A former student at the evangelical university opens up about a 2008 incident with the wife of the school’s president.
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer living in Delaware. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe and the BBC, among other outlets.
A former Liberty University student says Becki Falwell, the wife of the university’s then-President Jerry Falwell Jr., jumped into bed with him and performed oral sex on him while he stayed over at the Falwell home after a band practice with her eldest son in 2008.
The student was 22 at the time of the encounter, near the start of Liberty’s fall semester. He said she initiated the act, and he went along with it. But despite his rejection of further advances, he said, Falwell continued pursuing him, offering him gifts and engaging in banter through Facebook messages.
The messages, screenshots of which were provided by the former student to POLITICO, suggest a flirtatious relationship that went beyond what might be expected of a mother communicating with her son’s bandmate.
One referenced a mutual friend who “said that she wants you to cut [your] bangs when you get your hair cut. I think that you are beautiful just like you are,” Becki Falwell wrote in a message sent in September 2008. “You don’t want to cover up those killer eyes of yours and you know the bandana drives me wild … ?”
In another, sent in December 2008, after the student says he made clear he did not want any romantic involvement with Falwell, she wrote: “Maybe time will heal whatever wounds that I have caused and your Christian heart will allow you to forgive me.”
« [Redacted] said that she wants you to cut [your] bangs when you get your hair cut. [I] think that you are beautiful just like you are, » Becki Falwell wrote in a Facebook direct message to a then-Liberty University student in Sept. 2008. « [Y]ou don’t want to cover up those killer eyes of yours and you know the bandana drives me wild … ? » | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino/POLITICO
In a statement, Jerry and Becki Falwell said of the former student’s allegations, “It is unfortunate that the coverage of our departure has turned into a frenzy of false and fantastic claims about us. These false and mean spirited lies have hurt us and our family greatly and we will respond fully with the truth at an appropriate time. At this time, however, we think it is best to move on and help the Liberty community focus on its very bright future…”
Another member of the former student’s band, who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, said the student told him of the oral-sex encounter with Becki Falwell within a month of it occurring. Two former Liberty University employees, also speaking under a condition of anonymity, recalled that the band members practiced at the Falwell Farm in 2008, but did not know of the alleged encounter between Falwell and the former student.
The allegation by the former student casts light on the behavior of Jerry and Becki Falwell, who have been under intense scrutiny for inappropriate relationships and misuse of their positions at the university. On Sunday, Jerry Falwell Jr. acknowledged that Becki had had an affair with Giancarlo Granda, a pool attendant at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach with whom they entered a real estate deal. Granda told POLITICO and other outlets that the affair began when he was 20 and continued for seven more years, during which time her husband sometimes watched him and Becki have sex.
Earlier this summer, the couple was vacationing with friends and family aboard a yacht owned by a Liberty University supporter when Jerry posted and quickly deleted a photo of himself with his pants unzipped and arm around Becki’s assistant. POLITICO has also reported that Liberty has given a contract to a company owned by the Falwells’ son and sold property to friends and family without always making proper tax disclosures.
Jerry Falwell Jr. resigned as Liberty president on Tuesday, in exchange for a severance package worth $10.5 million, two days after his acknowledgment of Becki’s affair with Granda.
Granda, however, was not a student. At Liberty University, students aren’t allowed to have sex outside of marriage. Those who violate the rule risk punishment, up to and including expulsion, according to “The Liberty Way,” the school’s honor code for students. The university, like many Christian institutions, regards premarital sex as sinful, a corruption of a Christian’s bodily “temple.”
In a statement provided to POLITICO by Liberty University senior vice president Scott Lamb, the school reiterated that it has “policies against employees having sexual relationships with students, as well as having other inappropriate relationships outside of marriage, whether consensual or not. Becki Falwell was an employee in 2008 and such policies would have fully applied to her as spouse of the then-university Chancellor and President. Liberty University has checked its Human Resources and Title IX records and finds no complaints were ever lodged against Becki Falwell for any inappropriate relationship nor were any investigations of such matters conducted. This is a fresh allegation, as far as we can tell.”
POLITICO first contacted the former student in 2019, after hearing of his alleged sexual encounter with Falwell from former classmates. He confirmed the encounter but didn’t want to go public with it until recent weeks, when the Falwells’ behavior came under scrutiny. POLITICO granted the former student anonymity to describe what he considered inappropriate advances from a woman who was herself a university employee and wife of the university president.
He said he did not feel comfortable discussing the encounter earlier because he suffered from feelings of guilt and depression, feared exposure, and didn’t want to cause harm to the Falwell family.
