A touch changed everything.
Megan, 23, was groped as she got off the train at L’Enfant Plaza. In the weeks since, she has been forced to relive over and over the feel of the man’s hand and the memory of being sexually assaulted years earlier. She has felt the lows when police didn’t seem to care about what happened to her. She felt the highs when it seemed they did. But ultimately she’s been left with disappointment, and the sense that reporting sexual harassment should have been much easier.
“I feel really exhausted,” she said.
Megan’s ordeal really began more than four years ago, when she was sexually assaulted at a college party. Years of flashbacks and nightmares followed. She had worked hard to move on, and on that spring morning, the assault was far from her mind.
“I was so happy it was spring because winter is so hard,” she said.
Her train pulled into L’Enfant Plaza around 10:30 a.m. As she was getting off, a man getting on grabbed her thigh and kept his hand there. She froze, and that college party roared back. Afterward, Megan wandered through the station alone, crying.
“It brings up the same feelings of total violation, that I’m not in control of my body,” she said.
Metro would later say that “a person of interest” in Megan’s groping didn’t stop there: Four hours later, as he rode down an escalator at the Columbia Heights station, he punched a woman riding up, and escaped.
But the next day, when Megan filled out Metro’s online form to report harassment, the connection to the other attack had yet to be made. That Monday, she called a sexual assault hotline and began talking to D.C. and Metro detectives.
There seemed to be confusion. She’d have to tell her story seven times over the next few days — each time bringing back that college party — until she hit a low point.
“I cried the whole day yesterday,” she said the Friday after the incident. “I could barely work.”
A detective had also told her he was going to be away and that nothing would happen for a week. It felt like those who are supposed to protect her thought her case could wait.
But the following Wednesday, detectives told her they’d identified a suspect from security tapes and thought he was involved in the Columbia Heights assault. They were seeking warrants for both incidents. An arrest — and a bit of closure — seemed close.
The next day, detectives were back, saying their 28-year-old suspect, Rivera C. Barnett, was already in jail in Arlington for an unrelated offense and would be there for at least a month. Metro police had issued a warrant for his arrest in the Columbia Heights attack. But prosecutors didn’t think there was enough evidence to charge him for what happened to Megan.
By the next evening, Megan was spent from all the ups and downs.
“This is the first thing I think of in the morning,” she said. “Like, as I’m hitting snooze on my alarm, I’m thinking about it.”
She was still skeptical that police were genuinely concerned about what happened to her.
“I have the sense that something more violent had to happen,” she said. “Without the other assault, nothing would have happened with what happened to me.”
And the incident continues to haunt her.
“Life also feels different now,” she said.
When she was groped, she had looked down at the man’s hand and not at his face. Now when she’s out and about, “I feel like I have a responsibility to remember everybody,” she said.
Coincidentally, that same week that detectives identified a suspect, Metro began an anti-sexual harassment campaign. Megan stopped by L’Enfant Plaza to see.
Near where several Metro police officers and detectives were distributing handouts, she sat trembling as she looked at the brochure.
In an earlier campaign, Metro’s posters targeted potential attackers. “Rub Against Me and I’ll Expose You,” one said. But the brochure in her hands focused on urging bystanders to intervene by finding an excuse to talk to the victim and distract the offender. Nothing was aimed at harassers themselves.
“What about saying, ‘Just stop touching people?'" Megan said.