In August 2008, 18-year-old Marie (her middle name) called the police in Lynnwood, Washington, to report nothing short of a nightmare. A strange man had entered her open apartment window, bound and gagged her with her own shoelaces and raped her repeatedly at knifepoint, she told detectives. Throughout the attack, the man had taken photos that he threatened to release if she ever told anyone. Before leaving, he’d forced her to shower to wash away any evidence.
Lynnwood police began the investigation as usual, searching the area around the Alderbrooke Apartment complex for clues. But the investigation would end, at least for a time, with Marie as the accused rather than the accuser.
Marie was a survivor of longtime abuse, living in subsidized housing for young adults transitioning out of the foster system. And Lynnwood police officers found reasons to doubt her: minor discrepancies in retellings of her story, a lack of emotional expressiveness and the extreme violence of her narrative—something that her former foster mother, Peggy, described as sounding like something straight out of Law & Order.
The detectives on her case, Sgt. Jeffrey Mason and Jeffrey Rittgarn, say they were disconcerted by Marie’s apparent lack of emotion. Rittgarn reportedly warned Marie that her transitional housing might be revoked if she didn’t pass a polygraph. Frightened, Marie told police it had been a dream—or maybe she had just made it all up for attention, like one of her former foster mothers had suggested.
Marie was charged with—and pleaded guilty to—misdemeanor false reporting. She was ordered to pay the court’s costs and attend counseling rather than serve any jail time as conditions of her plea deal.
The problem? Marie wasn’t lying.
After attacking Marie, serial rapist Marc Patrick O’Leary stalked and raped at least five other women between 2008 and 2011. A 63-year-old woman in Kirkland, Washington, reported a similar attack around the time of Marie’s. And in the Denver, Colorado suburbs, his victims included a 65-year-old grandmother in Aurora, a 26-year-old engineering student in Golden, a 59-year-old woman in Westminster and a 46-year-old artist in Lakewood.
But while Lynnwood police were dropping the case, two female detectives in Colorado were picking it up.
Detective Stacy Galbraith of Golden and Detective Edna Hendershot of the Westminster Police Department teamed up after Galbraith described the perpetrator’s M.O. to her husband, who was also an officer at Westminster. It reminded him of a case he’d recently looked into himself. The details shared by victims were all the same: the pink heels the attacker made them wear, the forced showers after the assaults and the unique egg-shaped marking on his leg.
Sgt. Hendershot had years of experience and a penchant for detail-oriented investigations, while Detective Galbraith was known for her round-the-clock, fast-paced approach to police work. They formed a dynamic partnership, determined to find and capture this serial predator.
Still, at first, Hendershot, Galbraith and task force members at the Colorado Bureau of Investigations and the FBI had trouble finding the evidence they needed.
An Army veteran, O’Leary approached his attacks methodically, taking pains to hide his DNA and instructing his victims to shower before he went on his way. He also selected his victims carefully, making sure each one resided in a different jurisdiction, so it was more difficult for investigators to get in touch with one another about the case.
But Galbraith eventually used a single footprint, found near the crime scene in Lakewood, to trace back to one of O’Leary’s shoes. Hendershot, meanwhile, discovered honeycomb marks on a railing from one of O’Leary’s gloves.
But what ultimately led detectives to O’Leary was his 1993 Mazda pickup truck. The vehicle had been reported as suspicious during one of the rapist’s many stalking and prowling sessions, and investigators were able to match it to surveillance footage from the area around the Golden victim’s apartment just before her attack. At O’Leary’s home, police found a pink Sony camera he’d used to photograph his victims, alongside a pistol and “trophies” from each of the women he’d assaulted. In his closet, they found stacks of photos of bound and gagged victims—including Marie.
The evidence was overwhelming. O’Leary was sentenced to 347 and a half years in prison, after pleading guilty in Colorado and Washington. He is currently serving his sentence, with no possibility of parole, at the Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado.
Marie’s harrowing trauma became a cautionary tale against an attitude of skepticism towards rape victims in the criminal justice system.
In 2015, she became the focus of the investigative story “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” by T. Christian Miller of ProPublica and Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project. The journalists won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2016 for the piece, which was the subject of the This American Life episode “Anatomy of Doubt” and Miller and Armstrong’s book, A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America.
As Miller and Armstrong point out, studies indicate that average false-rape reporting rates range from 2 to 10 percent at the most. An investigation of Marie’s case by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office revealed that the rate of rape reports the Lynnwood Police Department deemed “unfounded” from 2008 to 2012 skewed much higher: 21.3 percent.
Investigators also found that Marie had been coerced into making a false redaction of her statements. They cited her history of trauma, the minor discrepancies between her stories (that are common in victims’ narratives) and her fear of losing access to affordable housing as factors in her decision to recant.
As for Marie? Her misdemeanor conviction was cleared and her court costs of $500 refunded, two and a half years after her initial report. She ultimately received a settlement of $150,000 after suing the city of Lynnwood. She’s now a married mother who has tried to move on with her life. But her story stands as a harrowing reminder of the importance of both careful investigative work and taking survivors seriously.