Putting it in writing was not therapeutic. Reliving the details did not help. Her husband urged her not to do it. But Donna Palomba, as she has done many times in the past, persisted.
Her story — from rape victim to survivor — needed to be told. Again. Her book, “Jane Doe No More” by M. William Phelps with Palomba, hit shelves Sept. 18.
Locally and nationally, the basics of Palomba’s fight for justice are known, having been featured in a 2007 “Dateline” episode. On that show, she revealed her identity and announced the creation of Jane Doe No More, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the way society responds to sexual assault victims.
What’s different about the book, however, is the volume of detail and sense of perspective on what Palomba went through after a masked intruder broke into her Waterbury home on Sept. 11, 1993. The intruder, who would years later be revealed as a family friend, raped her while her two young children were sleeping a few doors down.
On the heels of a botched criminal investigation, local police officers accused Palomba, then 36, of lying about the assault to cover up an affair while her husband was out of town for one night. One officer said her children would be taken away from her if she did not tell the “truth.”
Palomba sued the police department in civil court, ultimately winning $190,000 in damages in 2001. It would be another three years before her assailant was identified. Her case and advocacy helped bring about a Connecticut law that removed the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases that had DNA evidence — and brought about drastic changes in the Waterbury Police Department, as well as others around the country.
In 2009, Palomba left her career as a partner at a marketing agency she co-founded to devote herself full time to Jane Doe No More. The book, she said, is a way to spread her message further.
“There were so many misunderstandings around my case and I thought it was important to put the details out there. And I want other survivors to know my journey so they can go from victim to survivor,” she said.
Despite the prevalence of sexual assault — every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is raped, according to the Department of Justice — Palomba is frustrated with the hesitation in reporting sexual assaults.
“If you see a car being stolen, you call the police. But if you see a kid being raped, people don’t know what to do?” asked Palomba as she sat in the small, vibrantly colored Jane Doe No More office in downtown Naugatuck on a recent afternoon. Behind her, two employees scrambled to answer phone calls from people who had just seen a re-airing of the “Dateline” episode and wanted to know how they could get involved.
Despite making sexual-assault awareness her life’s work, speaking about her experience has never been easy. She said her husband still has to leave the room when she gives public talks about her rape. After all, her assailant, John Regan, not only turned out to be a close friend of his, but a serial criminal. When Regan was caught in 2005, he was in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., attempting to abduct a teenage girl.
Regan’s van contained a noose, pitchfork, rake, tarp, photography equipment and syringe. To make matters worse, Palomba’s daughter was attending college in the same town.
That’s not the only chilling coincidence revealed in “Jane Doe No More.” In 2000, when Palomba was preparing to go to court in her civil suit, she met with former Mayor Philip Giordano to discuss a possible settlement.
As she recounts in her book, the FBI would soon learn Giordano was repeatedly raping two girls, ages 8 and 10, who were supplied to him by a prostitute.
One person in public service emerges as a hero in Palomba’s story: Neil M. O’Leary. Now mayor, O’Leary was an investigator in the police force when Palomba was raped.
O’Leary believed her and after he became chief of police, with Palomba’s help, implemented better policies to deal with sexual assault cases. It was O’Leary who had a hunch Regan was Palomba’s rapist, which was later confirmed by DNA. In 2006, Regan was sentenced to 12 years in New York prison. Because the DNA law Palomba fought for was not retroactive, Regan could only be charged with kidnapping in Palomba’s case. For that and stalking of a female coworker, he received an additional three years to serve in Connecticut after his New York sentence.
“If he could have been charged with sexual assault in the first degree, he would have gotten another 20-plus years,” O’Leary said of Regan. “But because of Donna Palomba and removing the statute of limitations (for future cases), it has made a difference in so many other people’s lives.”
For O’Leary, reading the book about Palomba “opened up a lot of wounds.”
“The version of events is accurate and the incident was one of the biggest embarrassments of the Waterbury Police Department during my career and it was horrible and absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “But the good news is we learned from it and made sure nothing like this would ever happen again. We took sex crimes out of the vice squad and started our own independent unit run mostly by females with intensive sensitivity training.”
Jane Doe No More created a video called “Duty Trumps Doubt,” which is used as a sexual-assault training tool in police departments around the country. To date, 2,000 videos have been distributed and there are plans to make it available to the general public, she said.
“Donna was very involved in all of the police department changes,” O’Leary said. “And I think that was part of her rehabilitation process. She is one of the most remarkable, driven people I have ever met in my life. She was the victim of two assaults, one by the perpetrator and one by the police. It’s not an easy book to read, but at the end, you see all of the good things that came out of (what she went through).”
Although the book was penned by M. William Phelps, a Connecticut investigative journalist who mostly writes about murder, each chapter includes a few paragraphs of details and reflections written in first-person by Palomba.
“I had never done something like this before (with a book),” Phelps said. “But she kept such detailed notes right after incidents happened and it adds so much heft and detail to the book. Donna is an Erin Brockovich-type woman who will take a tragedy and spin it into a positive thing for change.”
Those who know Palomba well credit her strong Catholic faith and close family as being key to her strength.
“She’s an incredibly positive, strong and inspiring person,” said Debbie Meyers, executive director of Jane Doe No More. “She’s a ray of sunshine, and once you begin working with Jane Doe No More, you become attached to the mission.”
Still, as the atrocities and injustices mount throughout the book, it’s tempting to ask why Palomba remained in Waterbury.
“I have deep family roots here,” Palomba simply said. “My father immigrated to Waterbury from Italy. This is where I was born and I raised my family. Why should I have to leave? I wanted to take it back. Sexual assault is about power and control.”
She and her family did move from Waterbury to Woodbury one year after the attack, but her connections to Waterbury run deep, with her husband now working for the city and Jane Doe No More based just across the border in Naugatuck.
“It’s a heavy topic, and in order to make progress, we need to educate our children about it,” she said of her work. “I really feel like it’s a calling. I’ve been put here for a purpose, to be doing this.”
NVCC to host book launch on Oct. 5
A book launch for “Jane Doe No More” will be held at Naugatuck Valley Community College’s Technology Hall in Waterbury Oct. 5 from 5 to 7 p.m. It can be ordered online at sites such as Amazon.com now.
Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O’Leary and NVCC President Daisy Cocco DeFillipis will be featured speakers. NVCC hospitality students will offer a selection of hors d’oeuvres and wine. It is free and open to the public.
For information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.