Even in death, my rapist haunts me.
“Do the right thing and induct #Richie into the boxing hall of fame!” a professional athlete writes on Twitter. A fan says of the trainer, “Richie was an abrasive guy, but I always thought he was a competent trainer.” Another praises, “Richie taught his guys to rise and start, bouncing to clear the cobwebs.”
Every time I see his name, I want to vomit.
Every time I see his name, I am forced to remember an incident so scarring and humiliating that it was only when the #MeToo movement began, I finally gained the courage to tell my husband, and then my daughter.
When my rapist, Richie, died in 2016, sanitized obituaries praised the “colorful” character who rose from the underworld to become one of the greatest boxing trainers of all time with connections to Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes, and Sylvester Stallone. I bit my tongue on the most traumatizing incident of my life.
Why? Because without #MeToo, I could only hear the accusing, nasty, victim-blaming questions that every other victim of assault hears.
“This was how many years ago?” “And why does this matter now?” “Tell me…what did you do to cause this?”
Do you know what happens when this internal monologue replays, over and over, inside of a woman’s head — and in my case, as someone who tried to speak out, begged for help, and struggled to fight off my attacker?
It makes you feel paralyzed. It makes you feel insane. It makes you want to do anything you can to fight for women, which is what propelled my entire career. Over the last few years, I have gained a degree of notoriety as the “Erin Brockovich of revenge porn” in successfully taking down misogynists like Hunter Moore and speaking out on behalf of victims.
Pre-#MeToo, it was the best I could do.
You see, the #MeToo movement did not exist when I was sexually assaulted. And for everyone who mocks it today as going too far, all I can think about is the culture that existed 35 years ago when I was trapped with this ogre of a man who turned my fairytale life in Las Vegas into a nightmare.
With this essay, I will no longer be silent about my sexual assault and near-death ordeal. I have now, finally, told my husband and my daughter. I’m tired of turning the knife inward, believing it was my fault that a stranger had targeted me with such maliciousness and hate.
On the night I was sexually assaulted and almost killed, I was living the dream as a young girl in the early 1980s dating my prince charming, singer Tom Jones.
The calamitous evening began in an innocent way. I’d just dined in the coffee shop of a major resort on the Strip when I was approached by a hotel executive who informed me of a “well-paid job opportunity.” It involved selling isolation tanks, also known as sensory deprivation boxes. These are contraptions in which people float in salt water with hopes of relieving muscle tension, chronic pain, or arthritis.
The executive told me to follow him to a guest room to view a sample of the device. I saw no red flags and had no off-putting premonitions because I’d known this executive for many years, beginning when I was a seventeen-year-old visitor at the hotel. He was scrawny, over seventy years old, and used a cane. He had always been amicable and polite. The room containing the isolation tank belonged to a portly man named Richie, who was a fixture in the boxing world, a high-profile guest at the resort, and a friend of the executive.
Richie explained how the isolation tank worked, even kneeling beside the device to demonstrate its features. While soaking in the details, I heard the door slam behind me and pivoted to see that the executive had departed.
I turned back to see that Richie had sprung to his feet. It was as if the slammed door was a starter pistol, triggering “go” and attack. He leapt at me, grabbing my shoulders. He chucked me onto the bed as if I was as light as a feather and as insignificant as one. I was terror-stricken and in total disbelief. I attempted to get up, but he rammed me back into place.
“What are you doing?” I tried to squirm off the bed, but Richie became angrier and applied more pressure.
“Don’t move, bitch.”
“What are you doing?” I pleaded. “Please let go.”
Richie began undressing himself with one hand as he kept me pinned. His massive arm was unyielding and kept me immobilized like a roller coaster restraint.
I knew I could not overpower this weathered-looking, street-savvy “tough guy,” so I tried to trick him. “I need to use the restroom.”
He studied my face, searching for traces of deception. Then, he growled, “Okay, but don’t try anything funny. I’ll be holding onto you the whole time.”
He allowed me to get off the bed, but his mitt of a hand felt like a clamp around my bicep. We moved slowly across the room.
When we reached the bathroom, Richie released me for a split second, and I saw this as an opportunity for escape. I darted into the bathroom and barricaded myself, while he frantically tried to turn the locked knob. Eventually, he moved away from the door — snarling, grunting, and hurling profanities.
There was a telephone in the bathroom. I pushed “0” which connected me to the hotel’s operator. “I’m trapped in the bathroom,” I screamed into the phone. “This man is trying to rape me.” I said Richie’s full name as best as I could remember, but also figured the room number was displayed at the operator’s desk.
Richie realized that I was on the phone. He also realized that the line in the bedroom was identical to the one in the bathroom, so he hit the hook or disconnection button, over and over. As a result, the call was broken up. It was hard for the operator to hear my words because of the constant interruption of off, on, off, on… or click, click, click.
“Get off the phone right now,” Richie screamed at me. “Or I will break down the fucking door and kill you! You piece of shit!”
I truly believed this monster was capable of busting into the bathroom because of his massive build and tough-as-nails temperament. But, I was not willing to surrender.
