The former St. Paul's student was out on bail after his conviction last summer. Then I ran into him on the train and got mixed up in his case in a way I could never have imagined.
Owen Labrie talking to his attorney in court Friday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Concord Monitor via AP, Pool)
Owen Labrie, the 20-year-old former prefect at St. Paul's prep school in New Hampshire who was convicted last summer of sexually assaulting a freshman when he was a senior, is now in jail. On Friday, he walked into a New Hampshire courthouse a free man and left in handcuffs, his bail having been revoked for curfew violations.
Unless Labrie's appeal is successful, he'll serve a year's time—or eight months with good behavior. And he's already poised to be listed in the sex offender registry for at least 15 years thanks to his felony conviction for using a computer to talk to the freshman, who was the younger sister of a woman he previously dated.
I covered that first trial for VICE, but this second time I myself was wrapped up in the case: According to prosecutors, the probe revealing those curfew violations was sparked by my own encounter with Labrie during an afternoon commute last month.
On February 29, at about 1:15 PM, I was traveling from Cambridge to Boston, where I ran into Labrie on the Red Line. To my surprise, after I introduced myself and told him I covered his trial for VICE, he moved over so I could sit down and proceeded to answer my questions. When I got off the train, I tweeted about the chance meeting, and then reflected on it, offering a few of my own opinions about the trial and its aftermath in a follow-up story that was published on VICE.
At the time, there was nothing about our conversation that made me think Labrie was violating his curfew, which required he remain at his mother's house in Vermont between 5 PM and 8 AM each day. (Indeed, prosecutors say he made it back in time after our chat, though he had left his house too early that morning.) But my tweets—specifically the ones in which I described Labrie saying he regularly traveled to Cambridge via bus from Dartmouth, New Hampshire, to visit a girlfriend—apparently caught the eye of Detective Julie Curtin of the Concord, New Hampshire, police.
Her subsequent interviews with Dartmouth bus drivers and a ticket saleswoman, as well as surveillance video, revealed that Labrie was regularly violating his curfew. Two weeks later, Prosecutor Catherine Ruffle filed a motion to revoke Labrie's bail, and requested an expedited hearing.
Suddenly I found myself thrust into the story in a way I'd never experienced as a professional journalist. My commute to work had become national news. I was on the Today Show and Nancy Grace and got written about in the New York Times.
Needless to say, my Twitter mentions were a mess.
To be clear, my interview with Labrie was no journalistic feat. I did not have to "work" a source, scour databases, or obtain any documents. I just happened to run into a famous convicted sex criminal on a busy train line—one that, by his own account, he rode regularly. I'm not sure I can even take credit for the fact that Labrie opened up to me: According to prosecutors, he was just as chatty with a woman who sold him a bus ticket.
But for better or for worse, I was now a part of this story that had fascinated me—and much of America—amid an intense national conversation about sexual assault.
I wrote after our train ride that Labrie's rejection of generous plea deals in the face of massive evidence that he had penetrated the 15-year-old girl (he denied they ever actually had sex) was arrogant. I also found Labrie taking the stand and, by the jury and judge's account, lying over and over again, to be eerie, even by the standards of criminal trials. This latest revelation—that, post-conviction, Labrie was regularly breaking the conditions of his bail—serves only to add an additional layer to the young man's already substantial hubris.
At the bail hearing Friday, Labrie's attorney Jaye Rancourt admitted he was breaking curfew but claimed the trips were to obtain legal counsel and to make in-person visits to supplement his online education. Though Labrie did tell me he was being privately mentored, Rancourt claimed the story he told me and the woman who sold him the bus ticket—that he was going to Cambridge to visit his girlfriend—was a lie.
In fact, he was protecting his academic endeavors, she explained to the judge. And the reason she did not ask to extend his curfew for these visits was, she said—gesturing behind her to the room packed with reporters—out of fear for the media attention the trips might garner. If his traveling pattern was publicized, Rancourt told the judge, there was a possibility that someone might try to harm her client.
The lawyer also released a statement in a court filing asserting that my conversation with Labrie was "off the record" and that I had "accosted" him, when the reality is that I introduced myself as a reporter, he greeted me warmly, and at no time did we discuss going off the record.
In the end, Judge Larry Smukler decided that it didn't matter why Labrie was breaking curfew—just that he did. Citing Labrie's "credibility" issues throughout the trial, he concluded that Labrie brought his fate upon himself. "You made the decision," Smukler told him.
In some ways, the St. Paul's rape trial has taken on the feel of a Greek drama. Labrie, the son of a schoolteacher and a landscaper, was the brilliant young student accepted into an elite circle of world leaders in training. These students are taught that they are the exception, that the rules need not always apply, and when the hand of accountability does come down, to "deny till you die," as a saying among Labrie's peers went.
Without the wealth enjoyed by many of his classmates, Labrie apparently clung to alternative measures of social standing in a place where success is measured on one hand by self-sacrifice, and on the other by how many underclass girls you can bang. Bonus points for sisters. Ultimately, that was his undoing.
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