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Behind the Scenes of the Jian Ghomeshi Investigation

An excerpt from Kevin Donovan’s new book

In this excerpt of Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation, Toronto Star reporter Kevin Donovan describes the beginning of the investigation into allegations against the CBC host, including the first interview with one of the accusers. In response to a June 24, 2014 email from the Star seeking comment, Ghomeshi responded by email calling the sexual encounters described as “gossip and manufactured stories about my private life” and that “the allegations you have alluded to about lack of consent are categorically untrue”—which mirrors his October 26 Facebook post. What follows is the first chapter of Secret Life, which details the entire investigation, from initial tip to the aftermath of Ghomeshi’s trial for sexual assault, in which he was aacquitted of charges.

“We are here to explore some information about Jian Ghomeshi,” I began, lifting my eyes from the red light of the Sony recorder. “We want to ask you some questions about your experience.”

It was Monday, May 12, 2014. Opposite me was Carly. To my right was Canadaland podcaster Jesse Brown. His resumé included hosting two CBC radio shows, Search Engine and The Contrarians, as well as work as a technology writer for Macleans.ca and Toronto Life. On May 5 he had sent an email with the subject line “URGENT: revelations about a well-known public figure” to Toronto Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke and people at other Toronto newspapers.

Brown’s email explained that six weeks prior “a young woman” contacted him “with shocking allegations about a well-known Canadian public figure with whom she’d had an intimate relationship.” Brown stated that he was not one for celebrity gossip and that this story was different. He had talked to the woman several times and “verified many aspects of her story.” Now he was at a dead end. “I have taken this story as far as I can as an independent journalist. I am seeking a partner publication to work with me on bringing this to light. If you’d like to know more about this, the next step is for me to meet you or your representative in person, where I will present documentation and notes on the story so far.”

When Michael Cooke first received that email, he sent a copy to me and to Bert Bruser, the Star’s lawyer, telling us he was going to meet Brown even though “this guy may well be a nutter.” Cooke meant nothing disparaging. The Toronto Star receives hundreds of news tips every week. Some go to the general assignment reporters on the city desk, some to other departments, and those that are more investigative—long-term or sticky, messy situations like the Rob Ford story—end up in the investigations unit, a group of eight reporters and an analyst that I manage. We get all sorts of tips and ideas: the building department is corrupt, my lawyer stole my money, doctors are sexually assaulting patients and getting away with it, a retirement home is mistreating its residents, standardized school testing is rigged. Most of the story tips go nowhere, and some of them come from, well, nutters. But when I was a cub reporter, Jim Emmerson, an old rewrite man legendary for his pithy quotes, told me that we are like the fire department—when the alarm goes off, we have to answer the call. Most times there will be no fire, but what if there was, and we didn’t check it out?

“I can’t leave you with any materials,” Brown said in his note to Cooke. “The nature of Canadian defamation law, as I understand, is such that I must demand that only two people are present at this initial meeting—either you and I, or your representative and I. I am sending similar emails to contacts of mine at the Globe and Mail, Vice, and Gawker. I will meet with whoever is interested this week in the hopes of finding the right publishing partner.”

Brown was deeply concerned that, by telling more than one person this tale, he could be found liable for defamation. The reality is that with a story so potentially damaging, more than a few people in the newsroom would have to be involved. We have all sorts of checks and balances that kick in when we are reviewing a story and working on an investigation. In the end, Cooke and Bruser met with Brown. They learned that Carly had contacted him on March 28. She had done some of her own detective work, and she provided him with information about her experiences and those of two others. Brown had then done a preliminary interview of Carly, and he shared the gist of it with Cooke and Bruser. Upon their return, they briefed me and then-managing editor Jane Davenport.

After some more discussions in-house, Cooke told Brown we were interested. The Star put Brown on a freelance contract and assigned me to work with him. Brown had some concerns, including his hope that he would have a shared byline. The Star assured him he would.

