It was a dark and stormy night, and Quinnipiac College coeds Courtney Stellwag and Emily Loschiavo decided to have some Halloween fun.
Cackling with anticipation, the teenage roommates made random phone calls to extensions around campus.
One call reached the dorm room of their Resident Advisor. Two of the RA’s friends — black female athletes who played for Quinnipiac’s celebrated Division 1 basketball team — answered. Quoting from teen horror film “The Ring,” Stellwag and Loschiavo whispered wickedly: You will die in seven days.
Their timing could not have been worse. The previous day, 18-year-old freshman Chuck Merritt had waged some phone mischief of his own, making what U.S.News and World Report called “threatening and racially charged” calls to members of the basketball team, one of them his own roommate.
In prior weeks, racial slurs and a swastika had been scrawled around the Bridgeport, Connecticut, campus, near dorms where many black athletes lived.
15 Minutes of Fame
As the two would testify in civil court a few years later, political correctness was the last thing on the minds of Stellwag and Loschiavo that fateful October night in 2008. As the devilish duo dialed away the evening, Campus Security was alerted. Just before midnight, there was a loud knock at the door. The young ladies were arrested, handcuffed, taken into custody, booked and charged with harassment, conspiracy and disorderly conduct. Each posted $2,500 bail, and was released.
By morning, the phone prank had been labelled a hate crime. The story went viral; the puellile silliness flared into a national scandal as the girls’ phone calls were linked with Merritt’s misconduct, committed one day earlier.
In New York, WNBC reported: “White students accused for threatening black players.” NBC’s ESPN reported that three white students had been “arrested and dismissed from the school after an investigation into the racial harassment of black players.” A blogger posted updates on the “Hate Crimes at Quinnipiac.” The president of the New Haven NAACP told an interviewer he had “met with university officials and plans to meet with them again.” Vermont television station WCAX posted photos of the three perps on its website. Deeming them guilty, the college swiftly expelled Stellwag, Loschiavo and bad boy Merritt.
Lawyers to the rescue.
Nightmare at Quinnipiac
Courtney Stellwag’s parents were shocked when they heard their daughter was accused of racism. Dumb as it was, when she described her Halloween prank to them, they forgave her. Then they vowed to prove she was not the racist monster that her college — and soon, the entire nation — was claiming.
To that end, they engaged Bridgeport, Connecticut attorney Paul Brozdowski and Newburgh, Vermont lawyer James Burke to get their daughter out of this mess.
Loschiavo’s mother, Hope Saunders, hired attorneys Kevin Walsh and Ryan James McKone of North Haven, Connecticut.
Charges were ultimately dismissed against all three after they were signed up for “accelerated rehabilitation,” an option sometimes offered in Connecticut to defendants with no criminal record.
But the two families weren’t done. They proceeded to sue the college. According to the federal complaint, Quinnipiac officials were unusually harsh in the way they handled the Stellwag-Loschiavo incident. Two years earlier, the college seemed more forgiving of two male black basketball players who had urinated on a female student they had dragged into a dorm bathroom. They were suspended — not expelled — and one of them was playing basketball again. There were no police, and no television coverage, over that incident.
If the expensive, ongoing litigation inspired any soul-searching around the Quinnipiac ivory tower, no one would admit it.
Lawyers for the young women got a retraction, of sorts, by the college in a letter three years later inviting the girls back to Quinnipiac.
By then, however, Stellwag and Loschiavo were about to graduate elsewhere. Stellwag was enrolled at Daemen College in her hometown of Newburgh in upstate New York, on the brink of a career as a physician’s assistant. Loschiavo was earning a B.S. from University of Vermont, her home state.
Most students would not be so lucky. No school wants to admit a famous racist to its ranks. Supporters of the two young women argued that the worst thing they were guilty of was being young and foolish. Nothing in their pasts indicated these women were racist pigs.
As the dust settled, Quinnipiac critics complained that the college had gone on a witch-hunt of its own. Quinnipiac Chronicle student reporters Andrew Fletcher and Andrew Vaz declared they were skeptical, wondering what Carreiro and Quinnipiac were trying to prove by expelling the giddy coeds: “Sources say LoSchiavo and Stellwag innocent,” blared the headline in one of the only fair and balanced reports on the affair in the nation, their own student newspaper.
Quinnipiac’s ‘Hate Crime’
Across town at Yale College, there was more support. Editors at the Yale Daily News observed that the “Fast times at QPac” were shaped by the public relations spin of Quinnipiac’s president, seeking to distance the college by arresting the teens .
“Students perceived the speedy expulsions as a reaction to dissatisfaction with how the administration handled a hate speech incident in the fall of 2007,” said Yale columnist Andrew Bartholomew. “Yale’s opinions of Quinnipiac may forever be linked with the shuttle bus that drops partiers off near Toad’s,” a local bar known for rowdiness. He reasoned that “changes at Quinnipiac have necessitated
It was costly, three-year litigation the parents waged, with hefty legal fees to cover the federal complaint for defamation, discovery, and trial.
In any event, Courtney Stellwag and Emily Schiavo have put this all behind them. No more phone frolicking.
Quinnipiac publicly conceded it had misjudged the teenagers in 2011. “The University recognizes that your actions were not motivated by hatred or bigotry,” Dean of Students Manuel Carreiro said.
But there was no apology. Some things just weren’t meant to be.
For Chuck Merritt, life also goes on.
Charged with intimidation, harassment and disorderly conduct, Merritt was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and two years probation.
Merritt’s roommate, athlete Harold Washington, was expelled three weeks later after investigators identified Washington as the source of subsequent racial slurs. Washington moved to Buffalo and played basketball on scholarship for Canisius College. He graduated last year and turned pro.