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November 9, 2010

How I Escaped My Rapist

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keri potts with friend and rapist in rome

Keri (at right) with her friend Lynn and Marco (faces have been blurred for privacy) on the fateful day in Rome.

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I saw Marco turn and go back into his apartment, and I was sure he was coming for me. The only way I could get to an adjacent rooftop was to climb over a rusty, spiked, wrought-iron gate. I hesitated — I was five stories up — but then got a short running start, put my foot on the bottom rung, and swung my body up and over the gate, onto the next rooftop. Then I ran along the three-foot-wide ledge of the building and jumped to another roof, sliding down the mossy terra-cotta tiles until I was staring right over the edge at the street below. I had the fleeting thought that I was going to die, that I would slip and fall, break my neck, and no one — not Lynn, not my parents — would find me.

But I kept going. I jumped down to another roof about 10 feet below. My legs stung when I landed flat on my feet, but I didn't stop. I couldn't. I assumed Marco was chasing me, and I knew he'd have the advantage. I ran from rooftop to rooftop, crawling on my hands and knees at times to stay out of sight, trying desperately to get to street level.

Finally, I wound up on a balcony with nowhere to go next. I knocked frantically on a window there, and a man appeared. He said, in perfect English, "Please be quiet. My son is sleeping." I told him I was so sorry and explained, "I am an American. I have been attacked by a man and escaped by jumping down onto the rooftops. I am injured and need to get home. This man is trying to kill me. Can you please help me?" Thankfully, he understood. He said yes, he would help, but to hold on for a few minutes.

I waited outside — crouched in a ball — thinking the man was probably calling the cops. But then he appeared again and ushered me inside. "I don't know where this man is, but the way out of here is down the stairs and through the green doors," he said. "Push the button to get out." Then he told me how to get back to my hotel. An older man standing by the door in the apartment handed me a bunch of tissues as I hurried past him. I caught a glimpse of my face in a mirror by the door and saw that I was covered in blood. Marco had punched me in the nose during our scuffle, and I hadn't realized how bad it was.

I flew down four flights of stairs and ran toward the exit. I remember thinking Marco might be waiting for me on the other side, but what choice did I have? I took a deep breath, buzzed the door open, and ran for my life. I sprinted the four blocks back to my hotel, never looking back. When I reached the hotel doors, I turned around and pumped my fists in the air, Rocky-style. I had done it. I had gotten away from this monster. I ran up to my room and pounded on the door. When Lynn saw my face, she went white. "What happened?" she asked. "Marco just tried to rape me," I said. "But I won," I said. "I won." Then, for the first time all night, I started to cry. We both did.

I was supposed to be on a flight back to the States a few hours later, but I couldn't go. There is nothing that disgusts me more than rape, and I would have felt like a hypocrite if I didn't report Marco to the authorities. I was battered and bruised — and still scared he might find me — but I couldn't let him get away with his attack. So Lynn and I got to work, calling my health-insurance company, my sister, the U.S. Embassy, the hospital, the police, my boss at ESPN. About an hour later, I started shaking uncontrollably. Just before daybreak, we went to the hospital for X-rays (miraculously, nothing was broken) and then to the U.S. Embassy, which helped me start a police report and arranged for an interpreter to meet me at the police station.

The next day, I spent 10 hours with the police and an interpreter, filing a report. At one point, we stood outside of the building where the man had helped me, and I tried to explain how I'd gotten away. The investigators were getting frustrated because I couldn't remember the balcony in question. Just then a woman walked up. "Are you American?" she asked. "I think my husband let you into our apartment last night." She let the police into the building and directed them to her balcony. (She and her husband also went to the police station to give a statement.) While she spoke to the police inside, I walked up and down the street crying, talking to myself and to God, even though I'm not a churchgoer. But I have to say, I felt a presence when that man let me in off the balcony, and I felt it again when his wife happened upon us in the street.

When the police were finished piecing together the escape route, the lead investigator looked at me and said, "You are Wonder Woman." Marco was interrogated that day and later charged with attempted sexual assault.

Lynn and I flew home, but the fight was far from over. I hired a legal team in Italy to follow through on the case, and I returned to Rome six months later for an interview with the public prosecutor. I wanted Marco to be punished for what he had done; I thought about how many other women he may have tried this with, and it made me feel sick. So I researched Italian criminal law to better understand the court system. I talked to the U.S. State Department and the Department of Justice about my case. I stayed in constant contact with my attorney, filling out court documents and visiting Italian Embassies in the U.S. to get papers stamped. Fortunately, my coworkers at ESPN were incredibly supportive, giving me the flexibility to finish my mission.

After a yearlong investigation, the public prosecutor decided to boost the charge from attempted sexual assault to sexual assault. She also added a charge of assault, which meant that instead of looking at five years in jail, Marco had the potential to get 12. Ultimately, he plea-bargained, and on April 22, 2010, he received a suspended sentence of 11 months, 10 days, which means he didn't go to jail. However, he is on probation for the next five years, and if he commits another crime of any kind during that time, he will go straight to prison. He was also ordered to pay all my legal fees, which amounted to about $10,000.

At first I felt disappointed that Marco wouldn't be jailed, but now I feel proud of my efforts; I never gave up. A day doesn't go by when I don't think of that night. I have a small scar on my stomach where Marco gouged his fingernails into me, and I look at it often. I alternately love and hate that scar. I hate it because it reminds me of what happened, and I love it for the same reason.

For more on Keri Potts' story and for additional information on overseas prosecution of sexual assault, please visit afightbackwoman.com.

Erin Zammett Ruddy is a freelance writer living on Long Island, New York. She is the author of the memoir My So-Called Normal Life.


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