Thursday, August 2, 2012

The summer when a rape lie pitted a town against its boys

In the summer of 1991, an imaginary rape turned the teenage boys of the bucolic college town of Davis, California into creatures more loathsome than pariahs. Exactly 21 years ago today, on August 2nd of that year, Janet Berger, 44, who was then a circulation manager for a local Davis newspaper, falsely claimed she had been raped on July 29, 1991 at 10 p.m. by five skateboarding boys in one of the city’s park-like greenbelts.

Berger said the supposed rape was in retaliation for her act of accidentally brushing up against one of the youths on her bicycle earlier in the evening. She claimed that on her return trip along the same path, a wilding gang of skateboarding teen males in tank tops, ages 13-17, wrestled her from her bike and proceeded to rape her.

Two weeks later, Berger told a rape counselor and police that it was a lie: she had merely fallen from her bicycle and she had made up the rape story. She furnished neither an explanation nor a motive.

It’s what happened during those two weeks to one particular class of citizens, the teen male skateboarding community, that makes this story instructive.

Immediately following the spurious allegation, the news media took the woman at her word. One headline solemnly announced: “Rape shatters illusions in Davis.”

Anonymous flyers were circulated calling for a curfew for all men and boys.

Threatening, anti-male graffiti was scrawled on an overpass favored by skateboarders. It read: “Dead Boys Don’t Rape.”

Other graffiti repeated the “Curfew for All Men” sentiment; still other graffiti demanded: “Get the Skateboard Rapists.”

Apoplectic women’s groups ran out of synonyms for the word “shock.”

The newspaper where Berger worked reported that a rally was planned in “support of the rape victim and other rape victims.” But then the rally was canceled at Berger’s request.

A local chapter of the National Organization for Women held a news conference to denounce the alleged crime. And townsfolk demanded arrests, even though the only evidence of the putative assault was the word of an unidentified woman the townsfolk knew nothing about.

Police questioned 75 -- you read that right -- 75 completely innocent boys in connection with the rape that never happened.

Skateboarders kept a low profile once the woman’s story became public. “After it happened, there wasn’t a skateboarder in town,” said Bill Gray, a Yolo County youth counselor at Davis High School.

One of the innocent boys taken in for questioning was then-16-year-old Josh Fernandez, who wrote about his experience years later as a married man and a writer. Josh, then an avid skateboarder, knew as soon as he heard the allegation that he and his friends would be targeted.

“Once, when we were taking a break from skateboarding in the parking lot of Carl’s Jr.,” Josh recalled, “a car pulled up. In the car was a man, about 40, who had a ratlike face with a patchy mustache. ‘Hey, you fucking rapists,’ he said, with his window rolled halfway down. He tried to spit on me, but the saliva didn’t quite make it out of his car.”

Josh told the man, “Fuck you,” but was glad that the man sped off, “because, frankly, he would have pummeled me to death with his white-trash methamphetamine arms.”

This was typical, according to Josh: “For a couple of weeks, wherever we went, something of that nature would happen: A truck full of UC Davis jocks threw a dozen soda cans at us and screamed, ‘Rapists!’; Butchy Davis women in hemp dresses glared us down with their murderous eyes as we rolled past on the sidewalk—and so on.”

“I don’t know about my friends,” Josh later wrote, “but there were moments that summer when—even in my gangly, 5-foot frame—I felt like a big, lumbering, greasy rapist.”

Police finally decided Berger’s story was filled with holes, so they confronted her with the inconsistencies. One key failing in her story was her refusal to reveal the name of a doctor she claimed examined her.

“The reason I can’t give you a doctor,” Berger finally told police, “is because there is none.”
Police officers and a rape counselor spoke to her for 3 1/2-hours, and she finally acknowledged the fabrication.

Davis Police Chief Phil Coleman called a news conference to announce the jig was up. Flanked by politicians, two detectives, and two rape counselors, the Chief said the rape never occurred.
Mayor Maynard Skinner offered an olive branch to the skateboarders, calling them “an important group in our community.” He announced that the city planned to open a skateboard park.

The mayor also called on the woman, Jan Berger, 44, to publicly apologize. (I can find no indication whether she did.)

Councilwoman Lois Wolk said: “It’s a tragedy for this community. We were very ready to point fingers and make accusations and stereotype groups–men (and) skateboarders.”

But then, Wolk proceeded to call Berger a “victim,” and said she hoped Berger would receive therapy.

Some local women identified as feminists would not accept the fact that a rape did not occur, and they worried that rape victims might not come forward because the public did not believe this “rape” occurred.

“I don’t think any one of us (is) convinced that it didn’t happen,” said feminist Sherilyn Adams. “It’s not uncommon for women to recant out of fear of retaliation . . . or denial–make this thing go away.”

Police confirmed a report that Berger ran a small day-care center that was shuttered after children were molested there in 1986. She was never prosecuted for the crimes, but felt responsible. Before she recanted her rape lie, she told a detective “what happened now [the supposed rape] was punishment for what had happened” at the day-care center.

A rape counselor, who told reporters that she only uses her first name (Cheryl), said that Berger did not “act out of malice.” Rather, she had experienced unspecified traumas in her life. “She does deserve a great deal of compassion.”

There is no indication that the newspapers were at all interested in Josh Fernandez’s back-story, or that of the other 74 boys questioned by police.

For a rape lie that pitted an entire community against a group of some of its most vulnerable citizens–children–Berger was charged with a misdemeanor of filing a false police report, carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Even years later, the boys questioned by police never forgot the experience. But Josh Fernandez, the writer, and his friends have done pretty well for themselves. One went on to write jokes for Jay Leno; another is an ophthalmologist; another is a chemist.

When Josh got married, he got the old gang together to be his groomsmen, and they skipped the traditional bachelor party. Josh rented out an indoor skate park, and these guys in their mid-30s — who, long ago, were taken to the police station to answer for a crime that never happened – skated like they were 16 again.