August 14, 2008
In Sgt. Mason's experience, when someone asked if they were in trouble, almost always, they were.
When Mason, accompanied by Detective Rittgarn, went to pick up Marie at about 3:30 p.m., they found her outside her apartment, sitting on the grass. The three went to the Lynnwood police station, where the detectives escorted Marie to a conference room.
From what Mason wrote up later, he wasted little time confronting Marie, telling her there were inconsistencies between her statements and accounts from other witnesses. Marie said she didn't know of any discrepancies. But she went through the story again — only this time, saying she believed the rape had happened instead of saying it for certain. Tearfully, she described her past — all the foster parents, being raped when she was 7, getting her own place and feeling alone. Rittgarn told Marie that her story and the evidence didn't match. He said he believed she had made the story up — a spur-of-the-moment thing, not something planned out. He asked if there was really a rapist running around the neighborhood that the police should be looking for. "No," Marie told him, her voice soft, her eyes down.
"Based on her answers and body language it was apparent that [Marie] was lying about the rape," Rittgarn later wrote.
Without reading Marie her rights — you have the right to an attorney, you have the right to remain silent — the detectives asked Marie to write out the true story, admitting she had lied, admitting, in effect, that she had committed a crime. She agreed, so they left her alone for a few minutes. On the form she filled in her name, address and Social Security number, and then she wrote, in part:
I was talking to Jordan on the phone that night about his day and just about anything. After I got off the phone with him, I started thinking about all things I was stressed out and I also was scared living on my own. When I went to sleep I dreamed that someone broke in and raped me.
When the detectives returned, they saw that Marie's new statement described the rape as a dream, not a lie.
Why didn't you write that you made the story up? Rittgarn asked.
Marie, crying, said she believed the rape really happened. She pounded the table and said she was "pretty positive."
Pretty positive or actually positive? Rittgarn asked.
Maybe the rape happened and I blacked it out, Marie said.
What do you think should happen to someone who would lie about something like this? Rittgarn asked Marie.
"I should get counseling," Marie said.
Mason returned to the evidence. He told Marie that her description of calling Jordan was different from what Jordan had reported.
Marie, her face in her hands, looked down. Then "her eyes darted back and forth as if she was thinking of a response."
The detectives doubled back to what she had said before — about being stressed, being lonely — and, eventually, Marie appeared to relax. She stopped crying. She even laughed a little. She apologized — and agreed to write another statement, leaving no doubt it was a lie.
I have had a lot of stressful things going on and I wanted to hang out with someone and no one was able to so I made up this story and didn't expect it to go as far as it did. … I don't know why I couldn't have done something different. This was never meant to happen.
This statement appeared to satisfy the detectives. Rittgarn would later write, "Based on our interview with [Marie] and the inconsistencies found by Sgt. Mason in some of the statements we were confident that [Marie] was now telling us the truth that she had not been raped."
To Marie, it seemed the questioning had lasted for hours. She did what she always did when under stress. She flipped the switch, as she called it, suppressing all the feelings she didn't know what to do with. Before she confessed to making up the story, she couldn't look the two detectives, the two men, in the eye. Afterward, she could. Afterward, she smiled. She went into the bathroom and cleaned up. Flipping the switch was a relief — and it would let her leave.
The next day, Marie told Wayne Nash, her case manager at Project Ladder, that the police didn't believe her.
Recognizing the jeopardy she was in, she said she wanted a lawyer.
The Project Ladder managers instead reached out to Sgt. Mason. He told them the evidence didn't support Marie's story, and that she had taken her story back.
But now, Marie wouldn't give. On Aug. 18, one week after she reported being raped, she met with the two Project Ladder managers and insisted she had signed the recantation under duress. The three then went to the police station so Marie could recant her recantation — that is, tell detectives that she had been telling the truth the first time.
While the program managers waited outside, Marie met with Rittgarn and another officer.
