MANITOU SPRINGS — The house overlooking the famous Pikes Peak Cog Railway presents a facade of 19th-century charm and grace.
An imposing three stories tall, it provides bedrooms on the lower and top floors and main floor space for socializing and drinking on weekends. In other words, it's a great place for a party.
Since Dec. 2, 2011, this house has held disturbing secrets.
On that night, according to an Air Force Academy cadet assigned to shadow athletes suspected of sex assaults and illegal drug use, football players spiked a liquor bottle with a date-rape drug. Then, informant Eric Thomas said, they served it to female cadets too young to drink legally.
Exactly what happened that night remains a mystery, but based on his conversations with those who attended, Thomas believes six women were raped. Two women who attended the party told The Denver Post they felt the effects of what might have been date-rape drugs.
Officials said late last week the academy's inspector general is beginning a review of the "mission elements with the athletic department," following inquiries from The Post and other media, including The Gazette in Colorado Springs.
"These efforts will help in eliminating subcultures at the Air Force Academy whose climates do not align with our institutional core values," Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the academy superintendent, said in a statement.
The Gazette published its investigation into misconduct at the academy Sunday.
An academy investigation into the party resulted in two convictions for sexual assault, according to academy officials, although the charges stemmed from incidents unrelated to the December 2011 event. Another student was convicted of making a false statement, and a handful of athletes were expelled or punished.
Thomas told The Post that at the party, one of the athletes snatched a blue-capped bottle from him as he went to pour a drink, telling him that one was destined for the ladies.
After the party, Thomas said he spoke to the targeted athletes he had befriended as well as female cadets who were there. Some athletes boldly bragged about their sexual conquests, he said.
He suspects six women were raped between midnight and dawn after they passed out in the house, some by more than one football player.
He said he learned that a group of women had barricaded themselves in an upstairs bedroom while football players banged on the door and tried to pry it open with a plastic card.
The football players also threatened the women afterward, telling them they wouldn't like what happened if they said anything, Thomas said.
For the academy, one problem stemming from the house party was the lack of prosecutorial evidence. No cadet complained she had been raped. No one asked for a rape test kit. Some of the women don't remember much after they passed out.
Behind the scenes, the academy's Office of Special Investigations evidently took allegations about the party seriously, calling in female cadets and football players for interviews. The suspected crimes also played a role in Operation Gridiron, an undercover effort to weed out athletes suspected of sexual assaults or illegal drug use.
But Thomas, recruited to spy on intercollegiate athletes suspected of drug and sex crimes, later was "disenrolled" — expelled — for excess demerits.
Two female cadets at the party, who requested anonymity, recall football players with reputations for sexually assaulting women pouring drinks. Both remember how quickly they got very drunk. One doesn't remember much after midnight.
They also remember the furtive discussions of "roofies" — slang for Rohypnol, known as a date-rape drug — and rapes that followed.
"It was the best night of my life that turned into the worst," one said. "The night changed my life."
The other remembers very little from the last hours of the party. She knows most people left before she finally passed out.
"I remember taking off my shoes," she said.
The next morning she woke up alone in a bed. She was wearing sweats she hadn't worn to the party.
For two years and six months, the Air Force Academy said nothing about its investigation of the party.
But after several news organizations including The Post began asking questions, Johnson asserted in a June 26 interview with the campus newspaper that the academy had taken care of the problem. Johnson became superintendent in August 2013.
She said 32 cadets were investigated in the wake of the December 2011 event. Half were football players, two were basketball players, one a diver.
Five football players were dismissed immediately from the team, she said, and Jamil Cooks and Anthony Daniels Jr. eventually were convicted in courts-martial for sex assaults. A women's basketball player was convicted for making a false official statement.
Five other cadets were expelled and six resigned. Three were discharged for other issues, and the remainder graduated.
Johnson's statements surprised Thomas. He said she blended two years of crimes and investigations into defending what the academy did after the party. "The diver wasn't even there," he said.
Thomas said he does not understand why the academy did not call police after he called and texted his supervisor to report criminal activity occurring in front of him.
"He was wronged"
Some of the accused athletes from the party fared better than Thomas. Fifteen were allowed to graduate. Cooks, who Thomas described as the ringleader at the party, ultimately was court-martialed for a series of sexual offenses. Yet he gained acceptance to play college football in Mississippi, where he is a registered sex offender.
The Post requested an interview with the superintendent several weeks ago regarding the party and the investigation. A spokesman responded that Johnson was busy, had already said what needed to be said about the event and saw no reason to answer additional questions.
Chester "Skip" Morgan, Thomas' lawyer, calls himself a true-blue Air Force man. He retired from the Air Force after 34 years. He graduated from the academy and contributes money to the school.
And he abhors the way the academy treated Thomas, calling him one of the finest cadets he has known.
"He was wronged," Morgan said.
Last month, Thomas drove from his home in Rapid City, S.D., to Colorado Springs to answer questions about his experiences as an Air Force cadet.
He said he is proud that he helped secure the first sexual assault convictions on the academy in 15 years. He said he wants to clear his name and regain his dream of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot.
"The outcome should have been different," he said. "The reason I signed up as a confidential informant was to give voice to the victims. Instead my voice was taken away."