Netflix’s new series Unbelievable tells the true story of an 18-year-old who retracted her report of rape because neither the police nor her former foster parents believed her.
Marie Adler filed a police report in August 2008, claiming she was raped by a masked intruder at her home in Lynnwood, Washington.
The teenager recalled the attack to the authorities, explaining she was woken up in the early hours by a man with a knife who tied her up, blindfolded, gagged and sexually assaulted her. He then took photos of Marie, with her driving learner’s permit on her chest to identify her, and threatened to post the images online if she told the police.
The new series is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning article An Unbelievable Story Of Rape, by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project.
Watch the trailer here:
People have different ways of dealing with trauma; some feel every raw emotion while others shut down completely. Marie wasn’t clear on some details of her attack – which, objectively, seems entirely understandable. Something unthinkable was happening – it would be difficult to focus on specifics.
According to the article, by the time Marie reported her assault sex crime specialists had developed protocols which recognised the challenges of investigating rape cases. Investigators were advised not assume a victim would be hysterical rather than calm; able to show clear signs of physical injury; or certain of every detail.
At first, Marie told police she called a friend to tell him about the rape after cutting herself free from her bindings, while in a later report she said she made the call when still tied up. Rather than being sympathetic to the fact the teenager would likely have been distressed and disorientated in the aftermath of the sex attack, police questioned why her story didn’t add up.
— ProPublica (@propublica) December 14, 2015
Dee Conlon, from the charity Victim Support, told UNILAD the main reason people choose not to report a rape is for fear they won’t be believed. Dee’s claim is based on the charity’s experience working with victims and from their own research.
When reporting a rape, victims often feel that they are the ones on trial and many do not want to put themselves through that after what they have already experienced.
The feeling of being on trial is highlighted in Unbelievable, as authorities repeatedly questioned Marie about her story, looking for inconsistencies and indicating they had doubts, in turn making her feel like she’d done something wrong.
Marie began doubting herself and conceded the rape might have been a dream due to the pressure, before writing a statement saying she made the story up.
There are many reasons why victims of harassment, sexual assault or rape don't report immediately, or even at all. These include:
🛑shame or blaming themselves
🛑worry about not being believed
🛑concern about a consequences of reporting
🛑feeling daunted by reporting process
— Kirsty Strickland (@KirstyStricklan) August 26, 2018
Marie was charged with filing a false report and in March 2009 she went to court, where she was offered a plea deal. Her case would be dropped if she got mental health counselling for her ‘lying’, had supervised probation, abided by the law and paid $500 to cover the court’s costs.
After being scorned for allegedly lying about her rape, Marie decided she wanted the whole situation behind her, so she took the deal. She had been branded a liar by the police and had to live that way for the following two and a half years.
Marie found the courage to report her attacker even after he threatened to post pictures of her online, but the reception she was met with serves as a prime example of why victims may hesitate to report attacks.
Though Marie’s experience with the police took place in 2008, her story sheds light on difficulties surrounding reporting sexual assault still prevalent today.
According to Rainn, an American is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. Out of every 1,000 cases, 230 are reported to police. 46 reports lead to arrest, nine cases get referred to prosecutors, five cases will lead to felony conviction and an average of 4.6 rapists will be incarcerated.
The statistics aren’t very encouraging but it absolutely should not put victims off reporting their cases. If there are more cases reported, there will be more offenders convicted.
It was similarities between sexual assault reports which allowed Detective Stacy Galbraith, from Colorado, to discover there was a serial rapist attacking women around the time Marie was assaulted – though unfortunately the discovery wasn’t made until years after Marie’s ordeal.
Detective Galbraith was first alerted to a case in Colorado in 2011, where the victim described being jolted awake by a man who had jumped on her back, before tying her hands and raping her.
The attacker documented the assault with a digital camera and threatened to post the pictures online if the woman contacted the police. Afterwards, he ordered her to brush her teeth and wash herself in the shower.
Detective Galbraith recounted the events to her husband, David, who worked at a different police department. He realised the details were similar to a case which had passed through his department and alerted his wife.
Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and @KaitlynDever will star in Unbelievable, a new limited series created by Susannah Grant & based on the Pulitzer Prize winning article, An Unbelievable Story of Rape. Lisa Cholodenko will direct the first three episodes. pic.twitter.com/QIkT9XgTJj
— See What's Next (@seewhatsnext) June 25, 2018
The case David knew of had taken place in 2010, when a man jumped on a 59-year-old woman’s back, tied her hands, raped her and took pictures of her. Westminster Detective Edna Hendershot had taken the case and, at the time, she had been informed of another similar case which happened in October 2009.
