Video: Haunted by a 30-year-old crime

By Ann Curry
NBC News
updated 1/16/2006 10:33:13 AM ET 2006-01-16T15:33:13

Early dawn, a beautiful 26-year-old woman wakes up and notices a small mysterious light flickering on the fire escape outside her window.

Kathleen Ham: I saw that there was a hand attached to the light.

She quickly realizes that it’s a cigarette lighter. Someone is out there...

Ham: And then I saw sneakers.

In a flash, the man was inside the apartment and what happened next would catapult the young woman into a nightmare that spanned three decades, testing all she believed in, challenging the justice system, and her own sanity until modern criminal science finally brought her and other women a chance for justice.

Today, Kathleen Ham is a 58-year-old lawyer living in California, but on June 26, 1973, she was a fresh faced young woman who moved to New York City dreaming of a career in publishing. She says she felt her whole life was ahead of her until that man entered the apartment.

Ham: There was a huge struggle and he had a knife and then he threw a sheet over my head. At first I was screaming, until he finally managed to get the knife to my throat. And then he raped me. I became prey at that point.  And it’s a terrifying, terrifying feeling.

Curry: Did you think he was going to kill you?

Ham: I did think he was gonna kill me.

A neighbor heard her screaming and called 911.  New York police officers Rosie Snipes and Abe Mingola answered the call.

The two officers arrived on the scene while the attacker was still in Kathleen’s apartment. One went to the fire escape where he saw the suspect and Kathleen ham through the window, the other staked out the hallway.

Rosie Snipes, New York police officer: This figure came flying by.  Now as he passed me, I got a good look. He took off I took off.

The officers chased him through the neighborhood until they were able to corner him.

Snipes: We both said the same time, “That’s him!” and placed him under arrest. I felt great, you know, because we were so sure.  We knew we had him.

Abe Mingola, New York police officer: It was like a Christmas present.

The veteran officers figured this case would be a slam dunk because both of them could positively identify the suspect, the man who went by the name “Clarence Williams.” But then, they learned Kathleen Ham never saw his face.

Ann Curry, Dateline correspondent: Any doubt in your mind they caught the right man?

Ham:  Truthfully, because I didn’t see him, I never identified him. I believed the police officers. 

Not only did she believe them, after the attack, the police officers were Kathleen’s main source of support, especially after what happened next when she went to the hospital for help.

Ham: Probably one of the most disgusting experiences I had ever gone through.

According to Kathleen,the hospital emergency room was practically empty, but, she says, she was offered nothing— no sympathy— not even a  glass of water. She says it was an hour before she was seen and what happened during her examination only deepened her despair.

Ham: Depending on your personality, people really react in different ways to crisis.  I’m one of these people who becomes very controlled. And I wasn’t crying. 

And because of the way I was acting, the doctors didn’t believe me that I was raped.  Despite the fact that I had marks on my neck, and marks on my face. And I heard them say, “Oh, she’s too calm and she wasn’t raped.”

Curry: You felt they were insensitive.

Ham:  Felt?  They weren’t sensitive.  They didn’t believe me.  They didn’t believe I was raped.

Curry: They didn’t find evidence?

Ham: I heard the guy say, “Oh, there’s no sperm.  She wasn’t raped… This was standard.  There was no rape kit at that time. There was no rape training.

Julia Preston, New York Times reporter:  It was kind of a dark passage.

Reporter Julia Preston has covered Kathleen’s story for the New York Times. She says what happened to Kathleen at the hospital 32 years ago wasn’t unusual, and it set the stage for the trial.

Preston:  There was still kind of a presumption that a woman wouldn’t be raped if she wasn’t in some fashion asking for it.

When Kathleen’s case went to trial in 1974, the bar was high for a conviction. Back then, the victim’s word alone was not enough; there had to be corroborating evidence— for example, physical signs of a struggle or someone witnessing the actual rape. Also at the time, DNA testing was very primitive. And the physical evidence found in Kathleen’s underwear only indicated the blood type.

Preston: The underpants were no use.

So, the prosecution’s case would rely heavily on the officers’ identification of the suspect and Kathleen’s testimony. The defense, on the other hand, went after Kathleen.

Ham: First question is "your name and address."  The second question is “Were you a virgin?”  And then it just went on from that.  I was brutalized on that stand.

It was a common defense tactic to blame the victim, but Kathleen says she was shocked when her attacker’s defense attorney went even further.  He questioned her for almost two days trying to portray her as a prostitute.

Ham:  I was having a tussle, you know, with my pimp, then he decided to go another way which is that, “Well if it happened, you wanted it to anyway.”

Curry: If this happened between you and his client, the accused rapist, you wanted it anyway?

Ham: This was his exact question.  “Well, then why didn’t you get out of the apartment?  Were both your legs broken?”  I tried to say, “He had a knife to my throat.” All he would say is, “Yes or no, yes or no.” The defense would hold a needle in one hand and a thread in the other and move his hand and say, “You can’t thread a moving needle.”

In other words, a woman cannot be raped.  It is impossible to rape a woman unless she wants it.

After a contentious 8-day trial and two days of deliberations, Kathleen’s attempt to get justice ended in a hung jury.

Ham: I was shattered.  I lost all of my self-confidence.  You become very depressed.  You feel nothing is worth it.  I mean, I just kind of like looked at life and said, “It’s really overrated.”

Curry:  Because you knew that the things you believed in, the fundamental right to justice, could not happen for you?

Ham: Yeah.  That’s exactly it.

To make matters worse, while Williams was out on bail awaiting trial, he was accused of sexually assaulting and shooting another woman. In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty in that case and also to Kathleen’s rape. It seemed her nightmare was over until the second case was overturned and both cases had to be retried.

Ham: But I will tell you something that I feel very guilty about. I left the jurisdiction, I moved to California.

When I left New York, I said, “I will kill myself before I ever get on the stand again.” I just couldn’t do it.  I could not go through it. I was a coward and I ran away. 

Kathleen was not the only one who ran. Before he could be retried on any of the charges, Williams jumped bail and simply vanished dooming Kathleen to decades of worry and guilt that he was out there hurting other women.

Ham: I knew that I had unleashed a monster. I mean, that is a person who’s not going to stop.

With the move to California, Kathleen tried to put the attack behind her and put her life back on track. She went to law school and became an attorney but she says she found dating and marriage were virtually impossible and worst of all was her inability to sleep.

Ham: I’m an insomniac. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in 32 years. I’d be either by the window with a butcher knife in my hand. Or most times, I would sleep by the door so I could get out immediately. I became very angry that he just didn’t kill me.

Until 32 long years later, when last year, out of the blue, Kathleen Ham got a phone call from an old friend. 

Video: Could she testify?

Kathleen Ham: My life stopped at 26 years old.

Ann Curry, Dateline correspondent:  And 32 years later you get some startling news.

Ham: I got a call from an old friend of mine and she leaves a message and says, “Kathy this is the most important phone call you’re ever going to get. Call me back immediately.”

The old friend was Nancy Fischer her neighbor in New York City after the attack.

Nancy Fischer, Kathleen Ham's friend from New York: I get a phone call from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office cold case unit. When she said, “Do you know Kathleen Ham?”  I knew. I knew they got him.

It turns out Clarence Williams, who now had changed his name to Fletcher Worrell, was living near Atlanta, Georgia where he tried to buy a gun and his name comes up on a background check.

New York Assistant District Attorney’s Melissa Morgoues and Martha Bashford worked the cold case unit.

Martha Bashford, assistant district attorney: Our warrant fell on him. He’s brought back.

The assistant district attorneys decided to track down the rape victim in the nearly 30-year-old warrant: Kathleen Ham. The only link they found was her friend, Nancy Fisher, who luckily was still living in New York.

Fischer:  Se wanted to speak to Kathy.  I said, “Let me call her first—since we’re friends.”  You know, I’d break it to her.

Ham: I just gasped. And then she said, “The D.A. wants to call you.”  And I became hysterical.

Bashford: She never thought she would hear about this again and thought that she was the only person who still remembered what had happened.

When the assistant district attorney called Kathleen, she told her they wanted to retry Worrell for her rape. But that meant Kathleen had to find the courage to do what she had vowed she would never do: to put herself through the trauma of testifying all over again.

Ham:  The ADA called me and said, “Would you be willing to prosecute?”  And out of my mouth jumped, “Yes.” And I have no idea where that came from.

Curry: I think you know.

Ham: I had to do the right thing. It’s as simple as that.