Rittgarn asked Marie what was going on. Marie said she really had been raped — and began to cry, saying she was having visions of the man on top of her. She wanted to take a lie detector test. Rittgarn told Marie that if she took the test and failed, she would be booked into jail. What's more, he would recommend that Project Ladder pull her housing assistance.
Marie backed down. The police officers walked her downstairs, where the Project Ladder representatives asked if she had been raped. Marie said no.
After leaving the police station, Marie learned that she still wasn't through. There was something else she had to do. The Project Ladder managers told Marie that if she wanted to stay in the program — if she wanted to keep her subsidized apartment — she would have to confess to someone else.
Later that day a meeting was called at the housing complex, with all of Marie's peers gathered in a circle. Marie, as directed, told her fellow participants in Project Ladder that she had lied about being raped. They didn't need to worry, she told the group. There was no one out there who had hurt her and no one who might hurt them next.
If there was sympathy in the room, Marie sensed it from only one person, the young woman to her right. The rest was awkward, excruciating silence.
After the meeting, Marie started walking to a friend's place. On her way, she crossed a bridge. She considered jumping. "Probably the only time I just wanted to die in my life," she says. She called a friend and said, "Please come get me before I do something stupid." Afterward, Marie hurled her phone over the side.
Later that month, there was a final surprise. Marie got a letter, notifying her that she was wanted in court. She had been charged with false reporting, punishable by up to a year in jail. The criminal citation was signed by Sgt. Mason.
Afterward, the paperwork went to a small law firm that Lynnwood had hired to prosecute misdemeanors.
For Mason, his decision to file the citation required no complicated calculus. He was certain Marie had lied. The police had spent a lot of resources chasing that lie. The law said her lie was a crime. Really, it was as simple as that.
There are no firm statistics on how often police arrest women for making false rape reports, nor on how often prosecutors take such cases to court. Nobody collects such data. But leading law enforcement organizations urge caution in filing such charges. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the FBI stress the need for a thorough investigation before discounting a report of rape. Cops must work as hard to prove a falsehood as they do to prove a truth.
In practice, many police departments will pursue charges against women only in extreme circumstances — say, in a highly public case where a suspect's reputation has suffered, or where the police have expended considerable investigative resources. This reluctance stems from the belief that in rape cases, the biggest problem is not false reporting, but no reporting. Only about one-fifth to one-third of rapes get reported to police, national surveys show.
One reason is that women fear police won't believe them.
Within days of reporting being raped, Marie had quit her job at Costco, unable to stand there, looking at people, lost in her head. Now, her losses mounted.
Project Ladder gave her a 9 p.m. curfew and doubled the number of times she had to meet with staff.
The media wrote about Marie being charged, without identifying her. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline read, "Police: Lynnwood rape report was a hoax.") Marie's best friend from high school — the one who had taught her photography and had taken that picture of her emerging from the surf — created a webpage that called Marie a liar, with a photo from Marie's Myspace page, with police reports, with Marie's full name. Alerted to the site, Marie went into a frenzy, trashing her apartment.
Marie stopped going to church. "I was mad at God," she says. She lost interest in photography. She feared going outdoors. "One night I did try to walk to the store by myself and felt like I hallucinated someone following me," she says. "It freaked me out. I didn't even get a half mile from my house. I ran home." At home she avoided the bedroom, choosing to sleep on the couch with the lights on.
"I went into this dark hole," she says.
Self-esteem gave way to self-loathing. She started smoking, drinking, gaining weight.
For Marie, this was a familiar drill, one she could trace to her years of being abused as a kid, and to her years in foster care, bouncing from home to home and school to school. Shut down. Hold it in. Act like nothing bad had happened, like nothing ever affected her. Because she craved normalcy, she would bury the hurt.
Neither Peggy nor Shannon abandoned her, but things weren't the same. Marie knew that both had doubted her story, even before the police had.
