Monday, December 20, 1999
Second of three parts: The Rape Squad Files
How police failed the victims
Jogger took initiative to seek attacker
Part I, extensive background and a database of reported crime.
By Michael Matza,
Grace Roman tries, during a recent visit, to locate the spot where she was sexually assaulted near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge on West River Drive in 1995. (April Saul / Inquirer Staff Photographer)
and Craig R. McCoy
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Even now, Grace Roman is haunted by the attack.
She was jogging after dark on West River Drive when a man stepped out of the shadows near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and knelt to tie his shoe.
When Roman passed, the man lunged, tackling her so hard that one of her contact lenses popped out. He dragged her into the bushes, tried to tear off her jogging suit, drove his hands beneath the stretchy fabric, and violated her.
Roman is certain that if a passerby had not caused the attacker to flee, he would have raped her. "Yes. Yes. Oh, my God, yes," she said recently. "It would have kept on."
Patrol officers responded quickly and searched, unsuccessfully, for the attacker. Then the case was referred to the police sex-crimes unit. Roman hoped for a thorough investigation and a quick arrest of a man she thought was likely to strike again.
She was bitterly disappointed.
After interviewing her on the night of the assault, Roman said, investigators from the Special Victims Unit never talked to her again - except when she phoned them.
Officers complained that they were overworked and told her, repeatedly, that she should just be grateful to have survived. When she asked whether her attack was part of a pattern of sexual assaults in the area, she was told that was none of her business, Roman said.
She and her husband, Doug, tried to supply the urgency they found lacking in police. They paid an artist $200 to draw a sketch of the suspect, and posted the likeness around Fairmount Park. Doug Roman visited a carnival near the site of the attack to search for someone fitting the assailant's description.
The couple said they had gotten tired of waiting for investigators to act. Their frustration mirrored the feelings of many other victims whose cases were shelved or viewed with indifference by police over the last two decades.
"They just kept saying, 'Be glad you're not dead,' " said Grace Roman, now 33. "And I remember just thinking, 'What an awful thing to say to somebody.' "
One symptom of the sex-crimes unit's feeble response, she said, was the way the crime was classified - not as an attempted rape, but as a lesser sexual assault not included in the major-crime statistics, collected by the FBI, that serve as a report card on public safety.
Law enforcement experts say incidents with fact patterns similar to Roman's are typically classified as attempted rapes.
A month ago, The Inquirer submitted a written request for information and comment on the case to the Police Department. Late last week, Bradford Richman, a special assistant to Police Commissioner John F. Timoney, responded.
He said the coding of Roman's case was appropriate: "She says he touched her in certain inappropriate or indecent ways. There's no indication that he intended to rape or was attempting to rape her. He was assaulting her in a sexual manner. You can speculate as to what his goal was."
Richman said he lacked information to address Roman's fundamental complaint - that investigators were halfhearted in their efforts.
The lead investigator in the case declined to be interviewed.
Roman said she was particularly upset by the police response because she believed that her assailant was a practiced predator. "He knew to cover my nose and throat. I couldn't scream. I couldn't even breathe. He knew how to twist me so I couldn't see him. . . . He knew exactly what he was doing. He was waiting. Eyeing me. I guess I was his victim that day."
The man has not been found.
Recent Inquirer stories have described how the Special Victims Unit - understaffed, poorly trained, and under pressure from commanders to generate favorable statistics - gave short shrift to thousands of sexual-assault cases.
Women's complaints were dismissed as "unfounded" or filed away in a bureaucratic dumping ground called "investigation of person" to keep them out of the city's crime count.
At a recent City Council hearing prompted by the Inquirer articles, rape counselors called attention to another dimension of the problems in the rape squad:
They said police often treated sexual-assault victims insensitively, did not keep them informed of the status of their cases, and seemed to do little or nothing to find the attackers.
Timoney maintains that those problems are largely in the past. Since taking office last year, he has installed a new sex-crimes commander, increased staffing in the unit, and brought in consultants to train investigators in dealing with victims.
Grace Roman's story opens a window onto what it was like for a woman who had been sexually assaulted to deal with a sex-crimes unit that seemed not to care.
In 1995, Roman, then 29 and a paralegal, lived near 10th and Waverly Streets in Center City with her husband. On the evening of June 1, she went for a jog along the Schuylkill, on the loop between the Art Museum and Falls Bridge.
At the bridge, she crossed from Kelly Drive to West River Drive and headed back to Center City. It was light out when she started, but now it was around 10 p.m. She noticed that there were few people around and began to feel uneasy. She thought of doubling back to Kelly Drive but decided to press on.
Near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, the man grabbed her.
"He just lifted me," recalled Roman, who stands 5-foot-4 and weighs 110 pounds. "And then he just ran with me over to where it was dark. This whole time, I am thinking: 'Oh, you are in so much trouble. 'Cause this is not a joke. This isn't like someone is playing a game with you. This is for real.' "
In English, the man barked, "Shut up." In Spanish, he muttered words she didn't understand. He sat on her back, stripped off his shirt, and tried to stuff it in her mouth to silence her. Roman was wearing a black, one-piece jogging outfit with pink and white stripes. The attacker couldn't figure out how to strip it off, and he was raging.
Then the sound of a man approaching with his dog caused the attacker to run. He dashed north toward the Falls Bridge, masking his face with his shirt.
"He was bare-chested, and he was running," recalled Melvin Justice, 33, a West Philadelphia furniture salesman who was walking his tan pit bull by the river. "I was talking to the dog. I know this guy heard my voice."'
Roman emerged from the bushes at the river's edge with twigs in her hair, screaming that the man had tried to rape her. She and Justice flagged down an ambulance that happened to be passing by. The medics called 911.
A patrol officer from the 90th Police District responded. Learning that Justice had seen the attacker, the officer asked him to get into her patrol jeep and help her search for the man. Roman stayed behind with the ambulance crew members, who measured her blood pressure and tried to calm her.
The search for the attacker, joined by other police officers, was unsuccessful.
Later, the patrol officer filled out an incident report, quoting Roman's statement that a man "grabbed her while jogging" and put his "fingers in her vagina."
A sergeant at the 90th District station house read the report and classified the incident as a "1705" - the numerical code for "sexual assault."
Code 1705 is meant for cases in which someone engages in nonconsensual "indecent contact" with another person, without intent to commit rape.
The district sergeant declined to be interviewed for this article. His judgment was a quick first read on Roman's case. The sex-crimes unit is supposed to determine, based on its investigation, what the final classification should be.
In Roman's case, the unit coded the case the same way it came in - as a "1705."
Richman, Timoney's assistant, said the coding was appropriate because it was not entirely clear that the man cut short his attack in reaction to Justice's arrival. It is possible, Richman said, that digital penetration was all the man intended. The assailant tried to take Roman's clothes off, Richman said, but did not remove his own pants.
Experts on sex crimes say that an attack of the kind Roman endured typically is classified as attempted rape.
Sgt. Joanne Archambault, supervisor of the San Diego Police Department's sex-crimes unit, said that is how she would classify such an incident.
Archambault said it does not matter whether an attacker specifically tells the victim he is going to rape her. In Roman's case, the man's actions - dragging her into the bushes, trying to disrobe her, forcing his hand under her jogging suit - were characteristic of a rape attempt.
"That's pretty explicit," she said.
Carey Robinson, a crime-coding expert with the Pennsylvania State Police, which supervises the collection of crime data from cities in Pennsylvania for submission to the FBI, expressed a similar view about Roman's case. "That is an attempted rape," he said, citing the FBI "Green Book," the authoritative manual on crime coding.
The "Green Book" uses a hypothetical situation similar to Roman's case to illustrate an attempted rape: "A woman is attacked on the street by a man who attempts to have sexual relations with her. The attacker is frightened away by a pedestrian before he can complete the attack."
Prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said the legal standard for attempted rape is whether the attacker took "a substantial step" toward committing the crime. It makes no difference whether the assailant has exposed himself or begun to shed his clothes.
Under FBI rules, Part I major crimes - including murder, robbery, rape and attempted rape - are included in Crime in the United States, the widely publicized, city-by-city analysis published each year by the bureau.
For purposes of the FBI report, an attempted crime is treated the same as a completed one. So if Philadelphia police had classified Roman's case as an attempted rape, it would have gone into the statistics as a rape. By assigning Code 1705 - a lesser, Part II, offense - police kept it out of the FBI report.
The classification of a crime can have consequences that go beyond record-keeping. When an incident is moved down the scale of severity, it doesn't have the same priority for police officers as a major crime. Their response can lose urgency.
After the unsuccessful search for the assailant, the patrol officer drove Roman and Justice to the headquarters of the Special Victims Unit, a squat, yellow-brick building at the former Frankford Arsenal. Roman was interviewed. Justice gave police a short statement, too.
Roman declined the police offer to take her to a hospital. She just wanted to go home. A few hours later, she went on her own to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, a few blocks from her house.
Doctors performed a pelvic examination and prescribed an antibiotic. A burly male nurse said, "I'm sorry this happened to you" and handed Roman a brochure about a program for post-traumatic stress.
"I hadn't cried the whole time," she said, "but I started to then."
