What it means to sue for defamation
Several months after an Iowa man was arrested on charges of raping a woman on a Hilton Head beach, he has sued his alleged victim, along with a witness, for defamation.
Tyler Erpelding, 35, who was charged in January with third-degree criminal sexual conduct for the March 2018 incident, filed the civil suit in June in Beaufort County, claiming defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy.
The case — the first of its kind in Beaufort County — is unusual not just because an alleged rapist is suing his alleged victim for emotional injury, but also because the criminal case is still pending.
The recent lawsuit reflects a national uptick in defamation cases filed against women who have reported sexual assault, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Nationally, news outlets such as the Baltimore Sun, BuzzFeed News and CNN have reported that these types of defamation cases — in which an accused perpetrator sues the alleged victim — have been increasing in the past few years.
Kristin Dubrowski, CEO of Hopeful Horizons, a rape crisis center serving Beaufort, Jasper, Allendale and Colleton counties, worries that Erpelding’s lawsuit could set a dangerous precedent for sexual assault survivors.
“It has a chilling effect on victims coming forward, when they see things like this playing out locally and in the media,” Dubrowski said. “The courage it takes to come forward is amazing.”
The Island Packet, like most news organizations, does not print the names of sexual assault victims.
On March 4, 2018, Erpelding and the woman, vacationing separately, met at the Tiki Hut, a popular bar on Hilton Head’s south end, according to the lawsuit and the police report — an account of what the woman told police that evening.
Erpelding and the woman were each with a friend, and the group left the Tiki Hut and walked to the Frosty Frog, another bar in the Coligny area, according to both accounts.
Erpelding, who is married, and the woman left Frosty Frog together soon after arriving, according to the lawsuit and the police report.
The woman told police she wanted to see the beach, and she walked with Erpelding toward the ocean. While they were walking, Erpelding told the woman “let’s go into the woods,” and the woman followed, thinking he knew a different path to the beach, according to the police report.
They started “making out,” which was consensual, she told police.
Then, Erpelding pushed the woman up against a tree and began to sexually assault her, according to the police report.
“She told him ‘no’ and repeated it, but he didn’t stop,” the investigative officer wrote in the report.
The woman sustained scratches on her thigh from being pushed, according to the police report.
She then ran away from Erpelding to the public area of Coligny, the report said.
Without her phone or purse, she went to the first business she recognized, Crave By Daniel’s, where she had eaten dinner earlier that evening, according to the police report.
Using the Find My Iphone app, the bartender helped the woman locate her phone and her friend. He then dropped them off at their hotel, where the woman contacted the sheriff’s office and reported the sexual assault at 10:27 p.m. — less than 30 minutes after the incident reportedly occurred.
Asked about the woman’s intoxication level, the woman told police she was “mentally three seconds behind” and said she didn’t do any illegal drugs that night.
Neither the woman nor her friend remembered the names of the men they were with, but remembered they were from Iowa and described the suspect — later identified as Erpelding — as a shorter white male who was wearing a shirt with a wolf-prairie scene on it.
The woman told police she wanted to report the incident, but she was concerned about pursuing legal charges because it might interfere with her master’s degree education and “she wants to mitigate any factors that will distract her from her education.”
Detectives collected swabs from the woman’s body to obtain DNA, according to police reports. The woman was taken to Hilton Head Hospital for a sexual assault examination that evening. They also took photos of her injuries, including a scratch on her nose, scratches on her hands, arm, and a large scratch on her right leg. Her skirt, underwear, and shirt were all taken and submitted as evidence.
Two days after the incident, Cpl. Andrew Calore of the sheriff’s office reviewed surveillance videos from different Coligny businesses during the night of the alleged sexual assault, according to police reports.
Calore identified Eperling as the man who matched the description by reviewing the video tapes and correlating the time stamps with credit card receipts, the report said.
After identifying Eperling, deputies contacted officers at the Des Moines Police Department and asked for their assistance in tracking him down for an interview.
On March 16, 2018, Jim Brown, a Beaufort attorney representing Eprelding, emailed the detective and said his client would decline to provide any information related to this incident aside from a letter, which was not included in the police report obtained by the Island Packet through a Freedom of Information Act request.
On March 21, the detective then interviewed the male bartender at Daniel’s, who was the first person the woman made contact with after the alleged sexual assault.
