Survivor’s Story: Helena

Nothing expresses the impact of the rape kit backlog like the words of the women and men affected by it. Today, we share Helena’s story. We thank her and want honor her courage in sharing her experience.

"For my 17th birthday, in 1996, my mom gave me a vintage VW Rabbit. Days later, at a self-service car wash practically in view of my home, a stranger approached me and forced me into the car at knife point, instructed me to drive to several locations, and repeatedly assaulted me.

After being held captive for hours, I convinced him to let me free. He threatened to kill my family if he heard a report of the crime on his police scanner, or saw his picture in the paper. He took my license so he’d know where I lived and promised that, one day, he would come back and make me “his girlfriend.”

After I flagged down a police cruiser and was taken to the hospital, I sat on a metal table for hours, where I endured the harrowing evidence collection process and disclosed every last humiliating detail of my assault to indifferent detectives.

Several days later, my VW was returned to me covered in handprints, the shape of my body imprinted in the dusty hood, where I had been pressed face down and assaulted in a truck yard.

No further contact was initiated by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department, and they did not return my calls for over 13 years.

For those 13 years, I lived in fear each day of my life. Every stranger was a potential rapist. Every trip to the store was an invitation for assault. Worst of all, every night in my home was the night of his return. I had every appearance of functionality, but my existence was ruled by terror. I couldn’t process the assault. Without any chance for resolution, the pain seemed bottomless. There was no justice. No peace. No hope.

I was led to believe that the kit was either lost or destroyed, and could not determine whether the evidence collected from me had even been analyzed.

In 2009, looking for closure, I began researching unprocessed rape kits in Los Angeles. I discovered that thousands of women in my city suffered the same devastating injustice I had. Women had been raped, even murdered, by criminals who could have been in jail if the evidence we suffered to provide had been processed. It was incomprehensible.

Then I met a rape victim’s advocate, Abigail Sims. When I shared my story with her, Abby’s reaction was antithetical to everything I had experienced before. I felt real caring, real compassion. I enlisted her help in finding out the fate of my kit. Within one week a sergeant contacted me and informed me that my kit had been processed, and told me that they had a match. My rapist was serving a sentence of 25 years in Ohio.

I was elated. Here was my justice! But victory became defeat, when I learned that the sentence he was serving was for a nearly identical assault that could have been prevented if my rape kit had been processed. My rapist was imprisoned for sexual battery a year after my assault. But because the evidence had not been processed and there was no evidence to link him to my rape, he was released. Seven weeks later, he abducted and repeatedly raped another woman leaving a grocery store in Ohio, the crime he is currently serving for.

We have completed extradition and are in the pre-trial preparation phase. Charles Courtney may face 15 years to life for my assault, in addition to the 25 he is currently serving.

I think of him sitting just a few miles away—the mysterious monster a real person, with a name—someone I’ll meet again soon. I want to feel relief. But I don’t know how yet. How do I come to terms with the lost years of my life, the lost parts of myself? I spent nearly half of my life waiting for this to matter. Now that it does, there are new challenges to face—ones that require much more strength than forgetting ever did.

Opposite this grief, I feel an immensity of gratitude. I am grateful that there are people out there like Abby Sims. I am grateful that through her, I became engaged in advocating for the elimination of the rape kit backlog in LA and across the country. I am grateful for every advocate, every survivor, every friend and relative who stands up for what is right and just, who stands up for compassion and healing. As someone who has been locked in the isolation of fear for so long, to meet such hearts rekindles my belief in what the future can bring."

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