose alumni include famous politicians, authors, and bankers.

Central to this culture, according to the men on the stand: secrecy and denial at all costs.

Jurors heard private Facebook messages exchanged between members of a pseudo-support group for horny teens called "Slayer's Anonymous," and "sub rosa" emails—a Latin phrase meaning "under the rose"—used to denote confidentiality.

The central focus of the messages was a decades-old rite at St. Paul's called "the Senior Salute." It's either a harmless tradition or twisted sex game, depending on whom you ask. The ritual is crucial to both the defense and the prosecution's arguments over charges that Labrie raped a freshman girl who was just 15.

The general principles of the Senior Salute involves men on the cusp of graduation emailing younger students they'd "like to get to know better," as Tucker Marchese, a St. Paul's alum who testified Monday, put it. Another alum, Malcolm Salovaara, said the tradition was akin to a "last-chance dance."

If they agree to the Salute, according to the students who took the stand, there is usually an expectation of some sort of hookup ranging from a kiss to sex. These hookups were tallied in marker on a school wall.

Scores were kept.

Testimony suggested that among Labrie and his friends, the sex game was carefully orchestrated.

The alleged victim, who is not being named by the media, took the stand for three days in a row last week to testify about an encounter she says started as part of the Senior Salute but ended in rape. Labrie, a shaggy-haired prefect, was on his way to Harvard* but, now 19, has been scraping together money to pay for his legal team and faces up to 20 years in prison each for three felony sexual assault charges.

The girl offered her account in graphic detail, and then defended inconsistencies in her testimony during a lengthy cross-examination. Labrie's attorney claims the interaction was consensual, and that his client never penetrated the girl—which, because of her age, would constitute sexual assault* in the state of New Hampshire.

"If someone did something like dry humping, that would be a variation of sex, wouldn't it?" Labrie's attorney J. W. Carney asked Thompson, who was Labrie's roommate for three years.

"I'm not entirely sure," Thompson, replied, adding that Labrie told him he "boned" the alleged victim. When Thompson asked if it was the girl's virginity, "He confirmed that it was," he told jurors.

Testimony suggested that among Labrie and his friends, the sex game was carefully orchestrated. Earlier in the day, another, a younger student testified that he believed Thompson and Labrie were competing to see who could get the highest senior "score."

On the stand, Thompson—who is entering his sophomore year at Brown— said that was "not true."

The jury heard from Thompson and four former high school athletes with carefully combed hair who are not facing charges, though some were accompanied by their own attorneys. Before this trial, they seemed to accept the ins and outs of the Senior Salute as as much a part of their education at St. Paul's as final exams.

"We live in a society that doesn't teach boys or girls how to give consent, or further more how to honor consent." –Nadiah Mohair

An alum who went to the nearby Philips-Exeter Academy a decade ago says sex games—even if they aren't as storied as this one—went on at other New England boarding schools. In one instance, she recalled, female students would compete to see who could sleep with a male student from each of the dormitories. (This would be unheard of at the public New England high school I attended, where the most remarkable aspect of student life was the sheer volume of drugs.)

But the extent to which Labrie and his peers devoted themselves to the Senior Salute stands apart.

"I've never heard of anything quite like it," says Rebecca Roe, a Seattle prosecutor who tried sex cases for 35 years before starting a private practice representing assault victims. "I've never heard anything like that at that level."

"It's really depressing that it just simply doesn't seem to get any better," she adds. "It's worse. When you are looking at people who are at an elite school, when you're talking about [students who plan on] hopefully being the future leaders of America."

"We live in a culture that has a rampant 'boys will be boys' attitude," offers Nadiah Mohajir, the executive director of Heart, a Chicago organization that teaches sexual and reproductive health to high school students. "We live in a society that doesn't teach boys or girls how to give consent, or further more how to honor consent."

Labrie, for his part, took courses on "sexual conduct" and statutory rape as part of being a prefect.

The younger student who took the stand—his name is being withheld by media outlets because he's a juvenile—said he didn't think anything of it when Labrie asked him to talk to the girl in question. Labrie was the prefect of his dorm, and the 15-year-old girl had rebuffed a previous request to meet at a secret rooftop location to which Labrie had acquired a key. "There is a door here that's been locked since before you were born," Labrie wrote the girl, adding, "the night before its hinges swung open."

The intermediary Labrie reached out to was also a freshman and spoke to the girl while they were working on a science project together.

"I heard you got an email from Owen," he told her in a Facebook message read allowed to the court.

"Oh, I don't think I'm going to do it," she said, of Labrie's invitation.

"He's a nice guy," he implored her.

Eventually, after a 20- to 30-minute conversation, according to the student, she agreed to meet with him.

The messenger informed Labrie of the decision in a Facebook missive.

"You are the fucking dog," replied Labrie. "I will owe you 10,000 BJs." Labrie also offered to get him fucked up the night before graduation.

Labrie had had his eye on the girl for a while, according to classmates who testified Monday. In a list Labrie wrote in January 2014 of more than a dozen students he wanted to hook up with in the last two months of the school year, he wrote her name in all capitals, at the top.

"Who do you want to pork more than anyone bro?" asked Salovaara, who communicated with Labrie on the Facebook group.

Labrie replied with the name of the 15-year-old alleged victim.

"Haha are you kidding me bro?" asked Salovaara.

"Total babe," replied Labrie.

"Does she even have nibs yet?" asked Salovaara.

Salovaara also explained to the court another famous St. Paul's idiom: "Deny till you die."

It's a saying Labrie was apparently familiar with.

The freshman boy who helped Labrie get a date with the alleged victim said he was with a group of students when Labrie came back from the encounter. They asked if the two had sex.

"He said no but nodded his head yes," the then-freshman told jurors. Labrie had a "smirk" on his face, the witness remembered.

Later that night, Labrie told him they had sex, but to "keep it on the down low."

With Labrie's friend Marchese, now a sophomore at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he was more explicit.

"How'd it go from no to bone?" Marchese asked in a Facebook message later that night.

"Just pulled every trick in the book," Labrie responded.

A few days later, Labrie relived an encounter with the victim's sister and friends to Marchese.

"Denied until I died tonight," he wrote.

Follow Susan Zalkind on Twitter.

*Correction 8/25: An earlier version of this article suggested consensual sex between an 18-year-old and 15-year-old would qualify as statutory rape, but under New Hampshire law, this would actually amount to misdemeanor sexual assault. An earlier version also suggested Labrie was accepted to Harvard University's divinity graduate school, but in fact he was planning to attend the undergraduate college and later study divinity.

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