An Unbelievable Story of Rape

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"An Unbelievable Story of Rape" is a 2015 article about a series of rapes in Washington and Colorado that occurred between 2008 and 2011, and the subsequent police investigations. A collaboration between American non-profit news organizations The Marshall Project and ProPublica, the article was written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller. It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and the 2015 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting.

The article alternates between two true stories of events occurring between August 2008 and June 2012. The first is about a woman in Lynnwood, Washington, known pseudonymously as "Marie", who reports being raped to the police. After repeated interrogation by the police, who do not believe her, she says that her report was false. She is subsequently charged with a gross misdemeanor for false accusation. The second details the police investigations into a serial rapist in Colorado, who is known to have raped four women and made a fifth attempt. The man is arrested in February 2011, and subsequent evidence on his hard drive reveals that Marie, not previously known to the local investigative team, was raped by him.

T. Christian Miller of ProPublica had been reporting on law enforcement failures in identifying rapists throughout 2015. In August, he learned of the case of Marie and contacted her lawyer, discovering that Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project was already working on a similar story. They began to collaborate, with Armstrong writing about Marie's story in Washington and Miller writing about the police investigation in Colorado. Marie agreed to speak to Armstrong after six months of communication. The article was further informed by other interviews and thousands of pages of public records material.

The article was later adapted into the Netflix series Unbelievable, which has received critical acclaim. The article also provided the basis of Miller and Armstrong's full-length book A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America (2018).

Article content[edit]

In Lynnwood, Washington, an 18-year-old woman, referred to as "Marie", reported being bound, gagged and raped at knifepoint to police. Following police confrontation about inconsistencies in her story, she said that it might have been a dream and later said that she made the incident up. In March 2009, she was charged with a gross misdemeanor: she was fined $500, put on probation and made to attend counselling. Marie had been sexually and physically abused in early life and was in foster care for most of her childhood. She joined Project Ladder at age 18, a program designed to help young adults transition from foster care to living alone. The project offered subsidized housing and Marie had a job at Costco.

In Golden, Colorado during January 2011, Detective Stacy Galbraith interviewed a woman who reported being tied and raped at gunpoint for four hours by a masked man who threatened to post pictures he took during the incident online if she told anyone. The man forced her to shower and brush her teeth afterwards and took her bedding with him. When Galbraith talked to her husband, he recognized details of the case from an incident reported to the police department where he worked in nearby Westminster, Colorado. Galbraith began collaboration with Westminster Detective Edna Hendershot, who had investigated two cases in which women aged 59 and 65 were raped in similar ways. They also discovered a burglary in which a masked man had attempted to tie up a 46-year-old woman. The woman managed to jump out of her window, breaking three ribs and puncturing a lung. The four known cases took place in different suburbs of Denver. The man had gone to extreme lengths to avoid leaving DNA evidence, but three touch DNA samples were obtained from three of the crime scenes. Analysis showed that the DNA belonged to the same paternal family line, but was too limited to make further conclusions.

Marie had made her report in August 2008 to Sergeant Jeffrey Mason and Jerry Rittgarn. Police guidelines advised that rape victims may be uncertain of details or report conflicting information; police should not interrogate victims or use polygraph tests, which do not provide reliable evidence. Investigating Marie's report, police found evidence of an assailant entering via a back porch and abrasions to Marie's vagina and wrist. Marie told two of her foster parents about the incident, but both began to disbelieve her due to her calm and detached demeanour. One parent reported doubts to the police. Following this report, and Marie's conflicting account of whether she phoned a friend before or after cutting her bindings free, Mason wondered whether Marie was lying. Mason and Rittgarn made Marie repeat her story. Rittgarn told her that he thought she had made the incident up. He asked if the rapist was real and she quietly said "no". Without reading the Miranda warning, they asked her to provide written confirmation that she made a false report. She wrote instead that she had dreamed the incident, now unsure whether the incident was real. After hours of further questioning, Marie eventually agreed to write that she had been lying.

In February 2011, a relevant report was unearthed of a suspicious vehicle registered to army veteran Marc Patrick O'Leary, whose physical description matched the attacker. FBI agents surveilled O'Leary's house. They discovered that O'Leary lived with his brother Michael, from whom they collected DNA evidence that demonstrated that one of the brothers was the rapist.

In August 2008, Marie told Project Ladder case managers that she had made the report under duress and they made her return to the police station. She wanted to take a polygraph test, but Rittgarn told her that she would be jailed and lose her housing if she failed it. Marie declined. After she was made to tell the other Project Ladder participants about her false report, she considered suicide. Later, Marie received notice of a false reporting charge against her filed by Mason. Such charges are rare unless a named person's reputation was damaged or substantial investigate resources were used. Following the charge, Marie quit her job and was the subject of media reports and an attack website made by a former best friend.

