Why bringing Bill Cosby to justice took so long: "I reported all of this in 2005 and nobody cared"

Salon talks to the reporter who covered the Bill Cosby case about justice, #MeToo, and her new book "Chasing Cosby"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 14, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

Bill Cosby (Getty/Mark Makela)
Bill Cosby (Getty/Mark Makela)

You think you know the story of Bill Cosby and what so many women have said he did to them, forming a pattern that spanned decades. But even after following the story that played out in the media over the course of several years and his eventual conviction for sexual assault of Andrea Constand, you probably still don't know what it took to bring him to justice, and who the women who stood up to him really were.

Even journalist Nicole Weisensee Egan, who first began covering the story for the Philadelphia Daily News back in 2005, didn't know it all. But in her new book, "Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America's Dad," she goes deep on how Cosby and his team manipulated the media and the legal system, how one brave woman took on an icon and why a stand-up routine ultimately changed everything. Salon talked to her recently via phone about what it's been like covering Cosby for nearly 15 years.

You very wisely keep former Temple University employee Andrea Constand as the anchor of it all, and keep returning to her and her quest for justice. That helps give context to how long this all took, and why it took so long — and why something changed five years ago.

When it all started bubbling up in 2014, I was literally sitting there going, "It's deja vu all over again!" I reported all of this in 2005 and nobody cared. 

I remember being at Temple University and watching "The Cosby Show," watching him wearing his Temple sweatshirt, and how amazing it was that this person was representing Philadelphia, representing Temple out there in the world. And here we are now.

That's what allowed him to do it for so many years. He was a great actor. It's astonishing, and it's horrifying at the same time. I totally get why people didn't want to believe this at first. I mean, I didn't want to either.

This story first comes to you as a reporter in Philadelphia and you admit you were skeptical. Then you started to listen to Andrea's story and it changed for you. What was that like for you?

It shocked me, when my boss came over and assigned me to it. My initial reaction was, not The Cos. I watched "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" every Saturday growing up with my brother. It was my favorite cartoon. But I had to put my personal feelings aside and dig into this. 

I'd done an exposé on drug facilitated sexual assault in Philly in 2002, so I knew a lot about that. And I had been digging into sexual misconduct in the state police for the past couple of years. There was a predator amongst them who was preying on women in this way for years, using his badge to prey on teenage runaways, or women in hospitals who were domestic abuse victims.

I at least had that familiarity. That's also why I was so shocked when Bruce Castor from the very beginning seemed not to want to touch this, because his office has done a phenomenal job on the Michael Evans case and I'd seen him prosecute and get people convicted for murders with purely circumstantial evidence.

My reaction as a reporter was, "Okay, we know who he is, or at least who he publicly is. Who's she? Is she in a position to know him?" They weren't releasing her name. I had sources at Temple who told me who she was, but of course we still didn't use her name, and they told me that she had a fabulous relationship there. They were just stunned by the whole thing. They loved her, she did a great job, she was very well liked. She was very credible, and that was the first sign to me that she was in a position to know him and she sounds like a straight up person. Then I found out that there was a phone call and some other calls that had been taped that supported her story. 

I reported that, and that's when I really got jumped on all over by Cosby's people and by Castor. He called us into an interview and said they were going to have me arrested, that these were illegal wiretaps, and we shouldn't be reporting on them. Then they leaked it to Celebrity Justice that this phone call actually was before Andrea went to the police, and it was the mom demanding money from Cosby. They called it a "classic shakedown." Harvey Levin from Celebrity Justice did the story, and, of course, went on to found TMZ.

They sort of started making up lies about her. She was one of the top five Canadian female basketball players in Canada when she was in high school. She was recruited heavily by 50 to 60 colleges in the U.S. who wanted her to play for them, and she chose Arizona. Her dream was always to be in the WNBA, and she went and played in Italy for a while. She was just this phenomenal athlete, and that was solely her focus. She took this job at Temple when she realized she was never going to play at the WNBA.

A donor introduced them about a year after she got there. [Cosby] began, like he did; this is the pattern. He seeks them out either through their agents, or someone introduces them. He grooms them and then he gets to know their family and then he grooms them. And then, bam. He gets them in an environment he controls.

It's ingratiating yourself with the whole family, and finding someone who is vulnerable and then making her more vulnerable.

It was a very well practiced routine that you can see in the testimony of the women at the second trial. Going back and doing interviews with these women for the book, or adding details to it from them, it's just chilling, when you look at the pattern. Chelan Lasha, she was 15 years old when she first met him through her family. She knew him for a couple of years when it happened. Her grandmother would invite him over for dinner to eat soul food. He brought J-ello pudding pops to the kids in the neighborhood. She thought that that was who he was. Then did this to her, and it just shattered her and it changed the direction of her life.

People don't understand the lifelong psychological scars this leaves on women. A lot of them struggle with PTSD and suicide attempts.

You spend so much time in this book talking about the survivors, and talking about their experience, because that often gets lost in the narrative. Andrea was this kind of perfect person in so many ways, but a lot of these women weren't. And that was used against them. That was used against them by Cosby first, and then by his team afterward when they spoke up. Which is a real strategy.

The rape shield law was designed to protect women from exactly these types of attacks, so instead people learned to go to the media, which runs with it. And and then I'm thinking "What, you have to be the perfect victim? If you got a traffic ticket, God forbid, 20 years ago. They'll use that against you." But then, Andrea was that "perfect" victim. She had no skeletons in her closet, she had this pristine record. So they turned around and made up lies about her, and the media went with it. Still to this day, you Google her name you'll see "Con artist." They continue to attack her.

