Three women told The Sun this week that Jesse Reed Steberger '13, who goes by Reed, forced them into non-consensual encounters or coerced them to engage in sex while they were in college.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Three women told The Sun this week that Jesse Reed Steberger '13, who goes by Reed, forced them into non-consensual encounters or coerced them to engage in sex while they were in college.

September 7, 2017

County Legislature Candidate Was Accused of Rape While at Cornell

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Jesse Reed Steberger ’13, who is campaigning to represent Collegetown and the Ithaca Commons at the county level, was accused of raping a woman while studying at Cornell, The Sun has learned.

Three women told The Sun this week that Steberger, who goes by Reed, forced them into non-consensual encounters or coerced them to engage in sex while they were at Cornell in allegations that span nearly three years. Interviews with eight additional people regarding the candidate confirm parts of the three women’s accounts, and Reed, in two interviews this week, did not dispute the most serious allegations.

Reed, a Democrat running to represent more than 7,000 people in District Four as a Tompkins County legislator, was never charged with a crime. In interviews with The Sun on Wednesday and Thursday, the 27-year-old candidate apologized “for hurting people who were close to me and who trusted me.”

“Consent is something I’ve had to learn,” Reed told The Sun, “and my failure to know it earlier in life has had consequences for others.”

Allie Riggs ’13 told The Sun that Reed forced her to have sex on Slope Day in 2010, shortly after the two had ended a months-long relationship. The two had been drinking and engaging in consensual foreplay at the Triphammer Cooperative, where Riggs lived, before Reed raped her, Riggs said, calling it an “intense violation.” Reed did not dispute this account.

“There were great abuses of power,” Riggs said of her interactions with Reed.

After leaving the cooperative, Riggs returned later that same evening — May 7, 2010 — looking exhausted and disturbed, her Triphammer Cooperative roommate at the time, Miwa Oseki Robbins ’13, said.

“She came in and she was able to say, ‘Reed forced me to have sex with him,’ and then basically curled up under her covers and went to sleep,” Oseki Robbins said.

Several hours later, after calling crisis hotlines for advice, Oseki Robbins and her partner at the time woke Riggs up and drove her to the Cayuga Medical Center where medical staff performed a rape kit, Riggs and Oseki Robbins said.

Asked about Riggs’ description of the May 2010 incident, Reed said consent is “something that I have learned since.”

“The fundamental thing that I learned from this experience was, when it comes to intimacy and consent, consent is an active ‘yes’ at every single point of any act of intimacy. If there’s a ‘yes’ to begin with, that doesn’t mean there’s a ‘yes’ 5 minutes later, 10 minutes later,” Reed said.

“That’s not something that I understood.”

Riggs filed a complaint with the Cornell Police Department days after the encounter, she said, and Reed gave an interview to Cornell Police shortly after, the candidate told The Sun. It is unclear whether police ever took any additional action as part of their investigation.

Riggs also filed a complaint with Cornell’s former judicial administrator, Mary Beth Grant, according to Riggs and Oseki Robbins. Riggs and Reed came to a joint agreement in August 2010 that settled that complaint and included an order prohibiting Reed from contacting Riggs, both parties said.

“I was starting my second year of college and I just didn’t want this hanging over my head,” Riggs said of not demanding a hearing in the OJA case. “I was a kid and it wasn’t something that I wanted to go through at the time.”

Fil Eden ’10, a friend of both Reed and Riggs, recalled Riggs appearing distraught the day after Slope Day in 2010.

“Allie was very visibly shaken up, was struggling to process what had happened, was struggling deciding what to do,” Eden told The Sun, adding that he and his partner at the time later accompanied Riggs to the Cornell Police Department when she filed her complaint there.

Eden also said that in the days after the May 2010 encounter, Reed told him that, on Slope Day, Riggs and Reed had gotten into an argument, which was followed by “emotionally intense sex,” a conversation Eden found concerning at the time and one Reed did not dispute on Thursday.

“Reed clearly understood the situation differently than Allie did,” Eden said, “and that’s scary for someone running for political office.”

The OJA demanded within a week or two of Riggs’ complaints that Reed move out of the 660 Stewart cooperative, the co-op’s president at the time, Ashlee Wilkins ’10, and Reed told The Sun. Eden said he helped Reed carry things out of the residence in the spring of 2010.

Reed, pictured here in May, said this week that "Consent is something I've had to learn" when asked about a rape allegation from 2010.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Reed, pictured here in May, said this week that “Consent is something I’ve had to learn” when asked about a rape allegation from 2010.

