Ex-Kentucky college student says she feels ‘violated’ after mysterious dorm attack


Months after Isabella “Bella” Willingham was found unresponsive and severely injured in her dorm room in a case that has baffled her family and law enforcement, the former Asbury University student is still trying to piece together what happened that day.

She suffered injuries that included bruises, cuts and deep gashes, and she was missing eight acrylic nails, her family has said. Willingham is in therapy and is coping with some of her painful injuries, which are scarring and may require medical procedures to cover, her family has said.

She still doesn’t remember what happened to her, and authorities are no closer to solving the mystery.

“It’s 100% baffling what happened to this young lady,” Jessamine County Sheriff Kevin Grimes said. “In some way, shape, form or fashion, she’s a victim just like anybody else. … We 100% believe something happened; we just don’t know what.”

Willingham is now speaking out against what she says are poor security measures at the campus in Wilmore, Kentucky, and at the Glide-Crawford Residence Hall, where she believes she was attacked late last year.

“I want what happened to me to draw attention to the fact that Asbury needs more cameras on all of their exits and entryways,” Willingham told NBC News on Monday, marking her first public comments.

Isabella Willingham.
Isabella Willingham.Courtesy Andy Willingham

“I believe God spared me because my mission is to now bring light to the safety issues on campus. … The students definitely need way more protection than they’re getting,” Willingham said.

If there were cameras at all doors leading in and out of her residence hall, “the people who attacked me, more than likely, would have been caught,” she added.

‘I’m so thankful for the first responders who didn’t give up on me’

Willingham, 21, said she’s lucky to be alive. Her father has said she stopped breathing on her own for about 23 minutes in the dorm room.

“I survived my attack, and I’m so thankful for the first responders who didn’t give up on me. I’m alive because of that,” she said.

A university representative declined to comment Monday on Willingham’s remarks about a lack of cameras at dorm doorways or the investigation. The university encouraged questions to be directed to the sheriff’s office.

Isabella Willingham
Isabella Willingham almost died after losing consciousness in her dorm room at Asbury University and woke up to injuries covering her body that included bruises, scratches and deep gashes.Courtesy Andy Willingham

In a statement last week, the university said that, “Asbury’s priority remains the safety and wellbeing of its students, faculty, and staff.”

Authorities have said her roommate found her unconscious in her dorm room on the night of Nov. 27. After struggling to breathe, she was taken to the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington, where she stayed for nearly two weeks.

Willingham, who no longer attends Asbury, said she has no recollection of what occurred the day she was hospitalized. She said she also doesn’t remember a lot of her past semester at Asbury.

She said she believes she never left her dorm room the day of the incident.

Willingham’s family has said a rape kit determined she wasn’t sexually assaulted, and toxicology tests “found nothing of concern.” NBC News has not seen the toxicology or rape kit results.

Willingham said she doesn’t know of anyone who would want to attack her and can’t point out any instances of something negative occurring that may have led to someone wanting to hurt her.

She said she mostly kept to herself at college. She also noted that Asbury, a private Christian university, has strict rules about when men can enter the Glide-Crawford dorms, and those instances are supposed to be documented.

“It was probably a group of girls. I barely talked to anyone. I knew like three people on campus. Like, I never left my room,” she said. “I just feel like it was girls because I only knew girls.”

No blood. No damage. No craziness in the room

The Jessamine County Sheriff’s Office initially said Willingham might have had a medical episode and that allegations that she was beaten were “lies,” according to a report from WKYT-TV of Lexington.

Sheriff Grimes on Monday acknowledged that somebody from his office, who didn’t have authority to speak, made the remarks, which the Willinghams found problematic.

“I can tell you, someone spoke out of turn on that,” Grimes said.

He added that the investigation into what occurred to Willingham has been perplexing.

The case lacks evidence, Grimes said, adding that investigators have spent hundreds of hours on it.

Deputies were initially called to the dorm room because of a potential overdose, Grimes said. A deputy was called to the hospital because Willingham had injuries to the lower part of her body that were not seen when deputies were in the dorm because she was covered up, the sheriff noted.

“The one thing that we have going against us was that we did not get notified to the injuries to her legs until probably five or six hours later. … I can say we were behind the eight ball when it comes to the injury side of it,” Grimes said.

He said investigators have reviewed camera footage from the dorm and spoken to dorm residents, but no substantial leads were generated. No critical witnesses have stepped forward either, Grimes said.

He added the case was complicated because authorities got a warrant to search the dorm room and there was no evidence of a crime there.

“It was a dorm room. No blood. No damage. No craziness in the room,” Grimes said. “If there’s nothing in the room that showed there was an assault … that makes you think maybe this happened somewhere else. We just don’t know.”

‘Bella was the victim who became villainized’

Willingham and her family have grown frustrated by what they say is a lack of transparency from the university toward students and the campus community.

Willingham and her mother, Jennifer Willingham, went to a meeting at the Glide-Crawford dorm Sunday night. More than 100 people attended, the family said.

Asbury President Kevin Brown said Sunday there was no threat to the campus community the night Bella Willingham was attacked, according to a recording of the meeting the family provided to NBC News.

The county sheriff’s office “have publicly confirmed that. I want to share that with you and I want to reiterate that,” Brown said in the recording.

That remark, and the initial remarks by the sheriff’s office questioning whether Willingham was assaulted, have upset the Willinghams.

“It was like Bella was being the perpetrator. Bella was the victim who became villainized,” Jennifer Willingham said. “If they believed my daughter was attacked, they would for sure say, ‘Guys, there’s somebody on this campus. We need to find out who did this.’”

The ordeal left Bella Willingham feeling “violated,” she said. Willingham added that her future at the university is as murky as the law enforcement investigation.

“I don’t want to go back unless the person, whoever did this, is caught,” Willingham said. “All I can do with this is to try to expose what the school is doing and to try to protect other people on campus.”



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