August 11, 2008
A little before 9 on a Monday morning, two Lynnwood police detectives responded to a report of rape at the Alderbrooke Apartments. A couple of other officers were already there, protecting the crime scene. A K-9 officer was outside, his dog trying to pick up a scent.
The detectives, Sgt. Jeffrey Mason and Jerry Rittgarn, found the victim, Marie, on a couch, in a blanket, crying off and on. She was accompanied by her foster mother, Peggy Cunningham, and by Wayne Nash, her case manager with Project Ladder.
Marie, who had turned 18 three months before, told police she had been talking on the phone much of the night with her friend Jordan. After finally falling asleep, she was awakened by a man with a knife — and then tied up, blindfolded, gagged and raped. The man wore a condom, she believed. As for what her attacker looked like, Marie could offer few details. White man, gray sweater. The attack seemed to last a long time, Marie told police, but she couldn't say for sure. It was all a blur.
Marie said that after the rapist left she had managed, with her feet, to retrieve some scissors from a cabinet's bottom drawer; she cut herself free, then tried calling Jordan. When Jordan didn't answer, Marie called her foster mother, then her upstairs neighbor, who came down to Marie's apartment and called 911.
Mason, then 39, had spent his years mostly in patrol and narcotics. His longest law-enforcement stint had been with a small police department in Oregon, where he served for almost nine years and received a medal of valor. He was hired by Lynnwood in 2003, and served on a narcotics task force. He was promoted to sergeant — and transferred to the Criminal Investigations Division — six weeks before the report of Marie's assault. He had previously worked only one or two rape cases. But this investigation was his to lead.
Rittgarn had been with the department for 11 years, the last four as a detective. He had previously worked as a technician in the aerospace industry. Before that, he had served in the Marine Corps, specializing in helicopter avionics.
The Lynnwood Police Department had 79 sworn officers, serving a city of about 34,000 people. In 2008, Marie's case was one of 10 rape reports the department fielded; with so few, the Criminal Investigations Division didn't have a separate sex crimes unit.
By the time Marie reported being assaulted, sex crime specialists had developed protocols that recognized the challenges and sensitivity of investigating rape cases. These guidelines, available to all police departments, detailed common missteps.
Investigators, one guide advised, should not assume that a true victim will be hysterical rather than calm; able to show clear signs of physical injury; and certain of every detail. Some victims confuse fine points or even recant. Nor should police get lost in stereotypes — believing, for example, that an adult victim will be more believable than an adolescent.
Police should not interrogate victims or threaten to use a polygraph device. Lie-detector tests are especially unreliable with people who have been traumatized, and can destroy the victim's trust in law enforcement. Many states bar police from using them with rape victims.
Police, walking around Marie's apartment, discovered that the rear sliding glass door was unlocked and slightly ajar. It led to a back porch, with a wooden railing that was covered with dirt — except one part, about three feet wide, where it looked like maybe someone had brushed the surface while climbing over. On the bed officers found a shoestring — used, apparently, to bind Marie. On top of a computer monitor they found a second shoestring, tied to a pair of underwear, the apparent blindfold or gag. Both laces had come from Marie's black tennis shoes, in the living room. Next to the bed was a black-handled knife. Marie said the knife was hers — that it had come from the kitchen, and was what the rapist had used to threaten her. Police found Marie's purse on the bedroom floor, her wallet on the bed and her learner's permit, for some reason removed from her wallet, on a bedroom window sill.
Mason told Marie she needed to go to the hospital for a sexual assault examination. After Marie left, accompanied by her foster mom and case manager, the detectives helped process the scene. Looking for a condom or its wrapper, Rittgarn checked the bathroom, trash cans and a nearby hillside, but came up empty. The dog, outside, had tracked to the south, toward an office building, but was unable to lead officers to anything that might identify the rapist.
At the hospital, medical staff collected more than a dozen swabs from Marie. Labs were taken for hepatitis, chlamydia, HIV. Marie received Zithromax and Suprax for possible exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, and an emergency contraceptive pill.
The medical report noted abrasions to Marie's wrists and to her vagina. The bruising on her right wrist measured 6.5 centimeters, or about 2.5 inches, the one on her left, 7 centimeters.
During the exam, the medical report said, Marie was "alert and oriented, and in no acute distress."
On the day she reported being raped, Marie phoned Shannon, her former foster mom, after getting back from the hospital. "She called and said, ‘I've been raped,'" Shannon says. "There was just no emotion. It was like she was telling me that she'd made a sandwich." That Marie wasn't hysterical, or even upset, made Shannon wonder if Marie was telling the truth.
