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A complicated life and conflicting accounts muddle efforts to understand Tara Reade's allegation against Joe Biden

(CNN) As Tara Reade was leaving her job at Joe Biden's Senate office in 1993, she told a close colleague that she believed she was being let go for an unfair reason -- that she was being terminated because of a medical issue she had been dealing with.

The former colleague, Ben Savage, described this decades-old alleged exchange with Reade in an interview with CNN. He declined to be quoted on the specific medical condition that he said Reade shared with him around that time. The previously unreported detail of what Savage says Reade told him in 1993 is among a growing set of accounts that has emerged about Reade's experience in Biden's office almost three decades ago.

Reade, 56, has become a prominent figure in the 2020 presidential race after accusing Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, of sexually harassing and assaulting her when she worked in his office. The range of statements Reade, her friends and acquaintances, and former Biden aides have made -- both in public and in private -- about Biden and Reade's experiences while working for him, has complicated efforts to understand her most serious allegation of sexual assault.

Biden himself has vehemently denied Reade's allegations, and no ex-Biden staffer has come forward to say they ever witnessed or heard about any kind of sexual misconduct in his Senate office.

Doug Wigdor, Reade's attorney, said as part of a lengthy email addressing questions from CNN that some in the media have given Biden "a complete pass" while subjecting Reade to "hypocrisy and double standard."

By her own admission, Reade did not widely share the sexual assault allegation against Biden around the time that she says it happened, making contemporaneous corroboration difficult to come by. Over the last year, Reade has altered her public telling of how Biden behaved with her in 1993, as has one of her close friends who has been a key corroborator of Reade's assault allegation. In years past, Reade described reasons for leaving Washington that were unrelated to Biden; she now says she left after being fired from Biden's office as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. She has also previously described Biden as having been a good boss, sometimes speaking with pride about having worked for him.

But victims of domestic and sexual violence do not always tell consistent stories about their abusers and their experiences. It is also not uncommon for victims to not discuss their abuses even with close family or friends. Sometimes they have even praised the individual that they later accuse of assault, as Reade has with Biden.

It is widely known that Reade's public allegation about Biden changed significantly since she first came forward last year. She initially said in 2019 that Biden made her uncomfortable by touching her neck, shoulders and hair; this year, she said he also assaulted her by forcibly putting his fingers inside of her. CNN's interviews with more than two dozen people from various points in Reade's life, including friends, acquaintances, and former colleagues, and an examination of Reade's correspondences, writings and court records, show that her story has also varied in other ways, over a longer period of time.

Collectively, they paint a muddled, and sometimes inconsistent, picture of Reade's time in Biden's Senate office.

Growing up in the Midwest and a tumultuous marriage

In the course of multiple phone interviews with CNN in recent weeks, Reade confirmed some biographical details that appear on her now archived website. She has described an idyllic-sounding childhood of running around on a farm in northern Wisconsin. She said she was immersed in nature and fell in love with horseback riding.

Friends described Reade as a kind, lively and cheerful person who loved animals and acting. Her ex-boyfriend, Cal Clements, fondly recalled that he and Reade starred in the Cedar Shoals High School's production of "Grease" as Kenickie and Rizzo.

Reade said that she became a model and actress at age 17, and moved out to California to pursue those endeavors, as her archived website says. She said she was cast as a dancer in the film "La Bamba."

In the early 1990s, Reade headed to Washington, DC, where she would meet Ted Dronen. Their marriage would mark a dark period in Reade's life. According to court records from 1996, Reade claimed that Dronen was abusive to her and their then-15-month-old daughter. She described violent episodes including one altercation that left her bruised. Reade was granted a temporary restraining order against Dronen in 1996.

Dronen opposed the order with regards to his daughter and, according to the court documents, denied that he did not care for their daughter. He also denied many of Reade's statements about his own childhood history. While he acknowledged that he was violent with Reade in February 1996 and said he apologized for that, he did not acknowledge other violent incidents Reade mentioned in her own testimony.

Dronen has not responded to CNN's requests for comment and interview.

Reade has said that she changed her name to Alexandra McCabe and fled from her ex-husband. Some details of Reade's personal life are hazier after that.

Reade told CNN that she received a bachelor of arts degree from Antioch University in Seattle under the auspices of a "protected program," personally working with the former president of the school to ensure her identity was protected while she obtained credits for her degree. She also said that she was a visiting professor at the school, on and off for five years.

Presented with this, Karen Hamilton, an Antioch University spokesperson, told CNN that "Alexandra McCabe attended but did not graduate from Antioch University. She was never a faculty member. She did provide several hours of administrative work."

An Antioch University official told CNN that such a "protected program" does not exist and never has.

Reade graduated from Seattle University School of Law in 2004, gaining admission to the school through its Alternative Admission Program.

A law school official familiar with the program said it was established to help "diverse and non-traditional students" enter the legal field.

"The Alternative Admission Program, now known as the Access Admission Program, is a pathway for individuals from historically disadvantaged and under-represented communities who have demonstrated grit, intellectual curiosity and the ability to overcome substantial obstacles," the official said.

'She blamed her termination on her health issue'

In the early 1990s in Washington, DC, Reade lived in Thompson-Markward Hall, a dormitory located across the street from the Hart Senate office building. Friends from that period describe Reade as bubbly and positive, with a big personality that often drew attention.

Stacey Lentz, who worked as a receptionist for then-Sen. Kent Conrad in the early '90s and lived in Reade's dorm, said Reade was "the kind of girl, once she's wherever she is, you know her."

CNN reached out to Lentz because Reade described her repeatedly as one of her closest confidants during her time in Washington, and somebody she may have confided in about the alleged sexual harassment and assault. But Lentz, who now operates a modeling agency in Fargo, North Dakota, said while she and Reade were close, she had not remembered which lawmaker Reade had worked for until she saw recent news reports. She also did not recall Reade confiding in her about sexual harassment or assault.

Asked whether she remembered Reade complaining about work, Lentz said the reporter's question triggered a memory. "There was drama with her work. I can see flashes of her talking to me," Lentz said. "She wasn't having a great time at work."

Reade appears to have told Dronen, her ex-husband, about issues she had while working for Biden. In the 1996 court records, Dronen says Reade "related a problem that she was having at work regarding sexual harassment in U.S. Senator Joe Biden's office" on multiple occasions. The document does not, however, state who perpetrated the alleged harassment, and it also does not mention sexual assault.

Savage, Reade's ex-colleague, said he saw up close how she was struggling at work.

Savage worked in Biden's office from 1993 to 1996 as a computer systems administrator. His desk was next to Reade's and the two had a positive working relationship, he said. Savage described Reade as a kind person who sometimes shared details of her personal life with him.

Savage recently reached out to reporters at media outlets, including CNN, after Reade alleged she was assaulted by Biden. The accusation left him in "disbelief and shock," Savage said. And Reade's claim now that she was fired in 1993 as retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment is not what he witnessed, he said.

Reade was overwhelmed by some of her duties at work, which included helping to sort and respond to constituent mail, Savage said. He recalled that some of Reade's tasks were taken away from her, and said his understanding at the time was that she was terminated because of performance issues.

Around the time of her departure, Savage said Reade "blamed her termination on her health issue -- that she thought she was being discriminated against for her health issue." Savage declined to share on the record for publication what Reade's stated medical issue was at the time.

Wigdor said in response to Savage's claims that Reade was, in fact, having health issues. "Yes, she was being sexually harassed and retaliated against and ultimately sexually assaulted," he said. "She did miss days of work because of all of this."

Wigdor also expressed skepticism that Savage would know about the reasons behind Reade's departure, given that supervisors from that time, including Ted Kaufman and Dennis Toner, have said they did not remember Reade. He called on Biden to "open up" records. It is unclear whether any written records or personnel files that shed light on Reade's time at Biden's office exist.

Reade told CNN she vaguely remembered Savage, but deferred questions about Savage's comments to Wigdor.

Reade's own writings offer yet other reasons for why she left Biden's office -- and ultimately Washington. In one deleted Medium post, she said she "resigned" to pursue acting and writing, and also because she was tired of the US government's "deception and xenophobia." In another since deleted post, Reade wrote that she left Washington and returned to the Midwest so her then-boyfriend could manage a congressman's campaign.

Asked about these conflicting accounts, Reade said she had written some "stupid blog posts" while working on a novel, and that she wrote conflicting accounts at a time when she "wasn't ready to talk about Biden." She said she did not remember writing about the US government's xenophobia.

Reade spoke fondly of her experience with Biden

In more recent years, Reade has praised Biden on social media on numerous occasions.

The praise, according to some of Reade's acquaintances, happened in private, too. Reade pet sat for Margie Estberg's cats in December 2017 in Aptos, California, Estberg told CNN. She said that around this time, Reade brought up the fact that she had once worked for Biden.

"I said, 'Is he a good guy?' Because I'm just curious to know," Estberg recalled. "And she said, 'Oh yeah, he is.' I said, 'Oh good, I'm glad to hear that.'"

Estberg said Reade also described having had a lot of fun while working for Biden.

Politico said it spoke with five of Reade's acquaintances to whom Reade spoke "in positive terms about Biden, as recently as 2018." Similar to Estberg's account to CNN, those individuals also said Reade proactively brought up Biden.

Asked why she has spoken favorably about Biden in recent years, Reade recently told CNN that she was "very conflicted about how I felt about Joe Biden," in part because she believed he was doing good work on women's issues.

"Many things are true at once," she said.

What is true is that Reade has also offered different descriptions to reporters of Biden's alleged sexual misconduct.

Last year, Reade said to the Associated Press about Biden: "I wasn't scared of him, that he was going to take me in a room or anything. It wasn't that kind of vibe."

And a close friend who told CNN and other media outlets this year that Reade had shared with her details of the alleged sexual assault in 1993, said to a Vox reporter last year that Biden "never tried to kiss her directly. He never went for one of those touches." The friend then told Vox this year that the reason she gave a different account in 2019 was that she had not wanted to betray Reade's desire at the time to only share the harassment allegation.

