MU graduate copes with effects of sexual assault

Sunday, May 23, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:51 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 24, 2010

*CORRECTION: Boone Infectious Disease is located at 1605 E. Broadway, Suite 200, and can be reached at 815-2211. An earlier version of this article misstated the address and phone number.

COLUMBIA — J. remembers waking up on a Saturday morning in the dress she'd worn the night before.

She looked around. On the pillow next to her lay her underwear. Someone had smoothed it down carefully.

Help is available

COLUMBIA — J. was prescribed two anti-HIV drugs to help prevent the possibility of infection.

If you think you've been exposed to HIV or want more information, you can contact Boone Infectious Disease at 815-2211. The office is located at 1605 E. Broadway, in Suite 200.*

Here's some more information about HIV preventative drugs from Carlos Figueroa Castro, a doctor at the infectious diseases center and Boone Hospital Center.

  • HIV preventative drugs are the same drugs prescribed to people who have definitely been infected with HIV. The side effects include fatigue and nausea.
  • The drugs haven't been tested the same way many treatment drugs are tested because that would require people to be purposely exposed to the virus. Instead, scientists study the effects of the drugs on people who have been accidentally infected, such as hospital employees who come into contact with infected needles.
  • There is about a three-day window for the drugs to work. After that, they become less effective.

* * * * 

J. thinks someone slipped a date rape drug — known as a "roofie" — into her drink. If you think that happened to you, you can call 911. You also have the option of going to the hospital and getting a rape kit collected.

Here's some more information about date rape drugs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Three main drugs are commonly used to cause a blackout: Rohypnol, GCB and Ketamine.
  • Each comes in a different form and has slightly different effects, but all three can lead to memory loss.
  • These drugs often leave a person's system by the time the victim reaches the hospital, so it can be difficult to determine whether a person was drugged. It is easier to test for the drugs if the victim hasn't urinated before going to the hospital.
  • Alcohol is known by some experts as the No. 1 date rape drug because many sexual assaults happen when the victim is too intoxicated to consent.

* * * *

MU Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center

Phone: 882-6638

Address: N-214 Memorial Student Union, MU


The Shelter for Victims of Violence and Sexual Assault

Hotline: 875-1370 or (800) 548-2480

Other: 875-0503

Address: P.O. Box 1367, Columbia, MO 65205


MU Counseling Center

Student services: 882-6601

Address: 119 Parker Hall, MU


MU Women's Center

Phone: 882-6621


Address: N-214 Memorial Student Union, MU


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The pieces of an empty condom wrapper sat on the pillow on her other side, carefully arranged so the torn sides touched.

She couldn't remember anything that happened after midnight the night before.

At first, she couldn't focus enough to think. She felt disoriented and spent most of the day struggling to stay awake long enough to call police.

Despite the condom wrapper and the underwear on her pillow, J. was sure she hadn't had consensual sex. She'd had three drinks at two bars, and she'd kept an eye on those drinks as a precaution against being slipped a date rape drug. She never brings men she has just met to her apartment.

Still, J. was sickened by the evidence in her bedroom. She tried to convince herself that someone had opened a condom but left without using it.

Just to be safe, she called the Columbia Police Department, and the officers who showed up suggested she go to the hospital for an examination.

A few hours later, at University Hospital, J. learned she'd been raped. Later, J. concluded she'd experienced the effects of a date rape drug. 

That was the beginning.

For the next several months, she tried to piece together clues to a mystery that has yet to be solved: What happened that night? In the process, she encountered a host of difficulties: overworked police officers, medical bureaucracy, a new fear of being alone.

J. is one of many women with similar stories. The Columbia Police Department received 300 reports of felony sex offenses between 2005 and 2008, and the Department of Justice has found that only about 36 percent of rapes are reported to the police.

J., who is planning to start her career in New York this fall, graduated from MU earlier this month.

"This was not how the end of my year was supposed to go," she said.

* * * *

The 911 call "was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. ... It's a lot harder than you think," J. said. She asked the Missourian not to reveal her identity because she doesn't want people to remember her as "that girl who was raped."