Shortly before this article was published, Reed sent an email to “friends and supporters” in which the candidate described the May 2010 event.

“Partly because of the alcohol I had consumed and partly because I did not yet have a fully develop [sic] understanding of consent, I did not recognize when our sex became non-consensual,” Reed wrote, adding later in the letter: “I am sorry for hurting people who were close to me and who trusted me.”

K.C. Alvey ’12 said that while she and Reed were in a relationship for nearly three years beginning in April 2011, she felt pressured into group sex several times by Reed at the former couple’s apartment.

Reed, Alvey said, threw parties and encouraged people to consume large amounts of alcohol before proposing that the attendees participate in group sex.

The group sex was often not communicated to attendees ahead of time, Alvey said. “I don’t think people were aware of what they were getting themselves into.”

The parties were described similarly by two additional people who attended them. In one instance, around December of 2012, Alvey said she saw Reed perform oral sex on a freshman woman who appeared to be “black-out drunk” and “not very responsive,” according to Alvey, who was also intoxicated at the time. Reed denied this.

“It’s weighed on me that I was not more attentive to whether others felt safe or were too incapacitated to consent in sexual interactions with Reed that I witnessed,” Alvey said, adding that her experiences with Reed have helped her “understand the importance of being an active bystander.”

At least twice, Alvey said, in July and October of 2012, she cried during the group sex parties and tried “to stop what was happening.”

“In the past, I do know that I had difficulty in navigating that power and privilege affect my behavior,” Reed said in response to Alvey’s claims. “I know that those actions have hurt people.”

A third woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe her experience, said that when she went on a walk with Reed in the summer of 2010, a couple of weeks after the two had first met at a party, Reed quickly crossed her boundaries.

As the two approached a lake near Cornell’s campus, Reed suggested they go skinny dipping, the woman, a 2013 Cornell graduate, said. The alumna said she believes she removed her top and the two waded into the water.

Once the two were chest-deep in the water, Reed, completely naked, pulled the woman closer until their upper bodies were pressed tightly together and kissed her, she said.

“I felt really uncomfortable,” the 2013 Cornell graduate said.

The former student said she pretended to see a fish out of the corner of her eye and feigned terror at the critter in order to wriggle out of Reed’s grip and return to shore.

“I never put myself in a position alone with them again,” she added, referring to Reed, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns.

Reed said they did not recall this event, but cautioned that “my understanding of consent has changed and grown and I don’t want to question someone’s account.”

Reed Steberger '13 is running against the incumbent, Rich John '81, for the District Four spot on the Tompkins County Legislature.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

Reed Steberger ’13 is running against the incumbent, Rich John ’81, for the District Four spot on the Tompkins County Legislature.

“While it’s unusual and painful to have an open conversation about personal mistakes I’ve made, as a public figure, I’m grateful to have a chance to be honest about how power and privilege showed up in relationships — my own relationships in the past,” Reed said.

Many people did not believe Riggs or Alvey when they initially told their stories, the women said, in part because of Reed’s ardent work as a progressive student activist.

“There were a lot of people that felt that I was wrong and who didn’t believe me,” Riggs said. “I’ve lost friendships over this.”

It was not until Olivia Duell ’14 posted on Facebook in late August — sharing her concerns that someone who she said had “a history abuse” was running to serve on the Tompkins County Legislature — that people began to speak up.

When Duell received messages from several women, she said, telling her that they had been assaulted or been in uncomfortable situations with Reed, Duell began reaching out to groups that had endorsed Reed. At least two people have dropped their endorsements as of Thursday.

“The allegations and assertions I’ve learned of are deeply troubling and it seemed clear to me from the people that I’ve spoken with that this remains an unresolved issue, not only in their lives, but that there have not been steps taken to make amends,” Irene Wieser, a councilmember in the Town of Caroline, told The Sun, retracting her endorsement of Reed.

The Ithaca rapper and Cornell graduate student known as Sammus ’08 confirmed to The Sun this week that she is no longer endorsing anyone in the District Four race after previously supporting Reed on social media.

At least a dozen people or organizations, including groups at Cornell, have endorsed Reed for District Four. Reed is running against the incumbent, Rich John ’81, and the two will face off for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, Sept. 12. No Republicans are running for the District Four spot.

Two of the three women who spoke to The Sun, as well as others contacted for this article, said that while they support Reed’s platform and the values of the campaign, they felt they could not remain silent.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t provide my story,” Riggs said.

