Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in Pro Publica, this memorable book examines the case of a serial rapist — and his first victim, who initially wasn’t believed
“A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America”
by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
Crown Publishing, 291 pp., $28
When an important and widely read news story is later expanded into a book, readers can be excused for wondering if the original has merely been padded. Is longer actually better? In the case of “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America,” the answer, for crime aficionados, is yes.
Anyone who read the original, Pulitzer Prize-winning piece “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” written in 2015 by former Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller, of Pro Publica, will remember the tale. A serial rapist first attacks a teenage girl at home in Lynnwood, and then an older woman in Kirkland, before leaving Washington to continue his horrific exploits in Colorado.
What made the story so memorable was not the methodical brutality of Marc O’Leary’s attacks but the way his first victim, an 18-year-old named Marie, was treated by local police when she reported the assault. They found her manner suspiciously unemotional, and detected slight inconsistencies in her story.
The co-author of “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America” will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com)
In sum, Marie did not act the way a rape victim, in their estimation, should.
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Based on those doubts, the detectives coerced her into recanting and then charged her with a crime: false reporting. When word got out, even Marie’s friends turned against her.
Yet she had indeed been raped, by an assailant who considered himself a student of the act and had been battling his “demons” since childhood.
In the original story, authors Miller and Armstrong chose to leave out much of this information about O’Leary, instead concentrating on his victims. The book-length version fills in his portrait, and it is chilling.
“I was, for lack of a better word, enslaved to something I’ve detested my entire life,” he after his arrest in 2011. Rape was “a compulsion,” O’Leary explains, tracing its genesis to a childhood viewing of the Star Wars film “Return of the Jedi,” in which Carrie Fisher, nearly naked, is chained by the neck to intergalactic gangster Jabba the Hutt.
The sight titillated 5-year-old Marc, who later said he’d imprinted on fear and humiliation “like a young animal bonding to the first creature it sees.”
As an adult, he came to treat rape like a hobby, stalking victims via their social-media profiles and studying their routines for months before an attack. He eavesdropped on Marie for hours before assaulting her, as she spoke with her boyfriend on the phone.
“The terrible reality of it is that, you know, it was — for me it was just an opportunity, which is disgusting, and I know that,” he says, “but that’s — you know, that’s the truth.”
“A False Report” will fascinate readers interested in the finer points of police procedure — even if they grow dizzy trying to keep track of a dozen different police officers and detectives involved with unraveling the multijurisdictional case.
An unexpected strength of the book is the chance it affords Jeffrey Mason, one of the original detectives who doubted Marie, to look back on his mistakes. He’d been an investigator for more than two decades by then. Marie’s case forced him, for the first time, to question his fitness for the job.
Others were less willing to engage publicly in such self-reflection. Detective Jerry Rittgarn, who declined to be interviewed for the original news story, said he’d talk for the book “only under monetary compensation contract” — a quid pro quo the authors rejected.
(Marie, meanwhile, received a $150,000 settlement from the city of Lynnwood and $500 to reimburse her court costs.)
As nonfiction literature, “A False Report” builds suspense by cutting deftly between the victims’ experiences, those of the two female detectives who finally broke the case and, to a lesser extent, those of O’Leary, now serving a 327 ½-year sentence in Colorado.
The message could not be clearer: old theories on why to distrust women reporting rape still influence many of us today, which makes this an especially timely work.