The officers who showed up were gentle as they interviewed her. They collected evidence and took her sheets, which had been a present from her mom.

They drove her to University Hospital, where she met a victims' advocate from The Shelter who told J. her rights as a crime victim and offered emotional support.

The sexual assault nurse examiner gave the woman the news: She showed the signs of sexual activity — activity she couldn't remember and hadn't consented to.

And there — along with her sheets, her underwear and her dress — went her sense of security.

* * * *

Before she dealt with the fear, she took care of the physical consequences. In the hospital, she received a cocktail of antibiotics and Plan B, a drug that prevents pregnancy. No one told her what she was being given; she asked the nurse.

She threw up the drugs that night, which meant tracking down another doctor to prescribe her the drugs the next day. By that time, the sexual assault nurse had left, and the new doctor didn't know which drug the woman had received. He guessed.

A spokesman for University Hospital said he couldn't comment on J.'s case.

Over the weekend, a friend told her about drugs that prevent HIV. To track them down, she called what felt like every health care facility in Columbia: University Hospital, Boone Hospital Center, the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, MU's Student Health Center and others.

She told her story over and over. Someone at the emergency room of Boone Hospital Center sent her back to University Hospital. A University Hospital doctor suggested she get the drugs from the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.

And so on.

She was eventually referred to Boone Infectious Disease, and her experience there was one of the brighter spots of her ordeal, if there can be such a thing.

"I couldn't have wished for a better experience with them," she said.

The doctor prescribed her Kaletra and Combivir. She took the anti-HIV drugs for a month and spent that time nauseated and tired.

* * * *

After she obtained the HIV drugs, she focused on the police investigation, which has stretched on months longer than she hoped.

Police came to her house that Saturday, Feb. 20. The detective assigned to her case called the following Wednesday.

Public Information Officer Jessie Haden said in an interview that detective work moves slowly even in the simplest of cases. The reality is not like "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," she said. Detectives have a lot on their plates.

An ideal workload would be about 25 cases, and some Columbia police detectives have twice that, Haden said.

J.'s experience, though frustrating, is normal, Haden said.

J. asked police to dust for fingerprints, though it's not the usual procedure because it leaves thick black dust on the victim's belongings. She gave the detective names of people she'd seen that night and told police that her neighbors might have some information. J. called some neighbors and other possible witnesses herself, but it was difficult to focus on that with the nausea and tiredness from the HIV medication.

Three months after the rape, police didn't know who it was. The next step is to wait for DNA test results. Because of a backlog at the Missouri State Highway Patrol center that processes DNA, those results probably won't be available for about six months.

* * * *

The Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune published stories about police reports of the rape the Wednesday after she reported it based on information from the police department.

J. was upset by the articles, especially by references to her being unable to remember what had happened. It let the rapist know she couldn't provide identifying information about anyone involved at the start of the investigation, when police could gather the most information.

She called the Missourian to ask editors to change the online article. An editor took out references to the memory loss and wording that J. thought painted her as a "party girl."

J. also called the Columbia Tribune. She was especially bothered that a story by Brennan David called what she'd done "bar-hopping" when she'd only been to two bars. She wanted the story taken off the website, but David told her that wasn't possible. In an interview for this article, David said he asked higher-ups that references to her "bar-hopping" be deleted. But the Tribune wouldn't revise the article.

J. wanted to know what led the newspapers to publish the parts of the stories that made her uncomfortable. She never reached a definitive conclusion, but she learned what happened to her statement between when she gave it to police and when the articles were published.

Victims generally don't see the police reports about them, so J. didn't know until later that it contained several errors.

For example, a bottle of wine was on her table when she woke up. The report said she and a friend drank the wine before they went out that night. But  J. didn't drink the wine that night. It was left over from the weekend before.

That initial police report was the source of the information Haden told the media. Haden said in an interview that she has to tell outlets what she knows. In this case, she simply provided the facts she knew at the time — no editorializing, she said.

Haden said another problem is that the Missouri open records law requires her to give out information from the first report but not any subsequent reports, which are usually more accurate.

J. and her sister, E., met with Haden about a week later to talk about their concerns. J. said she appreciated Haden's time — and the fact that she came in on a Sunday to talk to them — but was still frustrated with the process.

* * * *

Seeking support, she told her family and some friends what had happened. When she missed class because of the HIV medication, she told her professors, who treated her well.

But she gets frustrated when people act differently than they would have before. That makes it hard to think about other things.

Once, a friend called while J. was in class, and when she couldn't reach her, she called another friend, who called J.'s mom, who called her sister, who called her father. When she left class, she had to call everyone to let them know she was OK.

The incident has complicated her interactions with acquaintances and strangers. She was deeply shaken when a male classmate — a big guy — sat next to her, a bit too close. She didn't explain why she suddenly started crying, but he was kind enough to watch her purse while she calmed down in the bathroom.

At a restaurant with her sister over spring break, she ordered a "girlie martini." When she tried to drink it, she choked. The waiter apologized, and she had to explain that there was nothing wrong with the drink.

The problem was the last time she drank alcohol, someone raped her.

The weekend of April 17, she went to a bar for the first time with two of her best friends. It felt like old times — she didn't choke on her drink, and her friends didn't treat her differently.

Things had changed, though. She never drank very much, but she drank even less that night. She asked her male friends to order her drinks because she thought someone would be less likely to slip a date rape drug in their drinks.

She doesn't feel safe walking alone at night, even with the pink Mace that was a present from her sister or in the company of the friends who now see her home.

Toward the beginning of April, J. started seeing a counselor. She feels like she's making progress.

E. agrees. She's especially proud of her sister for following up with police, medical providers and media.

"This is probably strength she's always had in her," E. said.

* * * *

For a while, J. didn't want to stop thinking about the rape for fear that she might forget it. She wrote down what she remembered of the night before the blackout four times — "ritualistically" — to remind herself. She thought if she stopped remembering, her commitment to justice would weaken.

"I don't want to file this away," she said.

She couldn't stop thinking about someone arranging the condom wrapper and panties on her pillow, just for her to find.

"There was something so sly about it, so evil," she said.

It's hard for her to deal with thoughts of the rape itself, in some ways, because she can't remember it. Anyone could be the rapist.

She doesn't know whether she fought back or if she was unconscious. The clues left behind give no concrete answers.

She found her bracelet in a hard-to-reach corner. Did she throw it there? Did it land there during a struggle?

Her shoes left mud on her sheets. Why would she climb into her beige sheets with her shoes on? Did someone put her on her bed?

That leaves her with more questions: Who? How? Why?

* * * *

J. walked across the stage at MU's graduation May 15.

Before the rape, she had planned to send job applications to potential New York employers by spring break. Those plans got pushed back while she dealt with the effects of the rape.

She still plans to move to St. Louis to live with her mom and sister, then she wants to be in New York at the end of the summer.

Her sister thinks it will be good for J.

"She needs to get out of here, get out of that environment, start a new life for herself," E. said.

She'll leave behind the case files and DNA evidence. Sometime in the latter part of this year, police will learn the results. And she might learn more about the rapist if the DNA matches someone in the system.

"Will I be happier?" she asks. "How am I going to feel?"

But she is adamant that she will push for prosecution if police catch the person who raped her.

* * * *

About that person, she said, "They were taking out some sort of violence on me."

Without a name or a face, though, it's hard to conjure up anger toward the person or people responsible.

"It's like they're nothing," she said. "It's like they're a ghost."

Even so, she sees constant reminders of that night.

In a college class, when she looked at the sentence, "She didn't remember what happened last night," she couldn't think about grammar. She thought about being raped.

She now notices how many jokes center on rape and violence — in casual conversation, in movies, in books.

Those things never registered before. Now they seem to be everywhere.

"I was so oblivious, and I think everyone is," she said.

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