This meeting with Carly was our first time working together. Brown, a tall and imposing man who always seemed to be breaking a sweat, had, of course, spoken to her before. But for the Toronto Star to be part of such a legally sensitive story, a staff journalist had to be involved.

Carly pulled in her chair, checked for messages on her phone, and smiled. She was slender and well spoken with a nervous assurance about her. She had made up her mind to be involved, but only to a certain extent and on certain conditions. Her name, the city she was from, and a number of distinguishing details could never be revealed.

The small conference room was bare and windowless. Outside the door was the still-startlingly empty fourth floor, former advertising offices the Toronto Star didn’t need now that much of that function had been contracted out. Carly was concerned about being recognized, and the barren corner of the fourth floor, one down from the bustling newsroom, seemed a good idea. Upstairs, Bert Bruser, Michael Cooke, and Jane Davenport were awaiting a full report.

“I listened to his radio show, I didn’t know anything about him personally. Back in 2012 he was doing a book tour around Canada and I went to his show with a friend.” Carly straightened in the soft-backed chair as she began her story. I watched her closely: her eyes, her mannerisms. My job was to determine whether this was a story worth investigating. Was there a fire?

Carly picked up her phone again, checked it, and moved it away. She set the scene. The book reading took place in an old brown-brick building. Ghomeshi read excerpts from 1982, an autobiographical book describing his year as a David Bowie–worshipping fourteen-year-old in Thornhill, north of Toronto.

“Afterward, during the book signing, I got in line to meet him. I was really nervous when I met him, and he just asked me a lot of questions, including my age and my name, what I did for a living.” Carly was in her early twenties, but Ghomeshi thought she was younger and asked if she was eighteen.

“I told him no, and I felt a bit of flirtation going on, so on my way out I said, ‘and I have Facebook.’ A couple of hours later he contacted me on Facebook and gave me his number and told me to text him.”

In my notebook I drew an asterisk. The allegations that Jesse Brown brought to the Star suggested that Canada’s number-one radio personality was abusive to young women. Many people young and old, male and female, were at the signing. The suggestion here was that Ghomeshi, alone in a strange town, selected one young woman. Were there more? Was this a pattern?

Via text message, Ghomeshi asked Carly to dinner later in the week. By this time he was in the next city on his book tour, and he asked if she was feeling adventurous. If so, she could meet him later that night. In a text message Carly said she no longer had, Ghomeshi wrote: “I thought you were the prettiest one there.”

I made another asterisk and wrote on my pad, “text messages deleted.”

In 2012, Ghomeshi was forty-five. Carly was roughly half his age, born around the time when he was attending university. She was single; he was single. She was excited that the host of Q had asked her out. A fan of his show, Carly knew his easy and bright manner and hoped for stimulating conversation. After all, this was a man who was at ease with rock stars and politicians. She did not know what to expect, but there was no doubt in her mind that this was a date, and Carly looked forward to a very interesting dinner. “I figured that if I didn’t go and have a date with him I would probably regret it,” she said.

Carly agreed to Ghomeshi’s plan, grabbed her car keys, and got on the road. Halfway through the drive she received a text from Ghomeshi: “I am just relaxing and taking a bath. Are you almost here?”

Carly arrived at Ghomeshi’s hotel at 10 p.m. She followed his instructions and knocked on his door. “He gave me a hug, immediately came on to me,” she remembered. “He was super handsy right from the start. He really caught me off guard. I immediately felt sorry for him. I felt he had no game.”

They walked a few blocks to an Italian restaurant. They chatted a bit at dinner. Carly was aware that patrons at tables around them were looking over and whispering, recognizing the CBC star. At the table he touched her hands and body a lot, to the point that Carly told him to stop, reminding him they were in public.

Ghomeshi picked up the bill for dinner, and they meandered back to the hotel room. Carly mentioned it was her time of the month and that they would not be having sex. Ghomeshi told her that was fine but said that given the long drive and the time—midnight—she should consider staying the night. Inside his room, Carly said, Ghomeshi instantly became aggressive. It was like a switch was turned on.