For Marie, Shannon's home had long provided an escape or respite. Marie and Shannon would walk in the woods, or take out the boat, then, at day's end, crash in Shannon's home. Now, fearful he could become the target of a wrongful accusation, Shannon's husband decided it would be best if Marie no longer spent the night. "When you become a foster parent, you're open to that," Shannon says.
It fell to Shannon to break the news. Delivering it crushed her. Receiving it crushed Marie.
In early October, less than two months after Marie was charged with false reporting, a 63-year-old woman reported being raped inside her condominium in Kirkland, east of Seattle. The stranger wore gloves. He held a knife. He tied the woman up — with her own shoelaces. He took pictures and threatened to post them on the Internet. For the last two or three months, the woman told police, she felt as if someone had been following her.
Shannon saw an account of the attack on the television news and was taken aback. Her father had been the chief of police in Kent, south of Seattle. She grew up with police, trusted police, knew how the police worked. She went to her computer, looked up the number, and called — immediately — to alert police in Kirkland to Marie's story, to advise them of all the parallels.
Shannon called Marie and suggested she also contact the Kirkland police. Marie never did.
"I was just too scared," Marie says. She'd gone through so much already. She couldn't bring herself to meet with the police again and say anything more. But she did go online and look up what happened to the woman in Kirkland. When she read the story, she cried.
A Kirkland detective eventually called Shannon back. Based on Shannon's tip, Kirkland investigators had reached out to their Lynnwood counterparts and had been told the Lynnwood victim was no victim, the story had been made up.
One of the detectives working the Kirkland case was Audra Weber. She remembers calling the Lynnwood detectives twice and being told they didn't believe Marie's account. "I just kind of trusted their judgment, in terms of it's their case, they know the details and I don't," Weber says. But she remembers being "kind of shocked" to learn that they had charged Marie. She let it go and hung up, thinking, "Okay, I hope that works out for you guys."
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.
August 11, 2008
He arrived in the predawn hours, then waited outside her apartment, outside her bedroom, listening to her on the phone, waiting for her to fall asleep.
The night was dry, letting him settle in. The wall was thin, letting him hear her voice. A couple of times he left his position, for just a while, for fear of being spotted lingering.
He liked trees, for the cover they provided, and the Alderbrooke Apartments had plenty of them. Apartments didn't offer the privacy of a house, but still, there were advantages. All those windows, for one thing. And all those sliding glass doors — ridiculously easy to pick, when they weren't left unlocked, which so often they were.
She wasn't his type, not really. He'd realized that before while peeping into her bedroom. But he spent so much time hunting (that's what he called it, hunting), hundreds of hours, maybe even a thousand, that he conditioned himself to incorporate as many women as possible, young or old, into his fantasies.
That way his work wouldn't be wasted.
He had prowled before and broken into women's homes before, but following through was another matter. He had learned from past failures — one time, a guy walked in as he stood there, mask on, outside the bedroom door of the woman he planned to rape — so now, he did painstaking surveillance: peeking in windows, breaking in beforehand, gathering information. Years later, detectives would find notes on his cellphone from his surveillance of another target (his word) that detailed which room she was in and when, what lights were off or on, which windows and blinds were opened or closed, whether her boyfriend was there or gone. "BF in PJs, game over," he wrote in one night's entry.
He would rifle a target's personal documents. He would learn her date of birth and license plate number. He would watch her watching TV. And at the hunt's end, before he committed, he would take a final pass through the home, or what he called "precombat inspection," to make sure there weren't any weapons within the target's reach.
At a little before sunrise, he heard the phone conversation end. He waited a little longer, letting the silence stretch out, then climbed over the railing and slipped through the unlocked sliding glass door. For the next half hour or so, while she slept, he got ready while talking himself into following through.
He had first spotted her a couple of weeks before, through a window, while lurking outside her apartment. He had since broken into her place twice, both times through that same glass door.
