By KATIE BAKER
TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Megan Rondini’s friends and family remember her as having an ironclad sense of right and wrong. Her childhood nickname was “Rules Rondini” because she was such a principled board game player. As an honors student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Megan offered rides to drunk girls walking alone at night, even after one threw up in her backseat.
No one was there to help Megan — a Vandegrift honors graduate from Steiner Ranch — when she found herself in that very situation one night in July 2015, except for a well-to-do businessman Megan knew only as “Sweet T.” The 34-year-old later told authorities he offered 20-year-old Megan a ride home because he and a friend saw her leaving downtown Tuscaloosa alone. Megan couldn’t remember how she ended up in Sweet T’s white Mercedes on the way to his ornate mansion, decorated with his choicest hunting conquests, from massive-tusked elephant and wide-mouthed hippo heads to taxidermied lions and leopards. But, Megan later told police, she was sober enough by the time he pointed her toward his bedroom to know she didn’t want to have sex with him — and, she said, Sweet T should’ve known it, too.
There’s no official guide to reporting rape. It’s the most underreported crime, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which means many victims don’t tell anyone at all. But women are generally expected to do two things if they believe they’ve been sexually assaulted: Go to the emergency room and call the police. “Was it consensual?” Megan’s friend asked her when she picked her up that night, the friend told investigators. “Like, did you want to?” No, Megan told her. She didn’t.
That’s why they went to the hospital for a forensic exam, even though it was the middle of the night and Megan had just run away from Sweet T’s mansion by climbing out of his second-story window. Afterward, instead of going to sleep, she met with law enforcement for an interview. Megan never imagined that she would soon be cast as a criminal, or that investigators would view Sweet T — really T.J. Bunn Jr., son of an influential Tuscaloosa family — as the true victim. But that’s exactly what happened.
Bunn insisted he and Megan had consensual sex. In a statement provided by his lawyer, Bunn reiterated that he was never charged with a crime and said it would be “improper to say anything further about a young woman, who was clearly troubled, that could cause pain for a family dealing with grief.” Under Alabama’s archaic rape law, victims must prove they “earnestly” resisted their attackers, and the investigator who interviewed Megan quickly decided she hadn’t fought back against Bunn — she hadn’t “kicked him or hit him,” he explained. His investigation would conclude that no rape occurred. But he didn’t stop there. Instead, he started building a case against Megan, questioning her for multiple crimes she wasn’t even aware she had committed.
“When all is said and done, I wonder what I could’ve accomplished if one man didn’t completely rip everything away from me.”
Later, when Megan tried to file a civil suit, she learned the only way to escape possible prosecution for those crimes was to drop her case. When she went to the University of Alabama for counseling, a staff therapist told Megan she knew the Bunn family and therefore couldn’t help her. Ultimately, Megan and her family decided it was no longer safe for her to stay in Tuscaloosa. She withdrew from the university before the end of fall semester.
Megan’s case was complex. Then again, most sexual assault allegations are. There are rarely witnesses, and trauma survivors often have fragmented and incomplete memories, which can cause law enforcement without specialized training to be skeptical of their accounts — especially when alcohol is involved. Most rape cases don’t make it to trial, both nationwide and in Tuscaloosa, according to data provided by law enforcement.
“She did everything that she could to protect herself and to get help,” said Megan’s father, Mike Rondini. “She should have gotten that help, and she didn’t. That is a failure on everybody’s part.”
Megan left Tuscaloosa newly diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the months that followed, her depression grew worse, along with her sense of betrayal.
“When all is said and done, I wonder what I could’ve accomplished if one man didn’t completely rip everything away from me,” Megan texted a friend in February 2016. Two days later, she hanged herself.
Tuscaloosa, population 95,000, revolves around the University of Alabama, the country’s fastest-growing flagship university. UA is famous for its football team, the Crimson Tide, widely considered not just the best college team in the country but of all time. Football helps UA attract elite students and millions of dollars in fundraising, but otherwise, Tuscaloosa is a “big small town” where everyone knows everyone. Most everyone has heard of the Bunns, whose 80-year-old family business, ST Bunn Construction, works on major statewide projects and claims to have paved every street in the city.
