Rape stories in the USA
by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica and Ken Armstrong, The Marshall Project December 16, 2015
Ken Armstrong is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who previously worked at The Seattle Times and Chicago Tribune, where his work helped prompt the Illinois governor to suspend executions and later empty death row. He has been the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard
January 5, 2011
A little after 1 p.m. on a wintry day in January 2011, Detective Stacy Galbraith approached a long, anonymous row of apartment buildings that spilled up a low hill in a Denver suburb. Snow covered the ground in patches. It was blustery, and biting cold. She was there to investigate a report of rape.
Galbraith spotted the victim standing in the thin sunlight outside her ground floor apartment. She was young, dressed in a brown, full-length coat.
She clutched a bag of her belongings in one hand. She looked calm, unflustered.
Galbraith introduced herself. Police technicians were swarming the apartment. Galbraith suggested that she and the victim escape the icy gusts in a nearby unmarked patrol car.
The woman told Galbraith she was 26 years old, an engineering student on winter break from a nearby college.
She had been alone in her apartment the previous evening. After cooking green mung beans for dinner, she curled up in bed for a marathon of “Desperate Housewives” and “The Big Bang Theory” until drifting off. At around 8 a.m., she was jolted awake by a man who had jumped on her back, pinning her to the bed. He wore a black mask that seemed more like a scarf fastened tight around his face. He gripped a silver and black gun. “Don’t scream. Don’t call or I’ll shoot you,” he told her.
He moved deliberately. He tied her hands loosely behind her. From a large black bag, he took out thigh-high stockings, clear plastic high heels with pink ribbons, lubrication, a box of moist towelettes and bottled water. Over the next four hours, he raped her repeatedly. He documented the assault with a digital camera and threatened to post the pictures online if she contacted the police. Afterward, he ordered her to brush her teeth and wash herself in the shower. By the time she exited the bathroom, he had gone. He had taken her sheets and bedding. She clearly remembered one physical detail about him: a dark mark on his left calf the size of an egg.
Galbraith listened to the woman with a sense of alarm. The attack was so heinous; the attacker so practiced. There was no time to waste. Sitting close to her in the front seat of the car, Galbraith carefully brushed the woman’s face with long cotton swabs to collect any DNA traces that might remain. Then she drove her to St. Anthony North Hospital. The woman underwent a special forensic examination to collect more DNA evidence. Before she left with a nurse, the woman warned Galbraith, “I think he’s done this before.”
Galbraith returned to the crime scene. A half-dozen officers and technicians were now at work. They were knocking on neighbors’ doors, snapping photographs in the apartment, digging through garbage bins, swabbing the walls, the windows, everywhere for DNA. In the snow, they found a trail of footprints leading to and from the back of the apartment through an empty field. They spraypainted the prints fluorescent orange to make them stand out, then took pictures. It was not much. But something. One officer suggested a bathroom break. “Just keep working!” Galbraith insisted.
As she headed home that night, Galbraith’s mind raced. “Who is this guy?” she asked herself. “How am I going to find him?” Galbraith often volunteered to take rape cases. She was a wife, a mother. She was good at empathizing with the victims, who were overwhelmingly women. Most had been assaulted by a boyfriend, an old flame, or someone they had met at a club. Those investigations often boiled down to an issue of consent. Had the woman said “yes”? They were tough for cops and prosecutors. Juries were hesitant to throw someone in prison when it was one person’s word against another’s. Rapes by strangers were uncommon — about 13 percent of cases. But there was still the issue of the woman’s story. Was she telling the truth? Or fabricating a ruse to cover a sexual encounter gone wrong?
In that way, rape cases were unlike most other crimes. The credibility of the victim was often on trial as much as the guilt of the accused. And on the long, fraught trail between crime and conviction, the first triers of fact were the cops. An investigating officer had to figure out if the victim was telling the truth.
Galbraith had a simple rule: listen and verify. “A lot of times people say, ‘Believe your victim, believe your victim,’” Galbraith said. “But I don’t think that that’s the right standpoint. I think it’s listen to your victim. And then corroborate or refute based on how things go.”
