The trio of junior high girls had only been chatting with Timothy Hutton for a little while when he suggested they join him and his friends at his hotel. It was 1983 in Vancouver, and for Sera Johnston, 14 years old and already a working actor, it was a dream, a chance to hang out with her Oscar-winning idol, who was in town to shoot the movie Iceman. As for what guys in their twenties might want out of girls her age, she didn’t give it much thought.
“It was like we were entertaining them — cute. We were funny, you know what I mean?” Johnston told BuzzFeed News.
But when they got to Hutton’s room, she said, the situation didn’t seem so innocent anymore. Johnston recalled Hutton and his friends offering the girls drinks. She nervously took a seat near the television.
Hutton sat down next to her.
“He was getting very close to me, like, you know, really kind of sidling up to me, and petting my legs and stuff,” she said. “I was just, like: I think this is going to be bad. I was really wrong about this.”
Johnston doesn’t remember how she was led to Hutton’s bedroom, but said he asked whether she had ever had sex. Another man, Hutton’s friend, came into the room.
Johnston said she told them things like “I don’t think this is a good idea” and “I don’t think my mother would be too happy about this.” She said she wanted to leave. “To everything I would say, it was, ‘It’ll be OK, it’ll be OK. It won’t last long, and you’ll be fine.’” Hutton was kissing her neck, Johnston said. She felt frozen in fear.
Johnston, who late last year filed a criminal complaint against Hutton with the Vancouver Police Department, remembers the two men talking her through what they were going to do to her in an “almost ritualistic” way as they undressed her “like a doll.”
She compared the process to being prepped for surgery. “I just lay there very rigid,” she said. “I remember being really cold.”
“Please, don’t do this. I can’t do it. I can’t.”
Hutton took off his clothes, got on top of her, Johnston said, and thrust himself inside her. She started to beg: “Please, don’t do this. I can’t do it. I can’t.” Johnston said Hutton told her that she would like it — and that his friend was going to watch.
“It hurt like hell,” Johnston said. “I mean, it was very painful. God. Yeah, it was extremely painful. Horrible, horrible, absolutely horrible.” At one point, she said, Hutton went to get Vaseline as a lubricant.
She said Hutton’s friend, who was standing next to the bed, put his erect penis into her mouth.
“He got it in a couple of times,” Johnston said. “And I said, ‘You have to tell him that he can’t!’” Her mouth was full of train-track braces and rubber bands, she said. She started to cry.
Johnston said Hutton told his friend, “‘She doesn’t like that,’ or whatever. Meanwhile, he finished raping me.”
Hutton “completely and unequivocally denies” Johnston’s allegations. In a statement, his lawyer said the actor, whose series Almost Family concluded its first season on Fox in February, has never met Johnston at all and “will not spend one more minute dignifying these allegations as they are patently false and designed only to extort money from him.” As for her story, he says she has “provided salacious, heinous, and graphic details of this made-up sexual encounter that supposedly occurred 36 years ago. Although these were disgusting details any smut fiction writer could conjure up,” there is no evidence to support them. Hutton's attorney further said Johnston's story is “fabricated” and contains “patently false, scurrilous, and defamatory statements.”
To counter her claims, Hutton has enlisted two law firms and three spokespeople. The actor’s representatives have provided BuzzFeed News with an extensive array of information, including a 91-page letter (which they said may not be quoted), meant to discredit Johnston and halt this article.
The substance of their argument: Johnston is a liar who’s trying to shake Hutton down.
As proof, they cite the fact that she didn’t raise the issue until 2017, 34 years after she claims the incident took place — and when she did raise it, she hired a lawyer to pursue a financial settlement rather than going to the police. They point to the fact that she has no eyewitness to the alleged assault itself. Most damning of all, they said, is the fact that last March, an ex-boyfriend of hers reached out to the man she said assaulted her alongside Hutton and offered to personally broker some sort of deal.
Johnston agreed that her friend’s actions look bad. “It put me in a very difficult situation,” she said.
