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The Devil You Know

Rape Is Never Fair, Especially If the Rapist Is Untouchable. But Until Jeri Elster Stepped Forward, California's Rape Laws Weren't Fair Either.

January 27, 2002|MELBA NEWSOME | Melba Newsome is a freelance writer living in Matthews, N.C

Jeri Elster glances over the top of her glasses from time to time as she plows through her prepared speech. She looks nervous and fragile. Two weeks after completing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for breast cancer, her skin is parched and drawn, her head covered by more fuzz than hair. While her prognosis for a full recovery looks good, it's too early to declare her a cancer survivor. Besides, she's not here to talk about cancer.

The mission she took on in the wake of an epic injustice can't wait. Elster has come to Sacramento to tell a group of politicians about surviving another attack on her body--the kind authorities say happens every two minutes in America.

"My name is Jeri Elster. I am a rape survivor," she tells the California Assembly's Public Safety Committee. "I will never forget his face or his voice--the memories continue to haunt me. I will live with this trauma the rest of my life. I am here to put a human face on the ramifications of the current laws governing sexual assault."

The date was Feb. 29, 2000, the first time Elster had spoken so publicly about the attack. She hasn't stopped talking since.

Motion-detector lights spring on as soon as i step onto the sidewalk in front of Elster's neat Westchester home. As I approach the door, two dogs are at the front window, barking loudly. The sound of the doorbell kicks them into high gear. Elster shuffles to the door, calling to them to settle down as she flips the lock. Frankie and Johnny ignore her. After I'm well-sniffed, Elster herds them out into the backyard, then turns and smiles at me.

Her hair, short now by design, is tinged with gray. Elster has just completed the 60-mile route from Santa Barbara to Malibu as part of the Avon 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk, and it still hurts to move. "I've got blisters on top of my blisters," she says as she moves to a dining room chair and sits. Nevertheless, her blue eyes light up as she offers something to drink.

This is the house she fell in love with and managed to buy when the real estate market took a dive in 1991. This is where she ran her home-based word processing and graphic arts business. This is also where a brutal attack transformed her life. Thus the lights, the dogs, the special windows and the solid wood doors.

On Aug. 27, 1992, Elster fell asleep face down in bed while watching TV at 1 a.m. She never heard the man cut the screen on her back window. She slept soundly while he rummaged through her laundry on the back porch. When she woke with a start, she was unable to move her arms or legs. He was sitting on top of her, tying her hands behind her back. She looked over her right shoulder and got a glimpse of the outline of his head.

"If you do that again, I'll kill you," he told her before wrapping her head in a blanket. She couldn't struggle or scream as he blindfolded her and proceeded to cut off her clothes with a pair of scissors he'd taken from her kitchen drawer. For the next 2 1/2 hours, he raped and sodomized her, stopping periodically to vandalize and rob her while she lay helpless and blind.

"I tried to remember everything I could about him--the sound of his voice, the outline of his head. Just in case I lived. But by the time it was over, I was praying to die." Finally, when the house went quiet and she suspected he was gone, Elster rolled to the edge of the bed, dropped to the floor on her knees and crawled into the bathroom to get her cuticle scissors to cut the restraints. Bleeding and bruised, she called 911. Police took her to the rape crisis center at Santa Monica Hospital.

Later she recounted to police the attack--every dehumanizing detail. Her house was a crime scene. Officers dusted for fingerprints, collected her clothes, the bedding and anything else they considered evidence. When they left, Elster was alone to clean up the mess that had been made in her home and her life.

This is a story the 49-year-old Elster now has told dozens of times to lawmakers, rape support groups, radio, TV and newspaper reporters--to anyone willing to hear it. Recounting it, she seems almost removed, as if it happened to someone else. But the brief flash of pain in her blue eyes makes clear that it still hurts.

The story of a rape isn't unusual, but Elster's has a twist: She knows the name of the man of who raped her. So do law enforcement authorities. Yet, California law at the time his name was discovered ensured that Elster's attacker will never be prosecuted for what he did to her. Changing that law gave Elster a new mission in life.

long after that 1992 attack, elster learned that the process of finding a rapist leaves much to be desired. If there is no suspect, police take a report and file the matter as a "pending" case. Instead of being analyzed for a DNA match in a criminal database, evidence collected for a rape kit is tagged, numbered and shelved along with thousands of others in an evidence cooler at the Los Angeles Police Department crime lab.

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