Barber: How Ukiah's Shannon Whetzel got pulled into celebrity college admissions scandal

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I thought the Press Democrat sports department was done with The Great College Admissions Scandal of 2019, but the scandal wasn’t done with us. This newspaper, along with a young woman who lives in Ukiah and attends Mendocino College, were sucked into a web of moneyed fraud in the strangest of ways.

Follow me for a minute.

One of the people charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts in early March was Agustin Huneeus Jr., the middle generation of a prominent Napa Valley wine family. Huneeus recently agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud in connection with what prosecutors described as a $300,000 payment to middleman Rick Singer to get his daughter admitted to USC under the guise of being a water polo player. All of that became public when the feds announced charges and released the full affidavit a month ago.

Singer and an associate athletic director allegedly helped Huneeus create a fictitious sports biography for the daughter. They chose water polo as her sport of choice, though she hadn’t played it much. Most of the string-pulling parents in this affair took the trouble to set up photo shoots of their children in uniform, or at least to Photoshop their faces onto pictures of better athletes.

Huneeus left the work to his daughter, and she failed to hit the deadline, according to the affidavit. So, with the blessing of Singer’s operation, the daughter simply pulled an existing photo off the internet. Off The Press Democrat’s website, as it turns out. Yes, this publication has unwittingly contributed to academic fraud.

The picture was taken by our former photographer, Crista Jeremiason, who spent her time at the PD indefatigably shooting the local high school sports scene. She snapped the photo in question on Oct. 23, 2014, for a story my colleague Kerry Benefield wrote on water polo league realignment. In the frame, Ukiah High School goalkeeper Shannon Whetzel leaps halfway out of the pool to contest a shot by a Marin Catholic player. Whetzel looks athletic, graceful even, as she extends her right arm and gazes in that direction.

“I remember the day it was taken,” Whetzel told me by phone Thursday. “I’ll always remember, it was so funny to our family because in the caption my name is spelled like ‘Schetzel.’”

Note: The Press Democrat regrets the error of this egregiously misspelled last name. Mistakes happen. Only some of them are destined to live for years, thanks to a far-removed college recruiting scandal.

“No worries,” Shannon W-H-E-T-Z-E-L said with a laugh. “Honestly, it’s not a big deal. I just thought it was really cool. It was my junior year of high school, probably one of my first times being in the newspaper other than the Ukiah Daily Journal. So it was a fun deal. A lot of people from Ukiah and even Santa Rosa were saying, ‘Look how high you are. Look how photogenic.’”

Fast-forward 4½ years.

Whetzel had graduated from Ukiah High, had played water polo for two years at Santa Rosa Junior College and had since moved home to take classes at Mendocino College, where she is studying ecology and exploring psychology programs at four-year universities.

Had the feds never investigated Singer’s operation, Whetzel never would have known her image was used in this way. But they did, eventually including Jeremiason’s photo in the public documents they released. They blurred out the face to protect Whetzel’s identity. But it was no use. Two friends spotted the picture on March 12, on separate Bay Area TV news reports, and immediately recognized Whetzel’s athletic pose. They clued her in. She didn’t believe them.

“I was like, ‘No, wait, that’s me. But it can’t be me. Why is my picture on the news right now? What’s happening?’” Whetzel reflected. “I completely thought it was a joke at first. Then it was like, ‘Holy guacamole, this is crazy.’”

Let’s compare the experiences of three high school girls. One is Shannon Whetzel, who worked her butt off to balance studies and sports in high school. “I put in so much work in and out of the pool into water polo,” she said. “In high school, in college, even middle school. I had 10 years under my belt. And I worked my hardest to try and achieve goals for my high school and myself.”

This labor didn’t give Whetzel a clear path to anything. She is in her third year of junior college, logging those hours to advance slowly up the chain.

The second girl is Lexie Garrett, currently a junior at Ukiah High. I introduce her because it wasn’t ESPN or Inside Edition or me who scored the first interview with Whetzel on this topic. It was Garrett, reporting for her journalism class. This is her first year in the class. Her first three stories were about the life of a UHS cheerleader, getting your wisdom teeth pulled and options for teens who simply aren’t interested in high school. Her fourth story was a blockbuster.

With help from journalism teacher Mathew LaFever, Garrett did probing research, asked the right questions and wrote a lucid account of Whetzel’s plight, including quotes from a face-to-face interview with the subject.

“Yeah, I thought it was pretty cool,” said Garrett, who knows Whetzel’s younger brother. “I knew she didn’t want to talk to bigger companies, because she didn’t want to seem like she was coming off rude. She didn’t want to talk bad about the family. She’s really nice. She didn’t want something put wrong. And she knew for sure that the school wouldn’t make her look bad.”

In my business, we’d call Garrett a news hawk. And people noticed her enterprise. A professor at the University of Florida has offered her a journalism internship. I’m thrilled that Garrett is now considering a career in newsgathering.

And then there is Agustin Huneeus’ daughter.

After discussions with Press Democrat editors, we decided it would be best not to name her. True, investigators argue that she was complicit in the scheme. They say she received answers from an accomplice on her SAT test, and that it was she who downloaded the photo of Whetzel that helped get her into USC.

But our intent is not to pile on the young woman. I’m guessing none of this was her idea. It’s likely that she followed the lead of the adults around her, and that they steered her directly into a humiliating scandal. She has plenty of time to rebound from this and do great things.

So I’m talking more about the family when I highlight the contrast between the Huneeus daughter and the two Ukiah girls. Whetzel and Garrett have done things the right way. They have worked consistently, intensively, sometimes tediously toward their goals. That doesn’t set them apart from a lot of kids, and that’s the point. This is how the world works for most of us.

Agustin Huneeus and his co-defendants were convinced they stood above this world. Working to excel at a high school sport? Taking the SAT three times if necessary? Starting at a lesser college? Too much effort. Better to co-opt the image of a random water polo player from Ukiah, as captured by The Press Democrat.

“No matter how smart or not smart they think their daughter is, they’re willing to pay any amount of money,” Whetzel observed when prodded for an opinion. “It’s really belittling to her. They got themselves into it. They had to know what they were doing, they had to know there’d be consequences. I think it’s just the lack of empathy. Yeah, that’s kind of a hard way to put it. But it’s just kind of blinding, I feel like. They felt kind of invincible.”

Holy guacamole, the young woman just nailed it.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @skinny_post.

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