“Okay. I’m hanging up,” I shouted, but this was actually another ploy. I put down the phone, but then picked it up sixty seconds later. My goal was to make Richie think that I was speaking to him while actually communicating my message to the operator. I said things into the receiver like “Why are you trying to rape me?” and “Please just let me out of this room,” and “I wish hotel security would come up here.”
Richie quickly figured out what I was up to, probably due to the light on the bedroom phone, indicating that it was in use. So he again interrupted the call by pressing the disconnection button, again and again. Half an hour passed while we were embroiled in this cat-and-mouse contest.
Finally, Richie yelled, “Just get out of my room. I want you the fuck out of my room. Now!”
“I’m not coming out because you will grab me.”
“No, I won’t. I just want you out! I just want you fucking out of here!”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Just get the fuck out! I will leave the door open and stand on the far side of the room. I just want you the fuck out!”
Like an idiot, I believed him. I slowly opened the bathroom door and noticed that he was standing, as agreed, on the far side of the room. But once I got several feet out of the bathroom and peered around the corner, I could see that the door to the hallway was closed. I decided to try to make a run for it anyway.
I sprinted, and Richie nabbed me. He heaved me onto the bed and pounced on my petite frame with his massive weight, causing me to writhe in agony. Then he placed his hands around my neck and squeezed. His grip got tighter and tighter and tighter, until it seemed clear that he planned to strangle me. His face was a hideous collage of sweat, grit, misshapen blotches, beady eyes, scars, facial hair, aging lines, and seething hatred for a girl who had innocently inquired about a sales job. Why? Did he have a loathing for all females or was there something particularly repugnant about me? I squirmed and gasped for air as I felt my throat close. I figured there was a good chance this monster would kill me. I could visualize the horrific scene. He would hide my corpse in the isolation tank and then he and his buddies would casually haul the contraption through the casino to a waiting van, which would be taken to an isolated area in the desert where I would be buried.
I tried to speak through my tears with the little oxygen I had. Richie let up on the strangling in order to hear. I choked out the words, “Don’t kill me. I’ll do what you say.”
To my surprise, Richie removed his hands from my neck and replied, “Good.”
Like before, he kept me pinned with one arm while using the other to undress. It seemed like this was his rape ritual, his favorite misogynistic routine, his way of feeling superior to females. I wondered how many other girls he had sexually assaulted and whether any of their corpses were decomposing in the Mohave.
Richie not only took off his clothes, but he let go of me temporarily while demanding that I lift up my skirt. I was sobbing uncontrollably and afraid to disobey. He then tried to put his penis into me, but couldn’t. It was limp and floppy like a little baggie of mud. Richie became incensed all over again — now about his own incompetence, about his inability to complete the rape.
“This is your fault, bitch… All your fucking fault.” He shoved me away, grabbed my pocketbook, and dumped out the contents on the bed. He rifled through my wallet until he found my driver’s license. “What’s your real name anyway? I know it isn’t ‘Laws,’ you fakey, lying bitch.” He read the license to see that my real name was indeed “Laws” and threw the empty purse at me. “Get the fuck out of my room.” I quickly stuffed everything into my bag and fled.
I hurried to hotel security in tears and explained what had happened.
“We went up there after getting your call,” one security officer said. “We stood in the hallway for a little while, but we didn’t hear anything. So we went back downstairs.”
“What? You left? Why would you do that?” I was incredulous.
“Because we didn’t hear anything!” He shouted out the words in a callous and defensive way.
It seemed incomprehensible and willfully negligent for hotel security to ignore a distress call. Plus, I had phoned multiple times, pleading for help. I thought it was particularly bizarre that they had come all the way up to the room and then decided not to knock. Why? Were they intimidated by Richie, a high-profile guest? Were they lazy? Were they incompetent? The failure to investigate made no sense.
A second security officer laid into me. “What were you doing in the hotel anyway? You’re not staying here.”
It felt like I was being victimized all over again. These men were siding with my attacker. They were acting like the ordeal was my fault, like I was responsible for my own nightmare, for the worst experience of my life. They were treating me like a villain, a nuisance, an irritating girl who was interrupting their otherwise leisurely evening. I was a troublemaker who was putting the hotel at risk, making them legally liable. The officers clearly wished I would disappear.
The question was repeated. “What were you doing in the hotel?”
I felt abused and defeated. I was in emotional tatters as I cupped my head in my hands and sobbed. But this did not soften the officers.
The heartless question was asked a third time. “Could you explain what you were doing in the hotel?” I knew what he was getting at: he thought I was a prostitute. There was a sexist assumption in those days that any young woman at a Las Vegas resort was a call girl.
I figured I should reveal the truth. “I’m a friend of Tom Jones… and his group. I’m supposed to go backstage after the show.” The officers suddenly looked frazzled, formed a huddle, and whispered to each other. Tom was, in fact, onstage at that very moment. He had been performing during my assault and near-asphyxiation. Ironically, he might have even been belting out “Delilah,” a song with lyrics about a woman’s murder.
