Two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters uncovered the trail of a serial rapist and two very different police investigations. TCR talks with one of the journalists who followed the story.
In 2008, 18-year-old “Marie” was raped in her apartment near Seattle, Washington. But within a few days of reporting the assault to police, Marie, whose full name remains unidentified, became the subject of the police investigation.
As Pulitzer Prize winning reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong recount in in their book A False Report: A True Story of Rape, she didn’t act according to police preconceptions of how rape victims should behave. And when they received a phone call casting even more doubts, they dropped the investigation.
Then Marie’s attacker went on to rape several more women in Colorado.
Armstrong and Miller argue the story is an example of how preconceived notions influence police investigations and raise questions about the fairness of the justice system. In a conversation with TCR staff writer Megan Hadley, Ken Armstrong explains how reporters working in two different cities came together on the investigation, what it taught them about the media’s influence on sexual assault cases, and whether the gender of investigating officers makes a difference in such cases.
The Crime Report: How did you first become interested in the case of a possible serial rapist out in Colorado?
Ken Armstrong: I lived in Seattle, so I had seen coverage in the Seattle Times of the rapists’ arrest and it turned out he had also raped a woman in Washington [named Marie], who had reported the crime and not been believed. What was missing from the coverage was Marie’s personal account. She had not spoken to the media about what she had gone through. What I was hoping to get were details on how the police investigation in Washington went off the rails. I was hoping to be able to reconstruct how the investigators first began to doubt the woman’s account, and how those doubts spread.
TCR: Where did you and your co-author, T. Christian Miller, find each other in the story?
Armstrong: It was a really unusual set of circumstances. I was working for The Marshall Project when I began working on the story in 2015, and T was working for ProPublica. He was interested in reporting on the investigation in Colorado because he heard about the outstanding work that the detectives there had done. So he wanted to profile an investigation done well–done spectacularly well. I was looking at the other half of this story, in Washington, in terms of what went wrong. Both of us intended to fill out our reporting by figuring out what was happening in the other state.
T crossed state lines first. He placed a call to Marie’s attorney in Washington and found out there was another reporter working on the same story. So he told his editor, and they decided, instead of rushing the story into print in order to beat us, they would reach out and see if we wanted to work on it together. So that’s what we did. It was pretty serendipitous. I had half the story based on what happened in Washington and he had the other half based on what happened in Colorado, so we were able to walk those two paths together.
TCR: Early in the book, you mention that cops take different approaches to investigating a rape because there is no universal consensus for the best way to solve it. Should there be necessary steps that police officers must take when investigating rape claims?
Armstrong: I do think there can be best practices. There needs to be a consensus that the most important aspect of any investigation is the evidence. Evidence trumps assumptions. You can’t be swayed by pre-conceptions or assumptions about what someone should act like when they get hurt. That’s what happened here. A lot of people around Marie had pre-conceptions about how she should act because she had been raped. And when she didn’t meet those expectations, they began doubting her. And one of the people who doubted her called the police, and then the police began doubting her.
That didn’t happen in Colorado. Detectives (there) investigated each of the reports thoroughly and they let evidence guide them towards what was the proper conclusion. So to me, it’s the idea that you have to investigate thoroughly and completely, and you can’t be blinded by your assumptions about what every victim should be doing.
TCR: You note that most of the police force is male-dominated, with a macho, hierarchical and militaristic mindset. Is that why so many rape cases go unsolved?
Armstrong: I don’t know if you can attribute it to gender- it did happen to be the case here though. The cases that were solved in Colorado, two of the lead detectives there were women. And the case that was so mishandled in Washington, the lead detective was a man. But I think what is most important is competence, compassion, patience and understanding and those qualities are not limited to either gender.
There have been studies showing that female police officers can be more patient and understanding, particularly in the case of domestic violence, and it’s possible that you might see a carry-over to rape cases. But I think that it’s the qualities I just described rather than the gender of the detective or the officer.
TCR: You also mention the public’s influence on police investigations, quoting a retired police sergeant, who said “people outside of law enforcement didn’t want to talk about sexual assault.” Is that changing, in light of the recent cases involving Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and others?
Armstrong: That is changing. We’re seeing that with the #MeToo movement. There is a real realization about how prevalent this problem is and how it needs to be dealt with directly and in a public fashion. The examples you just mentioned with Weinstein and all kinds of cases that have been written about in the past year.
TCR: In the book, you include multiple chapters from the perspective of the rapist, detailing the “monster within” that he struggled with for many years. Did you want readers to sympathize with the serial rapist?
Armstrong: No we did not want readers to sympathize with him. We wanted to interview him for the same reason the FBI wanted to interview him after he was caught, to gain a better understanding of what drove him and to get a better understanding of how he avoided being caught for so long. The FBI agent spent four hours with him afterwards, trying to gain an understanding of what steps he had taken to avoid being caught, so that the police could benefit from that knowledge, and hopefully incorporate some of that knowledge towards how to investigate cases going forward.
TCR: Do you think, generally, someone convicted of a crime can go back and help police catch other perpetrators?
Armstrong: They can. This is why you often see police officers wanting to go and interview people after they have been caught. The more you understand about a criminal, the better your chances of catching other people going forward.
TCR: You also include chapters from the perspective of Marie, the rape victim who police officers refused to believe. What are some of the issues that stem from pre-conceived notions about how a rape victim should act?
Armstrong: I think some people have an expectation that a rape victim would be crying, would be hysterical, and some are. But some aren’t. Some have almost no affect, their voice is flat, their appearance is flat. When you look at what happened with Marie, the people around her expected her to be hysterical and crying and they were taken back when she spoke with so little emotion. When she didn’t make eye contact, some people found that to be unusual. When she didn’t hug someone she would usually hug, people found that to be unusual. At one point she was giggling and people thought that was unusual.
People were constantly looking for behavior from her to align with what they expected, and when they didn’t see it they became suspicious, and that extended to both the people who were friends and family, and to police officers investigating the case.
TCR: What can police departments do to ensure that survivors are not re-victimized by the very institutions that are sworn to protect them?
Armstrong: One big element is to listen. Also, how you speak to someone who has been hurt and how you question them is important. The big problem in a number of cases we looked at is the police officers didn’t interview people as victims. Instead they interrogated them as suspects and treated them as though they were someone who committed a robbery. They used interrogation techniques that are grossly inappropriate in a setting like this.
Those interrogation techniques put an extraordinary amount of pressure on people, and when you see rape victims who were raped recant their story, you have to understand the interrogation techniques and how powerful they are.
TCR: You also note the layers of doubt that afflict every stage of a rape prosecution including the victim doubting themselves, police doubting, prosecutors and juries doubting. So, what needs to change in order for victims who are telling the truth to receive justice for the crimes committed against them?
Armstrong: I think it’s important to not start by doubting. When someone reports being raped, listen and investigate and let the evidence take you to the right conclusion.
Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.