EDITOR’S NOTE: Read our conversation with Robyn Semien of This American Life and Ken Armstrong, formerly of The Marshall Project, on how those two organizations and ProPublica partnered to tell this story across multiple platforms.
CAUTION: The stories linked to and discussed in this package describe details of sexual assault, which some readers might find disturbing.In 2008, a young woman from suburban Seattle, Washington, reported that she was raped by a masked stranger who got into her apartment. But in the following weeks, both police and friends doubted her and, under pressure, she recanted. Three years later, a woman in Golden, Colorado reported that she was the victim of a similar rape; the detectives who pursued her case ultimately hunted down a serial rapist who had assaulted women in several states — including back in Washington state.
For investigative reporters, it was a story of outrage about the failures of the justice system to pursue and prosecute reports of sexual assault. For narrative storytellers, it was an epic story of a betrayal that could never completely be put right. For any journalist, it was a tough story to get, with reluctant sources, missing records, and delicate issues of privacy and trauma.
The journalists from different organizations who came upon the story recognized those challenges, but also the layers and layers of potential it offered: Telling what happened to one young woman could peel back flaws in the system that fails so many. So they pushed past reporting obstacles, and then did an even more remarkable thing — they partnered.
Ken Armstrong, then of The Marshall Project, and T. Christian Miller of ProPublica, merged their formidable reporting skills to publish “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” something the two (now both with ProPublica) talked to Storyboard about in 2016, the same year their work was awarded a Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
But they didn’t stop there. Along the way, they added a third partner, this one from radio. This American Life broadcast “Anatomy of Doubt” in February 2016, an audio version of the story that relied on the same core reporting but explored different questions and was framed in a different structure.
Annotation: Storyboard worked with This American Life producer Robyn Semien to annotate the Prologue and Act One of “Anatomy of Doubt,” and learn how decisions are made for a long-form radio narrative. Storyboard’s questions are in red; Semien’s responses in blue. The wideset sections are where the host or reporters provide background or transitional bridges to explain the story; the narrowest sections are from recorded interviews with various subjects.
To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile device.
Anatomy of Doubt
This week, a story about doubt: how it germinated, spread, and eventually took hold of an entire community, with terrible consequences. A collaboration with The Marshall Project and ProPublica, the print version of the story was written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller.
February 26, 2016
Ira Glass: From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass. And I want to tell you about two police investigations. One of them is done so inspiringly well, it’s like the detectives in it are like detectives on a television show– smart and resourceful and great judgment and just police at their very best. The other case– the same crime, lots of the same facts– is the opposite. It goes terribly.
And the investigation that goes wrong goes wrong in a very unusual way. It’s like a game of telephone, where one misunderstanding begets another misunderstanding begets another, until something that is not true spreads to an entire community of people and somehow hardens into the truth. And it happens incredibly fast. It happens in just three days.
And just to get in front of this, the crime that we’re going to be talking about this hour is a sexual assault. If that’s a trigger for you, consider this a warning. And one of the first phone calls in this chain comes right after the crime. This is back in August, 2008. A woman named Shannon was standing on her balcony in a Seattle suburb when she got the phone call. It was from an 18-year-old she knew named Marie, who told her she’d been woken up in the night by a stranger who raped her. Why was Shannon the first voice that you introduced? In the simplest sense, we were documenting how doubt spread from family to law enforcement to community. It seemed right, in that sense, to start with something of an origin story of doubt, and I believe we all felt Shannon’s story was the most compelling.
Shannon: And I asked her, are you OK? And she said she was OK and that she was going to be staying, I think, with a friend that night. And when my husband got home, I told him what had happened. But I said, I don’t know that it happened.
There’s something about how she said it that just made me question whether or not she’d actually been raped. It was the tone of her voice. There was just no emotion. It was like she was telling me that she’d made a sandwich. I just made myself a chicken sandwich.
Ira Glass: Shannon felt awful doubting Marie. She’d known Marie for years. Marie was a foster child who had stayed with Shannon and her husband very briefly– just a couple weeks– when she was younger. And they’d all hit it off. And she stayed close with Marie even after Marie went to live in another foster home. They’d hang out together, cook together. They gave up carbs together for a few weeks.
Shannon loved Marie. She saw herself in Marie. They were alike in lots of ways. That was actually part of her doubt. Marie was emotional. She did cry, like Shannon.
Shannon: If I had been raped, I would have been hysterical. I would have been crying, really upset because I was sexually abused as a child. And I was sexually assaulted as an adult. And I never told anyone for years and years. And when I did tell someone, I was hysterical, emotional and crying and shamed.
