BUFFALO, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Going away for college is a dream for most young people, but for a local teen it turned into a nightmare.
Instead of starting fall semester, he spent the first day of school in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
“It’s just I was the wrong guy,” Elijah Bethel said. “That’s all that really happened. They just picked the wrong person.”
Bethel was a star in the classroom and on the football field. But the hit he didn’t see coming happened last Fall when he enrolled at SUNY Buffalo State.
At 3:21 a.m. on August 28, 2015, campus police were called to Porter Hall where a young woman had been groped in her sleep. The attacker fled and dropped cigarettes and a lighter.
“She was sleeping, and it was very difficult for her to make an identification,” attorney Paul Michalek said.
She said it was a short, black man in black shorts.
Nineteen minutes later at 3:40 a.m., police see Bethel in black shorts with three friends on the other side of campus.
“He was interviewed, the other gentlemen were interviewed,” Michalek said. “They told the officer where they were, and they were let go.”
The four said they were together all night and just came from an off-campus restaurant, Jim’s Steakout. According to documents obtained by NEWS10 ABC, three of the men are carrying food with them from the restaurant. Bethel also had a receipt for what he ate still in this pocket.
Police let them go.
But 20 minutes later at 4 a.m., police knocked on Bethel’s door and asked him to come downtown.
“They put me in an elevator to take me downstairs, and everybody on my floor had seen me in handcuffs,” he said.
The alleged victim was brought down to make an identification. There was no police lineup; just Bethel sitting alone already in handcuffs.
“That’s very unfair and prejudicial as far as I’m concerned,” Michalek said.
The victim said, ‘That’s him,’ and Bethel was immediately arrested on felony sex abuse charges.
“I told the woman, ‘You have the wrong child,’” Bethel’s mother LaTonia Berkley-Taylor said.
Back in Troy, Bethel’s mother almost drove off the road when she got the call.
“I automatically knew that this just wasn’t him,” she said. “This wasn’t in his character. It hasn’t been, so why all of a sudden.”
Within hours, Bethel receives an e-mail from the dean telling him he is suspended and banned from campus. As he sat in jail for the next five days, the media is told about the arrest, and it is all over the internet.
“You Googled his name, it was football highlights,” Berkley-Taylor said. “Now you Google his name, nothing but the assault.”
His attorney met with the district attorney’s office and is told they aren’t certain police arrested the right man, but they have his DNA, so they’ll wait to see if it matches items dropped in the victim’s room.
Six long weeks later, they tell Bethel the DNA doesn’t match and all charges are dropped.
But many questions remain unanswered: Why didn’t police believe the students that were with him? Why didn’t they wait for DNA before making an arrest? Why didn’t they go down to Jim’s Steakout that night? NEWS10 ABC confirmed the restaurant has video cameras. Why the need to rush to an arrest two hours after the crime?
“I can’t speculate as to why they did that,” Michalek said. “It’s a good question. I don’t know. I certainly don’t want to make any accusations like that. Would be unfair, wouldn’t it?”
NEWS10 ABC anchor John Gray took his questions to Buffalo State officials and made multiple attempts to get them to comment on camera. Instead Police Chief Peter Carey offered a written response:
Mr. Bethel’s arrest was based upon probable cause and the evidence at the time…Evidence was analyzed resulting in the dismissal of charges.
The charges were dismissed, but the damage to his name was already done. Once cleared, Bethel applied to new schools. He wrote a personal letter explaining the mistake and confiding that he’s a virgin and a good guy.
It didn’t make a difference. They all rejected him – except one.
Bethel now attends Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. His smile is back, and the past is behind him.
“Has anyone at the college reached out to you since everything got dropped and you’ve moved on with your life to say, ‘Listen, Elijah, we’re sorry?’” John Gray asked.
“Uh, no, but again, I’m not looking for an apology,” Bethel responded. “It’s okay. I’m here to be the best I can be and help people be the best they can be.”
A young man willing to forgive and a mother who will never forget.
“I don’t see how you can just pick someone up, decide to be judge, jury and everything, and then that’s it,” Berkley-Taylor said. “Destroy people’s lives. Not just his but his family. And it’s okay? No sorry. No nothing. It’s not okay.”