In August 2008, a stranger broke into the apartment of an 18-year-old Lynnwood woman, gagged her, bound her hands with a shoelace and raped her.
When the woman reported the attack to Lynnwood police, she says detectives Jerry Rittgarn and Sgt. Jeff Mason didn’t believe her. Claiming police coerced her into recanting her story, the woman was charged with false reporting and fined $500 when she later tried to insist the rape did happen.
It wasn’t until 2½ years later, when former Washington state resident Marc O’Leary was arrested for several rapes in Colorado, that Lynnwood police reopened their investigation. Among the items Colorado detectives found in O’Leary’s possession were photographs of the woman and her ID card.
O’Leary was convicted of three rapes in Colorado and two in Washington, including the Lynnwood attack and the rape of a 63-year-old Kirkland woman, and is serving a 327-year sentence in a Colorado prison.
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The victim of the Lynnwood attack last week filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city of Lynnwood, claiming detectives disregarded evidence of the assault, bullied her into saying it didn’t happen and then threatened to have her thrown out of her apartment when she insisted it did. Also named in the suit are Rittgarn, Mason and Lynnwood Police Chief Steven J. Jensen.
The woman, identified in the lawsuit by the initials D.M., says she was forced to undergo counseling when Lynnwood police told managers of the at-risk youth program where she was living in 2008 that they didn’t believe she’d been raped, according to court documents.
The lawsuit alleges that the woman was required to stand up in front of other program participants and say that she had lied about being raped or risk being evicted, according to the lawsuit.
D.M.’s lawsuit also names as defendants the agency that runs the program,
Cocoon House, and two of its employees.
In a statement, Cocoon House CEO Cassie Franklin said “our hearts go out to D.M. and her family … We strongly believe that Cocoon House and its employees acted appropriately on behalf of the client.”
Jensen, the Lynnwood police chief, said he could not comment because of the litigation.
Rittgarn, who has left the Lynnwood Police Department and works as a private investigator in San Diego, said he was unaware of the lawsuit. At first he could not recall the case, except that he thought it involved “that guy from Colorado.”
Mason is still with the Lynnwood Police Department.
D.M., who now lives in Wyoming, declined to comment for this story, said her attorney, H. Richmond Fisher.
According to the suit, Rittgarn and Mason had D.M. charged with making a false report in Lynnwood Municipal Court when she tried to take back a statement in which she had recanted her story of being raped. The woman claims she signed that statement under duress after having been questioned for hours without an attorney.
She was fined $500 in 2009 after entering into a diversionary agreement. After O’Leary’s arrest, the city returned the fine and the court struck the case from its files.
According to police reports and statements filed with the lawsuit, D.M. was living in a small Cocoon House-sponsored apartment after having spent her youth moving among as many as 20 foster homes. She spoke to a friend on the phone for several hours early Aug. 11, 2008, finally going to bed around 5:30 a.m. She said she left the sliding-glass patio door ajar.
She said it was about 7 a.m. when she woke to find a man standing over her bed with a butcher knife and wearing latex gloves. He tied her hands behind her back with a lace from her tennis shoe, blindfolded her and gagged her.
He then raped her. He also told her he had taken photos of her and knew her name, and left.
D.M. called a neighbor, who called police. Police gathered evidence from the house, including stained sheets, the shoelaces, blindfold and gag.
At the hospital, a doctor noted injuries to both her wrists and abrasions on her genitals. Doctors also collected DNA specimens, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges police ignored or disregarded this evidence once they convinced themselves she was not telling the truth.
Their suspicions were based on comments from three people who said that they doubted her story, according to the suit. One was her former foster mother, with whom D.M. had been arguing, and the other a friend who had spoken to D.M. on the phone that night, before the alleged attack. The third doubter was an anonymous caller.
None of them had any firsthand knowledge of what had happened, the lawsuit says.
However, based on those statements,
three days after the assault, officers picked up D.M. in a police car and took her to the station, where Rittgarn told her there were inconsistencies in her story. She claims the officers interrogated her and “put words in her mouth.”
D.M., the detective wrote in a police report, would not look him in the eye, repeatedly said she “believed” she had been raped and, when initially asked if people should be worried that a rapist was on the loose, she reportedly said no.
Rittgarn wrote that, “Based on her answer and body language it was apparent that D.M. was lying about the rape,” according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
The lawsuit alleges that, as soon as the detective concluded she was lying, the investigation ceased.
“They ignored all the objective evidence collected by the Lynnwood Police Department and Providence Hospital on the day of the rape,” the lawsuit alleges.
On Aug. 18, D.M. returned to the police station with Cocoon House representatives and asked to withdraw the denial and insisted that she had been attacked.
“She began crying and said she kept seeing visions of ‘him’ on top of her,” the lawsuit says.
Rittgarn told her that if she was lying she would go to jail and that he “would not” recommend Cocoon House keep her, the suit alleges.
After O’Leary’s arrest in Colorado in February 2011, Lynnwood police Cmdr. Steve Rider told The Herald of Everett: “Suffice it to say, certain pieces of information just led investigators to the wrong conclusion.”
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org