Ira Glass: But Shannon was wrong about Marie. Marie had been raped. It was proven later beyond a shadow of a doubt. And the way her case went wrong– you know, we’ve all heard stories about police not believing women who come forward and say that they were sexually assaulted. But in this case, the doubts began not with the police but with people much closer to Marie, people who love her and have the best intentions towards her. This framing right from the get-go — seeds of doubt germinating with those close to Marie, as opposed to the more typical narrative of the police or institutions sowing that doubt — feels important to the framing of the rest of the piece. Thank you. Yes, this framing guided all of our reporting.
What goes wrong in this case is something so personal, it’s like people exercising empathy and getting it wrong. What a powerful line. That’s all Ira, and I agree! And then that mistake spreads to officials and friends and acquaintances until it is impossible for them all to see the truth, even when new proof comes to light, even when it’s all right there in front of them.
Our reporting today is a partnership with The Marshall Project and ProPublica. The first part of the story takes place mostly in Lynnwood, Washington, near Seattle. Marshall Project investigative reporter Ken Armstrong and one of our producers, Robyn Semien, will explain how all this unfolded, starting with Ken, who’ll explain a little more about Marie. Why is it important to set the stage in this way and let the listener know exactly what’s coming? We made an editorial decision very early on to be sure to tell the listeners the answer to the question of rape as immediately as we could. In the simplest sense, allowing listeners to hear about a woman being raped and then structuring the story so that we are questioning whether or not we believe her, recreates, in some way, the very trauma that Marie endured. Marie is the main character in our story. What happened to her is horrendous and extraordinary. We want listeners to hear the story (as best we can) from her perspective.
Ken Armstrong: Marie gets along with people. She’s good at it. It’s important to her. She moved around a lot when she was a kid in the foster care system– she thinks 10 or 11 different families, not including group homes. But she did well in a group, looked forward to high school, loved her classes, liked to hike and go to the beach with her friends, really got into photography.
At 18, she was proud of herself for surviving the foster care system, got a job at Costco, her own apartment.
Marie: It was just nice to be on my own and not have all the rules that I had had when being in foster care. And it was just like freedom. So it was just awesome. I love how in the first instance that we hear from Marie, she’s talking about what freedom feels like to her. Especially because in so much of her story, she’s held captive by other people’s beliefs about her and her integrity.
Ken Armstrong: She kept in touch with previous foster families, like Shannon and her last foster mom, Peggy. Shannon was the fun adult in Marie’s life. They were goofballs together. They’d have sleepovers at Shannon’s house, laugh a lot. Peggy, who’d been Marie’s foster mom from 16 to 18, was more serious and teacherly, more tough love, more worried about Marie’s big personality and free spirit getting in the way of Marie’s becoming a responsible young adult.
Peggy lived close, and on the morning of the assault, Peggy was the first adult Marie called. This is Peggy.
Peggy: It was so early in the morning, I just left, and I drove over there immediately. So the police were there. And Marie was sitting on the floor crying. I sat down next to her, and she was telling me what happened. And I got this– I’m a big Law and Order fan. And I just got this really weird feeling. It was like– I felt like she was telling me the script of a Law and Order story. How many years after the rape did you report this part out, and did Peggy struggle to remember any details of that day? All of our reporting was done 8 years after the incident. It started with Marie agreeing to an interview, and from there, consequential people in her life, like Peggy, agreed to interviews. Peggy’s memories of what happened were as vivid as many of the people’s memories who we interviewed.
She was detached. Detached. Emotionally detached from what she was saying. It felt like, just, what’s this drama going on? But still, there was a part of me that was like, oh, my God. I mean, if it is real, I need to respond.
Marie: I remember being in shock and shaking in a blanket in the corner. They asked me a few questions about what had happened, and I had told them I’d left my door unlocked and that someone had broken into my apartment and raped me.
Robyn Semien: Again, this is Marie. She’s 25 now. A quick warning– what she told police is difficult to hear and definitely not for kids. Here’s what happened– Marie was home by herself, and she was awake all night talking on the phone with her ex-boyfriend, Jordan.
Marie: I got off the phone and went to sleep and then opened my eyes, and there was somebody in my house. He had a knife in his hand and was wearing a mask. He blindfolded me and gagged me and tied my hands behind my back. Why did you include the details of how the rape occurred? More than one reason. But it felt important to understand, in as specific terms as possible, the extreme trauma that resulted from this assault. I encourage anyone doing any reporting on sexual assault to research best practices on how to proceed with these types of interviews sensitively.