“He put his hands around my throat. I could not swallow. He started making growling noises.”

“Can you describe them?”

Carly blushed and after a few tries made a guttural sound. “They were animalistic. The sound a dog makes when it is starting to get angry. A very low rumbling.”

“Has he hit you yet?”

“No. But it was very strange.”

I looked at Jesse Brown, who had been silent to this point, then back at Carly. “I’m married; I have kids,” I said. “I had dates with other women before I was married. I don’t growl. I don’t put my hands around women’s throats. Is there something going on out there on the dating scene I don’t know about these days?”

Carly chuckled at my question. “No, it is not normal. Normal men do not do this.” Carly said she initially had the same question. Maybe this was something that men out there were doing?

I flipped to a fresh page of my notebook and was silent for a minute. The question I was about to ask was an obvious one, and a question that many others involved in the Ghomeshi case would ask over the next many months. Asking the question and other, more probing queries would anger some young women I later spoke to, but Carly faced them all calmly. Over the years I’ve found that there’s usually a moment when it is clear to me that the subject is telling the truth. I’ve sometimes been wrong, but not often. This was the point—Carly’s honesty was apparent. She was not dodging questions; she was answering them even if they were uncomfortable.

“When that happened, when he put his hands on your throat? Having not experienced that before, what did you do?”

Carly sat back in her chair. “This is the thing with me. If you really catch me off guard I will just process it in my head. I won’t react to it.”

She recalled the unusual growling continued. At one point, Ghomeshi stopped and spoke to her. “Is this scaring you? Let me know if this is scaring you,” she remembers him asking.

“No, it’s fine,” Carly replied, though she was uncomfortable. Ghomeshi led her to his bed, and they began kissing and “making out,” clothes on. Ghomeshi told her she was being “rigid” and stopped. They chatted, still on the bed. She told Ghomeshi that she did not know him at all and that things were moving too fast. To slow things down, Carly tried a distraction and asked Ghomeshi questions about himself. Rather than moving to safer ground, she found she had angered him.

Ghomeshi was insulted when it became clear that Carly was unaware of details about his life. He seemed to assume that since he was a celebrity on the CBC, she should know everything about his past. Carly decided to turn interviewer.

“What do your parents think about your career?” she asked.

“Didn’t you read my book?” Ghomeshi shot back. “You would know if you read my book.”

“Do you know what? I read your book. But I am asking you on a personal level. I am trying to get to know you.”

Ghomeshi did not respond. Carly decided it was time to leave. Ghomeshi was immediately concerned and said he was worried she was not attracted to him. Carly said she did not know yet. Ghomeshi offered her the bed for the night—he said nothing would happen, and he would probably snore—but she said goodbye and drove the two hours home.

“I was being really careful with him not to insult him. I really did feel sorry for him,” Carly repeated an earlier comment that he seemed not to know how to relate to women. “I felt he had no game.”

In the morning, back in her home city, she texted Ghomeshi and apologized for leaving so abruptly. He told her to look him up if she came to Toronto. She told him she was there quite often.

“He had some kind of effect on me. Despite how much he came on to me I was still interested in him. I don’t know if it was the intrigue of me having been a fan of his. I am thinking it probably was. I also found him quite nice on that date and interesting. He has a really funny sense of humour, and to this day he is hilarious.”

Carly smiled from across the table. It looked as though she was remembering some good parts of the relationship. It was hardly what I expected from a young woman who at some point in this story was apparently going to allege some much more serious and long-term abuse. As I understood from Jesse Brown, her relationship with Ghomeshi became much more intimate in the following days.

Having listened to Ghomeshi for years myself, I would never have pegged him as having a violent nature. I suddenly realized that I had no sense of Ghomeshi’s physical presence. I had never seen him in person, never watched the televised QTV podcasts. Carly was tiny. How big was Ghomeshi?

