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ROBIN ABCARIAN

A Rape, a Complaint and a Question of Blame

February 11, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

In the daylight, the Santa Monica neighborhood just north of Pico Boulevard is nonthreatening--just another tract of modest homes with well-trimmed lawns.

It was hell, though, on the night last November that Karen Pomer escaped from her car, trying to flee the rapist who had abducted her at gunpoint as she arrived home from a rally against domestic violence.

The rapist had assaulted her for an hour, but when he left the car to urinate, she says, she took her chance. She bolted, naked and screaming, and banged on the first door she came to. Nothing. No light came on. No one let her in.

The rapist, gun in hand, caught her. He forced her back into her car, drove half a mile away and assaulted her for another five hours in an alley. He left when the sun came up.

Last week, Pomer returned to the street where she had sought help. She stopped in front of one house, stared and said with finality: "This is the one. This is the door I banged on."

What had they heard? Had they called the police? Why hadn't they opened their door to her?

Slowly, she walked toward the porch.

*

Police believe the man who raped Pomer is responsible for at least four other Santa Monica rapes, including, most recently, the rape last month of an 82-year-old woman whose husband was locked in the trunk of their car during the assault. They have dubbed him the southside rapist.

That Pomer is alive, she will tell you, is her ultimate victory. She expected the rapist to kill her, but he spared her life. What nearly undid her, she said, is the callous way she was treated after the rape.

The first detective assigned to her case, she wrote in a formal complaint, pointed a finger in her face at the hospital just before her rape exam and demanded that the friend she had brought along as moral support leave the room. (The friend, National Public Radio reporter Mandalit del Barco, confirmed Karen's account. A new detective was later assigned to the case.)

Two weeks after she was raped, Pomer and another woman, Patti L., who was raped in 1992 and was similarly dismayed by the handling of her case, met with Santa Monica Police Chief James Butts. Patti L. has also filed a formal complaint. They were accompanied in the two-hour meeting by Gail Abarbanel, founder and executive director of the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center, and Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women.

Among other complaints, both said they felt rebuffed in their attempts to furnish information to police about their rapists.

"Karen was clearly not treated sensitively by the police," Giggans said, "but I felt that [Butts] was professional and generous and responsive. If I were the chief of police, I would clearly be looking into how my detectives are treating rape survivors."

The next month, however, Butts said he could not furnish Pomer and Patti L. with his department's sexual assault training materials as they requested in their complaints. In a letter to the women, he wrote that no such documents were available.

"In this age of community policing," Giggans said, "that response is a shame."

The complaints and public comments made by Pomer and Patti L. have sparked a widespread, painful debate in the little city known for its bleeding heart approach to social issues.

"I took the complaints of both victims very seriously," said Butts, who said his department is reviewing its policies on rape investigations. And last week, the chief met with Abarbanel to discuss ways the Rape Treatment Center and Santa Monica Police can collaborate to improve the treatment of sexual assault victims.

At a Santa Monica City Council meeting on Jan. 23, the council unanimously approved a $50,000 reward in the case, but one councilman suggested that Pomer and Patti L. had not cooperated with police. A councilwoman implied that their anger at police was misdirected and should be more properly directed at the rapist.

"Some people want to revictimize the victims," said Councilman Ken Genser. "I don't think they were accorded the human respect that was indicated."

*

Pomer stood before the door she thought would be her salvation the night she was raped. She knocked.

Again, no answer.

Next door, two older women were home. Yes, said one, she had been awakened by screams that night. She and several other neighbors had called 911. The lady whose door Pomer had pounded on lived alone and was frightened by the screaming. That's why she hadn't opened her door. The police, she said, had responded quickly, in force, and searched the area.

"It was me," Pomer said quietly. "I was the one who was raped. But they never found me."

The second older woman shook her head sadly.

"We heard about that," she said. "And we were wondering: What were you doing out so late?"

Pomer's eyes filled with tears.

The ignorant message, unspoken but clear: A pity, dear, but you have only yourself to blame.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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