Robyn Semien: He raped her. He went through her stuff. He took pictures. He knew her name. Marie prayed he wouldn’t kill her. When you’re writing for the ear, how do you weigh whether you should narrate a stream of events or whether you should turn it over to your character to recount something? This one is tricky. In this particular case, like I mentioned earlier, we needed the listeners to understand the details of the event to a certain extent, to be able to understand Marie. But to have Marie relive the entire event in tape quickly started to feel icky, and borderline exploitative. On the other hand, Marie has always (at the time and for our story), in her own words, spoken out about her assault and her assaulter — so it felt very important to have her tell a good degree of what happened. And then to understand what unfolds later on — just to get the story — you need to know certain details here, which is why my script is curt and written like a list: “He went through her stuff. He took pictures,” etc. Finally, as a reporter, it felt very important to say plainly the undeniable fact: He raped her.
Marie: And then, after he was done with everything, he said that I shouldn’t have left my door unlocked. I guess I must have left it unlocked, the sliding glass door. And he just said that he was sorry and it all looked better in his head than when he did it to me.
Robyn Semien: He said if she went to the police, he’d put the pictures he had of her online.
Ken Armstrong: When the police arrived at Marie’s apartment, they did what you’d expect– they processed the crime scene. When you were scripting this kind of dual narration, how did you decide what you should say versus what Ken should say? In my memory, we changed up the sections of who-read-what just about until the end of edits. It kept changing. In a simple way, we wanted each section to land like a chapter in a book. A crime scene technician snapped photos of the place. It didn’t look like much, an 18-year-old’s tidy, bare-bones apartment– a sofa, a bike, a desktop computer on the floor in the corner. The bed was unmade, green comforter on the floor, a messy sheet.
Marie was blindfolded, and her attacker wore a mask, so there wasn’t a real description. He wore gloves to avoid fingerprints. He wore a condom. But there was physical evidence. The police got fingerprints off the sliding glass door. Just beyond the glass door, on the back porch, it looked like someone had brushed off a dusty railing while climbing over it.
Police collected the bedding, hoping for DNA– maybe fibers or hairs. Marie was examined by a doctor. There was a rape kit and a report noting bruising on both of Marie’s wrists, plus other bruising and abrasions consistent with sexual activity. When police searched the apartment, they found the things Marie had said the man had used– the knife, the makeshift blindfold and gag, the shoelaces used to tie her up with.
That’s when Marie realized that all of those things were hers to begin with. The knife was from her kitchen. The shoelaces came from her sneakers out in the living room.
Ira Glass: Peggy remembers hearing about the shoelaces and adding them to her list of things that just didn’t make sense.
Peggy: And I just– the whole thing with the shoelaces, I was like, first of all, is a shoelace strong enough to tie somebody’s wrists with?
Robyn Semien: Then, that same day, Marie called several of her friends, not just her closest ones, to tell them about the rape. For Peggy, this behavior fit into a bigger picture she had of Marie– attention-seeking, too flaunty, too flirty, loud, not really aware of how she was coming off in public. Like at the grocery store, riding around in carts with her friends, getting really silly, Peggy said.
Peggy was often telling Marie she needed to tone it down. So to Peggy, Marie calling everyone she knew and saying, “hey, I got raped,” didn’t seem right to her. She wondered, was this rape story one more way to get attention? Marie, meanwhile, says, sure. She was calling everyone she knew for what she thought was a good reason.
Marie: I think I did that because I didn’t want it to happen to anybody else. I just wanted to let people know that there was somebody out there hurting people. It wasn’t the first time I had been raped– when I was little and I was living with my mom. I never told anybody about that stuff, that it happened to me when I was a kid. I just held it all in and did my whole pretending like stuff didn’t happen.
And, you know, I don’t know if that guy ever got away or ended up hurting other people because I never told anybody, never talked to anybody about it. But I didn’t want this time to be like that. I wanted to be able to try to talk about it and get it out.
Robyn Semien: So Marie was calling around. And later that day– or maybe it was the next morning– Peggy made a phone call of her own, to Shannon, the other main adult in Marie’s life. Here’s Peggy.
Peggy: I just said, I don’t know what the hell is going on. I can’t tell, you know. I was like, oh, my God. She’s telling me that she got raped. But I felt– I just felt horrible. I felt horrible that I didn’t believe her.
