Editor’s note: the following story contains graphic details of sexual assault.
Two years and three months have gone by since Riley Blair lost her sense of safety. A year and a half has gone by since she took the stand in a packed courtroom and retold all the details of the night of July 7, 2018. Three months ago, the man who pled guilty to sexually assaulting her was released from prison.
He served eight months.
Darren Smith, a former Ferris hockey player, was on trial for five counts of criminal sexual conduct, all felonies, in April of 2019. He faced a maximum of a life sentence. The case never made it to trial, however, and Smith was given a plea deal that included Michigan Holmes Youth Trainee Act protections, making all of the court records from the case and his sentencing sealed.
HYTA, which applies to offenders ages 17 to 23, results in the court not entering a judgement of conviction after the offender formally pleads guilty to charges against them.
Blair, a Ferris women’s basketball alum, called the eight month prison sentence “a slap on the wrist,” which was almost shortened this spring when she got a call that Smith’s early release was being requested due to COVID-19 cases at the prison he was held at, which was not listed due to HYTA protections. Blair submitted a letter to the judge and the request was denied.
Smith, an Ontario native, served his full eight months and was deported to Canada in July upon his release.
The case began with Smith’s arrest on July 12, 2018 and ended in the fall of 2019 when the plea deal was agreed upon. Over the year and a half of court dates, Blair communicated with former gymnast and lawyer Rachael Denhollander, who was the first woman to publicly accuse former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault. Denhollander called the plea deal a “joke” and “bullshit,” according to Blair, and said she would have taken her case if she hadn’t moved. Denhollander also said Blair’s case had the most evidence she had ever seen in a case like that.
After speaking with Denhollander, Blair spoke to the prosecutors and they reexamined the deal, which Smith said he was not going to take. Mecosta County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Amy Clapp had told the Torch at the time that a plea deal was unlikely and she fully intended for the case to go to trial. Blair said she went back and forth on plea deals throughout the case, and had many discussions with the prosecutors about what she would accept.
“I’m a really firm believer that—obviously it varies situation to situation—locking someone away for 10-15 years, which is what he was looking at, if they did proceed with the trial, is not going to be beneficial to anyone,” Blair said. “They need help, if your mind is wired like that, that’s how you reason through things, you need assistance on top of punishment. So that was always my biggest thing that I told her too, that I’m not going to sit here and lose sleep over the amount of years in prison. That’s not what I’m going for, I’m not out to get revenge, I want to make sure he doesn’t do this to anyone else.”
One night in July
In July of 2018, Blair was in the middle of nursing school at Ferris, which meant going through the summers, and Blair was completing her clinicals at Helen DeVos Children’s hospital in Grand Rapids. That particular day was during her labor and delivery rotation, a 12-hour shift from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Blair had driven from Big Rapids, and was up at 3:30 a.m. on July 7. Blair, who said she is a visual learner and didn’t want to miss anything during her shift, recalls eating nothing but a sandwich that day.
After her shift ended, she drove back to Big Rapids. The Ferris women’s basketball overnight camp was the next week and some of her teammates had come a night early to hang out.
A few of their friends came over as well, and there was a group of about 10 drinking together at their apartment. Blair admitted she was underage at the time and used a fake ID to get into the local bar, even though she was exhausted and originally wasn’t even sure she wanted to go.
When her and her teammates arrived at Star Shooters, they immediately started ordering drinks and Blair remembers at least four rounds of shots being ordered.
The summer crowd was fairly thin at the bar, but Blair said they ran into some hockey players there, including Smith. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence for the teams to hang out, as one of Blair’s teammates was dating a hockey player at the time. She has no recollection of the events of the night after arriving at the bar until the middle of the night in her bed.
“I just remember feeling the sensation of – I was wearing a cloth bra – and remember feeling it tearing open and I remember feeling this bad pain in my lower lip,” Blair said. “I woke up and I was so confused. I had no idea what was going on. I was still very intoxicated and I was so out of it that I just kind of slipped back out of it.”
The next thing she remembers is coming back into consciousness when she felt extreme pain in her vagina, and her room was so dark she could only see the outline of a head.
“I don’t know how to put it into words—the most fear by far that I’ve ever felt in my whole life and to the point of being completely frozen. Just completely paralyzing,” Blair said. “I think it was a combination of things. Obviously when you’re under the influence, your reasoning and rationale is completely altered, so I had that going on. I had no idea who it was and what had happened so then my next memory isn’t until waking up the next morning.”
Her memories of what transpired during the night didn’t come back to her immediately. It wasn’t until a few months of therapy that Blair was able to recall repressed memories of her assault.
“I’ve been told a lot of things from a lot of different professionals that sometimes your brain will block things out. Or if it was just another loss of consciousness from how much alcohol I consumed,” Blair said. “All of that was completely blocked out the next morning. So initially my first thought when I woke up was I was naked, he was naked and I was like what happened?”
Blair, unaware of Smith’s relationship status at the time, said the woman who she assumed was his girlfriend barged into her apartment at 6 a.m. and dragged Smith out of her apartment “basically wrapped in a sheet” after yelling at both Blair and Smith.
