Law enforcement put in awkward position with false reports
Gresham residents expressed outrage when police announced in August that a local woman who claimed to have been raped by two strangers in broad daylight at the Gresham Station Shopping Center made up the whole story.
While that case has been resolved - Danielle Elizabeth Hayes, 35, of Gresham pleaded no contest to initiating a false report and was sentenced to continued mental health treatment, 150 hours of community service and payment of $3,000 in restitution to the Gresham Police Department for police overtime costs associated with the investigation - a second Gresham case in which a woman allegedly made up a story about being raped is still working its way through the court system.
Four days before Hayes falsely claimed to have been raped, Paula Sharon Earhart, 45, of Gresham allegedly did the same thing.
According to a nearly 50-page police report, she told hospital staff she'd been raped by a man whom she identified by name. The report also details time police, emergency room doctors, nurses and sexual assault examiners invested in the case - a total of 54 hours - in addition to at least $5,000 in medical costs.
Gresham police arrested Earhart on July 31 on an allegation of filing a false police report. During a Wednesday, Jan. 4, court hearing in Gresham she opted for her case to go to trial before a jury. A date has not yet been set.
And just as the Gresham community was getting some closure when Hayes agreed to a plea deal, the media caught wind of yet another false rape report.
On Dec. 15, a 29-year-old Newberg woman told Portland police she'd been kidnapped, robbed and raped by a stranger in Washington Park. She, too, later admitted to making the story up to hide the fact she'd spent $1,500 raised for a medieval re-enactment group she belonged to, police said.
A lot to weigh
Such cases put police, prosecutors and the public in an awkward position, said Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger. Law enforcement and district attorneys must weigh pressing charges against the possibility of alienating true rape victims.
They also must take into account the rights of the accused, said Norm Frink, chief deputy district attorney for the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.
In regard to the two Gresham cases, Junginger said, 'Obviously our concern by charging these women with filing a false police report is that there is a chance women who are truly victims of crimes where it is a one-on-one rape, that they will be fearful of coming forward.
'That's why it's important to really take a look at each incident and whether it's appropriate in the circumstances. I believe what makes these two incidents rise to the level of the filing of criminal charges is that both took a great deal of our time to investigate, both had ulterior motives for doing it, both confessed to it and in both there was considerable evidence proving they were false reports.'
The investigations also consume precious public safety and prosecutorial resources during a time of slashed budgets.
'Even if our initial investigation shows inconsistencies in the story, rape is such a serious crime we can't say, 'Nope, we think you're lying,' and let it go,' Junginger said.
As for the public, residents may become alarmed and fearful when news outlets cover the initial report. If the report is later found to be fake, it can make the community all the more outraged.
For example, in the Hayes case, Gresham police notified the media about the alleged rape, only to hold a press conference three days later to let the community know the report was bogus.
Residents responded by phoning the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office and encouraging prosecutors to press charges.
Gabby Santos, a program coordinator with the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said fabricated rape reports are few and far between.
'It is rare for a false report to be made,' she said. 'The violence in our communities is real.'
Junginger said it's particularly unusual to 'have two incidents right on the heels of each other,' referring to the two Gresham reports in July.
But media attention on such cases may make it seem like false rape reports are more common than they are, Santos said. If people have the impression that a high percentage of rape reports are false, it in effect shifts accountability from the perpetrator to the victim, she said.
It also creates an environment in which true victims may feel too afraid to report a real rape because they fear not being believed, Santos said.
The exact percentage of false rape reports is up for debate, as the results of studies across the nation widely vary.
A 1994 study by a Purdue University sociologist who focused on one Midwest police department found 41 percent of the department's rape cases were false.
However, a more recent 2008 study by the American Prosecutors Research Institute found the percentage of false rape reports to be in the 2 percent to 8 percent range.
That study also highlighted a major flaw in research arriving at higher percentages: Some police reports classified as false would have been better described as unsubstantiated. It wasn't that the victim made the whole thing up, but that police closed the case because of a lack of evidence needed for prosecution.
Santos pointed out that if a victim is too traumatized to report a rape right away, evidence crucial to a successful prosecution might not be available. Or a meticulous suspect could remove evidence of a sexual assault - such as taking bed linens or forcing victims to shower and brush their teeth.
The study also found that some cases flagged as false in actuality were considered truthful but because details of the incident didn't meet specific elements of a sex crime, they should have been coded as baseless.
In either scenario, whether the case is unsubstantiated or baseless, 'That's different than somebody just making up a story,' Santos said.
Artificially high percentages of false rape reports can create a dangerous perception of rape victims and perpetuate myths, such as only a woman scorned who is out for revenge files a fake rape report, Santos said.
Quite the contrary, found the American Prosecutors Research Institute report. Instead, women who make up false rape reports tend to describe attackers as strangers with vague physical descriptions.
The silver lining here is it lowers the odds of police arresting a suspect or a person being wrongly convicted.
But, because stranger-on-stranger rapes are so rare, those are the ones media tend to report on. And those media reports could cause people to conclude that the number of fake rape reports is on the rise, because if the media reports on a reported rape that turns out to be false, they must report on that development, too.
'When we focus on the false reports and the false actions, we're supporting an unhealthy debate because we're reinforcing the myths that are out there,' Santos said. Myths that tend to blame the victim, she added.
The American Prosecutors Research Institute report also found that people with serious psychological and emotional problems file the majority of false rape allegations.
Instead of revenge, they're seeking attention and sympathy, the report concluded.
The Gresham Station case and the Washington Park case meet this description. Both women said their attackers were strangers, whom they vaguely described. And both women reportedly made up the stories to avoid accountability for their actions, police say.
Hayes reportedly claimed to be raped at Gresham Station in hopes of keeping her husband from discovering a personal indiscretion that took place earlier in the day. The woman who filed the Portland report allegedly wanted to cover up a theft.
Junginger said the motive behind filing a false police report can be as simple as concocting an excuse for coming home late, or not at all. Often marital problems or issues at home play a role, he said.