She was carrying two bags of groceries and walking through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park during rush hour one evening when, from behind, she heard a man whisper into her ear. She felt an arm wrap around her neck. She felt her body being dragged 20 feet up a grassy slope. And then, behind a tree, just out of view of passersby on the footpath below, she was raped.
The 27-year-old woman, a Yale University graduate and social justice activist, immediately went searching for police, according to multiple April 1994 accounts in the New York Times and elsewhere. She managed to flag down a patrol car and report the attack to the officers inside, describing the assailant as a heavyset, bearded black man wearing a black hat and a leather jacket.
The reported rape had fanned fears in Brooklyn that a serial rapist was on the loose, as the Times reported; another woman had just been raped on the streets of Manhattan 15 hours earlier.
But two days later, in the pages of the New York Daily News, a hotshot columnist told a much different story. There was no need for any alarm, columnist Mike McAlary insisted, citing anonymous police sources. Because the real story, he wrote, was that the rape never happened.
Under the headline “Rape hoax the real crime,” McAlary described the woman as “kind of vocal about being a lesbian” and said that “all we really know about her is that she has an active imagination.” He charged that she had made up the rape for attention: It was all part of her plan to give a speech about being raped at an anti-violence rally organized by the gay community, at least according to anonymous police.
“The woman, who probably will wind up arrested herself, invented the crime, they said, to promote her rally,” McAlary wrote.
The rape victim read it. She read the next column, too, in which McAlary again branded her a “hoaxer.” And she read the one after that, in which McAlary declared in a headline, in the face of mounting evidence that he was wrong, “I’m right, but that’s no reason to cheer” — still while citing unnamed police sources.
“She told me then, she was raped twice,” the woman’s attorney, Martin Garbus, told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Now, 24 years after Garbus and the woman first demanded police apologize for publicly sowing doubt about her rape in the press and damaging her life and her reputation, the apology has finally come.
On Sunday, New York Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill issued a public apology addressed directly to the rape survivor. It came months after DNA evidence from semen discovered on her shorts led to the suspect — a serial rapist who had preyed on at least 10 known victims in New York, O’Neill said. At the time, the woman, who has remained unidentified as a rape victim, specifically requested apologies from all those who hurt her reputation in a written statement published by the Times in January. As she wrote in her statement then: “I paid a terrible, terrible price for my #MeToo.”
“We know the damage that sexual assaults inflict on survivors,” O’Neill wrote in the apology. “Compounding that damage with insensitive comments and wild conspiracy theories only further amplifies the cruelty and injustice of the initial crime itself. For that, I am deeply and profoundly sorry."
Back in 1994, McAlary’s columns caused outrage from the LGBTQ groups aligned with the victim and general confusion as police said one thing in public and something else entirely as anonymous sources.
At the time, McAlary was a boisterous, no-holds-barred columnist known for playing hardball with sources but maintaining chummy relationships with NYPD’s top brass, dining with them on red meat at swanky Manhattan joints, New York magazine reported in 1994. During a contract dispute with the News and the New York Post, he once admitted in court that his ego was “sort of out of control,” the magazine reported. His editors were so confident in his reporting, the magazine reported, that they comfortably allowed him to publish columns based entirely on unnamed sources without thinking twice.
But the 1994 columns presented an unparalleled controversy in his career — so much that writer Nora Ephron would later feature the controversy in a Broadway play she wrote about McAlary’s life.
The police sources were reportedly telling McAlary that there was no physical evidence or witnesses to corroborate any of the victim’s claims. No semen, no scratches on her back or bruises around her neck, no groceries strewn about the crime scene. But just one day after his first column published, forensic analysts at the crime lab said traces of semen had been found.
Concerned the controversy would deter rape victims from coming forward, then-Police Commissioner William Bratton called a news conference. He said he was sorry that police leaked “some thoughts” about the case to reporters, which he described as “unfortunate,” the News reported. But Bratton said nothing about whether he believed the rape victim’s story — something McAlary described as “wise” in his next column.
“Stand your ground,” McAlary reported police sources telling him. “The lab is wrong.”
McAlary’s editors stood by his reporting, the News reported — despite a petition from more than 30 News journalists demanding the paper apologize.
Maligned in public, the rape victim sought justice in court, suing the News and McAlary for libel. But in 1997, a judge sided with the tabloid, finding that McAlary had not acted maliciously or recklessly — key requirements for libel — because he was only reporting what his sources told him.
“She could have appealed, but she chose not to,” Garbus told The Post. “She just couldn’t live with it any longer.”
Years went by, and while Garbus said the case had always haunted him, it wasn’t until 2013 that it seemed to come back to life. He saw an ad for the Broadway play “Lucky Guy” by Ephron, which followed McAlary’s career in tabloid journalism from the early 1980s up to his 1998 Pulitzer Prize in commentary, the same year he died of cancer. Garbus went to go see it. Ephron died in 2012 of complications from the blood disorder myelodysplasia.
“We can all revisit Mike McAlary’s life and death on Broadway thanks to Ephron’s play,” he wrote in a column for the New York Times a week after seeing the production. “But who will tell us Jane Doe’s story? . . . I can still think only of the unlucky woman behind that lucky man."
Garbus said Tuesday that among his readers was a detective at the New York Police Department. Suddenly, he said, it seemed investigators were interested in the case again — armed this time with advancements in DNA testing.
Finally, in January of this year, NYPD announced that it had completed the testing on the semen found on Jane Doe’s shorts. The results showed it belonged to a convicted serial rapist, James Edward Webb — now serving 75 years to life in New York’s Sing Sing prison.
“I am grateful . . . for the improved forensic technology that, in the intervening years, has allowed us to affirm — at long last, and beyond the shadow of a doubt — that the Prospect Park survivor absolutely told the truth,” O’Neill said in his Sunday statement.
“I am deeply saddened by the rift this case created between law enforcement, brave survivors of sexual assault, and the LGBTQ community, with whom we work so closely each day,” he continued. “And I want to be clear: We take what happened to the victim of the brutal assault that night in Prospect Park, and to others every year, extremely seriously. But in this case, we fell short in an important area: Simple humanity.”
In January, the Daily News editorial board acknowledged that McAlary had “amplified” attacks from police officials, “causing her further pain."
Webb was arrested for at least 10 sex crimes from 1968 to 1995, the Times reported. In 1995, he was convicted of raping four women and attempting to rape a fifth. He will not be indicted in this case because the statute of limitations has expired.
In her statement to the Times in January, the victim wrote, “I’m grateful that someone believed the four women James Webb raped after he raped me.”
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