Still feeling intoxicated, Blair wandered out to her living room where her friends were sleeping on a pullout couch and tried to go back to sleep, with no success.
“Just a pit in my stomach,” Blair said. “You get a pit in your stomach when you go talk in front of a lot of people. My entire stomach had been flipped and tied into a million knots. My mouth, partially because I was hungover, but I couldn’t create enough saliva, I felt like I was choking on my spit.”
Blair’s roommate came downstairs after hearing the commotion and Blair remembers asking her why Smith was in her bed. Her roommate’s face went pale and her eyes widened and she responded “What do you mean he was in your bed?” and began to ramble about how he told her he was going home and she had checked on Blair before going to bed.
Her roommate went on to explain that Blair had gotten too drunk at the bar so their designated driver picked them up and they helped her into bed. Her roommate and their friends then went to Taco Bell to get food, where they ran into Smith, who hopped in their car in the drive-thru. At that time, Blair was passed out in her bed, and Smith began sending her vulgar messages over Instagram. Blair said one read “really nice, wanna fuck?” which she did not see until the next day.
On the ride back to Blair’s apartment, they offered Smith a ride home, but he turned it down and came over to hang out and eat. When everyone decided to go to bed, her roommate said they offered him a ride home again to his apartment, only a few minutes away. He declined, saying he would walk. Her roommate checked on Blair one last time before going to bed and once again asked Smith if he needed a ride back. He turned down the offer and assured her he would walk. After going upstairs, she texted him to let her know when he got home.
He never responded.
“I wouldn’t allow myself to even consider the idea of what had happened,” Blair said. “I went back in my room and I looked in the mirror and I noticed that my lip was busted open.”
She rationalized it, telling her roommate she must have been so drunk she hit her face on something. She then found her sheets rolled up on the floor with vomit all over them, and said she was so drunk she must have vomited everywhere. Then she found her cloth Calvin Klein bra, ripped apart on the ground, and told her roommate she was so intoxicated she couldn’t get her bra off.
“Riley, come on,” her roommate responded.
Later that day, Blair noticed severe swelling and burning in her vagina. Blair said she was scared to even touch her body and was in denial the whole day.
“It was like I could touch my body, I could see it and it was like I didn’t know it,” she said. “My body knew before I would even allow myself to acknowledge what had happened.”
It wasn’t until she noticed fingerprint-shaped bruises on her arms and thighs in the shower that she began to fully realize what had happened.
“You get bruises all the time playing basketball. But I hadn’t played in a couple weeks and they were very particularly shaped bruises,” Blair said. “I was thinking ‘what is going on here?’ and I was staring at them for a second and I put my thumb up and that’s when I realized, these were thumbprint shaped bruises.”
She called a former teammate that day, and broke down crying on the phone. Her friends suggested she get a rape kit done, but Blair refused at first, not wanting to make allegations when she could not remember anything from the night before. But after a few days, she agreed to go to the hospital and get examined.
“I had shame and blame on myself like never before,” Blair said. “As an athlete I’ve always been hard on myself with basketball and even with school. I think everyone is their own biggest critic. But those next few days I just was in the worst—as I came to terms with things more—I was at the lowest spot I’ve ever been in my self-critique.
“My self-talk was so negative. It was ‘You slut. You put this out that that’s the kind of respect you get from people, is that they have the control over you. Anyone can decide if they want you.’ And it was all on me. It was the worst few days of my whole life.”
Blair said she sat down at her computer one night and googled “how do you know if you’ve been raped?” She wouldn’t make any accusations unless she was sure it had happened. The lists that came up had physical injuries listed and feelings of depression, but it was two words she read that sent chills down her spine: torn clothing.
Her bra, nearly ripped in half, came to mind and her entire body tensed up.
“That was the time I let myself accept it and thinking of the aggression and lack of respect and everything that would go into that specific act of tearing someone’s bra off. That I was so incompetent that I couldn’t or wouldn’t even be able to take my own bra off, that someone took it into their own hands and was that aggressive and careless towards me and my body, it was just completely overwhelming. I couldn’t even process that act within itself,” Blair said.
A divided community
Both Blair and Smith were Ferris athletes at the time of the assault. It was something that caused a not-so subtle divide in the tight-knit community, even between Blair and her best friend, who was also a women’s basketball player. After Blair told her about the assault, she went to Smith’s apartment to talk to him, leaving Blair sobbing in another friend’s arms. When she came back, she told Blair he said he didn’t do it, so maybe she shouldn’t get a rape kit done.
The athletics community was hard to navigate for Blair after that; it was uncharted territory for everyone. After Blair told her coach, not knowing she was a mandatory reporter, she had to file a police report and after giving his name to the Ferris Department of Public safety, Ferris Athletics wanted to do more education in response. That’s when the news got out.
Blair suffered from extreme social anxiety, even around other athletes she was friends with before. She couldn’t go to the grocery store alone, or fill her car up with gas. She had panic attacks at the drop of a hat.