Sonny and Terry, the Bunn brothers who currently run the company, were major donors to former governor Robert J. Bentley, who recently resigned rather than face impeachment after he was accused of using state money to cover up an affair with an aide. Terry Bunn, T.J. Bunn’s father, even served on Bentley’s transition team. He’s also listed on rosters for the secretive “President’s Cabinet” at UA, an “invitation-only” alumni group that advises the president of the university. ST Bunn Construction says it helped build Tuscaloosa’s Crimson Tide practice field, and the brothers belong to the booster foundation that paid for renowned UA football coach Nick Saban’s $3.1 million home. Flight records show the Bunn’s private jet often touched down near Crimson Tide away games last fall.
Megan Rondini grew up far from Crimson Tide country, in a leafy suburb of Austin, Texas. She was a serious, studious vegetarian who “preferred horses to people,” said her mother, Cindy Rondini. Her parents were surprised when she enrolled at the University of Alabama, and even more so when she joined a sorority.
“Megan wanted to go out of her comfort zone,” Cindy said. “She viewed going to college as her fresh start.”
Megan had an honors scholarship at UA, and she studied hard, scoring a spot in a special MBA program for high achievers in STEM fields and working after class at a lab studying Alzheimer’s disease. The summer before junior year, Megan stayed in Tuscaloosa to take extra classes. On July 1, 2015, she went to the Innisfree Irish Pub for trivia night with a group of sorority sisters. She saw Bunn at the bar, as she often did — ST Bunn Construction is across the street — but they didn’t talk. She later told investigators they had spoken only once, when he introduced himself as Sweet T to her and a friend the previous November. Afterward, they had wondered aloud about the well-dressed guy who offered them beers. A stranger, overhearing, leaned over and told them: “He’s one of the wealthiest men in Tuscaloosa.”
Megan, who stood 5-foot-6 and around 130 pounds, had about five cups of beer on July 1, she would later tell investigators — not enough, in her experience, to get that drunk. But somehow, she said, she blacked out, only coming to around midnight in Bunn’s brand-new Mercedes as he and his friend drove to Bunn’s home about 20 minutes away.
Bunn has sandy brown hair, a boyish face, and a preppy wardrobe: The night he picked Megan up, he was wearing khakis and brown alligator shoes. He’s sometimes referred to as an “employee” of ST Bunn Construction, but it’s unclear what he does there. A 2012 Tuscaloosa News profile published after former governor Bentley appointed Bunn to Alabama’s
Conservation Advisory Board focuses on his many hunting accomplishments — he’s even killed the African “big five” — but there’s not much other information about him available, other than records relating to a 2013 DUI arrest. They show Bunn sued the director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety after his driving privileges were taken away, claiming he would “suffer irreparable harm” if his license was suspended because he would be “unable to drive to work and will lose his job” at his family’s company. Bunn got his license back.
Megan was intimidated by Bunn, so much so that she didn’t try to stop him as he drove toward his house, she told investigators, even though “he was drunk and driving and it was concerning me.” They walked into his plantation-style mansion, past the mounted heads and tanned hides of dozens of animals, from zebras and hippos to antelopes and bears. Even a chandelier was made of antlers.
Bunn put his drunk friend to bed and told Megan to go to his room, she told investigators. She said she complied, sitting on a couch near the door, as far as possible from his bed with monogrammed “B” pillows. Bunn walked in and told her he wanted to have sex. That’s when Megan said she had to leave, while “trying to be really nice to him” because “I know he’s an influential person in Tuscaloosa.”
“I said, I really need to go, I have friends that are waiting,” she told police when they first interviewed her at the hospital. “He didn’t really take that.” Eventually, Megan said, she “felt like just letting him have sex with me was the only way he would let me go.”
Megan “felt like just letting him have sex with me was the only way he would let me go.”
