‘They were the authority and I didn’t argue with authority’

In an era before rape kits, Sue Royston decided to fight for justice even though the police doubted her, the prosecution discouraged her, and those around her dismissed her story.

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and is part of a continuing series, Lawless: Sexual violence in Alaska. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, nearly four times the national average. Read ‘Unheard’ - our collection of stories from survivors choosing to speak.

The stranger finally left. Sue Royston, terrified, peeked around her door to make sure the man wasn’t waiting for her just outside with his butcher knife — the knife he’d held moments earlier against her neck. She’d put up a fight, but she had lost. If she screamed, if she chased him, would he return to take her life? Seeing no one, she ran half-dressed from her apartment to see where he had gone.

There he was. He was still wearing the waist-length black wig he had used as a disguise. He was walking slowly, nonchalant, down Antoinette Avenue on the north edge of Fairbanks. As if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t quietly broken into her home in the early hours of the morning, wordlessly cut off her underwear and raped her at knifepoint.

It was the summer of 1973. Twenty-six-year-old Royston had moved to Fairbanks, then a pre-oil boom town of miners and college students in the heart of interior Alaska, just a year earlier. Immediately, she felt like she had found home. Here, unlike her California hometown, she didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses; here, she could eventually live in the log cabin she’d always wanted. And she loved her new job working accounts payable at the University of Alaska. That July, her 6-year-old daughter was away in Oregon visiting the child’s father. Liberated from her recent divorce and living alone, Royston felt carefree. That is, until the attack and the subsequent legal process completely changed her.

She asked her neighbors to keep an eye on the guy on Antoinette and she ran back inside to dial 911. The police arrived and asked her to get in their car — they were going to drive a mile and a half into town and see if she could point out the perpetrator in any of the coffee shops on Main Street.

“Can we just, you know, go down the street here?” Royston asked. “The guy might still be walking. … I watched where he was going.”

[The teacher who returned to the rural Alaska village where she was abused is not staying silent]

The officer refused, steering her in the police cruiser instead to downtown Fairbanks and away from the neighborhood next to farmland and empty lots where she lived. She didn’t see the guy.

“If it was today, I would’ve argued, but I was 26; they were the authority and I didn’t argue with authority.”

The police did, however, take her to the hospital for a medical exam. Royston recalls thinking that the doctor was one of the few people who was considerate of how she felt.

The man escaped. Later, a neighbor identified him as a casual acquaintance who would sometimes stop by for a smoke. With the help of the police, Royston was able to identify her attacker from mugshots, but by that time he had enlisted in the Navy and left the state. It wasn’t until two years later, she said, when the man returned to visit and a traffic cop pulled him over for a broken taillight, that they were able to arrest him with the warrant in his name.

[Unheard: Our collection of stories from survivors choosing to speak]

In an era before rape kits, and when victims were regularly cross-examined in court on their chastity and skirt length, Royston decided to fight for justice. Throughout the process, she said, the police doubted her, the prosecution discouraged her, and people around her dismissed her, but she persisted.

“It rattled me but I needed to know that no other woman would ever be assaulted by this person, and stood my ground to press charges.”

Royston recalls that she first spoke with the assistant district attorney who would prosecute her case over the phone. As she remembers it, he warned her that her name would appear in the paper, that she would lose the job she loved and that her daughter, entering second grade in the fall, would face trouble at school.

That sounded awful. But what troubled her most and stayed with her all these years was when the prosecutor later handed her a newspaper article, she said; it was about a woman who had been raped with a Coke bottle and physically injured. The prosecutor’s actions confused her. “Just because no instruments were used to intrude my body ... what was his point? Did he want me to drop the case?” Wasn’t a prosecutor supposed to help her?

“It made me mad,” Royston said. “Totally not necessary and extremely hurtful.”

“While I simply cannot speak to what took place in the 1970s, undignified or disrespectful behavior toward victims is unacceptable today,” said current Fairbanks District Attorney Joe Dallaire in a written response to emailed questions. Laws, provisions and policies have advanced significantly to protect victims, he said.

[From the editors: Giving voice to Alaska’s unheard sexual assault survivors]

Over time, Royston found out that being a victim wasn’t a job-terminating offense and that rape victims’ names weren’t printed without their permission. Further, because he was underage at the time of the crime, her attacker pleaded guilty as a juvenile, so nothing was printed in the paper anyway. In fact, due to minor protection laws, the record is sealed and Royston is unable to see her own court case.

After the sentencing, Royston mostly tried to put the attack behind her, she said. Of the few people she told, her co-workers became her source of support and her “new family.” Others, she said, were less understanding.

“Well I’d rather die than be raped,” the mother of her daughter’s playmate once told her. Another time, Royston mentioned the assault to a sister-in-law. “(She) said, ‘You know, if you don’t carry yourself with confidence then, you know, things like that are bound to happen,’” Royston recalled. Experiences like these re-traumatized her, she said.

Royston’s current home lies at the end of a gravel road in east Fairbanks. She lives in a log cabin, rebuilt in 1990 after her first cabin burned.

Royston has two sheds that she fills with split birch for firewood each winter. Her daughter and her grandson come over with friends to help her restock, everyone joining in a bucket brigade from to the yard to the shed. In her yard is a blue-and-red ’01 Honda 250 motorcycle, which replaced the smaller one she used to ride to work before she retired.

Before the assault she never spoke up, she said in an interview at her home. But as she waited month after month for the arrest and sentencing of her attacker, her sense of justice changed.

“I had really grown to be really strong in those two years. If I could go through that, I could go through anything. I’d always been very shy, not outspoken at all. And within those two years, I became kind of like a fighter.”

[Here’s what experts say to do after experiencing sexual assault in Alaska]

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The Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica are spending 2019 and 2020 investigating sexual violence in Alaska. Read all the stories in our continuing Lawless series.

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