In October 2008, one of Marie's foster parents saw a television report of a 63-year-old woman in Kirkland, Washington who had been raped in exactly the manner that Marie had described. The parent called Kirkland police, who abandoned the lead after calling Lynwood police at least twice to be told that Marie's account was a lie.

In February 2011, a search warrant led to the arrest of Marc O'Leary, whose birthmark matched the attacker's. In his house, they discovered a mask, a gun, a camera, a collection of women's underwear and other evidence that matched victims' accounts. By March, Marie was identified from photographs on O'Leary's hard drive, including one of her provisional license. O'Leary had broken into over a dozen houses before his rape of Marie. He watched women for hundreds of hours, breaking into their houses multiple times to collect information, before committing each rape. In December 2011, O'Leary was sentenced to 327.5 years in prison for the four incidents in Colorado. In June 2012, he was sentenced to an additional 38.5 years for the two incidents in Washington.

An external report about the Lynwood department condemns that handling of Marie's case was "nothing short of the victim being coerced". It describes the behaviour of the officers as "bullying" and "hounding" and highlighted the threats of jail and housing assistance removal as "coercive, cruel, and unbelievably unprofessional". An internal review also concluded that Mason and Rittgarn's behaviour was "designed to elicit a confession of false reporting". In 2015, the commander of Lynnwood's Criminal Investigations Division described the case as a "major failing", saying that changes in practice had since been implemented. Neither Mason nor Rittgarn were disciplined. After Marie approached him, Mason offered a personal apology. Marie's $500 fine was refunded and she sued, winning $150,000. By the time of the article, Marie was married with two children.

Background and writing[edit]

"An Unbelievable Story of Rape" was written by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller. A collaboration between The Marshall Project and ProPublica, it was published on both websites on December 16, 2015.[1][2] The Marshall Project and ProPublica are American non-profit online news organizations. The Marshall Project specializes in criminal justice.[3][4]

T. Christian Miller was a senior reporter at ProPublica. Throughout 2015, he had been reporting on the failure of law enforcement to trace rapists, including the case of Darren Sharper, a football player who raped nine women. Miller had discovered that an FBI database to identify serial murderers and rapists was mostly unused in the cases of rape, as most police departments fail to upload sexual assault reports.[5] By August 2015, he was working on a report about the Washington and Colorado serial rape cases, with focus on the woman who recanted a report of rape after intense police interrogation, proven true years later by the rapist's conviction—known in the article by her middle name "Marie".[5][6] Miller called the woman's lawyer and discovered she was in contact with Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project, who had been working on an article about the case for several months.[5] The teams decided to collaborate.[7]

Armstrong's editor Joe Sexton and Miller's editor Bill Keller had worked together at The New York Times. Numerous other editors contributed to the article, including managing editor Kirsten Danis of The Marshall Project.[7] As the two reporters and two primary editors were all male, the team ensured that they consulted women's input, particularly in regards to how graphic or detailed to make the description of Marie's rape.[7][8]

Miller wrote the sections about the woman in Colorado, whilst Armstrong wrote the sections about the investigation in Washington. The sections are ordered alternately, with an opening paragraph about the woman in Washington being charged with false reporting.[8] The structure was proposed by Sexton. The first draft was 15,000 words in length,[7] shortened to 12,000 in the final version.[9] Keller and other editors recommended cutting down on the ending of the article, yielding a short epilogue.[7]

After seven months of email and phone communication with Marie's lawyer, she agreed to speak to him. It was the first time she had agreed to be interviewed by a journalist.[10][7] They also interviewed two of Marie's foster parents, her friend, her public defender and civil suit attorney. The pair interviewed various police officers, including Detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot who investigated the Colorado cases.[6] Three police officers in the Lynnwood, Washington department were interviewed, including Mason, one of the officers who handled Marie's request. The interviews were made late in the process, the department having refused earlier requests for comment.[7] The other officer, Rittgarn, declined to be interviewed. Serial rapist Marc O'Leary was also interviewed.[6] A brief audio recording of Marie describing her rape is included in the article.[2]

For the article, Armstrong and Miller made public records requests to police departments and prosecuting attorney's offices in Washington and Colorado. They received thousands of pages of documents, including investigative reports, case reviews, crime scene photographs and footage of surveillance and O'Leary after his arrest. News coverage, criminal justice guidelines and court transcripts were also consulted.[6] Extracts of an external report made of the police department that investigated Marie's case were made public for the first time in the article.[1]

Colorado publication Westword reprinted the article as their cover story on May 19, 2016. In July 2016, Miller and Armstrong appeared on the Longform podcast to discuss the article.[10]


The article won the 2015 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting[9] and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.[11] It also won the 2016 Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting, awarded by the University of Colorado Boulder and Denver Press Club.[12] It was a finalist in the 2016 National Magazine Awards in the Feature Writing category.[7]

The University of Colorado Boulder reported in 2016 that law enforcement officials had requested to use the article in training. Jennifer Gentile Long, CEO of AEquitas: The Prosecutors' Resource on Violence Against Women, commented that the article presented an "extraordinary learning opportunity for both criminal justice professionals and ordinary citizens alike".[12] Rusty Foster of Fast Company described the article as "impeccably reported and written, and completely devastating".[13]

Subsequent media[edit]

An Anatomy of Doubt[edit]

External audio
An Anatomy of Doubt
Episode of This American Life.

