Her Neighbors Thought Her Rape Was Hoax. Now She Fights For Survivors Everywhere.

Donna Palomba knows what it takes to help victims of sexual assault.

Trigger warning: this story includes details of a sexual assault.

In many ways, the story of Donna Palomba's rape is a familiar one: her attacker, a man, was someone she knew. Her story was not initially believed by the police. She was retraumatized by law enforcement. Her attacker was released from prison on bail. Her story was scrutinized by the media. By the time her attacker was caught, the statute of limitations made it difficult to prosecute him.

And, perhaps most importantly, the story that her community doubted was true.

Today, Palomba's story is well-known. She's been featured in an NBC Dateline two-hour special, on the TODAY Show and in The New York Times Magazine. But at the time of her rape, in 1993, the story remained local, a gossip item talked about all over Waterbury, Connecticut, the small town where she lived. She was home by herself, with her husband on vacation for the first time in their 12-year marriage and her children asleep in their bedrooms, when a masked man snuck into her home, bound her hands behind her back, covered her mouth and eyes with a pillowcase, cut her clothes off and raped her. 

Before leaving, he threatened to kill her if she ever called the police. 

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11 years later, a DNA sample taken at the time of her rape was matched to a man who had just been arrested for attacking and groping a 21-year-old employee of his. The man was John Regan, a close friend Palomba's husband. With that shocking news came another stunning and inconceivable revelation: the statue of limitations on the crime had expired, and Palomba couldn't charge Regan for the crime. Her lawyers told her she could charge Regan with kidnapping under Connecticut laws because he restrained her during the attack. So, she tried that. But Regan testified that the sex was consensual, then paid $350,000 to roam free on bail. Palomba had to live those days knowing he was on the outside and could be anywhere in Waterbury.

"My journey and the revictimization after the horrific attack is really what compelled me to form Jane Doe No More in 2007," Palomba told A Plus of her organization, which works to prevent sexual violence through education, storytelling and training. "Truly, the revictimization, the retraumatization at the hands of law enforcement really had me completely bewildered… to say it was damaging is an understatement."

Jane Doe No More
A group of women who are members of Jane Doe No More.  Jane Doe No More

When Palomba first told the police about her rape in 1993, her story was immediately met with skepticism. The cops went as far as accusing her of fabricating the rape to cover up an affair. In the 11 years between her rape and Regan being charged for assaulting his employee, Palomba had to endure endless scrutiny, doubt and gossip surrounding her story. She successfully sued the police and was awarded $190,000 when a jury determined the department did not handle her case properly. Even then, after the department was found negligent in handling her case, people doubted her story, doubted that she was actually raped, and speculated that she was trying to cover up an affair that her children had walked in on. Palomba heard the gossip. 

"It's so hard for people who haven't gone through trauma to understand that it's completely reasonable for someone to not have details about the incident, for someone to be a little scattered," Palomba told A Plus. "Some of us will react in a different way from what people think is normal. I was calm the night of the crime —  I shouldn't say calm, I was shocked. I was trying to keep it together because my children were upstairs. That was a sign to untrained law enforcement that maybe I was too calm."

One might assume that Regan being caught assaulting another woman would change people's minds, but the watershed moment didn't come then. Instead, it happened in 2005, when Regan was out on bail and 140 miles away from Waterbury, where he tried to pull a 17-year-old runner into his car after her track practice. The young woman managed to kick herself free and scream for help. Her coaches heard her, ran to her rescue and eventually chased down Regan, who had "a rope with slipknots, a pitchfork, a tarp, a syringe and a large dose of liquid antihistamine," according to The New York Times. He also had hundreds of voyeur photos of women's bodies.

"Once he was caught attacking that girl, that was the end of speculation and rumor in Waterbury," Neil O'Leary, the police chief of Waterbury at the time, told The New York Times. "That's when most of the naysayers said, 'Oh, my God, Donna really was the victim of a sexual assault.' The Saratoga Springs case really jolted everyone."

Regan was eventually charged for second-degree kidnapping and is at the end of a 12-year sentence in prison. For now, he's being held under a legal maneuver called "civil confinement," which the state uses to keep particularly dangerous criminals who have finished a sentence behind bars. 

Today, Palomba is fighting to fix all the wrongs she encountered during her own story of assault. In 2006, she successfully lobbied the state of Connecticut to extend the statute of limitations in cases where a rape is reported within five years and police have DNA from the suspected crime. The next year, she started Jane Doe No More, an organization that brings together survivors of sexual assault to share their stories, advocate for new laws and help train law enforcement about how to hand sexual assault cases. Through several different programs, Jane Doe No More teaches survivors how to speak publicly about their assault, then travels to schools, offices, education centers and law enforcement agencies. It's even developed a law enforcement training program called "Duty Trumps Doubt," which emphasizes the importance of believing victims first.

"My case has been used and I've spoken at the FBI in New Jersey and New York to help others understand this crime and how important it is to put any preconceived notions aside and begin by believing the victim," Palomba told A Plus. "It's so wrong to not begin by believing the victim. It's such a disservice to everyone involved."

Jane Doe No More also offers self-defense programs and survivor-led education courses about everything from prevention to consent. The course covers elementary school-aged students to college-aged students. 47 women have gone through the Jane Doe Program, and along the way Palomba has heard more stories of assault, more stories of the retraumatization of survivors, and met more and more women who want to share their story to help stop sexual assault from happening again.

Donna Palomba
Donna Palomba holds up a sign from her organization. Jane Doe No More

For survivors of assault who face similar doubt, Palomba also offered advice. 

"I would say to them that it is not their fault," Palomba said. "There are people who will believe them. Continue telling until you find that person and those people who will believe you and help you. The first step towards healing is talking about it. And even though I went through what I did, I'm still grateful that I reported, that I went to the hospital that night."

Palomba says that through working with Jane Doe No More, she has watched survivors transform from being vulnerable and alone into powerful public speakers whose stories can help people understand the world victims live in. Jane Doe No More also has a private Facebook group that provides support systems for survivors who want to speak in a forum that's a safe space where they can talk to others that have experienced something similar. 

Despite everything she's been through, Palomba remains optimistic, too. She remembers a time when it was taboo to talk about breast cancer, and now the advancements that have been made to address breast cancer are everywhere we look. Her hope is that with more awareness and education about sexual violence, the same things can happen for sexual assault survivors. 

"I think it's so important where we create a culture, a nurturing environment that's not judgmental, so that we can allow men and women and children to come forward and report so that the perpetrators can be stopped," she said. "We're safest as a society when we create a culture where victims come forward."

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