By BILL LUEDERS
Patty awoke to feel the blade of a knife pressed against the side of her neck.
"Don't move and nobody will get hurt," said a man who crawled into bed beside her. She could smell alcohol on his breath. He pressed her face into the pillow with his left hand and her pulled her pants off with his right.
"I was so scared," says Patty of that morning of Sept. 4, 1997. "I thought he was going to kill me." She also feared for her daughter, then 18 years old and five months' pregnant, who was sleeping in the next room. Patty, then 38 and legally blind, decided to be as quiet as she could, and submit to the man's demands.
The man sexually assaulted Patty anally, orally and, with a condom,
vaginally. At one point, she reached around and accidently grabbed the
knife he was holding; her finger was cut and bled. When the man kept telling
Patty not to look at him, she told him, "I can't even see." To which he
Afterwards, Patty's assailant made her get into the closet as
he robbed her and cut two of her three phone lines. Patty waited until
he left the apartment, then woke her daughter, Cindy*, to tell her what
happened. [*Other than Patty, the names of individuals identified
by first name only are
For the next year, police and prosecutors perpetuated the assault. Aside from the not-uncommon humiliation of being quizzed by a male detective about penis size and vaginal lubrication, Patty bore the added indignity of not being believed. On the initiative of this one detective, Patty's report of being raped was turned into an investigation of her.
A month after the assault, on Oct. 2, 1997, Patty was summoned
to a surprise interrogation in which police repeatedly lied to and bullied
her while getting her to "confess" that she made the whole thing up. Three
months later, the county district attorney's office, without a trace of
irony, charged Patty with obstructing (lying to) an officer, a misdemeanor.
Then, for the next
On Aug. 21, eleven days before Patty was scheduled to go on trial--a proceeding to which the DA had subpoenaed her daughter, her sister and her ex-boyfriend, among others--the DA's office dropped the charges, admitting that it could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This after subjecting Patty to no end of doubt that was at its core unreasonable. To this day, there has been no apology, no admission of error, even as the DA Office's concedes that belatedly analyzed DNA evidence may indicate that Patty was indeed raped by an intruder in her home.
And all of this happened in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the most politically progressive cities in the nation. A city where the former police chief, now a minister, hung pictures of Ghandi and Martin Luther King on his wall. A city where the Common Council routinely passes resolutions against U.S. foreign policy and Ralph Nader nearly wins presidential elections. A city whose political heritage extends from the legendary "Fighting Bob" La Follette to the late Katherine Clarenbach, a cofounder of the National Organization of Women. The mayor, county executive and district attorney are women. The local criminal justice system prides itself on taking an enlightened approach to sexual assault.
In Patty's case, this enlightened approach included being interviewed
for more than three hours alone in her home by Det. Tom Woodmansee, who,
according to Patty expressed his frustration at her lack of total recall
by pointing to the bedroom where the assault occurred and saying, "If we
have to go in there and role-play this thing, we will." It included, she
says, being told by Woodmansee, "You don't act like a rape victim"--a statement
that accurately summarizes the essense of his suspicions as expressed in
his own report. It included a female detective, during the same interrogation,
asking Patty if she knew the story of "the boy who cried wolf," telling
What happened to Patty is not typical of how sexual-assault cases are handled in Madison; in other instances, police and DAs--including those in Patty's case--have treated assault victims with sensitivity and compassion. But neither is what happened to Patty unique; across the country, advocates for victims of sexual-assault are seeing a backlash against women who cry rape but can't prove it.
Beverly Harris Elliott of the Pennsylvania-based National Coalition Against Sexual Assault is aware of situations in which women under the age of 18 who report being raped are "pressured into recanting" and then charged with making false allegations. And while the federal Violence Against Women Act requires states to pay for the medical examinations of sexual assault victims, some states are still sticking victims with these costs. In Virginia, for instance, "If a woman decides not to go forward with her case, she's not eligible" for recovery of these costs from the state's Victim's Compensation Fund, according to Stacy Ruble, codirector of Virginians Aligned Against Sexual Assault. The rationale: The fund is available only to women who "cooperate" with police and prosecutors.
