Since its debut last Friday, Netflix’s Unbelievable has become one of the most acclaimed shows of the year. Along with praise for its nuanced performances and intelligent writing, it’s been deservedly hailed as a prime example of a true-crime drama that leads with the victim’s perspective, and a timely exploration of how sexual assault victims are routinely dismissed and disbelieved.
As the series begins, 18-year-old Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) is raped at knifepoint by a masked man who breaks into her apartment. She immediately reports the attack to local police in her Washington town, but they seize on minor inconsistencies when she's forced to tell the story repeatedly to various officers. The police ultimately accuse Marie of making up the rape, and she's so traumatized and intimidated by the process, she falsely admits to fabricating the story. Marie's life gradually falls apart over the subsequent weeks; she loses friends, her job, and her housing. To top off the nightmare, she's charged with a misdemeanor for false reporting.
Just as you’re wondering how you’re going to get through seven more episodes of this drama without spontaneously combusting from rage, Unbelievable cuts away to a parallel narrative thread in another state. It follows two detectives, played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette, who are investigating a string of sexual assaults in Colorado. After they arrest their suspect, they discover he took photographs of each of his victims—including Marie, who’s finally vindicated thanks to the detectives’ tireless work.
The series is based on a real story, reported by journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong in the Pulitzer-winning Marshall Project and ProPublica article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” Below, a timeline of the true events behind Unbelievable.
August 11, 2008
Shortly before dawn, an 18-year-old woman (identified in ProPublica’s story by her middle name, Marie) was attacked in her Lynnwood, Washington, apartment at knifepoint by a masked man. The intruder tied and gagged her, raped her, and took photographs of her, which he threatened to post online if she contacted the police. Nonetheless, she immediately reported the attack to authorities, who became skeptical when small inconsistencies began to emerge between her multiple statements.
Detective Jerry Rittgarn challenged Marie directly, telling her that “her story and the evidence didn’t match” and that he believed she had made the story up. Marie faltered, then confirmed that she had lied. She first confirmed this verbally, then in two separate written statements. In the first, she wrote that the rape had been a dream; in the second, she wrote that she had made it up. Miller and Armstrong described her thought process in that moment.
To Marie, it seemed the questioning had lasted for hours. She did what she always did when under stress. She flipped the switch, as she called it, suppressing all the feelings she didn’t know what to do with. Before she confessed to making up the story, she couldn’t look the two detectives, the two men, in the eye. Afterward, she could. Afterward, she smiled. She went into the bathroom and cleaned up. Flipping the switch was a relief—and it would let her leave.
In an episode of This American Life released in tandem with the ProPublica article, Marie opened up about her memories of the experience. "I'm still in shock that they didn't believe me," she said. "I was mad, too. I did pound my hand on the table and stuff like that. And the only way they would leave me alone is if I wrote a statement saying that it didn't happen."
August 18, 2008
One week after she reported her rape, Marie returned to the police station to recant her written statement, which she said she had made under duress. She told Rittgarn and another officer that she really had been raped, and she said she wanted to take a lie detector test to prove it. In response, Rittgarn warned Marie that if she failed the test, she would be jailed and might lose her housing assistance. Marie “backed down” at this, and “the police officers walked her downstairs, where the Project Ladder representatives asked if she had been raped. Marie said no.”
To stay in the program, Project Ladder’s managers told Marie that she had to confess to her peers that she had made up the story. She felt ostracized as a result and briefly considered suicide. Later that month, Marie discovered that the Lynwood police department was charging her with false reporting, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
A 63-year-old woman in Kirkland, Washington, reported that she was raped by a man with a knife who broke into her apartment, tied her up, and took pictures. “For the last two or three months, the woman told police, she felt as if someone had been following her.” Kirkland is roughly 20 miles from Lynnwood.
Marie appeared in court accompanied by her public defender. The prosecution offered to drop the charges if she agreed to seek “mental health counseling for her lying,” go on supervised probation, avoid breaking any more laws, and pay $500 to cover the court’s costs. “Marie wanted this behind her,” Miller and Armstrong wrote. “She took the deal.”
In Aurora, Colorado, a 65-year-old woman reported being raped by a masked man who tied her hands with a ribbon, took pictures, and threatened to post them online.
A 46-year-old woman in Lakewood, Colorado, reported that a masked man with a knife had broken into her apartment and tried to tie her wrists. She had managed to escape through her bedroom window. At the scene, police found several pieces of evidence including shoe prints in the soil outside the victim’s bedroom and “honeycomb marks” on a window.
In Westminster, Colorado, a 59-year-old woman reported that she had been raped in her apartment by a masked man who tied her hands, took photographs of her, and made her shower afterward. Investigators found honeycomb marks on the window, which Detective Edna Hendershot, who responded to the Westminster scene, later identified as a match for those found at the Lakewood scene.
January 5, 2011
A 26-year-old woman in Golden, Colorado, reported that she was repeatedly raped in her apartment by a masked man with a gun; he tied her hands, took photographs of her, and made her shower afterward. He also took her sheets and bedding with him. Detective Stacy Galbraith responded to the scene, described by ProPublica below.