He said he grew up in a North Carolina home where the Falwell name loomed large. His mother admired Liberty’s founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., and was a true believer in the conservative Christian values that Liberty developed a reputation for cultivating in young people. For the then-student, the incident with Becki Falwell incited a long struggle with both his faith and mental health. He said he did not tell family members of the cause of his distress, and only confided in a few close friends.
“It made [him] feel bad. It was a depressing thing; he struggled with depression [afterwards],” the former bandmate told POLITICO.
“I don’t want to be a homewrecker,” the former student said. “That took a toll on the soul.”
The former student, who is now 34, said he had not heard from Becki Falwell in more than eight years until this week, during which her relationship with Granda came to light. He said she texted him to say hello, and commiserate over the controversy that an engulfed her family. “This is a nightmare. It just keeps getting worse,” Falwell texted him on Monday night, shortly before Jerry Falwell Jr. officially resigned as president.
The former student said he responded the following day by texting that he was praying for her.
It was early in the summer of 2008 when a member of his rock band suggested a new guitarist who, he said, knew every Led Zeppelin song and could play like Jimmy Page. He was younger than them by a few years — they were in their early 20s, and he was fresh out of high school. But there was another reason for hesitation: His name was Trey Falwell. He was the eldest son of Jerry and Becki Falwell.
“If we get this kid in the band, we’re gonna have Falwell’s name attached to it,” the former student remembered thinking.
Still, Trey Falwell could play. And his parents were supportive of the band, even offering to let the guys practice in an abandoned church next to their home, which is sometimes referred to as Falwell Farm, in Goode, Virginia.
“They had this old church on their lot, and said, ‘If you guys go in and fix it up, you can play there whenever you want,’” the former student said. “So we went in and put egg crates and lighting everywhere. The lighting was with the help of the Falwells. From the very get-go, they wanted to come across as very warm and compassionate.” The band christened the space the “House of the Holy,” a nod to a 1973 album by Led Zeppelin.
Members of the band recall Becki Falwell’s habit of showing up to their rehearsals. At first, the guys didn’t think much of it — she was friendly and hospitable, and always offered them food and snacks. “It wasn’t just a one-time thing,” the former student said. “It was, ‘Oh hey, guys, I brought you some lemonade.’ And then she’d always stick around.”
“She was like, ‘Hey, I know I’m a mom, but I wanna be friends with everyone,’” recalled the former bandmate. Eventually, it got awkward, he recalls: “It was, like, a ‘Dude, why is somebody’s Mom chilling with us?’ type thing.”
“I could tell she was giving me looks, but [I] wanted to downplay it,” the former student said. “I would think, ‘Am I reading too much into this?’ She would speak almost … she’d always give little innuendos. Almost like she was speaking in code.”
Shortly before classes resumed for Liberty’s fall 2008 semester, the then-student and a few friends were clearing boxes out of the rehearsal space on the Falwells’ property. Becki met them in the driveway.
“We were all hot and sweaty. She goes, ‘Hey, can you help me with something?’ I said, ‘Sure, heck yeah, I can help you!’ I figure she needed some heavy lifting. I’ll never forget, she corners me and goes, ‘Have you told your friends?’ I say, ‘Excuse me?’ She goes, ‘Have you told your friends that I think you’re hot?’” the former student recalled. “She’s standing there with her eyes locked on me, waiting to see what I’d say. I probably laughed it off, like, ‘Haha. No, I haven’t told them that one.’”
Still, they showed up because they had gigs to practice for, including one in September at the Campus Artist Series, a showcase of bands comprised of Liberty students and held at the university’s newly opened Tilley Center, which is named after Becki’s father, Tom Tilley, who partially financed the construction of the building.
Often, the band would practice into the evening. Some nights, it would just be the then-student and Trey jamming together. “I was working weird hours at a restaurant, so I wasn’t around when Trey and [the then-student] would chill,” the former bandmate told POLITICO. Trey Falwell and the former student would stay up drinking whiskey and picking out tunes on their guitars until the early morning. If it was really late, or if he’d had too much to drink, the then-student would spend the night, crashing on the bed from a fold-out couch in the guest room next to Trey’s bedroom.
“One night [in August or September], we were up till one or two, and we went back to his room. We had a decent amount of Jack Daniels,” the former student said. He remembered walking into the guest room, just as he’d done many times, closing the door behind him, and preparing the bed.
“I’m laying in the bed and I hear, like, giggling to the side of me on the floor. And, pardon my French, but I was like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I look over and it’s Becki,” he said. “Just, you know, in my room. I’m like, ‘You can’t be in here. This can’t happen.’”
