It would be nice to imagine the new Netflix series Unbelievable was some kind of an anomaly. A story that’s so outrageous it would have to be a one off tale of gross negligence, indifference, and police incompetence. No one wants to believe stories like this could possibly happen on a larger scale.
Unbelievable is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning article An Unbelievable Story of Rape, written by journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong. It was published by ProPublica in December, 2015. Miller and Armstrong followed up the article with the book, A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, published in February, 2018.
The series is the story of Marie, an eighteen-year-old Lynnwood, Washington resident, who reported to police on August 11, 2008, that a masked man broke into her apartment and raped her. She said the man tied her up with her shoelaces and photographed the assault.
Anyone familiar with the effects of trauma knows how much sexual assault can impact the memory of victims. It’s quite common for minor details to be off or that some memories may be blocked out and can come back anytime. Police officers should know this.
Marie, having no support or advocate available, was left to deal with the police alone. That in itself is just wrong.
Within days police became suspicious of her story and began investigating Marie instead of the crime she reported. Confronted repeatedly with minor inconsistencies in her report (did she dial her phone with her toes or her fingers), she began to doubt her memories and became frustrated until she finally just wanted the badgering on her credibility to end.
Police accused Marie of lying and charged her with false reporting. She ended up paying a $500 fine and ordered to get mental health counselling.
Marie lost her job, her friendships, her housing, and her reputation. All for reporting to the police she had been raped.
Two and a half years later Marie was vindicated when two female detectives, Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, begin to investigate rape cases in Denver and Golden, Colorado. Doing the kind of police work Marie deserved, they zeroed in on a suspect and ended up arresting Marc O’Leary. O’Leary eventually pleads guilty to 28 counts of sexual assault and is serving 327½ years in prison.
O’Leary photographed the women he assaulted. He kept a digital library of his victims, and in his library police found photos of his assault on Marie. She told the truth and she was destroyed for it.
“So basically, you were assaulted twice,” a therapist tells Marie in the series, during a court-mandated counselling session. “Once by your attacker, then again by the police.”
Ken Armstrong, one of the authors of the ProPublica story, has a thread on Twitter for those looking for an update. It includes some thoughts on the series from Marie.
Unbelievable is believable, and that should outrage and terrify us all. Disbelieving victims doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s an attitude some police departments have engrained in their culture.
Last week, CBC journalist Maggie Rahr published an article titled, How did a Halifax police investigation into a woman’s rape go so wrong? The woman in the article, identified as Carrie Low, had her first contact with the Halifax Police while in the hospital following a sexual assault.
A nurse, working on her rape kit, had to remind the officer there his questions about her assault weren’t to be conducted there, but at the police station.
He left her with an evidence bag and told her someone would come to her home and pick it up. It took ten days for someone to do that.
Low then used Google Maps to locate the place where she was assaulted. To date, the police have never gone to that location, even though she told them some of her clothing may still be there.
When asked about why they never went to the location of her assault, Low says an investigator responded, “Well, we didn’t need to go. We believe you.”
Over the next few months, Low’s case was passed around to at least six different police officers and she was called in to repeat her entire statement three times.
Eight months into the investigation, Low would learn her toxicology, which might show traces of drugs in her system, had never been processed.
It’s now a year and a half into the investigation and Low has received no updates on her file since May. No one has been arrested and her attackers are still out there.
Halifax Police Chief Dan Kinsella has ordered a review into the handling of Low’s rape case.
- Unfounded: Why Police Dismiss 1 in 5 Sexual Assault Claims as Baseless
- Unbelievable: The Real-Life Story Behind The Chilling Netflix Show
- The Heartbreaking True Story of Marie Adler From Netflix’s ‘Unbelievable’
If you or some you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available.
IMMEDIATE: In an emergency, call 911 or visit your nearest hospital emergency department
OTHER NUMBERS TO CALL
Find your nearest sexual assault centre by clicking here. You can also look in your local phonebook under Sexual Assault Centres.
GENERAL INFORMATION & SUPPORT