Galbraith listened to the woman with a sense of alarm. The attack was so heinous; the attacker so practiced. There was no time to waste. Sitting close to her in the front seat of the car, Galbraith carefully brushed the woman’s face with long cotton swabs to collect any DNA traces that might remain. Then she drove her to St. Anthony North Hospital. The woman underwent a special forensic examination to collect more DNA evidence. Before she left with a nurse, the woman warned Galbraith, “I think he’s done this before.”
The Golden victim also remembered one distinctive physical detail about her attacker: a dark, egg-sized birthmark on his left calf.
January 6, 2011
Galbraith sent an email to the Westminster Police Department, asking the officers if they had received any reports of crimes that seemed similar to the Golden attack. Hendershot recalled both the Westminster and Aurora reports, and seeing the eerie similarities between the three crimes, she responded to Galbraith. “Cops can be protective about their cases, fearing that information could be leaked that would jeopardize their investigations,” ProPublica noted. “But Hendershot right away recognized the potential in collaborating and in using every tool possible.” She, Galbraith, and Aurora Detective Scott Burgess collaborated to compare their investigations and came up with one key piece of evidence linking them—the description by ProPublica below.
The descriptions of the attacker were similar. So, too, his methods. But there was a clincher: the woman in Galbraith’s case had remained as focused as possible during her ordeal, memorizing details. She recalled the camera that the attacker had used to take photos. It was a pink Sony digital camera—a description that fit the model stolen from the apartment of the Westminster victim.
Hendershot, Galbraith, and Burgess later broadened their search and discovered the Lakewood case. “At the time, police had labeled the case a burglary,” Miller and Armstrong wrote. “But in fresh light, it appeared very much like a failed rape attempt, committed by an attacker who closely resembled the description of the rapist.”
February 13, 2011
After a lengthy search, detectives identified Marc O’Leary as their chief suspect, using surveillance footage of his white Mazda pickup truck from the scene in Golden. On February 13, Galbraith knocked on his door with a search warrant and patted O’Leary down, lifting his left pant leg to look for the distinctive birthmark the Golden victim had described. She found it. As Galbraith told This American Life, she immediately thought, "He's the guy. He needed to be in handcuffs. He was very surprised. He went almost blue."
O’Leary was arrested for burglary and sexual assault. Inside his home, investigators found shoes that matched the prints left outside the Golden and Lakewood scenes, a pair of Under Armour gloves with a honeycomb pattern, and a black head wrap that seemed to have been used as a mask.
Following O’Leary’s arrest, police enlisted a forensic computer specialist to access encrypted files on his hard drive. The specialist found a folder containing photographs of all O’Leary’s victims, including “an image of a woman [Galbraith] didn’t recognize. It was a young woman‚ far younger than the Colorado victims, perhaps a teenager. The pictures showed her looking terrified, bound, and gagged on a bed.” The picture also included the woman’s learner’s permit, identifying her as Marie. "I'm thinking, thank god," Galbraith told This American Life. "I don't have just an unknown victim here that I may never know who she is. I know who this is … He probably did that as a form of intimidation to her: I know who you are. I'll have your name and your address. But it helped us, actually."
Shortly after this revelation, Lynnwood police tracked down Marie, who was now living in a town to the south of Seattle, their meeting noted by ProPublica below.
[Police] told her the news: Her rapist had been arrested in Colorado. They gave her an envelope with information on counseling for rape victims. They said her record would be expunged. And they handed her $500, a refund of her court costs. Marie broke down, experiencing, all at once, shock, relief and anger.
According to This American Life, Marie ultimately asked the lead detective on her case for an apology. She received it.
December 9, 2011
O’Leary pleaded guilty to 28 counts of rape and associated felonies in Colorado, and was later sentenced to 327 and a half years in prison. He is imprisoned at the Sterling Correctional Facility and will never be released.
Galbraith worked with a Washington criminal analyst to link O’Leary to the rapes in both Lynnwood and Kirkland. He pleaded guilty to both in June, and was later sentenced to 40 years for the rape in Kirkland and 28 and a half years for the rape of Marie in Lynnwood.
Marie sued the city of Lynnwood. Per the Seattle Times, she stated in her lawsuit that Lynnwood detectives had “disregarded evidence of the assault, bullied her into saying it didn’t happen, and then threatened to have her thrown out of her apartment when she insisted it did.” In January of 2014, she settled with the city for $150,000.
In a recent interview with NPR, Armstrong spoke about how Marie is doing today. “She’s doing well,” he said. “One of the things that Marie told us is that after all of this happened, she didn’t want to live in fear. She didn’t want to let this experience limit her in how she went about the rest of her life. These days she’s a long haul truck driver. She drives an 18-wheeler across the country. She and I speak fairly often. And it seems like every time I talk to her she’s in a different state. She is strong. And she is resilient.”
“He didn’t take my life away,” Marie told ProPublica earlier this month. “I don’t want to cower in the corner. I didn’t want it to ruin the rest of my life. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. I wasn’t going to let him destroy me.”
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