He was a 22-year-old student at Liberty. She was the wife of the president of the school. The Falwells were, effectively, the First Family of conservative evangelicalism in America.
After some prodding, he coaxed Falwell into leaving. He slept, woke up and acted like things were normal.
A few nights later, he stayed the night again. Again, Falwell came into the guestroom where the then-student was in bed.
This time, she was more aggressive. The former student remembers that Falwell climbed into bed with him, and quickly took down his pants.
“I was like, ‘uh, what are you doing?” the former student said. Falwell then proceeded to give him oral sex.
Over the last year, the former student has recounted this story several times in interviews with POLITICO. He maintained that while some of the details from the 12-year-old encounter are fuzzy, there are others that are clear. He remembers lying on the “right side of the cot.” He remembers thinking the room “looked like an Embassy Suites.” He remembers that Jerry Jr. was away that weekend, and that Wesley, the Falwells’ second son, wasn’t there.
Also clear is the fallout. The encounter, the former student said, “really put a hurt on [me] because I trusted her as a friend.”
In the case of this then-student, these feelings were compounded by Becki Falwell’s position at Liberty University, and in Evangelical Christianity more broadly. He was concerned that word would get out, and that he would in some way be responsible for any injury that would besmear the legacy of Jerry Falwell Sr., who had died a year earlier.
So he kept the sexual encounter secret, save for a few close friends. He said he did not tell Trey Falwell what his mother had done. But the encounter had changed the dynamic between them.
“We started to slowly push Trey out of the band,” the former student said. “From that point forward, it was a weird dynamic. We weren’t as inviting.”
Trey wanted to stay in the band long enough to play an important show with them — a Christmas show Liberty holds every December — and the band agreed. The concert went poorly, the former student said, recalling that their transition from “Carol of the Bells” into a Led Zeppelin song was booed by the audience. The response rattled Trey. Whereas the other members of the band had played gigs at bars with hostile crowds, Trey lacked that experience. It would be the last time the group performed together.
But all through that fall, as the band was slowly separating, the former student said he continued to receive messages and requests from Becki Falwell.
When Falwell first contacted the then-student over social media, he said she posed as a blonde North Carolina woman in her early 20s, he said. “She created a fake account, with a fake picture and a fake name,” he told POLITICO.
“She was saying stuff a 20 and 21-year-old wouldn’t say,” he said. “[It was] like real Southern charm. Stuff that older people say. And I said [to myself], ‘Hold up, not only is this an old person, it’s Becki.’”
“So I said, ‘I think I have a feeling who this is. Why are you doing this right now on this account?’” the former student recalled. “I think she was embarrassed, because I kinda remember her being defensive about it.”
The former student provided POLITICO with screenshots of several of these conversations. The dates of Facebook’s timestamps range from September 2008 to December 2008, which overlaps with the six-month period Trey was in the band. (These messages, with identifying aspects redacted, are pictured here.)
In this Facebook message from November 2008, Becki Falwell complimented a then-Liberty University student (name redacted here) on the performance of his band. « I love watching you before a show, » she wrote. « I can always tell that you are a little nervous by how you tap your hands on your pants. … It was so neat to see people singing along to shady grove (of course through the tears in my eyes… that song always gets to me). » | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino/POLITICO
“I love watching you before a show,” she wrote him on Nov. 7, 2008. “I can always tell that you are a little nervous by how you tap your hands on your pants.” He remembers feeling uncomfortable because of how closely she seemed to be watching him.
Her praise of the then-student’s talents became effusive. “What you did at the Battle of the Bands was truly genius, getting everyone to stand up and come near the stage. It was so neat to see people singing along to shady grove (of course through the tears in my eyes … that song always gets to me.).”
It wasn’t, the former student said. He recalled Falwell frequently asking him to write a song for her. “I think she just wanted to believe” that “Shady Grove” was about her, he said. “My dear, I love your mess and everything in between,” the song lyrics read. “If we slow down long enough, I can show you what I mean.”
Even as the then-student tried to stay away from Falwell, he said, she continued making advances. “I was getting phone call after phone call after phone call after phone call from her — I’m in class! — leaving me a message, like, the corniest thing you could do, like [singing the James Blunt song] ‘You’re Beautiful,’ leaving it on my [voicemail],” he remembered. “I just said, ‘This can’t happen anymore.’”
But Falwell was persistent. “She got too brash with stuff,” he said. In one instance, Becki approached the then-student in a public place on Liberty’s campus to hand him concert tickets. “She was buying Kings of Leon tickets and showing up and handing [them] to [me in front of] people!”
For the then-student, a line was crossed when Falwell befriended his mother, who had driven to Lynchburg to see one of his band’s shows.
