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In their words: Rape victims tell of emotional highs, lows following the arrest of former Jumoke Academy CEO Michael Sharpe more than three decades after the attacks




  • In US
  • 2021-09-26 10:00:00Z
  • By Hartford Courant

A year ago, one of the victims of a series of rapes learned in a phone call that detectives had identified and were about to arrest the man suspected of attacking her and three other women at gun point 36 years earlier - a man whose face his victims never saw and who they had been unable to identify.

"I was with a friend, grocery shopping," she said. "And when they called, I saw the number and instead of running outside I just answered where I was standing. And I went right down on the floor."

Another of the victims was driving home from a business meeting.

"And I'm like, 'I've got to pull over. I've got to pull over. I've got to pull over,'" she recalled last week. "I sat in the car. It was a warm day. I had the air conditioning on. And then I said to myself, 'I can't even sit in this car. I've got to get out. I've got to get out. I've got to get out. I'm going to get sick.' And then I was like, 'OK, regroup. You've got to handle this.' And I still have to keep driving home. And I'm like, 'Who do I call?' And I'm numb and I'm shaking and I just drove the next, whatever, 30 miles, sat down and said, 'I just can't believe this is happening today.'"

For decades, the four women have been alert to the sound of footsteps in the dark. Had the attacker returned? Could he be standing on a corner, watching? They were once consumed by a need for an arrest, but that faded and they accepted that the trajectories of their lives had been forever altered. Now, an unexpected arrest made possible by technology not conceived 40 years ago has reopened the wound, generating new feelings of anger and sadness.

"For me, the arrest reopened what I thought I had worked through and come to terms with and healed, she said. "It's like, I guess, if you had a terrible scar and the scar was healed. And you have another injury and it rips that scar open again. That's kind of how it feels to me right now. In fact, this morning, my husband said to me that he is grateful, but in many ways he wishes he wasn't caught because it was easier to live on a day to day basis prior."

Two of the women have decided to speak publicly about the experience, in part to direct attention to an attacker they are convinced is guilty and who has, unfairly in their view, avoided attention for so long. The Courant agreed not to identify the victims as they are victims of a sexual assault.

The man whose arrest police were reporting to the now middle-aged women is Michael M. Sharpe. His had been a troubled life, but without an accusation of violence, until now.

A rising star

In 1985, a year after the successive rapes in the Hartford suburbs over the spring and summer of 1984, Sharpe was convicted of forgery for falsifying documents in a $415,000 real estate fraud. He was in San Francisco four years later. He was hired as real estate manager for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and later convicted of embezzling more than $100,000. He served 2 1/2 years in prison and, in the early 1990s, returned to prison for a probation violation.

In 1999, back in Hartford, his mother, Thelma Ellis Dickerson, hired him as a paraprofessional at Jumoke Academy, the high performing charter school she founded out of frustration with the achievement gap separating minority students and their white peers.

It was in education that Sharpe achieved his greatest notoriety, until now. Three years after his hiring, Sharpe was CEO and selling expansion of the Jumoke program into school districts across the state and elsewhere in the country as the cure for educational inequality. He managed to collect $53 million in state grants. But his scheme unraveled in 2014 when The Courant exposed him as a fraud with a phony resume and hidden arrest record. The Jumoke expansion collapsed, and it was later shown to have been ill-conceived and mismanaged.

While Sharpe was pitching Jumoke, successive generations of detectives and prosecutors were trying, but failing to close the four rape cases.

In 1984, the victims were single, between the ages of 25 and 30, focused on careers and in living in condominiums or apartments in suburban Bloomfield, Windsor, Rocky Hill and Middletown.

All four gave police similar accounts: It was late and dark. Their attacker got into their homes through sliding glass doors and appeared at their beds with a gun. He told them all he had just shot someone and would shoot them too unless they cooperated. Sniff the barrel of the gun, he told one woman, if she wanted proof. The attacker blindfolded them and assaulted them.

He forced the women to remain in bed, blindfolded. He disabled the telephones. He drank beer and ate food from the refrigerators. He searched their homes for money and valuables. He turned on water faucets, apparently to cover sounds of his departure. One victim said she thought he would never leave. Another recalled the sounds of chirping birds before she got up to call the police.

Police agencies pooled resources to capture an armed and dangerous serial rapist. Detectives developed hundreds of suspects and interviewed hundreds of others. They searched for patterns. They focused on salesmen. They made lists of regular travelers on the stretches of I-91 and Route 9 that ran close by the victims' homes. But all they had to work from was what four terrified young women could recall of their attacker's voice. The investigation raced onward but went nowhere - until a breakthrough in forensic genetic technology broke it open.

People with knowledge of the investigation said a distant Sharpe relative, working on an academic project, purchased a DNA profile kit from a company that sells genetic analyses. The relative put her profile into an open source database consulted by people doing a similar research.

Forensic genetic or DNA evidence was unknown when the rapes were committed in 1984. By April 2003, scientists at the state crime lab had developed what they believe was scientific proof linking biological evidence collected from the four sexual assaults to a single, unidentified attacker.

State prosecutors, in the normal course of business, had a contract with a private laboratory to search the open source database for matches to crime scene evidence. The cold case unit at the Chief State's Attorney's office ordered, beginning in 2003, that a search for a match to the unsolved rapes be made on a monthly basis.

