The Fall of Bill Cosby: From America's TV Dad to Imprisoned for Sexual Assault
Editor’s note: This PEOPLE cover story was first published on Dec. 8, 2014. On Tuesday, five months after a jury convicted Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting former Temple University employee Andrea Constand in January 2004, he was sentenced to serve 3 to 10 years in prison.
The accusations keep coming, one disturbingly similar allegation after another: a starstruck young woman, a world-famous mentor, sometimes a proffered drink or pill, a sexual encounter the women claim was forced on them. “He said, ‘Come up to my bungalow after I’m done shooting and we’ll work on the bit together,’ ” says Joan Tarshis, 66, who was an aspiring comedy writer in Los Angeles when friends introduced her to Bill Cosby in 1969.
She claims Cosby gave her a Red Eye (a Bloody Mary topped with beer) and she blacked out on his couch, awaking to find the comedian removing her underwear. She alleges that after she lied that she had an STD to avoid sex, he held her arms and made her perform oral sex. She told no one at the time.
“There was no word for what happened to me,” she says. “In 1969, rape meant you were walking in an alleyway and someone pulls a knife.” But when a new wave of women recently started coming forward with similar accusations about the beloved entertainer – which Cosby’s lawyer Martin Singer has blasted as “people coming out of the woodwork with fabricated or unsubstantiated stories” – she decided to go public.
Speaking out has been a relief, says the former publicist. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m saying this out loud and nobody’s blaming me,’ ” says Tarshis. “Nobody’s saying, ‘You should have known better.’ ”
Tarshis quickly found herself front and center in a shocking scandal that simmered quietly for years — then exploded in a matter of weeks. More than a dozen women (eight of whom talked to PEOPLE for this story) have spoken out, many in recent days, to accuse the 77-year-old icon of sexual assault over the decades — some breaking their anonymity after first detailing their claims as Jane Does supporting a 2005 civil suit against Cosby, who was never criminally charged in any of the alleged incidents.
As the controversy went viral, Cosby’s resurgent career took a heavy hit: At press time, a Netflix special had been postponed, an NBC series he had in development was kaput, TV Land had pulled The Cosby Show reruns off the air (the ASPiRE and Centric networks left them on), High Point University in North Carolina took his name off their board of advisers and several future dates on his comedy tour were canceled. Yet Cosby got standing ovations at shows in the Bahamas and Melbourne, Florida, where a much-threatened protest yielded exactly two picketers.
It has been a stunning turnabout for a man once lauded as America’s Dad, who has been married to his wife, Camille, for 50 years and had five children with her. Longtime friends have spoken out in his defense.
“This is so incomprehensible,” says Rosemary O’Brien, a former NBC publicist who’s known Cosby for 25 years and says she never saw any questionable behavior. “He treated women with respect. And he’s an amazing father and husband.”
RELATED VIDEO: Five Things to Know About Bill Cosby’s Sexual Assault Trial
Cosby initially refused to comment, angrily stonewalling when asked about the accusations by AP and NPR reporters. But on Nov. 21, 2014, before his sold-out show, he told Florida Today, “I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos. People should fact-check.” Singer issued a statement saying, “These brand-new claims about alleged decades-old events are becoming increasingly ridiculous.”
While the scandal exploded in the last few weeks, the first accusations against Cosby go back almost a decade. In January 2005, Andrea Constand — then 32 and working for the women’s basketball team at Temple University in Philadelphia — went to police and said Cosby had drugged and groped her a year prior at his Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, mansion.
“She considered him a friend and mentor,” her attorney, Dolores Troiani, told PEOPLE at the time. As Cosby vehemently denied the allegations, 13 more women came forward during the investigation and a subsequent civil suit to state he’d abused them too. The first was California attorney Tamara Green, who says Cosby gave her pills and assaulted her in 1970. “I heard his lawyer said her claims were preposterous and I thought, ‘My foot,’ ” says Green, now 66, who, along with other accusers, spoke to PEOPLE for an extensive story in 2006. “I needed to help that girl.”