“I support the progressive and bold policies outlined in Reed’s platform for County Legislator,” Alvey said in an email, “but I’m deeply concerned about someone who has a history of abusing power and trust, in a position of political power.

Alvey said she wants Reed “to withdraw from the campaign and to be held accountable for the ways that they’ve harmed numerous people.”

Drew Musto ’19 contributed research to this article.

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  • Ezra Tank

    Is he wearing makeup and pink nail polish?

    Jesus the liberals have destroyed integrity with their lifestyles.

    • Alumnus

      Yes, the only thing worth taking away from this article is that Steberger chooses a form of expression that you don’t agree with, and thus liberals are “destroying integrity.”

      • Emily Adams

        Wait, I thought we libtards were destroying America? I can’t keep it straight. It is kind of awesome, though, how someone who is gay can just look sideways at a happily married heterosexual couple and voila, the next day they are in divorce court. That’s a lot of power. I wonder if I could wear mismatched socks and emit some kind of force field that would make 100 people donate to the SPCA.

        But seriously. Someone should do something about all the irresponsible underaged drinking on college campuses. That would have a positive impact on many people’s lives.

  • Emily Adams

    The executive committee of the Tompkins County Progressives was dismayed to learn about the charges against its endorsed candidate for the District 4 Legislative race, Reed Steberger, as written up in this Cornell Daily Sun article. Not only were we shocked to read about Reed’s past behavior, we were also deeply saddened to read that, in Ithaca, in the 21st century, the stories of the victims were largely dismissed by those around them. We as a community can do better. Reed stepped forward and took responsibility for what happened, extended apologies, and withdrew from the Legislative race. The TCP executive committee believes that this was the correct decision and action by Reed. Reed’s decision to withdraw from the race nullifies an earlier endorsement by our membership.

    TCP encourages the Ithaca community to redouble its efforts to create safe spaces for people to tell their stories and be believed, respected, and supported. We intend to look for opportunities to grow within our own organization, and ways to support other organizations and individuals in this important process.

  • Emily Adams

    While condemning Reed’s behavior at Cornell, I want to add that Reed’s choice of personal pronoun, their manner of dressing, wearing makeup, and other personal lifestyle choices are not relevant to the situation, and their platform was in my view an excellent one. It is important not to lump unrelated details together. Those who do not identify with one gender or another, or who dress in a way that doesn’t conform to social norms, are much more often the victim of harassment and abuse, than the perpetrator. Likewise, a candidate who is not a member of a vulnerable or oppressed group might very well represent vulnerable and oppressed people better than the person who IS a member of one of those groups. Every situation needs to be evaluated independently and thoughtfully. Life is not black and white.

    • Alumnus

      Very well written and important to say. Thank you.

    • maxmer13

      Which group would he be representing? The trans community or the serial rapist community. Stop with the nonsense, this clown belongs in jail.

      • Emily Adams

        Reed would have been a voice for young people and students on a governing body where those demographics are not represented. They would have represented the LGBTQ community on a body where that demographic is not currently represented (but where there will be 1 or 2 female representatives after the election.) But we do not elect people based on the demographic they represent, by itself. It would be great to have a Muslim or a person of Asian descent on the legislature, and perhaps those communities are out recruiting candidates now, but a Muslim or an Asian with no qualifications would not be suitable. Also, no one is saying that rapists or drug dealers or con artists or white supremacists ought to have “one of their own” on the legislature, representing their interests. However, a *former* drug addict, a recovering alcoholic, a dead-beat dad who returned to his family to make amends — these people *could* (all else being equal) make a valuable contribution. Society benefits when people who have gone astray return to being upstanding citizens — and someone who has walked that road might be ideally suited to helping the county make it easier for others to do so.

        • Sarita Upadhyay

          I appreciate your perspective and agree that underrepresented groups need to have representation in government. I also agree that people can be rehabilitated. However, I have extensive non-sexual personal history with Reed and can attest that the abuse, manipulation, and power plays went far beyond sexual situations. Reed was downright cruel and manipulative to me and others. They have demonstrated to me the lowest moral fiber of any human I have met. It scares me to hear people so quickly discussing potential rehabilitation because my experience with them was so deeply disturbing on multiple levels.