But as for seeking a financial settlement, Johnston points out that Hutton did in fact agree to a payment, albeit for $135,000 — far less than the $1.5 million her lawyer proposed.
After signing the initial documents, however, she walked away from the deal. She said she couldn’t stomach the terms of the agreement, which includes Hutton’s denial that anything happened at all.
Hutton’s representatives said she was just mad she wasn’t getting more money.
Johnston, who is now 50 and goes by the name Lauren, said that what happened that night at the Denman Place Inn in downtown Vancouver “has colored every area of my life.”
Still carrying herself with the erect poise of the dancer she once was, Johnston is striking, with long, very dark hair and powdered alabaster skin. Talking about her experience at the hotel, she was clear and direct, occasionally sipping a Coke to stave off a migraine.
She knows people will judge her for her decisions. And with so many stories in the media about celebrities and sexual assault, she worries that hers may not be dramatic enough to make strangers care.
“As weird as this sounds,” the former child actor said, “you feel like you have to audition your rape: Do you like this?”
In a separate interview, one of the two friends whom Johnston said she was with that night broke down in tears as she shared her recollection. Decades had passed since the two were last in touch, but when first asked about Johnston, she replied, “Would this have to do with the actor from Iceman?”
The woman asked that BuzzFeed News refer to her only by her initials, C.B., to spare her the angry reprisals that women have experienced after accusing prominent men of assault. But she used her full name to sign an affidavit attesting to her recollections under penalty of perjury.
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She corroborated Johnston’s account of the three girls hanging out together, then eventually hopping on a bus to go to Hutton’s hotel room.
The two women’s recollections differ in some details — whether there was music playing, whether the room was divided with full or partial walls — but C.B. said she saw Johnston go off with Hutton and another man for what C.B. thought at the time was voluntary sex.
She said she did not see what happened next, but Johnston “sounded like she was in pain, and she sounded like she was maybe being muffled by somebody.” C.B. didn’t make the connection that anything might be wrong — she was busy, she said, fending off another member of Hutton’s entourage. “I was really uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do.”
The two girls lost track of each other after that night, but C.B. has thought back on it often, especially once her own daughter entered her teens. Informed now that Johnston said she had been raped, C.B. sifted through her memories, and began to cry. She asked to have a message passed on to Johnston.
“Just tell her I’m really sorry that I didn’t stop it.”
As for the third girl in the trio, Johnston reached out to her in 2018, asking if she could count on the woman’s support to corroborate her story. The friend’s reply was polite but firm. “I currently have things going on in my own life that are more pressing and needing my full mental and emotional space and I do not have the capacity to help you,” she wrote in an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News. She did not respond to multiple emails and a written letter seeking comment for this article.
Johnston said she didn’t come forward sooner because, until the #MeToo movement exploded more than two years ago, she assumed no one would take her word over that of a powerful, respected celebrity.
Throughout the years, however, she did tell several people in her life.
BuzzFeed News spoke with five of them: a friend she told only a few days after the night in question, Johnston’s mother, and three more friends. They all, separately, confirmed that she told them Timothy Hutton had raped her in his hotel room. And when Johnston initiated legal action, her ex-stepfather gave a statement that many years prior, he too had heard Johnston’s account of the events in the hotel room.
She didn’t really have idols, she added, “until I saw Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People.”
The lawyer who represented Johnston in the resulting mediation had access to a summary of an interview with an actor named Réal Andrews. The one-page document states that though Andrews had no knowledge of the alleged rape, he did see Johnston and her friends in the hotel room.
Andrews did not respond to multiple inquiries for this article. But when BuzzFeed News contacted Hutton’s representatives to discuss the allegations, something unusual happened: A law firm sent over a sworn statement from Andrews that starkly refuted those remarks.
Andrews’ new statement said he was “not aware that Ms. Johnston was ever in Mr. Hutton’s hotel room with Mr. Hutton” or that Hutton “ever had sex with her or did anything inappropriate to her.” As for the private investigator, “I told him that I do not remember Ms. Johnston being in Mr. Hutton’s hotel room.”