An Anatomy of Doubt is the 581st episode of the American radio program and podcast This American Life. It adapts "An Unbelievable Story of Rape". Credited as a collaboration with The Marshall Project and ProPublica, it debuted on February 26, 2016. The hour-long episode features Ira Glass, Ken Armstrong and Robyn Semien and includes interviews with Marie, Mason and two of Marie's foster parents.[14][15][10]

A False Report[edit]

Armstrong and Miller adapted their article and additional research into a 304-page book, A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America. It was published on February 6, 2018 by the Crown Publishing Group.[16][17][18]


The Netflix miniseries Unbelievable is an eight-part adaptation of "An Unbelievable Story of Rape". It premiered on September 13, 2019.[19][20] The miniseries has received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the series has a rating of 97%, based on 69 reviews, with the summary "Heartbreaking and powerful, Unbelievable transcends familiar true-crime beats by shifting its gaze to survivors of abuse, telling their stories with grace and gravity."[21] On Metacritic, the program has a rating of 82 out of 100, indicating universal acclaim.[22]


  1. ^ a b Armstrong, Ken; Miller, T. Christian (December 16, 2015). "An Unbelievable Story of Rape". The Marshall Project. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  2. ^ a b Armstrong, Ken; Miller, T. Christian (December 16, 2015). "An Unbelievable Story of Rape". ProPublica. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  3. ^ Somaiya, Ravi (November 16, 2014). "Marshall Project Kicks Off With Look at Legal Delays". The New York Times. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  4. ^ Kennedy, Dan (April 13, 2010). "Pulitzer progress for non-profit news". The Guardian. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c Engelberg, Stephen (December 24, 2015). "About That Unbelievable Story". ProPublica. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  6. ^ a b c d Armstrong, Ken; Miller, T. Christian (December 16, 2015). "How We Reported 'An Unbelievable Story of Rape'". The Marshall Project. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Fitzgerald, Michael (January 26, 2016). "Notable Narrative: Ken Armstrong, T. Christian Miller and "An Unbelievable Story of Rape"". Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  8. ^ a b Wilmsen, Steve (January 12, 2016). "Coaches' Corner: The story behind 'An Unbelievable Story of Rape'". Poynter Institute. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  9. ^ a b Barron, James (February 14, 2016). "New York Times Journalists Among Winners of 2015 Polk Awards". The New York Times. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  10. ^ a b c Walker, Chris (July 26, 2016). "The Backstory of How the Pulitzer-Winning "Unbelievable Story of Rape" Came to Be". Westword. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  11. ^ "Explanatory Reporting". Pulitzer Prize Board. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  12. ^ a b Lock, Elizabeth (April 15, 2016). "Team wins Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting". University of Colorado Boulder. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  13. ^ Foster, Rusty (December 16, 2015). "Today in Tabs: Look At These Rich Idiots Suffering On Mars". Fast Company.
  14. ^ "Anatomy of Doubt". This American Life. February 26, 2016. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  15. ^ "Listen to Our First Collaboration with "This American Life"". The Marshall Project. February 25, 2016. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  16. ^ "A FALSE REPORT: A TRUE STORY OF RAPE IN AMERICA By T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong". Crown Publishing Group. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  17. ^ Cain, Hamilton (February 16, 2018). "Review: 'A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America,' by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong". Star Tribune. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  18. ^ Princess Weekes (January 19, 2018). "A False Report Reminds Us of What Happens When You Don't Believe Women". The Mary Sue. Retrieved September 24, 2019.
  19. ^ Butler, Bethonie (September 17, 2019). "The true story behind 'Unbelievable,' Netflix's gripping new drama about the women who solved a serial rape case". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 25, 2019.
  20. ^ Horton, Adrian (September 17, 2019). "Unbelievable: the quiet power of Netflix's fact-based rape drama". The Guardian. Retrieved September 25, 2019.
  21. ^ "Unbelievable: Season 1 (2019)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved September 25, 2019.
  22. ^ "Unbelievable". Metacritic. CBS. Retrieved September 25, 2019.

Further reading[edit]