The FBI investigated David Copperfield for two years. The claim that he was ‘exonerated’ was widely embraced. Was he? | US news

Lacey Carroll headed straight to Harborview Medical Center after touching down in Seattle following a three-day stay on David Copperfield’s private island in the Bahamas. It was August 2007 and – according to police records – she had gone to get medical treatment for sexual assault.

The 20-year-old later alleged to Seattle police and in court filings that she had embarked on the long journey to Musha Cay – the islands in the Bahamas that Copperfield reportedly bought for $50m in 2006 – because she had been offered a chance to do promotional work and some modeling there along with a team of others. Instead, she claimed, she found herself alone with Copperfield and a few members of his staff. Copperfield, she alleged, raped and assaulted her multiple times.

Carroll’s allegations in 2007 set off an FBI investigation and created a media storm around Copperfield. More than two years later, the FBI dropped the matter with little explanation. No charges were filed.

An investigation by the Guardian US has re-examined Carroll’s claims and the depiction of the case in the media, as part of its broader investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by the master illusionist. Lawyers for the illusionist have denied all allegations.

The prevalent public perception at the time was that Carroll had ultimately been discredited after being charged with a crime in an unrelated matter. Some 2010 media reports noted the FBI had dropped its years-long investigation at the same time, suggesting a link. But the Guardian’s reporting found this narrative was inaccurate.

Copperfield said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2012 that he had been “exonerated” by federal authorities. A source close to the federal investigation said in connection to the case, “declining to charge someone is not equivalent to exonerating someone or declaring them innocent”. When asked why the FBI investigation had taken more than two years, the person said: “They tried very, very hard.” The Guardian’s investigation found that the federal investigation faced jurisdictional challenges, given that the alleged incidents occurred on the Bahamian island.

Lawyers for Copperfield said he denies “all the allegations” made by Carroll and that the matter had been “extensively investigated” by law enforcement.

The alleged assault on Musha Cay

Carroll’s first interactions with David Copperfield bore many of the hallmarks of the accounts of other young women who have made sexual misconduct allegations against the celebrity illusionist.

Carroll met the entertainer at one of his shows at a venue in Tri-Cities, Washington, in January 2007. According to a civil case Carroll filed in Washington state in 2009, Copperfield had called her on stage to assist him with one of his tricks. After the performance one of Copperfield’s assistants asked her to wait in her seat after the show. She was given a questionnaire, and told that a picture of her with Copperfield would be taken and be attached to the form.

According to the lawsuit, one of Copperfield’s assistants told Carroll the magician had a private island, and that she might be asked to participate in promotional activities there.

The alleged exchange appears to follow standard procedures followed by his staff, as outlined in an internal memo.

The memo, which was obtained by the celebrity gossip site TMZ and published in 2007, described how Copperfield would scan the audience and pick women he thought had “potential for future projects”. If he gestured toward these women, the memo said, staff were expected to “pull” them into after-show “meet and greets” with him. The memo instructed staff to give the women questionnaires and take polaroids and tell them about Copperfield’s islands in the Bahamas and how they might have opportunities to do marketing work there. In special cases, the memo suggests, Copperfield would seek to speak to “the prospects” about their possibilities privately.

Musha Cay, David Copperfield’s private island in the southern Bahamas. Photograph: Marc Serota/Getty Images

In response to questions from the Guardian, Copperfield’s lawyers declined to comment on the memo.

In her lawsuit, Carroll said her family was not allowed to accompany her when she went backstage to meet Copperfield.

Copperfield and Carroll began to exchange phone calls, with Carroll ultimately being invited to the island.

Carroll alleged in her lawsuit that Copperfield’s assistant assured her others would be there for the promotional opportunity. When Carroll asked whether her boyfriend could come, she was told “no”, she alleged; but she said she was told everyone would have their own room, and she would have access to email and telephone coverage so that she could stay in touch with her family.

In the 2009 civil lawsuit, Carroll described her journey from Seattle to the small private island, and claimed that once she got there “no one else was in attendance” apart from Copperfield and some of his staff. Copperfield allegedly told her more people would be arriving the next day. That night, the two had dinner and then began to watch a movie when – Carroll alleged – Copperfield attacked and raped her with a dildo. Carroll said in the lawsuit that she physically and verbally resisted and struggled to get away.

Carroll claimed she tried to call her family and boyfriend but was unable to reach them on her mobile phone. She then reached her boyfriend using the house phone, but was interrupted during the call when Copperfield entered her room, she said.

Carroll’s boyfriend at the time, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the account to the Guardian, saying he remembered getting a call from Carroll that was “strained” and “not normal”.

