Missouri governor's scandal ensnares unwitting hairdresser
She was a St. Louis hairdresser whose marriage was on the rocks. He was a handsome, educated and ambitious client who bedazzled her with talk of his time as a Navy SEAL, author and volunteer.
What began as a crush on future Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, the woman told lawmakers, led to a series of sexual encounters in 2015 in which he grabbed, slapped, shoved, humiliated and threatened her, sometimes leaving her crying and afraid. Greitens has repeatedly denied being violent or threatening and insisted the monthslong affair was consensual and a "personal mistake" made before his election. He has called the investigation by a legislative panel a "political witch hunt."
The woman's account was made public in a graphic report released Wednesday by a group of House members weighing whether to impeach Greitens. If accurate, her description of events shows her being threatened by one man — Greitens — and betrayed by another — her ex-husband, who gave a television station a secretly recorded conversation in which she described the first sexual encounter with Greitens.
She's also been drawn unwittingly into an intensely political process that could invite attacks on her character and credibility. And the snowballing controversy has unfolded despite the fact that she has never been publicly identified, never went to police and never sought an investigation.
"I can't help but feel sorry for her," said Lisa Aronson Fontes, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an expert on sexual violence and coercive relationships. "The very least each of us would like to be able to do is to control intimate, personal and embarrassing information about ourselves."
Greitens is scheduled to stand trial next month on a felony invasion-of-privacy charge related to the woman's claim that he took a photo of her partially nude body, then threatened to make it public if she disclosed their relationship.
She told the legislative panel that Greitens explained later that he planned to run for governor, and the photo was protection to ensure she did not speak about the encounter. She said he also told her he erased it.
Greitens, 44, became a rising star in the national Republican Party and a welcome partner for state GOP lawmakers after his election in 2016. He seemed to have his sights set on even higher office, having secured the web address EricGreitensforPresident.com years before running for governor.
The governor's attorneys have asked for the case to be dismissed, claiming that prosecutors' video of an interview with the woman backs up Greitens' claim of consent. That recording was shared with the defense Wednesday night, after the release of the legislative report, which Greitens' attorneys said amounted to prosecutorial perjury and misconduct.
Greitens refused to testify before the panel and has resisted calls from Democrats and Republicans to step down. He has not answered directly when asked if he took a photo. Lawmakers said they found the woman credible.
Her testimony paints a portrait of someone unsure about her own marriage. She and her husband were separated, and she was flattered that a "perfect guy" like Greitens would take an interest in her. He's a former Rhodes scholar, Navy SEAL officer, author and motivational speaker who gained a national platform after founding The Mission Continues charity to help military veterans become involved in their communities.
She testified that she didn't want a sexual relationship when she went to Greitens' home in March 2015 to discuss another matter. She said he asked her to change into different clothes and go to his basement because he wanted to take her through a workout and show her "how to do a proper pull-up."
She said he "taped my hands to these rings and then put a blindfold on me" and began touching and kissing her body. She said she saw a flash through the blindfold and he allegedly told her, "You're never going to mention my name," and said he would release the photo and "everyone will know what a little whore you are."
She said she was left crying hysterically, but performed oral sex on him because she felt that she had no other choice. But she said she continued to see the married Greitens because she wanted to believe he had feelings for her.
"I felt really disgusted with myself that I allowed that first time to happen. Really embarrassed that he thought of me as a whore," she testified. Meanwhile, her husband told her he didn't want anything to do with her, and Greitens had returned to being "normal and so kind to me."
"I wanted to think that he actually really liked me and wanted to have a relationship with me of sorts," she testified.
During another encounter, she testified, he slapped her across the face and again called her a whore after she admitted that she had slept with her husband: "I felt like he was trying to claim me."
Fontes said the woman described classic signs of coercive control.
If the allegations are true, "we're talking about a woman with relatively low social rank" and "a man with a lot of social power" that he used, along with a threat, to control her behavior, said Fontes, adding that an incident at the hair salon, when the woman said Greitens ran his hand up her leg and to her crotch without her consent, would have been sexual assault.
"It is understandable to me that she would want to try to understand what happened and assume it was something other than assault," Fontes said of the first encounter at Greiten's house.
She also said a threat to distribute a photo, if true, erases any notion that the encounters were consensual.
"He was asserting extreme power over her, and she, like many women, was trying to appease him," Fontes said.
Paul DerOhannesian, a former prosecutor in New York who has written a book on sexual assault trials, said that if the first encounter happened the way the woman claims it did, she might not have recognized it as assault.
"I think people don't realize that if one of the parties changes their mind, at that point, it is no longer consensual," DerOhannesian said. "Being able to prove it is the issue."
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