She Says: The Winding Road

May 31, 2018

WFAE’s She Says is an investigative podcast series that follows the story of a sexual assault survivor in Mecklenburg County, N.C., and the long and difficult process of finding justice.

In episode 1, we will introduce you to the woman we're calling Linda. Linda was sexually assaulted by a stranger on June 29, 2015, in Charlotte. We'll walk you through the events of that night and its aftermath. And we'll learn what happens when Linda, who grows increasingly impatient with the pace of the investigation, takes matters into her own hands. 

Find more information on She Says, including a timeline of events, the series trailer and resources for survivors of sexual assault, at wfae.org/shesays.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT:

Episode 1: The Winding Road

Editor’s note: This podcast includes adult language and themes. It also contains descriptions about sexual violence. Please be advised. 

_____________

SARAH DELIA: Before we get started, I have a request. Close your eyes for a minute. Go on. It’s just you and me.

You’re on a road. It’s quiet, nighttime. No cars in either direction. The scenery can be any kind you like, but the more desolate, the better. This road we’re going down is going to be a long and winding one. It’s going to have some pitfalls, and it’s going to have some sharp turns.

It’s going to have some dead ends, and we’ll have to retrace our steps to get back to the main path. And it’s going to have curves that make no sense. Many times you’ll wonder—why would anyone want to go down this path in the first place?

OK, go ahead. Open your eyes.

This image of the winding road is the best I’ve been able to come up with for what it’s like to navigate the system if you are a sexual assault survivor. And if that sexual assault occurred in Mecklenburg County, survivors can expect to wait a long time for answers. There’s currently a backlog of about 200 sexual assault kits waiting to be tested.

I want to introduce you to someone currently on this path:

LINDA: Let me take a few deep breaths. OK. I’m 37.

DELIA: She’s also a mother and a wife. I’ve been in contact with her for so long, she’s actually had a birthday.  For this story, because of privacy and safety concerns, we’ve given her the name Linda. 

And Linda knows firsthand this long journey can come to a crashing halt even when you are meticulously placing one foot in front of the other.

My name is Sarah Delia. I’m a reporter for WFAE, the NPR station in Charlotte, North Carolina. And for about a year, I’ve been following Linda’s story. She was sexually assaulted almost three years ago. When I first met her in June of 2017, she didn’t have many answers to her case.

But since then, we’ve looked at Linda’s medical records, police reports, run background checks and talked to dozens of experts: detectives, law enforcement officials and forensic scientists. And we’ve learned a lot along the way.

But only Linda can guide us through the path a sexual assault survivor must learn to walk in order to find some justice and hopefully … heal.

And even after a year of following her story, I still have questions: Why does it take so long to get answers and what can be done to improve this system victims must learn to maneuver? And in Linda’s case, the most pressing question which has forced her to stay on this path and not veer off: When will her perpetrator be brought to justice?

This is She Says.

(End of Introduction)

DELIA: I started speaking to Linda in the early summer of 2017.  This tape is from one of our first conversations while I was at her home. Although her assault occurred in Charlotte, she’s since moved to a northern suburb outside the city. We sit on a couch in her living room. At various points, one of her kids whispers softly asking if they could go to the pool with friends. A cardboard life-size cutout of the musician Bruno Mars stands by the fireplace.

LINDA: … the whole house. Here, I’ll … Some people get frightened by Bruno.

DELIA: Linda is nervous. This is not the first time I’ve been to her home; we’ve spoken off the record before. This conversation is the first time she’s given the OK to put everything down on tape.

So I told you this path was a long one. And it begins on June 28, 2015. And I’m going to be upfront with you. This story involves drugs, alcohol and some decisions Linda can’t take back that in retrospect she wishes she could. But in Linda’s case, as is the case with all sexual assaults -- which unfortunately bears repeating: no one deserves to be sexually assaulted. No matter the time of day, what they were wearing, or the choices they made. OK, so on with our story.

That night, she had been drinking quite a bit of wine with a neighbor. She came home, and at some point, her and her husband get into some kind of disagreement, and she needed some air. And it was late.

