This report aired April 29, 2007, on Dateline NBC, and re-aired on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009.
Waterbury, Conn. — Overlook is a lovely old neighborhood in Waterbury, a small town in Connecticut. It’s the kind of place where family ties run deep and friendships run long. Where the kids you play with in kindergarten are buddies for life. A place where you sleep safe at night. Or so Donna Palomba thought—until one terrifying night in 1993.
911: “We have an assault, a sexual assault.”
Donna Palomba: I felt him cut my clothing with a knife. And then he flipped me over.
Donna has been tormented by the memory of that violent attack ever since. But what happened after the attack rocked her to her foundations.
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: Suddenly you were the one on trial?
Donna Palomba: Exactly.
When the police, the very people Donna turned to for help, suddenly turned on her—she was shattered. She fought back anonymously, as Jane Doe. Two years ago, she decided to go public — and tell her story to Dateline — using her real name. Donna Palomba was Jane Doe No More.
Donna Palomba: I’m coming forward now because it’s time.
It took her almost fourteen years. For most of those years, she was haunted by one question: who was the rapist—the man behind the mask? To her, he was a monster. To some, a phantom. The answer, when it finally came, was almost too much to bear.
John Palomba: It was like ripping another piece of your heart away.
James: You couldn’t believe it?
John Palomba: I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to.
Donna and John Palomba were caught up in a horror story they couldn’t have imagined when they met as college students in 1976.
Donna Palomba: At the University of Connecticut. I was actually going to another college and I was up to visit a friend, a girlfriend. and we went to a party, and I met John.
Hometown girl meets hometown boy. They had a lot in common: both born and bred in Waterbury and both from large close-knit families: church-going and law-abiding. Donna and John went on to live out a love story: marriage in 1981. Two children. A home in Overlook, where John grew up, surrounded by family and friends. He worked in the insurance business, she in marketing. By 1993, when Donna was 36, life was full.
Donna Palomba: John and I were incredibly blessed. The children were young. And we were both busy with our careers as well. But truly life centered around the children.
In September that year they planned a family vacation in Colorado—they’d go to the wedding of one of John’s close friends and take in the mountains. Then Donna decided she couldn’t leave the office.
Donna Palomba: My partner was expecting his first baby on the day of the wedding. Iwas needed at the agency but I encouraged john to go. I sent him off with well wishes.
John Palomba: She said “I know you’ve always wanted to go there and they’re good friends of yours.” So I flew out.
He went reluctantly. Remarkably, in a dozen years of marriage, he and Donna had scarcely spent a night apart. And they’d certainly never taken separate vacations. But this was different.
John Palomba: I left Donna on a Wednesday morning and I was gonna come back on a Sunday afternoon, just kind of a long weekend. And that’s when everything happened.
But when Donna told the story of what happened—little did she know it would be challenged for years to come. It was Friday September 10th 1993 -- a long day. Donna went to work, then to the hospital to visit her partner’s new baby. She couldn’t know then she would be admitted to the same hospital herself that night.
Donna Palomba: Totally different circumstances. It was bizarre.
After seeing the baby, Donna took her young son and daughter out for a concert and pizza By the time they got home, she says, all three were beat. She put the kids to sleep and by 10:00pm she got into bed herself and fell sound asleep.
James: What’s the next thing you remember, Donna?
Donna Palomba: I remember hearing some footsteps. I was still not quite awake but thinking that doesn’t sound like little children’s bare feet.
She was lying on her stomach. She turned her head and looked up.
Donna Palomba: There was a shadowy figure in my bedroom.
James: Did it occur to you at one moment, maybe John came home early?
Donna Palomba: No as soon as I was coming out of sleep, I realized that Video: 'Jane Doe' no more something was terribly wrong.
But she says she had no time to react. The intruder, who was wearing a mask, was on her in an instant. She tried to fight him off. Clawing. Biting on a gloved hand.
James: You must have been terrified.
Donna Palomba: I was absolutely terrified. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was in the middle of this.
Donna says he quickly overpowered her. Covered her head with a pillowcase, blindfolded her and tied her hands behind her back with pantyhose. She says he told her to co-operate or she’d get hurt. She thought he was disguising his voice.
James: What happened then?
Donna Palomba: He cut my clothing and he raped me.
Afterwards he asked for cash. She directed him to her pocketbook and she could hear him rummaging around.
Donna Palomba: I was fortunate enough that I could speak and I said “I will never tell a soul. Please don’t hurt me.” So I begged for my life.
Suddenly the rapist had a gun by her mouth.
Donna Palomba: He moved the gun from my mouth and put it to my temple and I felt like my head was on fire. And I said out loud to God, “Dear god please absolve me of my sins.”
James: You thought you were gonna die.
Donna Palomba: Yeah.
She says she imagined her children finding her body in the morning.
Donna Palomba: And then he said, if you call the police, I’m gonna come back and kill you. And it was the first time that I thought I might live.
Again and again, Donna says, she told him she wouldn’t tell a soul. That she couldn’t identify him anyway. That this was just between them.
James: Did he leave then?
Donna Palomba: He said multiple times—he threatened that if I told the police, that he would kill me.
And then -- miraculously—he was gone. She says she heard him go down the stairs. Close the front door behind him.
James: It must have felt such a relief.
Donna Palomba: Oh my gosh, I was so incredibly grateful. When you come that close to death and you’re able to survive, I was just so incredibly grateful.
Donna managed to untie herself and pull the nylons off her eyes. And then she ran to the children’s bedrooms.
Donna Palomba: I couldn’t get to them quick enough. I ran to my son’s room and he was sleeping. Then I ran to my daughter’s room and she was sleeping. It was like there were angels watching over them.
She knew she had to get help. Back in her bedroom she grabbed a portable phone. It was dead. She picked up the other phone. It was dead too. It only took her an instant to realize the phone lines must have been cut. Like most people in 1993, Donna didn’t have a cell-phone. How could she get help?
Donna Palomba: Do I wake the children? I couldn’t physically carry them. I didn’t want to certainly expose them to any danger, any more danger.
Donna checked the house, upstairs and down, to make sure the assailant was gone. Then, leaving the children in their rooms, she decided to run to a neighbor’s house.
Donna Palomba: I grabbed a single key from the kitchen and I put on a bathrobe and slippers and ran for help.
She says she went to the first house she saw with a light where she knew people. John’s cousin Cliff Warner was home alone watching a movie. Cliff was stunned when he opened the door.
Cliff Warner, John Palomba's cousin: I saw the face of pure terror on that woman and it scared me. I knew there was trouble—there was something horribly wrong.
Donna Palomba: And he said “Donna, what happened?” and I was obviously in a state of shock at that point. I said, “I’ve been attacked. The guy left but he threatened to kill me if I called the police. I don’t know what to do.” And he picked up the phone and called 911.
Cliff handed the phone to Donna and ran to get an ax—he was going to stand guard at Donna’s house to protect the sleeping children in case the attacker returned.
Warner: I can remember running up the hill barefoot carrying an ax and saying to myself “this can’t be happening. Not to these people. Not in this neighborhood. Not now.”
Donna relived her nightmare on the phone for police.
911 call: I’m the victim. He told me that if I called the police that he would be back to kill me.
She was terrified.
Donna Palomba: The gentleman that did this said...
Police: Do you know him?
Donna Palomba: What?
Police: Do you know the guy?
Donna Palomba: No. I don’t know him at all.
All she could think of were her children and his threats.
