James Cleavenger. Photo by Rebel Wilder.

Painful Past 

Lane DA candidate accused of 2005 sexual assault. He denies the allegations.

This is not the first time Portland lawyer Shenoa Payne has come forward about her alleged 2005 sexual assault. She brings the painful story up again now because the man she alleges was her assailant is now in a race to become Lane County’s top cop.

Payne was a first-year student at the Willamette University College of Law, as was the man she alleges assaulted her. The next day, Payne told her best friend about it in an email. A couple months later she made a verbal complaint to a dean of her law school. Payne then wrote a letter to the Oregon State Bar, hoping to prevent her attacker from ever practicing law in Oregon.

That might have been the end of it had Payne’s alleged attacker, James Cleavenger, never run for Lane County district attorney.

“He’s running for a very important position in Lane County,” Payne says. “He’s running for a position that represents and is an advocate for victims, including victims of sexual assault. I feel a public duty to come forward with the truth to let the voters have the information that they need to determine who James Cleavenger really is.”

Payne alleges that Cleavenger, now an Oakridge police officer, sexually assaulted her on Sept. 18, 2005, in her Portland residence while both were students at Willamette University.

In a lengthy statement emailed to Eugene Weekly, Cleavenger denied all allegations of sexual assault, though he acknowledged what he said was consensual sexual activity with Payne that night.

Payne says officials at Willamette University discouraged her from reporting the incident and that nothing ever came of her letter to the Oregon State Bar.

Cleavenger transferred to the University of Oregon School of Law the following year and graduated there in 2008.

‘He Acted Like Nothing Happened’

Payne was born and raised in Sheridan and she attended Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, graduating in 2003. She returned to Oregon and moved to Portland before enrolling in law school at Willamette University in 2005. That’s when she says she met Cleavenger.

“He was in my law school,” Payne says. “I don’t know exactly when we met, but we started hanging out in the same social circle. The first time we really spent time together was on a camping trip on Labor Day weekend.”

Payne says that a week after they went camping, Cleavenger held a small get together at his house on Sept. 10, 2005. Payne says that at the party she and Cleavenger expressed having romantic feelings for each other.

“We started spending more time together at school, texting and calling each other. We started developing a kind of romantic relationship moving forward. The very beginning of one,” she says. “The following weekend he was traveling somewhere, and to be honest, I cannot remember where, but we made plans for me to pick him up at the airport.”

They decided Cleavenger would stay the night at her place in Portland, and she would take him to school in Salem in the morning.

Payne says she was excited to see Cleavenger, and she picked him up from the airport sometime after dark on Sept. 18, 2005. When they got back to her house, Payne says, Cleavenger became pushy.

“We began engaging in consensual romantic relations,” Payne says. “But I didn’t know him very well, and I wasn’t comfortable going very far with him. I kept telling him that.”

Payne continues: “I kept telling him that I didn’t want to have sex with him. He kept making statements like, ‘Why should we wait when we can have fun now?’ Making it very clear to me what he wanted and also trying to push me into doing something I wasn’t comfortable to do.”

At the time, Payne says she liked Cleavenger and didn’t want to seem abrupt, but she says she made it clear that intercourse wasn’t something she felt comfortable doing. Payne then says they fell asleep.

“Before I even could realize what was happening, he pulled my underwear aside and forced himself inside of me.”

Payne says she froze for what felt like 10 or 20 seconds before pushing Cleavenger off of her. She says she was in shock and immediately took a shower. She couldn’t believe what just happened.

“I think it was early enough that I just waited for him to get up,” Payne says. “I did drive him to school, but I barely talked to him. He acted like nothing had happened. I didn’t want to be in the car with him. I wanted to get out of the car, but I didn’t know what to do.”

Cleavenger denies ever having sexual intercouse with Payne. He says that after Payne said she wasn’t comfortable having sex, the two went to bed. Cleavenger also denies that the car ride the next morning was silent. “I distinctly remember the drive to Salem because it was painful,” Cleavenger says. “Due to an acute case of ‘epididymal hypertension,’ but better known as ‘blue balls,’ caused by not having sex.”

Payne says she hasn’t spoken with Cleavenger since she dropped him off at Willamette University that morning. She could hardly make it through school that day, she says, and ended up emailing her best friend, Brin Macdonald, who was a student at Oregon State University.