At home, her husband David had done the dishes and put the kids to bed. They sank down on separate couches in their living room. Galbraith recounted the day’s events. The attacker had been cunning, attempting to erase any traces of DNA from the scene. Before he left, he showed the student how he broke in through a sliding glass door. He suggested she put a dowel into the bottom track to keep out future intruders. The victim had described him as a “gentleman,” Galbraith said. “He’s going to be hard to find,” she thought.
David Galbraith was used to such bleak stories. They were both cops, after all. He worked in Westminster, some 15 miles to the northeast. Golden and Westminster were middle class bedroom towns wedged between Denver’s downtown skyscrapers and the looming Rockies.
This time, though, there was something different. As David listened, he realized that the details of the case were unsettlingly familiar. He told his wife to call his department first thing in the morning.
“We have one just like that,” he said.
The morning after the rape in Golden, Galbraith hurried to work to follow up her husband’s lead. At 9:07 a.m. she sent an email to the Westminster Police Department. The subject line was pleading: “Sex Aslt Similars?”
Westminster Detective Edna Hendershot had settled into her morning with her Starbucks usual: a Venti, upside-down, skinny caramel macchiato. She read the email and her mind shot back five months, to a crisp Tuesday in August 2010. She had responded to a report of a rape at a blue-collar apartment complex in the northwest corner of her city. A 59-year-old woman told her that she had been asleep in her home when a man jumped on her back. He wore a black mask. He tied her hands. He stole her pink Sony Cyber-shot camera and used it to take pictures of her. Afterward, he made her take a shower. He picked up a kitchen timer and set it to let her know when she could get out. “I guess you won’t leave your windows open in the future,” the man told the woman, who had recently been widowed.
There was more. Hendershot remembered that while investigating her case, an officer had alerted her to an incident in October 2009 in Aurora, a suburb on the other side of Denver. There, a 65-year-old woman told police that she had been raped in her apartment by a man with a black scarf wrapped around his face. He tied her hands with a ribbon. He took pictures and threatened to post them on the Internet. During the attack, he knocked a yellow teddy bear off a desk in her bedroom. “You should get help,” the woman, a house mother at a local fraternity, told the man. “It’s too late for that,” he replied.
Cops can be protective about their cases, fearing that information could be leaked that would jeopardize their investigations. They often don’t know about, or fail to use, an FBI database created years ago to help catch repeat offenders. Between one-fourth to two-thirds of rapists are serial attackers, studies show.
But Hendershot right away recognized the potential in collaborating and in using every tool possible. “Two heads, three heads, four heads, sometimes are better than one, right?” she said. So did Galbraith. Her department was small — a little more than 40 officers serving a town of about 20,000. It only made sense to join forces. “I have no qualms with asking for help,” Galbraith said. “Let’s do what we can do to catch him.”
A week later, Galbraith, Hendershot and Aurora Detective Scott Burgess gathered around a conference table in the Westminster Police Department. They compared investigations. The descriptions of the attacker were similar. So, too, his methods. But there was a clincher: the woman in Galbraith’s case had remained as focused as possible during her ordeal, memorizing details. She recalled the camera that the attacker had used to take photos. It was a pink Sony digital camera — a description that fit the model stolen from the apartment of the Westminster victim.
Galbraith and Hendershot hadn’t known each other before the meeting. But the hunt for the rapist united them. As female cops, both women were members of a sorority within a fraternity. The average law enforcement agency in America is about 13 percent female. Police ranks remain overwhelmingly male, often hierarchical and militaristic. But both women had found a place for themselves. They had moved up in the ranks.
The two bonded naturally. Both were outgoing. They cracked fast jokes and smiled fast smiles. Galbraith was younger. She crackled energy. She would move “a hundred miles an hour in one direction,” a colleague said. Hendershot was more experienced. She’d worked more than 100 rape cases in her career. Careful, diligent, exacting — she complemented Galbraith. “Sometimes going a hundred miles an hour, you miss some breadcrumbs,” the same colleague noted.
Their initial attempts to identify the attacker faltered. Golden police obtained a surveillance tape showing the entrance to the apartment complex where Galbraith’s victim had been attacked. A fellow detective sat through more than 12 hours of blurry footage. He laboriously counted 261 vehicles and people coming and going on the night of the incident. There was one possible lead. In the predawn hours, a white Mazda pickup truck appeared 10 times. Maybe it was the attacker waiting for the woman to fall asleep? But efforts to identify the vehicle’s owner failed. The license plate was unreadable.