Donna Palomba: Listen, he told me that if I called the cops he would kill me. (crying) I don’t know what...
Police: He can’t kill you, you’re not there are you.
Donna Palomba: No...I begged him to keep me alive. I felt something in my head. It was a gun for sure.
Police: Do you think he had a gun?
Donna Palomba: Yes, I heard the metal clanging and he put it in my throat and then he put it in my head and then he put it ...(crying)
Police: The assailant may have a gun. She can’t give a description of him
Donna Palomba: Oh dear god in...
Police: OK, try to stay calm.
The police then gave Donna instructions that would prove to be crucial.
Police: Don’t change your clothes or anything.
I didn’t touch. I’m all ripped. Video: 'A big step'
Police: Don’t wash.
Donna Palomba: I didn’t.
But she was desperate to get back to her children.
Donna Palomba: Oh, my god. Oh my kids. I can’t believe it.
Police: OK, you’re doing good. just hang in there.
She stayed on the line until the police arrived, then handed the phone to one of the officers. Something—the brutality of the attack or the raw fear in her voice—struck the cops that night.
But that sober judgment is about to be turned upside down.
John Palomba: I was standing in the school yard and her father shows up and says “John, you’re not going to believe this but the police say they’re going to arrest Donna.”
James: Arrest your wife?
John Palomba: Yeah.
To hear Donna Palomba tell it, hers is a story of hope. If so, hope was a long time coming. Sixteen years ago she reported a rape by a masked man who broke into her home while her husband was away.
Donna Palomba: It was terrifying. I had nothing that I could do except turn to god, turn to my faith.
Her faith in God—and the police. She was raised to believe in both.
Because her phone was dead, Donna had run to a neighbor’s for help after she was attached. When she got back to her own house after the 911 call, she says the place was packed.
Donna Palomba: My business partner and cousin I reached out to and his wife had arrived as well as my mother-in-law, and my brother-in-law and my neighbor cliff was there.
So it was a pretty full house.
She remembers police officers coming and going, opening and shutting windows and allowing family members into the house to comfort her. John’s brother Bill rushed over as soon as she called.
Bill Palomba, John Palomba's brother: I remember her being in a bathrobe and I remember her having what at the time looked like rags around her wrists. My first impression was that she was just stunned more than anything else.
Remarkably, she says, her children slept through it all.
Donna Palomba: It was amazing that the children stayed asleep. I mean, the officer literally had flashlights, big flashlights, shining in their faces. And they were sound asleep.
She says she herself was in a state of shock.
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: Did you still have the bindings on your wrists from where you’d been tied?
Donna Palomba: I did and I had the ties around my neck as well. The officer on the 911 call had told me not to remove anything.
The sole female officer there urged her to go to the hospital for an examination. Donna’s cousin took her. But in the midst of the pain and the humiliation, she was also steeling herself for a task she was dreading—breaking the news to her devoted husband John. She and the family decided to wait till he returned from Colorado the next day.
John Palomba, husband: As soon as I saw her though I knew something was wrong.
John came home to new locks on the front door. A houseful of relatives. And an anguished wife wearing sunglasses to protect one eye injured in the attack.
Donna Palomba: He pulled my sunglasses off. I remember he said “what’s going on?” and I told him.
John Palomba: She knew that I would be real upset, so she was really trying to put on a good front for me.
James: What was his response when you said that you’d been raped?
Donna Palomba: I just saw the pain on his face. It was, as you can expect—it was horrifying.
It was a devastating blow for a man who had always been there to protect his wife during 12 years of marriage.
John Palomba: I was angry as hell. I was very angry. I mean, your first thought is that you went away and it happened. That’s something you gotta deal with.
Within days Donna gave the police a statement. She couldn’t identify her attacker because of the mask and gloves. But she did remember the smell of grease. She also thought he was trying to disguise his voice. And she knew he was strong. She wracked her brain to figure out who he could be. So did John. From the start, John was sure the timing was no coincidence.
John Palomba: When I knew what had happened, I knew it had to be somebody who knew me.
James: How were you so confident that it had to be somebody who knew?
John Palomba: Because I was never away.
John Palomba: Never.
John shared his suspicions with investigators. Donna focused on recovery. And both of them believed the police were making every effort to find the rapist. By mid-October, one month after the attack, Donna felt she was making progress.
Donna Palomba: I’m saying “I’m gonna get through this. I’m gonna get my family through this. and we’re gonna be ok.”
Then, a bombshell.
Donna Palomba: I was sobbing. I was sobbing and crying. I was hysterical. I was disoriented.
Determined to help the police in every way she could, Donna had arranged a meeting with the lead investigator, Lieutenant Douglas Moran. Moran took over the case a couple of weeks after the rape was reported and Donna thought she had a good working relationship with him. But at the police station she says, the Lieutenant sat her down, turned on a tape recorder—and read her her rights.
James: He mirandized you? You have the right to remain silent.
Donna Palomba: Right.
James: You have the—
Donna Palomba: He actually pulled out a piece of paper and started reading that.
Then Donna says, he launched into a verbal assault. He told her he’d listened to her tapes—presumably the 911 call, though she isn’t sure to this day what he meant..
Donna Palomba: What he said—it’s so upsetting I just—
James: What did he say?
Donna Palomba: What he said was that he had listened to my tape over and over again. That he and all his peers had come together and discussed this. That he was convinced that I purposefully lied to the police.
Donna was astounded. She says he told her the police had countless photographs and interviews that would prove she was lying. The room started spinning. And he wasn’t finished.
James: What did he threaten, Donna?
Donna Palomba: He said “you have everything to lose” and I remember him holding up his hand. “Your husband, your children, your reputation, your business. You have everything to lose.”
She didn’t have a clue what he was getting at. But there was more.
James: He threatened to put you in jail?
Donna Palomba: Absolutely.
James: For allegedly making this all up?
Donna Palomba: Yep.
The meeting lasted about an hour. Afterwards she stumbled out of the Waterbury police station and told her family she was facing arrest. Stunned and infuriated, Donna’s husband as well as her father raced to the station and demanded to talk to Lieutenant Moran.
John Palomba: He stood in the hallway and just told us that we have foolproof evidence that she was lying and I said, “there’s no way.” I said “you don’t know my wife”. “Well we have rock solid evidence” I think was the word he used. So he wouldn’t tell me what the evidence was.
It would be weeks before Donna and John learned what had prompted the confrontation.
Donna Palomba: Someone went to the police with gossip and misinformation and the whole thing just got way outta control.
The informant had told police he’d heard Donna was having an affair; that one of her children had discovered the lovers and that Donna had put the child back to sleep and invented the rape as a cover-up in case the child talked. With that, hurtful rumors about what had happened that night began.
Donna Palomba: It was devastating. I didn’t know who was thinking those kinds of things. And I did nothing to deserve it. I had lived my life a certain way and it was so against everything I am about.
But the investigators—at least some of them—took the informant’s story seriously. It fit with questions they had: If an armed assailant was on the loose, why had Donna left her children alone after the attack to go to a neighbor’s down the block? Why had she called her attacker “a gentleman” on the 911 call? And how had she known so quickly that her phone lines were cut?
Donna Palomba: I said that on the 911 call, which i think is perfectly logical. They somehow believed that I must have had inside information or had done it myself.
Most baffling of all, why were there no signs of forced entry at her house? It was a question the police returned to again and again.
Donna Palomba: They were concerned about that, as was I. I think it makes it a more calculated, troubling crime.
