Sexual assault email

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Circulating anxiety on Circular Road

Last Friday, CBC Here & Now aired a story about an email, sent by a local woman named Jeanette Brown to several of her female friends about the way police have handled the sexual assault case on Circular Road.

The email contained what was supposedly firsthand information about the assault and was then forwarded to more friends, who forwarded it to more friends and soon it came to the attention of Here & Now. By Monday, Rhona Buchan, one of the women who had received and forwarded the email, sent out a second email that refuted much of what was contained in the first.

I had just settled down to write this item when I received an email from a reader of this blog, asking for more information about the emails.

"The media is widely reporting emails making the rounds, however, they do not disclose the email," the reader says. "Is it responsible for the media to be reporting on emails then not releasing the contents of those emails? Is it fair to the public to speculate what the email entails? Is it fair to trust the contents of those emails as factual and is it fair to report on their existence if, in fact, they cannot be reported accurately?"

I agree with the reader on these points and will reproduce the content of both emails here, but they will require some context.

There were already complaints from people about a lack of information from police, as reflected in this CBC story, before Brown sent the first email. So you can appreciate why it had such an impact. Everyone was hungry for information including Brown, who was just trying to help. However, we have since learned that not all of information in her email was accurate. This should not be a surprise, given that her source was "a friend" of the victim. Following is the complete text of Brown's email:

Subject: FW: A Rape in St. John's...man at large.

Hi everyone,

I am typing this up and sending it to you all because I believe it is important that people know this in order to take care of themselves and their family. There was a rape here in the city of St. John's on Thursday, July 5, 2007. The police are not giving out much information about this. They appear to be downplaying it from what I can see. The only thing I could find online was that the crisis centre is concerned about this incident and do not want to set fear into the public. Giving stupid advice like lock your door at night. Well this woman's door was locked, the attack happened while it was still daylight, and I think the public should fear this man. Anyway, my point in all of this is that a very good friend of mine spent Saturday with the victim. What they are calling a sexual assault was actually a very violent rape. This woman was at home with her two children at 8:45 in the evening (still daylight outside). Her four year old son was upstairs in his bedroom playing and her nine month old was asleep on the kitchen table in a chair. A knock came to her front door. She looked out and saw who she thought was her brother standing on her doorstep. She unlocked her door and as she opened it this man turned towards her and pulled a ski mask down over his face and pushed his way into her home. He then proceeded to push her towards her kitchen. He beat her badly around the face and body. He then put a knife to her throat while he violently raped her on her kitchen counter. This was not just an average assault. This was very bad. She would not scream because she feared for her children's lives. The man wore gloves on his hands and a ski mask on his face. This was a planned, calculated rape, not a random assault. I think it is important that all women living alone in this city know the truth. I myself know about 16 women who live alone. How many do you know? Send this to all of them. They need to know.

Brown's email caused something of a sensation in St. John's, especially among residents of the Circular Road area. And it resulted in some media coverage, including the Here & Now item and a story in Saturday's Telegram.

The Telegram article did not offer any detail on the content of the email, describing its allegations as "rumours" and stories passed by "word of mouth." It also quoted Barbara Wadman of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, who feels that police have released as much information as they can without compromising their investigation.

However, on Here & Now, reporter Lynda Calvert quoted extensively from the email as if it were fact, and interviewed Jeanette Brown about why she created and sent the message. However, Calvert didn't get to the source of the information itself. She didn't talk to Brown's "friend who knows the victim." Or, if she did, we weren't informed of this.

Some people have criticized the Here & Now item for revealing private information, if indeed it is accurate. In fact, Calvert did quote Denise Hayes of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, who expressed concern that the email may contain inaccurate information and may create additional stress for the victim. However, the argument could be made that publicizing this information if it is accurate is in the public interest. To me, the greater issue is the release of information that is extremely frightening, without an apparent fact check. (If Calvert had spoken with Brown's "friend," it is possible that this person may also have heard it from a friend.)

Rhona Buchan, a lawyer who lives in the Circular Road area, was copied on Brown's email. Shocked and frightened, her first impulse was to forward it to several of her female friends. However, Buchan subsequently received information from a source within the Constabulary which made her regret hitting the send' key. She wrote a second message to the same friends who she copied on the Brown email, apologizing for doing so. Here is the full text of that email, to which Rhona Buchan signed her name:

Subject: alarming email in circulation

I write to apologize for contributing to the fear that has arisen in the community with the massive circulation of the email about this assault. I personally found this email very alarming, mostly because it implied that the assault may have been random, and by a stranger, and that the entry was forced (and I live nearby). The investigating officer kindly returned my call today, and I can relay some of the details that have reassured me that the risk to women in the community is no higher than usual. You will probably hear this in the media by the end of the day. The officer told me that this assault was not arbitrary in any way. It was targeted very specifically towards this one, very unfortunate victim. It was not a forced entry. While it remains a horrible event, this information dramatically reduces the risk to the general public, as it dispels the notion that there is a particular predator out there, inclined to break into our homes and assault us. Unfortunately, it supports the sad fact about violence towards women, that in the vast majority of cases, women know their assailant.

I had a brief email exchange with Rhona Buchan, in which she confirmed that she was indeed the author of the above email.

"I can clarify that I wrote that email, that it was based on a conversation I had with a Sergeant who is investigating this case with the RNC, and that I had his approval to inform people that this was not an arbitrary incident and it was not a forced entry. I used some of his words in my email so that it would indeed be accurate. I have many concerns about the first email that went out, and about the way it appears the media may have fed the fear"

Debate about this story continues, with a CBC News story today about a public meeting last night in St. John's, in which police were again criticized for not bringing forward enough information.

I spoke with Paul Davis, Media Relations Officer with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, for their position on why the police didn't issue more information, sooner. He said the police have issued as much information as they can at this time.

"People call us for information all the time on police matters," he said. "There are a lot of times that we decide not to disclose certain information. That is not unique to this particular case. It is commonplace and we do it for any number of reasons. In matters of sexual assaults, we don't disclose details while conducting an investigation. We don't disclose details of the nature of the assault or what took place. We don't do that and haven't done it in this case either."

For me, this story boils down to one key point. The content of the first email should not have been broadcast without a rigorous check to verify its allegations. Relying upon "a friend" as a source is not sufficient, given that a friend of a friend' is the source of most urban legends.

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