As the weeks passed, the dead ends continued. Hendershot turned to the database meant to capture serial rapists by linking cases in different jurisdictions. It turned up only bad leads. Frustration grew. “Someone else is going to get hurt,” Galbraith worried to herself.
By late January, the detectives decided they needed to broaden their scope. Hendershot asked one of her department’s crime analysts to scour nearby agencies for similar crimes. The analyst turned up an incident in Lakewood, another Denver suburb, that occurred about a month before the rape in Westminster. At the time, police had labeled the case a burglary. But in fresh light, it appeared very much like a failed rape attempt, committed by an attacker who closely resembled the description of the rapist. The analyst shot Hendershot a message, “You need to come to talk to me right now.”
The report detailed how a 46-year-old artist had been accosted in her home by a man with a knife. He wore a black mask. He tried to bind her wrists. But when the man looked away, the woman jumped out of her bedroom window. She broke three ribs and punctured a lung in the 7-foot fall to the ground, but managed to escape.
Investigators at the scene uncovered a few, tenuous pieces of evidence. Thundershowers had soaked the area before the attack. Police found shoe prints in the soft, damp soil outside the woman’s bedroom. On a window, they found honeycomb marks.
Honeycomb marks. Hendershot seized on them. Westminster crime scene investigators had discovered similar marks on the window of the victim’s apartment. Hendershot asked for a comparison. The marks at the two crime scenes were the same. They also appeared similar to prints from a pair of Under Armour gloves that a Lakewood investigator, on a hunch, had discovered at a Dick’s Sporting Goods.
Galbraith checked out the footprints left at the Lakewood scene. They matched the footprints in the snow outside her victim’s apartment in Golden. She sent images of the shoe prints to crimeshoe.com, a website that promised to move an investigation “from an unidentified scene-of-crime shoeprint to detailed footwear information in one simple step.” The site, now defunct, identified the prints as having been made by a pair of Adidas ZX 700 mesh shoes, available in stores after March 2005.
By the end of January 2011, the detectives had connected four rapes over a 15-month period across Denver’s suburbs. The trail started in Aurora, east of Denver, on Oct. 4, 2009, with the 65-year-old woman. It picked up nine months later and 22 miles to the west, when the rapist attacked the artist in Lakewood. A month after that the 59-year-old widow was raped in Westminster, some 10 miles to the north. And then, finally, in January 2011 came the attack on the 26-year-old in Golden, about 15 miles southwest of Westminster. If you drew a map, it was almost like the rapist was circling the compass points of Denver’s suburbs.
Galbraith and Hendershot turned to DNA to identify the serial rapist. The detectives had thoroughly examined their crime scenes. Technicians had swabbed window panes, doorknobs, even toilet handles — anything that the attacker might have touched. But the man was familiar with the ways of law enforcement, perhaps even a cop. He knew to avoid leaving his DNA at the scene. He used wet wipes to clean up his ejaculate. He ordered the women to shower. He took their clothing and bedding with him when he left.
He had been punctilious. But not perfect. The attacker had left behind the tiniest traces of himself. The technicians recovered three samples of so-called touch DNA, as few as seven or eight cells of skin that can be analyzed with modern laboratory techniques.
One sample was collected from the kitchen timer in Westminster. A second came from the victim in Golden. And one came from the teddy bear in Aurora.
February 9, 2011
On Feb. 9, 2011, more than a dozen cops and agents from the FBI and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation gathered in a briefing room at the Westminster police station to discuss the state of the investigation.
The news was not great. After a five-week crush, there were few leads and no suspects. The analysis of the touch DNA produced mixed results. The samples narrowed the field of suspects to males belonging to the same paternal family line. But there was not enough genetic material to identify a single individual. Thus the results couldn’t be entered into the FBI’s nationwide DNA database to check for a match to a suspect.
Galbraith was hopeful. At least it was concrete now. The same person was at work. “It’s huge,” she said. “But not enough.”
As the meeting drew to a close, a young crime analyst from the Lakewood police department stood up. She had conducted a search for any reports of suspicious vehicles or prowlers within a quarter mile of the Lakewood victim’s home for the previous six months. She had turned up something. But she didn’t know if it was important.