He remembered the woman from earlier in the night because she ate dinner there. When she came back to the restaurant around closing time, he noticed the woman had scratches on her face, the bartender told police.
While he was helping the woman find her phone, she told him that a man she was with earlier ”tried to have sex with her and when she refused he punched her in the face,” according to the bartender’s interview.
Investigators also interviewed a female bartender who was working at Frosty Frog that evening, according to the report. The bartender told police she remembered Erpelding, who she described as the “Wolf Shirt Guy” and the group he went to Frosty Frog with. She told deputies that Erpelding and the woman left Frosty Frog for a few minutes, but he was alone when he returned and said he had no idea what happened to the woman.
The Frosty Frog bartender wrote in a statement to deputies that Erpelding had scratches on his hand after he returned from his walk with the woman.
The criminal case
On Jan. 16, 2019, after receiving results from the sexual assault examination, and speaking with the victim, who wished to continue with charges, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant for Erpelding’s arrest.
He turned himself in on Jan. 24 at the Beaufort County Detention Center and was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Erpelding was released the same day after posting a $20,000 surety bond.
As a part of the bond, Erpelding was issued a no-contact order while he awaits trial. According to Jeff Kidd, spokesperson for the 14th Circuit solicitor, the order stated that Eprelding was not to have any contact with the victim indirectly or directly.
If convicted, Erpelding could face 10 years in prison. A trial date has not been set, according to online records.
Brown, the Beaufort attorney, is representing Erpelding in the criminal and civil cases.
What he’s suing for
According to the lawsuit, Erpelding said he had “consensual sexual contact” with the woman after leaving the Frosty Frog March 4. The lawsuit also said that the woman’s friend told Erpelding’s friend that the woman “wanted to hook up with a married man.”
Erpelding is accusing the woman and the male bartender of using “the opportunity to develop a false story in order to cover up embarrassing conduct,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit accuses the woman of telling third parties she was raped, publishing the “false accusations” and “spreading rumors.” Asked specifically where these accusations were published aside from the police report, Brown declined to comment.
Brown also declined to say why he filed the lawsuit while the criminal case is still pending. South Carolina has a two-year statute of limitations on defamation lawsuits. In this case, the right to sue would expire in March 2020.
“Mr. Erpelding has decided to clear his name on behalf of his Seventh Amendment rights to get to the truth,” Brown told the Island Packet.
“The emotional distress suffered by (Erpelding) was so severe that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it,” the lawsuit said.
The allegations “caused the plaintiff to become alienated from his family and face ridicule in the community,” and exposed Erpelding to “contempt, public hatred and ridicule,” according to the lawsuit.
Before the lawsuit was filed, however, no news articles published about Erpelding’s criminal sexual conduct charge could be found by searching Google, Lexis Nexis and Facebook.
He’s also suing for economic damages, including lost wages, loss of investment, and costs of defending the criminal case. The lawsuit did not specify an amount for the damages.
‘Another level of victimization’
Dubrowski, the rape crisis center CEO, said this case represents a counter-trend resulting from the Me Too Movement.
“The climate we are in right now is more supportive of the alleged offenders or perpetrator coming out and speaking forward against the alleged victims,” she said.
“Defamation claims are the new legal tool for men to clear their name and get their accuser to drop sexual assault complaints,” according to legal experts cited in the Baltimore Sun.
South Carolina is one of 19 states without an anti-SLAPP law. SLAPP lawsuits, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, are typically filed in retaliation for speaking out on a public issue or controversy. They’re used to intimidate and silence critics through expensive legal proceedings. Anti-SLAPP laws have been used by judges to throw out defamation cases targeting accusers in sexual assault lawsuits in states such as Texas and California.
Dubrowski said these defamation lawsuits are “like another level of victimization and harassment,” adding to the trauma and fear victims often face when reporting sexual assault crimes to authorities.
“With crimes like sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, there is a lot of shame that victims feel, and the perpetrators use that shame to keep their victims silent,” she said. “Like if someone’s car was broken into, they don’t normally hesitate to come forward to report it because they aren’t questioned about it like they would be if they were sexually assaulted. They aren’t asked the questions like ‘what were you wearing?”
Between 2010 and 2017, there has been only one conviction on any sexual assault charge with an adult victim in Beaufort County, the Island Packet previously reported.
“It’s understandable why victims don’t come forward,” Dubrowski said. “We have a community and a system where we don’t make it easy for them to trust that they will be believed and supported.”