LINDA: I just kind of remember being like, you know, I’m just going for a walk. And I made the decision so quickly that I literally had flip-flops, uh a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt and a ball hat on. Didn't take my purse, my phone, nothing. And I knew which ways were the safer places to walk especially late at night by yourself versus the not so safe. And I walked toward the not-so-safe places. 

DELIA: As she walked, she ran into a young man who seemed concerned.

LINDA: He could tell I was intoxicated. He said, you know, you really should not be walking here right now. What can I do to help you out? 

DELIA: It would become clear much too late that this encounter would cause Linda’s path to take a turn that would not end well.

Linda asked for some water so they walked to a 7-Eleven. She says she sat on a curb waiting for him.  

An important thing to note about Linda is that she has PTSD from a previous abusive relationship. Although she had it mostly under control, that night was different. She was reeling from some personal issues, and as she describes, she was not in the right state of mind to make good decisions. She’s not proud of this next part, but it’s an important piece to this story.

LINDA: I told the guy that I just really didn't want to feel at the moment and did he know anyone that would have any type of drugs. I just didn't want to feel.

DELIA: Linda says he went through a list of drugs he could get and when he mentioned crack cocaine she says, “yes.” She says she doesn’t have a history of using drugs besides some experimenting in college. And the poking around I’ve done into her background doesn’t show evidence of illicit drug use.

LINDA: I don't know what triggered that, but that’s what I did. So we walked, and he took me to the person that ended up assaulting me. He introduced me to that person, and that was the person that said he could get the drugs. 

DELIA: They walk over to a man. Linda thinks he was leaning against a brick wall. This is the man Linda says attacked her and I’m going to go ahead and give him a name. For now, let’s call him Mr. X.

So the three of them – Linda, Mr. X, and the first man she ran into – get in a car. They drive. 

But at some point, Mr. X stops the car and the guy Linda first met and brought her water, hops out. She’s starting to sober up and has this feeling that this was not where she should be.

LINDA: And it was almost like the guy kind of just looked at me as he got out of the car like…it just that… this feeling.

DELIA: She says like, maybe he knew this would not end well.

Now it’s just the two of them. Mr. X stops at a gas station. She says he walks inside to get the drugs.

Linda is left alone in the car. She doesn’t have her phone or wallet on her, so if she runs for help, she wouldn’t know where to go. So she stayed in the car.

He returned to the car, and they continue down the winding road of that night. 

LINDA: Then started driving and he went into a neighborhood that was, you know, pretty sketchy. He pulled the car into an area that was pretty secluded. 

DELIA: She says the car was surrounded by this secluded field. She remembers seeing an old radio tower. And she remembers the quiet.

LINDA: He started getting the drugs out and ready and he made a comment and said, ‘This is where I bring everyone,’ and laughed. And I was just very uncomfortable at this point … very uncomfortable.

DELIA: Again, Linda is not proud of this next part. But it’s an important piece of the story. And it’s a part that she’s told both me and the police.

LINDA: He took a hit and then handed it to me. At this point, I’m not wanting to. I’m like, OK this is not good, so I took a, very small hit, very small and handed it back to him, and he took another hit.

DELIA: She says his body started to have a reaction to the drugs; his breathing became heavy. Linda says she didn’t have a reaction to the drugs; she was alert. And it became increasingly clear she was in danger.

LINDA: I was in the passenger’s seat. He was in the driver’s seat. He grabbed my inner thigh and started kind of pulling and trying to like touch me and I was like stiff,  frozen up and was like, ‘No no no no no, please no no no no. I’m married. I have a husband. I’ve got kids, no. This is no.’ And that's when he pulled the box cutter out that he had in his car. And it was just one of those folded, like the box cutters that fold in half and you could flip it open. And he pulled that out, and he said something along the lines of ‘I don't want to have to hurt you,’ or ‘Don't make me hurt you’ -- that kind of thing. 

DELIA: And then, she says he got on top of her.

LINDA: He would have been twice or a little over twice my weight. He more was hurting me. All I could think about was OK my family, and I thought if, if this man you know does this to me...I thought, no, that’s not for him, you know? The thought of that was just like ‘Oh my goodness,’ and then I thought, I really felt like he was going to kill me.

DELIA: She was pinned down. She did manage at one put to find the door handle. That’s when things took a turn.