Three weeks before the attempted rape in Lakewood, a woman had called police late in the evening to report a suspicious pickup truck parked on the street with a man inside. Police checked it out, but the man was gone. The officer filed a brief report on the vehicle. What had attracted the analyst’s attention was the location of the pickup. It was parked half a block from the Lakewood victim’s house, by an empty field adjacent to her backyard.
The pickup was a 1993 white Mazda.
It was registered to a Lakewood man named Marc Patrick O’Leary.
The investigation instantly turned urgent. Could the detectives connect O’Leary’s Mazda with the blurry image of the white Mazda in the surveillance footage from Golden? Aaron Hassell, the detective on the Lakewood case, raced back to his office. Lakewood patrol cars had cameras that automatically took pictures of every license plate they passed. The result was a searchable database of thousands of tag numbers indexed by time and location. Hassell typed in the license plate number from the Lakewood report: 935VHX. He got a hit. A Lakewood patrol car had snapped a picture of O’Leary standing by his white Mazda in the driveway of his house — only two hours after the August attack on the widow in Westminster.
Hassell transmitted the image to Galbraith. Carefully, she compared O’Leary’s white Mazda to the surveillance tape. One freeze frame showed that her white Mazda had a broken passenger side mirror. So, too, did O’Leary’s truck. Both vehicles had ball hitches on the back. Both had smudges on the back in the same place — perhaps a bumper sticker that had been torn off.
“That’s our guy,” Galbraith said.
Hendershot discovered the Lakewood patrol car had snapped its picture as O’Leary was headed to a nearby branch of the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles. DMV records showed O’Leary sat for a driver’s license mugshot about four hours after the Westminster attack. The photo showed a 6-foot-1 man with hazel eyes. He was 32 years old and 220 pounds. He wore a white T-shirt. The physical description closely matched the descriptions provided by the victims. And the Westminster widow had told Hendershot that her attacker wore a white T-shirt during her assault.
Hendershot did not want to be too hasty. “I’m encouraged, I’m excited,” she said. But “I haven’t made my decision yet, that yay, we’ve got the guy.”
Over the next 24 hours, more than a dozen investigators threw their collective effort and experience into finding out everything possible about O’Leary. O’Leary had no criminal record. He was not a registered sex offender. He had served in the Army.
Galbraith and her husband David once again faced each other on the couches in their living room. They used laptops to search for any references to O’Leary, each using a different search engine. Before long, David stumbled onto something. O’Leary had purchased a pornography website in September 2008. They wondered whether it contained photos of his victims.
The investigators decided to try to get a sample of O’Leary’s DNA. Though the degraded DNA lifted from the crime scenes could not definitively match O’Leary’s DNA, it could show that a male from his family line had most likely committed the crime. If detectives could eliminate O’Leary’s male relatives, they could place O’Leary at the scene of the crimes with a high degree of certainty. “We still have to make that definitive identification,” Hendershot said.
On the morning of Friday, Feb. 11, FBI agents were surveilling O’Leary’s house. It was a small, single-story home with gray siding half a block from a gas station, an auto body shop and a carniceria in a beat-down neighborhood. A low chain-link fence surrounded it. Tall, winter-bare trees towered above the roof. Just after noon, the agents saw a woman and a man who looked like O’Leary leave. They tailed the pair to a nearby restaurant, and watched them eat. When they finished, the agents raced in. They grabbed the drinking cups from the table. The rims would have traces of his DNA.
While the agents were following the man believed to be Marc O’Leary, another FBI agent knocked on the door of the home. He planned to install a surveillance camera nearby and wanted to make sure that nobody was around. Unexpectedly, a man came to the door. He looked like Marc O’Leary. Confused, the agent fell back on a practiced ruse. He told the man he was canvassing the neighborhood to warn of a burglar in the area. The man introduced himself. He was Marc O’Leary. His brother, Michael O’Leary, had just left to get lunch with his girlfriend. O’Leary thanked the officer for the information and closed the door.
Michael’s appearance was confounding. The investigators hadn’t known that Michael lived with his brother. Or that he looked so similar. They decided to run Michael O’Leary’s DNA, collected from the restaurant glass, against the DNA found at the crime scenes. Analysts at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation got the samples. Usually, a DNA analysis took months. But in this case, they worked through the night. By 2 p.m. on Saturday, they had a result. The DNA from the cup matched the DNA collected from the victims. An O’Leary man was responsible. But which one?
