By Natalie Jacobsen
When we last heard from Johnathan Perkins, it was 2011. In the six years since, the University of Virginia School of Law alumnus has reached milestones in his career, and currently works as an associate attorney in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel. But today he also struggles with personal conflicts that haunt him.
April 1, 2011: Perkins says he was confronted by UVA police officers on Wertland Street around 2am, and he asserted in a Virginia Law Weekly letter to the editor, published April 22, 2011, that the two officers racially profiled him.
May 2011: Perkins recanted his claim and redacted his letter. Almost everyone around him, from peers to professors, saw him as a “liar.”
Today: Perkins is coming forward with an allegation—that it was the FBI who pressured him to recant his story and to deny the ordeal happened.
“I have been living with this for six years,” says Perkins. “I was told to not speak of this for forever, if possible, but at the minimum for five years [due to] a statute of limitations.” He says his lawyer at the time, Lloyd Snook, emphasized this. Despite never filing a formal complaint against the UVA Police Department, Perkins alleges the U.S. attorney took his letter seriously enough to “threaten charges…and a devastating investigation.”
Former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy declined to comment on the case.
On May 5, 2011, Perkins says he received a phone call. FBI Special Agent Robert Hilland left a voicemail, requesting he call back to “speak soon.” Perkins left his study room and found the agent in the law school parking lot, near Perkins’ vehicle, he says. Hilland allegedly led Perkins back into the school, where they entered one of the law school meeting rooms, and shut the door. According to Perkins, two UVA police lieutenants were there: Melissa Fielding, now a captain, and Lieutenant Michael Blakey.
Laurel Sakai, a classmate and friend of Perkins, had been studying with him and was there during his first phone call. “I recognized the caller ID as a D.C. number and told him to answer it,” she says. “When I heard he had to go meet the agent, I said he shouldn’t go alone. I saw the officers in the hallway waiting for the meeting to start.”
For the following two hours, Perkins says Hilland interrogated him. “They never asked for my side of the story. They never questioned me about the police officers who searched me. I was the subject of the interrogation, not the officers.”
Perkins says Hilland slid him a blank piece of paper and had him write his own recantation. “I wrote the first sentence and Hilland chuckled. Then he dictated the rest to me.”
Perkins provides a document he says is his recantation that’s signed by Hilland and Blakey as witnesses, but not by Fielding.
Hilland did not respond to a request for comment, and the FBI did not confirm his involvement. UVA declined to comment.
“When [I finally] talked to him, he said he ‘just signed a letter saying none of it happened,’” says Sakai. “His demeanor seemed strange, and I don’t think he comprehended the extent of what had happened.”
“I feel…foolish now, [because] I know this is a pretty common practice; he executed a textbook interrogation,” says Perkins, who was a third-year law student at the time.
Hilland had “implied that telling him what he wanted to hear was the easiest way to ‘make it all go away.’ He laid out a series of consequences, mentioned charges,” says Perkins. He says the charges were never made explicitly clear.
“As a practicing attorney now, I can imagine or assume what charges they had in mind, but at the time, the agent…threatened to interrogate my mother, sisters, classmates, professors, future employers, neighbors—and I imagined them going through all of this and agreed to sign the recantation instead, to stop it from happening,” he says.
UVA released a press statement the following day, revealing the university police had closed its investigation.
“What I noticed later was, the statement even says they relied on outside agencies. They never directly say ‘the FBI.’ Almost nobody knows they are the reason for my recantation,” says Perkins.
The statement also noted that police reviewed dispatch records, personnel rosters, police radio tapes, interview and surveillance videos from university cameras as well as privately owned businesses.
“The student cooperated with the investigation,” Chief Michael Gibson said in the statement, “but details and facts of his story came into question as the investigation unfolded. Yesterday, he told us that the incident had never occurred.”
After facing backlash from the university and classmates, and garnering negative attention in the media nationwide, Perkins says he felt isolated, but determined to complete his final year of law school.
Because he faced charges from the UVA Honor Committee, Perkins’ degree was withheld until after his July 17 trial, which lasted from 9am until nearly 11pm. He says all 12 jurors grilled him and the witnesses, including Lieutenant Blakey.
Blakey talked about “how bad my letter made them look,” says Perkins. “They wanted…that bad press to end.”
Perkins provides a document he says is a May 17, 2011, statement Blakey made as an Honor Committee witness that says Perkins’ description of one of the officers who stopped him kept changing and was inconsistent with the officers who were on duty that night.
Jurors were made aware of the FBI interrogation, and Perkins was ultimately acquitted and granted his degree.
The experience, Perkins says, inspired him to go into law surrounding higher education, “after being shepherded through the system…this process, and student issues…became important to me.”
The recantation “has been my life’s biggest regret,” he says. “It almost ruined my whole life. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve left, and not gone in that room.”
Perkins’ emotions catch up to him. “I just hope now that people will see the full story and understand the FBI’s involvement in this,” he says. “I feel horrible that the public nature of my story led people to think that people of color fabricate tales of police conduct. People of color suffered because of this, and I want people to believe in us when we say we experience these issues. It happens every day. This has changed the whole trajectory of my life.”