On November 28, 1987 Joyce Lloray happened to look out of her apartment's sliding glass door in time to see a black girl climb into a big green plastic garbage bag and then lay still on the cold, muddy ground. Mrs. Lloray called the Duchess County Sheriff's Department, setting into motion a chain of bizarre and tragic events that made the quiet little town of Wappingers Falls, New York -- population 5,000 -- the focus of national attention.
The girl in the trash bag on the grounds of the Pavillion Condominiums was 15-year-old Tawana Brawley. Four days earlier she had played hooky from school in order to visit a former boyfriend, Todd Buxton, who was incarcerated at the Orange County Jail in nearby Newburgh. That evening Tawana took a bus to the town of Wappingers, where she had lived with her mother in Apartment 19A at the Pavillion Condominiums prior to their moving to Wappingers Falls. According to Tawana, she was abducted by several white men shortly after she got off the bus; the men, one of whom wore a badge, took her to a wooded area and sexually abused her over a period of several days.
When police and paramedics arrived at the Pavillion Condominiums in response to Joyce Lloray's call, they found Tawana's clothes torn, cut and partially burned. Her body and clothing were smeared with feces, and on her chest and torso the words "KKK," "NIGGER" and "BITCH" had been written with what appeared to be charcoal. Since it seemed that Tawana's civil rights had been violated, the FBI was called in. A rape kit was administered at St. Francis Hospital and sent under seal to an FBI lab for analysis. Interviewed at the hospital by a black officer from the Poughkeepsie Police Department, Tawana claimed she had been repeatedly raped by a group of white men but could provide no names or descriptions of her assailants. She later told others that there had been no rape, only other kinds of sexual abuse. Forensic tests found no evidence that a sexual assault of any kind had occurred. Nor was there any evidence of exposure to elements, which would be expected in a victim held for several days in the woods at a time when the temperature dropped below freezing at night.
There were other discrepancies in Tawana's story. She was seen entering the empty apartment at Pavillion where she had once lived on the morning after the alleged abduction. Other witnesses claimed to have seen her at parties in a nearby town during the period when she was "missing." She had no bruises, contusions, scratches or other injuries except for a small bruise behind the left ear, which was determined to be several days old. Her mother, Glenda Brawley, was spotted at the apartment complex shortly before Tawana was seen getting into the garbage bag; the mother waited until that same afternoon to report Tawana's "disappearance" to the police. The investigation turned up evidence to indicate that the damage done to Tawana's clothing had occurred in the apartment. According to the grand jury report, all of "the items and instrumentalities necessary to create the condition in which Tawana Brawley appeared on Saturday, November 28, were present inside of or in the immediate vicinity of Apartment 19A." The feces had come from a neighbor's dog.
The Tawana Brawley case was quickly seized upon by a trio of black activists who viewed it as a means by which to demonstrate that the police and judicial system were racist and corrupt. Attorney Alton H. Maddox had been beaten by a white mob as a teenager in Newnan, Georgia; confrontational and virulently anti-white, Maddox seemed at times less interested in justice than in the potential for conflict that high profile cases like Tawana Brawley's provided. C. Vernon Mason, another New York attorney, also used cases to drum up publicity and address wider issues. Al Sharpton was a flamboyant Pentecostal preacher who spent $2,000 a year for hair care at Brooklyn's Prima Donna Beauty Salon; his hunger for celebrity caused some to question both his motives and methods. Maddox, Mason and Sharpton had joined forces before, in the Howard Beach case a year earlier. Several black men had been accosted by a white mob and one of them, Michael Griffith, was chased out onto a highway where he was struck by a vehicle and killed. In previous cases, Maddox and Mason had used the tactic of non-cooperation, refusing to let their clients testify in an effort to facilitate a "miscarriage of justice" in which the perpetrator(s) would get off. In this way they could heighten the outrage of the black community and claim the result proved that the judicial system discriminated against blacks.
The trio muzzled Tawana Brawley and claimed everyone from the local police to New York Governor Mario Cuomo was engaged in a cover-up. The Brawley camp eventually accused Harry Crist, Jr., a part-time police officer, after Crist committed suicide on December 2, and Steven A. Pagones, a Duchess County district attorney, of participating in the alleged abduction and rape. Further investigation revealed that Crist had killed himself for reasons unconnected with the Brawley case, while Pagones' testimony convinced the Poughkeepsie grand jury that he was not involved in any wrongdoing. Undeterred, Maddox, Mason and Sharpton staged numerous media events, from news conferences and rallies to appearances on television shows like Phil Donahue and The Morton Downey, Jr. Show to keep national attention focused on the case.
As time went on, the public grew increasingly skeptical of Tawana Brawley's charges and the ill-advised tactics of her handlers. When Tawana's mother was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury and failed to do so, a warrant for her arrest was issued; Maddox, Mason and Sharpton took her to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in New York City and organized a rally, hoping (in vain) that the authorities would force their way into the church and seize her. Two of Sharpton's associates quit, claiming the reverend had known all along that the case was a hoax. Other black leaders criticized Brawley's advisers -- Ray Innes of the Congress of Racial Equality and attorney Conrad Lynn among them. They feared the hoax and the antics of publicity hounds like Sharpton would prove detrimental to the cause of racial equality.
After seven months of examining police and medical records and listening to the testimony of over one hundred witnesses, the grand jury determined that Tawana's charges were false and that her condition when found had been self-inflicted. The question remained: Why had she lied? One hypothesis was that since Tawana had already been grounded on the day she skipped school to visit her ex-boyfriend, she had made up the story of her abduction in order to avoid further punishment.
The Brawley case resurfaced a decade later when Steven Pagones filed a defamation suit against Maddox, Mason and Sharpton; he had already won a default judgment against Tawana in 1991. By 1997, Tawana had moved to Washington and changed her name to Maryam Muhammad. She returned to New York to speak before a rally at Brooklyn's Bethany Baptist Church in support of her advisers, insisting that she had told the truth about the abduction. The court found otherwise. Her advisers were ordered to pay Pagones $345,000 while Tawana had to pay $185,000. "Tawana Brawley appears caught up in her own fiction," said New York State Supreme Court Justice S. Barrett Hickman. Unfortunately, the rest of the country had to be caught up in it, too.
Newsweek, 14 March 1988, 10 October 1988
Time, 28 March 1988, 20 June 1988, 4 July 1988
"Tawana Brawley Sticks to Story"
Associated Press, 3 December 1997
"Sharpton Remains Feisty in Face of Pointed Questioning"
Michael Hill, Associated Press, 10 February 1998
"Woman Hit With Damages in Suit"
Associated Press, 10 October 1998
Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax
Robert D. McFadden et al (New York: Bantam Books, 1990)
Report of the Grand Jury Concerning the Tawana Brawley Investigation