REAL LIFE: What happened 20 years after my rape, when DNA evidence led to an arrest

The stranger who attacked Emily Winslow was never found. More than 20 years later, DNA evidence led to an arrest. Here she describes what happened next.

'The crime itself had happened in 1992, when I was a 22-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon University’s drama conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,' says Emily
‘The crime itself had happened in 1992, when I was a 22-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon University’s drama conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,’ says Emily

No one knew. Not because it was a secret, but because it had happened a long time ago.We’d moved to Cambridge from America seven years before, and with that massive change had come fresh new friendships, without history. I wasn’t ashamed of the rape. I was willing to talk about it, but there was never a reason, never a prompt. In our new life in England, it just never came up.

So when the police emailed with news of the identification and arrest of my attacker, more than 20 years after the crime itself, there was no easy way to explain that to the people around me. Only my husband understood.

To him I could whisper, ‘They’ve found him,’ and point to the brief email from Pennsylvania, without having to say any more out loud in front of the children. Making sense of it to anyone else in Cambridge would be a much longer journey.

The crime itself had happened in 1992, when I was a 22-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon University’s drama conservatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

It was the Christmas break, just a few days before classes resumed, and I’d needed to change a dollar to get coins for my apartment building’s washing machine. A stranger watched me leave the building. I noticed him, and noticed that I had never seen him before.

Emily at home in Cambridge
Emily at home in Cambridge

On my return from the shops, he was still nearby, this time walking towards my door, just like I was. He wasn’t following me, and that was his clever trick. If he had been following me, I would have gone back to where people were. But he wasn’t behind me; he just happened to be heading for the same door. How could I object to him doing the same thing that I was?

I got there before he did. I decided that I wasn’t going to hold the door open for him, like I would for a known neighbour.

I was going to let it close in his face, even if that was rude, and make him get out his own key or phone his friend to let him in if he was a visitor. It’s important to look after oneself, to not let politeness override common sense. But he ran the last few steps – I remember the pounding sound – and caught the slowly, slowly closing door, catching it with his hand just around the height of my ear.

I waited in the lobby. I was uncomfortable enough not to want to lead him to my apartment, but not so afraid that I left the building. I fiddled with my mailbox to put off going upstairs, not realising that this revealed my apartment number to him. He went up. I was relieved. See? He wasn’t there for me.

But he had gone upstairs to hide in the stairwell next to my door. This was the start of the story that the people around me in Cambridge didn’t know. I had prodded the Pittsburgh police for years afterwards, with the dream that they might one day identify him, find him, arrest him.

After all, I’d done everything the way I was supposed to: I’d reported the crime right away, without changing my clothes or washing away evidence.

The only thing I did before lunging to the phone to dial 911 was lock the door. At the hospital, an evidence kit had been taken, and a full police report.

But in 1992, there hadn’t been much the police could do with rape evidence if there wasn’t a known suspect. The United States’ national database of criminal DNA – CODIS – had not yet been established, so there had been nothing with which to compare any DNA evidence from me.

My kit had been stored, and nothing had been done for more than 20 years. It had become a ‘cold case’ (an unsolved criminal investigation which remains open pending the discovery of new evidence).In that time, I had graduated, moved back home to New Jersey, gained a degree in a new field, moved to Boston, got married, moved to California, had two sons, and moved to New Hampshire.

In more recent years I’d moved to England, to my husband’s home city of Cambridge, and written three novels set there.

Specifically, crime novels. Now people ask me if I write about terrible things because of my own painful experience; if I write about resolution and justice because I want such things myself. Maybe.

But I also like the puzzles inherent in such plots, and the way that crime stories stir big feelings and have intense stakes. The emotions involved are almost operatic. Those are all reasons why I write novels centred on crime. Maybe the rape is another reason.When the arrest finally happened, my emotions swung wildly. Getting a prosecution at last was brilliant news.

Emily and her husband Gavin on their wedding day in 1998
Emily and her husband Gavin on their wedding day in 1998

I had wished for it for years and wanted to celebrate, an urge that seemed perverse to friends who were just learning about the rape. But it was also difficult news, because the man had been arrested for raping a different woman, who had been a neighbour of mine all those years ago and whose DNA evidence had now triggered the match.

The police were confident that he was my attacker too, but they could pursue my case only if my 22-year-old evidence had held up in storage. There was no guarantee that it would still be viable, and even if it were it was likely that it wouldn’t be analysed in time to catch up with her case.

I was anxious and jealous, as well as frustrated at the seemingly immense amount of time every little step of the unfolding prosecution took, a prosecution that could have ejected me at any moment.There was so much that I needed the people around me to know – about the long-ago crime, yes, and also about everything happening in the present.

My attacker was fighting extradition from New York to Pennsylvania, even though that meant more time in Rikers Island, New York’s infamous jail. I’d also had to have a DNA swab that looked like a pregnancy test which I needed to rub around inside my mouth at the local Cambridge police station at the request of a laboratory in Pennsylvania.

And I wanted to tell people about the American detectives who were at first distant and then became dear allies.I treasured each new development, because each one gave me an excuse to talk about the case.

The waiting itself was what caused the most agony, the great swaths of not hearing from the police at all, but I worried that people wouldn’t put up with me going on and on about being in legal limbo.

Gavin with their first son, 2001
Gavin with their first son, 2001

I felt that I needed to be entertaining, or people wouldn’t listen. I was careful with my words, saying ‘the prosecution’ which is less upsetting than ‘the rape’. I crafted light anecdotes about defence attorneys and deciphering legalese. I prepared for court.

I got my first taste of testifying in January 2014, at the preliminary hearing in Pittsburgh. This hearing was the opportunity for the prosecution to demonstrate that it had enough evidence to justify a proper trial.