Once the different police departments started to work together, more details emerged about the attacker. He left very little DNA evidence at the crime scenes and while investigators were able to narrow down the field of suspects to males belonging to the same family line, there was not enough DNA to identify a single individual.
A crime analyst found a suspicious-looking pickup truck had been reported three weeks before one of the attacks. It was described as a white Mazda and matched the description of a truck which had appeared in blurry surveillance footage taken from outside the apartment complex where Detective Galbraith’s initial rape case had occurred.
The common sightings suggested the truck, registered to a man named Marc Patrick O’Leary, belonged to the attacker.
It takes real courage to report rape. If you’ve reported it or not, we’re here to help all victims of rape and sexual assault.
— Victim Support (@VictimSupport) September 11, 2013
From an outsider’s perspective it may be difficult to understand why someone would choose not to report a rape but for survivors the prospect is undoubtedly a daunting task.
Dee Conlon spoke of some other reasons people choose not to report their attacks, explaining the majority of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, potentially making them hesitant to turn in the attacker.
Others don’t want to put themselves through the long court process, during which they could potentially be re-traumatised through the scrutiny of the events.
When it comes to reporting a rape, the charity worker said the main information police will want to know is where and when the attack happened, information or a description of the attacker and more details on the circumstances of the attack – though of course, every case is unique.
Marie could offer few details about what her attacker looked like. Police inspected her apartment and found the shoelaces used to bind her, the kitchen knife used to threaten her and her learner’s permit on a windowsill. She went to hospital to be checked over, where a medical report noted abrasions to her wrists and vagina.
Dee explained in cases where there is a lack of physical evidence, police may consider corroboration from witnesses, medical records, school records or other victims of the same perpetrator if they are known.
In spite of the injuries Marie had sustained and the shoelaces and knife supporting her story, police still failed to believe her.
However, Marie has said she never regretted reporting her attack as she had wanted to help the police and ensure no one else got hurt. While the events which transpired for her were heartbreaking, it was reporting which eventually led to the attacker being caught.
Only the person who has been sexually assaulted knows what decision will be best for them when it comes to reporting the crime but Dee pointed out that by not informing police, victims may be less likely to get the support they need and seek the justice they deserve.
She added reporting a crime doesn’t necessarily mean giving away your identity, explaining:
It’s important to understand that the perpetrator may already be known to the police and there may be past – and potentially future – victims that a report could help.
Victims can report anonymously if they don’t wish to speak to the police and there’s no time limit on reporting sexual violence.
Anyone affected by sexual assault, or any other crime, can contact us for free & confidential support: https://t.co/msHyw5BzZO
— Victim Support (@VictimSupport) April 21, 2016
The charity worker continued:
We know that for some victims the process of reporting the crime is very empowering for them and helps them to move on with their lives.
It’s important to remember that independent support is available throughout the process, and that a victim has the right to change their mind or opt out at any stage.
Dee spoke of how charities can offer support with reporting a rape if victims don’t want to go directly to the police, though she emphasised help is still available even if they choose not to report the crime.
Marie did not have a close family network to rely on when it came to getting support; she was sexually and physically abused from a young age and entered foster care when she was about six or seven.
While in high school, she lived with foster mum Shannon McQuery for a couple of weeks before moving in with Peggy Cunningham, who worked as a children’s advocate at a homeless shelter.
When she turned 18, Marie learned of Project Ladder, a programme designed to help young adults who had grown up in foster care transition to living on their own. The organisation provided subsidised housing and Marie moved in to a one-bedroom apartment in Washington. It was there the rapist broke in and attacked her.
Marie phoned Peggy after the attack, who found her on the floor in her apartment, crying. However, according to An Unbelievable Story Of Rape, the foster parent said she ‘got this really weird feeling’ when listening to Marie recount the events.
I felt like she was telling me the script of a Law & Order story.
She seemed so detached and removed emotionally.
I've had too many experiences with sexual assault or harassment. I've tried to be open about my stories to my friends and family but the truth is not everyone will believe you & knowing that people will constantly doubt your truth is a horrible feeling
— fatherkilali (@kilali_ej) September 7, 2019
After reporting her assault and being checked over at the hospital, Marie phoned her other former foster mum Shannon and told her, with ‘no emotion’, she had been raped.
The Survivor’s Trust, which provides support for rape survivors, told UNILAD victims may react in a wide variety of ways, explaining they could be ‘angry, depressed, withdrawn, or they may even seem not to be reacting or be numb’. However, Marie’s seemingly calm nature made Shannon wonder if she was telling the truth.
Shannon and Peggy confessed their doubts to each other and wondered if the teenager was lying for attention.