District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. declined to bring charges against Cosby, citing a lack of evidence. But today Castor says bluntly, “I think he did it.” He felt that Cosby was “evasive” in questioning. “I thought the victim was credible, but she waited a year and didn’t have a cogent recollection of what happened,” he says, and it didn’t help that the other women had never gone to the police. In March 2005 Cosby gave an exclusive interview to The National Enquirer — in exchange for the publication agreeing to quash a story with accusations from another woman, Beth Ferrier, according to another lawsuit later filed by Constand. “I am not going to give in to people who try to exploit me because of my celebrity status,” Cosby said. He called Green “a wrecking ball.” In 2006 he settled the lawsuit with Constand, who signed a confidentiality agreement.
The scandal fell out of the spotlight until this October, when, as Cosby’s career revved up, comedian Hannibal Buress called him a “rapist” while doing a bit in Philadelphia.
The video went wild on Twitter. Several of the women speaking now say Cosby’s silence has compounded their anger. “I just wish he wouldn’t keep lying about it,” says Therese Serignese, 57, of Boca Raton, Florida, who says she was one of his victims. “Admit what you did wrong and apologize and ask to be forgiven. That’s where it is for me now.”
The allegations are a shocking contrast to Cosby’s longtime public image: a family man dedicated to promoting education, donating millions to charity while often (and controversially) lecturing the African-American community about morals.
Born in a Philadelphia housing project to a mother who worked as a cleaning lady, Cosby fought his way to the top of the comedy scene. “People sometimes go to Bill, ‘Why do you work so hard?’ ” says one longtime friend. “It’s his mother. She had a work ethic that was beyond beyond.” Cosby first hit it big in 1965, with the TV show I Spy. “He was the first African-American to have starring status in a successful network show,” says a source who knew him in the ’60s. “It was a landmark.”
From there, his fame only grew, as did his career as a pitchman for products such as Jell-O and Coca-Cola. “The three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite and Bill Cosby,” said Anthony Tortorici, Coke’s PR chief. Kathie Lee Gifford sang as an opening act for Cosby in the late ’70s. “I saw a steady parade of all kinds of people going in and out of his house and his dressing room, but Bill was good to people, was very generous to people,” she says.
But it was on The Cosby Show, which aired from 1984 to 1992, playing tough-but-firm patriarch Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, where he achieved legend status.
“He was NBC’s biggest and brightest star in the ’80s,” says then-entertainment president Warren Littlefield. “He powered the entire network.” Several sources saw a chillier side to Cosby. “He marched the halls of NBC like he was Oz. You didn’t say no to him,” says a writer who worked with him, and who says Cosby “freely made jokes about women’s bodies.” Adds a source on his later CBS show Cosby: “He was very courteous, but he expected things to be done in a certain way. He didn’t suffer fools. A lot of people were afraid of him on-set.”
Wife Camille, 70, has stayed steadfastly by his side. “They are each other’s backbones,” says longtime friend Valerie Ervin, president of the Ray Charles Foundation. “They have endured the test of time.” That includes other past scandals: In 1997 Cosby admitted to having sex with Shawn Upshaw, now 62, whose daughter Autumn Jackson said Cosby was her father. His paternity was never proven, and Jackson later served two years in prison for trying to extort money from Cosby. Cosby and Camille have also weathered horrific tragedy: In 1997 their son Ennis was shot and killed at age 27 during an attempted robbery. The Cosbys, says Jean Heath, a friend since 1958, “are gentle, caring people.”
Ten years ago, Cosby’s career survived the sexual abuse allegations. This time? He’s trying to go on with the show, but the damage may be irrevocable. Backstage at his Melbourne comedy gig, the star was solemn before facing his audience, says a source.
“He just seemed tired and old,” he says. “He was really nervous someone was going to try something.” When the performance went off without a hitch, he seemed “much happier,” says the source. His accusers, though, have little sympathy. “If I ever spoke to him, I would say, ‘Why don’t you just tell the truth and get it over with?’ ” says Kristina Ruehli, a former secretary at his talent agency who claims he drugged and tried to assault her in 1965. “I feel sorry for him, but he had this coming. These things catch up with you. He’s been living a lie.”