“I would go to other teams sporting events and his teammates would be there and sitting a few rows down in the bleachers and—I’m not even exaggerating—would be turned around, staring at me. I was uncomfortable walking through the sports complex,” Blair said. “I would literally base what door I entered for workouts off of the hockey players’ schedule, so I wouldn’t have to even cross paths with them…even when I wanted to feel an escape from it, there was no way, unless, honestly, I went home to Livonia, was the only time I ever felt rest or peace.”
Any discussions with her former best friend always ended up in comments like “it’s not too late to drop charges,” and “this is going to ruin his whole life,” or “they’re going to tear you apart in a trial.” Eventually Blair learned that she was reporting her every move and things Blair told her to Smith’s defense, which resulted in Blair moving to a new apartment.
“I just remember my skin crawling in a time when I was already so uncomfortable in my skin,” Blair said. “I couldn’t find comfort through anything. I had nowhere to go, these were the people that I was trusting in a few of the most vulnerable moments. I just felt like my trust and my sense of safety was the biggest thing that I lost.”
Her own voice
In every step of the process, Blair was doubted, questioned and felt disrespected. First from a close friend. Then by a nurse at the hospital, who told her “well, we all get drunk and fall down and get bruises.” Most of all, though, by the judge at Smith’s sentencing.
Blair said she gave a victim impact statement at the closed sentencing, which lasted nearly half an hour. It was as if they sat there quietly because they were required to, but as soon as she finished, she could tell her words had gone in one ear and out the other. Yet, Smith’s stack of papers, with letters of recommendation from coaches and friends, was referenced over and over. According to Blair, the judge apologized to Smith for making him say he was guilty of assault twice.
She went into the sentencing hoping to get some closure, hoping for an apology or a sign of remorse for what he did. She got neither.
“I feel like he took the most chicken way out of this. Obviously his reputation was tainted but he thinks that this is all getting, for the most part, swept under the rug,” Blair said. “At the sentencing, it was just actually unbelievable the way the narrative that was used that he had already lost so much, being a student athlete. He lost his scholarship, he had been kicked out of school, he had served a couple weeks at one point because he broke the bonds of his tether, he had already suffered so much and there’s this stack of letters from his coaches.
“All these people talking about he’s a good student, a good teammate, a good friend and the judge referenced those and took those into consideration. ‘We’re going to show Mr. Smith some leniency,’ were actually the words used.”
The texts that were submitted as evidence, however, were not considered, according to Blair. Texts that referenced sexual contests and other girls to check off his list. Texts that included racist language that showed “utter disrespect for human life,” according to Blair.
She felt like she was the only one advocating for herself throughout the whole process.
“There were so many times I lost my voice and that it was not even asked for,” she said. “Or if it was asked for, it was like, why am I even talking? Because you’re not listening. And that was exactly how I felt again and again and again, and so I wasn’t even surprised at the sentencing, I was exhausted.”
Blair now lives in Grand Rapids, where she works full-time at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. She is in a loving relationship with her boyfriend, who lives in Holland, and got a dog this summer to keep her company, an aussie-doodle named Lennie. She tries to fill her time reading and began training for a half-marathon this summer.
Each day is a process mentally for Blair, who was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. There are stretches of days when she feels like she’s doing really well, and then one thing triggers her and it’s back to square one. Some nights, she has nightmares that shake her for days or even weeks. There are days when she begins to slip into the “hole of worthlessness” as she called it and feels shame in everything she does.
Learning her triggers has been part of the healing process, and many have been amplified by moving across the state from her family and living alone.
“I’m going to have setbacks and I just try to really chalk up the good days as a big win,” Blair said. “Even a task as simple as going to the grocery store alone. Or going to get gas or going for a run by myself. I’ve really allowed myself to celebrate and enjoy those moments.”
Her biggest reservation in speaking up now was having people pity her, or treat her like she was someone who was fragile.
“Talk to me like I’m a person, don’t talk to me like I’m damaged or like I’m weak or like I need to be coddled because I hate that,” Blair said. “I have learned how to know what I need and be really blunt about it. I feel like I’ve also learned a lot from this experience, it’s helped me grow in that aspect and standing up for myself and knowing what I want and not doing things just to please people.”
Survivors of sexual assault have things taken from them that they may never get back. For Blair, it was her ability to relax.
“Part of the reason I love my boyfriend is he’s constantly helping me in that aspect. Wherever I go, each person on the street is a threat until it’s proven to me that it’s not. It’s been really difficult to enjoy a lot of things in my life because I’m always in that fight or flight, I’m always expecting a threat everywhere I go,” she said. “That sense of safety…there’s always a healthy amount that a normal person has, a healthy balance, you can access a situation and identify what is an actual threat, what’s something you can actually sit back and enjoy. I can’t do that. At least not yet. It’s always expecting the worst.”
For now, Blair is at peace with not always being OK, and is focusing on embracing her emotions, the good with the bad. There may be bad days ahead, but she knows that there will certainly be good ones, too.
She is a survivor of sexual assault, and while she kept her name private during the trial, she isn’t anymore; her name is Riley Blair.