Overthe next few days, Roman called the Special Victims Unit to ask about the investigation. She took the initiative, she said, because other than sending her a form letter about victim services, the unit had not contacted her to follow up. "I called them every day for a while. The line was either busy or they couldn't talk. We just felt totally abandoned by the police. Out of the loop." Whenever she tried to reach the investigator handling her case, he was unavailable, she said. "He disappeared - for me, anyway. They just kept saying, 'Be glad you're not dead.' "
Roman said officers also told her to complain to politicians "that there are just not enough people to handle all of these cases. 'We just have too many cases and we're overloaded.' I got that story over and over and over. . . . I was getting really angry."
Gary Griffiths, a former top criminal investigator for the Army who has lectured and written widely on sexual assault, said follow-up interviews are critical. Investigators should reach out to the victim at least twice after the initial interview, he said. Victims frequently recall important details with the passage of a few weeks.
Griffiths also said it was important for police to communicate concern. His writings include an FBI journal article on the need for investigators to establish rapport with sexual-assault victims so they will recall and share information.
"Too many detectives, after so many of these cases, tend to get a little cynical," said Griffiths, now a law-enforcement consultant in the Dallas area. In many cases, he said, the victim's behavior might seem "high-risk" to investigators. "We know it because we have seen it so many times. But she doesn't know it. We have to step back and put ourselves in the victim's shoes. She has to be made to feel comfortable and in control a little bit."
Justice, the only witness to the attack, said police did not follow up with him, either. He said that after a brief interview the night of the attack, investigators took his phone number and never called him.
On a field above West River Drive, a carnival was under way on the night that Roman was attacked. She says police, that night and when she called them subsequently, told her that the assailant probably was a transient connected with the fair.
"They were like, 'Oh, he's gonna come, he's gonna go. Oh, well,' " Roman said.
Eleven days after the incident, the Romans, concerned that police had not produced a sketch of the suspect, contacted Frank Bender, a well-known forensic artist in Philadelphia, and asked him to draw one based on Justice's description.
"She called me up out of total frustration and the sense that no one really cared," said Bender, best known for making sculptures from decomposed human remains, which police have used to solve crimes. "She felt she wasn't getting her fair share of attention from the police."
Griffiths, the law-enforcement consultant, said a sketch of the suspect should be done "as soon as possible, [when] it's freshest in the witness' memory."
"Nothing was happening" in the investigation, said Doug Roman, 37, an investment professional. "So we stepped into the void."
Grace Roman contacted Justice, who went with her to Bender's studio on South Street. "I didn't want Melvin to forget what he looked like," Roman said.Justice said Roman seemed to be doing "more homework" than detectives.
Bender's sketch shows a broad-faced, curly-haired man with a narrow nose and dark mustache. It describes the attacker as Hispanic; about 25 years old; 5 feet, 9 inches tall; and weighing about 145 pounds.
Roman gave the sketch to the rape squad, which copied it onto Police Department stationery, complete with official seal, and made it into a "wanted" poster for distribution to police districts.
Doug Roman, determined to get the poster as widely circulated as possible, took it to a Kinko's copy shop, made 100 copies, and tacked them up around the area of the attack.
Two weeks after the assault, Grace Roman met with a crisis counselor from Woman Organized Against Rape, who encouraged her to call the sex crimes unit again.
Roman said she wanted to know whether her attack was part of a pattern.
"When I called police and asked them, 'Have there been other crimes out there?' the answer was, 'It's really none of your business. That's something that we would handle internally.' I mean, they treated me like I was really stupid."
Roman contacted reporters after reading Inquirer articles on the mishandling of sexual-assault cases and failing to find her case in a computerized list of major crimes from the last decade. The database was released by the Police Department and is posted on The Inquirer's Web site.
Though it is painful to relive the details of her attack, Roman said, she wants her story heard, as a cautionary tale.
"I really don't care who knows," said Roman, now the mother of two young children. "Because it wasn't like I asked for it. I wasn't, like, sexy or in a bar. I was jogging, and it wasn't my fault."
The attack shook her sense of security. Afterward, she was afraid to go outside her Waverly Street apartment, afraid to walk the few blocks to the art school where she took lessons.
"I used to enjoy freedom in the city - you know, going to the grocery store and the video store and all that. That was just a real hard time," she said. "I couldn't bear it. I just couldn't bear it."
Within days of the attack, the Romans began house-hunting. Within months, they had moved to the suburbs.
"I should have just gone out and found him myself. Honest to God. That's what I feel like," said Roman. "If you don't act quickly, what have you got?"
Tomorrow: A teen who reports a therapist who groped her is not believed - until years later.
------------- ------------------ --------------------- ------------------ --------------------- ----------------- ----------------- -------------------