Inside Story: How Rachel Dolezal's Cover as a Black Woman Was Blown
Reporter contradicts Dolezal s claims her parents outed her: "The mom was reluctant to talk. I convinced her to talk, Jeff Selle tells PEOPLE
Earlier this year, investigative reporter Jeff Selle of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press learned that Rachel Dolezal had reported finding a package filled with racial threats against her and addressed to her in the post office box of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, of which she was president at the time.
It caught Selle’s attention since the many alleged hate crimes Dolezal reported while living in Coeur d’Alene were never substantiated, and he believed were not true.
“There hadn’t been a string of hate crimes until she shows up,” Selle tells PEOPLE. “And now with them allegedly happening in Spokane, I said, ‘This looks fishy.’ ”
He soon discovered that Dolezal claimed a black man named Albert Wilkerson was her father, which Wilkerson denied in three interviews with Selle.
And then City Editor Maureen Dolan found a photo of Dolezal’s white parents online.
Dolan had been a reporter in 2010 when Dolezal still lived in Idaho and was writing stories about her hate crime claims.
“Maureen asked Rachel point blank if she was African American and she said she was trans-racial and she said, ‘What does that mean?,’ ” Selle recalls. “The only reason we asked if she was black is because she claimed it was a racial attack.”
Motivated by Dolezal’s rising power in Spokane – as president of the local NAACP chapter and recently appointed chair of the city’s police oversight commission – Selle sensed a story.
“As a journalist, one of our responsibilities is as a watchdog,” he says. “She has a very powerful position on the police oversight commission. Any complaints against the police come to that commission. She has how many pending claims over there?”
Selle then tracked down Dolezal’s mother Ruthanne Dolezal in Montana.
The mom was reluctant to talk because of the legal issues pending against Rachel’s brother in Colorado, he says. I convinced her to talk.”
Her parents gave Selle pictures of their naturally blond, fair-skinned daughter, a copy of her birth certificate and published his story Black Like Me on June 11, setting off an international firestorm of publicity.
Dolezal didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The interest in Dolezal’s most recent claims of racially-motivated harassment were revived last week when the Spokane NAACP asked the Spokane Police Department to reopen its investigation into Dolezal’s claim that on February 25, she received an un-postmarked, 18-page letter in the post office box of the NAACP from someone calling himself “War Pig. ret.” that was filled with threats.
Police concluded the only person who could have put the letter in the box was someone with one of the two keys to the box – Dolezal had at least one of two keys, according to police reports obtained by PEOPLE.
The inquiry into that letter, and one Dolezal claims to have received from the same sender in May (but postmarked Oakland, California), was suspended on June 10 due to a lack of evidence, said Officer Teresa Fuller of the Spokane Police Department, who tells PEOPLE they have exhausted every lead in the case.
“We utilized every investigative tool we could,” she says, including reaching out to the US Postal Inspector’s Office and the FBI for assistance.
Shortly after Dolezal had received the February letter, Blaine Stum, the chair of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, put out a press release stating that Dolezal had been hit with her “ninth hate crime in less than a decade.” He has now radically changed course.
“Every single one of them that she received, she represented as a clear threat to her and to her organization,” Stum told The Inlander, which fired her as a freelancer on Monday. “The best thing we can do is to call it as what it is. And that is a lie.”
But Stum, like many of her other former supporters, didn’t have reason to doubt her until now. After Dolezal reported finding the February letter, she came across with sincerity and believability, as evident in a YouTube video.
In the video, Dolezal says, “This comes as a continuation of racist attacks on myself and my sons and other people in the community in Spokane and North Idaho in the last five to 10 years.”
She also wrote about the noose in her backyard on April 28, 2014 in her weekly column for The Inlander.
“My mind instantly tracked back to the parting words of a colleague at Howard University when we left Washington, D.C., en route to Idaho,” she wrote on April 28, 2014. “‘Don’t go there; you’ll get lynched!’ ”
In March, police launched an investigation to uncover who was behind the February package. They found the mail did not go through the normal postmarking process. It had uncancelled stamps, no postmark and no barcode on the envelope, according to police reports obtained by PEOPLE.
This led investigators to believe a postal worker or someone with a key to the P.O. box placed the letter there.
Following an investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspector and Spokane police, they cleared all postal workers and concluded the only way for the package to get into the box was with a front key, according to the police reports.
