“Gripping . . . [with a] John Grisham–worthy twist.”—Emily Bazelon, New York Times Book Review (Editors’ Choice)
On August 11, 2008, eighteen-year-old Marie reported that a masked man broke into her apartment near Seattle, Washington, and raped her. Within days police and even those closest to Marie became suspicious of her story. The police swiftly pivoted and began investigating Marie. Confronted with inconsistencies in her story and the doubts of others, Marie broke down and said her story was a lie—a bid for attention. Police charged Marie with false reporting, and she was branded a liar.
More than two years later, Colorado detective Stacy Galbraith was assigned to investigate a case of sexual assault. Describing the crime to her husband that night, Galbraith learned that the case bore an eerie resemblance to a rape that had taken place months earlier in a nearby town. She joined forces with the detective on that case, Edna Hendershot, and the two soon discovered they were dealing with a serial rapist: a man who photographed his victims, threatening to release the images online, and whose calculated steps to erase all physical evidence suggested he might be a soldier or a cop. Through meticulous police work the detectives would eventually connect the rapist to other attacks in Colorado—and beyond.
Based on investigative files and extensive interviews with the principals, Unbelievable is a serpentine tale of doubt, lies, and a hunt for justice, unveiling the disturbing truth of how sexual assault is investigated today—and the long history of skepticism toward rape victims.
Previously published as A False Report
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About the Author
Ken Armstrong, who joined ProPublica in 2017, previously worked at The Marshall Project and Chicago Tribune, where his work helped prompt the Illinois governor to suspend executions and empty death row. His first book, Scoreboard, Baby, with Nick Perry, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for non-fiction. He has been the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
They have both won numerous awards, including a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," written for ProPublica and The Marshall Project.
Read an Excerpt
Monday, August 18, 2008
Marie left the interview room and walked down the stairs of the police station, accompanied by a detective and a sergeant. She was no longer crying. At the bottom, the police handed her off to the two people who were waiting for her there. Marie belonged to a support program for teenagers aging out of foster care. These two were program managers.
So, one said.
Were you raped?
It had been one week since Marie, an eighteen-year-old with hazel eyes, wavy hair, and braces, had reported being raped by a stranger with a knife who had broken into her apartment and blindfolded, bound, and gagged her. In that week Marie had told the story to police at least five times. She had told them: thin white man, short as five feet six. Blue jeans. Hoodie—gray, maybe white. Eyes—possibly blue. But her story wasn’t always the same in the telling. And the police had heard from people in Marie’s life who had doubts. And when the police had confronted Marie about those doubts, she had wavered, then buckled, saying she had made the story up—because her foster mom wasn’t answering her calls, because her boyfriend was now just a friend, because she wasn’t used to being alone.
Because she had wanted attention.
She’d sketched her history for the police detectives. She’d described growing up with something like twenty different foster parents. She’d told them she had been raped when she was seven years old. She’d told them that being on her own for the first time had made her scared. Her story of being raped by an intruder had “turned into a big thing that was never meant to happen,” she’d told the police.
Today she had tested whatever patience the police could still summon. She had returned to the station and doubled back, saying she had told the truth the first time, saying she really had been raped. But when pressed in that interview room she had folded once more—admitting, again, that her story was a lie.
No, Marie told the managers at the bottom of the stairs.
No. I was not raped.
The two managers, Jana and Wayne, worked for Project Ladder, a nonprofit program that helped foster kids make the transition to living on their own. Project Ladder taught teenagers—eighteen-year-olds, mostly—the mundane skills of adulthood, from how to shop for groceries to how to manage a credit card. The biggest boost the program provided was financial. Project Ladder subsidized each teen’s one-bedroom apartment, making it possible for the kids to get a foothold in the expensive rental market ringing Seattle. Wayne was Marie’s case manager. Jana was a program supervisor.
If that’s the case, the managers told Marie, if you weren’t raped, then there’s something you have to do.
Marie dreaded whatever was next. She had seen it on their faces when she’d answered the question. They weren’t thrown. They weren’t taken aback. They’d doubted her before, just like the others. It occurred to Marie that from now on, people would think she was mentally ill. She, too, wondered if she was broken, if there was something in her that nee ded to be fixed. Marie realized just how vulnerable she had become. She worried about losing what little she had left. A week ago, she’d had friends, her first job, her first place to call her own, freedom to come and go, a sense of life unfurling. But now that job and that sense of optimism were gone. The place and her freedom were in jeopardy. And friends she could turn to? She was down to one.
Her story had, indeed, turned into a big thing. Last week the television news had been all over it. “A western Washington woman has confessed that she cried wolf,” one newscast said. In Seattle the local affiliates for ABC, NBC, and CBS had covered the story. The NBC affiliate, KING 5, zoomed in on Marie’s apartment complex— panning up the stairs, lingering on an open window—while Jean Enersen, Seattle’s most popular anchor, told
viewers: “Police in Lynnwood now say a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a stranger made up the story. . . . Detectives do not know why she made the story up. She could face a charge of false reporting.”
Television reporters had pounded on her door, tried to get her to answer questions on camera about why she had lied. To get away she’d snuck out, a sweatshirt over her face.
Her story found its way into remote corners of the Internet. False Rape Society, a blog that focuses on wrongful accusations, posted twice about the Lynnwood case: “Another in a seemingly endless cavalcade of false rape claims. Once again, the accuser is young—a teenager. . . . To underscore how serious this particular kind of lie is, sentencing for false rape claims needs to be tougher. Much tougher. Only then will the liars be deterred.” A Londoner who compiles an “international timeline of false rape allegations” going back to 1674 made the Lynnwood case his 1,188th entry, following a Georgia teenager who “had consensual sex with another student then pointed the finger at an imaginary man who was driving a green Chevrolet,” and a teen in England who “appears to have withdrawn her consent after texting him to tell him how much she enjoyed it!” “As will be seen from this database,” the compiler writes, “some women will cry rape at the drop of a hat, or more often after dropping their knickers then regretting it.”
In Washington and beyond, Marie’s story became an exhibit in a centuries-long argument about credibility and rape.