Bunn brought her over to his bed and pulled her shorts to the side while she looked away from him, she told investigators. The incident report would later state that she “verbally informed Bunn that she did not want to have sex with him and that she needed to rejoin her friends at Innisfree,” but that he “ignored these statements and continued to engage in intercourse with her.” Afterward, Bunn passed out, and she felt she could leave safely, she said. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t open his door. She started texting friends around 1 a.m., begging for help.
“OMG,” she wrote to one, “I can’t get out of the room.”
Megan told police that, in a panic, she climbed through Bunn’s second-story window, jumped onto a gate and then to the dark, unfamiliar street below. When she realized she didn’t have her keys, she started frantically searching for them, even climbing back into Bunn’s room and then out again. Next, she checked Bunn’s Mercedes, where she found his wallet and a pistol. She grabbed $3 in case she had to take a cab and the gun “for safety,” she told investigators. Megan didn’t know how to handle guns, she’d later explain, and she accidentally fired it before dropping the weapon to the ground. Finally, a friend picked her up. They arrived at Tuscaloosa’s DCH Regional Medical Center around 2:40 a.m.
Contrary to what viewers of “Law and Order: SVU” might think, sex crimes units are still relatively new in police departments. Tuscaloosa’s doesn’t have one. Its multi-agency homicide department investigates sexual offenses, and it’s ultimately up to a grand jury to decide whether felony cases should move forward. Sexual assault cases rarely make it there, according to data provided by the homicide department on the dispositions of all sexual offenses — not just felonies — reported to it from 2011 to 2016. As of February, only 10 cases out of 98 sexual assault reports in 2016 were heard by a grand jury, and 12 out of 124 from 2015. (Those numbers don’t include a few dozen cases that are still pending.)
The county district attorney’s office couldn’t say how many sexual assault cases in Tuscaloosa led to formal charges, because it did not begin using a computerized tracking program until late last year.
“I’m ashamed to say we don’t know,” said Chief Deputy Jonathan Cross, “which is sort of a black eye in our office.”
According to Tuscaloosa Homicide Department Capt. Gary Hood, as many as 40 to 50% of all reported sexual assaults in Tuscaloosa are labeled “special inquiry,” local law enforcement’s term for cases in which “the victim does not know what or if anything happened” or the investigators don’t think the complaint meets the criteria to be a criminal charge under state law. Hood said those cases are investigated just as seriously as sexual assaults, but the examples he gave were ambiguous. For instance, he said, “A female wakes up at a friend’s house after a night of drinks. She doesn’t know if she was sexually assaulted but she files a report just to make sure.”
Special inquiries aren’t just for sexual assault claims, Hood said, providing further examples: “A person wakes up from a night of drinks to find a cut on his arm. Should this be listed as an assault or did he cut his arm stumbling into his residence?” Another, he said, might be if someone noticed a piece of jewelry missing from their home with no sign of forced entry. “Should this be theft or did a family member wear the jewelry without seeking permission first?”
Last November, Hood told the Tuscaloosa News that 27 UA students had reported sexual assaults in 2016, but only two arrests had been made. Widely accepted research has found that the rate of false rape claims is no higher than that of any other crime. But although Hood hoped “true victims of crimes” would come forward to the department, he said there were “a lot of reasons” a college student might lie about rape.
“A lot of them are not doing well in school and hope that by doing this they can get some help from the university with their grades,” he said.
Megan’s 3.8 GPA didn’t stop police from marking her first report a “special inquiry.” She didn’t know that they already doubted her when she went to the station for a follow-up interview the same morning she was discharged from the hospital, even though she hadn’t slept. She put on an oversized T-shirt, scraped her hair into a ponytail, and brought two pages of handwritten notes she’d taken so she wouldn’t forget any details.
It took about 21 minutes for Megan to tell investigator Adam Jones her side of the story, up to finding the pocket pistol in Bunn’s car while looking for her keys. As soon as Megan mentioned the gun, Jones abruptly left the room, video of her interview shows. After that, he changed his course of questioning. For thenext few hours, he came in and out of the room with questions for Megan that were about her behavior the previous night instead of her rape allegations.
Read next week’s issue for part two of this story.
Katie Baker is a senior national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. This story is running with permission from BuzzFeed after it was posted on June 22, 2017.