“Five foot eleven,” she estimated.

“Is he muscular?”

“Mmmm. He works out probably three times a week. He has a trainer. He is well built, except for his stomach. He thinks he’s fat. He stands in front of the mirror and says he is fat. He sounds like a teenage girl talking about his weight, and I have never heard a man talk like that. He would project his body image issues on to me as well. ‘I want your ass to get bigger, but I don’t want your thighs to get bigger. I want you having abs, you have nice abs, but make sure they are not too toned because I don’t want them to be too toned.’”

Within two days of the book reading in the fall of 2012, Carly said, she and Ghomeshi began texting on a regular basis. She was at work in her hometown; Ghomeshi was still doing book events. Calgary, Montreal, and other cities were on his route, and she knew he would meet other young women along the way. Despite that, Carly said she enjoyed the texting and felt there was a mild flirtation going on. At this point in the interview, she paused. “This is where it makes me look, you know, whatever.”

She explained that she had purchased a new bikini, mail order, and she tried it on, took a photo, and texted it to Ghomeshi, who responded, she recalled, “I fucking love that you just sent this to me.” He asked for more photos, and videos, and she complied. Some were with the bikini on; some were taken in lingerie. At that point, they all included some form of clothing.

“It completely spiralled from that point. He requested that I send him a new video every day. I had to keep him interested because if I didn’t he would move onto another woman.” Carly raised her eyes to look directly at me. “Please don’t judge my frame of mind here because I was so out of my mind here.”

In my notebook I made an observation. Carly rarely referred to Ghomeshi by his name, only as “him.” This might mean she had him on a pedestal and never thought of him as an equal partner in the relationship, or she might simply be so angry and betrayed that she could only refer to him that way.

Plans were made for Carly to visit Ghomeshi in Toronto. She dragged her feet. Christmas was coming, and she was concerned about the cost and what she was getting into. Eventually, just before the end of the year, she booked her ticket. By that point, Carly was sending a video of herself to Ghomeshi every day at the radio star’s request, more graphic as time went by.

Brown leaned forward in his chair, eager to get to the point. “Do you remember the first time he mentioned anything outside of . . . any threat of violence?” he asked.

“Yes,” Carly answered quickly. “Shortly after I sent him videos. It was something about beating me up. I almost wasn’t surprised after I got it for some reason.” Carly explained that she had been watching Ghomeshi on Twitter and had noticed a real anger and aggression in his tweets. When people challenged him on the smallest point, Ghomeshi would become upset and angry and fire back. Carly did not remember what her answer was to his introduction of the rough sex idea, and she had already deleted all of his texts. “This was a while ago so I don’t remember, but it certainly wasn’t ‘please beat me up.’”

I wanted to see if there was any chance that, at this point in their relationship history, Carly had any previous connection with any of Ghomeshi’s friends, colleagues or former colleagues, or former dates. She said she had not and that beyond what she had heard on Q, Ghomeshi was a closed book to her. I went back to Brown’s question about the threat of violence, and Carly said she must have provided a cold response because Ghomeshi texted urgently, asking when would be a good time to phone her. They arranged a time when she was working late, and Ghomeshi called.

According to Carly, Ghomeshi told her, “I can see that you are getting a little standoffish about my violent texting, and I just want to assure you that it is purely fantasy, and we will come up with a safe word. I want you to know that I would never hurt you.”

Carly responded that Ghomeshi should not worry; she was still coming for the visit but, she told him, she hoped he wasn’t planning to “have his way with her” and “toss her aside.”

