It was a rape of shocking crassness, three boys toying with an unconscious teenage girl on a pool table and videotaping it all.
(Editor’s note: This report contains graphic language describing a rape that some readers may find difficult. We feel these details are needed to convey the terrible nature of the crime and the strength and resolve required to overcome it.)
The last Alisa Kaplan remembered of the July 5, 2002, party, she was given a drink. The next thing she knew, it was morning and she was sitting in the passenger seat of her car near her parents’ home, bruised and sore, a lump on her head and vomit in her hair.
But there’s the infamous video. In her recently published memoir, the Rancho Cucamonga woman describes what she saw when she watched it three years later in the District Attorney’s Office.
The details, which may be familiar from news accounts, still shock.
“There I am, naked, first on the couch, then on the pool table. I don’t move,” she writes. “The three of them drag me around, have intercourse with me, slap and pinch me. ... Then they penetrate me vaginally and anally with a Snapple bottle, a juice can, a lit cigarette, and the thick end of a pool cue.”
Two of the boys press down on the outside of her abdomen, feeling where the pool cue is inside her, she writes, “until they hit my bladder and I urinate all over myself.”
This is tough to read, I know. Her publisher, Faith Words, a division of Hachette Book Group, blanched as well. Kaplan agreed to some concessions for the Christian publisher, removing profanity and leaving out some of the details of her story.
But she drew the line at glossing over the description of the rape. Readers, she said, needed that information to understand the crime and its aftermath.
“I wanted people to know how sick some of the acts were. I really wanted that part in the book,” Kaplan tells me. “They did some horrible things.”
Kaplan’s book, “Still Room for Hope: A Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Forgiveness and Freedom,” was published in April and represents her version of a story covered extensively in the media, including this newspaper. But as her name was never public before, and the names and locations of the events are obscured in the book for fear of legal repercussions, the link isn’t obvious.
Her book might not have come to my attention except through a chance connection: Her father is my mechanic. A few years ago, angry about what was in the newspaper the morning of my visit, he blurted out what had happened to his daughter.
Suddenly, the case had a personal dimension. Jane Doe, as she was referred to in print, was a real person, with a father and mother I knew and liked.
I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time, but sometime later he told me she was working on a book, and, when it was published, the time to ask for an interview seemed right.
She has given interviews before about the case, including to OC Weekly and NBC Channel 4, both in 2012, but neither was under her full name. To promote her book, Kaplan has talked to the Christian media, including Trinity Broadcasting Network and “The 700 Club,” and to a magazine in India, where sexual abuse is epidemic.
But she walked out of a KABC Channel 7 interview this spring when she learned the intent was to cut to coverage of the 2002 case. The story was scrapped.
Kaplan has never been interviewed by her hometown newspaper, on her home turf, where friends and neighbors recall the case. The prospect made her nervous. But, she says, most people in their circle know about it already, and many have read the book.
That said, “People don’t know how to talk about it or bring it up. So they don’t,” she says ruefully.
We met earlier this month at the home of her parents, Rick and Lyn Kaplan. Rick doesn’t particularly like journalists and later told me one had never been invited inside before, a measure of the trust they placed in me.
The ground rule was that Kaplan, now 29, couldn’t talk directly about the case or confirm any details that weren’t in her book, such as the names of her assailants and the location of the attack. She is limited, she says, by the terms of a settlement with her attackers and by her publisher.
I agreed. Better to write about her with her cooperation. Besides, the case was major news and details are easily found by Googling “gang rape Southern California,” as most of the early results are about the case.
In short, the first trial of her attackers ended in a hung jury, but a second trial, in 2006, resulted in their conviction for sexual assault. They were sentenced to six years in prison and forced to register as sex offenders upon their release.
I didn’t want to ask about the assault anyway. Kaplan shares plenty in “Still Room for Hope,” and it’s heartbreaking enough.
The straight-A student had fallen in with a popular crowd. She was invited to a small party at a rich kid’s home and remembers having a drink, which apparently was drugged. When police watched the video, they thought she was dead and the boys had been practicing necrophilia.
The boys’ video was left behind at the house of a friend, who watched it in horror and phoned police, setting the case in motion.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the woman who turned in the tape. She stands for everything that is good in humanity,” Kaplan writes.
Kaplan, however, punished herself. Her high school friends abandoned her, with some unable to accept that the boys they knew had done something terrible or that Kaplan wasn’t somehow to blame. She sometimes believed that herself.
As a victim, one “passed out and passed around,” as she puts it, she felt powerless. Guilt at least gave her a role to play.