And so I think Shannon must have just picked up on that. And then she was like, Peggy, you’re not the only one that doesn’t believe her. She’s acting very strange. She’s telling everybody about it. She’s calling everybody that she knows and telling them. This doesn’t seem like what you would do.
Robyn Semien: Shannon remembers that phone call with Peggy, too.
Shannon: Well, Peggy also didn’t believe her. So looking back, we may have fed on each other’s doubts about what had happened.
Ken Armstrong: The day after the rape, Shannon helped Marie moved out of her apartment. Marie’s case manager, who was helping her transition from foster care, was also there. And Shannon says that whole day, she kept noticing these things, little things, and each one deepened her suspicion.
Marie wouldn’t look her in the eye. She wouldn’t hug her. She didn’t want to talk about the rape. Instead, she was giggling, rolling around on the grass, being flirty, as Shannon saw it, with the case manager. It’s fascinating to me that the word “flirty” keeps coming up. Isn’t it? It really did keep coming up. Flirty and lots of specific behaviors, like laughing, or seeming unaffected. I remember Ken and I discussing “The Right Way to Act” as the episode title in the early part of reporting, before we honed in on doubt.
Shannon: For me, the thing that cemented my doubts was she was given, like, a Visa card to go pick out new sheets and bedding because the police had taken them for evidence. So we went back to the place where she had gotten the original ones. And she was furious that she couldn’t buy the same set because she really liked it.
I’m thinking, 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? I said, why would you want to have those sheets to remind you? And she goes, because I like them. I just thought that was such a strange response.
That was the only time I saw her get mad the whole day. It seems to me like Shannon often projects her own perspective on Marie, in terms of how she thinks Marie should behave or how Shannon herself might perceive a situation, if she were in Marie’s shoes. Did you talk about that with either of them? We definitely did with Shannon. Because she had her own experience as a sexual assault survivor, she explained how much it guided her expectations of Marie.
Ken Armstrong: Do you think you were starting to look for things that didn’t ring true? When you’re scripting, what makes you decide to include questions from a reporter’s original interview? From a producer’s perspective, what value-add does that bring to the program? I love to include reporters’ questions and look for the ones I like the best. It’s a little idiosyncratic how I decide. For audio, I want the question to be and sound good — like a real conversation or exchange.
Shannon: I don’t know if I was looking for them. They just kept popping up. I mean, flirting with the manager and rolling in the grass and giggling.
Ken Armstrong: Shannon confronted Marie about what she saw as her odd behavior.
Shannon: I did. No, I told her that I had doubts about whether or not she was telling the truth.
Ken Armstrong: And how did she react?
Shannon: She would get upset. And she’d say, “you know, I’m not really a liar. Why would I lie about this thing?”
Peggy: Here’s what I thought.
Ken Armstrong: Again, this is Peggy. Peggy had her own theory for why Marie might be lying about this.
Peggy: I thought, OK. In my mind, Marie got herself into trouble. She got carried away with some kind of sexual encounter. And she let somebody take pictures of her. And now they’re going to get out on the internet, and she’s trying to backtrack.
And maybe I didn’t trust the police. And maybe I didn’t think they were understanding the nature of my daughter’s personality, you know? I mean, it’s more histrionics, like a histrionic personality. It seemed like her next tactic to try to get my attention.
Robyn Semien: One day after the rape, Peggy called the lead detective on the case, Detective Jeffrey Mason.
Jeffrey Mason: She asked if she could meet with me in person. And so I agreed, went to her residence, met with her. She was having questions about the story that was being told, whether it was truthful or not. She seemed, you know, sincere. She was trying to pass on information that– and maybe sincere is not the correct terminology. But, I mean, she was just– she expressed a lot of concern and caring for Marie but also had a lot of questions on whether she was reporting the truth or not.
Ken Armstrong: Sergeant Mason didn’t have a lot of experience investigating sexual assault. Marie’s was only the second or third case that he’d worked on.
Ken Armstrong: How much weight did you give Peggy’s opinion of Marie’s credibility or of the potential truthfulness of what Marie said had happened?
Jeffrey Mason: I gave it enough weight to steer the investigation to where I need to talk to Marie further.
Robyn Semien: Was there anything that you were using that was evidence-based to get you to this moment of wanting to talk to her again about her credibility? I’m glad that you included this. It feels like such an important question, and really the crux of the whole story — this question could have been directed at any of the other people in Marie’s life who didn’t believe her. This question came from one of our astute editors, Brian Reed. Ken and I were very deep into the reporting when this interview came through. Ken got it (props Ken!). I remember prepping for this interview, and Brian really focused me on this point — how easily influenced the police were. In a later interview, Peggy told me that she was as outraged as anyone to learn how much sway she had with the police. It’s a real lesson in the story about the importance of objectivity in investigations.
