It happened in West Palm Beach. It was late and dark. The woman said she was grabbed, knocked to the ground and sexually assaulted - and, she said, she could identify her attacker.
A day later and several miles away, another woman said she was raped. She, too, said she was grabbed and knocked to the ground. But this ground was owned by the Kennedys, and she identified U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's nephew as her assailant.Two days. Two reported rapes. But while the Kennedy case made headlines nationwide, the first case didn't even rate a mention in the local paper.
The first case did not prompt debates over investigative procedures and journalistic ethics. It did not generate angry mail to investigators, alleging a cover-up. It did not attract scores of reporters.
Palm Beach police say they've investigated the report of a rape at the Kennedy estate just like any other. But it's not like any other.
"There isn't anything normal about this case," said Officer Craig Gunkel, who for three weeks has fielded a barrage of inquiries from reporters and the public as the Palm Beach Police Department's spokesman.
What isn't normal? There's much besides the news media attention.
A 29-year-old woman says that William Kennedy Smith, one of Kennedy's nephews, raped her at the Kennedy estate after a night of partying. She told police she was grabbed by the ankle and then assaulted while walking back to the Kennedy compound from the beach.
The police department and prosecutors have been questioned about apparent delays in interviewing key witnesses, including the senator, until days after the incident was reported, and a lag of nearly two weeks before conducting a crime scene investigation.
Police who went to the house the morning after the woman said the rape occurred said they were led to believe Smith, 30, and the senator were not home, though they were. William Barry, a house guest who spoke with police, called it "a misunderstanding" - people came and went from the estate.
"There's no favoritism" just because the case focuses on the Kennedys, Palm Beach County state attorney David Bludworth said.
"Are they getting something that somebody else won't get? I don't think so," he said. "Yes, we're extra careful."
Bludworth said it probablywould be about three weeks before a decision is made whether to file criminal charges.
He also denied there was anything improper about plans for a meeting of lawyers for all sides in the case before the decision is made. "I think we ought to hear from everybody who wants to give evidence," Bludworth said.
The fact that the woman making the rape allegation has legal counsel is another unusual aspect of the case, a rarity among the roughly 110,000 U.S. rapes that are reported annually.
"Typically, victims do not have attorneys" because they are disproportionately poor, said Lynette Feder, a professor of criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University.
She saw another out-of-the-ordinary element in the case: Intense news media interest changes the rules for investigators, or forces strict attention to the rules, she said.
Police and prosecutors typically face a heavy workload and normally "they have to do it as expeditiously as possible. Because of the world attention, expeditiousness has been put aside."
The police face attention in other ways. Letters arrive daily at Palm Beach police headquarters commenting on the progress of the investigation, some alleging a coverup.
Even at the county sheriff's crime lab, where forensic tests were done, there's been hate mail, reflecting the strong feelings many Americans have for Kennedy and his family's legacy.
"I suppose like in the case of Chappaquiddick, you folks are going to cover up for the bastardly Kennedys," fumed a letter from Springfield, Mass., referring to the 1969 incident in which a car the senator was driving plunged off a bridge and a woman companion drowned.
"In 21 years, nobody has ever come to me and tried to influence me to change results for any sort of political convenience, or to subvert results," said Richard Tanton, the crime lab's director. "It was disturbing that there was a feeling that we were on the take somehow, because it was the Kennedys."
Newsweek said Saturday that its poll found 64 percent of Americans think there has been a coverup. But 79 percent also believe there has been more publicity than there should be because the Kennedys are involved. Gallup interviewed a national sample of 761 adults Thursday and Friday.
Perhaps the most important distinction of the case is the national debate it has prompted on victims' rights and news media ethics.
A week after the incident was reported, a London tabloid newspaper, the Sunday Mirror, printed the name and photograph of Smith's accuser. A Florida-based supermarket tabloid, the Globe, did the same several days later. Mainstream news organizations like NBC News and The New York Times followed, revealing the woman's name.
Some news organizations offered philosophical arguments for identifying the woman, saying release of names might help reduce the stigma of rape, or that the information is simply something the public has a right to know. Some said they used the name only after others had made it public.
Advocates of rape victims across the nation angrily protested that revealing the name of a woman who wanted to remain anonymous was not only unfair to her but would discourage others from coming forward. Some 37 percent of women who were raped last year did not report the crime to police, according to the Census Bureau's National Crime Survey.
The woman who was attacked the night before the Kennedy incident remains anonymous. And without a lawyer to serve as her spokesman, her story is told only by a bare-bones police report:
She said she was walking home from a store about 10:30 p.m. on Friday, March 29, when a man in a gray compact car asked her to take him to a place to buy crack cocaine.
She got in the car and they drove to Royal Palm Street, where the man told her to take off her clothes, she said.
"The victim did not want to and jumped from the vehicle and ran," the report said. "The suspect ran after her, knocked her to the ground and forced her to return to the vehicle. While in the vehicle, the suspect raped her."
He also forced her to perform oral sex, she told investigators.
The man drove off and, eventually, she jumped from the moving car, ran to a nearby home and called 911, she said.
She told police that she could identify her attacker, according to the report; it doesn't say whether she knew him.
Still, the investigation has been hampered by the woman's unwillingness to cooperate since making the initial report, said a sheriff's detective who spoke on condition that he not be identified. She doesn't even return his phone calls, he said.
As a result, he said, there probably never will be an arrest.