“I remember her writing to me about it,” Macdonald tells EW. “It’s been something that’s a part of me and her, and her closest friends’ lives for years. Because it’s something that affects somebody personally and intimately. I do remember it happening and her talking to me, and I remember being shocked by it.”

Payne sent a copy of the email to EW in which she recounts her story, struggling to come to terms with what happened. 

“I’m scared to even utter the word ‘rape’ but I’ve been wondering all day if that is what happened to me. I definitely feel violated and sick and want to just die,” Payne wrote in the email. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t even talk to anyone about it. Anyone here, I mean. I’m having a super difficult time with this. What the hell do I do?”

‘I Felt Dismissed’

Payne says she spent the next few months doing everything she could to avoid Cleavenger.

Two of Cleavenger’s roommates at the time remember hearing her allegations in 2005. One of them, Todd Huegli, had a romantic relationship with Payne for about a year following the allegations. 

“I can confirm that she did disclose to me what happened that week in great detail,” says Huegli, now a lawyer in Portland. “I have the vaguest recollection of going into administration and talking to somebody, but I couldn’t confirm it. But I have no reason to doubt Shenoa’s memory.”

The other roommate, Jared Boyd, remembers hearing about the alleged assault but takes issue with Payne’s version of events. Boyd says that, at the time, Payne said Cleavenger had manipulated her into picking him up at the airport that night. Payne disputes this.

“Shenoa and I kind of stopped hanging out because of that,” Boyd says. “I just didn’t appreciate the way she handled that, and I didn’t think she was telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Payne says Huegli was with her when she reported the assault to Kathy Graham, who at the time was the associate dean of academic affairs for Willamette University’s law school.

“I think it was maybe a month or two after it happened,” Payne says. “The response that I got was that the law school couldn’t do anything about it. I could make a formal complaint at the regular campus, but if I did so, I would face a lot of challenges.”

In an email, Graham says that as dean she was involved in the resolution of sexual assault and harassment claims, but that she’s not at liberty to discuss specific complaints. 

“The whole experience was re-traumatizing in a way,” Payne says. “The gist that I got from the conversation was that I would only face a difficult time, that I would have to face him and that he would have confrontation rights. So I felt very bullied and discouraged from making a formal complaint.”

Payne says she once again attempted to inform the school about the assault by telling Yvonne Tamayo, a professor at the Willamette University law school. Tamayo also hasn’t responded to EW’s request for comment.

“I got the same response from the law school that I did before, which was, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you, but we’re not really the entity that can do anything about this. You need to file a formal complaint if you want anything done.’ And again, I felt like there were just barriers being put up all over the place.”

There was relief when Cleavenger left campus after the first year, Payne says. Her sense of dread had almost dissipated when she finally saw Cleavenger one last time, on one of the most important days of her life. 

“It was when we were taking the bar [exam]. All three law schools take the bar at the same place. I didn’t even think about the fact that he might be there,” Payne says. “So as I’m walking in the door and I see him in the foyer. I just… it was just like a slap in my face. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. And there I was — about to take one of the most important tests of my life.”

Afterward, Payne wrote a complaint to the Oregon State Bar, expressing concerns about Cleavenger’s character. Payne provided EW with a copy of her letter, dated Sept. 2, 2008. 

“I never got a response from the Oregon State Bar, and they didn’t acknowledge receipt of my letter,” Payne says. “But I sent it in, and I believed at the time that maybe it had an impact because his name was not on the list of people who were admitted to the Oregon State Bar.”

According to the Oregon State Bar membership directory, Cleavenger wasn’t admitted until October 2017. He’s currently listed as an active member. Kateri Walsh, of the Oregon State Bar, told EW she is unable to release information about whether there was a complaint made in 2008, or if he sought admission after taking the bar exam. Admissions records are confidential per Oregon Rules for Admission. 

As the May primary draws closer, and Cleavenger is challenging incumbent DA Patty Perlow at the ballot box, Payne says the effects of that night have not faded.

“In one moment, Cleavenger stole so much from me — the ability to trust, to feel safe, to be vulnerable and open, to have healthy romantic relationships. I have worked really hard to overcome these impacts through counseling, but in reality I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same person I was before.”

This story has been updated.