NAUGATUCK — Nearly 25 years later, the raw brutality of that night has scarcely dimmed.
Nor has the outrage over her treatment by law enforcement.
Donna Palomba, a former Waterbury resident who was raped in her home in 1993, keeps talking about her assault. And the more she talks, the more the circle of sexual assault victims around her grows.
“It is the most misunderstood and underreported crime in the world,” said Palomba, founder of Jane Doe No More, a Naugatuck-based nonprofit organization that tries to help survivors of sexual assault heal and improve the way society responds to its survivors through education, awareness, advocacy and support. “Sexual violence affects us all, whether we realize it or not.”
The organization will celebrate its 10th year with a gala and awards ceremony at the Palace Theater in Waterbury April 28. Among the honorees is Dylan Farrow, 31, a daughter of actress Mia Farrow who, in an open letter to The New York Times in 2014 claimed the actor-director Woody Allen abused her as a child.
The other honorees, Desirae and Deondra Brown, are members of The 5 Browns piano performance group. The two musicians, piano prodigies who grew up in a strict Mormon household, were abused by their father. The pair later founded The Foundation for Survivors of Abuse.
The gala will include a performance by the Brown sisters and a debut of the song “Jane Doe No More,” performed in shadow dance by the Connecticut Dance Theatre of Watertown. Nick Fradiani, the 2015 American Idol winner who hails from Guilford, will play a short acoustic set on stage.
Jane Doe No More’s mission is rooted in Palomba’s experience.
An armed masked man invaded her Waterbury home, put a gun in her mouth and raped her. Palomba said she faced disbelief from the Waterbury Police Department.
That led her to successfully sue the department, which said Palomba’s statements clashed and presumed she fabricated her story.
In 2001, a jury found the Waterbury Police Department guilty of negligence. Palomba was awarded $190,000 in damages.
Although she did not realize it at the time, Palomba’s assailant was Waterbury native John Regan, a man leading a double life and a longtime friend of her husband’s.
His identity was discovered through a DNA match from a swab of saliva taken from Regan when he was arrested more than a decade later after attacking another victim.
Because the statute of limitations had run out six years earlier, police were unable to arrest Regan for Palomba’s rape. He was charged with kidnapping.
In 2006, he was sentenced in Connecticut to 15 years in prison for unlawful restraint, kidnapping and stalking. He is serving the sentence concurrent with a 12-year sentence for attempted kidnapping in New York state.
The target of that attempt was a high school girl in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“When I think of it now, I get chills,” said Palomba of the day she and her husband learned his friend was her attacker.
Palomba’s case was the impetus for the removal of the statute of limitations involving DNA evidence in the state of Connecticut in 2007.
In 2007, Palomba went public about her story on NBC’s “Dateline.” She wrote a book about her experience, “Jane Doe No More,” which, like the foundation, is intended to offer assistance to survivors. Among the issues the group is tackling is how law enforcement treats victims who say they were assaulted.
“So many survivors have said, ‘I started talking to the detective and they started asking me things like, ‘Why did you go there that night,’ and then they decide not to go on with their case,” she said.
That might have happened to Vanessa Barneschi, a West Hartford woman who was raped while jogging in West Hartford on Oct. 27, 2010.
Barneschi went to the West Harford police station to make a report. She said two detectives repeatedly said, “‘We just want you to know, we are trained in deception.’ I was thinking ‘Are they accusing me of lying?’ In my head, I was like, ‘You got to be kidding me.’”
One of the detectives apologized for the remark. Her rapist, Eddie Monroig-Rosario, was later sentenced to 20 years in prison, 18 of which were to run concurrently for other crimes.
Barneschi said the judicial process left deep emotional scars. She submitted a formal complaint to the judiciary branch about what she called the prosecutor’s “insensitivity and lack of communication.”
“In every profession, we all have areas that we’re stronger in. But we still have to respect and be sensitive to the needs that go within our entire field,” said Barneschi, a teacher.
A 2011 government survey of rape and domestic violence found that one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point. More than 20 percent of female undergraduates at prominent universities said they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct, according to a recent study by the Association of American Universities.
Palomba said she believes the figures are far higher. She said more than 70 percent of sexual crimes go unreported.
“One of the things I have found is that victims remain silent because they will tell someone and they will not be believed,” she said.
Palomba, who was raped in her own bed with her 5- and 7-year-old children in the home, was shocked to read the police description of the assault. The masked assailant had pulled a pillowcase over her head, wrapped nylons around her eyes and mouth and tied her hands behind her back. A lieutenant wrote that one of his officers said that Palomba “was wearing the nylons around her neck and her wrist as if they were a stage prop.”
“This is re-victimization,” Palomba said. “It is trying to blame the victim, shame the victim, rape the victim, intimidate the victim and it is devastating.”
In 2010, Palomba’s group created an 8-minute video for law enforcement, “Duty Trumps Doubt” that tries to help first-responders deal with sexual assault crime scenes and victims, in part by reminding law enforcement of the effects of trauma such victims face.
“We need to have them understand that a victim of sexual violence is a victim of trauma,” Palomba said. “You cannot predict how the victim is going to act. The problem is that when you are traumatized, you’re scattered. You’re not going to remember the details. First responders will often ask (victims) questions and when they become scattered, unfortunately it is perceived as, ‘She doesn’t know what is going on.’”
Palomba said her organization does not try to chastise law enforcement as much as educate them. In the last 10 years it has created a variety of programs, including Survivors Speak; Escape Alive Survival Skills and the Safe Student Initiative to help raise awareness and train women to protect themselves. The nonprofit says it has educated and empowered more than 20,000 people.
In her many speaking engagements, Palomba said she has had many women admit their victimization for the first time.
“It’s almost like we are giving them permission to say something,” she said.
For Palomba, the advocacy work has taken an emotional toll.
“It is definitely triggering and emotional and I get wiped out,” she said. “But then I pick myself up and say, ‘OK, this is why we do what we do. I have to think of the others who don’t have my support. I have a loving husband who has stuck by me. And I have to remember, every time you tell your story you are taking some of the control back that the perpetrator stole from you.”
The 10th anniversary celebration at the palace begins at 6 p.m., with the formal program starting at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $150. For more information, call 203-729-0245 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.