It paid off last year.

There was a match to the distant Sharpe relative. She was a young woman who clearly was not the rapist. Further research narrowed the pool to four targets - Sharpe and three other blood relatives.. Detectives surreptitiously collected genetic material from them - a discarded cigarette in one case - and three were eliminated.

Sharpe's garbage, taken from the home where he lives with his daughter, provided a definitive match, prosecutors said. It later was confirmed by a cheek swab collected under court order, they said.

Prosecutors say the scientific evidence is incontrovertible. Sharpe disagrees and pleaded not guilty late last month.

"Is this real?"

After the attacks over the summer of 1984, all the victims decided to lean on one another for support, through the emotional moments triggered by events or recollections. But rather than bring some sort of emotional respite, the long-awaited arrest has started different feelings of anxiety and anger, the two victims who decided to speak about the case said.

There is frustration at the the grinding pace of the COVID-19-plagued judiciary, fury at a judge who released Sharpe from custody after his arrest and uncertainty, at least momentary, about what is worse - knowing or not knowing who did it.

With Sharpe's decision to plead not guilty late last month, there is anxiety having to testify in public. If they must, will they have to reveal the attack to those relatives who they did not tell before? Will those relatives be hurt? What of friends and co-workers? Will an innocuous remark cause them to break down at a picnic or a barbecue?

And what about the sense of dread that never goes away, but re-emerges in new shapes?

"For me, after it happened, there is a certain and specific timeline," the first victim said. "The first year or two years, you want to believe in your heart that he will be caught and arrested and convicted. And maybe, the next five years, you become less hopeful that this will ever take place. And after that you just kind of give up hope that he will ever be arrested. So many nights you lay in bed in trauma and in pain, feeling like justice will never have an opportunity to be served."

After the phone calls came photographs and with them disbelief that Sharpe, a man in a suit being interviewed about charter schools could be a rapist. And then acknowledgment of the science and realization that he may have been the one.

"After the phone call I sat there thinking, is this real?," one of the women said. "Am I really living through this? I feel like I am watching a detective TV show. I didn't know these things really happen."

Said the other: "It was amazing when we did get to see that photo. This was somebody that we didn't know. And we got to find out who he was. That was a dark day for me. It didn't matter who, what his face looked like, at that point. It was that there was a face. And then I also thought, 'That face and that body was around me.'"

Anticipation - and dread

The women both dread and anticipate a trial, if Sharpe decides to push ahead with one. By pleading not guilty on Aug. 31, Sharpe, now 70, turned down a plea deal that would have put him in prison for 25 years for all four attacks. If convicted at trial, he could face as much as 100 years - 25 years for each assault.

An aspect of the judicial prospect that nags at both women is the inability of prosecuting authorities, after the passage of decades, to charge and try Sharpe for what they say he did to them: rape them. The statute of limitations on first degree sexual assault in 1984 was five years, meaning he police had only until 1989 to find and arrest a rapist.

Prosecutors have instead charged Sharpe with first degree kidnapping with a firearm, a charge which, under current law, they were not under a deadline to file. Prosecutors said they are confident they can prove to a jury that all four women were kidnapped under the legal definition of the charge, but they had no alternative and sympathize with the victims' frustration.

"It is too bad that the statute of limitations ran out on something that is so horrible," one of the women said. "And that is never going to change, I don't think. After learning about it, I felt crushed. We have been up and down with court. And it hurts. It hurts a lot. And it makes it even harder to get some rest and closure."

The prospect of a trial has made the victims reach difficult decisions about family. Some family members were told of the attacks immediately. Others, mostly because they were too young to understand, were not. Should they be informed now, a decision that would shift part of the burden of the attacks onto them?

"Some knew earlier when it happened," one of the victims said. "My parents and all. The others I didn't tell because of age. I never thought I would have to. And then this comes out. There is only so much I can hold together. A couple of sisters are going to be there for me. And my father is going to be there for me. But there is part of my family that doesn't know, or shouldn't have known. And I can't keep that a secret now because half the family knows and the other half doesn't, and then I might have to go to trial. Or anything that could come out of this? It's emotional and I could break down at any time. I need them to know, those that didn't know."

In addition, the attacks carried more of a stigma four decades ago, and that was a factor, at least subconsciously, in the decision about who in the family was told early on.

"Think about this," the other victim said. "1984, young, single women, you say you were raped. There was a 'What did you do wrong?' stigma, and that was something that we tried to avoid the stigma of. Now that we are grown women, and now it's out there that it wasn't just any one of us. It was all of us. It's pretty hard for somebody to say, 'Oh you did something wrong.'

"It's obvious that we were extremely innocent victims, chosen at random. But maybe somehow not at random. We don't know how we were chosen."

Their lives were forever altered by the attack, the women say, and whether they were attacked at random makes no difference. Whatever happens in court will conclude, eventually, but they will always live with the memory. And they will have one another to rely upon.

"We have gotten stronger as four of us," one of the women said. "I know that there are three others. We are all together. It's not like being alone. We are a group that is sticking together. We help each other. It's our turn to really speak and send out a message. We, us four, have never forgotten and will never forget."

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