It happened fast, it happened at work, it happened despite her complaints to management about the come-ons of a male co-worker.
Rape sent Julie Medina on a long journey of frustration, pain and fear. When she finally came to terms with what happened years ago at the Illinois paint store where she worked, she launched a personal crusade to help others. She became an advocate for victims. She went back to college in her 30s and then on to law school.
Rape is the reason she became a prosecutor specializing in domestic violence. It's also why she speaks at local schools, which now must comply with a new state law requiring them to educate middle and high school students about relationships and dating violence.
“I learned really early on that I did nothing wrong,” Medina said in an interview. “But if you keep it quiet, it lets these perpetrators continue.”
The silence that can surround rape and violence against women, particularly by intimate partners, is a reason two Rhode Island parents fought for legislation ultimately named for their late daughter.
Lindsay Ann Burke, 23, was killed by her estranged boyfriend in 2005. Her body was found in his bathtub, her throat slashed. Burke's mother, Ann, later said in news reports that her daughter was naive about relationships and the perils of dating violence. Ann and Chris Burke then pressed Rhode Island to pass a law, which it did in 2007, mandating that schools offer health classes to educate students — and teachers and parents — about teen dating and sexual violence.
The National Association of Attorneys General gave its backing. Nebraska became one of the first among a handful of states to pass a similar law that bears Burke's name. It went into effect last year. An effort to pass a similar law in Iowa failed.
Under Nebraska's law, middle and high schools since July have had to show dating violence policies and educate middle and high school students on the subject. A report last fall on Omaha's ability to respond to domestic violence cites the schools' role as an important prevention measure.
While a student at Creighton University School of Law, Medina was vocal about her experience, and she remains so now. She speaks at area high schools and colleges. One of the first lessons, Medina said, is to tell students this can happen to anyone.
Look at me, she tells students. I'm intelligent, professional.
“Slam the myth.”
In hindsight, Medina said, she was a perfect victim in 1997.
Nice, naive, a people pleaser. Not one to rock the boat.
So she didn't know what to do at first when a traveling sales manager would visit the paint company where she worked in Rockford, Ill. He would sidle up behind her, brush up against her, rub her shoulders, finger her hair, grab her breasts. Once he blocked Medina from exiting a supply closet, saying she had to hug him first.
He was married. Medina was single but had a boyfriend. He was 50. She was 29. He'd been with the company for 25 years and was friends with upper management. She was a low-level administrative assistant and was relatively new.
Medina tried to send nonverbal cues that the behavior was not OK. She'd shrug him off, move away, ignore him. It didn't work.
Medina finally complained to a female boss, who sighed, said “Not you, too?” and told Medina how the man had a years-long file of complaints, but that the company didn't seem to care.
Medina and her female co-workers made a pact: No one was to be left alone with the man.
Then came Dec. 11, 1997.
Medina needed to stay late and prepare calendar gifts for clients. It was a good distraction because her boyfriend, Victor, would be heading home to visit his family in Mexico for the holidays. Medina planned to be in Rockford, her hometown, for Christmas.
She had resigned herself to long lonely nights. A friend suggested Medina write in a journal how she missed Victor and present it as a Christmas gift.
Three paint store employees were left at closing time that night: Medina, a female colleague and the sales manager, who normally was based in Kentucky. A fourth person, a national sales manager, was in the building next door — or so Medina thought. So when her colleague donned her coat and asked if she was OK, Medina waved her off. She was in a relatively public place just after 5 p.m. Medina wasn't worried.
Victor picked her up later that evening.
Medina's blond hair was messy, her neck scratched. She was pale.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
She stared ahead, dazed.
The next day, Medina sat in her college English class, frozen. Pale, crying, she stared at her English final.
A professor kept asking what was wrong.
Medina kept answering: “I don't remember! I don't remember!”
She returned home and spent the rest of the weekend in front of the TV in a stupor. She felt physically ill and could hardly keep food or liquids down. She felt depressed.
When Monday came, she dragged herself in to work relieved — though not sure why — that the sales manager was back in Kentucky.
Victor left for Mexico. Medina worked until Christmas, when the paint factory shut down for 10 days. But she felt too ill to celebrate. She canceled plans to see her family and told Victor over the phone she couldn't kick this flu.
Victor, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, scrambled to get to Rockford. He took Medina to the hospital, where she was treated for dehydration. She had lost 30 pounds in three weeks.