The day after the attack, Peggy called one of the investigators working on Marie’s case. Sgt. Mason said the caller ‘related that [Marie] had a past history of trying to get attention and … was questioning whether the ‘rape’ had occurred’.
Speaking to UNILAD, Dee stressed how important it is for friends and family to support a victim.
If a friend or family member confides in you, you are likely to feel all sorts of emotions – you might be angry or upset – but don’t let your emotions dominate the conversation. Don’t react and don’t offer any judgement, just listen and be patient.
It would be devastating to hear a loved one had gone through such trauma and the charity worker said while there is no ‘right way’ to react, it’s recommended listeners give the victim space to talk.
Don’t push them to discuss the details as this might re-traumatise them and could have an impact on any potential police investigation.
Whether a survivor reports right away, years later, or not at all is completely up to them. But we #WontStayQuiet about sexual violence until every survivor feels safe to come forward. https://t.co/kqQwL4Ph13 pic.twitter.com/UtP0NUnIv0
— RAINN (@RAINN) August 24, 2019
Peggy went to the police to discuss Marie’s attack behind her back; a clear violation of trust and support.
Dee said people should never report a rape on behalf of anyone else without their consent and added ‘the best thing you can do is encourage them to seek professional support, which they can do anonymously if they wish.’
Less than two months after Marie was charged with false reporting, her former foster mother Shannon heard about a rape case in Kirkland, east of Seattle, on the news. Spotting the similarities between this story and Marie’s, she contacted Kirkland police. However, when investigators reached out to Lynnwood police, who handled Marie’s case, they were told the story had been made up.
— RAINN (@RAINN) August 27, 2019
It wasn’t until the attacker had been taken in by police for attacks on four more women, two and a half years after her horrific experience, that Marie was finally believed.
After linking O’Leary to the white Mazda pickup truck, police confirmed his driver’s licence photo matched the description given by victims; a 6’1″ man with hazel eyes. Officers surveyed the 32-year-old’s house and watched as a man resembling O’Leary and a woman left to go to a restaurant. They tailed them and managed to get DNA samples from their used glasses.
While the couple were at the restaurant, another officer knocked on O’Leary’s door to ensure no one was around, as he planned to install a surveillance camera nearby. However, a man resembling O’Leary answered the door.
It turned out the suspect lived with his brother, Michael, and the siblings closely resembled one another. The DNA from the restaurant’s glasses confirmed the DNA at the crime scenes belonged to an O’Leary, but it wasn’t clear which one.
Thankfully, one victim had been certain about a particular physical aspect of her attacker; he had a dark birthmark on his left calf. After confirming the attacker was one of the brothers, Detective Galbraith got a search warrant and went to the house, where she lifted Marc’s trouser leg to reveal the birthmark.
When O’Leary was arrested, a forensic computer specialist cracked into his hard drive and found a folder labelled ‘girls’, which contained pictures of his victims. Detective Galbraith found images of the victims she knew of, and one she didn’t – Marie. The young woman was identified through the name and address on her learner’s permit.
O’Leary pleaded guilty to 28 counts of rape and associated felonies in Colorado and almost a year after his arrest he was sentenced to 327½ years in prison – the maximum allowed by law. He also pleaded guilty to both Washington cases and in June 2012, four years after attacking Marie, he was sentenced to 40 years for the rape in Kirkland and to 28½ years for the rape of Marie in Lynnwood. He will never be released.
In a review of the events surrounding Marie’s report, Sgt. Gregg Rinta, a sex crimes supervisor with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, wrote that what happened was ‘nothing short of the victim being coerced into admitting that she lied about the rape.’
Thankfully police did learn from their mistakes in Marie’s case. According to An Unbelievable Story Of Rape it led to changes in practices and culture, with detectives receiving additional training about rape victims. However, Dee has made clear the fear of not being believed is still a big issue, making Unbelievable still relevant today.
Believe survivors of sexual assault.
Believe women who are survivors of sexual assault.
Believe non-binary and genderqueer people who are survivors of sexual assault.
Believe men who are survivors of sexual assault.
Believe survivors of sexual assault.
Then support them.
— Academic Foxhole | TrooperSJP (@AcademicFoxhole) August 29, 2019
The title of the series should be regarded as a comment on the shocking reactions of those Marie confided in – not a word used to describe a survivor of sexual assault.
Reporting a rape is undoubtedly a tough process but it could stop the attacker from hurting other people. It’s never too late to report sexual assault and support is available every step of the way.
Anyone seeking help in the UK can contact Victim Support’s 24/7 national Supportline on 0808 16 89 111 or get in touch at www.victimsupport.org.uk.
Those seeking help in the US can contact Rainn on 800 656 4673 or via the website at www.rainn.org.
Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.