She lapsed into alcohol addiction to blot out the shame. With her childhood friends checking out, drinking buddies were easier to find. Then she fell into methamphetamine use, which gave her a welcome sense of oblivion, “turning the volume down on all the sick, sad, frightening feelings that would otherwise plague me every waking moment of every single day,” she writes.
Her anguished parents eventually kicked her out of the house rather than enable her, and at what may have been her low point — although there are a lot to choose from — she slept in the alley behind a McDonald’s on a ratty sofa next to a dumpster.
In 2005, a police officer who was arresting her boyfriend gave her a break when she showed him a list of rehab clinics she’d been calling in hopes of getting in. One accepted her shortly afterward. While getting clean, she talked about the rape for the first time in sessions with other patients. This began the process of reclaiming her story.
In 2011, she attended a Christian retreat with her mother and, she says, suddenly understood the concept of forgiveness and the need to ask for it. She spontaneously accepted Jesus and calls it the most important weekend of her life.
Since then, she’s become a state-certified victims’ advocate and crisis intervention counselor. As a volunteer with the Pomona-based Project Sister, she has talked to women who have been sexually assaulted and has counseled their families.
That turnaround amazes and delights Shirley Mangio, the victims’ advocate who worked with Kaplan from the moment the Orange County DA’s Office got the case file.
“It’s absolutely incredible what that girl has done. She went from a self-professed party girl to an accredited victims’ advocate herself,” says Mangio, 73, who’s now retired but has stayed in touch with the Kaplans. “A lot of people would still be hiding under the bed. She left being a victim and now is helping them.”
In some ways, the situation for rape victims is better than in 2002, Kaplan reflects. The definition of rape has been broadened by the FBI to include people unable to feel threatened, such as unconscious victims. The oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime has raised awareness. The 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, gang rape — one with many parallels to Kaplan’s — saw the community rally around the unconscious victim.
On the other hand, that response stands out because of its rarity, Kaplan says. And social media has taken high school gossip and shaming to a disturbingly public level. By contrast, people muttering “slut” as they passed Kaplan in stores, pre-Facebook and Twitter, seems almost quaint.
Overall, though, “it’s great it’s being brought out. People didn’t realize how often it was occurring,” Kaplan says of sexual assault.
“By my speaking out, maybe it will help other girls realize they should speak out. Speaking out is one of the great tools for healing,” she says. “You need your voice. When you’re raped, it’s taken away from you. You can’t get it back until you get your story out there.”
She first got her story out there publicly in the 2012 rally. A book agent contacted her about co-authoring an expose with a journalist. Wanting to write something more inspirational, she worked with a ghostwriter who used journal entries and interviews to craft a book in Kaplan’s voice, recounting her journey from victim to survivor. She hopes the themes are universal.
“Everybody goes through something they don’t think they can get through,” Kaplan says. “It’s not going to stay that way forever.”
She’s clean and sober, she has a full-time job at a religious institution and her faith is central to her life. Her relationship with her parents is closer than ever. She giggles often and, with a voice that frequently sounds chipper and girlish, it’s easy to picture her as the color guard member and yearbook contributor she once was. It would be simple enough to conclude that, to quote the song, everything is awesome.
Everything is better, certainly. Yet her book is painful. And in my living room conversation with Kaplan and her parents, phrases like “gang rape” and “meth addiction” are spoken matter-of-factly. This is their shared history, and by now they have few secrets from one another.
Another reminder of darker times is the home’s video surveillance system, installed during the months when the defense team hired private eyes to watch them 24/7, fliers soliciting dirt about Alisa appeared in mailboxes and store windows, and strangers with cameras showed up on their doorstep.
“We all had to learn to deal with constant harassment,” Lyn Kaplan says. “I’m kind of naive. I had to toughen up real fast. I got real strong, real quick.”
Alisa Kaplan herself is still wary. She has a reflex action when she’s behind the wheel, even on the short drive that night to her parents’ for our interview.
“I still look in my rear-view mirror to see if anyone’s tailing me,” she acknowledges.
She has trust issues, understandably, and has had difficulty with romantic relationships. Each Fourth of July holiday, the anniversary of the attack, she pulls away from people, especially men. There are physical scars that may prevent her from having children, if she ever wants them, which she’s not sure she does.
I asked if she dreams about the attack. She did on the weekend of July 5, for the first time in years.
“I was with my friends and they woke me up,” Kaplan recalls. “They said I was crying in my sleep.”