'The Real Crime'

In 1994, NYPD Brass Called Her Rape a ‘Hoax.’ In 2018, They Found Her Rapist.

Relying on NYPD sources, future Pulitzer winner Mike McAlary wrote three columns for the Daily News denouncing her as a fraud who ‘probably will end up being arrested herself.’

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

On an afternoon in late April 1994, a young woman was raped in broad daylight in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Two days later, the biggest columnist in New York City’s biggest newspaper called her a liar.

The woman—black, a lesbian, and an activist—became the target of a vicious smear campaign by a Daily News columnist and sources within the NYPD, who charged that she had made up a “hoax” to advance a political agenda.

“I have had the misfortune of being raped twice—once in the park and again in the media,” she told her lawyer, Martin Garbus, after the attack.

Twenty-four years years later, her rapist was identified through DNA evidence, according to the NYPD. On Jan. 8, police told Jane Doe they had a match, with James Webb, a career criminal who’d been sentenced to prison for rape before Jane Doe’s assault. He was arrested and imprisoned again in 1995, for still more sexual assaults and is presently serving 75 years to life in prison.

Contemporaneous articles from his 1995 arrest and court filings suggest that Webb had been released on parole from his previous term on Aug. 15, 1995, and raped his next victim just one day later. It’s not clear how he was out of prison at the time of Jane Doe’s assault.

“We are aware of his incarceration and parole history,” the NYPD press office told The Daily Beast Tuesday evening. “He was not incarcerated at the time of the incident.”

Jane Doe was 27 years old when she was attacked. She’d gone from her native Ohio to Yale, where she’d majored in African-American studies, and then on to New York, where she was pursuing her dream of acting.

Then a man put her in a chokehold in Prospect Park. She blacked out momentarily, before he marched her to the top of Lookout Hill and raped her.

The woman immediately reported the assault to the NYPD. Two days later, Mike McAlary, a reporter with the Daily News, said she’d made it all up.

“Rape Hoax the Real Crime,” his headline stated.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Jane Doe later told her lawyer. “It was like a sucker punch.”

McAlary claimed the police thought they were “being lied to” and “everyone who heard the woman’s story about the alleged rape was calling it a hoax.”

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He wrote that the woman “probably will end up being arrested herself,” because she made up the crime “to promote her rally.”

“Even though it was a long time ago, it’s one of those cases that stands out in your mind as a tragedy on so many levels,” Matt Foreman, then the executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, told The Daily Beast. “In addition to the horrible sexual assault, the behavior of the police department toward the survivor, and the leaking of information to the press to discredit the survivor, remains—breathtaking is the wrong word. Unbelievable, frankly.”

The AVP was hosting a march in Park Slope the following weekend, the same rally for which McAlary accused Jane Doe of fabricating her assault. More than 300 lesbians participated in the march. “Violence Against Lesbians: Ain’t Gonna Take This No,” read a banner they carried. “Report it! Record it!”

Days after McAlary’s column ran, Commissioner Bill Bratton issued a rare apology and personally called Foreman at the AVP. But the leaks continued. In a follow-up column, McAlary compared Jane Doe to Tawana Brawley, a black woman whose false report of a vicious sexual assault in 1987 electrified New York City. Later, McAlary would deny public reports, including in his own paper, that a rape kit had found traces of semen in Jane Doe.

“That just added to the apparent injustice, the overlay of race and sexual orientation,” Foreman said. “It was just all... appalling.”

Foreman offered “kudos to whomever got the case reopened and got resources freed up to look for a match,” but said that “from the top, however, the NYPD should be publicly and profusely apologizing to the survivor and the five other women who were subsequently raped because they refused to actually investigate this crime.”

Jane Doe, who lived in a Park Slope house with other gay men and women, wanted to escape the media attention but as McAlary continued to contradict public police updates and insist she’d faked her assault, she contacted Garbus, the attorney, and sued McAlary for libel.

“[McAlary] had, so far as I could determine, virtually no foundation on which to build his story,” Garbus wrote in his memoir. “It was, pure and simple, a product of his own imagination.”

But a judge found that Jane Doe had made herself a public figure through her activist work—despite the fact that her true identity was still obscured.

“It is uncontested that the plaintiff has engaged in social activism, projecting herself into the public debate on issues she cares about,” Judge Charles Ramos wrote. “In essence, she has chosen, in exercising her right, beyond the level of private discourse, to cross over from being a private to a public figure.”

Ramos later found that McAlary accurately conveyed the inaccurate statements he’d received from top NYPD sources. The libel suit was dismissed. Garbus wrote that Jane Doe felt vindicated by the judge’s findings that she was telling the truth, even if she lost the libel suit. He wrote that she wanted to drop the appeal and move on.

Four years after the rape, McAlary both won a Pulitzer Prize and died in 1998; he was just 41 years old. His vicious, false allegations against Jane Doe were reduced to a footnote in McAlary’s obituaries, a warning about an otherwise upright bravado gone too far. His larger-than-life persona was memorialized in two plays: Dan Klores’ The Wood, and later as the title character in Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy. The world portrayed in those dramas doesn’t exist anymore.

Violence had just started to decline in New York City in 1994, but police still clocked more than 1500 homicides that year. (In contrast, fewer than 300 were recorded in 2017.) Rape and other types of violent crime were similarly prevalent. And the gay and lesbian community had a complicated, sometimes fraught, relationship with the NYPD.

“There were lots of good relationships with many precinct commanders, and then very contentious relationships with others,” Foreman said. Some crime victims were treated insensitively, but the department was also creating a bias crimes unit, and putting together sensitivity training materials for the academy, he said.

“They just branded the survivor a liar. That felt like a very homophobic response,” Foreman said. “It was clear to us that the leaks were coming from within 1 Police Plaza, and that makes it even more egregious.”

Garbus, the attorney, declined to comment on whether the NYPD had kept him updated on the ongoing investigation but credited them with continuing to pursue the case.

“The Daily News should issue an apology. The damage done to Jane Doe by the media was in addition to the damage done by the rape,” he said in a statement. “The police have gone to great lengths in the last few years to confirm that she was raped, that she was telling the truth, and they have located the man who did it. Jane Doe has suffered, as do all other rape victims, through what happened to her, and from the refusal of the media and the police.”

The Daily News didn’t immediately return a request for comment Tuesday evening.