In July, after being informed that BuzzFeed News was reporting this story, Hutton spoke with the FBI — according to his spokesperson, to report Johnston for attempted extortion. (The FBI said it cannot confirm or deny the existence of any investigations. Johnston said she has not been contacted.)
In October, a representative of Hutton’s, who stipulated that they could not be identified by name or directly quoted, met with BuzzFeed News to deliver what they said was important information about Johnston. The representative wrapped up the conversation with a question: What good does it do the public to publish a story about something from 36 years ago?
On that evening in 1983, Johnston, C.B., and the third friend were hanging out at the Granville Island complex in Vancouver, a collage of restaurants, stores, and venues popular with tourists and locals alike. They had planned a sleepover, and were excited to stay up late and eat pizza. Johnston had taken ballet and one of the girls was a gymnast, and outside the Pelican Bay restaurant, they showed off their skills, exaggeratedly pirouetting and tumbling.
As Johnston did a split, she said, she heard a loud rapping on the restaurant’s window. Three men were beckoning them to come inside. The men were in their twenties, but to Johnston, they looked older. She wondered whether they might be friends of her father, a jazz musician, and decided she should say hello in case she knew them.
“I’m going to get in trouble for being sassy,” Johnston remembered thinking.
As she got closer, she realized she did recognize one of them: It was Hutton, who just two years earlier had become the youngest person to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in 1980’s Ordinary People, which won Best Picture. The year after that, Hutton had costarred with George C. Scott, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise in Taps.
Today, Vancouver has a thriving film production industry. But in 1983, the city was just establishing itself as an affordable home for Hollywood productions. Johnston’s mother, Della Mae Johnston, and the man she was dating both made their living in this growing industry: she as a set decorator, he as a stunt double. She said they both spent some time working on Iceman.
Sera Johnston had started modeling and acting as a child, and at 9 appeared as Helen Keller in a Vancouver staging of The Miracle Worker.
She admired Hutton's acting and had even stayed up late to watch him win the Oscar. She didn’t really have idols, she added, “until I saw Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People.”
And then there he was in the restaurant, trying to get her and her friends to come in. Johnston told Hutton that her friends didn’t believe it was him. So boyish in Ordinary People and Taps, he was now 22, with a beard, and he appeared to have lost weight.
Johnston said that the men invited the girls to join their table, and they sat down and chatted. At some point, she said that she told the men she was 17, but later admitted to them that she was 14. “And that delighted them,” Johnston recalled.
C.B., who was also 14 at the time, said she does not remember discussing their precise age but that their youth would have been unmistakable. “I don’t know if you can tell a 20-year-old woman from a 13-year-old girl," she said with a note of sarcasm, "but it’s pretty obvious."
At the restaurant, it was getting dark outside when, Johnston and C.B. said, the men asked the girls if they wanted to party with them in Hutton’s hotel a few miles away. “We were young, and idiots,” Johnston said. “And we were like, ‘What would happen if we go?’”
One of the men pulled out Hutton’s hotel key.
“And I don’t know why — I took it,” she said. “I’ll never to this day know why I did that.”
The next day she was in school, Johnston took one of her best friends aside and told her about Hutton. “She was furious. She just called him all kinds of swear words,” the friend recalled; she asked that her name not be used because she works in the entertainment industry and is worried about possible reprisals. “I remember her calling him a fucking rapist. She was always colorful in her expressions, but I’d never heard her so angered.”
The friend said she urged Johnston to go to the police, but the answer was no. More than anything, Johnston said she wanted to move on. She tried to define the encounter for herself: “It was a bad sexual experience, you know? That’s what it was. It was just a really bad first experience, and that’ll never happen again.”
And she blamed herself. “I looked at it, like, I’ve really fucked up,” Johnston said. “Like, really fucked up. If my mom finds out, I will be in huge trouble.” Because her mother worked in the industry, she worried it would be bad for the whole family.