LINDA: And when I did that, he got very angry and very violent. He hit me on the side of the face, if I got louder, like, whether I was praying out loud or saying no or please or just trying to, like negotiate with him in a certain way if I got loud, he would cover my mouth and then close my nose up to where I couldn't breathe.

DELIA: And then, she says, he would choke her, and he choked her more than once. At one point, things went black. She doesn’t know how long this struggle went on for, but it felt like forever.

LINDA: I thought I’m going to have to use psychology to get out of this because I cannot physically overcome this man. And it came to me, and I said, ‘I have HIV,’ which I do not, but I thought maybe if I say that then you know ... and he lingered on top of me not for much longer, 30 seconds maybe or a minute. I want to say he was still hitting or choking me.

DELIA: Then, he climbed back into the driver seat.

LINDA: That’s when I remember seeing the box cutter again, and he picked it up, flipped it open, looked over at me. I just vividly remember him just undoing, you know what he hadn't already undone, and he held the box cutter up, pulled his penis out and … He threatened me with the box cutter, basically. You're going to do this or this box cutter is going to injure you or end your life.

DELIA: Linda was forced to perform oral sex. During the assault, she says, she was in shock. He forced his hand underneath her underwear. She would later tell me she didn’t realize she had anal and vaginal tears until she says a nurse pointed them out to her. She says during the assault it was like she was there, but not.

When the assault was done, Linda didn’t have time to think about the physical and emotional pain she was in. She had to pull herself together and make a case as to why he should drop her back in the uptown area.

LINDA: I can’t even explain really the feelings that I felt. I just kinda was just numb. I just sat, and he started crying. And he said, ‘Why do I always do this?’ I didn't know what was going to happen next. I was afraid he was going to kill me. And I really thought that, and I kept thinking my family is going to find me in a field in this shady place -- you know near uptown, and you know, I’ll be dead.

DELIA: So when he started to cry, she had a thought: I can use this.

LINDA: I said we all do bad things, you know. Nobody’s perfect. And I said, you know, ‘God forgives us of things, you know, so let's just forget that this happened.’ I said it’s - By this time it's past midnight, way past midnight and you know early into the morning hours and ... but it wasn’t daylight yet. I remember tapping on the clock, and I said, ‘Now my family are, they’re going to be worried, my husband and my kids are going to be worried, and they’re going to be wondering where I’m at. So I said, ‘If you would please just take me somewhere that, you know, I’m familiar with and please drop me off there.’ And he looked at me, looked over at me and looked me in the eyes, and he said you know, 'You’re a really good person.'

DELIA: Eventually he starts to drive. And when they get to uptown, she points him to an intersection she knows but is not too close to her house.

LINDA: A couple of times on the way, like if it was a stop sign, he would linger at the stop sign for what felt like forever, and I was scared that he was going to change his mind and kill me.

DELIA: But he continued to drive.

Linda doesn’t remember what exactly they talked about on that drive. She recalls reassuring him at one point that everybody makes mistakes.

He drops her off. He didn't tell her not to say anything, just slowly starts to drive away. She ran up to the first person she saw and asked to use his phone. He said he didn’t want to get into the middle of whatever was going on. The next person she asked said yes, but told her to make it quick. She dials 911.

The police, she says, come right away. And she starts explaining to the officer that she was sexually assaulted and if they act really quickly they can still get him.  

LINDA: ‘Right down there. You can get him now! Right here, right here! Please go. Go, go, go!’  

DELIA: An ambulance is called, and she is taken to the hospital where her family meets her. Her sexual assault kit is completed by a nurse. She does an initial interview with police. I don’t want to gloss over the hospital stay because it’s an important piece of the story, but for now, let’s say that’s a different path for another episode.

Eventually, Linda’s discharged from the hospital, and she goes to stay with her parents while she recovers. Days later, she’s interviewed by the police at CMPD headquarters.

A closer look at that interview is just ahead. I’m Sarah Delia. This is She Says.

<<MIDBREAK>>

DELIA: Days after her assault, Linda goes down to CMPD headquarters to be interviewed. And she has some questions about how her interview was conducted. She was interviewed by Detective Christina Cougill in early July 2015.

LINDA: It was just she and I in a room, and we were sitting at a little round table, and she was just right across from me. We weren't too far apart from each other.

DELIA: Linda says she was asked about the events of that night, which makes sense. But Linda says, the detective also kept saying over and over again: You need to be completely honest.

LINDA: Finally she said it so much I’m like, 'Listen I’m wide open here with you. Do you think that I wanted to talk about smoking crack cocaine? No. Do you think I’m proud of that? No. I’m being open with you.’ And um she said, ‘Well, I just want to make sure because were you trying to hide something from your husband and make it look like this because you didn't want him to find out?’ Or whatever and you know my jaw hit the floor, like what?

DELIA: She says she pointed out that her husband had driven her to the interview and was waiting downstairs for her. She says that she had shared everything with him … about the drugs, about the assault, about everything.

I think it’s important to note that it’s not out of line for a detective to try and rule out individuals closest to the victim like a husband or a partner. Linda’s issue is more with the way it was asked again and again. And at one point, Linda says the detective told her this:

LINDA: ‘You realize that you could be arrested,’ and I said what for? And she said you know … I don't know the terminology, but it was basically along the lines about false allegations. Like filing, I guess a false police report. I don’t know or even worse. Like she was questioning me more so than asking questions about the man that did this to me. 

DELIA: At this point in the interview with Detective Cougill, Linda is beside herself.

LINDA: People had asked me if I had been in a car accident. So I was black and blue all over my neck. I was hoarse because I couldn't talk. I had a bruise in the shape of a handprint on the inner left thigh. So I got very upset, like not angry with her, but just like hurt that she was asking me these questions like this. And I pointed from my head to my toes, and I said, ‘Does this look like consent to you?’ I was just shocked. I thought these people would be trained on this. The first thing you do, and now I especially know, is you believe someone when they tell you this.

DELIA: Linda says the interview ends on what feels like a strange note.

LINDA: At the end of the interview, she reached across this little table and grabbed my hand, and she said, ‘I want to apologize for the way the beginning of this interview started.' She said, 'It's just I have to weed out false allegations.' And she squeezed my hand tight, and she said, ‘Okay?’ So she said, ‘I had to do that.’ And I thought to myself well, I get that you might have to weed out the false allegations, but this approach had I not like gone through the past abuse stuff that I had gone through, I would have left there suicidal and wanted to never ever go back to the police or speak to them or press charges or do anything at all. 

DELIA: CMPD was interviewed for this series, and we have lots to share on how they feel about Linda’s case and how it was handled. But for this first episode with Linda, we’re going to listen to what she says.

After that meeting, Linda says things went silent. No updates.

By now, it’s September 2015.

On this particular night, her PTSD was in full swing, and she was having trouble sleeping. 

LINDA: The nightmares, not being able to sleep. Laying in bed. Getting so anxious as it started to get dark because I knew that I was going to have to go to bed and that I would be laying there terrified and not being able to sleep. It was torturous.

DELIA: And it was the also around the time of Linda and her husband’s anniversary. She wasn’t in a place where she could be intimate with her husband.

LINDA: And I felt like that had been taken away from me, and that wasn't fair. So I was… the PTSD was like, kind of coming up, so I wasn’t able to sleep much at all. Even I had been prescribed medication that should have knocked a horse out, and it didn't matter.

DELIA: So she decided to take matters into her own hands because here’s the thing: The night of the assault Mr. X left some clues. He was wearing a shirt with the name of the company she assumed he worked for. The shirt had a last name on it. She thinks it’s his. And he told her how old he was.

So she went online. She’s googling and googling…all sorts of combinations. The name, sex offender. The name, company she thinks he works for. Just googling the company name. Hours go by, and there’s nothing. Then she tries the name again and arrest. 

And she starts to click on images. And something happens.

LINDA: I was scrolling down… they’re all thumbnails, no visible text of any names or anything. I’m seeing a lot of mug shots of all kinds of people. And I’m scrolling and I’m looking through these thumbnails, and I see his face. I clicked on that thumbnail, which had no name attached to it. The site came up; it was a mug shot. It had his first, middle and the last name, which is a unique last name. Even regardless I saw his face. I knew that was him right away. Instantly. Clicked on it then it comes up, and then there’s the, ‘Oh my gosh!’

DELIA: Through this little thumbnail of an image, Linda’s world starts to tilt. She says she was staring into the eyes of her attacker. She kept googling and found a bunch of charges against him on one of those free background check websites. Charges involving larceny and assault on women.

This, she thought, was good news. She took screenshots. She found what she believed to be his home address — which was very close to the field she was taken to.

She called the detective who told her to go ahead and send it.

But instead of immediately sending over the screenshots of her search and the identity of the man she believed to be her attacker, she froze. She was scared to send this information.

LINDA: And I remember being frightened like I said. I didn’t want to offend them and make them feel like I figured it out before them. And I remember talking to my husband about it, and finally he sat me down, and he said, ‘Listen, you need to send this to her.’ Because she had asked me for the screenshots. And he had to sit down with me, and we pulled up my Google search history and screenshotted it, threw it in a PDF and got it to her. That was October 9th.

DELIA: It was important to Linda that she didn’t just send over a name or a photo. She wanted her search history. She wanted the detective to see that she had spent hours and hours on this. She wanted to show that she wasn’t crazy, that she wasn’t just picking someone out of the blue. She finally sent his name and the search history to show how she found him. By now, it’s October 2015.

LINDA: I sent it on the 9th, and I didn't hear anything back. So on the 13th, I emailed and said I wanted to touch base and make sure you received the email with the screenshots and my Google search. She was going to be out on leave. I told her I hoped all was well with that and thanked her again for her hard work. And she responded that same day and said that she received the screenshots and that Mr. Perpetrator, I’ll say, is in the national database, so we just need to wait on the lab results. I will let you know if I get them before my leave.

DELIA: The detective would not get back to Linda with lab results before her personal leave. 

Linda says throughout the course of her case being investigated there’s been communication, but communication Linda would mostly initiate herself, asking basic questions about her case, if her sexual assault kit had been processed…what was next? The detective does mention in March of 2016 that DNA was found in her kit and that a DNA analysis was requested. And at some point, CMPD officers did attempt to get a voluntary DNA swab from Mr. X, but he declines. 

Linda says she feels that there isn’t any noticeable movement in her case until the end of March 2017, about a year and 9 months since her assault. 

That’s when the detective comes out to her home to get a DNA swab from Linda’s husband to rule him out as a suspect. According to Linda, that happened after she sent an email asking for an update on her case.

I’ve been walking down this road with Linda for about a year. And we recently came to a fork in the road as this podcast actually looked like it was going to come together – after hours of tape, mountains of emails and drained pots of coffee. Was Linda (and her family) sure she should keep going? Her and her husband spent a lot of time worried and honestly afraid of how the police might feel about this story.

LINDA: We are well aware of, you know, what could potentially happen with this story going out. But it’s important to us that it does. And I realize that I have no idea what they, how they may react, what they may say about me. But I’m strong enough to be able to just push through it. It’s like I don’t want to badmouth CMPD, that’s not what I’m trying to do at all. I’m confused about the way certain things have gone. I still don’t understand it. But, I just want good to come from this.

DELIA: And as you’re hearing Linda’s story — it’s still ongoing. She’s still watching out for sharp turns and dangerous corners. She’s still waiting for this path to lead to somewhere.

I’m sure by now, you have a pressing question: Is Mr. X the person who assaulted her? If it’s not him, who is it? What I will say is that to me, what’s at the core of this story is what happened after Linda’s assault. What happened after her kit was taken? Was she taken seriously by police? What kind of resources does CMPD have for these types of cases? Is it enough? Whether it’s him, or not, well this story is actually bigger than that. Of course, to Linda, whether it’s him or not is, well, everything.

I’m Sarah Delia, this is She Says.

CREDITS:

She Says is written, produced and reported by Sarah Delia. Our editor is Greg Collard. Joni Deutsch is our producer. Alex Olgin is our reporter. Music is provided by Pachyderm Music Lab. Keep the conversation going on Twitter using the hashtag #WFAESheSays. You can tweet at Sarah Delia directly @SarahWFAE. If you want next week’s episode in your feed as soon as it comes out, make sure to subscribe to She Says on NPR One, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you find podcasts. You can find more information about the podcast at WFAE.org/shesays.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

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