'Jane Doe No More': Flawed rape investigation spawns victims' rights group
04/26/2016 11:40 am PDT
Hunted down in her own home by a monster in a mask: But as Donna Palomba tried to help find the mystery attacker, police would turn their attention to her.
On the night of September 10, 1993 in Waterbury, Connecticut, successful businesswoman, wife and mother Donna Palomba and her two young children were home fast asleep. Donna's husband John was out of town for the first time in their 12-year marriage.
In their darkened bedroom, Donna opened her eyes to a nightmare.
"I woke to see a masked man enter the bedroom and he put a pillowcase over my head," said Donna.
The intruder, disguising his voice, used a knife to cut her clothes.
"He tied my hands behind my back, he smelled like grease or oil when he was on me," said Donna.
Donna tried to fight the man off but couldn't. She says he raped her, then put a gun in her mouth, then to her head.
"The perpetrator threatened to kill me if I called the police," said Donna.
Donna begged for her life and promised not to tell anyone. And with that, he left. The attacker was inside her home for about a half-hour, according to Donna.
Terrified, Donna first checked on her kids, who seemed to have slept through the assault. Then she raced from one house phone to another to call for help. But like a scene out of a horror movie, none of the phones worked.
"The perpetrator had cut the phone lines," said Donna.
Desperate to get help, Donna ran to a neighbor's to call 911.
Police arrived but no forensics personnel were called in. No fingerprints were collected, no photographs were taken.
"From the get-go the crime scene was compromised," said Donna.
Donna went to the hospital. There her previously bound wrists and scratched cornea were treated, and a rape kit was taken.
Donna didn't call her husband for fear it would worry him, but when he returned, he immediately knew something was wrong.
"He came home to see deadbolts on the front door and I was there with sunglasses on," said Donna.
Donna assumed Waterbury Police and the lieutenant assigned to her case were working hard to find the armed, masked assailant. But behind the department's closed doors something else was going on. Donna soon learned what new theory investigators were working from.
"Someone went to the police with a rumor, and he told the lieutenant that he had heard that I was having an affair, and that the eldest child woke up and saw something, and that I concocted the rape to cover up an affair," said Donna.
Days later at the station the lieutenant turned on a tape recorder and read Donna her Miranda rights. He threatened to charge her with filing a false report.
"I said 'What are you doing?' and he said 'This is the way I'm going to handle it,'" said Donna. "He said 'This is serious. You need to tell me what really happened that night.'"
Donna the victim had become Donna the suspect.
"He came at me and told me that he had rock-solid evidence that I purposefully lied to the police," said Donna. "He re-victimized me, and I sat there and took it. He had nothing. A rumor."
And Donna wasn't about to let it spread. Instead, this time she fought back with results.
"We got legal help, we met with the state's attorney and finally the case was turned over to a new team of officers," said Donna.
"The rumor was completely unsubstantiated," said Neil O'Leary, a Waterbury Police sergeant who is now the town's mayor.
The new team of officers was headed up by O'Leary.
"I did a thorough background check on her immediately and found out that she was an impeccable woman," said O'Leary. "The 911 tape was so convincing to me, I never believed it didn't happen."
But after an internal investigation, the cops working the case were cleared of any wrongdoing.
"This attack at the police department by the lieutenant in charge of my case was in many ways more damaging than the rape itself," said Donna.
Before Donna's attacker was even caught, she filed a civil suit against the Waterbury Police Department and the investigators who handled her case.
After a month-long trial she won. But Donna wasn't celebrating. Her violent attacker was still on the loose.
While DNA had been collected from the rape kit, a match to a perpetrator had never happened.
Then 11 years after her attack, a long-awaited break in the case.
"That rape kit is what solved this case," said O'Leary.
A Waterbury man was arrested for unlawfully restraining a 21-year-old co-worker. That man turned out to be from a prominent family in the community: husband and father John Regan.
A test of his DNA soon proved he was a match. And even more shocking, Regan was a longtime friend of Donna and her husband John.
"He had grown up with my husband since kindergarten, they had played football together in college, he was in my husband's circle of friends," said Donna. "It just was unthinkable. It was awful."
Even more unthinkable for Donna, John Regan was released on bond for a year.
"I didn't know if he was going to come back and kill me as he had threatened to that night, or if my husband would find him and kill him," said Donna.
While out, Regan attempted to kidnap a 17-year-old girl on school grounds in Saratoga Springs, New York. Thankfully the girl got away.
The girl's coach saw the attempted abduction and heard her scream for help. Regan then fled in his van. The coach followed, calling 911, which led to Regan's arrest.
"He was definitely getting more aggressive," said Donna. "The van that he was driving was taken into evidence, and there was a noose, slipknots, a syringe, sedative, pictures of former victims and victims he had been stalking in Connecticut and in Saratoga."
Regan was sentenced to 12 years for the attempted kidnapping in New York.
And back in Connecticut, Regan was sentenced to 15 years to run concurrently for Donna's kidnapping and the stalking and unlawful restraint of his 21-year-old coworker.
Unfortunately, Regan could only be charged with Donna's kidnapping and not her rape because the statute of limitations had run out seven years before.
Even though her attacker was behind bars and the fight against the Waterbury Police Department was behind her, Donna's work wasn't close to being done.
"I was 'Jane Doe' in the medical reports and newspaper articles," said Donna. "I think society as a whole needs to realize that each victim has a name and a face and a voice, and they deserve to be able to feel safe."
Donna wanted to be Jane Doe no more. She wanted that for other victims too. The organization works with individuals, schools, law enforcement and soon, hospitals, with one mission in mind:
"To improve the way society responds to victims of sexual violence through education, awareness, advocacy and support," said Donna.
Wanting to learn how to protect myself in a dangerous situation, I took part in their popular self-defense workshop, which has trained more than 3,000 women, women from all walks of life. Some had personal experiences with being victims and survivors.
"I was actually kidnapped right from a residential road in broad daylight a block and a half from my house," said survivor and self-defense instructor Tracy Digiovancarlo.
"The crimes of sexual violence are one of someone taking control over you against your will," said Donna. "By empowering yourself with learning skills, you're taking back some of that control."
Donna made changes on both the local and state levels.
"I couldn't imagine another victim going through what I had," said Donna. "I thought, 'This is so wrong, policies and procedures need to change.'"
In the Waterbury Police Department there has been a complete overhaul of the policies and procedures when dealing with sexual assault investigations.
And she got important Connecticut state legislation passed for removing the statute of limitations in sexual assault crimes involving DNA evidence.
"She's probably one of the most incredible women I've ever met in my life, and she continues to fight for the rights of sexual assault victims, and I think that says it all very clearly," said O'Leary.
And what is Donna's message to sexual assault victims?
"You are not alone. This is not your fault and you can still come forward and be believed," said Donna.