It Started with a Joke
No one is more surprised about the fallout from his comedy routine calling Cosby a “rapist” than Buress himself. “I’ve been doing the bit on and off for six months,” Buress told Howard Stern on Oct. 21, 2014. “It wasn’t my intention to make it part of a big discussion.” Adding to the current controversy: a new bio written with the cooperation of Cosby and his family that doesn’t include the sexual abuse allegations.
THE EVOLUTION OF A SCANDAL: Cosby’s Accusers
1. Cosby’s First Accuser
ANDREA CONSTAND, 41
When the Temple University basketball staffer met Cosby in 2002, “she considered it to be more of a grandfatherly relationship. This was a man she trusted,” her lawyer told PEOPLE in 2005. Constand told police the actor drugged and forced her to touch him intimately at his Pennsylvania home in 2004, according to a police report. Cosby’s lawyer called the claim “preposterous”; the district attorney, citing “insufficient credible and admissible evidence,” decided not to press criminal charges, and her civil lawsuit against Cosby was settled out of court.
2. More Women Join the Case
TAMARA GREEN, 66
After Constand’s accusations, Green came forward to support her lawsuit in 2005, telling investigators that Cosby drugged and molested her in 1970. “He intended to destroy her, and I couldn’t allow that,” Green, a retired California attorney, told PEOPLE. “He needs to stop being a liar and a hypocrite.”
BARBARA BOWMAN, 47
“‘Who’s gonna believe this?’ He was like the president,” the Arizona ex-model told PEOPLE in 2006. She claims Cosby assaulted her three times in the ’80s. She was one of 12 “Jane Doe” witnesses in Constand’s case, but she revealed her name in 2005.
BETH FERRIER, 55
After drinking a cappuccino in Cosby’s dressing room in the mid-’80s, Ferrier claims she blacked out. “I woke up in my car… with my clothes all a mess,” says the ex-model. Still, she says, she entered an on-and-off consensual affair with Cosby for several years: “He kept luring me in.”
3. More Accusations Emerge
Cosby’s lawyer Martin Singer blasts the new claims as “unsubstantiated” and “fantastical” and notes that none of the women ever filed legal claims against Cosby.
JANICE DICKINSON, 59
The model alleges Cosby gave her a pill and wine and raped her while she was unconscious in his hotel room in 1982. Cosby’s lawyer calls the claims “a lie,” citing “glaring” differences in her story from an interview she gave in 2002.
JOAN TARSHIS, 66
“He was very charming. Kinda quiet,” says the former publicist and journalist, who claims Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in his bungalow on the set of The Bill Cosby Show in 1969. “I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘You know what’s going on.’ ”
THERESE SERIGNESE, 57
The single mother of three says Cosby offered her Quaaludes and raped her after inviting her backstage at one of his shows in Las Vegas when she was just 19. “I felt powerless,” says Serignese, who adds that she was Constand’s Jane Doe No. 10.
JENA T., 44
“I feel energies are changing,” one of the former Jane Does (who asked to be identified by her last initial) says of shifting perceptions of Cosby, who she claims pressured her into masturbating him in the late ’80s. “I’ve been breaking into cheers of joy.”
LOUISA MORITZ, 68
The One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest actress told TMZ that Cosby forced her to perform oral sex on him backstage at the Tonight Show. Cosby’s lawyer counters that the two were never on the Tonight Show together and that she “fabricated her story.”
ANGELA LESLIE, 52
The former model-actress alleges that Cosby invited her to his Las Vegas hotel room in the early ’90s for an audition that ended with him forcing her to masturbate him. “I felt used,” says Leslie, who adds that Cosby made her a drink that she only took a sip of.
KRISTINA RUEHLI, 71
“It’s going to be a while before a woman thinks about going somewhere with him alone,” says the former Jane Doe, who claims Cosby drugged and tried to assault her when she was a secretary in 1965. “So maybe it stops.”
• Reporting by AURELIE CORINTHIOS, PATRICK GOMEZ, MARY GREEN, STEVE HELLING, ELIZABETH LEONARD, HUGH MCCARTEN, LIZ McNEIL, LYNETTE RICE, JANINE RAYFORD RUBENSTEIN and JEFF TRUESDELL