He had a term for what he was about to do: "rape theater." Deviant fantasies had gripped him since he was a kid, way back to when he had seen Jabba the Hutt enslave and chain Princess Leia. Where do you go when you're 5 and already thinking about handcuffs? he would ask himself. He was only 8 the first time he broke into a home. It was such a rush. He had broken into more than a dozen homes since.
Now he was 30, an Army veteran — infantry, two tours in South Korea — who had enlisted in the Reserves, only he hadn't appeared for duty in months.
In the kitchen, he went to the knife block and removed a black-handled blade from the top row, far left.
In the living room, he removed the laces from her black tennis shoes and put the shoes back. One detective later wrote in a report, "The shoes were lying next to each other near the end of the couch and the bedroom door, on the soles as if placed there (not disturbed)."
He was just being neat and orderly, the way he was with everything.
He threaded one of the shoelaces through a pair of underwear.
Then he walked to the bedroom.
Around 7 a.m., he stood in her bedroom doorway, holding, at shoulder height, a knife in his left hand.
He watched as she awoke.
Turn away, he told Marie — and she did. Roll over onto your stomach, he told her. She did — and then he straddled her, putting the knife near her face.
Put your hands behind your back, he told her. She did. He bound her wrists and he covered her eyes. He stuffed cloth into her mouth to muffle any sound.
That was an interesting conversation you were having, he said, letting her know that he had been there, listening, waiting.
You should know better than to leave the door unlocked, he told her.
Roll back over, he told her — and she did, and then he raped her, and while he raped her he ran his gloved hands over her.
He put her learner's permit on her chest and took pictures of her.
When he was finished, he said that if she told the police, he would post the photos online so that her kids, when she had kids, could see them.
He took out the gag and removed the blindfold, telling her to avert her eyes and to keep her head in the pillow.
One of the last things he said was that he was sorry. He said he felt stupid, that it had looked better in his head.
He left the room, and walked to the front door, and he was gone.
O'Leary pleaded guilty to 28 counts of rape and associated felonies in Colorado. On Dec. 9, 2011, almost a year after his arrest, O'Leary was sentenced to 327½ years in prison for the Colorado attacks — the maximum allowed by law. He is currently housed in the Sterling Correctional Facility in the barren, remote northeastern corner of Colorado. He will never be released.
In an interview with police after his conviction, O'Leary recounted his attacks in detail. He described the feeling after raping one elderly victim. "It was like I'd just eaten Thanksgiving dinner," he said.
He let spill some lessons for law enforcement. He boasted of the countermeasures he'd taken to avoid getting caught. He knew that the Army had a sample of his DNA. So he took steps to avoid leaving any traces of genetic material. He also realized police departments often did not communicate. So he deliberately committed each rape in a different jurisdiction.
The five other attacks — one in Washington, four in Colorado — all came after the attack on Marie.
"If Washington had just paid attention a little bit more, I probably would have been a person of interest earlier on," O'Leary said.
Working from Colorado, Galbraith not only linked O'Leary to the rape in Lynnwood, Washington, but to the rape in nearby Kirkland. She made the connection by working with a Washington state criminal analyst to search a database for unsolved cases similar to O'Leary's crimes. She then found the Kirkland victim's name on O'Leary's computer, attached to an encrypted file.
O'Leary pleaded guilty in both of the Washington cases. In June 2012, he was sentenced to 40 years for the rape in Kirkland and to 28½ years for the rape of Marie in Lynnwood.
After O'Leary was linked to Marie's rape, Lynnwood Police Chief Steven Jensen requested an outside review of how his department had handled the investigation. In a report not previously made public, Sgt. Gregg Rinta, a sex crimes supervisor with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, wrote that what happened was "nothing short of the victim being coerced into admitting that she lied about the rape."