      • Emily Adams

        As to whether Reed belongs in jail… that is for the women, the courts and psychological experts to decide. You could be right. Jails/prisons, where they have to be used, should be reserved for those who are a physical danger to society. But seeing as it costs taxpayers something like $85,000 a year to keep someone locked up, it wouldn’t be my automatic choice. Also, serving time in jail/prison has not really been shown to help people recover, or deter others from committing crimes. Ideally, there will be a way for Reed to get the help they need, and make restitution to those they harmed and also to the community that was harmed, while not putting anyone else at risk. An example: they might complete an intensive therapy program and then develop a TED-style presentation on gender roles, intimidation and consent, and present it at high schools and on college campuses, to raise money for a fund for sexual assault victims. But I agree, the most important thing is that no one else be harmed.

        • maxmer13

          Actually it is up to the courts to decide, others may influence the decision but the law is the law. While there may be in the minds of others a distinction between sexual assault and the physical beating of another human being I see no such distinction. It could be argued that sexual assault has a longer lasting effect on the victim than a serious beating. As to the cost of incarceration it is a moot point…what is the cost to the victim and those who would otherwise become a victim of a serial predator? I do not believe that any state can rehabilitate a person, change can only come from within. One of the major functions of society is to protect its citizens. The citizen’s right to safety must always come before the criminals right to rehabilitation. What is most disturbing is how the so called “Progressive” party has tried to rationalize and to an extent minimize the admitted (through his withdrawing from the race) history of sociopathic behavior ignoring the rights of his fellow human beings to be treated with respect. If you think a person like him can just flip a switch and become a contributing member of society then you need to study the repeat offending rates of people who have multiple sexual assault episodes. I see absolutely no difference between a member of the American Nazi party raping and abusing women with that of a self identifying LGTGQ criminal. I doubt you would bother to defend or rationalize his past if he were a member of the American Nazi party.
          Finally, the function of the elected official is to protect and represent all of his or her constituency not just the group they self identify with. Ithaca is a welcoming community to the LGTGQ, in fact the only group who is not represented in Ithaca is the conservative community which is estimated at 30%. Having a board of people who look different, are members of different races, religions, and sexual orientation is not diversity if they all think the same way. Real diversity comes in ideas not identities and that is why each and every council from the city, town and county level is a farce.

          • Emily Adams

            I with almost everything you wrote. Absolutely, a rapist is a physical danger to society, as much as or more so than someone who beats up another person, or shoots them, and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. If psychologists and the courts decide a person is a physical danger, then of course we pay what we need to pay to protect society.
            I am just an individual, I don’t represent the “Progressive Party” (and there is currently no progressive party in New York, just a movement…) As an individual, I try to “err on the side of compassion and inclusion” where I can. I like to believe that most people can be “redeemed” (and yes, whether they are LGBTQ activists or white supremacists) and I like to think that there are conservatives who could serve responsibly in public office. Apparently, there are some who can’t.
            I also happen to be a member of a grassroots progressive group in TC, and if people reach out to us with information about candidates (or other troubling information in general, or normal concerns about life in TC), as a group we will listen and decide what action we might take to be supportive. At the moment, there are many more concerns than we have the manpower to address, unfortunately, but we are trying our best.
            Our membership endorsed Reed before any of this information came to light, and we withdrew our support immediately once we learned about it. It is not our place to tell the courts what to do, but we can tell our members and supporters that we condemn this behavior and no longer support Reed’s candidacy.

  • maxmer13

    The real question is what in the world gave this predator the idea that he was of sufficient moral and ethical character to represent his fellow citizens? Could it possibly be the fact that other politicians serving at the highest levels of government have been both exposed and nearly simultaneously forgiven by their supporters who compartmentalize personal actions versus political positions. Little wonder he ran as a Democrat given the Kennedy’s, Clinton and Roosevelt not to forget MLK that these icons of the Democratic party were all men who were serial abusers of women. My guess is had our pervert who belongs in jail been opposed by a Republican he would not withdrawn from the race and most likely would have won given Ithacan’s would rather have a sex criminal who supports their views in office than take a chance on….God forbid a Republican.

    • Emily Adams

      I agree with your general sentiment that the people who tend to run for office tend to see their own shortcomings as minor or irrelevant — if they see them at all. It is a real problem. How did John Edwards, for example, NOT see that his affair was a HUGE liability for his party? Why didn’t his close advisers, who knew the truth, insist that he drop out immediately? Probably because such things are more or less normal. People who are truly upright and ethical very often turn away from politics altogether because it is so corrupt, leaving only the corrupt and self-important people to run for office. Plus, if you are a decent public servant, and you are NOT taking lots of money on the side and making deals, you are left with a salary that is quite meager, compared to what you could probably earn outside of public service. The incentives are all backwards.

      I myself basically hated politics and was disgusted by all politicians until 2016, when Bernie Sanders came forward with his vision for good government and fair treatment for all its citizens.

