The Backstory of How the Pulitzer-Winning "Unbelievable Story of Rape" Came to Be

The Backstory of How the Pulitzer-Winning "Unbelievable Story of Rape" Came to Be
Thomas Pitilli

It's rare that Westword reprints a feature story from another publication. But this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” was so good that we had to share it with our readers; we ran it as a cover story for our May 19 issue. 

As a joint project of ProPublica and the Marshall Project, much of the article recounts the impressive police work in Golden, Colorado, that brought serial rapist Marc O'Leary to justice, and how the Colorado investigation was a model for the way that law enforcement should approach rape cases, as opposed to the botched investigation that occurred in the State of Washington when police there dealt with one of O'Leary's previous victims.

But how did this engrossing story, so full of intricate details and page-turning narrative, come to be?

Recently, the article's two authors – T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong – sat down with the Longform podcast for an hour-long episode in which they gave a behind-the-scenes account of their award-winning investigation (which was also featured in an episode of This American Life). We highly recommend that you listen to the full Longform interview, but below, we've highlighted some of the more interesting quotes and takeaways.

On how two reporters from competing nonprofits came to work together:

As Miller (of ProPublica) and Armstrong (of the Marshall Project) explain, they were both working on the story independently before they joined together. But Miller was focused on the Colorado section of the case, while Armstrong was looking into what happened in Washington.

As Armstrong tells Longform interviewer Aaron Lammer:

“This is not the kind of story where you anticipate competition. This was about a sexual assault that happened in 2008, and T [Miller] and I are both working on this story seven years later. The odds of that happening are pretty long.”

In fact, they only found out about each other when Miller expanded his reporting from Colorado to Washington and was told by a lawyer: “There’s another reporter who’s been working on this for months and months.”

Miller: "My heart stopped right then."

Armstrong: "The way I found out was that I received an e-mail from my boss…and the first sentence of the e-mail was 'oh shit,' which is never a good first sentence for an e-mail."

But after talking, the two realized that working together made more sense than competing.

Miller: "In this case, it didn’t take that much time to get everyone to agree that this made sense…. Ken [Armstrong] had started in Washington state; I started in Colorado state. [Armstrong]’s reporting was the beginning of the story, mine was at the end of the story. We all knew each other professionally and come from the same culture professionally, so it was an idea that quickly took root, and I don’t think anybody had a lot of pushback to it."

Armstrong: "Even though it was a shotgun marriage, it was a really good shotgun marriage.... T [Miller] was looking at an investigation that went right, and I was looking at an investigation that went wrong. Because [Miller] was concentrating on the detective work in Colorado, and I’m looking at what happened in Washington…

"I won’t forget this: When [Miller] and I talked on the phone and agreed that we were going to work on [“An Unbelievable Story of Rape”] together, [Miller] created a Google Drive site, and we decided we’d both dump all of our documents in it. And I remember seeing all the records that [Miller] had gathered in Colorado, and then I dumped all the records that I had gathered in Washington, and it was like each of us had half of a phenomenal story. And in one day, by dumping our notes into a common file, we suddenly had a whole story.”

On getting the Washington state victim, “Marie,” to tell her story for the first time

While other accounts had previously been written about O'Leary's victim in Washington state, who reported her rape to police but later recanted her story when she wasn't believed by law enforcement or her foster mothers, the victim had never talked to reporters.

On the podcast, Armstrong describes the lengths to which he and Miller went to get “Marie,” (her real middle name) to come forward.

Armstrong: “In all of the accounts that had been published up to that point, she had never agreed to be interviewed. What I was hoping was that with the passage of time, she might be ready and wiling to talk about it now. It took about seven months of e-mails and phone calls, but she eventually did agree to be interviewed, to her great credit. The reason she did is because she became convinced that by sharing her story, she could help others — that she might be able to correct some misconceptions people have about how they should or will react once someone has been hurt.

“I really work hard to be patient and respectful and to offer to answer any questions before I ask any…. So the e-mails that I sent to Marie through her attorney really erred on the side of giving too much information. I told her about myself, I told her about the Marshall project, about This American Life.... She wanted to know about journalism and impact, like examples of how reporting had had an impact on public policy or practices…so I gave her examples. And then we talked on the phone, so we were able to communicate at considerable length before I ever sat across from her with a notebook or with a tape recorder, and I think that helped a great deal.

The Backstory of How the Pulitzer-Winning "Unbelievable Story of Rape" Came to Be (2)
Thomas Pitilli

On leaving out most of the details about the rapist:

Miller: “One thing that is notable about the story is how little there is of Marc O’Leary. Because O’Leary and his background tends to be…Hannibal Lecter-ish. He’s a very chilling, remorseless [person]…. There’s a lot of detail about his background, his life and about what he did, and if you were writing a true-crime novel, you would put all that stuff in there. But we jointly decided that this story wasn’t about Marc O’Leary, it was about the police and their investigation and Marie. And so we were judicious in when we entered details of [O’Leary] in the story…because he would have overwhelmed the story as a freak-show kind of a character."

Armstrong: “Three of us went to a prison in Colorado and interviewed Marc O’Leary, and we got three hours with him, yet he’s not quoted in the story…and it’s odd, because it was a difficult get—[Miller] worked really hard to get that interview. And yet we pretty much left it on the editing-room floor…. We used some of the information he provided for that final [rape] scene, so it informed the writing…but we didn’t give him a platform…or opportunity to basically plead for understanding or forgiveness, because it would have diverted the story…although I cannot remember a more difficult or chilling interview.

On the impact of the story

Miller:“It’s being taught now in some training seminars — in both police-training seminars and sexual-assault seminars…and we just heard that an incoming class of students at Columbia Journalism School will be reading it."

This is a piece that, for whatever reason, has had a staying power."

On the difference between the print version and This American Life radio story

Armstrong: “I think that the radio version had a more visceral reaction — there, you were hearing the voices of the police detective who made the mistake, you’re hearing the voices of the two foster mothers who, to their great regret, didn’t believe Marie’s story…and you’re hearing Marie’s voice."

Miller:“There are things that radio does great, and there are things that print does well, and they don’t always overlap, and that’s why there’s a lot of ability to tell stories two different ways and it still feels fresh because of the mediums themselves and what they have."

The full interview can be heard at Longform.org.

Click to read "An Unbelievable Story of Rape: How Colorado Cops Solved a Washington Crime" and to listen to the This American Life episode. 


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