Lee Chatfield’s wife comes to his defense, calls sex assault claims ‘false’
LANSING—Lee Chatfield's wife is coming to his defense, seeking to cast doubt on claims that the former Michigan House Speaker sexually assaulted his future sister-in-law when she was a teen student at the Christian academy where he taught.
In a statement released on her behalf by an attorney Thursday, Stephanie Chatfield acknowledged her husband has had numerous affairs, but she said there is "no question" each of them was "consensual," including what became a decade-long relationship with Rebekah Chatfield.
"The Chatfield family is working through the pain as a family that Mr. Chatfield has caused, and Mrs. Chatfield unconditionally supports Mr. Chatfield as he asks for forgiveness and works to make amends with those he has so deeply hurt," attorney Matt Newburg of Grand Ledge wrote in the statement.
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"Simply put, Rebekah’s allegations are false," read the statement, which drew a sharp response from Rebekah Chatfield’s attorney.
Rebekah Chatfield, in a police report and in numerous interviews with Bridge Michigan, alleged Lee Chatfield first assaulted her when she was a 15- or 16-year-old student at Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake, a private school run by the Chatfield family where Lee taught and coached soccer.
Their relationship continued into 2021, said Rebekah, who is now 26. She described her home life as a teen as chaotic and said Lee Chatfield used those vulnerabilities to isolate her. While she acknowledged she at times initiated contact with Lee, Rebekah said Lee manipulated her into staying in a relationship that was never truly consensual because he "groomed me into being who he wanted me to be."
In the statement Thursday, Stephanie Chatfield alleged several inconsistencies and misstatements in Rebekah’s account while suggesting possible mental health issues. Rebekah’s claims “make no sense and do not match up with reality,” Stephanie said through her attorney.
Jamie White, an attorney for Rebekah Chatfield, released a statement calling it "unfortunate but unsurprising that Stephanie Chatfield is responding to rape allegations against her husband in the traditional way: by blaming the victim, calling her delusional, promiscuous, and implying that a girl below the age of consent invited her own abuse."
Stephanie Chatfield’s forceful defense of her husband comes as state police appear to be escalating a sexual assault and campaign finance investigation into Lee Chatfield, who has denied any criminal wrongdoing through his attorney.
Authorities Tuesday searched the Bath Township home of two top legislative aides who worked for Lee Chatfield in the state House and are connected to political and non-profit funds the Levering Republican used to raise large sums of money.
Court records also indicate state police last week executed a search warrant at the Lansing-area residence of Aaron Chatfield, who is Rebekah's husband and Lee's younger brother. Aaron Chatfield initially fought the warrant, calling it a "fishing expedition," before later dropping the challenge.
In her statement, Stephanie Chatfield disputed several specific recollections by Rebekah Chatfield, challenging her timeline of events involving her husband while arguing her sister-in-law launched unfounded accusations against Lee in an attempt to garner notoriety and attention.
Newburg, Stephanie Chatfield's attorney, did not say why she decided to come forward now after declining initial requests to comment on allegations against her embattled husband. But she "feels compelled to defend her family," he said in the statement.
Stephanie Chatfield contested several allegations made by her sister-in-law.
Rebekah Chatfield told Bridge, and later the Lansing City Pulse, Lee Chatfield first assaulted her in his home, where as a teen she would sometimes babysit or stay after soccer games at the Christian academy where he taught. She said the first incident occurred when she was 15 or 16, she couldn’t be sure when. She said Lee joined her to watch TV in the basement of his home one night, blocked her in a stairwell and groped her through her clothes.
Her memory of that initial encounter is clear even if the specific timeframe is not, she told Bridge.
But Stephanie Chatfield said Rebekah "never once babysat" for the family when she was 15 years old, "nor did she stay over at their house at that age." Stephanie Chatfield also disputed her sister-in-law's recollection that her first unwanted sexual encounter with Lee Chatfield occurred in the basement of their home.
When Rebekah was 15, the family lived in a ranch home without a basement, Stephanie Chatfield's attorney said. They purchased a home with a basement shortly before Rebekah turned 16, but they did not move in immediately and did not have a TV or furniture in the basement for the first year, the attorney said.
The specific timeline of the relationship could be relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation into Lee Chatfield, which state police are conducting with assistance from Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office.
Michigan law generally puts the age of consent to sex at 16. It is also a crime for a teacher to have any type of sexual penetration with a student under the age of 18, though some charges can only be brought within 10 years of the alleged crime.
State Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, this week introduced legislation that would allow alleged sexual assault victims to use evidence of "grooming" to counter “consent” defenses in criminal prosecutions.
If the bill became law, an accuser like Rebekah Chatfield would be able to "go forward knowing that all the evidence that they can present of a grooming would be admissible" in court, LaGrand told Bridge.
"Grooming is behavior that's designed to break down people's defenses and normalize unwanted sexual advances," he said. “It's really important that we shed light on this and strengthen protections in light of the number of sexual scandals that are coming to light.”
Stephanie Chatfield also contested Rebekah’s account of Lee taking advantage of her vulnerability one evening shortly before she married Aaron Chatfield.
Rebekah told Bridge her husband’s family pressured her and Aaron into marriage when they were 19 years old after discovering the teens were having sex. She said Lee pulled her into a closet and made her perform a sex act that evening at the family home.
Stephanie Chatfield’s statement Thursday said Rebekah stayed at her mother’s house in the nights before the wedding. She also said Rebekah "begged" the family to convince Aaron to marry her after he had gotten "cold feet."
In interviews, Rebekah Chatfield has said she did not keep a diary, texts or any other writings that described her encounters with Lee out of fear that her husband would discover them.
But Rebekah kept a journal the Chatfield family somehow obtained, according to Stephanie's attorney. In it, Rebekah "continually criticizes her husband" and mentioned other "sexual" traumas — but never wrote anything about Lee Chatfield or high school, said Newburg, Stephanie Chatfield’s attorney.
“Mrs. Chatfield acknowledges this for what it is: an affair,” he said in the statement.
Jamie White, Rebekah Chatfield's attorney, told Bridge Michigan he is not sure how the Chatfield family obtained Rebekah’s writings.
But "I would not be surprised" if the family had been monitoring her journaling, he said, suggesting that would be consistent with their tendency to be "prying through her things and controlling her life."
In a separate statement, White said it is a "well-established fact that the vast majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse hesitate to come forward for years." He called Stephanie Chatfield's statement on Thursday a "textbook illustration of the reason why."
“My client would like to express compassion for everything Stephanie Chatfield and her family must be going through during revelations of serial infidelity, a criminal investigation, and a financial misdeeds investigation," White wrote.
"I look forward to cooperating with the attorney general in any capacity requested, to ensure that Mr. Chatfield is not in a position to harm others in the future."
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