But soon enough, Johnston said, her mother found an Iceman T-shirt in her things, and the story came out. Afterward, she remembers her mother took her to a doctor for a checkup and a pregnancy test, and then to a psychiatrist, whom Sera remembered seeing multiple times a week.
“I was extremely upset,” Della Mae Johnston said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Della Mae said she talked to the psychiatrist about going to the police, but they decided it would “probably be worse for her if I pursued it.”
It would have been the word of a “14-year-old nothing” against a “big-time movie star,” she said. “I would never work in the film industry again.”
She regrets the decision now. “Things are different,” she said. “I’m ashamed of it. I wish that I had pursued it.”
Johnston said she thought about going to the police many times over the years. Last November, she made up her mind. According to Johnston’s current attorney, Neil Chantler, his client filed a criminal complaint against Hutton with the Vancouver Police Department and has been in “regular contact” with the detective assigned to the file.
"Lauren Johnston has great courage coming forward with her story and we are confident the justice system is going to hold the perpetrators to account for their crimes,” Chantler said. "The Vancouver Police Department is taking Ms. Johnston’s case very seriously and has launched an investigation." In a statement, Vancouver police spokesperson Aaron Roed said the department does not release the names of victims or accused perpetrators of sexual assault.
“If there was a report filed with the VPD we will be investigating, we take all crimes very seriously and our officers will conduct a thorough investigation,” he added.
In school, Johnston said she started ditching track practice, and the coach dropped her from the team. She failed PE. She got kicked out of French class. “I smoked pot for my first time, and I got drunk for my first time,” she said. Her school asked her not to come back the following year.
Johnston was acting out, she said, because unlike the things that had been done to her in the hotel, deliberate bad behavior was something she did have control over.
For a long time, she’d had an idea of how old she would be when she first had sex, and that it would be with someone she loved, an idea instilled by her mother. Thinking about how different the reality was “really fucked with me,” she said. “Really bothered me. It made me into a different person. It changed everything.”
It was as if the teenage girl had “adopted another persona to protect herself,” Della Mae Johnston said.
“It felt like she felt like she’d been let down by everybody,” she added. “And she was going to be responsible for her own safety in her own life from that point on — and anybody else would be damned.”
"It made me into a different person. It changed everything.”
Sam Izen, Johnston’s boyfriend in the summer of 1983, told BuzzFeed News that she had confided in him early on that she’d had sex with Hutton.
“She didn’t use the word ‘rape,’” he said. “But I found it odd that a guy that was probably in his early twenties would have sex with a girl that age.”
Johnston had never really liked modeling, but threw herself into it, and began dating older guys.
One of them was Réal Andrews, whom she had first met back in Hutton’s entourage. They bumped into each other again on a photo shoot, and dated for a short while.
As she entered adulthood, Johnston briefly dated Vernard Goud, a model whom she met at a club in 1991. “When we started dating, she told me the whole story about what happened to her — the whole rape thing” with Timothy Hutton and his friend, Goud said. “I can’t even think about it. I get ticked off.”
She became an exotic dancer and entered into a series of toxic relationships, including two marriages that ended in divorce. “Every single thing that I really knew that I didn’t want to do — or that wasn’t fulfilling or good in any way — I decided to do. And everything that, you know, was wholesome or decent or whatever, I just dropped,” she said. “It almost completely rearranged me.”
Of the many things she dropped, perhaps the most significant was acting.
“That was my own punishment to myself for getting raped,” she said. “Especially because of who raped me.”
As a Canadian accusing a US citizen of raping her in Vancouver, Johnston knew pursuing a case against Hutton wouldn’t be easy.
Several lawyers, she said, turned her away. But eventually she read about a British woman who had accused Harvey Weinstein of assaulting her in Cannes. The woman’s lawyer was Jeff Herman. Herman is a controversial figure who has litigated some high-profile #MeToo cases, and who also faced an allegation of rape in 1998, which prosecutors declined to pursue, and which Herman has denied. Johnston said she didn’t know any of that at the time. She just needed a lawyer who’d represent her, and Herman said he would.