Galbraith ruled out the brothers’ father — he was too old and lived in a different state. But investigators could not yet rule out Michael as a suspect. It was possible that Michael had committed the rapes. Or even that Michael and Marc had worked together. They needed more information.
Galbraith hastily typed up a search warrant to enter the brothers’ home. It was dark outside when she finished. She called the judge who was on duty for the weekend. He insisted on a fax. Galbraith rushed to a Safeway near her house to send the warrant. The judge signed it at 10 p.m. on Saturday.
She knew exactly what she was looking for. She trusted her victim’s memory. The dark mark on his leg.
She emailed a crime analyst at another police department, “I so want to see this guy’s leg! BAD.”
February 13, 2011
At 8:15 a.m., Galbraith knocked on O’Leary’s door.
“Police. Search warrant. Open the door,” she shouted repeatedly. Seven cops stood behind her, pressed against the house, their guns drawn.
After a pause, O’Leary opened the door. He looked confused and shocked as he stepped out into the bright winter sun. Two dogs, a small pit bull and a Shar-Pei, tumbled out ahead of him. He wore a gray hoodie, baggy gray sweatpants and gray slip-on houseshoes. He was alone.
Galbraith pulled him to the side and patted him down. When she got to his legs, she raised his pant leg to look.
There it was, on O’Leary’s left calf: a dark birthmark the size of a large chicken egg.
It was him. He was the rapist. Galbraith flashed a quick thumbs up.
As an FBI agent confronted him, O’Leary immediately invoked his right to an attorney. Galbraith had maneuvered herself to stand behind O’Leary. At 8:35 a.m., she handcuffed him. “You’re under arrest for burglary and sexual assault which occurred in the City of Golden on January 5, 2011,” she told him. O’Leary was put in a patrol car and transported to the Jefferson County Jail.
She was wearing new boots that day. Whenever she looked at them in the future, she would remember catching O’Leary. For Galbraith, it was important to be the one who made the arrest. “I wanted to see the look on his face, I guess,” she said. “And for him to know that we figured you out.”
The search of the home validated the detectives’ investigation. Investigators found a pair of Adidas ZX 700 shoes in O’Leary’s closet. The treads matched the footprints in the snow in Golden and outside the window in Lakewood. They discovered a pair of Under Armour gloves with a honeycomb pattern. In the bathroom was a black headwrap, tied to serve as a mask.
“He was military — so he was very organized,” Galbraith said. “This was the cleanest house I’ve ever searched. It was so organized, we were like, ‘Oh, thank God.’”
The victims’ accounts were also borne out. Most had described a white man with green or hazel eyes, about 6 feet tall, weighing about 200 pounds. They talked about being tied up. They mentioned that he had stolen their underwear. In O’Leary’s house, investigators turned up a black Ruger .380-caliber pistol, a pink Sony Cyber-shot camera and a large backpack, along with wet wipes and lubrication. Hidden inside a piece of stereo equipment in his closet, detectives found a collection of women’s underwear. Trophies.
That night, Hendershot drove to break the news to her victim, the 59-year-old widow in Westminster. The woman had lost her husband to cancer the previous year. She had no family nearby. She was still emerging from the mental and physical suffering she endured during the attack. Hendershot met her at a Denny’s restaurant. She found her in a back corner, eating dinner alone.
“I walked in, and she was super happy to see me, and I told her. I mean, I get shiver bumps thinking about it, just even now,” Hendershot said. “I told her, I said, ‘It’s over. It’s over. We have him.’”
By early March, a forensic computer specialist cracked into files that O’Leary had stored on his hard drive. He found a folder called “girls” — and pictures that O’Leary had taken of his victims in Golden and Westminster. Galbraith recognized them by sight.
But then Galbraith stumbled across an image of a woman she didn’t recognize. It was a young woman — far younger than the Colorado victims, perhaps a teenager. The pictures showed her looking terrified, bound and gagged on a bed. Galbraith felt sick. How would she identify her? How would she find justice for her?
After looking through the images, she found an answer. It was a picture of the woman’s learner’s permit, placed on her chest. It had her name. And it had her address.