John says his trust in his wife never wavered. Nevertheless, after the police confrontation, he knew he’d have to ask Donna the most difficult question he’d ever put to her—was there anything she needed to tell him? They both knew what he meant by that.
John Palomba: I said “look, is there something that I should know about?”
Donna Palomba: I said “absolutely not”. And I was trembling and crying and we just hugged.
John Palomba: That’s all I had to hear because I knew she wouldn’t lie. I mean she’s a throwback toladies that were probably around when your grandmother was around; you know she was always a real lady.
Shaken and bewildered, Donna and John decided to meet with the superior of the Lieutenant who’d confronted her. The Palombas didn’t know it then, but that meeting was secretly taped.
John Palomba: I’m totally disgusted with the way it was handled.
Donna Palomba: Captain, I just want to tell you something. After this incident, I was at the hospital for three hours: they pumped me with drugs, my mother held my head over the toilet as I vomited for five hours, I went through all that and he’s trying to make up like I have some kinky lover. I mean, it just blows my mind.
Captain Moran: Let me explain to you: OK, in certain cases it is a legitimate line of questioning.
The Captain also told them that the investigation was in his words “kind of stymied”. But that the police did want to put some questions to Donna and John’s children—remember the informant had told them that one of the children saw the “lovers” together.
Captain Moran: We’re also wondering if one didn’t wake up and wander around the house.
Donna Palomba: No, I know for sure because they were right next to me.
John Palomba: When the policemen came they can verify they were sleeping because they were shining their flashlights—
Captain Moran: I understand that, but when the incident happened, okay, who can verify that they were sleeping?
Donna Palomba: I can.
John and Donna were deeply disturbed when they left the police department that day. As they saw it, the perpetrator was still at large, but the police were focusing on the victim. And the police wanted to involve the children, even though Donna was certain both had slept through the whole thing.
Donna Palomba: After the interrogation that I suffered, I would never let them anywhere near my children. If for any reason I thought that it would further the case, or if they had any kind of information, we would consult carefully with doctors and figure out how to do this. But there was absolutely no reason.
The Palombas also thought Robert Moran seemed strangely non-committal at the follow-up meeting. Perhaps that was because, as they would later find out, the subordinate, Douglas Moran, the lieutenant who threatened Donna with jail, was actually Robert’s little brother. As the weeks went by, Donna’s spirits plunged. She had gone to the police for help—and instead she says, she was abused.
Donna Palomba: I could not eat. I could not sleep. I was completely devastated.
John Palomba: That’s when she really became fragile. She was just, you know, basically living on the edge.
But not for long. Donna Palomba was not about to stay on that edge. And while she didn’t know it at the time, but she was about to gain a vital ally.
A man in blue turns the investigation around.
Donna Palomba says after she was raped in 1993, the lead investigator read her her rights, told her he thought she was lying about the rape—and threatened her with arrest.
Donna Palomba: I was at the most vulnerable stage in my healing and he did this and totally wiped me out.
In the end, Donna was not arrested. In fact, after that traumatic meeting, the investigation slid to a standstill. By the spring of 1994, seven months after the rape, it was dormant. Then, suddenly it roared back to life: Neil O’Leary, one of Waterbury’s crack detectives was put in charge. At first, Donna and John were skeptical.
John Palomba: Neil was just another cop from the department and at that point I didn’t trust anybody from the department because I saw what they did to her—they were all covering for each other.
But after reviewing Donna’s case, Neil O’Leary was convinced that the Waterbury Police Department had made mistakes in Donna’s case... many mistakes.
Neil O’Leary, then-Waterbury police detective: It was almost a perfect storm of mistakes. And it was surprising because we’d been trained otherwise.
O’Leary first learned about the attack on Donna from a police report. That was mistake number one.
O’Leary: There was a clear policy in place at the time if there was a major felony committed on the overnight shift, that I was to be notified. And then I would in turn notify the boss. I wasn’t notified.
At the crime scene, the “perfect storm” built.
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: Did they send the forensics team?
James: Take photographs?
James: Secure the crime scene?
James: Canvas the neighbors? Talk to everybody?
James: None of these things?
O’Leary: None of those things.
O’Leary says if he had to grade the police performance at the crime scene that night, he’d give it a D minus.
James: What saves it from being an F?
O’Leary: The patrol officer who responded fortunately, through his training, collected the bedding and the clothing from the victim. and on that clothing and bedding was DNA evidence.
Once O’Leary had the case, he went right back to square one, back to the scene of the crime, back to talk to Donna.
O’Leary: We had her show us and tell us everything that happened. We basically started the case over.
Donna Palomba: And he said, “Listen, even though all this time has passed, we wanna help you. and we can’t guarantee that we’ll come up with anything. But at least we’re gonna try for you.”
Donna’s family members were interviewed—for the first time. So were her neighbors. And so were others who knew anything about her or that night.
O’Leary: That worked to our advantage in the sense that we got fresh information. And we worked off that information.
One of the real puzzlers was how the rapist got into the house. Why were there no signs of forced entry? O’Leary and his colleagues discovered one possible explanation: a key to Donna and John’s house, normally kept at John’s mother’s place, had vanished before the attack.
O’Leary: Had the investigators investigated the case properly from the first night, they would found that out the same way we found it out.
O’Leary: By talking to the mother-in-law.
O’Leary was just getting started. Like John Palomba, he believed that the perpetrator had to be somebody who knew John was away the night of the rape. O’Leary focused on a bachelor party for one of John’s friends which took place the same night. He says well over a hundred people were there.
James: And indeed many of your friends were there.
John Palomba: Oh all my friends were there.
John would almost certainly have been there too—if he hadn’t been in Colorado.
O’Leary: John’s brothers were there—his three brothers were there. so everyone was saying “Hey, where’s John? Where’s John? “Oh he’s in Colorado. He’s not gonna be home tonight”.
James: So you think somebody at that party said, “Here’s my opportunity.”
O’Leary: I do.
O’Leary worked it. He gathered notes on who was there, who wasn’t. He says he talked to dozens of guests—hard work that would pay off eventually. In the meantime O’Leary and his team kept slamming into closed doors.
O’Leary: You know we caught the case months after it happened. even though it was a horrific case, every day that goes by in a major case like that makes it that much more difficult to investigate.
O’Leary knew the first investigators had questions about the 911 call. Why had she called her attacker “a gentleman” for instance? But once he heard the tape, O’Leary had no such concerns.
He was compelled by Donna’s voice.
O’Leary: It would be extremely hard for me to understand how you couldn’t believe, by the distress in her voice, the tone of her voice, the agony in her voice, that she wasn’t just brutally victimized and brutalized.
O’Leary says he was convinced Donna was telling the truth.
James: You believed her?
O’Leary: I believed her from the beginning.
As for Donna’s traumatic meeting with Lieutenant Moran, O’Leary says to this day he can’t understand what motivated the investigators to act the way they did—and why they didn’t believe Donna.
O’Leary: But the fact was that they didn’t believe her. And they accused her of making the story up. Not only was she victimized that night from the horrific incident, but then she was victimized once again by the police department.
James: That’s tough for you—
O’Leary: It was brutal.
James: As a police officer?
O’Leary: Yeah, it was absolutely brutal.
And what about that threat of jail? What could Donna Palomba, rape victim, possibly be charged with?
