Police thought an 18-year-old girl 'made up' being raped at knifepoint -- the guy who did it is now spending 327 years in prison for 27 other rapes

by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica and Ken Armstrong, The Marshall Project

March 12, 2009: Lynnwood, Washington

No one came to court with her that day, except her public defender.

She was 18 years old, charged with a gross misdemeanour, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Rarely do misdemeanours 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 behaviour — to make Lynnwood a better, safer, healthier place to live, work, shop and visit.”

But her misdemeanour had made the news, and made her an object of curiosity or, worse, scorn. It had cost her the newfound independence she was savouring 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: Golden, Colorado

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.”

Gailbraith ProPublicaProPublica/Benjamin RasmussenDet. Stacy Galbraith: Galbraith was the lead detective for the rape case in Golden, Colo. She listened carefully to her victim.

Galbraith returned to the crime scene. A half-dozen officers and technicians were now at work. They were knocking on neighbours’ 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 per cent 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 realised 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.

Lynnwood, Washington

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 licence. 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 mum, 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 realised it wasn’t.

Recognising 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 favourite 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: Golden, Colorado

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.

Hendershot ProPublicaProPublica/Benjamin RasmussenSgt. Edna Hendershot: Hendershot had investigated more than 100 rapes in her career when she paired up with Galbraith.

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 recognised 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, memorising 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 per cent 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 licence 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 labelled 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.

Hendershot and GalbraithProPublica/Benjamin RasmussenA Partnership Forms: When Det. Stacy Galbraith and Sgt. Edna Hendershot figured out that a serial rapist was at work, they joined with other Colorado detectives to hunt him down. ‘Two heads, three heads, four heads, sometimes are better than one, right?’ Hendershot said.

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 analysed 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.

August 11, 2008: Lynnwood, Washington

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, grey 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 neighbour, 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 recognised 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 mum 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 mum, 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 demeanour. 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 scepticism, 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 mum. … 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 per cent 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: Westminster, Colorado

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 licence plate they passed. The result was a searchable database of thousands of tag numbers indexed by time and location. Hassell typed in the licence 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.

Mazda 720 733 76dee6ProPublica/Golden Police Department1993 Mazda pickup: Surveillance stills show a 1993 Mazda driving around the apartment complex in Golden, Colo. where a 26-year-old engineering student was raped. The passenger-side mirror looked bent.

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.

Read the rest of ProPublica and The Marshall Project’s story »

T. Christian Miller joined ProPublica in 2008 as a senior reporter. He spent the previous 11 years reporting for the Los Angeles Times. His work included coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign and three years as a bureau chief for the Times, responsible for 10 countries in South and Central America.

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.

Illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook. Photography by Benjamin Rasmussen. Design and production by Rob Weychert and David Sleight for ProPublica, Andy Rossback and Lisa Iaboni for The Marshall Project.

Join ProPublica, The Marshall Project, and Joanne Archambault of the nonprofit End Violence Against Women to discuss pitfalls and best practices of sex crimes investigations. You can also read more about how ProPublica and The Marshall Projectreported this story.

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