A False Report: Victim, Attacker, Defender

The real-life investigation behind the forthcoming Netflix series. Two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists uncover the story of Marie, an 18-year-old girl branded a liar after reporting her rape, and the detectives who followed a twisting path to arrive at the truth.


Marie left the interview room and walked down the stairs of the police station, accompanied by a detective and a sergeant. She was no longer crying. At the bottom, the police handed her off to the two people who were waiting for her there. Marie belonged to a support program for teenagers aging out of foster care. These two were program managers.

So, one said.

Were you raped?

It had been one week since Marie, an eighteen-year-old with hazel eyes, wavy hair, and braces, had reported being raped by a stranger with a knife who had broken into her apartment and blindfolded, bound, and gagged her. In that week Marie had told the story to police at least five times. She had told them: thin white man, short as five feet six. Blue jeans. Hoodie—gray, maybe white. Eyes—possibly blue. But her story wasn’t always the same in the telling. And the police had heard from people in Marie’s life who had doubts. And when the police had confronted Marie about those doubts, she had wavered, then buckled, saying she had made the story up—because her foster mom wasn’t answering her calls, because her boyfriend was now just a friend, because she wasn’t used to being alone.

Because she had wanted attention.

She’d sketched her history for the police detectives. She’d described growing up with something like twenty different foster parents. She’d told them she had been raped when she was seven years old. She’d told them that being on her own for the first time had made her scared. Her story of being raped by an intruder had “turned into a big thing that was never meant to happen,” she’d told the police.

Today she had tested whatever patience the police could still summon. She had returned to the station and doubled back, saying she had told the truth the first time, saying she really had been raped. But when pressed in that interview room she had folded once more—admitting, again, that her story was a lie.

No, Marie told the managers at the bottom of the stairs.

No. I was not raped.

The two managers, Jana and Wayne, worked for Project Ladder, a nonprofit program that helped foster kids make the transition to living on their own. 

If that’s the case, the managers told Marie, if you weren’t raped, then there’s something you have to do.

Marie dreaded whatever was next. She had seen it on their faces when she’d answered the question. They weren’t thrown. They weren’t taken aback. They’d doubted her before, just like the others. It occurred to Marie that from now on, people would think she was mentally ill. She, too, wondered if she was broken, if there was something in her that needed to be fixed. Marie realized just how vulnerable she had become. She worried about losing what little she had left. A week ago, she’d had friends, her first job, her first place to call her own, freedom to come and go, a sense of life unfurling. But now that job and that sense of optimism were gone. The place and her freedom were in jeopardy. And friends she could turn to? She was down to one.

The Project Ladder managers told Marie what she had to do. And they told her that if she didn’t do it, she would be cast out of the program. She would lose her subsidized apartment. She would be without a home.

The managers took Marie back to her apartment complex and summoned the other teens in Project Ladder—Marie’s peers, kids her age with the same kinds of stories to tell about growing up as wards of the state. There were around ten of them. Most were girls. In the front office, near the pool, they gathered in a circle and sat down. Marie stood. She stood and told them—told everyone, including the upstairs neighbor who one week before had made the 911 call to report the rape—that it was all a lie, that they didn’t need to worry: There was no rapist out there to be on guard against, no rapist the police needed to be looking for.

She cried as she confessed—the sound magnified by the awkward silence surrounding her. If there was sympathy in the room, Marie sensed it from just one person, a girl sitting to her right. 

In everyone else’s eyes she saw a question—Why would you do that?— and a corresponding judgment: That’s messed up.

In the weeks and months to come, there would be more fallout from Marie’s retraction. But for Marie there would be no moment worse than this.

She had one friend left to turn to, and after the meeting, Marie made for Ashley’s home. Marie didn’t have a driver’s license—just a learner’s permit—so she walked. On the way there, she came to a bridge. The bridge crossed Interstate 5, the state’s busiest road, a north–south highway with a ceaseless current of Subarus and eighteen-wheelers.

Marie thought about how much she wanted to jump.

She took out her phone, called Ashley, and said: Please come get me before I do something stupid.

Then she threw her phone over the side.

A False Report

'He could remember the moment the monster was born.'

The attacker

He could remember the moment the monster was born. It was embarrassing, really, to tell people. He was five years old. His parents took him to see Star Wars: Episode VI— Return of the Jedi. Early in the film, there is a scene in the den of Jabba the Hutt, the interplanetary gangster who has the hero pilot Han Solo imprisoned in a frozen block. Jabba— an enormous sybaritic grub— looms on a platform, surrounded by slaves, halflings, and aliens. Exotic music wails.

The boy and his parents watched Luke Skywalker, mysterious and hooded, sneak into the lair while Jabba slept. There, lying at the base of the platform, is Princess Leia. She is bared, almost naked, in a metallic bikini, revealing her thighs, her stomach, her throat. She is attached to Jabba by a chain, a metal collar around her neck. She starts awake as Luke walks in and jerks uselessly at the chain. She is Jabba’s slave.

He would recall that moment often in his later years. At the time, he did not have the words to even describe what he felt. It was alive, it was electric, it was dangerous. It filled him with pleasure. He knew only that he wanted to have that kind of control over a woman, to totally possess and to own her. He described himself as like a young animal, bonding to the first creature it sees. He had imprinted on fear, on humiliation, on enslavement.

“From then on, I was basically ready to tie up every girl on the block” was how he remembered it.

The defenders

Brought together by the hunt for the rapist, Galbraith and Hendershot bonded quickly. Both were outgoing. They cracked fast jokes and smiled fast smiles. Galbraith was younger and crackled with energy. Hendershot’s experience complemented Galbraith’s enthusiasm.

Both women were at ease working in the testosterone- soaked world of law enforcement. Men accounted for about 90 percent of the sworn officers in Golden and Westminster, but neither Galbraith nor Hendershot felt unwelcome or intimidated. Both had grown up with brothers. Both had few close female friends and tended to get along better with men. Both took pride in being tough. “I don’t tolerate drama. If it’s drama, I’m like, ugh. If it’s emotional, ugh,” Galbraith says.

Both also had the same experience breaking into police work. Get your foot in the door, prove yourself, and you were accepted into the brotherhood— just like any other cop. The woman thing didn’t matter so much. “It might be at the forefront when you first walk in the door,” Hendershot says. “But especially after you’ve established yourself for a little bit as a patrol officer, it just doesn’t come up. It just is.”

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