O’Leary: They told her that she could face arrest for making a false complaint. They told that would have an impact on the custody of her children . And they -- they bullied her a little bit—
O‘Leary: It was very difficult. and it divided the department. Half the people who were not that familiar with the investigation believed that there could be something wrong with the victim’s story and the other half, meaning the experienced investigators, believed her entirely.
And those experienced investigators worked flat-out on Donna’s case.
O’Leary: There was a group of dedicated officers that worked very very hard with full knowledge that the initial officers completely bungled the investigation.
O’Leary: Absolutely. Absolutely.
But for a time, O’Leary felt a cold wind blowing through the Waterbury Police Department.
James: Were there people who didn’t talk to you?
O’Leary: Oh, absolutely.
James: Gave you the cold shoulder?
O’Leary: Very much so.
James: Shunned you?
O’Leary: I would say that’d be appropriate description.
James: And how did you respond?
O’Leary: I didn’t respond at all because I knew that the victim was telling the truth. I knew we were doing the right thing.
Doing the right thing—Donna believed in that too. Even though Neil O’Leary was now on the case, she couldn’t forget how she’d been treated by the first investigators -- and she wasn’t about to let that behavior stand. In April 1994, her attorney filed a complaint calling for an internal investigation into police conduct in her case. A year later, the police released their findings and the officers were exonerated. No impropriety was found.
Donna Palomba: I remember reading that letter and feeling like someone had struck me with a knife.
She faces a choice: let it go or fight. In the end, Donna Palomba, one part-fragile beauty, one part-born fighter, knows there really isn’t a choice. But it won’t be easy to prove her story.
Donna Palomba: The treatment that I received was so traumatizing that there needed to be attention called to it.
In 1995, two years after Donna reported she’d been raped, a police review cleared the first investigators on the case of any impropriety. Donna was outraged. She says she’d been the victim of a horrible crime, only to be accused of lying and threatened with jail at that meeting with Lieutenant Douglas Moran. She and John decided they had to go to court—and they would go as Jane and John Doe, to protect her anonymity.
Donna Palomba: I would not be suffering from the post traumatic stress that I suffer from today had it not been for that second attack.
She says the confrontation left her shattered. Sleepless nights and stomach problems and terrible bouts of anxiety followed.
John Palomba, husband: I mean the girl had the utmost integrity, morality, everything. And to have somebody accuse you of that, she wasn’t doing well after that.
All through those years Donna says she lived with the fear that the rapist would return. Remember, she says he’d threatened to kill her if she talked to police.
Donna Palomba: You worry about your children. You worry about the nighttime. You worry about sounds you hear.
Her husband John remembers how fragile she could be.
John Palomba: She just was very high-strung, little things bothered her that didn’t bother her before.
At the same time, people in the community who knew what had happened to her were talking. And asking questions. Was she raped—or did she have an affair? Did she lie or tell the truth?
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: Did those rumors make their way back to you?
Donna Palomba: It was—
James: Or did people keep it from you?
Donna Palomba: People kept it from you. My family and friends didn’t want to do anything that would cause me more emotional harm. So they pretty much watched what they said, even if they heard something. But I knew.
Detective Neil O’Leary fielded some of those questions himself. O’Leary still had Donna’s case on his files. He never forgot that her rapist was still out there. And he never stopped believing in Donna—even as the whispers made the rounds.
Detective Neil O’Leary: Do you think it really happened? We’re hearing that there’s some problems with her side of the story. And I would feel very badly hearing that. And I would straighten them out right away.
Finally in January 2001, more than seven years after the rape, Donna and John got to court. As Jane and John Doe, they had sued the City of Waterbury and Douglas and Robert Moran for negligence. But days before the trial was due to start, devastating news.
Donna Palomba: I was very concerned with the news. And I did not want to be reckless with my health certainly.
Donna was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. What should she do? She consulted doctors and, with their blessing, she put treatment on hold. The trial would go forward. Aside from her family, she told no-one about her diagnosis, not even her attorneys.
John Palomba: But we always had that on our mind, going through the trial, now we got to go through surgery after.
James: What does it tell you about how important this was for you?
Donna Palomba: It tells you how driven I was with the wrongdoing. I was like a steamroller that could not be stopped.
But even before the trial got underway, Donna and John knew it would be an uphill battle because they didn’t have a critical piece of evidence: a tape. Remember Donna says a tape recorder was rolling when Lieutenant Moran accused her of making the whole thing up and threatened her with the loss of everything she held dear, including her children.
Donna Palomba: And he said, this is an interview between myself and Donna Palomba. And I think he said the date. And then he began to read me my rights.
But months after that traumatic meeting, Donna and John were told the recording didn’t exist.
John Palomba: The tape malfunctions. It doesn’t work.
Lieutenant Moran explained there was a problem with the recorder. Donna and John couldn’t believe it then. They still can’t.
John Palomba: Here’s a guy that’s been a detective for 20 years and he can’t work the tape machine in the office. Now all of a sudden, we want a copy of the tape, they can’t get it because the tape malfunctioned. And it turns out that his brother was the captain. Right away his brother listened to that tape I’m sure and figured out “Oh, we got to lose this tape”.
The Morans denied losing the tape. But without it, Donna and John knew the trial came down to who was more credible: Donna or Lieutenant Douglas Moran.
Donna Palomba: It was a long and arduous trial. It was even worse than i expected.
Because she’d been accused of lying, Donna’s attorneys had to go back to square one—and convince jurors the rape had actually happened. On the stand, Donna addressed the old doubts: with no working phone, she said she had no choice but to leave her children to get help. As for calling the rapist “a gentleman” on the 911 call, she said she was grateful just to have survived. And how could she be expected to know how the rapist got in—if the police couldn’t figure it out? She testified for two days.
Donna Palomba: It was incredibly trying. And of course I had the worry of the cancer on my mind the whole time. I tried to stay focused on what was going on in the courtroom.
The Morans denied all the allegations against them. But in the end, a powerful performance by one of one of Donna’s witnesses may have tipped the balance. Detective Neil O’Leary.
James: I mean you were testifying against your own.
O'Leary: That’s correct. But testifying based on fact and knowledge.
James: Nevertheless if we’ve heard one story we’ve heard them all—police protect their own.
O’Leary: You could certainly draw that line if you want to. But I really believe that the majority of the department, once they became familiar with the case, understood clearly that these two officers really, really made a horrific mistake.
The jury deliberated for days. It was an agonizing time for Donna and John.
Donna Palomba: I remember the anxiety level was just through the roof. obviously waiting to hear the verdict, worrying about the breast cancer.
Finally, a verdict.
Donna Palomba: And my husband and I were trembling waiting to hear.
The jury found the Morans negligent and awarded Donna and John—Jane and John Doe as they were known during the trial -- $190,000 in damages. The Palombas say the money wasn’t the point.
John Palomba: I don’t even remember what the suit was settled for. The point was that they were found guilty of negligence.
It was exactly the validation Donna wanted. It meant a jury believed she’d been raped. And mistreated.
Donna Palomba: We were just so happy that day had finally come.
The Moran brothers have left the Waterbury Police force. Neither responded to Dateline’s request for comment on the case.
In early 2001 Donna and John won their suit against the City of Waterbury and the Moran brothers for mishandling Donna’s rape case. It was a convincing victory—but Donna was in no mood to celebrate.
The trial was so important to Donna that she’d put off treatment for breast cancer. Now as she prepared for surgery, she couldn’t forget how the local paper, the Republican American, had covered it. Not only was the reporting incomplete she says, it kept rehashing the Morans’ arguments—that she was lying about the rape to cover up an affair.
