An 18-year-old woman who suffered bruising to her wrists and other horrific injuries when she was raped in her apartment was charged after police accused her of lying.
It was only by chance detectives investigating a serial rapist 2000 kilometres away managed to connect a suspect to the young woman’s case, eventually clearing her name and bringing her rapist to justice.
The unfathomable story of Marie, her sexual assault and the investigation that followed will now be the subject of a new series on Netflix, Unbelievable, which will be released on September 13.
Journalist Ken Armstrong, who wrote a False Report: A True Story of Rape in America with T. Christian Miller, spoke to Yahoo News Australia about the real story behind the series.
The morning Marie was raped
Marie – who goes only by her middle name – grew up in the foster system and had just moved out on her own.
It was August 2008 when in the early hours of the morning she woke to a man assaulting her in her bedroom after breaking into her apartment in Lynnwood, in the US state of Washington.
“He assaulted her and told her that if she went to police he would take the photos he had taken of her and put them up on the internet,” Armstrong told Yahoo News Australia.
“He attacked her at knifepoint and then left. He was wearing a mask so she didn’t really have a good physical description of him, but there was evidence in her apartment consistent with the account she gave police.
“She also had bruising on her wrists consistent with the account she had been raped.”
Foster mums didn’t believe ‘emotionless’ Marie
Armstrong said the young woman made a report to police straight after she was raped and was taken to hospital where a physical examination found she had tearing consistent with what she told police.
She did a rape kit that took 12 swabs, which could have served as one of the major pieces of evidence in the investigation.
Marie had two foster mums who began to have doubts as to whether the teen was telling the truth about the assault.
They didn’t believe Marie was acting like a “normal” rape victim as she wasn’t hysterical and almost emotionless.
“She did things that confused them,” Armstrong said.
“For example when police were investigating the assault they took away all her bedding for forensic testing.
“She went with one of her foster mums to buy new bedding and she wanted the same set of sheets she had previously and was upset when one store didn’t have them.
“One of the foster mums was thrown by that, why would you want the same set of sheets that would remind you of what happened?”
The foster mums expressed their doubt in the story to each other before one of them sat down with the lead detective on the case and said she was skeptical about the teen’s story.
Marie changes story under interrogation duress
“She thought there might have been some part of this where she was seeking attention and thought there were elements of her account that seemed dubious,” Armstrong said.
“She didn’t say straight out she thought she was lying but said she had doubts.
“After a detective heard that, he viewed things skeptically and held onto inconsistencies in Marie’s account. Though it’s not abnormal for somebody traumatised and hurt to have some inconsistencies in their story.”
Armstrong said police then confronted Marie and used a high-pressure interrogation technique often used to break down criminal suspects.
Marie broke under the pressure and recanted, taking back her story saying she hadn’t been raped at all.
She was charged with gross misdemeanour, one level below a felony. The maximum penalty is one year behind bars.
Marie took a plea deal which would be removed after a year if she met certain conditions.
They included going on parole for a year, getting counselling – not for the rape but for lying – and paying US$500 (AU$739) in court costs.
Armstrong said when police decided Marie was lying about the assault, her rape kit was destroyed.
If the perpetrator had not taken photos of her, they would have completely ruined what could have been the most powerful piece of evidence police had.
Investigation unfolding 2000km away
In the years between Marie’s rape and January 2011, there were four sexual assaults in Denver, in the US state of Colorado, about 2000 kilometres from where Marie suffered her ordeal.
“The man who sexually assaulted Marie subsequently moved to Colorado and assaulted women in the suburbs of Denver,” Armstrong said.
“A pair of women detectives from different agencies – one in Golden and one in Westminster – teamed up when they realised the rapes were probably committed by the same person.”
A whole series of events led them to the serial rapist before they brought him down and exposed the truth of Marie’s story.
“One of the big breaks in the case was surveillance from the apartment complex where one of the assaults occurred,” Armstrong said.
“A white Mazda pickup truck passed through about 10 times in 12 hours and that became a point of interest.
“They weren’t able to see the licence plate but a Mazda pickup truck was reported in the vicinity of another attempted assault and they were able to get the number plate and trace it to the person it was registered to.
“It all just fell into place.”
When detectives arrested the rapist, Marc O’Leary, they discovered photos on his computer, including ones of Marie.
“He had a photo of her that showed her learner’s permit with her name and Lynnwood, Washington, on it,” Armstrong said.
“The detective in Golden called Lynnwood and discovered to her horror Marie had not been believed.
“The work by police in Colorado was brilliant, one of the finest investigations I have seen. It’s a testament to how an investigation benefits when police don’t engage in turf battles.”
Marie eventually moved away from Washington and got her truck driver’s licence.
Armstrong said she had been remarkable in her ability to move on, and forgive police and her foster mums who had doubted her.
The journalist hopes the Netflix series will highlight the difference between the cases unfolding in Colorado and Washington.
“You see the misconceptions that led to Marie being falsely accused of lying and it’s a mistake to have these preconceived ideas about how somebody should act after a traumatic incident,” he said.
“It’s also helpful to see how police working together helped break that case.”
Marc O’Leary was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.
“It’s unlikely he’ll ever get out. I can’t imagine that scenario given the length of sentence he received.”
The ‘Unbelievable’ series will be released on Netflix globally on September 13.
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