Names have been changed.
During my sophomore year in high school I downloaded an app for making friends in my area. Whenever I met someone, I told them right away that I was 15. When I first connected with Tom, he told me he was “around my age,” but I found out later he was really 28.
He seemed nice online and we had a lot in common. He liked comics, anime, video games, and similar music to me. I told him that I felt lonely.
He asked me questions about my long-distance boyfriend, my family, school. He often said things like, “I can’t believe the guys at your school don’t like you,” or “They have to be insane for not thinking you’re beautiful.” I told him the boys in my school were not as nice and mature as I wanted them to be. He joked about how they should be more like him.
Weeks passed. Once we swapped numbers, things moved faster. We started texting all the time. Eventually, he asked me to hang out with him at his house. A feeling told me not to go, but I ignored it.
On the day we met, I woke up to a snow storm. I left my house wearing my backpack, rain boots, jeans, my favorite Rick and Morty shirt, a hoodie, and a vest. I trudged through the snow squinting with my hands tucked into my pockets and my blue hair under my hood. The wind was strong and the air was frosty and bleak.
He only lived a few blocks away. When I arrived at his building I shot him a text: “I’m here, what floor are you on?”
He asked if I was alone.
“Send a picture,” he said.
“What? lol.” I was confused.
“Send a picture for proof. I need to know that you’re not setting me up.”
I didn’t know what he meant but I snapped a picture of my rain boot on the carpet of his lobby and then a picture of me smiling.
“Thirteenth floor,” he finally told me.
From Online to In Person
When the elevator opened, he was standing there.
“Hey.” He greeted me with a smile.
“Hi.” I just stared at him. He didn’t look like his photos. He was wearing a winter hat, basketball shorts, and slides. He had a beard and a mustache. He wore glasses and was tall. He looked a lot older than me. He led me to a door at the end of the hall and we went inside.
In his house I stood awkwardly.
“C’mon, take your jacket and stuff off,” he said.
I took off my jacket, backpack, and my hoodie. I noticed bean bag chairs and a lot of manga and video games.
He complimented my shirt and I asked him if he watched Rick and Morty, which led to small talk.
“Does anyone know where you are?” he asked.
This question felt strange. I told him no.
He offered me a drink and I declined, thinking that it would be foolish to accept a drink from him. I realized it was foolish to be there in the first place.
He stood in front of me. I wondered when we would start playing video games.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s just awkward,” I said.
Nothing Is OK
He got closer and I noticed a tattoo on his right arm. It was in black ink and a fancy font. I tried reading it, but I couldn’t; I felt like I was focusing on all the wrong things.
“I could make it more awkward,” he said.
He leaned in close to my face and I backed away. He grabbed my arm, his nails sunk into the skin on my wrist. I tried yanking it away but he was stronger than me. He leaned in again this time, kissing me. I pulled my head away and told him that I didn’t want to kiss him. “I’m not good at it,” I said.
He kept kissing me, though. I froze. I thought maybe he didn’t understand what I meant so I kept backing away. He repeated the words, “It’s OK,” like he was talking to a scared child, which is exactly what I was. It was almost like he was trying in his own way to soothe me.
But it wasn’t OK. Nothing about it was OK. During the assault, a young kid opened the door. Tom got up and closed the door and came back.
Afterwards, I started crying. It also hit me that there were children in the apartment. I needed to get out of there.
I tried to process what had happened to me while I trudged through the snow.
When I got home, my mom asked me how I was. I told her I was fine and went to my room. I took off my clothes, threw them into the laundry and took a shower, trying to act a s if nothing had happened.
But of course I couldn’t do that. When I got out of the shower, I called my best friend. She urged me to tell an adult and said if I didn’t, she would. I begged her not to because I wasn’t ready. She told me it wasn’t my fault. She emphasized that my fears about telling wouldn’t help anyone. “If he is still out there, you won’t be the only one he abuses like that.”
First, a Half Truth
Almost a week and a half after the assault, I told my mother, “There’s this creepy guy I know and I think he hurt someone.”
When she didn’t answer I added, “I’ve been getting texts from him and I think he may have hurt a girl.”
I left out that the girl was me. I read some of the texts to her, making sure to leave out the ones that revealed details like when he asked me to come to his house.
She called the local precinct and while the phone was ringing, I felt that inevitably the truth would be exposed, leaving me smaller, eroded, less of a person. That’s how I feel people often see victims.
“My daughter is being harassed via text by what seems like a predator,” she said.
I felt relief, though, once she started talking. I thought he would be stopped without me having to tell anyone what he did to me. But my relief was short lived. The officer told her the police needed to come to our house to gather information.
Then, the Whole Truth
When the officers arrived, they could tell I was hiding something. One of the officers gave me a pointed look like he wanted me to say something. I looked at my mother, and then he took a breath and nodded his head like he’d come to a realization. He took me into the hallway.
As soon as we were alone, I began to cry. I cried a lot. I guess it was all the crying I didn’t do when the assault happened.
I explained everything. I was lonely and a grown man preyed on that and took advantage of me — a 15-year-old girl, who lived only 12 blocks from him. It felt surreal. I watch a lot of cop shows, and Law & Order: SVU is one of my favorites. I like to see the bad guys get caught and brought to justice. I never saw myself as being like the victims.
The officers looked through my phone, emails, and search history to confirm elements of my story. After they left, the house was quiet. My mom went into her room. I followed her because I wasn’t ready to stop talking. I hadn’t stopped crying. I tried to explain why I went to his house in the first place. I told her I was sorry.
Although I felt scared, I was relieved that my mother knew now. Still, I felt bad because I think it hurt her that I didn’t tell her right away. I wondered if she’d ever forgive me.