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: What impact did that have on you?
Donna Palomba: I would go to court every day and I knew as did my attorneys and my husband that we were winning in court. And yet I’d go home and I’d see the newspaper. It was another blow.
Here she was: a mother, a successful businesswoman, and a devout churchgoer -- and these were the stories Waterbury was reading about her. Even though she was never named, referred to only as Jane Doe, Donna knew her identity was no secret.
Donna Palomba: I was out in public and I didn’t know what people were thinking. I would see people looking at me and I didn’t know who knew what about me.
For a woman who knew she’d done nothing wrong, who’d been a victim twice, it was devastating. John Murray is the publisher, editor, and carrier of The Waterbury Observer, a free monthly newspaper.
James: Waterbury isn’t that huge of a city.
John Murray, publisher of the Waterbury Observer: No it’s a community of neighborhoods. And the neighborhood that her husband grew up in—they knew. And it was the people she cared about.
But Murray says in some ways, Donna’s decision to go to trial had backfired.
Murray: I think she hoped in her heart that the court case would end everything. That she would be exonerated and her name would be cleared and that didn’t happen. It got even worse.
James: Got worse why?
Murray: because now it was publicly broadcast, Jane Doe with the alleged affair.
Donna Palomba was down. But she’d been there before, and once again she knew what she had to do—get back up and fight.
James: Suddenly you get a call out of the blue.
Murray: “Jane Doe” wants to talk.
At that point, Murray didn’t have a clue who Jane Doe was. He’d been reading the same reports in the local paper that had upset Donna and the local paper was his competition. Murray was happy to make an appointment with Jane Doe.
Donna told her story to Murray during a series of interviews. He was horrified.
James: As you listened to her, did you agree with what some of those police officers had thought? Did you think Donna Palomba was making this up?
Murray: No I did not. The pain that was coming out of her. She would have had to be an Academy Award-winning actress to pull that off.
Murray did his homework. Made the calls, read the court documents and published a blockbuster. It was page after page dedicated to Donna’s story without revealing her identity.
Donna Palomba: I was pleased with the coverage.
Murray: She found it to be very healing. It had never been out in the public arena.
By now it was the spring of 2001, almost eight years since Donna reported the rape. Her rapist was still out there, somewhere. As time went by without any hard leads in her case, she learned to live differently.
Donna Palomba: Everywhere you go you have a sense of insecurity.
She was more cautious and watchful. She couldn’t forget that her attacker had threatened to come back and kill her if she told the cops.
James: Were you still worried that he might return?
Donna Palomba: Sure, that always enters your mind. I had no idea who he was, where he was. I didn’t know if he was someone from my business life, my personal life, or my social life, but I did know that he was someone that knew me. and that was the most frightening part.
James: Why were you so sure that it was somebody you knew?
Donna Palomba: Neil and others that were truly investigating the case were convinced that this was a premeditated crime, that they knew my husband john was away and that this was planned.
Detective Neil O’Leary couldn’t let go of Donna’s case either—even though it was stone cold.
James: So as it turned colder and colder, did you worry? Did you worry that it was never gonna get solved?
O’Leary: Yes I did. Every time there was a case even remotely similar we would check the suspects’ DNA to what was collected that night.
O’Leary would call Donna to share any news he could. Maybe those calls helped keep Donna’s hope alive though the years—or maybe it was her faith. Either way, she never lost hope the rapist would be found.
Donna Palomba: I knew that the crime of rape, it often is a serial rapist that commits that crime— it’s a repeat offender. So if he were to do this again and they were to get his DNA, there could be a link.
James: And you kept hoping for that break.
Donna Palomba: Absolutely.
And when Donna Palomba’s hopes are answered, it tears apart the man she loves.
SOT (John) RIPPED YOUR GUTS OUT. I MEAN THIS IS SOMEBODY WHO YOU WOULD HAVE TRUSTED WITH ANYTHING YOU KNOW?
Donna and John won their suit. But the rapist was still at large. By 2004, eleven years after Donna reported being attacked, the case was in the deep-freeze. Even so, Neil O’Leary couldn’t let go.
Detective Neil O’Leary: It was disturbing to me that we hadn’t solved it because I thought that it would vindicate the victim. And it would in fact get a very bad individual off the street.
O’Leary had weathered the divisions the case had caused in the Waterbury Police Department and moved up the ranks to Acting Police Chief. He always kept a line open to Donna and John.
John Palomba: Neil is the best. He never quit. And he always, always would just keep us updated once in a while to let us know that “Hey, I’m still thinking of it, I’m still working on it.”
That summer although he couldn’t know it at the time, O’Leary was only weeks away from solving Donna’s case. It began with an incident report and a familiar name. A 21-year-old woman who worked for a local roofing company alleged that her supervisor had tried to sexually assault her. As he read on, O’Leary couldn’t believe his eyes.
O’Leary: I immediately recognized the name of the supervisor because I knew him. And his name was John Regan.
O’Leary was shocked: the John Regan he knew came from a respected Waterbury family with deep roots in the city—there was even a school named after his grandfather. O’Leary couldn’t believe this was the same John Regan.
O’Leary: We are about the same age. We didn’t go to the same high schools together but we had the same circle of friends.
He knew that Regan was married and very much a family man.
The family is a very nice family and very prominent family in this city. The incident was still under investigation— no arrests had been made. O’Leary began digging.
O’Leary: I said, “Geez, there’s gotta be something to this. It’s not making any sense.”
The victim told police that she and Regan were out pricing roofing jobs, which was not unusual, when Regan decided to look in on his parents’ house. They were out of town and the house was empty.
O’Leary: Once inside the house, he asked her to sit on the sofa while he checked the house out. When he came back, he lunged at her on the sofa. And he started to make sexual advances towards her. She ran out of the house, losing a sneaker along the way.
Regan denied it. He told police she was making the whole thing up.
O’Leary: He admitted they were in the house together. But he said, “Look this never happened. She’s mad at me. She doesn’t like me. You know she’s trying to ruin me. This just didn’t happen.”
Investigators didn’t buy that.
O’Leary: How do you explain her running out of the house? Getting on a cell phone, losing a sneaker, hiding behind a building waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up and the police to arrive. And really after that, the conversation was over. He wanted a lawyer.
A decision was made to pursue an arrest warrant for John Regan in connection with the incident. But O’Leary knew the case was no slam dunk—no matter how credible the victim was.
James: The fact of the matter is, you’re still left with “he said, she said.”
James: There’s no DNA. There’s no evidence. There’s no fluid.
James: You’re left with a feeling.
O’Leary: And the feeling was from the victim who was again, very credible, very nice young woman who was devastated that a co-worker and someone that she knew would do this to her.
O’Leary couldn’t stop thinking about the case—and its impact on the Regan family. And then one night, as he was driving home, it hit him.
O’Leary: I remembered that the night of the Donna Palomba rape in September 1993, the stag that night. The bachelor party was held for an individual whose last name is Regan.
James: John Regan?
O’Leary: John Regan’s cousin.
Could there possibly be a connection between this victim and a rape that happened 11 years ago, a rape that had confounded investigators? A rape that was flat-out of leads and had been for years? O’Leary’s pulse was pounding. A hunch was born, a classic detective’s hunch.
Murray: To connect these two cases—spanning a decade, that was quite a hunch he had.
