By Juliana Demarest, Mayumi Elegado, Alex Hoeft, and Becca Loux
Editor’s note: This is a developing story. We will continue to add to it as new information comes to light.
The following article covers a range of difficult topics, including suicide and mental health. If you are struggling, know you are not alone and there is help:
- In an instance of sexual assault or crisis, call 911 and ask for a CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) or a trauma-informed officer to respond.
- Sierra Community House is the local rape crisis center, providing accompaniment, advocacy, therapy, financial support including shelter for folks (women and men) who have experienced sexual violence. 24-hour crisis line: 1-800-736-1060
- If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HELLO to 741741, the Crisis Text Line. Both are free, available 24/7, and confidential.
- Surviving suicide loss is a complicated grief. Here are resources: tahoelifeline.org/postvention, (916) 392-0664
On Sept. 21, just before 1 p.m., 38-year-old Reno resident Tiffany Thiele shared an alarming post on Facebook.
Thiele alleged that in the summer of 2018, she was drugged and raped by a man named Andrew Sullivan and that the incident was captured on video without her consent. Thiele wrote that she filed a report with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office after the event, but that Sullivan was ultimately not prosecuted due to lack of evidence. This, Thiele noted, led to her three-year-long battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and a distrust in relationships.
Later that day, Thiele took her life.
The social media chaos that ensued yielded threats to Sullivan and the other individuals mentioned by name in the post, calls for the sheriff’s office and district attorney to reopen the case — as well as claims that many sexual assaults have gone uninvestigated under the departments, and pleas for justice in the wake of Thiele’s post and subsequent suicide.
Yet behind Thiele’s final words is a trail of conflicting stories. Since Sept. 21, Moonshine Ink has spoken with multiple parties about the 2018 circumstances, finding that accounts are inconsistent, both among one another and with what she wrote that afternoon.
In the Placer County Sheriff’s Office 12-page redacted crime report obtained by the Ink, the June 6, 2018 incident — which was first reported to the sheriff’s office on July 9, 2018 — is cited as “recording someone during sexual intercourse without their consent.”
There is no mention of rape, nor any form of sexual assault.
Interviews conducted by Det. Stephanie Frykberg and Deputy Shane Mathias center on an evening of sexual intimacy between Thiele and Sullivan, when Thiele became very concerned about a video being recorded, to which she says she never consented. Per the report, Thiele also shares that she felt “violated, and that it is going to take her a very long time to get over this, and [she] is concerned about dating in the future because what if they are videotaping her without her consent.”
In the report, Sullivan states that he thought it was “weird because he recalled sitting on the couch with [Thiele] watching the videos and talking about them.” He told the detective that he deleted the videos, of which, by his own accord, there were three, soon after that night.
“I read the actual police report many times,” said Nelson Resendes, lieutenant of investigations and public information officer for the sheriff’s office. “I know the detective involved [Det. Frykberg], she did everything I would’ve expected her to do. From my perspective as an investigations lieutenant, she did a textbook investigation. The alleged crime … had nothing to do with sexual assault … What she did report was fully investigated and turned over to the [district attorney’s] office.”
The submission of law enforcement’s findings to the DA’s office is a standard procedure. David Tellman, chief assistant district attorney for Placer County, said most of the cases coming through are from law enforcement. Very rarely will the DA’s own investigators chime in.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases, a law enforcement agency will investigate it [and] submit the results of their investigation to the prosecuting authority — so Placer County, that’s us,” Tellman explained. “One of our attorneys will review it and make a decision as to whether or not there’s sufficient cause to file a complaint.”
Tellman said at the time the case was reviewed as a misdemeanor violation of an unlawful recording case. “It was never reviewed as a rape case because there were never any allegations of any unconsensual acts,” he continued. “Based on the allegations and based on the fact that there was a legitimate dispute as to what had occured, there was not sufficient evidence to proceed to a jury trial.”
According to Tellman, had Thiele alleged non consensual sexual intercourse in any form in the report, the DA’s process to respond would’ve been much different: A victim advocate would’ve been assigned, the case would’ve been reviewed by a team of prosecutors about whether or not to pursue charges, and Thiele would’ve been educated about sexual assault resources available to her.
Even though it was not a sexual assault case, Tellman said a victim advocate reached out three times to Thiele, but that she never responded.
While the DA’s office shared on Facebook its response to Thiele’s post — writing that the case was objectively evaluated and charges declined — the sheriff’s office did not make such a public statement. “What can we say?” Resendes wondered. “Do I hold a press conference and tell the public what I told you just now? … It’s going to minimize her life.”
Resendes added that at the time of the report, Sullivan was fully cooperative in speaking with Det. Frykberg. PCSO has not contacted Sullivan since. Moonshine Ink reached out to him, but he declined to speak with the paper at the time of this story’s publication.
Laura Scattergood, who had been close friends with Thiele since high school, is part of a group seeking justice for what Thiele alleged. She exchanged texts with Thiele, which Moonshine was able to review, a year after the incident describing the encounter as rape, and speculating about the drugging.
“It’s really hard to know at this juncture,” Scattergood said, with conflicting information and accounts; yet that she believes “in [her] core” that Sullivan violated Thiele: “All I know is that she was very disturbed by what happened when she finally came to and she never let it go.”
Other friends of Thiele’s also confirmed to Moonshine that they had conversations with her where she spoke of a rape in 2018, that took place about a year after it happened.
The majority of publicly expressed opinion has been in support of pursuing justice for Thiele — there is even a Justice for Tiffany Thiele Facebook page that is gaining far-reaching attention across the globe.
However, documentation has surfaced and several friends of Thiele’s have come forward indicating there are discrepancies between what she posted and what she told people at the time of the alleged incident.