One thing that you make very clear is that a person like this doesn't get to do this for as long as he did, with no repercussions, without a phalanx of abetters around him. Some of them were just wallflowers, and some of them took a much more active role.

I interviewed FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole, who coined the term "icon intimidation." They have to have enablers. They have to have this cadre of sycophants who surround them. The enablers are law enforcement, they're the people around them, the people in Hollywood, the media. You could see in 2005 he was really able to keep the media away from it through a combination of threats and promises of better things.

It is very hard to come out against someone like this, and it's very difficult for reporters to get past all of that power, especially when the guy can pick up the phone and call the CEO of your company, because they know him.

Your editors really did protect you from a lot of the heat that was coming your way.

I was very lucky to be working for this organization that wasn't afraid of anybody. That has always been the type of paper the Philadelphia Daily News was. The editors could have easily told me to back off, they didn't.

It was a nerve wracking experience for me writing the book for that very reason. These people have bottomless pockets, and these organizations or these publishers don't, these days. So they have to show a lot of courage in publishing. But one of the most illuminating things I found out while doing the research for this book, was that this interview that Marty Singer did with the New York Times later where he said, he basically doesn't have to sue this organization, because his strategy is to keep stories from ever being printed. They don't like to sue for defamation, because they're hard to win and you don't win much money. And he's been very successful at it for many years. I remember reading that, I finally felt I was back in the story. I'm like "Yeah, I wish I'd known that in 2005," because let me tell you, it was not fun. I mean, it was not fun. They're not afraid to file nuisance lawsuits either, just to scare people.

 Because they know that they can, and they know that they've got deep pockets, and they know that it's terrifying.

After Cosby was arrested, he filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Andrea and her mother for talking, saying she breached the confidentiality agreement by talking to police. They ended up with Singer withdrawing it, but they went after her with everything they had when this bubbled up again. And she hadn't done anything except cooperate with police.

It's hard not to see in a very clearcut way that it took a man saying that Bill Cosby was a rapist for it to be taken seriously. Part of it was because [Hannibal Buress] could say it as a comedian, and he could say it bluntly in a way that journalists could not.

And a video of a man saying it. People could watch it themselves too, and then they could Google "Bill Cosby rapist" and see what they found. But he really got a lot of backlash for that.

As you point out, when famous women come forward and say "Me too," it's taken much more seriously than when it's a large group of anonymous, mostly African American women saying it.

I think people forget that a lot of these women, it happened to them with Cosby when they were in their teens, or barely out of their teens. He called up their agents to tell them, "Bill Cosby wants to mentor you," and that's how they came to his attention. He had five or six teen models a week being sent to him, while he was still on "The Cosby Show" in New York. This one agency was sending them there every Thursday night. It's just astonishing, when you look at it. And the news has framed them so quickly, and there's so much when it bubbled up again. Lili Bernard had been an extra on the show She's a fabulous actress and it's a shame because he stole her career after that. She was done. He made lots of threats against her. And it horrified me. 

I got very emotional just reading the book. Just the sheer weight of it. The amount of time that it went on, the number of people who he victimized and the number of people who knew and who helped him and abetted him. It feels overwhelming. It's choosing victims very carefully, who are vulnerable, and then being in a protected class.

The power differential is key, too. He's not going after women like Phylicia Rashad or any of his costars. It's all women who are in a much lower position of power than him, and that's key too, to their success. They choose vulnerable victims. They choose people who are not in a great financial state, too. They choose victims they think won't be believed, should they come forward, that's what they do with all of these cases.

I didn't know until the victim impact statements were read in court. I got it. What exactly made [Andrea Costand] come forward that she was worried that this was going to happen to someone else, and she felt guilty that it would be her fault for not coming forwards. And it's very powerful.

Near the end of the book you talk about the trial and you say "I never thought that ... I just never pictured this scenario. I never pictured it, never imagined it." What did you think would ever happen to him?

I was surprised when they reopened the case. I really didn't see that coming, and even Andrea's lawyer said that they were surprised, because, it's aggravated indecent assault, and there was a 12 year statute of limitations. I was blown away when I saw that. 

Do you think that now a door has been opened, that we can't go back? That maybe now it will be harder for the next guy, and maybe people will start to think differently about believing women?

I think it's so individual. It's no coincidence that, after Cosby was convictedthat Harvey Weinstein was charged. I think it's still so dependent on an individual police agency, depending on who's making these charging decisions, or the local prosecutor, and prosecutors like to win cases. They don't like to take on cases they don't think they can win…. And that's hard, because a lot of these women, they get re-victimized again and traumatized again when they go to law enforcement and they're treated with disdain or with skepticism from the beginning, from the minute they walk in the door.

And you can't undo some of the damage that's been done to the reputations of these women. Especially with Andrea and her family, when you've been called a con artist in headlines all over the world.

You really set the record straight on so many things, and keep it really, focused on Andrea and the other survivors.

I wish I could have told the stories of all the women but I couldn't, so I had to carefully pick which ones. But I really wanted to include the stories of the original Jane Does, because their bravery in coming forward back then is unprecedented. Even the media didn't want to hear about it back then, and for them to come forward back then was very difficult. That's what I wanted the book to be about. Because it is about them. It is about them.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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