I Was Raped—and the Police Told Me I Made It Up
Wilbur Brown opened the door to the gas station with cellophane wrapped around his fingers. He forced Sara out in front of the station, where he made her perform oral sex on him, while holding his pistol against her head.
Photo of Sara Reedy, circa 2012.
If you think India is the only place where cops treat rape victims like shit, think again. At age 19, Sara Reedy was working as a cashier in a gas station in the 1000-person burgh of Cranberry, Pennsylvania, when one night a serial rapist named Wilbur Brown opened the door to the station with cellophane wrapped around his fingers. He forced her out in front of the station, where he made her perform oral sex on him while holding his pistol against her head. There were no security cameras. He then went back inside with Sara, robbed the cash drawer of around $600, and afterwards, hid her in a room behind the office in the back of the service station, where he forced her to tear out all of the phone lines in sight. Incidentally, tangled with one of those phone cords was the power cord to the station's meager security system, a screwy detail that would later endanger Sara's chances for justice. The office also happened to have an emergency exit, which Sara bolted through to safety. She sought shelter in the mechanic's shop next door. One of the tow-truck drivers on duty at the shop telephoned the police while the other went out with a gun to look for the assailant.
What followed, even after such a nightmarish encounter, was worse. Sara was accused of lying to the police. Frank Evanson, the detective who interviewed her in the hospital room where she was undergoing her rape kit examination, accused her of stealing the cash from the drawer and fabricating the assault story as a cover-up. She was put in jail for five days, and waited eight torturous months for her criminal trial. All the while, she was pregnant with her first child.
Wilbur Brown was arrested for a similar crime a month before Sara's trial date in 2005. He confessed to both Reedy's assault and the robbery, in addition to numerous other rapes. In response, after Sara was released, she sued the Cranberry Township Police Department. But the suit was dismissed in 2009, after Detective Evanson presented evidence claiming that Sara had pulled the power cord to the gas station's security system an hour before the time she claimed to have been assaulted. She pulled the cord, he testified, in order to steal the $600, and then invented the rape story as a mere diversion.
Except, it turns out, the good detective had misread the security company's timestamp data indicating when the cord was disconnected, and failed to consult the security company experts who actually knew how to read it. This fact came out when, in August of 2010, attorneys of the Women's Law Project, a civil-rights nonprofit based in Pennsylvania, volunteered to help Sara challenge the dismissal of her lawsuit. The result was that, this past spring, Sara won a settlement of 1.5 million dollars. Part of the settlement was a gag order that said Sara couldn't talk about her case—until now.
VICE recently spoke with Sara while she was on Christmas vacation at her parents' home in Florida.
VICE: Tell me what happened at the hospital.
Reedy: When I was brought to the hospital, Detective Evanson was already there. The police walked me through the waiting room and they basically put me in an office space like one of the nurses would use. It was a very small room, like a cubicle-type space, but it had doors. Evanson was sitting there waiting for me and that's when he asked me to tell him what happened and I told him, and after I was finished telling all the details about the assault and the man, and how I was robbed, his first question to me was "How many times a day do you use dope?"
I thought that he was referring to heroin, because heroin had been a problem in that area, and I told him straight up that I did not use heroin, that I smoked pot occasionally but that I hadn't smoked pot in about a week. Eventually, they moved me into an actual hospital room to give me the rape kit, but actually, before giving me the rape kit, Evanson and the corporal, Corporal Massolino, came in and questioned me again. And I had to go through the details of the assault all over again. Evanson basically led the whole thing—it's cheesy to say, but it almost felt like they were playing this "Good Cop, Bad Cop" game, because Corporal Massolino just sat there. He really didn't say anything. Evanson just kept on grilling me and it eventually turned into "Where's the money? If you'd tell us now about what actually happened, you'd save yourself." And he actually went to the extent of saying, "Your tears won't save you now," when I finally started crying. It was like a horrible Lifetime movie.
What was the first thing you felt when you realized he was accusing you?
I honestly felt like they were just playing "Good Cop, Bad Cop." I was trying to reassure myself that this wasn't actually happening. I was in total shock—I was trying to reassure myself the whole entire time that everything was going to be okay. I was giving myself every excuse as to why it was going to be okay, but I was definitely getting frustrated with dealing with Evanson. I almost felt like, "This couldn't happen. It won't happen." You know, you're brought up to believe that the cops are there to help you.
When did you decide to pursue litigation? You waited for your trial for several months, right?