The next day, when Shannon saw Marie at her apartment, her doubts intensified. In the kitchen, when Shannon walked in, Marie didn't meet her gaze. "That seemed very strange," Shannon says. "We would always hug and she would look you right in the eye." In the bedroom, Marie seemed casual, with nothing to suggest that something horrible had happened there. Outside, Marie "was on the grass, rolling around and giggling and laughing," Shannon says. And when the two went to buy new bedding — Marie's old bedding having been taken as evidence — Marie became furious when she couldn't find the same set. "Why would you want to have the same sheets and bedspread to look at every day when you'd been raped on this bed set?" Shannon thought to herself.
Peggy, too, was mystified by Marie's demeanor. When Marie called her on that first day, before the police arrived, "she was crying and I could barely hear her," Peggy says. "Her voice was like this little tiny voice, and I couldn't really tell. It didn't sound real to me. … It sounded like a lot of drama, too, in some ways." At the time, Peggy had new foster children — two sisters, both teenagers. Not long before, Marie had accompanied Peggy and the sisters and Peggy's boyfriend on a picnic. To Peggy's mind, Marie had spent the afternoon trying to get attention — so much so that Peggy now wondered if this was more of the same, only more desperate.
After rushing to the apartment that morning, Peggy found Marie on the floor, crying. "But it was so strange because I sat down next to her, and she was telling me what happened, and I got this — I'm a big Law & Order fan, and I just got this really weird feeling," Peggy says. "It was like, I felt like she was telling me the script of a Law & Order story." Part of it was what Marie was saying. Why would a rapist use shoelaces to tie her up? And part of it was how Marie was saying it: "She seemed so detached and removed emotionally."
The two women who had helped raise Marie talked on the phone. Peggy told Shannon she had doubts. Shannon said she did, too. Neither had known Marie to be a liar — to exaggerate, sure, to want attention, sure — but now, both knew they weren't alone in wondering if Marie had made this up.
On Aug. 12, the day after Marie reported being raped, Sgt. Mason's telephone rang. The caller "related that [Marie] had a past history of trying to get attention and the person was questioning whether the ‘rape' had occurred," Mason later wrote.
Mason's report didn't identify the caller — but the caller was Peggy.
She called police to share her concerns. Mason then came to her home and interviewed her in person. When she told police of her skepticism, she asked to be treated anonymously. "I didn't want it to get back to Marie," Peggy says. "I was trying to be a good citizen, actually. You know? I didn't want them to waste their resources on something that might be, you know, this personal drama going on."
In addition, Mason had received a tip that Marie was unhappy with her apartment. Maybe she was making up the rape to get moved to a new one.
On Aug. 13, Marie met with Mason at the Lynnwood police station and turned in a written statement, describing what happened. The statement was only one page. But to Mason, there was one critical passage. Marie wrote that the attacker said she could untie herself once he was gone:
After he left I grabbed my phone (which was right next to my head) with my mouth and I tried to call Jordan back. He didn't answer so I called my foster mom. … She came right away. I got off the phone with her and tried to untie myself.
This didn't square with what Marie had previously told Mason. Before, she told the detective she had tried calling Jordan after cutting the laces. In this written statement, she described calling him while still tied up.
Later that day, Mason talked to Rittgarn, his fellow detective, and said that — based on Marie's inconsistencies, and based on what he had learned from Peggy and Jordan — he now believed Marie had made up the story.
The fear of false rape accusations has a long history in the legal system. In the 1600s, England's chief justice, Matthew Hale, warned that rape "is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused." Judges in the U.S. read the so-called Hale warning to juries until the 1980s. But most recent research suggests that false reporting is relatively rare. FBI figures show that police annually declare around 5 percent of rape cases unfounded, or baseless. Social scientists examining police records in detail and using methodologically rigorous standards cite similar, single-digit rates.
The next morning, Mason went to Jordan's home to interview him. Jordan told the detective that he and Marie had stopped dating a couple months back but remained good friends. He said nothing about doubting Marie's story, according to Mason's written summary. But he did say Marie had told him: When she tried calling him that morning, she had used her toes, because she was tied up.
Later that day — Aug. 14, three days after Marie reported being raped — Mason called Marie, to ask if they could meet. He said he could come and pick her up, to take her to the police station.
"Am I in trouble?" Marie asked the detective.
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."
This is the second in a three-part series. Part one was published on April 29. Watch out for Part three on May 1.
The story was first published on propoublica.com.