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The next day, according to her lawsuit, Copperfield ordered Carroll to get naked on Copperfield’s private beach, and when she refused he held her head under water, causing her to fear she would drown. Copperfield warned her not to tell anyone about what had happened, the lawsuit alleged. She claimed Copperfield untied her swimsuit top and forced Carroll to masturbate him while he fondled her breasts. She said she walked on the beach and then returned to her room and went into the shower. According to the lawsuit, Copperfield pulled her out of the shower and assaulted her again.

In response to questions from the Guardian, lawyers for Copperfield pointed to a statement Copperfield made in 2009, when he claimed that Carroll had “never complained to anyone about her treatment”, had not been seen with bruises “or other signs of assault” and had been suntanning in her bikini. Copperfield also said at the time – and his lawyers reiterated in written responses to the Guardian – that Carroll had access to jet skis and boats, which Copperfield claimed she could have “taken to the neighboring inhabited islands that are minutes away”. He also suggested that Carroll could have called 911 on his private island. Copperfield’s lawyers said more than 20 people had been on the island at the time and that witnesses – whose names were not provided – said she was “upbeat” and “showed no sign of concern, discomfort or unhappiness”.

Carroll spent the next day and night on the island, according to the civil suit. When it was time to return home, Carroll said a golf cart arrived to transport her to a boat, where men she believed were Copperfield’s staff were also present, along with a woman who Carroll said she had not previously seen. She was taken to another small island, she alleged in the civil complaint, and put on a small plane to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Nicholas Schrauwen, a contractor who worked for Copperfield at the time and recalled being on a plane with Carroll as she returned home, said he was later questioned by authorities.

In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “Her head was facing out the window the whole time … What I thought about was that she was well dressed and definitely upset,” Schrauwen said. “I think she was crying, not sobbing.”

Once Carroll was back in Seattle, she immediately headed to the sexual assault and trauma center at Harborview Medical Center, where she was met by her mother and then boyfriend, police records show.

The Seattle police took her statement that day. Police records obtained by the Guardian through a public records request show that Carroll gave hospital staff a napkin she said she used to wipe some of Copperfield’s semen off her and underwent a medical examination with a rape kit.

Lawyers for Copperfield did not answer the Guardian’s questions about whether he had sex with Carroll.

It is not clear if the kit was ever tested or what the results of the test were. The matter was then transferred to the FBI, which – months later – would launch raids on multiple Copperfield properties in Las Vegas.

The FBI investigation

One of the 16 women who have alleged that Copperfield engaged in sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior remembers when she first heard the news on television – sometime around 2008 – that the illusionist was under criminal investigation. When she heard Copperfield’s lawyer denying Carroll’s allegations, she got in touch with the FBI and made a statement.

She was not the only one.

The Guardian has talked to four other people who say they spoke to the FBI after Carroll’s allegations against Copperfield became public. They include Brittney Lewis, whose allegation that Copperfield drugged and sexually assaulted her was detailed by the Guardian on Thursday . Lewis said she reached out to the FBI after she saw the news about Carroll’s allegations. A friend of Lewis’s at the time, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said she also talked with the FBI to corroborate Lewis’s account. Lawyers for Copperfield have denied Lewis’s allegations.

Another individual who contacted the FBI told the Guardian that years earlier he had heard that two women believed they had been drugged by Copperfield before he had sex with them. The individual told the Guardian he shared the name of one of the women, Gillian*, with the FBI. Gillian’s allegations, which were denied by Copperfield’s lawyers, were reported in the Guardian on Wednesday. Gillian told the Guardian she was never contacted by the FBI.

Another source who spoke to the Guardian said she was called by the FBI because agents apparently learned she had once attended a Copperfield show, had filled out a questionnaire and had been invited to the island for a modeling opportunity after Copperfield contacted her.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to take Copperfield up on the invitation, in part because she doubted it was a legitimate job offer.

Magician David Copperfield. Photograph: The AGE/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

A US prosecutor at the time said in a court filing that federal investigators had collected more than 300 witness statements over the course of its investigation.

A person with direct knowledge of the federal investigation declined to comment on the specific claims that witnesses made, but said that while such additional evidence can be helpful in sex crime prosecution it may not always be admissible, as the court consider factors like how long ago the other allegations occurred, the strength of the evidence relating to the prior incident, and how similar or dissimilar the claims are.

As the FBI continued its investigation, Carroll filed her civil lawsuit in the western district of Washington. The lawsuit sought damages for past and future emotional and physical suffering, emotional and psychological injury, past and future impaired earning capacity, and medical bills for past and future expenses. She was 22 years old at the time and represented by a seasoned Washington state attorney, Rebecca Roe.

