By Devin Hiett
Ken Armstrong was a Seattle-based reporter living 15 miles south of Lynnwood, Washington, when he first heard about Marie.
The Seattle Times broke the story.
Eighteen at the time, Marie was raped at knife point by a masked man who broke into her apartment. He bound and gagged her with her own shoelaces before raping her for hours. When he was finished, he took her sheets and forced her into the shower, careful to leave the scene without a trace of DNA.
The story was unbelievable.
So unbelievable that the detectives from the Lynnwood Police Department tasked with investigating the crime turned on Marie―citing discrepancies in her story and charging her with false reporting. She had to pay a $500 fine, attend mental health counseling and go on supervised probation.
For three years, Marie was branded a liar, a slut, a selfish foster kid who’d gone too far in her desperate plea for attention. She lost her job, her housing and the few friends and family she’d had to begin with. For three years, Marie was alone.
Then, in February of 2011, a serial rapist named Marc O’Leary was arrested in Lakewood, Colorado.
Detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot teamed up to investiage a series of Colorado rape cases that led them to O’Leary’s door. When they arrested him, they found photos of the women he had abused―photos he vowed to use as blackmail if they told the police what he’d done. The Colorado detectives recognized all the victims in the photographs. All but one.
Among the photos of the women attacked in Westminster and Golden was a photo of a young woman, the youngest of all the victims, bound and gagged with her learner’s permit placed on her chest.
It was Marie.
Soon, the news went viral. The Western Washington woman who had been smeared as a liar by police and journalists years ago was one of O’Leary’s victims.
Armstrong learned Marie had been falsely accused of lying and that she was now suing the Lynnwood Police Department.
“What wasn’t known was how the police investigation went wrong, so what I wanted to do was to reconstruct the police investigation to see how it went sideways,” Armstrong said. “Where did the doubts start? How did they spread?”
Armstrong hoped that since years had passed Marie might be willing to talk with him. He wanted to figure out what went wrong in Lynnwood, and he wanted Marie to finally be heard.
One thing Armstong didn’t want to do was to overwhelm Marie, or alarm her by reaching out as a reporter. Instead, he opted to contact her attorney and have him contact Marie on his behalf. He sent Marie questions over email and awaited her response to his inquiry for a real interview. In the meantime, he got to work.
Armstrong was working with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online news organization that focuses on the U.S. criminal justice system, when he learned another reporter, T. Christian Miller from ProPublica, was also investigating the case. The two teamed up and began designing a story template for their piece. Both journalists knew they wanted to tell the story using “a braided narrative.”
“One of the things that always drew us to the story was the idea that we could juxtapose these two investigations. One that goes horrendously wrong and one that is executed brilliantly,” Armstrong said. “We thought the contrast would make the story more meaningful and more powerful.”
The two revered Colorado detectives, Galbraith and Hendershot, were willing to speak with Armstrong right away. Talking with them was basically reconstructing how a successful police investigation should work from beginning to end, Armstrong said.
He anticipated it would be much more difficult getting the Lynnwood police to talk. They were the ones who botched Marie’s investigation, after all. But to his great surprise, Armstrong found that the detectives and members of the Lynnwood P.D. were willing to be interviewed.
“It’s very rare to get police to talk to about their mistakes. Very rare to hear police acknowledge what they did wrong and to apologize for it and to be so candid in how they got it wrong,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said he “gives the Lynnwood police a lot of credit for being willing to do that.”
He extended the same empathy to Marie’s two former foster mothers, both of whom did not initially believe she’d been raped and shared their doubts with police. They were the ones who planted the seeds of doubt in the Lynnwood detective’s minds to begin with.
The foster mother’s actions painted them as villains in the eyes of many readers, but Armstrong said he tried to convey to his audience that the reason people are able to read about them in the first place is because they were willing to talk honestly and openly about what they did wrong.
“It’s really hard to get people to talk about something for which they have so much remorse and that rocked them as much as this did,” Armstrong said. “They understood that they made a mistake and they want other people to learn from it so that those same mistakes aren’t repeated in the lives of others.”
“They have apologized to Marie, Marie has accepted their apology, she has forgiven them and she has moved on.”
Armstrong and Miller’s article showcases how multifaceted and complex a person can be. It shows how someone can make a horrible mistake without being a horrible person incapable of repentance.
The only person in the story who is never portrayed in a forgiving light is O’Leary.
Armstrong and Miller interviewed O’Leary at the Sterling Correctional Facility in the remote northeastern corner of Colorado where he will remain incarcerated for the rest of his life. O’Leary is serving the maximum sentence allowed by law of 327 ½ years in prison for the Colorado attacks and another 68 ½ years for the Washington attacks.
Armstrong describes the interview with O’Leary as “jarring” and “unsettling…because he spoke so candidly about the monstrous things that he had done.”
They wanted to interview O’Leary for the same reasons the FBI did, Armstrong said.
“To find out how he had avoided being caught for so long. What were the gaps, the vulnerabilities in the way police investigate crimes that he was aware of and that he was able to capitalize on. Because the greater your understanding of that, the more likely it is that you can close those gaps and catch the next Marc O’Leary more quickly.”
It took seven months before Marie agreed to an interview. Armstrong and Miller were working with The Marshall Project, ProPublica and This American Life for the story. Marie wanted to know about all of those organizations and the journalists themselves before she was willing to talk. When she agreed to speak with Armstrong, he interviewed her for an entire day.
When the story was published, it immediately went viral.
“An Unbelievable Story of Rape” went live in mid-December 2015. It took the story less than two weeks to become the most shared story of the year before 2016 came around, Armstrong said. Armstrong and Miller’s efforts landed them the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
“It struck a chord with a lot of people, and it’s understandable because what happened to her is just unthinkable and it wasn’t a story just about a wrongful conviction or wrongful prosecution. It was a story about brilliant police work at the same time, so it had so many lessons in it that people could draw from,” Armstrong said.
After the story went viral, offers from filmmakers came flooding in. They got queries from the makers of “Spotlight,” and “all kinds of people in Hollywood” Armstrong said. The rights to the story were owned by ProPublica, The Marshall Project and This American Life, who let Marie make the decision on whether she wanted the rights to be sold for a movie deal.
Leaving the decision up to Marie was “respectful and right” and Armstrong and Christian were grateful the companies did so, he said.
In the end, screenwriter Susannah Grant, who wrote “Erin Brockovich,” authored the eight-part Netflix series “Unbelievable” that came out in September 2019. Armstrong and Miller were cited as producers on the show, although Armstrong claims they were really consultants more than anything else.
“We weren’t involved in the writing of the script because it’s dramatized and that’s just a different world from journalism,” Armstrong said.
The journalists provided the filmmakers with the public records they had collected throughout their reporting and answered questions about how different events and details of the case unfolded. Armstrong and Miller also co-authored the novel “Unbelievable,” which was published in 2019 and contains much of the in-depth reporting the two journalists spent nearly a year working on.
Armstrong still lives in Seattle and works as a senior reporter at ProPublica. He has won multiple Pulitzers, six IRE Awards, a Peabody Award, the John Chancellor Award from Columbia University for lifetime achievement and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for nonfiction. He is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and the McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton.
He regards Marie’s story as one of the most consequential works of his life and plans to continue on his path of advocacy journalism that makes a tangible difference in people’s lives.
For more information on Marie’s story, you can read Armstrong and Miller’s original article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” their book “Unbelievable,” the Netflix series with the same title, and the This American Life episode from 2016 entitled “Anatomy of Doubt.”