By GARANCE BURKE, ALANNA DURKIN RICHER and NICHOLAS RICCARDI , Associated Press
BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Between shifts ladling hot meals at the dining hall, Deborah Ramirez did her best to fit in with the blue-blooded social set of Yale University in the 1980s. She took a chartered flight to the Bahamas sophomore year with dozens of other spring breakers and attended booze-filled parties on campus with private-school grads.
What she says happened at one of those gatherings inside Yale’s brick dormitory walls has pulled her from a life as an advocate for needy families and domestic violence survivors to the center of the battle over the shape of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Friends said Ramirez rarely talked about her college days and lived a private life in the Rocky Mountains foothills. But colleagues said they sensed something in her past had drawn her to devote her life to supporting women in trouble.
“I definitely had known she went to Yale and I knew that it wasn’t always an easy experience for her,” said Angela Hardin, who became close friends with Ramirez as they trained women’s crisis volunteers a decade ago. “Debbie would talk about feeling various levels of discrimination.”
Still, friends and colleagues said it came as a surprise when Ramirez decided to go public with allegations that while in his first year at Yale, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh placed his penis in front of her and caused her to involuntarily touch it during a drunken dormitory party. Kavanaugh denied the accusation soon after it was reported Sunday by The New Yorker magazine.
The magazine said that when it first contacted her, Ramirez was “hesitant to speak publicly, partly because her memories contained gaps because she had been drinking at the time of the alleged incident.” After six days of going over her memories and talking with a lawyer, the magazine reported, Ramirez “said that she felt confident enough of her recollections” to name Kavanaugh as the student who had exposed himself to her at the party.
President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday at the United Nations that Kavanaugh was “an absolute gem” and that Democrats are playing “a con game. … That’s what they play and that’s about the only thing they do well.”
He said Republicans “could not be nicer, could not be more respectful to the process, certainly could not be more respectful to the woman, and I’m OK with that. I think I might have pushed it forward a lot faster.”
Kavanaugh was set to testify Thursday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing along with Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers during an early 1980s high school party.
Ramirez’s attorney, John Clune, said Wednesday his client would be willing to testify, but no one has asked her yet. “At this point, it’s a moot point,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show.
He also said that she would like an FBI investigation, and it’s not clear whether she’d agree to testify without one.
“I would let her make that decision,” Clune said. “I would be concerned about her doing that without an investigation.”
A committee spokesman, Taylor Foy, said that before it considers an investigation, it generally first receives a statement from someone making an accusation against a nominee or other offer of evidence — neither of which has been the case with Ramirez.
Clune did not respond to a request from The Associated Press for an interview with Ramirez.
Hardin, who spoke with Ramirez on Sunday night, said her friend reluctantly decided to tell her story so that her own words would be shared, rather than having them filter out through others.
“The fact that she brought her story forward tells me that she had to have gone through a lot of introspection,” said Lisa Calderon, Ramirez’s former supervisor at a Boulder nonprofit that assists survivors of domestic violence. “Bringing in what she went through would have been in some ways compromising boundaries because she always felt it wasn’t about her. … She had a passion for social justice, helping people, particularly women of color whose voices tended to not be heard.”
Ramirez, who grew up Catholic in Connecticut, attended a co-ed, parochial high school in Trumbull and graduated from nearby Yale in New Haven with a degree in sociology in 1987.
Classmates described Ramirez, 53, as friendly, well-liked and quiet. Some of her closest friends were athletes and she made extra cash by working in the dining hall at her residential college, serving food and washing dishes, classmates said.
“She was not someone to want to be in the spotlight,” said Julie Heller, who was a year behind and lived in her residential college.
She spent her spring break in 1985 with a large group of students in the Bahamas, where they partied, searched for the cheapest drinks, lounged on the beach and tried their luck at the casino, according to a Yale Daily News article from the time.
Ramirez also saw herself as an outsider as a woman of Puerto Rican descent who didn’t come from the wealth and privilege of many of her classmates, said James Roche, a close friend who was also Kavanaugh’s freshman year roommate.
Roche said he didn’t interact much with Kavanaugh, who he said was typically reserved but was a “notably heavy drinker” who “became aggressive and belligerent when he was very drunk.”
“Based on my time with Debbie, I believe her to be unusually honest and straightforward and I cannot imagine her making this up,” Roche said in a statement. “Based on my time with Brett, I believe that he and his social circle were capable of the actions that Debbie described.”
Ramirez’s sister, who was a year behind her at Yale, said in a Facebook message that she’s proud of her sister.
“This is not easy for anyone, but Deb has been tremendously brave and her honesty is above reproach,” Denise Ramirez said.
After moving to Boulder, Colorado, Ramirez joined a local running club, where she met a group of friends who got together for weekly after-work runs and ski trips to Vail.
Scott Fliegelman, a friend from the running group, described her as shy “in that she was outgoing recreationally but not an overly ebullient-type personality. I know religion played a role for her — she was a strong Christian.”
Ramirez started volunteering at the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence and soon was brought on staff by Calderon, who described her as a talented, humble employee who wanted to be among the people she served.
Mercedes Lindenoak, who served on the nonprofit’s board for two years with Ramirez, said training focused on race and gender diversity sometimes got heated, but that Ramirez was respectful of her colleagues, even when she disagreed.
“We didn’t talk about what drew her there,’ Lindenoak said.
Ramirez now works as a senior volunteer coordinator in Boulder County’s housing agency, but she has stayed connected to Safehouse as a member of its board.
She also began to voice her thoughts on gender equality publicly, writing a letter to the editor of the Boulder paper in 2014 denouncing a T-shirt for a running race that said “Sea Level is for Sissies.” She said she gets hurt, shows her emotions and is a “strong, tough” woman who rock climbs. She said she would “never wear a t-shirt that does not value these traits in all genders.”
She met her husband, a technology consultant, through a friend at the Safehouse, Hardin said. The couple lives in a small house in a late 1970s-era development in Boulder dotted with aspen trees and sunflowers, where black bears and mountain lions sometimes visit.
Neighbors, who did not want their names used, described Ramirez as an avid outdoors woman, and said she was a grounded, honest person driven by the urge to help others.
Behind Ramirez’s home there’s a walking trail and a park, and a vista of a legendary rock-climbing destination beloved by residents of the athletic, liberal college town.
Late Monday, the Boulder County Commission released a statement backing Ramirez.
“We stand firmly behind our brave Boulder County employee who chose to speak publicly about a demeaning and demoralizing act of sexual misconduct she experienced as a young woman,” the statement said.
Hardin said that when she reached Ramirez on Sunday to offer her support, Ramirez told her she felt a sense of freedom in having finally come forward with her memories of what happened decades ago in that college dorm.
“She had fears about coming forward because she had been under the influence at the time,” Hardin said. “She said that as painful as it was, it also felt freeing to not hold onto this anymore and to be able to talk about it, not having shared any of this with more than a few people in her life until now.”
Burke reported from San Francisco and Durkin Richer from Boston.