To prepare for the case, Johnston reached out to people who she hoped would corroborate that story. But she couldn’t find C.B., the second member of the trio of girls. Johnston said she and the investigator went down several blind alleys, looking as far as Australia, before giving up in defeat. (BuzzFeed News eventually found her through online searches.)
That was also when she reached out to the third friend. By email, she asked the friend if she would consider speaking for even 10 minutes to Herman’s investigator.
This friend wrote back hours later:
“I appreciate that you need to deal with your demons of the past but I cannot help you,” she said.
“I ask that you respect my wishes and do not contact me about this again.
“Good luck with your journey.”
But the law firm did secure the corroborating statements from Andrews and from Johnston’s stepfather. “Andrews said our client is telling the truth about being with Hutton in a hotel room,” the report states. “They all met at a restaurant prior to going to the hotel. The hotel was where they (the movie people) would go to party.”
Johnston said she was shocked when, in response to BuzzFeed News’s inquiry, Andrews — while acknowledging that he and Johnston had briefly dated — renounced his original statement. “He certainly knows who was in that room,” she said.
Johnston’s ex-stepfather, Joe Wiesenfeld — a screenwriter of an Oscar-winning short film who died last January — had long since lost touch with her family. The investigator’s notes indicate that he told Wiesenfeld only that he was calling about an “incident the client may have told him.”
“The witness said if it’s the one I think you’re asking about, then it’s about the actor named Timothy Hutton. The witness said the client told him about having sex with Hutton. He said the sex was a ‘flat out rape,’ and that he was very upset when she told him. The witness remembers that the client was ‘deeply distraught’ and ‘very emotional’ when she told him.”
Johnston said that although she had been assaulted by two men at the same time, her lawyer told her they would focus on Hutton, who in the mid-2010s had appeared in three seasons of the acclaimed TV drama American Crime and the movie All the Money in the World.
“I was asked initially what I wanted to do, what I was looking for, in terms of reparations,” she said. “Or did I even want reparations — did I want just an apology? Did I want him to donate some money to something that I cared about? I was asked to think about all that. And I felt for the first time in a long time, that’s refreshing — what do I want?” But before she had offered a response, she said, she was informed “‘Jeff is going for $1.5 million and there’s going to be a mediation.’ And that was it.” (Herman declined to speak with BuzzFeed News about Johnston’s case.)
Hutton’s legal team regarded Herman’s proposal as “little more than an extortive threat.” But they set a date for mediation, a few months later, in Los Angeles.
At first, Johnston said, the mediation was cordial, with the two sides sitting in separate conference rooms, and a retired judge shuttling between them. But then she said she agreed to permit Hutton’s attorneys to question her directly.
She said the first question was, What color panties were you wearing that night in 1983 — if you were wearing any at all? and that Hutton’s lawyer went on to ask a series of leading questions: Did you have a gun to your head? Was anyone physically restraining you? Could you see the door?
The lawyer who represented Hutton in those negotiations said, “we and Mr. Hutton completely deny Ms. Johnston’s characterization of what occurred at the mediation.”
"You don’t even realize what you’ve done. You don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”
After a lunch break, Johnston said, Herman announced that their case had hit a major snag: Hutton’s lawyers had informed him that in 1983, the age of consent in Canada was 14. (It has since risen to 16.)
Johnston said that in light of the age-of-consent issue, her attorney advised her to take the money. But she was bewildered: Rape is rape, she thought, regardless of age. And if Herman saw things differently, why didn’t he check the law beforehand?
Herman declined to comment on the proceedings, as did the retired judge who oversaw them.
Hutton’s representatives have said the $135,000 was “a nuisance settlement and should be a strong indicator of how the credibility of Ms. Johnston and her fictitious claim was perceived at the mediation by all in attendance.”