Fuller says DNA obtained from a piece of tape included in one of the letters was run through a national database – a DNA index system. “While we were able to identify the DNA came for a male, it did not match anybody in the national database,” she says.
In another unsolved hate crime, this one while living in Couer d’Alene, Dolezal reported on June 15, 2010 that someone put a noose inside the outside storage shed of her rented home. Dolezal also claimed this had happened in other places she s lived.
But an investigator discovered the “noose” was placed there by her landlord before she moved in to hang deer killed during hunting season. The landlord recounted to police he had told the same thing to Dolezal. When the investigator then attempted to contact Dolezal, she never returned his inquiry, according to the report.
“Rachel was informed of the information the Police Department received from her landlord that he believes the rope placed in the rafters was done so by him,” Sgt. Christie Wood of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department tells PEOPLE.
“If she has chosen to disregard that information and continue to speak in public about a noose that is clearly her right to do so,” she says. “We feel comfortable with the information obtained during our investigation and this case is closed.”
The following is a list of the alleged hate crimes Rachel Dolezal reported, compiled from police reports in Couer D’Alene, Idaho and Spokane, Washington. Investigators were never able to verify her claims.
• September 21, 2009: Dolezal, then working as a staffer at the Human Rights Education Institute in Couer d’Alene, reports finding a noose on her front porch at the Spokane home she shares with a live-in boyfriend. She identifies herself as African American, is very concerned about her welfare, and “has been harassed by white supremicists in the past.” No arrests were made in the case.
• Nov 19, 2009: Dolezal files a report on behalf of the Human Rights Education Institute in Couer d’Alene, where she worked. She claims she discovered a swastika sticker on the institute’s door. Security cameras had malfunctioned at the time the swastika was placed, according to the police report.
• Sept. 3, 2010: Dolezal files a malicious injury report about a July incident in Couer d’Alene, when she allegedly found a palm-size dent on the front passenger panel.
• April 11, 2010: Dolezal files a report for harassing phone calls in Couer d’Alene. Dolezal claims to have received a vulgar phone call from a female student at North Idaho College. The prosecuting attorney’s office declined to prosecute the case because they did not find sufficient evidence of phone harassment.
• June 15, 2010: Dolezal files a harassment report of a noose hanging in her carport behind her rented Coeur d’Alene home. In August of the same year, a detective files a supplemental report stating that in an effort to find potential witnesses who might have seen someone hang the rope, he contact’s the home’s owner, Randy Bell.
“He told me that he was 90 percent sure it was rope he hung there approximately (one year before the report),” the officer writes in the report. “He said he hung a deer up there and he believes the rope is from that time.”
Bell told police that he told Dolezal he was the one who had hung the rope in the rafters.
“I asked him when he gave Rachel the information that he was the one who may have hung the rope up there, and he said sometime around the time she filed the report,” the police report states. “Randy was sympathetic to Rachel’s concerns about the rope but he felt he may be the one who hung the rope up there.”
The detective called Dolezal on Aug. 25, 2010 and left her a message to call him about the incident. He did not receive a return call from Dolezal. The case was closed Aug. 26, 2010.
• Feb. 25, 2015: Dolezal, then president of the Spokane NAACP, reports to Spokane police of receiving an envelope in the NAACP post office box containing an 18-page letter filled with harassing statements and images aimed at her. The envelope is not postmarked and Dolezal is the only person known to have a key to the P.O. box.
Dolezal reports receiving another letter from the same sender in May and postmarked Oakland, California. After an extensive investigation involving the U.S. Postal Service, the Spokane Police, the F.B.I. and a DNA matching effort, the case was suspended June 10 due to lack of evidence.
• Feb. 26, 2015: Dolezal reports her son was called a racial slur and was chased into a Spokane store. After an investigation, witnesses said no racial slur was made and that he walked casually into the store to buy candy. The case was closed March 23.
• April 13: Two people mistakenly walked into Dolezal’s unlocked house because they were lost. Dolezal claims the two people attempted a home invasion, and she felt harassed. But her son, home at the time, told police he wasn’t scared.
“They seemed like normal, middle-class white people,” he told police, noting the couple took the time to try and catch the family cat, which had escaped into a neighbor’s yard. Police were unable to identify the two people and determine what their intent was. The case was suspended April 27.
• Additional reporting by Christine Pelisek.