In another Wisconsin case, a high school senior was charged with
obstruction after belatedly admitting that she willingly entered the truck
of her assailant, even though she consistently maintained that he raped
her with a hammer handle. Police arrested the man and found the hammer,
but neither this nor any other physical evidence was ever tested. Instead,
the girl (the
"It's something I guess we should expect," says Erin Thornley,
executive director of the isconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, referring
to groups and initiatives that strive to make it easier for women to report
sexual assault--still, among the most underreported crimes. "We're really
"Any time there are advances in any movement, backlash is inevitable," says Thornley. "The backlash is finding ways to silence people."
Patty's voice on the 911 tape is anguished but under control; throughout the call, her daughter Cindy can be heard wailing in the background. "We were just robbed and I was raped," Patty tells the dispatcher. "He just left."
The dispatcher asks whether the man had broken in. "I haven't looked around yet," Patty replies. "I think my daughter might have left the door unlocked." Did the man leave on foot? What direction did he go? Patty didn't know. "I stayed in the closet. He told me to stay in the closet. My daughter was here, I was afraid he was going to hurt her. I did everything he said."
The call was received at 4:13 am and Madison police arrived in
less than ten minutes. Patty says one of the first officers noticed how
the sheets were stripped from the bed and other clues and remarked, "He's
definitely done this before." As the cops collected evidence at the scene,
Patty was taken to a local hospital to be examined by a nurse specially
trained in sexual assault. The
Five days later, having heard nothing from police, Patty called
Tom Woodmansee, the detective assigned to the case. An eight-year department
veteran, Woodmansee was well-regarded by people who work with victims of
sexual assault; he has trained other officers on the handling of
The first thing Woodmansee did after hearing from Patty was to run a criminal-history check--on her. He turned up more than dozen minor and mostly noncriminal scrapes with the law, most dating back at least a decade, including a 1986 suicide attempt.
While he left no stone unturned in probing Patty's past, Woodmansee apparently never found it significant that her daughter, Cindy, associated with dopers and thugs. The father of Cindy's baby is now serving a 12-year sentence for first-degree reckless endangerment and illegal possession of a firearm; besides having a gun, he reportedly used a coat hanger and board to inflict bodily harm. At the time her mother was raped, Cindy was dating James, a 26-year-old Hispanic man who makes no secret of his hatred for black men.
Last June, James was arrested after allegedly swinging a baseball bat
at a complete stranger at 2:30 a.m. outside a Madison convenience store,
saying "You're a fucking nigger and you need to die."
But what happened to Patty after she cried rape in Madison presented a new level of adversity, to which she nearly succumbed.
When Tom Woodmansee arrived to conduct his initial interview with Patty on Sept. 9, 1997, six days after she reported the assault, she gave him a list of seven possible suspects, mostly friends of Cindy. In her own interview with Woodmansee the next day, Cindy wrote out another list that included several names, saying she had at least ten male friends who had been to their apartment and may have known that her mother couldn't see. "I'm almost positive it was someone who knows us," Cindy told Woodmansee.
There is no evidence Woodmansee even ran criminal-history checks
on these named suspects. His investigation, such as it was, focused on
James, because Patty had said from the start that she thought it might
be him. A lot of pieces fit, from the physical description, to the smell
of his cologne, to the white sweat pants she caught a glimpse of, to the
fact that Cindy had left the
But Patty consistently maintained that she wasn't sure. "I asked [Patty]
if she is now positive that [James] is the person, and she stated that
she is not," relates Woodmansee about his second of two meetings with Patty
before confronting her with his conclusion that she made the whole thing
From the start, Woodmansee was suspicious of Patty's alleged disability.
While she claimed to be legally blind, he "did not note anything distinctive
about her vision being impaired." He apparently failed to grasp the nature
of her impairment; according to her ophthalmologist, Dr. Thomas S. Stevens,
Patty has an inherited loss of central vision due to "macular degeneration
secondary to Stargardt's disease." She can see things--so long as they
are not right in front of her. This condition, wrote Stevens in a statement,
"would make it impossible for her to identify a face in good or bad light.