Medina saw multiple doctors, who ran multiple tests, but was told they couldn't figure out what was wrong with her. She finally was given a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome.
Mentally, she felt foggy. She pulled back from family and friends, declined invitations to go out. Victor presented an engagement ring; Medina waited days before telling anyone.
Work was especially hard when the sales manager was there. He seemed more aggressive. He would grab her from behind and press himself against her. Medina, for the first time, was afraid.
“I would see him and literally hide in my cubicle.”
Two years passed and Medina had turned into a recluse. She wouldn't go out. Victor had to drive her everywhere.
One day the paint company held a mandatory seminar on sexual harassment.
Medina and three female colleagues saw their opening. They complained again about the sales manager. A company vice president said no way. The chief personnel officer said he had known the man for 20 years and “there was no way in the world” he could have done what they accused him of.
But soon the company was treating the four women to free lunches, had them meet with a counselor and barred the sales manager from having contact with them.
That didn't stop the man.
The women complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and finally got their own attorney, the Chicago-based George F. Galland Jr.
Meanwhile, at a meeting with company higher-ups, Medina blurted aloud words she finally remembered saying that December night in 1997.
“Stop it! No! Stop it!”
Company officials stared at her, and Medina racked her brains. Something had happened that night, but what?
Later, at home, she and Victor went round and round.
Julie: Something happened.
Victor: But what?
Julie: I don't know. It's why I got sick.
A week later, Victor boarded a plane to Mexico to see his ill grandmother. Medina returned home alone.
The circumstances suddenly seemed eerily familiar.
She went to their junk room and yanked open the bottom drawer of an old dresser. Beneath cards, photos and old bills was a long purple dress she had last worn two years ago. The dress was stained and wrapped around a pair of purple underwear, the hip seams ripped. There lay the journal.
Medina opened it and read some entries. Then she got to one that chilled her spine and made her retch.
Written in a childlike scrawl were these words: “I wish you were here. I'm so scared. I'm afraid to go out. It's dark out.”
Medina sat there gagging as her memory replayed the scene. It was like she was on the ceiling of the paint company office, watching what unfolded below.
There she was in her cubicle chair wearing the long purple dress with buttons down the front. There was the sales manager in blue slacks and a white dress shirt, approaching her seat from behind. He grabbed her. “We are going to finish what we started.”
She saw herself resist: “Stop it. No!”
She saw herself later hiking up her panty hose in another cubicle.
She heard him say: If you tell anyone, I will kill you.
The apartment room brightened. The fog that had engulfed her for more than two years lifted. Medina felt simultaneously horrified and relieved.
Her first call was to a sister, a social worker.
Could I have been raped, she asked, and blocked it out?
Yes, said her sister, offering two theories: a date-rape drug that easily could have been slipped into the liter bottle of Mug root beer Medina always kept on her desk; and memory suppression, a self-protective reaction to trauma.
The story sounded crazy even to herself.
Medina told Galland, the Chicago attorney, whose words still echo today each time she meets with a crime victim.
“I believe you,” he said.
Then: The company won't.
The crime is more than two years old. The dress might yield damning evidence, but the benefit of DNA analysis wasn't clear. Galland needed to think about it.
Meanwhile, the sales manager got transferred, and officials told the four women their jobs were being moved to a town 45 minutes away. The women were laid off in December 1999.
That's when Galland filed suit.
The company eventually settled with Medina. The sales manager lost his job and the company issued a new sexual harassment policy. Medina got a payment that enabled her to pursue a dream she never knew she had.
Medina and her boyfriend finished their undergraduate degrees — Victor in business and Julie in English and political science. She became an advocate for rape victims.
The couple eloped in 2000. Then, in a journey that included three cities and one false start, she went to law school.
At Creighton, Medina got active. She started a program called Speak Out and spoke publicly about her experience — one of many service acts the university recognized her for.
After graduation, Medina had one aim: prosecute those who hurt others, especially women. She signed on with the Douglas County Attorney's Office and, for the past 3½ years, has worked to prosecute domestic violence crimes. Her husband teaches Spanish at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Julie Medina is now 42. Victor is 48.
The longer she works, the more she said she realizes how connected the crimes of rape and domestic violence are. Both, she said, are about power and control. Two-thirds of the crimes, she said, go unreported because of stigma and fear.
She often tells clients to hang tough; she's been there.
“I'm no longer the woman who was raped,” she said. “I'm the woman who survived.”
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