I didn't really have any basis to sue them until my vindication. That was the position I was in. Innocent until proven guilty, when, in the reality of it, you're guilty until proven innocent. It's hard to go ahead and sue the police until you actually have solid evidence. I'm sure I could have pursued it if I was found innocent in a trial, but I don't think I would have had success if Wilbur wasn't caught and had confessed to assaulting me.
How do you think things would have turned out differently if Wilbur Brown was never caught?
It's hard to say. The case got settled back in February, and probably in January, my attorneys had done a little more research. There was a question about the security cord [at the service station] having been pulled. The basis for my first lawsuit being thrown out was that this security system power cord was pulled. A printout that Detective Evanson had gotten from the security company had said something about certain times the cord was pulled, and nobody really knew how to read it, because nobody worked for the security company. Everyone just assumed that Evanson did his job and talked to the security company in regards to what the printout meant. So it would appear to someone who doesn't know anything about the security system that the cord was pulled an hour before I was assaulted, when actually I had pulled the cord after I had been assaulted, back in that room when Wilbur told me to pull out the phone lines. And about a month before we settled, my attorneys went and talked to the people at the security company, and coincidentally, the guy who had installed the security equipment from the time when I was assaulted still worked there. He explained what the printout meant, and that cord was pulled when I said it was pulled.
Wow. If you could have done anything differently in that initial interview with Detective Evanson, do you think that you would have?
I don't think that, in that position, after having been sexually assaulted and robbed at gunpoint, there is necessarily anything that I could have done differently. I was just in so much shock, and I guess they had a certain expectation of a person who was sexually assaulted. And I didn't live up to that expectation. I think that's what it was—like, I wanted to cry, but I couldn't bring myself to tears. It was like that for me. I was very upset, and at the same time, I wanted this man to be caught, and I wanted to give every single detail as quickly as I was able to these policemen without letting my emotions take over. I don't know that, even if I was this outstanding citizen and didn't smoke pot or whatever, if I would have been able to live up to the expectation that they were looking for.
During the investigation and everything that followed, you were made to be the bad guy. Did your friends and parents start to doubt your side of the story?
Yes. Because I did hang out with the kids who were smoking pot and shit. I think, maybe, there was a part of them that was like, "I don't want to be involved with this girl because she's involved with the police," but also, like I said, heroin was a problem when I was arrested, and I think my friends just kind of took a consensus, "Oh, she's obviously doing heroin, because cops wouldn't do that if you were actually sexually assaulted at gunpoint, they wouldn't handle it that way." And I think my parents struggled with that, too. I mean, my parents haven't had to really deal with police, or being arrested—it doesn't make sense that the police would accuse you of this if they didn't have a good reason to. I maintained a good relationship with my parents, as much as I could, the whole entire time. It was rocky. Evanson kept on calling our house and he would say whatever he wanted to say to my parents. It was just that—why would he say this? Why would he do this if I was innocent? I think they were just torn by that.
What's the most important thing that you hope to convey to the police and investigators as a result of your case?
For a long time, when I pursued my lawsuit, it was just because I was angry and I wanted to say "fuck you" to the police. And that was the whole reason why I decided to sue them. But I think, if there's one thing the police can take away from this, it's to look at what Carol Tracy [a lawyer with the Women's Law Project] is doing in Philadelphia with the police departments there, which is that the victims' advocates are working closely with the police departments. They're using people who are actually trained in how to extract information in those situations, people who don't necessarily have this preconceived notion of how rape victims should act, where they're able to get the information from a victim without the victim being judged by a police officer. But honestly, all I have to contribute is what I've been through.
How does it feel to be this face of women's civil rights right now?
It's kind of hard to take in. I don't really like see myself as a feminist, but I do have kids, and I have a daughter, and I have a mother and a sister. I don't want to see anyone go through that.
You went through eight months of anger and terror. What does receiving 1.5 million dollars feel like after all that? Does it make a difference?
It feels like a drop in the bucket, honestly. You said eight months of dealing with this, it's been basically eight years. It didn't just stop when I was vindicated. And the Cranberry [Police Department's] side has said just about anything they could say to tear me apart. They had an excuse for everything that they did to me. They would pull anything from my past and make any judgment or assumption that they wanted to. Even to this day, Detective Evanson maintains that I did, at the very least, steal $200, because when Wilbur Brown confessed, he said he'd only taken $400. And Evanson's take on the whole thing was, "Well, why would he take only $400 and not $600? He's confessing to all these other heinous crimes." I can't explain Evanson's craziness, but it wasn't just eight months of being doubted and put through the ringer. It continued with the lawsuit on Cranberry's end.
How do you feel about Detective Evanson still having a job?
There have been plenty of people fired from McDonald's for doing much less. That's how I feel about that.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.