She has enough peripheral vision to be able to get around without bumping
In other respects, Woodmansee's "investigation" consisted mainly
of cataloging his reasons for doubting that Patty was telling the truth.
She laughed once or twice while relating embarrassing information--very
suspicious. She wasn't as upset as he thought she should be--very
suspicious. She called him after their initial interview to tell him about
a detail she hadn't remembered--
James was called in for questioning. Woodmansee, joined by Det.
Linda Draeger, told him his girlfriend's mother had identified him as a
suspect. He denied having assaulted Patty, saying he had spent the night
at his sister's house, still ill from the amount of drugs and liquor he
had consumed the night before. Woodmansee, in what is for him apparently
James exhibited "severe body movements" but stuck to his story. Woodmansee then spoke to Jill Poarch, the sexual assault nurse who had examined Patty at Meriter Hospital. Poarch told him that Patty had a bruise on her thigh, a scratch on her rectum, small lacerations on her face and neck, and a cut on her index finger that required two stitches.
Mike, Patty's boyfriend, told Woodmansee that she had complained of soreness the day after the assault. But Woodmansee paid little attention to this collaborating information. He was mainly interested in learning how Mike and Patty were getting along; it turns out the two hadn't been sexually active for some time, even though she been sleeping at his apartment since the assault.
Woodmansee pressed on: "Do you think she would make this up?" he asked.
To which Mike replied, according to Woodmansee's report, "I think in some
instances Patty (pause) I guess her temper takes over her rational mind.
I would hope she wouldn't do something like this but there is something
there that makes me think she could make this up to get me to stay with
her, but I
Patty's attorney, Hal Harlowe, encountering this in a copy of
Woodmansee's report he obtained through discovery, derisively jotted in
the margin, "The truth revealed--the boyfriend cracks the case!" Woodmansee's
investigation essentially ended at this point. He called Patty and asked
When Patty arrived by cab at the detective bureau, she was met by two detectives, Tom Woodmansee and Linda Draeger. They ushered her into a 10-X-10-foot room with concrete block walls and closed the door. Woodmansee came out with it right away.
"I know who did this," Woodmansee told Patty, to which she responded,
"But no proof?" He said he believed there was never an assault and that
she had lied about the incident. By his account, she began breathing "extremely
heavy"; by her account, she went into "a state of shock."
Patty offered to take a lie-detector test or be placed under hypnosis.
Det. Draeger said there was no need for this since police were sure she
was lying. By his own admission, Woodmansee told Patty that her "vision
does not appear to be bad to me." He told her that Poarch, the sexual-assault
nurse at Meriter, and State Crime Lab found "no evidence" of rape. He told
Patty has consistently represented that additional statements
were made. She says Woodmansee told her she had psychological
reasons to make the story up, since she had been sexually molested as a
child. Patty says Woodmansee told her, with Draeger backing him up, that
nobody believed her. Not the cops. Not the nurse. Not the crime lab. She
says he told her the
Woodmansee denies threatening Patty, but his report recounts what
appears to be the breaking of her will. "What do you want to hear?" she
pleads. "I'll says whatever you want. ...If you're going to drop this,
I'll say whatever you want." When she confessed, she used the words, "Okay,
The detectives pressed Patty for details about her false report.
She says that when she protested, "I'm just saying this to get out of here,"
Woodmansee "got pissed," threw his notebook on the table, and called a
break. Woodmansee later testified that Patty went "back and forth"
She was asked whether she felt closer to her daughter the morning of the assault, when Cindy accompanied her to the emergency room. "Yeah," answered Patty. Woodmansee put it in his report--it was the closest thing to a motive the police were ever able to detect.
Attorney Harlowe later filed a motion seeking to have Patty's
confession suppressed on grounds that it was obtained through "improper
techniques and influences that were both coercive and intimidating." On
July 9, he argued in court that police deliberately isolated Patty and
confronted her with "a world gone mad." I'm blind. No, you're not. I was
raped. Nobody believes you. I
"Judge, under these circumstances, you would confess," asserted Harlowe, himself formerly district attorney of Dane County. "I've been doing this for a long time. This is one of the most rotten investigations I have ever seen. It's an embarrassment to the criminal-justice system." But Jack and Jill went down a hill--actually a slippery slope. Prosecutor Jill Karofsky praised police for a job well done and cited case law that allows the use of police deception; Judge Jack Aulik sided with the prosecution, and let the confession stand: "Making up stories to induce suspects to confess is not improper conduct."
The first thing Patty did after being raped was to call the police.
The first thing she did after her encounter with police Oct. 2 was to call
the local Rape Crisis Center. Becky Westerfelt, the group's executive director,
confirms that Patty spoke with a volunteer that evening. She says Patty
was very upset, saying the police had coerced her into recanting a rape
that occurred. (Like all the
The next day, Patty spoke to several other people, relating the same story. She also got a call from Woodmansee. It was brief. Patty denied having made a false report and said she felt pressured into recanting. He told her she would be charged with obstructing an officer.
Woodmansee took his investigation one step further, calling Linda Moston, a therapist who has treated Patty. Moston says Woodmansee told her he didn't believe Patty and was eager to close the case but that he wanted more information. She didn't trust him, and declined: "I just intuitively got a sense about this guy that it was dangerous for me to talk to him."
What Moston, who has known Patty for ten years and other members of her family for even longer, never got to tell Woodmansee is that there is "not a doubt in my mind" that Patty was indeed raped and then badgered into saying that it didn't happen: "This woman does not have the personality nor the desire to make up something like this."
On Oct. 10, the day Woodmansee forwarded his request for prosecution
to the DA's office, Moston began counseling Patty about her rape and her
subsequent experience with police. Moston's notes record Patty's realization
that her assialant was somebody she knew. It usually is. According
to the National Crime Center, 84% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated
by an acquaintance of the victim. That's one reason victims are often under
enormous pressure to either not report being raped or to recant--and also
why advocates for victims of sexual assault are
Long before police got Patty to confess, Capt. Jeff LaMar of the Madison Police Department announced his intention to issue a press release if Patty's case turned out to be a false report. He made clear his intention to do so because he had received "two or three" calls from people in the neighborhood worried that there was a rapist on the loose.
The release was issued on Oct. 21, prompting an article in the
local paper under the headline, "Woman admits lying about rape." Patty
fired off a typed letter to the paper. "Have you asked the detectives why
I suddenly changed my mind and said I made it up?" she asked. "I
was interrogated for two hours in a closed room without any possibility
of leaving unless I said it
Patty also sent a letter to Lt. Dennis George Riley, Woodmansee's supervisor at the Madison Police Department complaining that she was pressured into changing her story and that "just about everything these people said in that room was a lie." She says that, whereas she previously would have encouraged a woman who had been assaulted to go to the police, her advice now would be, "Prepare to be victimized again." Patty signed her full name and gave a phone number. She addressed the envelope to Woodmansee'supervisor, Lt. Dennis George Riley.
But Riley never forwarded the letters to the department's Professional
Standards Unit, as the rules require, nor to the DA's Office, as his supervisor
advised. Instead, he gave the letters to Woodmansee, the accused, to put
in his file. That's where they stayed until early on the morning of Feb.
9, 1998, less than an hour before Patty was arraigned on charges of obstruction,
I found out about Patty in early January 1998, when I got a call from
Connie Kilmark, a local financial adviser. Kilmark had recently spoken
to Patty, one of her clients, and was stunned by her account of having
been raped, then coerced by police into recanting. That's the kind of thing
people in Madison say can't happen here. But Kilmark was certain that Patty
was telling the
"After 22 years in practice, I have a pretty good crap-detector," Kilmark told me. "The idea that she could be making this up flies completely in the face of my instincts about her. She has enough trouble in her life. Why would she bring this firestorm on herself? The police version doesn't make sense."
When I first talked to Patty, in late January 1998, nearly four
months had passed since Woodmansee threatened to have her prosecuted and
nothing, so far as she knew, had happened. She wasn't the least bit concerned.