A Kind Detective
About a week after the officers came over, my mom told me that I had to meet with a detective.
At first I was upset because I didn’t want them to know everything, but I didn’t want anyone else going through what I had, so I sucked it up and my mother and I walked down to the precinct. On the way, I felt a pit in my stomach, the kind I got when I feel anxious or scared.
My mom was still upset, but I could feel her shifting back to normalcy. She was smiling and holding my arm, her unspoken ways of telling me I would be OK and she wasn’t angry. We sat in a waiting area separated by a small gate. The air smelled like a Starbucks.
After a while the detective came from the back. He was a tall white man who was nice and gentle despite his serious demeanor. I shook his calloused hand. I felt at ease with him but I was still worried and tense. He spoke to my mom and me separately. He explained that nothing we said to him would be shared with the other one. This cut some of the tension I felt.
To Catch a Predator
The detective led me to a small room with a mirror that doubled as a window. I looked around and noticed the camera in the corner. The table I sat at had a handle for handcuffs to be locked to.
The detective sat across from me looking at a notepad. He asked me some basic questions about myself and then we started talking about Tom. I told the detective details about the assault and what happened leading up to it.
I told him about Tom’s hat and the tattoo I noticed on his arm. I described his room, the bean bag chairs, all the games he had, like a paradise made for teens. Even when I couldn’t remember important details, the detective was understanding.
Then I said: “I don’t think his name is Tom.”
I told him that once I called late at night and it went to voicemail saying that I had reached Richard something with a V. I couldn’t remember the last name because it was not common.
Evidently this was a big breakthrough. Using the new name and the details I gave him, the detective called a week later to tell me they thought they’d found him.
Real Life Law & Order: SVU
The detective had me come in to call Richard and have him admit what he’d done while the call was being recorded. On the call I had to act like I hadn’t told the police. I was afraid, but I agreed to do whatever it took to be able to arrest him. First, I had to say my name and the date, and read a statement into the recorder. Then I called Richard.
Hearing his voice scared me. He answered so nonchalantly, like a week beforehand he wasn’t ruining my sophomore year and making it so that every time I smelled the brand of lotion he wore, or heard “Love” by Kendrick Lamar or any song from the Black Panther soundtrack I would be reminded of the things he did to me. The detective wrote things down on his notepad that I needed to say. I winged most of it, though.
I had to get him to acknowledge that we’d been together.
“Can we hang out again?” I said.
I told him that no one was at my place so he could come over and we could “have fun.” It didn’t take long at all for him to pick a time and say, “See you soon.” That’s what the detective needed to arrest him.
After that they asked me to identify Richard in some pictures. One was his profile picture from the app. Then they showed me another picture and asked if it was of the same person I had pointed out before. I told them that it was.
Preparing for the Trial
I wish I could say that then the police picked Richard up and he’s in jail now, but that’s not always how these cases work. Soon after I identified him, I was introduced to Ellen, the assistant district attorney, and despite the traumatic nature of our meetings, I enjoyed working with her.
About six months after the assault, Ellen and her assistants prepped me to speak in front of the grand jury. They asked me questions, and spoke to me just like they would during the actual trial. Rehearsing with them made me less anxious.
When the day of the grand jury trial arrived, I felt ready. I waited with my mom (who wasn’t allowed to be in the room during my testimony) in a waiting area.
After what seemed like hours, I entered the room. It looked like a small lecture hall. There was a table in the front with a microphone, and a podium off to the side where I could see Ellen and the jurors. Her job was to give the jurors the facts about what happened. It was up to the jurors to decide whether or not Richard should face criminal charges based on what they learned from my testimony. Richard wasn’t there.
A man told me to raise my right hand and swear to tell the truth. I did and then took a seat. Ellen told me to recount everything that had happened six months before. I could hear my voice echo through the room and I tried to remain calm, even though I wasn’t.
Ellen sometimes asked me questions, and sometimes when the jurors raised their hands to ask questions, Ellen posed them to me. After the grand jury, I didn’t speak to Ellen for a few weeks, then she asked my mother and me to come down. When we arrived, she told us that the grand jury decided that Richard would be charged. I was happy and relieved.
Richard’s lawyer presented him with several options. One was to go to trial. The other was to plead guilty and take an offer that included 10 years’ probation and registry as a sex offender.
I learned that while the case was pending, Richard would be released and free. I wanted him to go to jail.
But 17 months later, while I was writing this story at YCteen, we learned about restorative justice, a system of finding justice by addressing the needs of both victims and offenders. Accountability is an important part of restorative justice, but it aims to resolve the issues that influenced the offender’s actions, not just punish them. I knew that Richard had kids and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted him to go to jail if it meant that the kids wouldn’t get to be with their father.
Recently, Richard pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years’ probation, no jail time, and registration as a sex offender. I am still processing whether or not I think the decision is fair.
I want to try to get over the assault and not be constantly reminded of it. Fortunately, Ellen arranged for me to see a therapist, and that helps. But most important, I’m proud of myself that I reported the crime.
Note to Readers: Survival Strategies
The main reasons I worked so hard to write this story is that I think it will stop another girl from being abused, and it helped me move on to a happier, healthier place. Getting there was a challenge and a long process. But as I wrote the story, I realized all of the ways I reached out for help and helped myself.
I confided in my friend.
I told my mother.
I told the police.
I told detectives.
I cooperated with law enforcement to arrest the abuser.
I told my lawyer.
I recognized my self-worth.
I accepted love from my mother and brother.
I started therapy.
I found the courage to go to trial.
I realized not telling could hurt other girls.
I decided not to blame herself.
I acknowledged pride in myself for reporting the crime.
Where to Get Help
You can find information and search for a counseling center near you on The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website at rainn.org. Or call their hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE.