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‘This can’t be true’: Bill Cosby’s accusers tell of their reactions when they heard of his sudden release from prison

Bill Cosby accusers Lili Bernard, left, and Victoria Valentino outside the courtroom after Cosby was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial on April 26, 2018. (Mark Makela/AP)

The “Sister Survivors,” as many of the dozens of women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault or harassment call themselves, received the news of the legendary comic’s release from a Pennsylvania prison in a cyclone of tears and pain.

They were sprinkled across the globe when they heard, a testament to the far-reaching scope of a decades-long saga of frustration for the accusers. The news came without warning, clattering down on them just weeks after Cosby had been denied parole, in part for refusing to participate in a sex offender treatment program.

Janice Baker-Kinney, a former bartender, found out at her Northern California home moments after agreeing in a phone call to speak with women who have accused a Wine Country mayor of sexual assault.

Stacey Pinkerton, who fled to live in Spain after she says Cosby raped her, got word of his release while visiting family in her home state of Arkansas. Eden Tirl, an actress who appeared on “The Cosby Show,” learned of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that overturned Cosby’s conviction while she was in England doing research for a book project. Helen Hayes caught a snippet of a news report while walking out the door of her San Francisco Bay-area home to play tennis.

Victoria Valentino was drinking tea and watching a public television program about flower arranging when her phone started ringing and reporters began appearing at her door in Pasadena, Calif.

Cosby may not be done with courtrooms, though. His accusers could have other opportunities to witness sexual assault allegations leveled against him publicly. He faces a lawsuit in California filed by Judy Huth, who says he sexually assaulted her at the Playboy Mansion when she was 15. Huth’s attorney, Gloria Allred, has said she will be allowed to depose Cosby for a second time in that ongoing case.

The criminal case is most likely finished, though a possibility remains that prosecutors could keep it alive by taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Jules Epstein, a professor at Temple University’s law school, noted, “This is such a one-off situation that the U.S. Supreme Court might look at it and say, ‘It’s not worth our time because this will never happen again.’ ”

Cosby’s early release was a day his accusers had dreaded but in many ways thought would never come.

The following reactions are drawn from interviews with The Washington Post, lightly edited for clarity.

The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia explains the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to overturn Bill Cosby’s conviction of sexual assault. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

The 60 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault or harassment — and their stories

Valentino, a former Playboy bunny who lives in Pasadena, says Cosby, now 83, raped her after giving her a “red pill” in the 1970s.

“The first thought through my mind was, ‘This can’t be true. How can they free him from prison after all these lives he’s destroyed?’

“We feel like women have just been thrown under the bus one more time. But instead of making us shrink away, I think it’s going to [anger] us even more and it’s going to step up our motivation and our energy to stand up for what’s right.

“It’s gotten me kicked into gear to speak out.

“And that’s a good thing.”

Hayes, now 86 and living in the Bay Area, says Cosby grabbed her right breast when she was working at a restaurant in Pebble Beach in the summer of 1973.

“I heard it on Channel 5, CBS. They said Cosby’s out of prison. I said, ‘Did he commit suicide?’ That was my hope.

“It’s so awful and so shocking. He is so evil. It’s just unbelievable it’s happening. I don’t know why this is happening when so many people testified against him.

“There are going to be a lot of other lawsuits. But I think they’re going to just die on the vine. He’s out. That’s it.

“Your PTSD just comes right up. Right up in your eyes. Right up in your face. It just brings everything back up. I had awful nightmares.

“I feel for all of these women.

“We have a big daisy chain of ‘Cosby Girls.’ I just hope that women who have had any kind of awful experience don’t go into hiding — and that they feel safe. And that they won’t be called liars. All these awful names.”

Baker-Kinney, a sports broadcast stage manager who testified at Cosby’s trial, says Cosby raped her in 1982 when she was a bartender in Nevada after giving her two pills that left her unconscious.