In the course of researching my initial article, I found out that Patty
was about to be charged. The letter ordering Patty to appear in court was
sent to her old
After my first story appeared on Feb. 12, 1998, I was half-expecting
to hear police and prosecutors respond from their respective offices down
the street with a clear, clarion cry of "Oops." Instead the prosecutor,
Deputy DA Jill Karofsky, and her boss, DA Diane Nicks, refused to back
down, even after Patty declined their offer to accept what amounted to
a slap on the
Instead, they invested countless hours preparing for trial. By this time, Woodmansee had been reassigned to the local narcotics squad, and the case was turned over to Det. Lauri Schwartz for further investigation. Schwartz is actually an old acquaintence of Patty's; as teenagers, both had worked as youth advocates for a nonprofit group. "I considered her a friend," says Patty.
One of the first people Schwartz interviewed was me. I told her
of several people named in my article who could substantiate parts of Patty's
story; none of these people were ever contacted; that's not what Schwartz
was after. Her investigation was as incompetent as it is misguided. In
one report, she relates false assertions about Patty's attorney, Hal Harlowe,
based on what James's mother said Cindy told James that Patty had said.
And then there's Schwartz's documented efforts to track down a seven-digit
number that showed up on Patty's phone records as having been made from
her apartment around the time of the assault. Apparently, it never occurred
to her to
"From the perspective of law enforcement," says Harlowe, "everything in this investigation that could go wrong did."
On Aug. 5, Det. Schwartz called Patty's sister Ann to inquire
whether Patty was the sort of person who'd make something like this up.
Schwartz also sought the phone number of the man who molested Patty as
a child. Ann refused to help and called Patty. Patty, an inch away from
saying, "All right, you win, I give up," called Harlowe in tears. Harlowe,
By the time these events transpired, the case was really over. It ended, as Harlowe says criminal cases often do, not with a bang but a whimper.
On June 29, the State Crime Lab reported that it had found semen on Patty's bedsheet, in quantities sufficient for DNA tests. The sheets were collected the morning of Sept. 4, but never tested until after Patty made clear her determination to fight the charge against her.
Schwartz, at Karofsky's direction, obtained hair, blood and saliva samples from James, Mike (with whom Patty was no longer sexually involved), and Don (who she had sex with). But the State Crime Lab results, received July 29, positively excluded all three men. The prosecution now had to account for semen on the bedsheet that didn't match either the chief suspect nor anyone else with whom Patty was known to have consenting relations.
Immediately, the word went out that Patty must have been lying about something else: There was another boyfriend she didn't reveal. Patty got quite a laugh when I pointed out that, while Ally McBeal can't get laid, the cops think Patty can summon lovers at will.
Harlowe filed a motion to compel the prosecution to compare DNA from semen found at the scene against the Wisconsin State Crime Lab's DNA data bank of known sex offenders. Nicks, in an Aug. 24 statement, said the sample recovered proved "insufficient for comparison" but that the discovery of semen, two months earlier, "underlies the dismissal of charges."
"This evidence raises the possibility that [Patty] was assaulted and was perhaps mistaken about her assailant," states Nicks. "[I]t raises a reasonable doubt in my mind; therefore the charge has been dismissed."
So, maybe Patty was raped after all. It was the first time since
early in the investigation that anyone gave her the benefit of this doubt.
Police still insist they did everything right. In a column published in
Isthmus the week after charges were dropped, Lt. Maples defended the handling
of this case. "It is clear," she wrote, "that some parts of Patty's story
were not true, and any
Patty, on seeing this in print, fired off a letter to Maples. "I cannot think of anything I lied about. In inconsistencies, maybe, but I thought I did well, considering the tragedy," she wrote. "Please send me a list of the things I 'clearly lied about.'"
Patty is still waiting for that list.
Bill Lueders is news editor of "Isthmus," Madison's weekly newspaper, and author of "An Enemy of the State: The Life of Erwin Knoll" (Common Courage Press, 1996).
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