One officer called backstage and ten minutes later, the warm-up act, comedian Freddie Roman, appeared, saying, “Tom’s onstage right now. What’s going on?” I was distraught because I did not want Tom to know about the incident. I was embarrassed, blaming myself for going to Richie’s room in the first place. Freddie was a nice fellow, but in no way a tight-lipped. He would surely tell Tom. The security officers conferenced with the comedian outside of my earshot, and then Freddie left.
The officers confronted me again. This time, they segued from victim-blaming into telling me why I had better be a good, little girl and keep my mouth shut. “Richie has a lot of money. Mr. Roman tells us that your father does, too. But Richie has more.”
What was this supposed to mean? Why were they talking about cash rather than the crime? Why weren’t they calling the cops? They had not once criticized my attacker. The officers seemed to fear a civil lawsuit, and they were playing a game called “court case.” The winner, from their perspective, was the individual with the biggest, baddest, and priciest lawyer — a lawyer who could huff and puff and blow the house down. They had raised Richie’s arm in their illusory lawsuit and declared him “champ.”
One of the officers leaned in close to me. “You’re banned from this hotel. Unless Tom Jones is in town, we’d better not see you here.”
Another one chimed in, “I think you should run on home.”
Run on home like a child? Run on home like I am at fault? And they were banning me, not Richie from the resort? Would he be allowed to operate unfettered, to tan at the pool, to gamble at the craps table, and to assault other females? I was in disbelief over the condescension, callousness, and male chauvinism, but by this time, I had lost the will to fight. Combating Richie and the security officers had drained me, I felt weak, battered, despondent, and invisible. I knew the verbal victimization would continue unless I did as they suggested — unless I “ran on home.”
I did not go to the police or file a lawsuit because I didn’t want anyone to know about the assault — not my friends and certainly not my adoptive dad. I designated this as “the secret” and sequestered it in the isolation tank of my mind — the tomb. If my old-fashioned father had learned the truth, he would have hauled me back to my Georgia (where I had been raised as a debutante). He would have blamed me — a third victimization — and branded me with an “S” for slut. I would have been tainted and besmirched — a disgrace. I would no longer be respectable, decent, or “his daughter.” Getting sexually assaulted is the opposite of being a debutante.
I later learned of Richie’s ties to the underworld from newspaper articles. According to the New York Times, he had allegedly worked as an enforcer for the mob, and the FBI believed he was committing crimes related to arson. He had a reputation for violence and had killed a man in a barroom brawl. He’d also tried to rape another woman, but she’d been rescued by Larry Holmes. (Larry Holmes detailed the sexual assault in his book, Against All Odds. I also spoke with Holmes on the phone in 2018 and asked if Richie had sexually assaulted additional women. His all-too-telling response was “I plead the fifth.”) If I had pursued Richie, criminally or civilly, would I have been in danger? Had the security officers known about Richie’s tawdry connections and violent tendencies on the day of the attack? Was this why they declined to knock? Did they decide that it was better to railroad me than become the target of this monster’s revenge?
Two years after the sexual assault, I attended a private party, hosted by John Travolta and Sylvester Stallone at a Hollywood nightclub called The Palace, following the “Staying Alive” movie premiere at the Mann Chinese Theater. Guests for the event included Brooke Shields, Dolly Parton, Ted McGinley, Peter Falk, Jane Seymour, and of course, Travolta and Stallone.
That’s where I spotted Richie again.
I couldn’t believe it. My mouth was agape. My heart slowed to a sputter, and I could barely breathe.
Richie did not see me gawking at him, and I had no stomach for confrontation so I dashed to The Palace restroom in tears. There were various women milling about, applying makeup and chatting, but only one noticed me. Mucked up by smeared mascara, red eyes and tear-stained cheeks, I announced to her. “He’s out there. The man who raped me is out there.” Then I stated his full name.
This woman froze with an expression that could only be described as mortification combined with fear. Her reaction was clearly more than sympathy for a stranger. “Oh, my God!” she replied. “I’m his secretary!”
Of the hundreds of people at the party, what were the odds that I would come into contact with my attacker’s employee? I felt terrified and fled the restroom while the secretary yelled, “Wait. You can’t leave me like this. What do I do?”
I could not give her advice. I could not even give myself advice. I ran to my car, knowing that I could not compartmentalize the pain, at least for a while. The anguish was intense as I relived the trauma of the sexual assault, which had almost led to my death.
Why do women stay silent?
Because they are trying to survive. They’re trying to escape from the emotional pain.
Over the past few years, brave women (and men) of the #MeToo movement have stepped forward, revealing harrowing experiences, disclosing details about what they endured. I watched — and gave verbal support — but said nothing about my ordeal. I realized that I’d kept my assault compartmentalized, tightly shrouded, in a tomb. I had buried it underground and tried to forget where I had stashed it.
But silence does not advance women’s rights or victims’ rights. It does not end sexism or better society. It is not the answer.
And I will never be silent again.
Charlotte Laws is a BBC TV political pundit, a former Californian politician, and the author of the award-winning memoir, Undercover Debutante: The Search for my Birth Parents and a Bald Husband. You can follow her on Twitter @CharlotteLaws