Jeffrey Mason: No.
Ken Armstrong: Sergeant Mason says there were a few other elements to Marie’s story that had caused him to question her. But it was really the call from Peggy that changed everything. He talks to his partner, and three days after the attack, Detective Mason calls Marie.
Marie: And they said they needed to see me. And I just– all of a sudden, I was just like, am I in trouble? That was my first– before I said anything else on the phone. Am I in trouble?
Jeffrey Mason: One of the first things she said was, “am I in trouble?” Why did you include two descriptions of the same exchange back-to-back? I hope you start to see the fix Marie is really in with this exchange. Both Marie and the detective remember it clearly. What Marie’s question means to her is entirely disconnected from what the detective takes it to mean. And that just– well, in the 25 years in law enforcement, my experience has been people that ask that are usually in trouble.
Marie: They said, well, we just need you to come into the police station.
Robyn Semien: Mason and his partner, Detective Jerry Rittgarn, took Marie back to a conference room to talk. And it was a very different conversation from the first time police talked to Marie. Now it was an interrogation. She says the first thing they did was tell her they’d spoken to Peggy, and they’d spoken to her ex-boyfriend, Jordan, and neither of them believed her about being raped.
Peggy was one thing, but Jordan was a friend. He and Marie spoke all the time. They talked about maybe getting back together. And he’d been supportive and sympathetic about the rape. Marie suddenly had to try and figure out what these detectives meant.
Marie: The police were very closed off on telling me anything that Peggy or Jordan said. They wouldn’t tell me anything that they said at all because he wanted me to tell him. And I couldn’t. So he was just like, “yeah, is there any reason why he wouldn’t believe you?” And I said, “I don’t know.”
Robyn Semien: We talked to Jordan, and he says he never doubted Marie, and he never told the police he did. In any case, both detectives wrote in their reports that Marie seemed unsure of her story. Detective Rittgarn wrote that he found Marie to be making, quote, “deceptive statements to include that she thought certain things had happened rather than she was positive that this happened.” Rittgarn noted that she didn’t, quote, “take a stand and demand that she had been raped.” Detectives made it clear to Marie they needed to be convinced.
Years later, there was an outside review of the case by a police investigator, a sex crime specialist named Sergeant Gregg Rinta. His report said, quote, “The manner in which she was treated by Sergeant Mason and Detective Rittgarn can only be labeled as bullying and coercive.” Detective Rittgarn declined to talk to us.
Sergeant Rinta’s review went on, quote, “If this hadn’t been documented in their reports, I would have been skeptical that this actually happened.” The victim’s credibility, quote, “became the focus of the investigation, and all of the strong evidence that pointed to a serious felony crime was completely ignored.” Here’s Marie.
Marie: Is there really some guy out there that we need to be looking for or did you just make this up? And they just started asking me all these questions and just grilling at me. And I just started crying. I was crying, and I was upset. I didn’t understand what was going on, really.
I just– I’m still in shock that they didn’t believe me. I was mad, too. I did pound my hand on the table and stuff like that. And the only way they would leave me alone is if I wrote a statement saying that it didn’t happen.
Robyn Semien: So she did. She first wrote, quote, “I dreamed someone broke in and raped me.” The detectives then insisted that she rewrite it, and not write that she had dreamed it but that she had lied. I’m struck by how freeing it is to not have to attribute constantly in a radio story. It feels like this can do wonders to keep the narrative flow moving along. For a statement like the one you just made in the script, do you assume that your readers will accept what you’re saying without knowing where it came from? In radio stories, how do you decide what needs attribution and what doesn’t? It’s very case by case. I don’t want to confuse, misdirect or underestimate a listener, basically, ever. In this case, I have just earlier quoted from police reports and an outside review of the entire case. Marie’s written statements appear there. So I think, or hope, that quoting from her statement is giving the listeners credit: they can see how I would know that. I also think it is fine to cite the report before quoting from her written statement — maybe that is less confusing. And if it is, I’d vote for that!
There are lots of reasons a victim of sex abuse might consciously choose to say something different from what happened– shame, fear of retribution. But Marie says that isn’t what was happening with her. She started having moments where she actually couldn’t tell if she’d been raped.
