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.
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.”
“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.