“[Falwell said], ‘Oh, let’s get your mother’s number,’” the former student said. “My poor mother worships the ground Jerry Falwell Sr. walks on, just considering what he did for American Evangelicals. So she was getting the biggest kick out of Becki calling her. I had to tell [Falwell], ‘Hey, please do not contact my family.’”
In December 2008, months after he began trying to distance himself from her, she started to get the point. In one Facebook message provided to POLITICO, Falwell vents frustration that he is not responding to her messages quickly enough. “I’ve got you an incredible ray lamontagne cd. Call me (since your text is dead) and i’ll get the cd to you,” she wrote in one. Six hours later, without receiving a response, Falwell sent another message: “never mind. don’t call. I’ll give the cd to someone who will appreciate it.” Later that night, he replied explaining that he’d been off Facebook because he had a “busy day.”
In a Facebook private message sent at 12:39 A.M. on Dec. 3, 2008, Becki Falwell told a then-Liberty University student she had a gift for him. « hey mr. legend, it was great finally seeing you tonight after a month or forever. i’ve got an incredible ray lamontagne cd. call me (since your text is dead) tomorrow and i’ll get it to you. » When the student hadn’t responded by 6:54 p.m. that day, she messaged him again: « never mind. don’t call. i’ll give the cd to someone else who will appreciate it. » | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino/POLITICO
“It was nice knowing you,” Falwell wrote in another message. The then-student replied, “What in the world are you talking about??”
« It was nice knowing you. sorry you had to leave, » Becki Falwell wrote in a Facebook direct message to a then-Liberty student in Dec. 2008. « What in the world are you talking about?? » he replied. | Obtained by Brandon Ambrosino/POLITICO
“I am so thrilled that you have found a girlfriend!!!! I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone noticed all of the great qualities that you have. I just want you to be happy and it hurts to realize that remaining friends with me must not make you that way. Please just be kind enough to let me know whether or not you have received my texts. I am sorry that 6 months of friendship has ended this way. Maybe time will heal whatever wounds that I have caused and your Christian heart will allow you to forgive me. Always,BF”
But for the former student, those words, and what he described as the “insurmountable guilt” they brought to mind, weighed heavily on his conscience.
He contacted Becki Falwell again in June 2011, according to emails provided by a person close to the situation, and referred to his disappointment over his failure to finish his degree. He asked for her help in getting a job to offset his student-loan debt as he returned to classes: “I don’t know if i should do the call center, or grounds…what do you think?? I am a hard worker and can learn and adapt very quickly.”
She replied almost a week later, offering to help him and asking after his mother. “Have you put in an application at Liberty? I don’t know what jobs are available but I think they list them on the website somewhere.”
He said he and Falwell have not been in contact for eight years, before this week.
While the former student said he considered coming forward with his story in the past, he was worried about damaging the reputation of the school that Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. founded. “I respect Jerry Sr. and what he did for the school, for the kids, and I believe the Lord had a mission on his life to do that,” he said. Several times, he expressed his desire to maintain anonymity, saying that he did not want to be treated like former White House intern Monica Lewinsky — his name reduced to a salacious punchline.
In the end, he decided to come forward with his story because of what he now sees as an abuse of power on the part of Becki Falwell. He believes now that that day in the driveway when she asked if he had told his friends that “I think you’re hot,” she was testing him.
“Usually I think about a middle-aged man grooming someone,” the former student said. “It’s funny how it happened with the whole, ‘Me Too’ [movement]. I’m on the other end of the spectrum [from] men harassing women. I found [that] a lot of the traits that these guys had, [Falwell] had as well.”
The former student also believes that Falwell trusted him to keep their secret because “she knew that I cared about her school and the soul-winning aspect. I did not want to corrupt that by any means,” the former student said. “I don’t want that on my back, that I took down the school.”
Over the past year, the former student has described in a variety of ways the conflict that has gone on inside him in the wake of his sexual encounter with Falwell. One is a comparison he makes between himself and a famous biblical character.
“Afterwards, I just felt like Joseph for many years,” the former student said. “I know you get the analogy — from that story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, when that woman tried to seduce him.”
He was referring to a story from the Hebrew Bible, recounted in Genesis 39, when Joseph found himself cornered by a woman who wanted to have sex with him. The woman was married to Potiphar, the politically powerful captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Potiphar’s wife aggressively tried to seduce Joseph, an unwilling recipient of her advances, and stripped off his clothes. Before he could be violated, Joseph fled the scene, establishing himself in Biblical teaching as a symbol of integrity and honor.
The former student brought up the story of Joseph not to compare himself to a Biblical hero, but to emphasize their differences.
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