“The account of events that she told me three years ago doesn’t match up with what she wrote on Facebook,” said one friend, who asked that their identity be withheld due to potential backlash. “Tiffany was a very proud woman, and this man wronged her somehow, but I don’t think it was rape.”
The friend went on to say that Thiele called Sullivan’s various places of employment and tried to get them involved. “She was determined to punish him,” they explained. “When no one would do anything, she became more and more frustrated, and tried to find other avenues to reach the employers, like recruiting friends to call on her behalf. And the whole time it was only about the tape.”
A message exchange shared in full with Moonshine Ink between a separate anonymous aquaintance and Thiele in 2018 goes into a similar level of detail about him filming her without her knowledge with no mention of the sex being unconsensual.
Another friend of several years, who also requested anonymity, said Thiele told her of the alleged incident not long after it happened in 2018, but that only once the case lost steam and Sullivan was not going to be prosecuted did Thiele accuse him of drugging and raping her. Until that point, the friend says, Thiele had said the sexual interaction was consensual, but it was the part of being filmed without consent that had left her feeling violated.
Scattergood views Thiele’s changing story as a factor of her trauma and frequent reprocessing of the events after the fact. “I don’t think it was until later, when she kind of started giving up hope, that she started telling lots of people [about it being rape], and I think maybe hoping that someone could do something for her,” she said.
“Oftentimes people do not realize or understand what sexual assault is [until] a long time after the fact. My educated guess is that she did not want to admit to herself that this person whom she trusted and had been having consensual sex with could do sadistic things to her.”
Ultimately, Scattergood believes her friend. The text exchanges she shared with Thiele reveal her speculating about whether Sullivan drugged her, stating plainly that it was rape, and dedicating a significant amount of time to researching her legal options and discussing a desire to participate in advocacy for sexual assault survivors.
In both message exchanges with Thiele that took place between July 2018 and Sept. 2019, reviewed by the Ink, she referenced fear of reporting her story to the police due to concerns with Sullivan having friends in the force. This concern is reflected in the report itself, with Det. Frykberg noting multiple times that Thiele asked if she, or other law enforcement officers, knew Sullivan.
“This guy lives in Tahoe and he knows the cops,” Thiele texted to Scattergood a year after the incident. “I was fucking terrified.”
In the report, however, Frykberg writes that she and two of the others named (Sgt. Dave Hunt, a woman named Kristen) did not know Sullivan, but was unsure whether the third, Deputy Mathias, was in his acquaintance.
Thiele’s Facebook post also mentioned that Sullivan “knew a Placer County police officer named Russ Lindsay.” The PCSO confirmed Lindsay has never worked for the sheriff’s office.
‘We’ve got to do better’
A lakeside vigil for Thiele was held this past Sunday, Sept. 26, at Commons Beach in Tahoe City, during which friends and family celebrated her life by sharing their memories of her as well as the complexities and struggles leading up to her suicide. The event provided a clear message of advocacy, support, and justice for survivors of sexual assault.
About 80 people were in attendance. Thiele’s stepdad, Dave Fish, spoke on behalf of himself and her mother, focusing his brief comments on initial fundraising efforts to work in his stepdaughter’s name on behalf of sexual assault victims.
“Maybe it helps one person, maybe it helps 100 people, maybe it helps more than that,” Fish said of the fledgling efforts. “But we’ve got to do better.”
Thousands of Facebook users agree. The Justice for Tiff Facebook page has 2,300 members as of this publication and is growing, and many of the comments and replies involve people sharing their own stories of sexual assault and survival. More, still, are coming forward on Thiele’s original post, shared over 3,300 times.
One of the justice group’s coordinators, Dai Pritchard, who also helped organize the vigil, stated in the page’s description that encouraging survivors to share their stories was part of the intended purpose of the forum alongside pursuing Thiele’s claims.
“Ultimately the goal for all of us,” Pritchard told the Ink in a text, “is to get the 2018 files given to DA opened … to understand why her story was not enough when in other states it is enough, get into court [and] get [the] grand jury to look at [the] evidence again, and get Andrew Sullivan and others called in and interviewed on video.”
Of course, now the report has been opened and advocates can discern for themselves what its contents mean. Regarding reopening the case, it is unclear whether this would be possible under the Sixth Amendment. Tellman with the DA’s office stated in an email, “The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to confront their accuser. This rule and the hearsay rule combine to require victims and witnesses to be available to testify in court. Without a testifying victim, that account of the crime will never be heard by a jury, which almost always means that there is no admissible evidence of the crime.”
The justice system’s code of ethics, Tellman added, “forbids prosecutors from filing charges they believe they cannot convince a jury they cannot convict on.”
The advocacy efforts following Thiele’s suicide and allegations are reminiscent of the international #metoo movement started by activist Tarana Burke that gained international traction in 2017 when sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein took a foothold in court. The movement’s true legs, however, have involved survivors of sexual assault using Twitter and other social media to come forward with their own stories. Four years later, it’s undeniable that culture and conversation have shifted surrounding the topic, and advocacy efforts nationwide continue to push laws supporting survivors.
Holly Underwood, a coworker of Thiele’s who spoke at her vigil, praised efforts to bring more sexual assault stories to light, and disclosed her own survival story for the first time publically during her speech: “Forty years ago, I was raped,” Underwood told the listeners at Commons Beach on Sunday. “I believed I was worthless … then it happened again, a different guy, a different time.”
Underwood shared that she never came forward during the #metoo movement, and never opened up to Thiele while she was alive. “What if I had told her my story and she knew she could reach out to me?” she pondered to the listeners. “Would things have happened differently?”