That friend recently offered an additional explanation to CNN. When she insisted a year ago that Biden had never tried to kiss Reade, she had meant that Biden never tried to kiss Reade in front of other staff, she said.

Others close to Reade have corroborated aspects of Reade's allegations. Reade's former neighbor told CNN that Reade told her about the alleged assault within a few years of the incident. Her brother, Collin Moulton, told CNN that Reade told him in the early 1990s that Biden had cornered her and put his hands under her clothes. But in an earlier interview with the Washington Post, Moulton initially said Reade had told him about Biden's inappropriate touching. Several days later, the Post said, Moulton clarified in a text message that he also recalled her telling him about the assault.

Meanwhile, a video from 1993 appeared to show Reade's mother calling into "Larry King Live" to seek advice around the time of the alleged assault about how to handle what she described as "problems" that her daughter had while working for a prominent US senator. Reade's mother died a few years ago. Biden's name isn't mentioned by the caller, nor is there any mention of sexual harassment or assault.

Biden has unequivocally denied Reade's allegations. "I know the truth of the matter. I know that this claim has no merit," he said at a virtual fundraiser earlier this month.

'She wanted to stand with Lucy'

After Reade came forward with the sexual harassment allegation last year, she faced an onslaught of criticism about recent writings in which she effusively praised Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Distraught that she was being accused of being a secret Russian agent, Reade reached out to her friend, Wendy Dale. A writer living in Bolivia, Dale said she got to know Reade around 2003. She found Reade's story of surviving domestic abuse and fleeing her ex-husband so compelling that she wanted to write a book about it. In their many extensive interviews, Dale said, Reade never mentioned sexual harassment or assault allegations against Biden.

Dale said she and Reade made a satire video last year to try to make light of the backlash. Dale posed as a reporter interviewing Reade, who played a Russian agent. "I pretend to interview her and she talks about how she vehemently denies being a Russian agent. In the meantime, someone passes her a bowl of caviar and hands her her lunch, a glass of vodka," Dale said. (The video has since been taken down, Dale said. The YouTube account they created called "Nyet Productions" is still online.)

Dale said it was only at the end of last year -- some six months after Reade first reached out last spring -- that Reade told her she had also been sexually assaulted by Biden.

"It was really difficult for her when the whole Russian smear campaign happened. She backed away," Dale said. She said she never asked Reade what ultimately made her come forward this year with the allegation of assault.

Clements, Reade's high school boyfriend, said Reade recently conveyed to him that she felt she had a "duty" to go public with the assault allegation.

"It's important for everyone and her daughter to know the truth about what happened," Clements recalled Reade saying. "And there was something about Lucy Flores and how she wanted to stand with Lucy."

Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman, accused Biden last year of inappropriately touching her and kissing her on the head. At the time, Biden said that in all of his years as a public figure, "not once -- never -- did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention."

Ex-Biden aides refute Reade's allegations; others have questions about Reade's accounts

Reade said she verbally complained to three supervisors while she worked for Biden about the alleged sexual harassment, but not about the sexual assault. All three of those individuals told CNN that this never happened. Reade also said she filled out a form at a Capitol Hill personnel office about the alleged harassment, but that she does not have a copy of it.

In recent interviews with CNN, 10 former Biden staffers who worked in Biden's Senate office at the same time as Reade said they were never aware of any issues related to sexual harassment, let alone sexual assault, involving their former boss. Biden never had even the hint of this kind of reputation, they said, in a town where it was well-known which male elected officials had such reputations.

Last week, PBS published the most extensive reporting to date on this subject, interviewing 74 former Biden staffers. Every single person said they also never experienced any kind of sexual misconduct by Biden, or heard rumors related to harassment or assault.

Reade described to CNN a meeting in which Biden stood behind her and put his hand on her shoulder and massaged her neck under her hair. Her close friend also told CNN that Reade described to her a staff meeting in which Biden rubbed her neck and swirled her hair around his finger in front of interns.

But in interviews with CNN, multiple former Biden aides said this stood out because Biden rarely interacted with junior staff.

Melissa Lefko, who, like Reade, was a staff assistant in Biden's office in the early 1990s, said staff assistants and interns were among those who worked in Biden's so-called "front office" in the Russell Senate office building. That office was located down the hall from -- and separated in between by then-Sen. Strom Thurmond's office -- the room where Biden and some of his senior aides worked. This meant Lefko and her junior colleagues in the front office rarely had face time with Biden, she said. Several other confirmed this physical configuration of Biden's personal Senate office.

"I've been searching my memory and I really think he stepped into the front office once the entire time I worked there," Lefko told CNN.

Savage said he could not recall a single meeting in the years that he worked in Biden's office that was attended by junior staff, interns and Biden.

"He didn't deal with junior staff, ever," said one former longtime aide to Biden, who asked not to be named.

Wigdor reiterated that his client was touched "several times inappropriately" by Biden.

"There were several occasions where the senator met with the interns, some formal, some not," he said.