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Accuser's allegations of rape touched a number of lives; now her credibility is in doubt

Janina Hapaniewski remembers the tears. Her brother, Edward Szymczak, had been accused of raping a woman in the office building where he worked as a janitor, a charge he assured her was untrue. And so on a spring evening in 1980, Szymczak wept as he stuffed a suitcase with his clothes. Hapaniewski was crying, too, devastated that her brother felt he had no choice but to flee to their native Poland.

Theresa Chatman remembers the anger. Her brother, Carl, had been accused of raping a woman at the Daley Center in 2002, and she was certain he could never have done something so awful. She raged at the notion that her mentally ill brother was capable of making a coherent confession as police alleged. She felt guilt after he was identified by the Blackhawks jacket she had bought him.

The cases are separated by more than two decades yet linked by an unusual connection: The same woman alleged she was the victim of both sexual assaults.

Last month, Cook County prosecutors made a stunning announcement. They now doubted the credibility of the woman who brought the allegations against Chatman and no longer believed a sexual assault even took place. As a result, Chatman's rape conviction was thrown out, and he was released from prison after 11 years in custody.

At the same time, prosecutors said they were reviewing the woman's earlier allegations of rape against Szymczak but had not yet reached a conclusion.

The passage of years will no doubt complicate the review. And the lack of evidence — Szymczak did not confess and no physical evidence linked him to the crime — could mean the prosecutors' decision comes down to how credible they find the victim, though they already concluded the other alleged attack didn't occur.

Yet what remains beyond debate is that the woman's allegations have changed the course of a number of lives. Besides Chatman, who at 58 is trying to reacquaint himself with the outside world, there is his sister, who was so obsessed with trying to prove her brother's innocence that she lost a fiance, friends and a job. And then there is Szymczak, who gave up his dream of making a better life in this country, as well as his sister, a single mother, and her four children, who respectively lost a brother and a father figure.

"She affected a lot of people. She really did," Theresa Chatman said in an interview. "And now we know what she said wasn't true."

Accuser's difficult childhood

The allegations in each rape were strikingly similar. Both occurred at the woman's workplace at the time. In each instance she told police she had gone to her job early to get ahead of the workload. According to police and court records, she did not sustain cuts or bruises in either alleged attack.

In October 1979, she said she was confronted and raped by a knife-wielding man in a bathroom at the North Michigan Avenue office building where she worked as a secretary. Szymczak was arrested after she identified him as her attacker, but he repeatedly denied the accusation. The woman later filed a lawsuit but failed to win any money in court.

More than two decades later, the same woman told police she went into work early on the Friday before the Memorial Day holiday in 2002 to get ahead of the scheduling she did for a judge — even though the judge had been out of the office. Chatman, whom the woman said she recognized from being in her courtroom previously asking for help, threatened her with a scissors as he sexually assaulted her, she alleged.

Chatman was arrested as he walked not far from the Daley Center. He was convicted at trial and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The woman filed a lawsuit and ultimately agreed to a settlement of about $500,000.

Now 62, the woman has been married for more than four decades, is the mother of two grown children, lives in the suburbs and owns a vacation house in Michigan. Court records show she endured a difficult childhood. After her mother died when she was 2, she lived at a boarding school in Blue Island and with foster parents. By the time she was a teen, she resided with an aunt and uncle before returning to live with her father at about 16.

But one evening she said her drunken father made "inappropriate gestures" and then fondled her near her breasts, according to the court records. She said she quickly left the house and never spoke to her father again for years — until he was on his deathbed.

The woman and her husband declined comment for this story. But in sworn depositions taken as part of the lawsuit following the Daley Center case — the one in which prosecutors have found her account not believable — both described in stark detail the emotional devastation and upheaval that they said the alleged rapes caused in their lives.

She said she received psychological help after the 1979 rape and stopped thinking about the incident after some time. But reading or hearing about other crime victims sparked feelings of compassion, she said.

The alleged rape at the Daley Center left her feeling far worse, she said.

"This assault, I don't even feel whole. I don't feel myself," she said in a deposition taken in 2006. "I feel like I truly said goodbye to myself and my family. ... I just can't be what I was."

Her husband agreed, calling her "broken" after the alleged 2002 rape. Once outgoing and ambitious, she stopped going out and rarely saw friends, he said in his deposition. She slept fitfully, often during the day, and frequently had nightmares, pounding her fists on her pillows, the bed, even on the walls. Once affectionate, she pulled away when he tried to embrace her.