Kathleen’s testimony would be crucial, but the prosecutors wanted stronger physical evidence this time and this time they got it.

Bashford: Just to give you an idea of what an unusual job we have, I can’t think of too many people in the country reaching into a moldy folder and finding a pair of soiled underpants from 30 years ago and feeling like you’ve won the lottery.  And we were running down the halls going, “Look what we have.”

That meant they had the attacker’s DNA and it was an exact match with Fletcher Worrell’s. The cold case district atorneys weren’t surprised, but what happened next surprised everyone:

Bashford: When they got the DNA profile that they were still able to pull from the pants after all those years, they entered into the national databank. And the ripples kept spreading. And then it matched the cases in New Jersey, two rapes from 1993 — [incidents] very similar to what happened to Ms. Ham.

And it matched to nine cases with DNA from Silver Spring, Maryland area where he had been known as the Silver Spring rapist, which was part of a 21 rape pattern.

In all, the DNA in Kathleen’s case linked Worrell to at least 23 other rapes in Maryland and New Jersey over the past 30 years, although he denies involvement in any of them. 

Ham: I was like “Oh my God.”

Curry: You knew what you had feared had come true?

Ham: Right. I was horrified.

So horrified that something in Kathleen Ham changed. The woman who had lived in fear for more than 30 years decided to stand up for all the rape victims of Fletcher Worrell.  In fact, she went further. Right before her trial, she decided to go public with her story and reveal her identity.  It’s something most rape victims are reluctant to do.

Curry: Could you have prosecuted this without being public with your name?

Ham: Oh absolutely. It’s done all the time.

Ham: Because after 32 years, I had to say, I have nothing to be ashamed of.  If I were burglarized, you would use my name. Why the stigma?

And with that, this past November, on the day of her testimony, Kathleen’s story was splashed across the front page of the New York Times. Reporter Julia Preston was in the packed courtroom when Kathleen took the stand.

Julia Preston, New York Times reporter: The prosecutor just asked a question to let her speak about the crime.  And there was a moment of silence.  She just paused and immediately started to cry. It was as though—the window was still open.  The fire escape was still right there.  It’s never far away—this attack.  And she was just very powerful in talking about it.

And unlike the two days of brutal questioning that Kathleen endured during the first trial, this time Worrell’s defense attorney cross examined her for a little over 10 minutes.

Preston: You have a defense attorney who comes in right away and says “I’m not questioning this victim’s credibility.”  The judge was a woman. There were a number of women on the jury and both of the prosecutors were women.  Perhaps that doesn’t make a huge difference. But it reflects something about the society and there was no presumption at any time during the trial that this wasn’t a terrible attack that she had suffered. It was an entirely different trial.

It took the jury of 7 women and 5 men just two hours to find Fletcher Worrell guilty of first degree rape and robbery for $4 dollars that he stole from Kathleen’s apartment that night.

Ham: I feel vindicated after all these years and I feel very glad that a monster is being taken off the street.

After the verdict, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morganthau says since Kathleen Ham found the courage to go public, nine women have contacted his office saying they too had been attacked by Worrell. As a result, Morganthau says he’s now fighting to eliminate the New York statute of limitations in violent rape cases.

Robert Morganthau, Manhattan district attorney: The statute of limitations runs five years after a rape and in some special circumstances, 10.

Martha Bashford, assistant district attorney: The only reason we were able to get justice for Ms. Ham was because her case had been indicted when it happened.  Otherwise, even with the DNA we couldn’t have touched it.

Fletcher Worrell was given consecutive sentences of up to 25 years for rape and as many as 21 years for the $4 robbery. 

After the sentencing, for the first time in 32 years, Kathleen Ham went back to the place where her nightmare began.

Curry: After all you’ve been through, what does it mean to you to be back here?

Ham: It actually feels very good.  It doesn’t frighten me at all.

Curry:  But you thought it was going to didn’t you?

Ham:  Yeah, a little bit, yeah. But, you know what?  It’s just a building.  It doesn’t have any hold on my life anymore.

Finally getting justice, Kathleen Ham is seeing her life start again with less fear and pain and new hope for the future.

Ham: It ended up being a very positive experience for me.  I think the minute when I blurted out “You can use my name, I have nothing to be ashamed of,” my whole life changed. When I said that, I got my voice back. I feel like I actually have something to say.

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