FBI and grand jury investigations are usually cloaked in secrecy but statements filed by prosecutors in Carroll’s civil claim against Copperfield disclosed some details about their work.

According to statements filed by law enforcement officials in court, agents had opened their investigation in the summer of 2007 but kept the inquiry secret from Copperfield until October 2007, when authorities raided several of his properties in Las Vegas, recovering “thousands of documents and several computers”.

CNN at the time quoted Copperfield’s lawyer, David Chesnoff, “categorically” denying Carroll’s allegation.

“Mr Copperfield’s reputation precedes him as an impeccable gentleman,” Chesnoff said.

“So we’re obviously disturbed that those kinds of allegations are being made, but we believe that that’s a common event now, unfortunately, for celebrated people to be falsely accused,” lawyer said.

“Certainly no one [Copperfield] ever had a relationship with could ever say that about him,” he said

About one week after the raid – on 26 October 2007 – staff who worked for Copperfield companies were reminded in a letter from attorneys that confidentiality agreements they had signed precluded them from disclosing matters to the press and media, according to a letter obtained and published by TMZ.

“We will take all necessary and appropriate action to enforce the terms of the Confidentiality Agreement and other confidentiality agreements, oral or written,” the letter by Laxalt & Nomura, a Nevada-based firm, said. “The confidentiality agreements do not preclude you from speaking with law enforcement in the course of an investigation, if you so choose.”

Copperfield’s lawyers said in response to the Guardian’s questions that it was “not unusual” to remind people of their obligations of confidentiality shortly after a raid by the FBI, especially as they were “expressly told the confidentiality agreements did not preclude them from speaking with law enforcement”.

The civil case in Washington was paused while the FBI investigation continued.

But the FBI and US attorney’s office faced serious challenges pursuing the case.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said the investigation was closed around December 2009, after more than two years. The source claimed the decision reflected the difficulty of prosecuting cases in which the alleged crime occurred overseas, because, the source said, prosecutors would have had to prove that some criminal conduct occurred in the US in connection to the allegation.

In a statement in response to the Guardian’s questions about its handling of the case, a spokesperson for the US attorney’s office in Washington said: “After a thorough investigation by experienced prosecutors of all available evidence, facts, and jurisdictional considerations, the US attorney’s office determined it was unable to prove a federal crime occurred in the US beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The US prosecutors’ decision, a person close to the matter said, was made before another twist in the case emerged, which would come to dominate headlines and be used by Copperfield to allege Carroll was a liar.

A night in Bellevue

The 27 January 2010 headline on ABC News – “Woman in David Copperfield’s Rape Probe Arrested” – could not have been more welcome by Copperfield and his legal team. News organizations and outlets across the country widely published similar stories: Carroll had been charged in Bellevue, Washington, with prostitution and providing a false statement to police, regarding a December 2009 incident in which – news organizations reported – she claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a 31-year-old man named Sean Loomis.

Patty Eakes, one of Copperfield’s lawyers, said the developments vindicated Copperfield and “confirmed what he has said all along – this woman tried to extort money from him by making false claims.”

Behind the headlines, however, police records obtained by the Guardian appear to reveal a more complicated story.

Carroll was supposed to see a Twilight movie with a friend on that night, according to a statement she gave to police. But her plans changed. She had been texting with Loomis, a customer at Earl’s, a restaurant where she worked, and decided that she and her friend would meet him for drinks at a bar called Lucky Strike.

According to her police statement, Carroll had two-three drinks and began to feel “strange and dizzy” and agreed to leave with Loomis, believing they were meeting up with another friend. From that point, she told police, “everything went blank”. She came to, she told police, with Loomis on top of her at a local Bellevue hotel and she had no idea how much time had passed. Feeling scared, and realizing she was not wearing tights or underwear, she allegedly ran out to the front desk and asked hotel staff to call her a taxi. She told police all she had wanted was to go home.

Loomis, police records show, called the police first, just minutes after Carroll left their hotel room and talked to staff at the concierge desk. In a transcript of his call to 911, Loomis claimed that Carroll had told him she was “calling the cops”.

“Honestly … I don’t need this right now,” Loomis told the 911 dispatcher, who asked whether Loomis wanted to be put in touch with an officer. “Yeah, I actually … I would love to because I think she’s done this before.” It was an apparent reference to Carroll’s allegations against Copperfield.

The Guardian tried to reach out to Loomis by phone and email but could not reach him for comment.