Because the hearing wasn’t itself the real trial, it took place at the Municipal Courthouse instead of the grand and tourist-worthy County Courthouse a few streets away.

In the Municipal Courthouse, the lifts were broken; the judge chewed gum; there was no special seat for witnesses to testify from, so I just stood facing the judge.

The detectives and prosecutor stood next to me, with my attacker and his attorney on the other side of them. The prosecutor gallantly positioned himself so that I wouldn’t have to see the defendant, in his bright prison clothes and shackled.The defence attorney was not so polite. He picked and picked at my testimony, questioning my recognition of the defendant, even though our case was based on DNA identification. He verbally prodded until I swore on the stand, a pointed outburst that ended his questioning. It was a funny moment, and made for a good story later at home.

But such a thing wouldn’t be allowed in the real trial. Juries don’t like swearing from witnesses, even victim witnesses. We’re supposed to be hurt, not angry.

When I told people that I wouldn’t be allowed to swear on the stand – not even to describe the act the man was being tried for – friends said lightly, ‘Oh, Emily! You don’t swear anyway!’ But they weren’t in my head, where I swore plenty. I was angry, whether the jury wanted to see that or not.

The jury would have the power, so I had to show them the vulnerable part of me that they were looking for. That part was true, too. It was all true: anger, grief, fragility, toughness. I just had to be careful which true part to expose when. I prepared to do better…

Emily with their second son, 2005
Emily with their second son, 2005

I continue to mentally practise what I should and shouldn’t do in court, and prepare to be open and vulnerable in front of the jury.

Over and over, I snap back to remembering, always, that I will also be in front of him. They’re asking me to be soft and hurt in the same room with him, which can only flatter him, even after all these years: ‘You big, strong man. Look what you did to me.’

I practise with Evan the prosecutor, just up to the man pushing me into my apartment. Then Evan role-plays as the defence in response, to let me practise that, too.

First he tries pointing out that, while I described – both just now and at the hearing – seeing the man for the very first time when I exited my apartment that evening, the police report only mentions me seeing him on my way back home. Evan pushes and pushes, asking, ‘Well, which one is true?’ and I say that of course they’re both true. I did see him on my way home, as the police report describes, and I’d also seen him on my way out before, which I’m saying now, and always remembered.

I guess it didn’t seem important enough to mention to the police or, if I did tell them, important enough to them to write it down. I’m raising my voice.

Evan and I crack up. I’m losing my temper.

‘No, no, no,’ he chides me. He says that while my tone wasn’t yet over-the-top, he’s pretty confident that he could have provoked me to flare up with just a few more verbal pokes.

He tells me, ‘Don’t get pissed off.’

He gives me magic words to say to the defence if she tries to trip me up or to pretend that there’s contradiction where there isn’t any: ‘I am telling the truth.’ Together, they make a good mantra, partly to tell myself, and partly to tell the jury and everyone who’s listening: ‘Emily, don’t get pissed off. Everyone, I am telling the truth.’

I prepared to be judged on how I looked. I dry-cleaned a red blazer and black trousers. I didn’t want to wear a skirt knowing that one of the detectives would testify that the man had confessed to particularly liking our legs.

Emily and Gavin with their two sons
Emily and Gavin with their two sons

I prepared for a disappointing sentence. I clung hopefully to Pittsburgh’s history of sentencing rapists harshly; lengths of more than 50 years were not uncommon. But the judge we had been assigned tended to be more moderate.

I wanted the man to be sentenced for long enough that I would be certain that he would die in prison, and I wasn’t at all confident that would happen.

My husband comforted me that even if the man was released before he died – in his 80s perhaps – it might be more of a punishment to return to freedom at that age. Maybe that would be worse for him. I held that sentiment tight.But I didn’t prepare for the case going truly wrong. How could it? We had perfect evidence.

In the end, my preparations were not used. I never testified from the witness’s seat in the County Courthouse.

A legal technicality forced the prosecutor to withdraw both rape charges just three days before I was due to travel to Pittsburgh for the trial.

It had been 13 months since the arrest that had simultaneously fulfilled a wish and upended my carefully balanced life. It had been 22 years since I’d called the police begging for help, and allowed a nurse at the hospital to collect evidence in a box.

The case stopped, but I couldn’t; there was too much momentum. I went to Pittsburgh anyway. The detectives, prosecutors and I grieved together, with cautious camaraderie. The detective on the team who specialised in cold cases took it hardest. She regretted having started it at all, knowing what she’d put us through to no satisfying end.

Part of the reason I went to Pittsburgh was to convince her that I was grateful for as much of it as we’d managed to get: for finally learning who the man was; for the respect and genuine kindness that had been given to me by the detectives and prosecutors; for the legal machine that had mobilised its many resources to publicly grapple for justice for me.

Notwithstanding the outcome, the attempt itself had been healing.

What had been given to me during those 13 months – the consolation, deference and indignant protectiveness that I had been surprised by, both in Pittsburgh and here in Cambridge – turned out to be more valuable to me than what happened, or didn’t happen, to the man who had hurt me.

I chose the title Jane Doe January for my memoir because both I and the other victim had been kept anonymous in the media, hence ‘Jane Doe’. We had been attacked in the same year, so in my own mind I differentiated us by the months of our attacks. When I finally got to Pittsburgh to testify, one of the detectives had been contacted by a local journalist who wanted to know if I was willing to be interviewed. I said no.

I asked the detective to let him know that I would be telling my own story.

 Jane Doe January by Emily Winslow will be published by William Morrow on Thursday, price £18.99. 

To order a copy for £14.24 until 10 July, visit or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. 

Emily is also the author of three psychological suspense novels: The Whole World, The Start of Everything and The Red House, published by Allison & Busby