It was an enormous leap to think that John Regan, known to his friends as Rocky, could be a suspect in Donna Palomba’s rape. Even O’Leary couldn’t quite explain his thinking.
O’Leary: It was just the way he was involved in the incident of 2004. The way that happened. He knew the victim. I just had this feeling.
The suspicion on John Reagan was hunch and a long shot: O’Leary suspected Regan of Donna’s rape. Over dinner on an August night, he laid it out for Donna and John. Donna was caught off guard—she and John knew Rocky Regan.
Donna Palomba: I never ever remember him acting inappropriate in any way.
John Palomba: And I said “Geez, Neil”. I said “ Boy, I don’t think so. I think you got that wrong.”
O’Leary told them he knew it was a huge leap but he thought it was worth pursuing. But John wasn’t having any of it.
Neil O'Leary: John being a very loyal guy said, “I know where you’re going. Forget about it. This couldn’t happen, Neil. I know him, you don’t.
John Palomba and Rocky Regan weren’t just friends, they were close friends. Old friends.
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: You guys were tight.
John Palomba: Yeah. We were.
They had known each other forever, growing up only blocks from each other in Overlook. The neighborhood was crammed with kids back then, kids playing together, learning together and, come Sunday, praying together.
John Palomba: It was a Catholic neighborhood and you know everybody. In the ‘60s and ‘50s, they all had five or six kids.
James: And everybody’s in and out of everybody’s houses.
John Palomba: Everybody knew each other—yeah.
John’s younger brother Bill remembers friends so close they felt like family.
Bill Palomba, John's brother: I think I saw some of these people more than I’d see my own cousins, that’ll give you an indication.
The Palombas and the Regans were both prominent families in Waterbury. Rocky Regan and John Palomba went to kindergarten together. They shared birthday parties and football games.
John Palomba: I used to go to the Giants game every year with his dad and my dad—and him.
When they weren’t going to football games, they were playing it themselves. As kids, they’d head to the park on Saturday afternoons for tackle football games.
Bill Palomba: John was a part of those. I think he was a fixture at those games.
The football continued through high school. Both John Palomba and Rocky Regan made the school team, Regan as an outside linebacker.
James: Did you want him on your side or the other side?
Bill Palomba: I’d prefer to have him on my side if you don’t mind. He’s a good athlete. He was very talented and he was tough. He was a was a tough kid.
Bill even double-dated with Rocky a couple of times during high-school.
Bill Palomba: I would describe John as a fun guy. He was, I think, very well-liked. Certainly not shy and retiring, but not wild and crazy either.
John Palomba and Rocky Regan got married within weeks of each other. They went to each other’s weddings and later, both settled in the old neighborhood to raise their families.
James: How was John Regan regarded here in the community by most people who knew him?
O’Leary: Likeable. Friendly. Social. A working man. He ran the roofing business down there in the south end of Waterbury.
Although he traveled often for work, Regan was also a family man—and a hands-on dad.
O’Leary: He had three very beautiful children. [He was] very involved in their lives and their sporting events. It’s not unusual to see John at all the functions involving the kids.
John Palomba was also busy with career and family. He and Rocky stayed in touch—indeed a short time before Donna was raped, they traded favors, as friends do.
John Palomba: He had helped me put a new roof on the garage. Then I went down and helped him with the roof on his house. And we had him over for dinner to thank him.
James: You had him over?
John Palomba: Oh yeah.
After Donna was raped, she and John moved out of the neighborhood and the two men drifted apart.
John Palomba: I would call him and say we’d want to get out for a walk one night or something. And I’d leave a message with his wife and he’d never call back. And I’d ask my friends and say, “What’s going on with rocky?”
But there was nothing old friends say, nothing at all to indicate that John Regan was anything but a decent guy.
James: Did he seem like a standup guy? A responsible guy?
Bill Palomba: Yes, certainly.
Even so, on that August night John Palomba finally told O’Leary to follow his hunch. Remember, both men had long believed that whoever raped Donna knew John—and knew he’d be away that night. When Regan was charged with the unlawful restraint of his co-worker, O’Leary asked for and received a voluntary DNA sample from him. The results came back in weeks.
O’Leary: I think we were just absolutely stunned.
It was time for a call.
John Palomba: I thought he was basically gonna tell us well we got the DNA results back and they weren’t what we thought.
Instead O’Leary asked Donna and John to meet him in his office.
Donna Palomba: When John and I were going up the elevator to Neil’s office, I started trembling. I knew in my heart what he was gonna say.
But John didn’t. Even as he walked through the door into O’Leary’s office, John was still thinking “It can’t be Rocky”.
James: What did Neil say?
John Palomba: When we first got in the first room and shut the door, he said “we got a hit”.
James: We got a hit? Did you just have a feeling—
John Palomba: It’s almost like everything just drained from your body.
But he had to ask—he had to hear it from O’Leary.
John Palomba: I said “Rocky?” and he said “Yes”.
John says it felt like pieces of his heart were being torn out.
James: What did you think? Or were you just feeling?
John Palomba: It just ripped your guts out. I mean this is somebody you would have trusted with anything.
O’Leary: [John was] devastated. He was crushed. He was very emotional.
And so was Donna. She was crying and shaking and she couldn’t stop. The anguish and uncertainty were finally over. The man in the mask had a face at last.
Donna Palomba: It was 11 years, 11 years with so little to go on. It was a miracle to me that he was found.
But then she looked over at her husband.
Donna Palomba: He was just sitting there in shock. He just could not believe that a friend could betray him in that way and harm his family.
The news hit him like a body blow. And the rage wasn’t far behind.
John Palomba: You just want to kill him. Not a day goes by you don’t have thoughts of that.
In October 2004 when John Palomba learned that one of his boyhood friends had attacked his wife, the news was almost too much to bear.
John Palomba: I knew his mom, his dad, his brother, his brother was a good friend of mine. I knew his two sisters. I knew everything about him.
Except, he didn’t. And in the months to come, John Palomba would realize just how much he didn’t know about his old friend Rocky Regan. But on that October day when he got the news that Regan’s DNA matched the evidence in Donna’s case, he was numb.
John says the rest of that day was a blur. But he remembers one exchange he had with Chief Neil O’Leary. Although John hadn’t said anything overtly threatening, the circumstances were so extreme that O’Leary was worried John might be tempted to take matters into his own hands.
Det. Neil O’Leary: John Palomba always felt guilty that he wasn’t home that night. He felt as if he was home this wouldn’t have happened. And I reminded him that the criminal justice system would take care of John Regan appropriately. And that I didn’t want him to go anywhere near John Regan or his family.
O’Leary knew that guilt and rage and bitter betrayal could be a potent brew.
John Palomba: I vaguely remember him saying “You gotta promise me you won’t go after him. Cause we’re gonna take care of it.”
To this day, John can’t remember how he replied to O’Leary.
John Palomba: It’s funny cause you get that rage in you. And it’s hard to lose.
Donna added her own plea to John, playing off O’Leary’s words.
Donna Palomba: I said, “John, listen. You have to listen to Neil. You are a spiritual person. Think about the outcome. What good is it gonna do if you took this into your own hands? you’ll be behind bars. It’ll be a nightmare for us.”
In September 2004, John Regan was charged with unlawful restraint in the incident involving his co-worker. One month later he was charged with kidnapping in Donna’s case, because the statute of limitations for rape had run out. Regan pleaded not guilty—to both charges. With his family and friends standing by him, he posted bail.