Magician David Copperfield’s warehouse in Las Vegas, in 2007. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Loomis later claimed to authorities that, while they were in their hotel room, Carroll allegedly offered to engage in “continued sexual activity” in return for $2,000, an offer that he told police he refused. Loomis said he and Carroll had engaged in “consensual touching” and that her allegations of sexual assault were “a lie”.

But Carroll had not alleged with certainty that she had been sexually assaulted. Her description of events, police records and transcripts show, were always conditioned by statements that she was unsure about what exactly had occurred.

In her 911 call to the police later that night, a transcript of which was seen by the Guardian, Carroll initially claimed she had been “physically assaulted” but was not injured. As the call progressed, Carroll was asked by the dispatcher whether she had been physically assaulted and she answered: “I don’t think so”. When the dispatcher asked if she had been sexually assaulted she said: “Yeah, I think so. I really don’t know. I was just scared and I took off.”

Under police questioning, Carroll alleged she had blacked out that night. When police asked Carroll whether she had been flirting with Loomis earlier in the evening she declared – in a statement that would later be held against her – “Nothing like that.”

A friend of Carroll’s who had been with Carroll and Loomis that night at Lucky Strike contradicted Carroll’s claim when police questioned her. She alleged that Loomis and Carroll had been talking in a “sexual” way that made her uncomfortable, according to police records.

Carroll was asked whether she had ever left her drink unattended while she was drinking with Loomis. She said she had. According to police records, Carroll’s urine was tested for Gamma Hydroxybutyric Acid, a “date rape” drug also known as Liquid Ecstacy, and she tested negative. No other drug tests were performed.

Carroll also denied ever seeking money from Loomis in exchange for sex.

Police records show Carroll was asked to go to a local hospital to have a rape kit exam, but that Carroll declined to have the evidence released to the police. In a rare move, the police then obtained the rape kit evidence via a search warrant.

“[It was] highly unusual,” Carroll’s lawyer Rebecca Roe told the Guardian.

Carroll voluntarily agreed to take a breathalyzer test, and her blood alcohol content measured .14, which is close to a state of “severe impairment”, according to the National Institutes of Health standards.

In his own statements to police, Loomis claimed Carroll had been “all over him”. One witness who worked at the hotel told the police the couple seemed intoxicated when they were checking in and that Carroll was slurring her speech. The same hotel staff member told police he later saw Carroll coming out of the room crying and telling the concierge that her companion had tried to take advantage of her. But the witness said he never heard her say she had been assaulted.

Carroll told police she was not interested in filing charges against Loomis and that she wanted to put the matter behind her. When she was asked why she had called the police that night, Carroll said it was at the urging of her ex-boyfriend, who had allegedly told her it was important to report what happened to the police. She also wanted her employer at Earl’s to know, she said, because she would feel uncomfortable seeing Loomis at the restaurant where she was a waitress.

What Carroll – who had no criminal history – did not know at the time is that the head detective overseeing the case, Jerry Johnson, who is now retired, got wind of Carroll’s allegations against Copperfield over the course of the police’s investigation into events that night.

In an interview with the Guardian, Johnson said he called Patty Eakes, Copperfield’s lawyer , while he was investigating the Bellevue matter, to alert Eakes that Carroll was involved in a new case. In an interview, he could not recall exactly why he made that decision, or how he knew that Eakes was involved in a separate case involving Carroll. Police records show he called Eakes on 8 December 2009, six days after the alleged incident, even as his investigation was ongoing. Police records show he also called the US attorney’s office.

A large billboard near McCarran international airport promotes a David Copperfield show at the MGM Grand Hotel in August 2011, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: George Rose/Getty Images

“It is the fair thing to do when a situation has occurred with similar aspects to it. That’s just fair play, and that’s what I did,” Johnson said.

But Carroll’s lawyer, Rebecca Roe, said she believed the decision to contact Eakes was improper.

An independent expert and former Boca Raton police chief named Andrew Scott, who now consults police departments and law firms on police practices, said he did not believe Johnson had any reason to reach out to Copperfield’s attorney from an investigative perspective. The decision to reach out to the US attorney’s office was proper, he said.

Before joining private practice, Eakes was a senior prosecutor who led high-profile criminal cases in Washington state. Johnson acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian that he had a previous professional relationship with Eakes when he called to tell her about the Bellevue case, but said he had only shared basic details with her.

Records show the King county prosecutor declined to prosecute Carroll, but that local prosecutors in Bellevue decided to take on her case and charge Carroll with two misdemeanor offenses: prostitution and making a false statement to a public servant. Johnson said in one document related to the case that Carroll and Loomis had been captured on security cameras exhibiting “normal and romantic behaviors” toward each other at the hotel while they waited to get a room. That, Johnson said, undercut Carroll’s statement that she had been in a black out state.