Marie: Like, I was trying to be really honest about everything. And possibly maybe I had dreamt that stuff that first day, maybe I had dreamt it up and that it maybe didn’t happen and stuff like that. And so those doubts were coming out when I was talking to them. And they just started disbelieving me even more.
And then all of a sudden, I just started thinking– I was like, did this really just happen to me, this whole thing? In my mind, I was second-guessing somebody coming into my house and doing all this stuff, you know? Is it possible that I just imagined that? Because why would something like that happen to me?
Robyn Semien: I ran how Marie describes this– not being sure herself that the assault happened– by an expert on sex assault trauma and how it affects the brain. She said that this kind of cognitive separation, she called it, while not common, does happen, that it’s directly related to the sheer shock an assault has on a person– like, for example, being awoken by a stranger with a knife– and that people who have been sexually abused before, like Marie, are at a much higher risk for this happening. Add foster care to that and the risk is greater. Why did you want to let listeners into your process here? At the time of our reporting, I found this science to be some of the most useful and clarifying information available. My colleague, Lilly Sullivan, did the legwork to find this, and it’s a tidbit I have thought about all the time since. It makes so much sense, but the research isn’t common knowledge. It’s very niche, or certainly was at the time. It feels sort of human, albeit wrong, to place any inch of responsibility at Marie’s feet — because of something she did or didn’t say, or a way she did or didn’t act before or after being attacked. I wanted listeners to really understand some type of way — via research — to think about Marie and the trauma she had experienced.
Marie: At the end of that day, I was just like, fine. It all didn’t happen because now I have nobody that believes me. I just wanted it to be over with. So–
Robyn Semien: So Marie did something familiar to her. She has a way to deal with terrible things happening to her that are out of her control, what she calls flipping the switch.
Marie: That feeling switch inside, just, I turned it to not really caring about the emotion and thought, well, I’ll just turn off that switch. And I won’t have to deal with them right now. Just, I want to get out of here.
Robyn Semien: What does it look like when you kind of decide to flip the switch and stop caring so much? What is that– how does your demeanor change when you’re speaking to the police officer?
Marie: Well, I’m not crying anymore and looking at them when I’m talking to them. I think I was giggling, which is something I do when I’m nervous, like I just pretended like that didn’t just really happen, you know, and went in the bathroom after that and cleaned up and just kind of acted like it was fine.
Robyn Semien: Both detectives noticed the switch. Rittgarn wrote, quote, “Her visual appearance and body language became remarkably different. She appeared less stressed, stopped crying, and even laughed a little.” Marie wrote her final statement for the detectives at their insistence– quote, “I made up this story,” she wrote.
TV Announcer: King 5 News starts now.
Male News Anchor: Good evening. Your–
Female News Anchor: Police in Lynnwood now say a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a stranger made up the story.
Ken Armstrong: This news story ran one day after Marie met with detectives and wrote those statements.
Female News Anchor: Earlier this week, the 18-year-old told detectives a man had broken into her apartment, raped her, and then stayed for an extended period of time. But upon further questioning, the woman admitted the assault did not happen. Detectives do not know why she made the story up.
Ken Armstrong: At least three other stations aired similar stories. Reporters chased it.
Marie: Like, I had to hide. Like, I had to wear a sweatshirt over my face and sneak out of my apartment because there were just so many, just pounding on my door.
Ken Armstrong: The backlash was immediate. Marie got hate-filled Myspace messages, angry phone calls. One of Marie’s best friends from high school put up a website attacking Marie, warning people she was a liar. It had the police reports with the statement she’d written about making up the story. It had her name and her picture.
For Marie, it was too much. Police didn’t believe her. Her foster moms didn’t believe her. And it was all over the news. It felt like the world had turned against her. And remember, she was 18 years old, trying to figure this out.
She wanted a lawyer. And she had a support system that could have helped her find one. She lived in her own apartment, but it was subsidized by a nonprofit that helped teenagers like Marie transition out of foster care. Project Ladder, it was called. They taught life skills like how to use a credit card, how to shop for groceries. They were there to give her a hand.
So she asked them to help her find a lawyer. Instead, her case manager called the police, who told him there was no evidence that a rape had occurred. They did not get her a lawyer.
Marie: So then they said, OK. Well, we’re going to go to the police station. You’re going to tell them that. You’re going to tell them that it really did happen. You’re going to be honest.
Ken Armstrong: When they got to the station, Detective Mason, the lead detective in her case, wasn’t there. He was out that day. So detective Rittgarn grabbed another cop to help out. Here’s Marie.
Marie: I told him that I wanted to recant and that it really did happen. They should be out there looking for a rapist.
Ken Armstrong: Rittgarn didn’t believe her. The other cop didn’t know the case and was just following Rittgarn’s lead. Marie says one of the detectives told her that if she kept insisting she was raped, she might have to take a polygraph test.
Marie: He told me that if I took a lie detector test and it came back that I was lying, that he was going to take me to jail himself.
Ken Armstrong: Using a polygraph on a rape victim is a mistake, a big enough one that the federal government can withhold money from states if their police departments do it. The tests are seen as a deterrent to women coming forward to report sexual assault. Plus, they’re famously unreliable, especially on someone who’s traumatized.
Rittgarn’s report says it was actually Marie who brought up the polygraph, not the cops. But what’s not in dispute is that once the idea of a polygraph came up, Detective Rittgarn used it to threaten Marie. It’s a tactic police use when they’re interrogating someone they suspect in a crime. Detective Rittgarn told Marie that if she failed the polygraph, he’d recommend she lose her housing assistance and get jail time.
Marie: Well, that scared me, so I didn’t want to do that. And so I was like, OK, never mind. It really didn’t happen. I didn’t want to go to jail. In TAL radio stories, is it common for you to jump in and out so frequently between a source and a producer? What purpose did that structure serve for this part of the story in particular? I agree with you that Ken and I are passing the mic kind of liberally in here. I don’t have an excellent answer as to why. In my memory, Ken was taking the ‘backlash when it hits the news’ section, and as timing would have it, we had been trying to interview Elisabeth for awhile but that interview happened kind of later in our reporting. Since I did that interview, it became sort of necessary for me to have a little beat in here, with Elisabeth.
Robyn Semien: That night, the Project Ladder managers called a meeting.
Elisabeth: It was just an emergency meeting. And they didn’t tell anybody why until everybody got there.
Robyn Semien: This is Elisabeth, another former foster kid in the Project Ladder program. She was there at the meeting, along with nine or so others, mostly girls, and the program managers, sitting in chairs in a circle. Marie remembers it as the lowest moment of this whole ordeal, the one time she thought about suicide. Again, here’s Elisabeth.
Elisabeth: Marie stood up. And she was crying. And she said that she had lied about what had happened.
Robyn Semien: To the group?
Elisabeth: To the group. Yeah, everybody. I mean, it just felt like she was just forced to say that and that it was– I mean, there was nothing in her words or actions that she meant. I mean, it was more of defeat is what it sounded like, just kind of giving up on trying to prove herself. She just seemed devastated and lost. In our earlier conversation, you mentioned that quality of tape is your priority when structuring a script. These comments from Elisabeth are quite powerful, yet not necessarily eloquently stated. She stops and starts, and speaks conversationally. What makes something “good tape” to you? I think you just gave the answer, Carly! Eloquence is one way to talk, but not always the best in radio. Depends. In this case, I liked how Elisabeth was taking her time to be careful and think back, and trying to sort out in real time what she remembered — and above all else, how she was feeling and understanding things back then, at the time. My feeling about that interview now is the same as when we did it: it was a pleasant conversation and I enjoyed talking to her. When you feel that way, it’s usually a signal for good tape. That being said, I’m a nervous tape auditioner. Joel Lovell (my story editor on this one) listened to my tape selections and liked Elisabeth’s contributions right along with me. Phew.
Robyn Semien: It actually sounds really confusing from your perspective. Were you wondering, why is she being made to say this?
Elisabeth: I mean, I really was because I didn’t know her. And at first, I didn’t really know what to believe. You know, it’s just kind of an odd thing to say, “oh, well I made it up.” I think maybe my own personal experiences kind of came through when she said that. And I kind of–
Robyn Semien: What kind of personal experiences?
Elisabeth: I’ve– I was sexually assaulted. And so, I mean, being afraid of saying anything, and then not having anybody to believe you, and then just kind of trying to forget about it, I guess, trying to–
Robyn Semien: Trying to move on or something.
Elisabeth: Move on. Yeah. Were you ever unsure about whether to include this detail, or was Elizabeth always on board with sharing this part of her own story? We double checked with Elisabeth before airing it. Shannon, too, about her having been sexually assaulted. It’s very important not to casually put these things on air without being solid that the people who told you such sensitive details are ok with it.
Robyn Semien: Elisabeth felt for Marie. She says there were a couple others who looked like they did, too. But they were in the minority. Mainly, Marie says, people were angry.
