At first she felt comfortable, she says. Inebriated and excited, she says she was led to the back of the bus, to a small bedroom. The double bed, with its neatly folded iridescent purple sheets, takes up most of the room. A flat-screen TV faces the bed, and cabinets are filled with remote controls, lubricants, condoms, sex toys in plastic bags, baby oil, a DVD called "How to be a Player" and a clipboard full of waivers for girls to sign. A small bathroom is off to the side, with a half-sized shower with faux marble tiling, and on the floor of the shower is a crate holding cheap and fruity-flavored rum, whiskey, tequila and Kool-Aid.
When I talk to Szyszka seven days later, she says she "didn't quite realize" she was being filmed. "But I didn't care because I was drunk and who cares?" Then she adds: "It didn't feel good to me at all, but I was totally faking it because I was on 'Girls Gone Wild.'"
Eventually, Szyszka says, Francis told the cameraman to leave and pushed her back on the bed, undid his jeans and climbed on top of her. "I told him it hurt, and he kept doing it. And I keep telling him it hurts. I said, 'No' twice in the beginning, and during I started saying, 'Oh, my god, it hurts.' I kept telling him it hurt, but he kept going, and he said he was sorry but kissed me so I wouldn't keep talking."
Afterward, she says, Francis cleaned them both off with a paper towel and told her to get dressed. Then, she says, he opened the door and told the cameraman to come back, saying, "She's not a virgin anymore."
Szyszka says Francis told her that what happened had to stay between them. She says she agreed, and they walked to the front of the bus. Szyszka remembers that one of the crew returned her driver's license. Another asked if she wanted to hang out on the bus. She declined, she says, but asked for three pairs of "booty short" underwear that Francis had promised her for appearing on camera. "They gave me a weird look like that was too much," Szyszka recalls. "They were, like, 'Three of them?' and I was, like, 'Yeah, three.'"
Within days, Szyszka says, she told her father, who was angry about what she said had happened but kept quiet at her request. A month after the incident, she says, she told her sister and mother.
She's confused, she admits, about what happened. She feels guilty, she says, for getting herself into the situation in the first place. She says she never would have undressed for the cameras if she hadn't been completely drunk. And she is adamant that she said "no" to Francis. She says she's haunted by that night.
"I feel like it was planned," she says. "Sometimes I'm driving along, and I think about it and all of a sudden feel weird."
Six weeks after that night outside Chicago, when I call Francis on his cellphone and ask him about the incident, he says he doesn't remember Szyszka and that he didn't have sex with anyone that night. He seems to lose control, repeatedly referring to me by a crude word for female genitalia. "If you print that, I will [expletive] sue the [expletive] out of you. If you print that, baby, you just put the nail in your own coffin," he tells me. "You are a [expletive expletive]. You decided to blast me . . . You are a [expletive] bitch . . . I will get my last laugh on you. I will get you." He then refers me to Burke, his lawyer.
In an e-mail, Burke says Francis and Szyszka did have sex—consensual sex—and that neither Francis nor anyone affiliated with "Girls Gone Wild" gave her any alcohol. "Neither Mr. Francis nor any of the GGW staff in or around the bus recall Ms. Szyszka making any complaint or comment about Mr. Francis. In fact, Ms. Szyszka was in good spirits after the encounter, and numerous witnesses have stated that she danced with her friends outside the bus for nearly two hours afterward," Burke writes. He adds: "Though Mr. Francis cannot speak to Ms. Szyszka's discomfort during the encounter, other news stories have commented that Mr. Francis is reputedly well-endowed."
Francis sounds scared in the message he leaves on my office voicemail: "I've seen some excerpts from your article that I guess you've sent to the photographer and, um, I want to talk to you about it."
No photographer has been assigned to the story, and no excerpts have been sent to anyone.
I don't call Francis back right away, so he calls my editor. He tells her that I have a crush on him, that I have an ax to grind because I am jealous and angry.
"I just felt that Claire may have had a little affinity for me," he says as she takes notes. "It may have come out when she had a few drinks." He describes my behavior as aggressively romantic. "Originally she hit on me. That's how I met her. I took her to a lunch. She called me all the time and it wasn't about work. It was about me. I know when a girl has a crush on me."
He tells her I was drinking heavily—"we all were"—and offers to send photographs to prove it. When my editor asks if he put his hands on me that night, he doesn't hesitate.
"I did absolutely get physical with her—but not romantically," he says. "We were outside standing by a police car. The officer told her to quit taking notes on what he was saying. I said, 'There's no freedom of the press here.' I took her arms behind her back and said, 'Let's take her to jail.' I said she should go to jail and the officer agreed with me. She didn't get the sarcasm. She listened to him. She stopped writing. Can you believe that? That's the 1st Amendment. She's not a journalist. I stand up for the 1st Amendment. But she didn't." My problem, he tells my editor, is that I "wasn't smart enough" to "get" what he was saying.
When I start to pull police and court records, I find that I'm not the only woman who's made Francis mad.
In 2000, the property manager of his Santa Monica apartment, Stephanie Van de Motter, obtained a restraining order requiring that he stay at least 100 yards away from her. According to court documents, she said that Francis, upset about the noise garbage collectors made in the mornings, had harassed and threatened her, twice climbing up to her bedroom window and pounding violently on the glass and screaming obscenities at her whenever he saw her. He appeared in her office several times, she said, asking for her by using the crude word for female genitalia, and left messages with a co-worker: "Tell the bitch this is war." Francis' lawyer says he can't comment on the case.