Asked why he believed Carroll had been charged with prostitution, Johnson said he could not fully remember the details. He recalled that Carroll was a “very, very attractive woman” and said that he believed as a pair, she and Loomis were “dramatically mismatched”.

Copperfield referenced the security footage many years later, in 2018 when Brittney Lewis came forward in The Wrap and claimed she had been drugged and assaulted by Copperfield in the late 1980s. In a tweet in response to the story, Copperfield – who denied Lewis’s allegations – said the “end result” of a previous rape allegation had been that his accuser was “caught by law enforcement making the same false claim about another man.”

He added: “The proof was on tape. The accuser was arrested and charged.”

Lawyers for Copperfield also claimed – inaccurately – Carroll had been charged criminally “for making a false rape claim against another man.”

Carroll was never charged with falsely accusing Loomis of rape or sexual assault. She was instead charged with “obstructing” the Bellevue investigation because she denied flirting with Loomis while they were at Lucky Strike. Later, she acknowledged in a handwritten guilty plea that she had, in fact, flirted with Loomis. The court fined her $953 and ordered her to perform 30 hours of community service.

The prostitution charge against Carroll was dismissed, according to court records, which did not provide further details.

Some of these details were never widely reported in coverage of Copperfield’s case. ABC News reported that it was “no illusion” that Carroll had been arrested in connection to another case “where she alleged rape” and the Associated Press reported that she had been “charged with fabricating sexual assault claims against another man”.

Carroll did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed. She has never given a media interview. She dropped her civil case against Copperfield shortly after the US attorney’s office said it had closed its investigation of Copperfield.

Copperfield’s lawyer said at the time that her allegations were a “pathetic attempt to extort Mr Copperfield”.

Through an attorney, Carroll issued a statement at the time, saying: “It has never been about money … I just wanted him held accountable for what he did.” Her lawyer added: “Sexual assault is a very traumatic event which has a long lasting impact on the victim. This is even more true when the perpetrator is a celebrity with the money and power to relentlessly attack the victim while shielding his own acts from scrutiny. Ms Carroll feels she has done all she reasonably can to bring this to light.”

Carroll’s lawyers also claimed in a statement they released when they dropped their civil case that Carroll had been subjected by Copperfield’s team to “intense scrutiny and constant surveillance, while her family, friends, and co-workers have been besieged with subpoenas and demands for personal information”. Her lawyer did not provide additional details to the Guardian.

As the civil case came to a close, a reporter for the Seattle Times requested that the judge unseal court records related to the closed FBI investigation. Carroll’s lawyer had suggested in a press release that the sealed records supported Carroll’s allegations and contained some evidence that Copperfield had a “scheme of targeting young women who attend his shows” and “statements of other women who corroborate [Carroll’s] claims”. Federal prosecutors didn’t object to the records being unsealed, but Copperfield’s lawyers did. Judge John Coughenour rejected the Seattle Times request and the documents remain under seal.

The Guardian asked Copperfield’s lawyers if they would support the release of the records now. The lawyers said it was “wholly unreasonable” for the Guardian to “suggest that our client should give them carte blanche simply to rake over these historic matters”.

Copperfield, the ‘victim’

Copperfield’s secluded group of islands – which he rents out and calls The Islands of Copperfield Bay – continue to be a holiday destination for the rich and famous. A stay on the island is currently advertised at $57,000 a night and previous guests reportedly have included Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and Penelope Cruz.

Oprah interviews David Copperfield in 2012. Photograph: Youtube

In 2012, two years after federal authorities closed their investigation into allegations Copperfield had raped Carroll on Musha Cay, Oprah travelled to the island to interview the man she called “iconic for all time for our culture” for a special on her network.

“Everything is beautiful in the Bahamas!” Oprah swooned as the pair rode around on a golf cart.

The pair discussed Copperfield’s views on marriage, his childhood struggles with a mother he claimed was abusive, and his place in history alongside Houdini.

In an apologetic tone, Oprah then broached the topic that had dogged Copperfield for years.

“This is a beautiful life, but it comes with a price,” she began. “Meaning, people are out to get you, [you’re] easily betrayed, taken advantage of, all that stuff,” she said, in a clear reference to Carroll’s allegation.

“To be falsely accused of something that horrendous is devastating for yourself, your friends, your family,” Copperfield said. Indeed, he claimed he had not only been exonerated, but “I was the victim. Big difference.”

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