|© Greg Pender|
Sara is a brave woman, who stepped forward after she was raped. She reported it to police, endured a gruelling court process, and at the end – despite a conviction – is left back at square one.
Timloh Butchang Nkem, the man who raped her, was allowed to remain free on bail following his guilty verdict this fall. He didn’t show up for his sentencing hearing. He remains at large.
This just drives me crazy. Why on earth would someone who has been found guilty of a violent crime be allowed to walk free waiting for sentencing? It makes no sense, especially when that person is a foreign national. What were you thinking, judge, that a rapist would show up for sentencing because of his good character?
The second man accused in her case – the man whose face Sara actually remembered because he was having sex with her as she woke up – was acquitted.
The justice Sara was seeking slipped through her fingers.
Now she wants to share her story, so those who followed the widely reported case can understand what she went through, and so anyone else who has suffered a sexual assault will have a picture of what can happen if they seek justice through Canada’s legal system.
It’s been almost three years since the New Year’s Eve that changed Sara’s life, when she was 20 years old. Sara isn’t her real name; there’s a court-ordered publication ban on her identity.
She went out on Dec. 31, 2011, ready to have a good time with her girlfriend. She woke up confused on Jan. 1, 2012, in an apartment she didn’t recognize, with a man she’d met only once before. Her purse and cellphone were missing.
Sara believes she was slipped a drug the night before. However, by the time she saw a doctor at the hospital, the doctor said it was too late to do a toxicology test because any drug would be out of her system.
When she finally got home on the afternoon of Jan. 1, in the safety of her mom’s house, flashes of memory started to come back – flashes, and pain, someone in the dark on top of her, very painful intercourse, her saying, “stop” and someone replying, “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
She realized something awful had happened to her. Her sister convinced her to go to the hospital and have a rape kit done.
Sara and her sister sat in the busy emergency room until a nurse came over to ask why they were there, in front of everyone.
“I couldn’t even talk. My sister told the triage nurse I had been raped,” Sara said. They were put in a small private area to wait.
They waited four hours. Then came the medical examination. Here’s the short version: a physical exam, swab after swab of sample collection.
Of course, Sara also had to share her story with strangers for the first of many times – with the doctor and then the police officers who came to take her statement. She also had to tell her family doctor when she went to him for a prescription, and the pharmacist too, standing at the counter in a busy drugstore explaining why she needed HIV antiretroviral drugs.
About a week later, an investigator from the Saskatoon Police Service sex crimes unit contacted Sara, asking her to come in for a videotaped statement. It took an hour and a half. She sat in a police “soft room” and told them everything she could.
The police told her what they tell anyone who reports a sexual assault: It’s the investigators’ job to gather evidence that a crime was committed, evidence that will be admissible in court.
It wasn’t easy to hear.
Sara knew what had happened to her.
“They made comments that they were trying to prove it wasn’t consensual,” Sara said. “I felt that, hearing that, why, at that point, why did I just hear this?” As the weeks passed, Sara repeatedly called the investigators for updates, but there weren’t any. She had given them all the information she had and she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t interviewed anyone yet.
Police told her to try contacting her friends – potential witnesses – via Facebook and ask them to call the police. It’s not an uncommon practice, Sgt. Carolyn Hlady said. It’s meant to help victims feel they have some power and control, to feel they’re helping.
That’s not how it made her feel, Sara said.
“These are all of the things that, after dealing with something so awful, then I’m dealing with even more awful things, dealing with people, sending them messages,” she said. “It was so, so hard to get anywhere, and it wasn’t going anywhere.”
She didn’t feel like the police believed her, or that they were working hard on her case. She contacted the media and said as much.
Finally, Sara requested a meeting with police in March 2012, which helped.
“That meeting was very important for us, to say, ‘Why do I feel like I’m not being heard?’ ” Sara said.
When Sara made her report to police, she could only identify the man who was there when she woke up, Farouk Umar Sadiq (she knew him by his nickname, “Stephan”). Police laid charges in March 2012. As far as Sara knew, he was the only suspect.
He was a University of Saskatchewan student; the place where Sara woke up was Sadiq’s friend’s apartment in a campus residence, one of the McEown Park towers just off Cumberland Avenue.
When the DNA results from Sara’s rape kit came back in July 2012, it wasn’t Sadiq’s DNA, although Sara wasn’t told this until December, after police arrested Nkem. Video surveillance from the tower lobby was a key part of that investigation – video that Sara’s mom had made sure was secured by calling the U of S after the assault.
“Without that surveillance video, they wouldn’t have been able to see, here are all the men who were there that night,” Sara said.
It was horrifying to think she could have encountered Nkem any time in the year between the assault and his arrest, and never known it was him. She had no memory of him.
Nkem tried to challenge the admissibility of the original DNA evidence at trial. Sara said Crown prosecutor Buffy Rodgers asked police to get another sample, so they followed Nkem and seized a cigarette butt he discarded. The admissibility of that DNA sample wasn’t challenged.
Sara and her family attended each of the 31 court dates leading up to the preliminary hearing in provincial court. She wasn’t required to be there until the prelim, but she wanted to be, to show her face.