Marie: They were pretty mad about it. One of the girls, she was calling me and making threats at me, thought I was a liar and basically mentally ill for making up something like that.
Robyn Semien: I spoke to one of the meeting’s angry girls. She didn’t want to be interviewed, but she told me she thought Marie had lied, and it did make her mad. But she also said– and Elisabeth told me this, too– there was something so obvious and transparent about the premise of the meeting. It was a message to everyone– we’re making her tell you this so none of you think about doing it. If you do, you’ll lose your housing.
Elisabeth described the woman running the meeting as fuming. We reached out to the Project Ladder managers, but they never replied. Elisabeth stuck by Marie, and one other friend. Friend-wise, that was about it. Elisabeth says Marie was avoided like–
Elisabeth: The plague. Yeah. I mean, that’s exactly how it was. People treated her like she was– they couldn’t get far enough away from her. And people, they were very cruel to her. Of course, the phone calls and the nasty stuff on social media. I mean, I even believe, like, when we’d walk through the parking lot or we’d go somewhere, somebody would say something, calling her a whore, and die, and just a lot of really horrible stuff.
I mean, I even remember reading one of the comments on the– it was on the internet, but I don’t remember what exactly page it was or anything. “But this bitch is the reason that nobody believes when women say they get raped.”
Robyn Semien: Wow.
Elisabeth: Yeah. I mean, there was a lot of that.
Robyn Semien: Even Shannon, who meant the world to Marie. She told Marie that she couldn’t spend the night at her house anymore because her husband worried she might make up a story about him. And if all that weren’t enough, about a week later, Marie received a summons in the mail. Police were charging her with false reporting.
The false reporting charge meant that Marie’s rape case would be officially closed. The physical evidence police had gathered at the scene was destroyed except for a single fingerprint card that was left behind. Everything else– the rape kit, the bedding, the DNA swabs– they were never even tested in a crime lab, never analyzed. Further evidence that could have been gathered never was. This is such a powerful line. Fantastic, thank you.
Ken Armstrong: Two months after Marie was charged with false reporting, Shannon was sitting at home, watching the local news with her husband, when on came a story about a woman in Kirkland, another Seattle suburb, who reported being raped by a stranger who broke in, threatened her with a knife, used shoelaces to tie her up, and who took pictures and threatened to post them on the internet.
Shannon: Right away, I thought, I’m wrong. It actually happened. She was raped because this is too similar. So I immediately went in and called the Kirkland Police Department and asked to speak to the lead detective on the rape case. And I explained the whole situation about what had happened to Marie and that the Lynnwood police didn’t believe her. But it was just too similar, and it had just happened.
So I asked them to call the Lynnwood police. Then he got back to me and said he did talk to them, but they had determined that she had made the whole thing up, and the case was closed. And that was the end. And it was over.
Ken Armstrong: I talked to the lead detective that Shannon spoke to and to another Kirkland detective on this case. Both remember talking to the Lynnwood PD. But when they learned the Lynnwood police didn’t believe their victim, that was it. They didn’t look any further. One detective said she figured the Lynnwood police knew their case best. She trusted their judgment.
Even so, one thing they both told me they were surprised by was that the Lynnwood police had gone so far as to charge Marie with false reporting. One detective remembers hanging up the phone thinking, OK. Hope that works out for you guys. I actually remember this appearing as a direct quote in the text story, ending one of the sections.
Shannon grew up in a police family. She usually figured police knew best. Not this time.
Shannon: I was upset. I thought there should have been more investigation, that it was just too similar.
Ken Armstrong: Shannon thought something had to be done. She thought Marie should get in touch with the Kirkland police herself. She told Marie–
Shannon: If it did happen, then here’s a second chance to go talk to the police about what happened to you because this just happened to another woman. But she wouldn’t go. And so that, then, made me doubt again. Why wouldn’t she want to get involved to try and prove that she was innocent?
Ken Armstrong: Marie didn’t want to talk to anybody else about the rape, especially not police again. The very thought terrified her. What she wanted, more than anything, was to put this behind her. In March of 2009, seven months after she was raped, Marie went to court to accept a plea deal on her false reporting charge. Under the deal, to get the charge dropped, she would need to meet certain conditions for a year. She’d go on supervised probation, pay $500 in court costs, and she’d get mental health counseling, not for being raped but for lying about it.
Ira Glass: Coming up– today’s program is about two police investigations of the same crime. The second investigation, where the police do a stunningly great job, in a minute, when our program continues.
Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.