Ghomeshi has had three houses in Toronto over the last decade. In late 2012, he was living in Cabbagetown, a gentrified area of east Toronto dotted with stately Victorian houses and old buildings. Ghomeshi’s home was in a renovated industrial space, once a peanut factory. A 2010 Toronto Star story by arts reporter Rita Zekas described the interior as uncluttered yet homey, with a spread of shoes just inside on the tiled floor. In the foyer, the ceiling stretched up almost fifty feet to the top floor of the townhouse, which was lined with well-worn Persian carpets, a nod to Ghomeshi’s Iranian heritage, and musical touches on the walls—photos from his days with nineties Toronto folk-pop band Moxy Früvous and a drawing by singer Lights, whom Ghomeshi managed. On the top floor he had a rooftop deck fitted out with lounge chairs and a table.

Carly flew in late in the afternoon on a Friday, a plan she said she made clear to Ghomeshi, hoping he would pick her up. Ghomeshi was at work that day. His morning radio show wrapped up just before noon, and he then typically spent a few hours working on future shows. She texted him that she had arrived, and the timing was not to Ghomeshi’s liking.

“I have to leave work right now!” Ghomeshi replied. “If you’re standing outside my house waiting for me there’s nothing I can do about that because I don’t know if I will get back in time. Try to stall. Take a cab.”

I was puzzled. “Was he trying to protect his neighbours from seeing a young girl there?”

“No, I think he was just annoyed.”

Carly took a taxi. She arrived around dinnertime. It was dark. She waited outside and saw him drive up in his Mini Cooper.

Opening a folder, I took out a picture of Ghomeshi’s current house, in the Beaches, another area in Toronto’s east end. Carly looked at it and said no, the house she went to was the Cabbagetown house on Sackville Street. She knew Ghomeshi had moved since then, and she had been to the house in the Beaches, too. Carly resumed her story.

The driveway of the Sackville Street house was long by city standards. She waved when he got out of his car, but Ghomeshi went inside without saying anything. Carly walked up to the front door and knocked. No answer. The door opened and she went inside.

“He did not speak to me. He put my luggage down and threw me against the wall and started making out with me.” She said it was like a scene from a movie.

“Like the scene from that Glenn Close movie?” I asked, referencing the steamy, aggressive sex scenes in the 1987 movie Fatal Attraction, which co-starred Michael Douglas.

Carly said it was exactly like that, very intense, no dialogue. Ghomeshi led her upstairs, where she noted mirrors everywhere, particularly on the closets in front of the bathroom, just outside the master bedroom. She said Ghomeshi ordered her to perform fellatio.

“Just like that?” I asked.

“Just like that. So I obliged.”

“Why?”

“I was there already. It was assumed we were going to have sex anyways, so I just thought this is what we are doing. I didn’t want him to think I was a cold fish.”

I must have looked puzzled. Carly explained further.

“Also, too, I froze. I am the type of person who is really bad in an emergency. If something major happens I just freeze. I was just going through the motions with him and not knowing what else to do, and that’s when he hit me across the head.”

“While you were giving him oral sex?”

“Yes.”

“Once?”

“Repeatedly.”

“One side?”

“He would vary. I would say he mostly did it with his right hand.”

“Did you stop doing what you were doing?”

“I think, for a minute. I could not believe what was happening. I was in so much shock. I thought, you know, he was going to be a little rough but not physically hurting me.”

“Then what?”

“He led me to the bathroom.”

“Did he ejaculate?”

“No. He goes a long time. Especially for his age.”

“Then what?”

“He kind of shoved me against his vanity so there’s a mirror in front of me and behind me.”

“Who’s wearing what?”

“I had my top on and underwear and nothing else. He had his pants off. My memory is a little bit fuzzy. He would face me in front of the mirror and grab my throat. Him wanting me to give him oral sex; him hitting me across the head. I remember him pushing me really hard against his counter and it had a sharp edge and it was hurting my back.”

I looked straight at Carly. “‘Stop.’ Are you saying that?”

“No. And that’s where it’s my fault. I didn’t tell him to stop. And I remember him taking his belt and leading me around his bedroom like a dog on a leash.”

Brown broke in. “Is he talking at all throughout this?”

“Yes, like ‘you’re a dirty whore’ kind of conversation.”

