US college in turmoil over party rape of black stripper

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Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, one of the most prestigious centres of academic and sporting achievement in America, was engulfed in scandal yesterday as police stepped up an investigation into allegations of a savage rape of a hired stripper at a party attended by members of its lacrosse team.

The elite campus has been in turmoil, with noisy protests erupting daily, ever since police divulged details of the case last week. Tensions deepened with the release on Wednesday of an e-mail from one of the team members sent just after the alleged rape, in which he fantasised about killing strippers and cutting off their skin.

Exposed by the crisis are deeply sensitive issues of race and class, which far exceed the familiar town-and-gown factors that divide many universities from surrounding communities. The accuser is black and is a student at nearby North Carolina Central University. The town of Durham is 43 per cent African-American, but only 11 per cent of Duke's students are black. All but one of the lacrosse team members is white.

"This episode has touched off angers, fears, resentments, and suspicions that range far beyond this immediate cause," said Duke University's president Richard Brodhead, who responded to the release of the e-mail by accepting the resignation of the lacrosse team coach, Mike Pressler. The team will also forgo games for the rest of this season.

The refusal of the lacrosse players to co-operate with investigators has added to the anger in the town. At the outset, they switched first names in an effort to confuse police. However, DNA has now been sampled from 46 of the team's 47 members. The only member not subjected to a test is black.

The accuser claimed that she went to a small suburban home rented by the lacrosse players near campus on 13 March to dance at an alcohol-fuelled party. Late in the evening, she told police, she was cornered in a bathroom and raped by three white men.

The e-mail made public on Wednesday was allegedly written by a team member, Ryan McFadyen, a 19-year-old from New Jersey. In it, he boasts of plans for an encore of the party the next evening with strippers to attend again. "After tonights show 9 (sic), ive decided to have some strippers over to edens 2c," he wrote, referring to the address of the rented home.

He went on: "I plan on killing the bitches as soon as [they] walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off." He also said he would find the killing of the dancers sexually exiting.

Fearing more unrest, Mr Brodhead appealed for calm yesterday. "We do not want anyone... to seek retribution or take matters into their own hands," he said.

Results from the DNA tests are not expected until next week, and so far no one in the case has been charged. Medical examinations of the victim on the night of the alleged assaults supported her claims and the authorities in Durham seem in no doubt that her allegations are founded.

Mike Nifong, the district attorney, said he was "pretty confident that a rape occurred" at the team house, and highlighted its racial nature. "The circumstances of the rape indicated a deep racial motivation for some of the things that were done. It makes a crime that is by its nature one of the most offensive and invasive even more so," he said.