But just as John Palomba was torn apart by what had happened, so was the community in Overlook.
Murray: It was devastating, absolutely devastating, that this was one of them who did it to one of their own.
So devastating Murray says, that some refused to believe it. After all Regan had pleaded not guilty to kidnapping Donna; he’d also denied raping her.Whispers of an affair, those whispers that had dogged Donna since she was raped, returned.
James: It was easier to believe that than to believe that John Regan would rape the wife of his friend.
Murray: That’s what I believe.
While he awaited trial, Rocky Regan was a free man. That troubled Donna.
Donna Palomba: I was frightened. I mean DNA evidence of a brutal crime and here he is out on bond.
Her brother-in-law Bill shared her concern. And like her, he wondered what might happen if John ever crossed paths with Rocky in the streets of Waterbury.
Donna says it was easier for her to deal with her anger at Regan than it was for her husband, watching him struggle to contain it broke her heart.
Donna Palomba: I felt so helpless in that situation. I could understand where he was coming from.
Part of it she knew was pure instinct, a guy thing.
As it turned out, Regan himself put an end to their worries. In the fall of 2005, the police discovered that he was taking questionable photographs.
O’Leary: All the photographs were of young, pretty women, who had no idea that they were being photographed.
After investigating, the Waterbury police decided to use the photos to charge John Regan with another crime—stalking.
As Donna Palomba waited for justice in Waterbury, there was a chilling incident in the horse-racing town of Saratoga Springs, New York, about 150 miles to the north. A 17-year-old high school senior was the target of an abduction attempt. It was October 31st, 2005, Halloween.
Lindsey Ferguson: At first I thought it was just somebody kidding. It was Halloween—weird stuff happens.
This wasn’t weird—it was terrifying. Lindsey Ferguson, tall, blonde, a nationally ranked cross-country star, had just finished practice that day. It was about 5:30 pm. Lindsey headed to her car in the school parking lot.
Ferguson: I noticed that there was a car parked pretty close to mine, so I was squeezing through. And I noticed there was a guy in the backseat of his van. And I kinda thought that was a little odd.
But she kept going to her car, opened the backdoor, tossed a bag in and went to open the driver’s door.
Ferguson: That’s when I heard the van door slide open.
James: What happened when the door slid open?
Ferguson: At that time, I knew a guy was coming outbecause I saw him. And I figured he was just gonna go like get his kid from inside or something. I just thought he was a parent.
By chance, a former teacher saw it all. Ray Harrington says it happened fast.
Ray Harrington, teacher: She shut one door went to the other and during that transition his door had flown open.
The guy in the back of a van wasn’t a parent here to collect his child—he had something else in mind.
Ferguson: He ended up grabbing me and trying to put his hand over my mouth… and bring me into his car. He grabbed me over the chest area, like the chest and like around my stomach.
Lindsey’s former teacher Ray couldn’t believe his eyes.
Harrington: As soon as he flung the door open he was moving out of the vehicle towards her. and then he grabbed one arm around the waist and—one hand attempting to get it over her mouth.
Ferguson: And I started screaming just as loud as I possibly could.
Harrington: That was the huge tip-off, at least for me that something was not right.
In fact something was badly wrong.
Ferguson: I kinda like squirmed my way out of his grasp and fell into my car and kind of pushed him away.
James: You kicked him.
Ferguson: Uh-huh (affirms).
She thinks she kicked him hard.
Ferguson: My adrenaline was pumping.
James: What did he do then?
Ferguson: He started to shut my door while my foot was still out there. And he said something to me, something like “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
He backed off. Ray headed towards him, shouting at him.
Harrington: I said “Who are you”? he said “It doesn’t matter” and I said “The hell it doesn’t”.
Ray called 911 on his cell and read out the van’s license plate number.
Lindsay, scared but out of danger, was quickly surrounded by friends.
Ferguson: My friends were like in the car with me, trying to ask me what had happened and I was just like in shock.
The experience was just beginning to sink in. In time she’d realize what a close call she’d had.
Ferguson: I couldn’t believe something like that just happened to me.
As Lindsey’s friends comforted her, her assailant drove away—with Ray running after him, still talking to the police on his cell.
Harrington: I ran right beside him for awhile actually still repeating the license plate number on the backside.
Lindsey Ferguson’s ordeal was over, but the net was tightening for the guy in the van, the guy with the white hair. Lindsey’s coaches weren’t about to let him get away with a brazen kidnap attempt in the one place you expect kids to be safe—a school parking lot. An extraordinary chase got underway in the streets of Saratoga Springs.
The man took off in his van. Ray Harrington, who was on his cell talking to police, ran after the van—he says it wasn’t moving fast. In fact, Ray wondered if Lindsay’s attacker was going to Plan B.
Ray Harrington: I just kinda “go out slowly so nobody will notice me. i didn’t do anything wrong. and they’ll start to doubt themselves. and you know—i’ll get away with this.”
If that was the thinking, Lindsey’s assailant reckoned without her coach, Art Kranik. He was in his car when it all happened and he followed the van into the streets, relaying his position by cell.
Art stayed on the van’s tail, at one point getting into a shouting match with the driver.
Art Kranik, Lindsay's coach: He pulled over to the side and quickly got out of his van and yelled “What do you want?” And my reply was “What do you mean what do I want? You just attacked a girl in the high school parking lot.” And his reply was “you’re crazy”.
The man got back into his van and drove away. Then, without warning, he stopped again. And got out again. The police were on the scene immediately. Jim Murphy, the Saratoga County district attorney says the suspect was hostile.
Jim Murphy, Saratoga County attorney: He was combative and angry. “How dare you question me about what I was doing?”
The suspect told police that he was in the high school parking lot making calls—nothing more.
Murphy: He claimed as he sat in the back of his van, motor running, no one in the driver’s seat, that he was making cell calls. and trying to get directions to somewhere.
And he said, he startled the girl—nothing more.
Lindsay Ferguson: That just made me really mad to try to make an excuse like that when he actually grabbed me. There’s no way you that you can just startle someone like that.
Lindsey’s mom and dad were alerted by another parent about the incident. But it was only when they got to the police station that they realized something very serious had happened.
The first clues came when police searched the suspect’s van.
Murphy: We found a tarp. We found a rope that had been pre-tied with slip knots in it. we found a saw photography equipment, a pitchfork, a rake. We found a syringe with antihistamine in a separate container.
The suspect’s attorney later called the whole thing “a misunderstanding.” The suspect was in Saratoga Springs to fix up a couple of houses, the attorney explained and the items in the van were merely the tools of his trade.But how to explain those pre-tied knots? The unused syringe?
Sara James, Dateline correspondent: When you look at what he had in the back of the van, what is your conclusion?
Murphy: My conclusion was that he was gonna tie her up in that van in an instant because he had those pre-tied slip knots. He was gonna inject her with that antihistamine to knock her out, take to her to this house that he was working on, he had the shades pulled and the curtains drawn.
Once the police got the suspect’s name and plugged it into the system, they quickly learned he was out on bail, awaiting trial in Connecticut on charges of kidnapping and unlawful restraint.
His name was John Regan.
The police also discovered more photos in the van, pictures of young women unaware they were being photographed. Among them were photos of Regan’s co-worker, the young woman he’d been charged with assaulting whom he’d been ordered to stay away from.
Det. O’Leary: He was stalking her… even after he was arrested.
Regan was charged with attempted kidnapping in Saratoga County and jailed, this time without bail. In his cell he tried, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide.
