Most sexual-assault victims aren't thrust into a national spotlight for years, but that's what happened to San Bernardino County's Alisa Kaplan. In July 2002, Kaplan unwittingly caused panic among police. Officers came into possession of a shocking, 21-minute DVD made on a high-definition Sony camcorder. The contents appeared to be a snuff film involving the corpse of a 16-year-old girl and three, slightly older assailants committing felonies to a soundtrack of bass-heavy, gangsta rap.
In the early stages of a case that would eventually become known as the Haidl Gang Rape, cops discovered that Greg Haidl, the son of a wealthy Orange County assistant sheriff, and two pals, Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann, had filmed themselves plying Kaplan with alcohol and drugs inside Haidl's Corona del Mar garage/playroom. After their victim rapidly fell into a stupor and was unable to resist, the trio committed one of the most troubling, national-headline-grabbing youth crimes in Southern California history.
Kaplan awoke the next day in a car parked on a residential street. Her clothes were disheveled. Vomit laced her hair. She had no memory of what had happened the night before, and her crotch felt sore. Days later, police recovered the graphic video and arrived at her parents' home. Given the images, the officers wanted to know if she were alive.
That became the launch of Kaplan's new identity: "Jane Doe." Having covered the case extensively, I can attest that powerful law-enforcement sources sympathetic to the defendants coupled with outrageous defense tactics made her life a daily hell. A decade into the nightmare, Kaplan partially shed her anonymity when she gave the keynote address at a 2012 victims' rights rally on the steps of the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana (see "Meet Jane Doe," April 27, 2012). Though she didn't want her real name known at the time, she'd grown tired of considering herself a powerless victim.
Even then, however, Kaplan withheld the true extent of her traumatization and near-fatal undoing as she tried to use sex, booze, drugs and lies to escape her pain. In April of this year, she came clean with Still Room for Hope, a 279-page memoir published by Faith Words that should be required reading for high-school and college students, as well as parents. She wrote it using her real name.
Thanks to the two trials it took to win convictions against Haidl, Nachreiner and Spann, we largely know how the story began. Kaplan–a straight-A student, color-guard captain and star athlete with a secret wild side–told her parents she would spend the night with a classmate. Instead, she drove to Orange County around midnight to attend Haidl's small party. After giving her stimulants, the drunk, male trio waited for her to fall into a "rag doll" state, stripped her, used her for intercourse and oral sex, tossed her body on a pool table, and explored their warped imaginations, filming a majority of their acts.
After the defendants' arrests, national TV networks swooped in and mainstream-media columnists largely mirrored the spin of a publicist hired by Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl: the incident was nothing more than a minor he-said, she-said dispute. At worst, wrist-slaps were in order for everyone involved, they lamely argued. But the case created a potentially huge educational moment, especially for hormone-loaded males who don't know that in California, you can't have sex with a person who is unable to give consent throughout the episode, and you can't use your own intoxication as a legally viable excuse.
There's much more than a cautionary tale to Kaplan's experiences. As I've previously reported, the defense (funded with several million dollars, two dozen lawyers and a retired supervisory FBI agent) targeted her in a high-pressure campaign designed to force her to sabotage the prosecution by refusing to cooperate. For example, an inflammatory flier using Kaplan's full name–it's a huge no-no to publish a rape victim's name without consent–was distributed at businesses and residences in her neighborhood, urging people with unflattering dirt to call a phone number tied to Haidl's mother, according to court records.
The memoir, however, offers previously unknown, chilling stories about her life during the first trial phase, which ended in a deadlock, and the second one in 2006, which resulted in six-year prison terms for the unapologetic defendants. For example, early on in the case, her car became her sanctuary. She liked to drive around alone, playing music and, at least temporarily, forgetting her situation. Unknown vehicles began parking near her house for hours at a time with individuals staring at her house, a scenario that repeated itself. People began digging through her trash. Scary, personalized mail arrived, and terse characters called with barely veiled intimidation tactics designed to let her know she was under surveillance. One day, she was driving when she noticed a maroon Volvo following her.
"The man inside was driving very aggressively, tailgating me so closely I felt sure he was about to slam into my car," she wrote in her memoir. "Then he pulled up next to me at a light and started photographing me with a large, official-looking camera, like the paparazzi that had chased Princess Diana to her death. I was terrified. I tried to get away from him, but no matter how fast I drove or how quickly I turned, he was always right behind me."
Kaplan called her mother, who told her to drive to a police station, but she made a wrong turn down a dead-end street.
"The guy in the Volvo followed me, blocking me in so I couldn't get out," she wrote. "Then he was out of the car, running toward me with the camera up and flashing, shooting picture after picture of me trapped in my car, powerless to do anything but scream in fear and outrage."
It got much worse. Yet Kaplan's tale is a story of recovered religious faith, as well as of unsung heroes showing extraordinary kindness, particularly OC victims' advocate Shirley Mangio, who has retired, and OC district attorney chief of staff Susan Kang Schroeder. Sadly, some parents abandon their kids during difficult times, but Kaplan's mother and father, Rick and Lyn, remained steadfast. The book describes what they had to endure and how they reacted with remarkable compassion and endurance. For example, when his daughter was at her worst–caught abusing methamphetamine at the age of 19 to escape the then-3-year-old sexual assault, her terrified father, a gruff ex-cop gangsters wouldn't want to piss off in an alley, sent a tender note.
"When the going gets tough, your friends get going–in different directions, that is," he wrote. "But your family comes running to your side, with love and support. . . . Put faith in our love for you. And if you should fall back again, have faith in knowing we will be there to pick you up, brush you off, and start again, as we have so many times in your life."
Writing the memoir also aided her recovery. Though she feels blessed, Kaplan admits she still has "good days and bad days." She is an involuntary expert on a noble mission as a state-certified counselor helping other rape survivors.
(Still Room for Hope: A Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Forgiveness and Freedom by Alisa Kaplan; Faith Words. Hardcover, 279 pages, $24.)