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.
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Richard J. Daley Center, 50 West Washington Street, Chicago, IL 60602, USA
625 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611, USA
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.