“That means you sit in a packed courtroom, and you’re in the room with your rapist, too, and his supporters,” Sara said. “Just to have it adjourned.”
At the prelim, Sara spent a day on the stand, most of it being grilled by the defence lawyers.
The public purse paid for both Nkem and Sadiq’s lawyers – Nkem’s through Legal Aid and Sadiq’s through a court appointment. Meanwhile, the funding for Sara’s trauma counselling, through Victim Services, ran out.
Nothing leading up to the trial, held the first week of June in Court of Queen’s Bench, prepared Sara and her family for what happened there. Friends of Nkem and Sadiq laughed and snickered during her testimony, sitting directly across from her in a tiny room.
“No one tells you, do you look them in the eye when they’re staring at you? Or do you look away? You don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Sara’s mom said.
Sara barely slept all week.
Her cross examination, first by one lawyer, then another, was brutal. Horrifying. The questions about what exactly Sara was feeling during the brief moments she remembered being assaulted were stomach-churning.
“I was on the stand for a day and a half. How, why is that even fair at all? My story never changed,” Sara said. “I think that’s something that made it worse. The court system made it worse.”
At the end of the week, Sadiq and Nkem each testified in their own defence, telling stories the Crown described in closing arguments as a “pornographic fantasy” of Sara initiating all the sexual contact. Neither denied having sex with her.
Nkem’s story was so fanciful that Justice Richard Danyliuk rejected it outright when he returned with his verdict in September (the trial was held in front of a judge alone, with no jury).
Sadiq had said Sara flirted with him through the night.
The surveillance video from the lobby showed Sara pressing up against Sadiq as his back was against the wall, an image that helped bolster the judge’s ultimate conclusion that Sadiq had an “honest but mistaken belief ” in Sara’s consent.
When Danyliuk announced Sadiq was not guilty, Sara fled the courtroom. Her mom, sitting in the hallway, witnessed her daughter’s torment.
“She was wailing. She went into the soft room, she was on her knees and she was wailing, with her head on the table, saying, ‘That’s the one I remember. That’s the one I remember.’ It was excruciating.”
There was, however, the guilty verdict for Nkem.
“My support system was like, ‘Feel great that at least one was found guilty,’ ” Sara said. “So then I had hope. I said, ‘Yes, I did get justice. I did it. This is more than most get.’ ” That feeling of hope was short-lived. Nkem didn’t come to his sentencing on Oct. 31. It’s possible he’s still in Canada. It’s also possible he managed to get a new passport and return to his home country of Nigeria.
Nkem could be anywhere.
All Sara knows is he’s not in prison, paying the price for his crime. For that, she blames the court.
“I’m going to have to move on, with Nkem being out there, but I need the court to be accountable. He’s gone because the court released him when he was found guilty. I’m holding them responsible now, and I need them to be aware that what I’m feeling now and the pain it’s causing me is because of them.”
Sara said the hardest part of everything was having to re-tell the story of the rape over and over and over.
“When I say that nobody knows the awful things I went through after the rape itself, all of this is what I’m referring to. The whole judicial system is awful,” Sara said.
Within the system and outside it, however, Sara did find support. She was referred to the Sexual Assault Centre, where there’s access to free counselling and an “amazing” level of understanding. “You go there and it’s a safe spot. They’re so nice and welcoming. It’s completely nonjudgmental,” Sara said.
“The people at the sexual assault centre validate the horrific, violent, life-changing crime that rape is,” Sara’s mom added. “They understand this is something that has leached into every piece of you, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. It’s only through allowing you to feel that, that you can gain it back again, become healthy.”
The Crown prosecutor finally assigned to the case, Buffy Rodgers, was “amazing,” Sara said.
The staff at Victim Services also helped Sara, including taking her to court ahead of the prelim so she could get a feel for the room. The “sweetest” volunteer from Victim Services also accompanied Sara to the prelim and trial.
Funding from Victim Services paid for trauma counselling, and when that ran out her mom asked for help from the University of Saskatchewan, which paid for some further sessions.
Sara credits her family and friends with helping her through this. Her mom made the phone calls Sara didn’t have the energy for, such as securing the surveillance video. Her brother and her mom came to every court date. Her sister and brotherin-law would spend time with her before court, to take her mind off things.
However, none of them could properly grieve or heal, given the need to repeatedly open up the wounds in court. Right up through the trial, Sara couldn’t even talk to her mom or her sister about what happened because they were both court witnesses, being among the first people she told about the assault.
Sara looked forward to the day after the sentencing when she could put it all behind her. Now, she’ll have to find another way to move on.
“You get no healing when you’re dealing with the court. If I would have just left this, I would have had more healing than what this justice system brought me …
“If any of my friends come to me and say, ‘I’ve been raped. I want to go through with it,’ I would support them to do it, but I would want them to know you will feel you’re not believed, and feel like you’re just another number, and you’ll be dragged through the court process, which is so long, to just have a high chance of not seeing any justice.”
The Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre’s 24-hour crisis line is 306-244-2224.