A separate representative for Hutton pressed his case even further, stating that, during the mediation, Johnston brandished her phone and threatened to call the press if she didn’t get a bigger settlement, and that Johnston acknowledged she had not, in fact, been raped.
Johnston said those are lies. She spoke only briefly, and only to her lawyer, about going public with her story. As for the suggestion that she consented to sex with Hutton and his friend?
“Oh my god, no,” she said. “I’m getting angry about this, I’m sorry.”
Johnston still had the option of going to the police and reporting a crime — there is no statute of limitations in Canada for rape. She thought that Hutton would be grateful to her for choosing a more discreet option. But the settlement offer felt less like gratitude than contempt. And she felt pressure to sign right away.
Distressed and anxious to get out of the mediation chambers, Johnston said she decided, “‘Fine, fuck it.’” She signed the initial agreements and went home.
But by the time the final papers arrived, with their carefully worded denial of wrongdoing, she had changed her mind. She wanted no part of it.
“It was the indignance and the attitude that I was so angry about,” she said. “That tells me that you don’t even realize what you’ve done. You don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”
Her lawyer called a number of times to ask her to sign the papers. But she ignored him.
Hutton's people hired an investigator to help them “navigate what, in our opinion, was the latest extortion attempt by Ms. Johnston.”
As she was working out how to tell her story, however, something happened that, she readily acknowledges, hurts her credibility: McKinley Hlady, a friend of hers whom she’d once dated, took it upon himself to try to broker some sort of meeting — not with Hutton himself, but with the second man who Johnston said raped her that night in the hotel room.
In a series of meandering emails, Hlady seems to suggest that he could help Hutton’s friend avoid unpleasant publicity, telling him, "I can help avoid it all as she is still questioning whether she wants to be a part of a media storm."
“I intend to just state facts,” Hlady also wrote, “as a guy to a guy what the situation is as I currently see it, ahead of things snowballing heavily.”
Hlady now says he was just trying to help Johnston, by finding out if the man felt any remorse.
Hutton’s representatives attributed a different motive. In a July letter, they said they’d hired an investigator to help them “navigate what, in our opinion, was the latest extortion attempt by Ms. Johnston.”
Johnston said she reluctantly joined in on phone calls to discuss reaching out to Hutton's friend, and only belatedly became aware of the extent of Hlady’s outreach over email. Mortified, she said she told him to terminate the communication, which he did.
“I was pissed off,” she said. “It put me in a shitty position.”
The night that Johnston said changed her life is now nearly four decades in the past. A great deal has changed for her, and yet in many ways it has not. She said she is still thinking about the result of choices she made when she was 14 years old. Her friends said they are too. She still feels the impact.
Hutton, meanwhile, has enjoyed a varied and successful acting career, including the 1996 film Beautiful Girls, the popular TV drama Leverage, and the Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House. He has been married twice — most famously to Debra Winger in 1986 — and has two children. On his Fox drama series Almost Family, which just concluded its first season, Hutton plays a fertility doctor who impregnates dozens of female patients with his own sperm, and goes on trial for sexual assault. (Fox, which declined to comment on the allegations, canceled the show on Monday.) His next feature film, The Glorias — a chronicle of the life of feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem directed by Julie Taymor — had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. He plays Steinem’s father.
One thing that has not changed is the legal document that binds Johnston and Hutton together: a nondisclosure agreement that Johnston signed at the mediation conference.
Even though Johnston didn’t sign the full documents, and no settlement money was ever paid, Hutton’s attorney said that the agreement was “legally binding” and “fully enforceable.”
Johnston said after so many years of silence, she just wants to tell her story. “I’ve just lived a very small, little life, especially since I’ve been divorced. I’ve been very quiet, you know,” she said. “But something in the back of my mind has just constantly been going, You need to tell people this.” She spoke tentatively, searching for the right words. But then her voice became firm. “Listen, this is what it’s like.” ●
Ellie Hall contributed to this report.
This story was updated to include the month in which Timothy Hutton spoke with the FBI.