That Marie recanted wasn't surprising, Rinta wrote, given the "bullying" and "hounding" she was subjected to. The detectives elevated "minor inconsistencies" — common among victims — into discrepancies, while ignoring strong evidence the crime had occurred. As for threatening jail and a possible withdrawal of housing assistance if Marie failed a polygraph: "These statements are coercive, cruel, and unbelievably unprofessional," Rinta wrote. "I can't imagine ANY justification for making these statements."
Jensen also ordered an internal review, which was similarly damning. Mason's judgment was unduly swayed by Peggy's phone call. The detectives' second interview with Marie was "designed to elicit a confession of false reporting." The false reporting charge arose from a "self-imposed rush."
Despite the reviews' tough language, no one in the Lynnwood Police Department was disciplined.
In a recent interview, Steve Rider, the current commander of Lynnwood's Criminal Investigations Division, called Marie's case a "major failing" that has left members of the department with a profound sense of regret: "Knowing that she went through that brutal attack — and then we told her she lied? That's awful. We all got into this job to help people, not to hurt them." Lynnwood Sgt. Rodney Cohnheim said of Marie, "She was victimized twice."
Sgt. Mason is now back in narcotics, in charge of a task force. Interviewed in the same room where he had confronted Marie seven years before, he said: "It wasn't her job to try to convince me. In hindsight, it was my job to get to the bottom of it — and I didn't."
Marie's case led to changes in practices and culture, Rider said. Detectives receive additional training about rape victims. Rape victims get immediate assistance from advocates at a local healthcare center. Investigators must have "definitive proof" of lying before doubting a rape report, and a charge of false reporting must now be reviewed with higher-ups. "We learned a great deal from this. And we don't want to see this happen to anybody ever again," Rider said.
Rittgarn, who left the Lynnwood Police Department before O'Leary's arrest, declined to be interviewed for this story. So did Zachor & Thomas, the law office that handled the prosecution of Marie on Lynnwood's behalf.
In 2008, Marie's case was one of four labeled unfounded by the Lynnwood police, according to statistics reported to the FBI. In the five years from 2008 to 2012, the department determined that 10 of 47 rapes reported to Lynnwood police were unfounded — 21.3 percent. That's five times the national average of 4.3 percent for agencies covering similar-sized populations during that same period. Rider said his agency has become more cautious about labeling a case unfounded since Marie. "I would venture to say we investigate our cases a lot more vigorously than many departments do," he said. "Now, we're extra careful that we get the right closure on it."
Two and a half years after Marie was branded a liar, Lynnwood police found her, south of Seattle, and told her the news: Her rapist had been arrested in Colorado. They gave her an envelope with information on counseling for rape victims. They said her record would be expunged. And they handed her $500, a refund of her court costs. Marie broke down, experiencing, all at once, shock, relief and anger.
Afterward, Shannon took Marie for a walk in the woods, and told her, "I'm so sorry I doubted you." Marie forgave, immediately. Peggy, too, apologized. She now wishes she had never shared her doubts with police. "Because I feel that if I would have shut my mouth, they would have done their job," she says.
Marie sued the city and settled for $150,000. "A risk management decision was made," a lawyer for Lynnwood told The Herald in Everett, Washington.
Marie left the state, got a commercial driver's license and took a job as a long-haul trucker. She married, and in October she and her husband had their second child. She asked that her current location not be disclosed.
Before leaving Washington to restart her life, Marie made an appointment to visit the Lynnwood police station. She went to a conference room and waited. Rittgarn had already left the department, but Mason came in, looking "like a lost little puppy," Marie says. "He was rubbing his head and literally looked like he was ashamed about what they had done." He told Marie he was sorry — "deeply sorry," Marie says. To Marie, he seemed sincere.
Recently, Marie was asked if she had considered not reporting the rape.
"No," she said. She wanted to be honest. She wanted to remember everything she could. She wanted to help the police.
"So nobody else would get hurt," she said. "They'd be out there searching for this person who had done this to me."
The story was first published on propoublica.com.