      As to “politicians serving at the highest levels of government” who have been “exposed and nearly simultaneously forgiven by their supporters” for highly unethical, immoral, sexist, racist, inflammatory, self-serving behavior including outright illegal behavior, corruption and obstruction of justice… Yes, it is a problem, but I wouldn’t say it is limited to the Democratic Party.

      • maxmer13

        Okay I go along with most of that. For the record I am a registered Indepedent . I find both parties to be in the cluches of the left or right wing extremes and those not aligned with the extremes are in the pockets of lobbies. How else can a person whose salary is typically under 200k and normally has to maintain a residence in DC and one in their home district leave office a multi millionaire? Having lived in Europe for 7 years and visiting yearly I can see why Bernie’s socialist ideas are appealing. However, Americans want everything for free and people like Bernie are selling them a lie he knows is impossible unless everyone pays. In a country in which an estimated 47% pay no federal income taxes they fail to realize that the average German, Dane etc pay 50 to 60 percent of income to the government for these ” free” programs. Life may not be fair but you usually get out of it what you put into it. We have sold victimhood and entitlement when in fact most people are victims of their own mistakes and lack of vigor. You can’t have it all but in the words of the Sage Mick Jagger, ” you can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes you just may find you get what you need”. Millions of Americans simply need to grow up.

  • Sarita Upadhyay

    I have a personal history with Reed that has been extremely emotionally challenging. I appreciate that Reed has taken responsibility for their actions and indicated that they have grown and now understand consent in a different way, though they can never reverse the harm they caused.

    HOWEVER, my past with Reed indicates that the power-plays and manipulation stretch beyond an inability to understand that yes means yes in sexual encounters. Reed was personally cruel and manipulative toward me. They made every effort to exclude me from a community of people I cared about and to drive wedges between me and other people. Reed was unwilling to talk through or work through issues, and used me only as a pawn when it was convenient to their political and social reputation. This meant attempting to befriend me during a time when I was living through an extreme, and public, traumatic situation, and treating me like garbage for over 2 years before that point. I also know that a number of other people, and particularly other female-identifying folks, had similar experiences with Reed. No matter how much Reed claims to now understand consent or have reformed, I have seen and experienced cruel manipulative behavior unrelated to sexual encounters. I sincerely hope that nobody allows Reed to be in a position of power, as the sexual abuse and power-plays absolutely extend to other arenas of Reed’s life.

    • Emily Adams

      Hello Sarita, I am so irritated at Disqus, the long reply I just wrote to you has vanished. Second attempt, shorter version: I defer to your experience with Reed, as I really don’t know them well. I had a very unpleasant experience a few years ago, in Europe, with a young man who played the part of a wise, enlightened and aware person. Kurt had an uncanny way of finding people with low self-esteem and zeroing in on their insecurities and exploiting them. I thought it was me, that I was incompetent and unreasonable… until I found some google entries on the topic of sociopathic behavior. And a long string of victims before me. Including a woman he married and then deserted (after emptying all their joint bank accounts.) I also learned that Kurt had been locked up in a psychiatric hospital for a year while in college. Apparently he must have talked a good story and convinced everyone that it was safe to release him. After I learned all this about Kurt, I tried to alert some of his friends and also to report his behavior to the police and medical experts, but often his friends just thought I was nuts, and the police said he hadn’t done anything illegal. I kicked him out of an organization where I was membership director, and he went ballistic and took me to court — thankfully the judge said I was within my rights. Beyond that, there wasn’t anything I could do to “protect society” from Kurt or get him into treatment against his will, and I gave up.
      If you think Reed is like Kurt, and if you think there is enough evidence in Reed’s case to actually do something and save some people from real misery… please reach out to me via the Tompkins County Progressives. We should talk.

      • Sarita Upadhyay

        Hi Emily, thanks for sharing your story about Kurt. I’m sure that must have been a really challenging situation to experience. I absolutely think that there are many analogous elements between your description of Kurt’s behavior, and the behavior I have witnessed from Reed. Reed was in constant conflict the entire time I knew them. They have been cruel and manipulative and caused severe psychological damage to many people. I am happy to share more details and put you in touch with others who can also speak to the disturbing behavior that Reed has exhibited. I don’t think there is much that can be done about it; as in your situation, Reed’s upsetting behavior is not illegal. However, I think organizations like the Tompkins County Progressives would be remiss not to receive information about Reed’s past behavior. I will send a message through Tompkins County Progressives.

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