On Coincidence and Closure

I want to tell you a true story. Chronologically it begins in December of 1992, when I was 3 years old, but I’m going to start in September of 2006. There are many moving parts, and I’ll do my best to lay them out articulately.

September, 2006

It was a warm night in late summer. I was 17 years old, barely two weeks into my senior year of high school. I was walking back to my house with my best friend — a banal route we had taken for as long as we could remember. A man approached us, began asking us something, then threw me to the ground and violated me. I screamed for my life — not a single neighbor so much as turned on a light. I fought my way free and we sprinted the hundred yards back to my house.

For the next two months, police officers sat in my living room while I stared at lineup after lineup of men who were already in custody for similar offenses. Some looked vaguely like the man I described to police on the night of my attack, but not one face instilled the fear in me that he had. My rapist had left me with bruised ribs, severe emotional trauma, but no DNA evidence, so as time went on and I failed to identify anyone, hope of closure and justice vanished.

January, 2018

At the beginning of last year, as the #MeToo movement dominated the public consciousness, I started a stippling portrait series called ME:WE. ME:WE aims to tell the stories of nine survivors of sexual assault. The project was inspired by my own experience in 2006, briefly described above and which I talk about in more detail here. Aside from that self-published piece, I had locked that trauma up for nearly 12 years — until I began this series.

June, 2018

One night in late June of 2018, I woke up at 3am with a dull stomach ache. I rolled onto my back, picked up my phone and opened Facebook. The first post on my feed was from my first grade teacher. It read:

December, 1992

A few days before Christmas in 1992, Christy Mirack, a teacher at the elementary school where I would begin Kindergarten two years later, was wrapping gifts for her students at her apartment. A man entered, violently raped and murdered her, and escaped into plain sight. Her body was discovered a few hours later by my future principal, who had gone to check on Christy when she didn’t show up for work.

Police collected DNA evidence from the scene, followed thousands of leads, but made no arrests. As time passed, her family hung signs and took out billboards, desperately hoping to breathe life into the cold case. Christy’s murder haunted my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania for 25 years.

June, 2018

On June 25th, 2018, the morning I woke up with a stomach ache, everything changed. Police arrested a local man, 49-year-old Raymond Rowe, or “DJ Freez,” as he was known in Lancaster. The same DJ who had played the electric slide at my friend’s wedding, where I danced just a few feet in front of him. He was nothing short of a local celebrity — everyone I knew had been in a room with him at least once.

The break came when Parabon NanoLabs found a DNA relative of Mr. Rowe in an ancestry database, and was able to connect this relative to the unidentified genetic sequence in the criminal database. The same technique was used to catch the Golden State Killer earlier in the year. The days leading up to the arrest were remarkable. I encourage you to read more about that here.

I stayed up reading the details of the case until close to 5am. I eventually fell back to sleep, and when I woke up a few hours later, a thought flashed across my mind — I needed to see Raymond Rowe’s mugshot next to the composite of my rapist. I happened to have that composite on hand because a few months earlier, in February of 2018, I reached out to the lead investigator from my case to ask for a copy. I had thought it might be an interesting piece of the story I wanted to tell alongside ME:WE.

I fused these two images — the police composite from my assault and the mugshot of Raymond Rowe that had been splashed across local news outlets earlier that morning.

And then another thought — what if I could find a picture of Rowe from 2006, the same time as my assault? He had been a public figure for as long as I could remember — surely a Google search would yield something. I quickly found his MySpace, which was filled with flyers and photos from events dating back at least a decade. I stopped scrolling when I found this:

I combined that old snapshot with my composite.

Jarring. And then, another thought: what is the statute of limitations for major sexual offenses in Pennsylvania? Another quick Google and the answer came back: 12 years. I did the math — September 2006 to June 2018. 11 years and 9 months. Just weeks were left in my statute. I was neck deep in an art series that had been inspired by my assault. My mind raced and I struggled to make sense of the timing.

I picked up the phone and called the detective, now a lieutenant, for the second time that year. I told her I had heard about Rowe, and that I wanted to reopen my case before it was too late — before the statute expired. About a month later, I received a call from the District Attorney’s office with news I had prepared to hear: from a legal perspective, nothing could be done. My evidence was circumstantial, not scientific. Intuitive, but not infallible in a court of law.

So that was it. I took subtle solace in knowing that Mr. Rowe would be brought to justice for Christy Mirack’s horrific murder in 1992, and quietly wondered if my rapist would be sitting in the same prison cell.

Today: January 8th, 2019

This morning, Raymond Rowe stood in front of a judge and pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of Christy Mirack. There won’t be a public trial, where Mr. Rowe could have faced the death penalty if convicted. Instead, he will serve life in prison.

The only way I will ever really know whether Rowe is the man who approached me on that September night 12 years ago is if he confesses. There is no DNA evidence in my case, no hard science, just a police report and a composite.

I recently wrote a letter to Raymond Rowe, describing the events of that September night in 2006 and asking him point blank if he was my rapist. I don’t expect to hear back, but crazier things have happened.