March 12, 2009
No one came to court with her that day, except her public defender.
She was 18 years old, charged with a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.
Rarely do misdemeanors draw notice. Her case was one of 4,859 filed in 2008 in Lynnwood Municipal Court, a place where the judge says the goal is "to correct behavior — to make Lynnwood a better, safer, healthier place to live, work, shop and visit."
But her misdemeanor had made the news, and made her an object of curiosity or, worse, scorn. It had cost her the newfound independence she was savoring after a life in foster homes. It had cost her sense of worth. Each ring of the phone seemed to announce another friendship, lost. A friend from 10th grade called to ask: How could you lie about something like that? Marie — that's her middle name, Marie — didn't say anything. She just listened, then hung up. Even her foster parents now doubted her. She doubted herself, wondering if there was something in her that needed to be fixed.
She had reported being raped in her apartment by a man who had bound and gagged her. Then, confronted by police with inconsistencies in her story, she had conceded it might have been a dream. Then she admitted making the story up. One TV newscast announced, "A Western Washington woman has confessed that she cried wolf when it came to her rape she reported earlier this week." She had been charged with filing a false report, which is why she was here today, to accept or turn down a plea deal.
Her lawyer was surprised she had been charged. Her story hadn't hurt anyone — no suspects arrested, or even questioned. His guess was, the police felt used. They don't appreciate having their time wasted.
The prosecution's offer was this: If she met certain conditions for the next year, the charge would be dropped. She would need to get mental health counseling for her lying. She would need to go on supervised probation. She would need to keep straight, breaking no more laws. And she would have to pay $500 to cover the court's costs.
Marie wanted this behind her.
She took the deal.
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 spray-painted 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.
She does not know if she attended kindergarten.
She remembers being hungry and eating dog food.
She reports entering foster care at age 6 or 7.
The report on Marie's life — written by a mental health expert who interviewed her for five hours — is written with clinical detachment, describing her life before she entered foster care ...
She met her biological father only once.
She reports not knowing much about her biological mother, who she said would often leave her in the care of boyfriends.
She was sexually and physically abused.
… and after, with:
adult caregivers and professionals coming in and then out of her life, some distressing or abusive experiences, and a general lack of permanency.
"I moved a lot when I was younger," Marie says in an interview. "I was in group homes, too. About two of those and probably 10 or 11 foster homes."
"I was on like seven different drugs. And Zoloft is an adult drug — I was on that at 8."
Marie has two brothers and a sister on her mother's side. Sometimes she was placed in foster homes with her siblings. More often they were separated.
No one really explained why she was being moved, or what was going on. She was just moved.
After Marie became a teenager, her years of upheaval appeared at an end. Her foster family was going to adopt her. "I really loved the family and I made a lot of friends," Marie says.
The first day of the first year of high school fills many students with anxiety. Marie couldn't wait for it. She had gotten all the classes she wanted. She had a social circle. She felt like she belonged.
But on the first day, a support counselor came to the school and told Marie the family had lost its foster care license. She couldn't live with them anymore. The counselor couldn't offer any more details.
"I pretty much just cried," Marie says. "I basically had 20 minutes to pack my stuff and go."
Until something more permanent could be found, Marie moved in with Shannon McQuery and her husband in Bellevue, a booming, high-tech suburb east of Seattle. Shannon, a real estate agent and longtime foster mom, had met Marie through meetings for kids with troubled pasts and had sensed a kindred spirit.
Shannon and Marie were both "kind of goofy," Shannon says. "We could laugh at each other and make fun. We were a lot alike." Despite all Marie had been through, "she wasn't bitter," Shannon says. She kept in touch with previous foster families. She could carry on a conversation with adults. She didn't have to be pushed out the door to school.
But no matter her affection for Marie, Shannon knew they couldn't keep her, because the foster child already in their home required so much care. "We were really sad that we weren't able to have her with us," Shannon says.
Marie left Shannon's home after a couple of weeks to move in with Peggy Cunningham, who worked as a children's advocate at a homeless shelter and lived in Lynnwood, a smaller suburb about 15 miles north of Seattle. She was Peggy's first foster child.
"I was preparing for a baby. I had a crib — and they gave me a 16-year-old," Peggy says, with a laugh. "And it was fine. I have a background in mental health and I've been working with kids for a really long time. And I think the agency just thought, ‘She can handle it.' So."
At first, Marie didn't want to live with Peggy. Marie was used to being around other kids. Peggy didn't have any. Marie liked dogs. Peggy had two cats. "Our personalities didn't match at first either," Marie says. "It was hard to get along. For me it seems like people read me differently than I see myself."
Peggy, who had received a file two to three inches thick documenting Marie's history, was surprised at how well she was coping. Marie was into boys, drawing and music, be it rock, country, or Christian. "She was very bubbly and full of energy, but she also had her moments where she could be very intense," Peggy says. Like kids most everywhere, Marie wanted to fit in. She picked out a feminine white coat with a fur collar because she thought that's what girls were supposed to wear, but then kept the coat in the closet when she realized it wasn't.
Recognizing that Marie's high school wasn't a great fit — "pretty cliquey," Peggy says — Peggy found an alternative school that was. Marie settled in. She remained close with Shannon, who would joke that she and Peggy were raising Marie together — Shannon the fun one (let's go boating), Peggy the disciplinarian (be home by …).
Through friends, Marie met Jordan Schweitzer, a high school student working at a McDonald's. In time, they became boyfriend and girlfriend. "She was just a nice person to have around. She was always nice to talk to," Jordan says.
Marie figures her happiest years were when she was 16 and 17, and the happiest day may have been one she spent with her best friend, another high school student who was teaching Marie the fine points of camerawork.
"I would spend hours at the beach watching the sunset go down and that was one of my favorite things. There was a particular photo that I really liked that she took. We went to the ocean, it was like 7 o'clock at night, I don't know what we were thinking, I got in there and I jumped out and swung my hair back."
Instead of finishing high school, Marie went for her GED. She was 17, starting to stay out late, worrying Peggy, creating tension between the two. In the spring of 2008, Marie turned 18. She could have stayed with Peggy, provided she abided by certain rules. But Marie wanted to set out on her own.
Peggy, searching online, discovered a pilot program called Project Ladder. Launched the year before, the program was designed to help young adults who had grown up in foster care transition to living on their own. Case managers would show participants the dos and don'ts of shopping for groceries, handling a credit card, buying insurance. "The rules about life," Marie says. Best of all, Project Ladder provided subsidized housing, with each member getting a one-bedroom apartment.
"This was a godsend," Peggy says.
There were few slots, but Marie secured one. She was a little scared, but any trepidation was tempered by a sense of pride. She moved into the Alderbrooke Apartments, a woodsy complex that advertises proximity to a mall and views of the Cascades. She also landed her first job, offering food samples to customers at Costco. Six hours on her feet didn't bother her. She enjoyed chatting with people, free from pressure to sell.
So many kids, institutionalized, wound up on drugs or in jail. Marie had made it through.
"It was just nice to be on my own and not have all the rules that I had had being in foster care," Marie says. "It was just like, freedom.
"It was awesome."
January 6, 2011
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.
This is the first in a three-part series. Part two and Part three will be published on April 30 and May 1 respectively.
The story was first published on propoublica.com.