In November 2005, John Rocky Regan was charged with attempted kidnapping in Saratoga Springs, New York for trying to abduct a high school senior from the school parking lot. The news hit Regan’s hometown, Waterbury Connecticut, like a bomb.
Neil O’Leary: I was home and the phone rang and one of my detectives said “You won’t believe what happened. We just got a call from the Saratoga police and they have John Regan in custody.”
Waterbury Police Chief Neil O’Leary was stunned and he wasn’t alone. Even though Regan was out on bail awaiting trial in Waterbury for kidnapping in Donna’s case and unlawful restraint of his co-worker, O’Leary says it took the news from Saratoga Springs to drive home the truth about him.
O’Leary: The Saratoga incident really just brought it to the level where people finally realized the sickness within John Regan’s head.
Reporter John Murray saw it first-hand: a community struggling to comprehend that a man everyone liked had been living a double life—family man and predator.
John Murray, reporter: One of the most interesting things I heard was from one of his neighbors who just told me he was a great guy. He’d see him out on the streets throwing football playing catch.
James: Was the neighbor shocked?
And some people, Murray says, began wondering if they’d missed any signs.
Murray: I think the neighbors—everyone—stops and thinks about you know encounters with him, “Where had I seen him? When has he been at our house? When was I in his house?”
Cliff Warner couldn’t believe what he was hearing about his old friend Rocky Regan. Remember Donna ran to Cliff’s house after she was raped and he raced back to her place with ax to protect the children in case the attacker returned.
Cliff Warner: Had I come across John Regan running up that hill, I would have enlisted his help. I would have assumed that it was just a coincidence he was there and asked him to help me.
Cliff can’t figure out what went wrong with Rocky.
Warner: It’s beyond my ability to understand how somebody could have fallen so far.
Donna and John were at the center of the storm: profoundly shaken by the events of Saratoga Springs, deeply grateful the high school senior Lindsey Ferguson had escaped. And aware that public opinion about Rocky Regan was shifting.
Donna Palomba: I think finally that everyone was standing up and saying “Ok there was a ‘93 incident. There was the 2004 incident. Now 2005. He is what the police are saying he is.”
It had been a year since Donna and John discovered that Regan’s DNA matched the evidence in Donna’s case. Like everyone else, they’d gone over and over their encounters with Regan after Donna was attacked but before they knew he was him. There was, for instance, the time they’d asked their friend Rocky to replace a window at her parent’s cottage.
Donna Palomba: He came down on a very warm July day, midday. and we hugged him as we normally would and we invited him for lunch. He went for a swim. And when I think of it, it absolutely disgusts me.
James: He’s sitting there feeling like he’s gotten away with it.
Donna Palomba: Absolutely.
John, for his part, still found himself wrestling with rage. Finally one night, during a conversation with a friend, he realized he had to let it go.
John Palomba: And I say “You know I gotta kill him. So he said, ‘Johnny, you can’t do that. I said, “I got no choice.” He looked at me and goes, “Hey look it, if that’s your decision,” He goes, “I’m gonna tell the police, that I was in on it.” And I said, “You can’t do that.” Right then, all of a sudden it hit me. The people who I really care about are the ones who are gonna suffer.” Finally everything made sense, you know? I just decided you know, you gotta let it go. You gotta move on.
In May 2006, John Regan pleaded guilty to attempted kidnapping in Saratoga Springs. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail.
That October, Regan appeared in a Waterbury courtroom on charges of kidnapping, unlawful restraint and stalking. To avoid a harsher sentence, he did not admit guilt but conceded prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction. The sentence was 15 years, to be served concurrently with the Saratoga Springs term.
John Regan declined to speak to Dateline, as did his attorneys and his family. But at the sentencing, Regan’s attorneys told the court the charges were puzzling to everyone who supported him. In fact, they said, family members and friends had submitted almost two dozen letters to the judge.
Letters that said:
Whatever I needed, I knew that John would be there. When I needed help moving, John was there... when I needed moral support, John was there. When I needed a friend, John was there.
John’s heart fills a room and welcomes all. John always put family and friends first and we will miss his presence immensely.
Donna and John were in court the day Regan was sentenced in Waterbury. So was John Murray, taking notes, watching Regan.
Murray: He just shuffled in, looked at the ground and he really made no statement.
But Donna did. She called Regan calculating and dangerous and she prayed he would never have the opportunity to harm another person. John spoke too, addressing the boyhood friend who had betrayed him.
John Palomba: He just stood there and he looked at his lawyers and he didn’t even look at me when I was up there --
James: Did you try to get—
John Palomba: -- He couldn’t look at me—
James: Did you try to catch his eye?
John Palomba: Oh absolutely. I wanted him to see me. He wouldn’t look. He was a coward. Anybody who comes into a house where a woman and two young kids with a gun and a knife is a coward and a punk. That’s all he is.
Law enforcement officials in three states—New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts — investigated any links Regan might have had to unsolved crimes. They discovered nothing. For its part, the Saratoga Springs High School put new and tighter security measures in place. And Lindsey Ferguson knows just how lucky she was.
Lindsey Ferguson: It could have turned out differently. It was pretty close. But Video: Man Behind The Mask, Final Part I’m really grateful I was able to get myself out of it.
The Waterbury Police Department has instituted new sexual assault policies and procedures—written with Donna Palomba’s help. O’Leary says the force has learned from its mistakes. As for the chief himself, he is now head of the police force in the nearby town of Wolcott — and he's a happier man, he says, because Donna's case was solved.
O’Leary: We were very, very happy that we were going to be able to bring closure. Not only for the victim, quite frankly which was first and foremost and always will be, but for the wounds that it caused in the department itself.
James: And talk about making amends.
O’Leary: Not only to the victim and her family but quite frankly, to the community…
For his part, John Palomba knows the worst is over.
John Palomba: We’ve been bruised and damaged. And our souls have been hit a little bit... but we’ll get through it.
And as for Donna? Now cancer-free, she is preparing to fight again—this time for others. Two years ago, she launched a new initiative.
James: You don’t feel done, do you Donna?
Donna Palomba: No, not at all.
James: What’s your next mission?
Donna Palomba: What I wanna do is ensure proper treatment of the victim. And so we have formed the JaneDoeNoMore initiative.
Remember, for years she has been known as Jane Doe in public. In 2007 she spoke out as Donna Palomba. She’s doing it so others can learn from her experience. A private person, she says that’s the only reason to go public.
James: What does it feel like to say “Jane doe no more. I’m not Jane Doe, I’m Donna Palomba.”
Donna Palomba: It’s freeing truthfully. And I hope that it gives courage to other women to know that if you’re a victim of rape, you did nothing wrong, you can persevere. And you can even have a wonderful life.
Donna Palomba: We’re all working together so that we can shorten the timeline from the horror of the crime of rape to healing for the best possible chance for a victim’s full and healthy recovery.
James: You know, Donna when you talk about this, you get so excited. What is it about this initiative that has you so excited?
Donna Palomba: It’s the hope for the future.
That’s what it’s all about for Donna Palomba: hope. Hope that no one else will go through what she did. Hope that by coming forward she can change just one woman’s experience. Hope that a long journey through horror and anguish can finally be put behind her. Because in the end, she knows, it is hope that heals.
Again, John Reegan could not be charged with Donna Palomba's rape, because the statute of limitations had run out.
A bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases involving DNA is now before the Connecticut state legislature.
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