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November 9, 2010

How I Escaped My Rapist

On the last night of her Italian vacation, ESPN exec Keri Potts went for a drink with a handsome artist. What could be the harm? She was about to find out.
As told to Erin Zammett Ruddy.

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keri potts in her apartment

Keri Potts, 33, at home in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Photo Credit: Richard Foulser

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On my last day of vacation in Italy, a chatty café owner in Rome introduced me to a tall, charming Italian man. He was a local artist, I learned; his name was Marco. Just a day earlier, my friend Lynn and I had sat in a piazza in Florence talking about how hard it is to meet nice guys. It had been two years since my last relationship, and, admittedly, I'd grown a little standoffish with the opposite sex. Lynn and I agreed that I could open up a little more. So when I met Marco, I figured why not talk to him? He joined Lynn and me at our table, along with the café owner, and the four of us shared some wine.

An accomplished painter and a fixture in the community, Marco invited us to see his art studio nearby. Giant canvases — contemporary and dramatic, all done in black, white, and red — lined the walls, and paints were scattered everywhere. It was chaotic and beautiful, and I felt excited to meet such a talented man. He seemed interested in me as well, and invited me for drinks later. I told myself, Let your guard down, Keri, and agreed to meet him.

Marco was a bit more boisterous when we met up that night. He drank rum and haggled with a man peddling roses at the bar, then bought me three dozen yellow buds. Ordinarily I would find that oddly over the top, but I just brushed it off as a sweeping, romantic Italian gesture. We flipped through a book of his paintings, and he described the art scene in Italy, noting that some artists are into sex and drugs, but all he needed was art. I said, "That's a good thing, because you are getting no sex-o from me!" He laughed, saying, "I would rather talk with you. You are soft." Then he kissed me.

Marco suggested we go back to his apartment; he wanted to show me the view from his patio, where he did much of his sketching. I thought about it for a moment, then decided, sure. He was interesting and fun, and I felt completely at ease. Plus, I'd made it clear that we wouldn't be jumping into the sack.

His apartment, a sixth-floor walk-up, consisted of just a single room with a bed and TV, a small kitchen with a wooden table, and a bathroom. But the view from the patio was stunning. You could see the top of the Spanish Steps, the shimmering Roman skyline. Marco joined me there, and we talked about the places we'd traveled, places we still want to go to. It was like a scene from a movie. Just past midnight, we walked to a bar down the street.

At the bar, it got a little harder for me to understand Marco. He talked louder and louder, seemingly in circles. He continued to drink rum while I sipped a Pinot Grigio, and when the bar closed, he bought a bottle to go. I suggested that we go to the Spanish Steps, thinking it would be the perfect way to end the night, but he grumbled, "Turista, turista," and led me toward his apartment. I thought, Come on, Keri, lighten up. It's your last night in Rome.

When we got upstairs, Marco blasted music — first something in Spanish and then Coldplay — and moved around the apartment frenetically. He dropped a glass, grabbed some candles, changed the music. I stood on the patio, gazing at the postcard-worthy view. I thought, What an amazing way to end my vacation. What a story to tell my friends. Marco came out and stood behind me, noting that the views in Rome are better than in New York City. I playfully begged to differ, and he scoffed; there was something nasty in his expression. Then he thrust the bottle of rum toward me. When I refused, he walked away and returned with a glass. I wanted to be polite, so I pretended to sip, but I knew it was time to leave.

I walked into the apartment, placed the glass on the table, and told Marco I needed to head home. He had a small cigar box in his hand and offered me a hand-rolled cigarette from inside, presumably marijuana. "No. No, thank you," I said. Then he came around the table and stood in front of me. Mumbling something I didn't understand, he pulled me toward him and kissed my face hard, biting my lips. It hurt, and I tried to push away, but he held the back of my neck with his left hand, pressing my face to his. At the same time, he shoved his right hand down the front of my jeans, undoing my button in the process. I jerked back, but he put both hands on my lower back, pressing me into him. He shoved his hands inside my underwear, scraping me with his fingernails.

I couldn't believe what was happening. "No! No! No!" I shouted. I stumbled and said again that I needed to go. I grabbed my purse and walked toward the door. "It's locked. The door is locked," Marco said. I pulled on the handle and it didn't budge. Starting to panic, I grabbed a set of his keys off the kitchen table and fumbled through them, but Marco stepped toward me. "Those don't open the door," he said, an inch from my face. He had another set of keys that he dangled in front of me then threw toward the bed. "You're not going anywhere," he said. He grabbed the scarf off my neck and put it around his own. I reached for it, but he swatted me back. "You're not going anywhere," he said again. "I'm not joking." Trying to appear calm, I told him Lynn would be waiting for me back at the hotel. "This is ridiculous," I said. "Please open the door."

The more I tried to reason with him, the angrier he grew. He stood in front of the open patio door and reached for the shutters. It was clear he was going to lock them. A surge of adrenaline flooded my body — it felt like I was going to wet my pants — and I thought, Oh, my God, I am going to be raped tonight. No one can help me. Oh, my God, this is what it feels like.

I knew I had to get out to the patio — I remembered seeing another patio about six feet down, which would be my only means of escape. I charged at Marco, throwing myself through the opening, but he grabbed me by my belt and lifted me back inside like I was a rag doll. I'm 5'10" with an athletic build, but Marco was taller — probably around 6'2" — and strong. I felt a sharp pain in my ribs under my right breast as he tried to pull my shirt over my head. I screamed, "No! Get off of me!" so loud, so high-pitched, that I didn't even recognize my voice. Marco kept telling me to "Shush, shush," and every time I'd wriggle out of his grip and run for the ledge, he'd try to drag me back inside. Finally, I thought, OK, this is going to be a death match. I wasn't sure if he wanted to rape me or kill me at this point, but it didn't matter. I was not going to go down without a fight. I was not going to go down, period.

I ran at Marco full force with the palm of my right hand and struck him over and over in his face and mouth. I had taken a self-defense class in college and remembered that you should always hold your hand that way so you don't break any fingers. Then I pushed him harder than I've ever pushed anyone or anything in my life. He stumbled backward and fell onto the floor. Without hesitation, I ran and leaped over the patio wall, hoping to hit the balcony I'd seen below. But my sweater got stuck on the railing, and I just hung there. As I scrambled to get loose, Marco reached over and grabbed my neck, trying to pull me back up. I squirmed and kicked, and finally the sweater ripped. I landed on the small balcony below, crushing a potted plant.


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