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Rape survivor encourages victims to come forward

Published 10:22 am, Sunday, June 15, 2014

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  • Jane Doe No More's founder Donna Palomba speaks at a New Canaan Domestic Violence Partnership meeting Wednesday, June 4, 2014, at the Lapham Community Center in New Canaan, Conn. Palomba survived a sexual assault in her own home in 1993. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    Jane Doe No More's founder Donna Palomba speaks at a New Canaan Domestic Violence Partnership meeting Wednesday, June 4, 2014, at the Lapham Community Center in New Canaan, Conn. Palomba survived a sexual assault in her own home in 1993. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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On a summer night in 1993, Donna Palomba was tied up and raped in her own home in the city of Waterbury. During the following years, she had to deal with the healing process, as well as fight against a police department that did not believe her story. In 2007, however, Palomba decided she no longer wanted to hide in the shadows.

"Most victims are Jane or Joe Doe, and that's fine, and I completely appreciate people wanting to be anonymous," Palomba said. "But at the same time, you don't connect with nameless people. I wanted to make it real that this could be your mother. This could be your sister. This could be your brother."

Palomba, who founded the nonprofit Jane Doe No More, an organization dedicated to helping victims of sexual assault, spoke about her story during the monthly meeting of the New Canaan Domestic Violence Partnership on June 4.

"I was tied and raped in my home in the middle of the night by a masked intruder," she told the group. "Now I go around speaking about my story because I want to create change. ... I am Jane Doe No More."

On Sept. 10, 1993, Palomba's husband had gone to a friend's wedding in Colorado and she was alone with her two young children. She had just started a marketing business and wasn't able to travel with him. That was the first time in 12 years of marriage that she was sleeping by herself.

In the middle of the night, the masked intruder entered her bedroom, put a pillowcase over her head, tied her hands behind her back, cut her clothing and raped her.

Palomba did not think she was going to survive.

"He put a gun in my mouth and I saw my life flash before my eyes," she said. "I thought this was it. I imagined my children finding me. But miraculously, he took the gun away."

The intruder left, but he first threatened to come back and kill Palomba if she called the cops. Palomba did call the police, after she ran to her neighbor's, but the suspect was not located. Palomba spent the rest of that night at the hospital, where they accumulated evidence, including DNA from the intruder.

"It's been an incredible journey, but it's through the pain that I suffered that I have found my passion to make a difference," Palomba said. "We need to educate everyone about this. We all need to find a way to educate everyone, especially young people, about this crime because it is at epidemic levels."

Every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Sixty percent of those victims do not report the assault to the police, according to the network.

As Palomba struggled to overcome the traumatic incident 21 years ago, the Waterbury Police Department threatened to arrest her after they heard rumors that her story was not legitimate.

"Someone in our neighborhood went to the police with a rumor he had heard that perhaps it wasn't as I had described it," she said. "There was a rumor going around that I was having an affair. ... This obviously wasn't true."

Palomba eventually filed a civil lawsuit against the department, which was found negligent in a trial seven years later. It turns out that responding officers had not properly cordoned off her home after the crime, had not taken photographs or called forensic experts.

Though she had won that battle, as well as one against breast cancer in the beginning of 2001, the perpetrator was still on the loose. Until one day in 2004, when a man in her community attacked his 21-year-old co-worker. The detectives who were in charge of Palomba's case at the time tested the DNA samples and found "a perfect match" to the DNA found on her body 11 years prior.

The suspect was thought to be a happily married father of three, religious and had known Palomba's husband since kindergarten. But the man, John Regan, according to Palomba, could not be charged with sexual assault because the state's statute of limitations in her case ran out. Police were able to charge him with kidnapping in Palomba's case, to which he posted bond.

In fall 2005, however, he tried to pull a 17-year-old girl into his van in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The girl fought him and was able to flee. Regan was arrested for attempted kidnapping and months later he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the New York incident. Later that same year, he pleaded guilty to kidnapping in Connecticut in Palomba's case and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He's serving the sentence concurrently with his New York sentence.

In April 2007, Palomba came forward and gave a lengthy interview to NBC's "Dateline." It was after that national outing that she founded Jane Doe No More.

"The first step to healing is being able to talk about it and have people understand and believe you," she said.

So Palomba immediately began advocating changing the state's statute of limitations on sexual assault, which was eliminated that same year.

Under the new law, sexual assault crimes may be prosecuted at any time, if the alleged perpetrator is identified through DNA evidence and the crime was reported within five years of the attack.

Palomba also wrote the book "Jane Doe No More."

Dede Bartlett, co-chairman of the New Canaan Domestic Violence Partnership, said Palomba's story is a reminder that people need to talk more about the issue.

"Donna is an amazingly courageous woman, and her story is very important for all women and girls in New Canaan to hear," Bartlett said. "Like domestic violence, people don't want to talk about sexual assault, but we need to talk about it and we need to educate all our children about it, and particularly those who are getting ready to leave for college."

The White House reported in April that it is estimated that one in five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during their time there.

Bartlett said the partnership is planning some programs to educate New Canaan high school seniors who are heading to college in the fall. She said Palomba's life story shows how there needs to be more discussions on sexual assault in communities across the country.

"Donna's story is an urgent call for action," Bartlett said. "Our strongly held view is that ignorance is not an option. The tragedy of sexual assault leaves wounds that will live forever."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson