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