We took a brief pause. After three decades of reporting on all sorts of stories I was well aware that people are not always the same in the bedroom as outside of it and that lots of people engage in sexual role play. One story I investigated a few years back, involving allegations against a man who by day worked for a public service agency in Ontario and by night was known as Lord Morpheus and a self-styled kink expert in BDSM—the art of bondage-discipline-dominance-submission-sadism-masochism—took me briefly into the world of dungeons and rough-sex role play. That world, as I recalled, involved a lot of gadgets, collars, ropes, leather gags, and other paraphernalia. I wondered if this was what was going on with Ghomeshi, some kind of consensual role play. I asked Carly, and she said there was no agreement, no safe word, no discussion of consent.

II was clenching my teeth. I found Carly’s story deeply troubling. The scene she was describing was baffling. A major celebrity, one of Canada’s biggest stars, risking it all with this terrible behaviour did not make any sense.

“Okay, so he’s put one hand around your neck, now he’s put his belt around you and now he’s leading you, and you still say nothing. Which is an issue with this story, and you obviously understand that?”

Carly nodded. “Yes, I do, yes.”

I wasn’t blaming Carly, but I wanted her to understand that some readers would question whether she was consenting to certain parts of Ghomeshi’s alleged behaviour.

“Then what happened?”

“We went to his bed.”

“Still on your neck? The belt?”

“He would have taken it off and started whipping me with it.”

“Did he? Or would he?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. I just don’t remember the exact order of when it happened, but it happened for sure.”

“Whereabouts on your body?”

“My back and shoulders. Never on the head or face area.”

“Hard?” I asked.

“Yup. It hurt.”

“Did you have marks from that?” Brown asked.

“Probably. I had a lot of bruises and marks and stuff when I got back.”

Carly described the next hour. She said Ghomeshi pinned her down, straddled her, and hit her hard enough to blur her vision. “He would do that a lot, lay me on my back, straddling my face, and shoving it down my throat. He would have his whole weight of his body on me, and he was pinning my arms with his legs so I couldn’t say anything, and I couldn’t get him off me. I would be choking and crying, and I couldn’t breathe, and that made me panicky. When I was pretty much at the breaking point, that’s when he would get off.”

She said this was her first introduction to Ghomeshi’s stuffed animal, a blue teddy bear he called Big Ears Teddy. It was always in the room when they had sex. She said Ghomeshi would turn it around, saying, “This is too inappropriate for Big Ears to see.”

Carly said they had intercourse after that, which included more hitting by Ghomeshi. Then he asked her to massage his back, and he fell asleep.

I was curious about something. “I listen to his show a lot. He’s a very good interviewer. You’re not getting any of these questions where he is asking about you as a human being?”

“Nope. He didn’t even give me a tour of his house.”

Carly stayed the weekend with Ghomeshi. She said he was violent every time they had sex. One particular incident stood out. The morning after her arrival, a Saturday, she was getting dressed in a spare room where her luggage was, and he walked in and went at her again.

“He made me face the mirror and pushed me up against the mirror and was choking me, and I started to black out. He would cover my nose and mouth and choke my neck. This is where I was trying to tell him to stop, and he wouldn’t stop. I would try and pry his hands off and make a noise, and he would still wait a few seconds longer. When you think you are going to black out, a few seconds is a long time. I would panic. I would say to him, ‘You almost made me black out, I couldn’t breathe.’ And he said, ‘That is so hot, I wish you had passed out, it would have been hotter if you had passed out.’”

I put my pen down on my notebook. Journalists have a duty to seek the truth, just like lawyers in a courtroom, and that often involves asking tough questions. The next question was one that might seem insensitive, but it was one that had to be asked.

“That’s frightening stuff,” I said. “I think a lot of people would ask this: why didn’t you get your bags and get the hell out of there?”

Excerpted from Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation. Copyright © 2016 by Kevin Donovan. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.

Kevin Donovan (@_kevindonovan) is an investigative reporter at the Toronto Star.

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