“He’s a decrepit, sick, vile old man. I hope he burns in the hottest place in hell.

“[After testifying] I felt some new power. I felt empowered. I felt like it was my duty to support other people in the same situation.

“Now I have to figure out how to deal with the backlash.

“I got a heart emoji from Andrea [Constand, the former Temple University women’s basketball official whose account of being drugged and sexually assaulted by Cosby prompted the charges that led to his conviction in 2018.]”

The ‘Difference Makers’: How the testimony of five additional women led to Bill Cosby’s conviction

Tirl, now an author, says she “endured a terrifying week of grooming and abuse” and was “locked in his dressing room” after Cosby had whispered in her ear about “making love” and hugging her against her will in 1989 — after she’d earned a role on “The Cosby Show” at the age of 22.

“I just had my breath taken away. I’m shocked. I assumed that he would at least serve three years. I’m a little gobsmacked.

“Finally, perhaps, people will pay attention to this very, very important story. The #MeToo movement kind of left us behind.

“Cosby never would have been able to do what he did if celebrities weren’t valued so much in our society.”

Therese Serignese, now a 64-year-old retired nurse living in Boca Raton, was an aspiring 19-year-old model in the mid-1970s, when she says Cosby gave her pills that left her in an “altered state of consciousness” and raped her.

“I walked in the house and my son told me that he’d been released. He found it because he has an alert on his phone for my name.

“It was a gut punch.

“I got some anxiety because I fear Bill Cosby.

“This is a glitch. Make no mistake — he’s not innocent. He wasn’t found innocent.

“I hope that all people all over the country are willing to continue to fight for justice so that serial rapists don’t away with it. Give them their day in court.”

Lili Bernard, now a Southern California-based artist, says Cosby drugged and raped her in the early 1990s after she’d guest-starred on “The Cosby Show.”

“I can’t stop crying. I’m crying my eyes out. I’m very stunned and saddened.”

Pinkerton, now a radio broadcaster and speaker based in southern Spain, says Cosby drugged and raped her in the mid-1980s while she was an airline flight attendant and model.

“I’m not going to stay silent. I’m going to get people — men and women — who are victims of sexual assault to use their voices.

“The facts don’t change. The conclusion is that the jury reached the conclusion that he is a sexually violent predator. I don’t think this is going to change the facts or the opinion of him. He can’t use this as if he’s innocent. The jury found him guilty.

“The thing is that, over and over, time after time, people are silenced about these violent acts by sexual predators.

“There was some form of justice we felt having him in prison, and now that’s not the case.

“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight.”

Others who spoke after the court’s decision:

Constand, the woman Cosby was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting.

The decision, she said in a statement, was not only “disappointing but of concern in that it may discourage those who seek justice for sexual assault in the criminal justice system from reporting or participating in the prosecution of the assailant or may force a victim to choose between filing either a criminal or civil action.”

Patricia Steuer, who said she woke up naked on more than one occasion after she’d been knocked unconscious by pills Cosby gave her in 1978 and 1980 when she was an aspiring singer.

“I’m wondering what the purpose was of the 43 years of this ordeal and the trauma that I had and the trauma that my family endured as a result,” Steuer told CNN.

Sammie Mays, a writer who says she lost consciousness in the mid-1980s and awoke with her shirt unbuttoned and her bra pulled up after consuming a drink Cosby poured her while she was trying to interview him at an entertainment industry conference in New Orleans.

The court’s decision to release Cosby, which became public with the release of a majority opinion written by a male judge, “shows that women do not have the respect of men,” Mays told TMZ.

Angela Leslie, an actress who says Cosby forced her to stroke his penis in the Elvis Suite at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1992.

“It seems the justice system served the criminal, in this case, as opposed to the victims,” Leslie told the New York Daily News. “At this point, I just hope that he took time to reflect on the pain and anguish his actions caused so many women. And, also puts in the work towards becoming a better person.”