"My wife was a very confident, aggressive, determined, intense, passionate, fun-loving, humorous woman and human being. And now she's broken," the husband said. "When this assault occurred — sexual assault occurred — she believed she died and she said goodbye to everybody, to me, her family."

'Took over my mind'

Convinced of her brother's innocence, Theresa Chatman fought so hard for his release that "it took over my mind," she said.

Before he went to trial, she visited him in jail so often and attended so many court hearings she lost the accounting job she enjoyed. Friends who knew her brother had been charged with rape stopped returning her calls. Her fiance broke off their engagement.

"If I had even one iota of thought that he'd done this, he'd have had to just rot (in prison)," she said in her Berwyn apartment as her brother looked on.

Years earlier, Chatman said, the brother she calls "Chatty" had been married and worked as a mail handler, but mental illness began to take hold of him and he started drinking and taking drugs. He lost his job and his family. Soon he was on the street. Chatman said she and her five other siblings took a hard line with her brother — he could stay with relatives only if he was clean. But often he was not.

After his arrest, Chatman said she questioned the validity of her brother's confession because of his mental illness and failure to take his psychiatric medication.

She kept a count on her calendar of the days her brother was behind bars, a tally that reached more than 4,000 before he was set free last month.

While his sister fought to prove his innocence, Chatman served his sentence, mostly staying in his cell and watching TV, afraid to go out in the prison yard. His lawyer, Russell Ainsworth, said Chatman ate a lot in the hope he would gain weight and not be picked on so much by other inmates.

Chatman wrote scores of what Ainsworth called "soul-crushing" letters from prison, but they were difficult to understand. Now he writes his sister even though they share her apartment. He makes grocery lists, but the pages are so filled with words and letters going in every direction that they look like word-search puzzles gone awry.

His sister, however, remains devoted.

"We're sticking together," she said. "We're doing the best we can."

Forced to leave America

The telephone call came in the middle of night, Hapaniewski said. Her brother was being held in a police lockup on a charge of rape.

At that point, Szymczak had been in the Chicago area seven or eight years, living with his sister and her four young kids in a bungalow in Summit, not far from the Stevenson Expressway. He worked long hours as a janitor, but he spent much of his free time with the children. Earlier that spring in 1979 he had married in Poland and hoped to soon bring his bride to Chicago.

"He wanted to live in this country ... and have a better life than he had in Poland," Hapaniewski said on a recent evening as she sat at her kitchen table. "But it never happened because this woman said these things about him. ... Why did she do this?"

After his arrest, Szymczak's lawyer was pessimistic about the chances of an acquittal, according to Hapaniewski, and she and her brother had little money to pay for his defense. Officials at the Polish Consulate told Szymczak he would never be believed and suggested he leave the country, his sister said. In court one day, her brother even asked her which woman was his accuser, Hapaniewski said. He insisted he was innocent, she said, and could not understand how he had ended up in such a predicament.

Szymczak decided to flee, so one night he and Hapaniewski rode the bus together to O'Hare International Airport.

"He was crying like a baby," she recalled.

At his next court date, a nervous Hapaniewski approached the judge and gave him a letter her brother had written the day before he fled. The note is still in the court file.

"Because I have been in the United States for only a short period of time and don't have money for an attorney, I am forced to leave the country. I am very sorry to do that," Szymczak wrote in Polish. "Please forward this letter to (the accuser), so she may once more think about what she is doing. ... I also ask that this court not let this incident constitute a black mark on the record of my stay in the United States and on my life."

By phone from the family's farm in Poland, Szymczak's new wife asked Hapaniewski why he was so jumpy, why he acted so strange, his sister said. Hapaniewski told her to give him time.

Hapaniewski needed time to recover from the loss as well. For years, she feared every unexpected knock at the door, wondering if police were looking for her brother. She kept to herself, worried friends would think she had harbored a criminal. Her fears faded, but they never entirely disappeared, she said.

She regards the decision to free Chatman as vindication for her brother as well. Szymczak has been told of the news but is unlikely to ever return to the U.S., Hapaniewski said. He is now 65, a year younger than his sister.

"Always in the back of his mind is why did this happen?" Hapaniewski said.

smmills@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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