Read the previous chapter here.
The Camry that picked up Jane Doe on Del Playa belonged to Mia Wolfson, who, like Doe, was a university freshman. They lived on the same floor of the Francisco Torres dorm and had become friends since meeting the previous August, as had another freshman on the same floor, Lakshmi (“Munni”) Krishna, whom Doe had called. “I need you to come pick me up. I’m in big trouble,” she’d said, according to what Krishna told Deputy Rivlin.
Both Wolfson and Krishna, along with Doe’s 24-year-old sister who was visiting from San Francisco, had been out that night, walking with Doe from get-together to get-together in Isla Vista. The drinking had started early, with shots of vodka at the dorm, followed by beer and rum and perhaps some other alcohols at, first, Colin M.’s, a friend from high school, and then at Steve Ramajad’s, a friend of Doe’s boyfriend.
As the night wore on, one by one all of Doe’s companions had gotten tired and gone home, Krishna and Wolfson to the dorm, Doe’s sister to her friend’s house in Carpinteria. Doe stayed out alone, intending to talk her way into a party at 6681 Del Playa, where some of the seniors from the ATO fraternity lived that year.
After Wolfson and Krishna picked up Doe, they drove straight back to the dorm. Doe did not suggest calling the police and did not want to go to the hospital, despite complaining of pain on her right cheek from being hit and soreness in her left wrist. At last the others convinced her to go to the emergency room. Wolfson researched the closest hospital, and in the meantime they connected by phone with Doe’s sister, who had been notified by their father, whom Doe had called using Hannah’s phone. Doe’s sister and her friend picked up the three girls outside Francisco Torres and drove them to the Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital emergency room. Doe refused to go inside. She feared legal trouble for having violated the primary condition of her probation for an underage DUI, which was that she not drink - a condition that, by her own admission, she’d been violating for some time. She waited in the car as Krishna and Wolfson entered first and received assurances that no legal harm would come to their friend.
Shortly after 3 a.m., Deputy Rivlin arrived at the hospital to interview Doe, and recorded the conversation that began with his explanation about hospital personnel being required to notify law enforcement whenever rape is alleged. Doe told him that she’d “met a guy and we’re hanging out. And everything was okay : I like met his roommates and everything. We went on the beach and then he got, like, aggressive, and threw me down and started to rape me. And then I started screaming. He hit me on this [right] side [of the face], and kept going and then he got away, and then I just, I couldn’t like run after him or do anything. I just like laid there. And then I got up and called my friends.”
Doe went on to say that the alleged rapist’s name was Eric; he was an “African American”; he’d hit her “at least once” before pulling off her pants and underpants; and she’d screamed “a lot.”
In reading the transcript and listening to the recording, I was struck by the disparity between what Doe remembered and what she couldn’t. She easily recalled the address of the ATO house where she met Eric while trying repeatedly to reach her high school friends Ryan Flum and Hunter Penland, members of that fraternity; it was, she said without so much as an “uh,” 6681 Del Playa. Yet when asked if she remembered where Eric lived, she said to ask Wolfson and Krishna; they had “picked me up from there.” This false memory that Eric lived at 6613-19 Del Playa, instead of 300 yards east, was ratified by Wolfson a few minutes later. “[H]er stuff, her purse and her shoes are all along the beach behind that house, because that’s where the, um, incident took place,” Wolfson said.
“Okay, right behind it?” Rivlin asked.
“That’s what she said,” Wolfson answered.
This would seem to indicate that 19-year-old Jane Doe had suffered yet another of the many alcohol-induced blackouts that she later admitted having experienced over the years. Whatever actually happened to her - whether it was rape, an assault, or rough sex with someone known to her - and what she believed had happened to her cannot be reconciled by testimony based on her memory. By her own admission, she couldn’t recall “chunks” of the incident, which appear to total at least 45 minutes. (Later she admitted not remembering the hospital or SART cottage either.) The story she told forensic nurse examiner Judy Malmgren, after being transported to the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) cottage - and the story she would continue to tell to police and prosecutors, though with varying and differing amounts of detail - was that “Eric” had raped her on the beach just below his house on Del Playa.
This would’ve required walking down the relatively steep incline and steps at the bottom of El Embarcadero, mere yards from 6547 Del Playa. But since Doe repeatedly said that, when the rapist was finished and gone, she scrambled back up to the street and asked “the first person” she saw for a cell phone, the prosecution faced a credibility void in trying to reconcile her presence 300 yards west with her simultaneous belief that she was still in front of Eric’s. The best explanations, it seems, were either a Star Trek transporter or significant blackout - and not even a blackout would sensibly explain the alleged victim’s choosing to wait for a ride outside her rapist’s home rather than fleeing to safer ground.
For Eric to be guilty, one of only two scenarios could be true.
In the first, Doe scrambles back up the stairs and manages the incline on Embarcadero - not always easy for someone whose blood alcohol is 0.00 instead of at least 0.26. But this being a Friday night, when by all eyewitness testimony dozens of people are out on Del Playa, “the first person I saw” would’ve had to be much closer than three football fields away.
The second scenario entails even more leaps of logic: After being raped on the beach at the foot of Embarcadero, where no one sees her or hears her screaming, the terrified rape victim chooses not to even look for her purse and cell phone. And without knowing where the rapist himself or some other potential assailant might be lurking, she doesn’t flee up the steps just a few feet away. Instead she begins walking barefoot into near total darkness (it was a new moon that night) on a kelp-strewn and sometimes rocky beach toward a set of steps 250 yards away she probably doesn’t know are there - as her unfamiliarity with the area when she was on the phone to Krishna suggests - all without cutting her feet, stubbing a toe, or wetting the legs of her jeans in a tide about 2.5 feet above mean. At last she mounts the stairs at the foot of Camino Pescadero, walks 65 yards along the path through the park at the top, and turns west on Del Playa another 65 yards to the spot between the two buildings where Justin Hannah finds her. (Curiously, neither Barron nor Sanger inquired about the reason she was between those two apartment buildings, home to several dozen people. Why, if she’d come up the steps and through the park, hadn’t she continued up Camino Pescadero, toward her dorm?)
As fantastical as the second scenario sounds - and in truth, Jane Doe never claimed it herself; she said she grabbed her clothes and hurried up to the street - it’s the version that prosecutor Barron was stuck pitching to the jury. She evidently concluded that Doe’s walking 300 yards along Del Playa on a busy Friday night before seeing “the first person I saw” was even more far-fetched.
Barron’s success in selling that story was abetted by defense attorney Sanger’s failure to point out the logical improbabilities and logistical impossibilities. Did he understand that Hannah saw Doe at least 130 yards from the top of the stairs? Apparently not. At trial he asked Doe, “It was the Camino Pescadero beach access that you were at the top of when you were talking to Justin Hannah, is that right?”
Read the next chapter in this series here.
Joel Engel is the bestselling author of more than a dozen books. As a journalist, he has written on a wide variety of subjects for many national publications, and contributed frequently to the New York Times. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.