By KELLY KOOPMANS, KOMO
SEATTLE (CIRCA via KOMO) — Hillary Roberts says she is a survivor. A survivor of sexual assault and of a system she said can fail those it’s meant to protect.
“I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor,” Roberts said. “Victims are helpless. They’re hurt whereas, with survivors, there’s an element of strength, overcoming and resilience.”
It’s that resilience Roberts said that makes her capable of speaking out about being sexually assaulted in 2009.
Roberts, a Seattle attorney, said she had plans to meet up with some friends at a bar. When many of her friends failed to show up, she hung out with Michael-Jon “Matthew” Hickey, whom she had met through an ex-boyfriend a few months earlier.
She said she purchased her first drink — he bought her second.
“I don’t remember much other than snapshots of things after that,” Roberts said. “He took me to his home and over the period of many, many hours that I was unconscious, did what he wanted to.”
Roberts said when she woke up, Hickey was assaulting her. She believes she was drugged.
“It was like waking up in another world and then being very sick for a few days afterward,” Roberts said. “There was just this overwhelming sense of being disoriented. Just the visceral level of where am I? How did I get here? What’s happening to me?”
Roberts said she gathered her things and got out of the apartment while trying to figure out what to do next.
She said confided in her sister who convinced her to go to police, but when Roberts said investigators tried to interview her about the assault in the precinct’s public lobby, she lost all confidence.
“I didn’t have it in me to tell the story,” Roberts said. “A public lobby? It’s got some pretty good acoustics. I didn’t know (the officer), I’ve never made a police report, so every ounce of courage I had walking in there just evaporated.”
Roberts said she didn’t talk publicly about the attack until 2016. That’s when she learned several other women had come forward accusing Hickey of having sex, or attempting to have sex, with them under false pretenses or when they were incapable of giving consent by reason of being mentally incapacitated, according to court and police documents.
Hickey was charged with three counts of rape in the second degree.
Roberts made a police report and was in court to give a statement at Hickey’s sentencing.
“When I gave (the statement), I said I resented that we had to stand there, categorized as victims, to explain why being sexually assaulted is unacceptable and devastating,” Roberts said.
Hickey pleaded guilty to reduced charges of indecent liberties and assault in the second degree. He was sentenced to nearly three years in prison. During our first interview with Roberts, she said she was concerned about the length of his sentence, but said she took comfort in knowing she’d receive notification upon his release.
That notification didn’t happen.
While reporting this story, Circa partner KOMO learned Hickey had been released about one month before its first interview with Roberts.
According to the Department of Corrections, Hickey was released after 11 months, for time served in pretrial incarceration and for credits earned for “maintaining programming and avoiding disciplinary infractions.”
Hickey was released in December 2018 and is now registered as a sex offender. He will serve his supervision time until 2021, according to the DOC.
Roberts said she only learned of Hickey’s release because of KOMO’s story.
“I had no idea,” said Roberts. “When I found out, it’s like the floor fell out from under me.”
Roberts said she was under the impression someone would notify her of Hickey’s release so she could know where he was and get a protection order in place. Instead, she said she was caught off guard.
There is a system in place to do such notifications, but a survivor needs to know about it and proactively register. It’s called VINE or Victim Information Notification Everyday. It’s a service provided by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
The system will notify those who register by email, text or phone call within minutes of an inmate’s release. WASPC Executive Director Steven Strachan called it a “central location” for notification of inmates within state prisons and county and municipal institutions.
“There’s a very good system for it, but it’s important to recognize it’s not automatic,” Strachan said. “It’s a good question to ask. Why isn’t it automatic? Why aren’t victims automatically notified if there’s a system for that? That’s a reasonable question, and it was a policy decision that was set some time ago, and it's based upon an effort to empower the victim. Some victims don’t want to be notified. They view that as another victimization.”
Strachan said there is no specific requirement by state law to inform survivors about methods of release notification, but advocates typically tell a survivor about VINE and the DOC notification system.
Roberts said, in her case, navigating the system was not made clear.
“As I recall, it was just sort of mentioned to me after sentencing. I thought someone was going to follow back up,” Roberts said. “I really had no idea that was the extent of it. It’s just ridiculous. Nobody has the experience going into this to know that they need to do that, nor do I think that’s an appropriate thing to put on survivors.”
We contacted another woman involved in the Hickey case who told us she doesn’t remember hearing about VINE either. She said: “I have no recollection of being told about this system; granted, I was taking in a lot of information as well as processing a ridiculous amount of emotions.”
Roberts said she thinks an opt-out notification system would be better and ultimately safer for survivors like herself.
“I was, in some ways, a sitting duck,” Roberts said. “For a whole month, this person was out, and I don’t even know where they were.”
Strachan said VINE operates based on policy decisions at the legislative level and while notification is not currently automatic, he said it is something policy makers could talk about.
The system is open not only to survivors, but to anyone who’d like to know the status of an inmate.
According to the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, advocates typically work with survivors to set realistic expectations for an inmate’s release and what emotions a survivor will experience throughout the process of a criminal case, including discussions of VINE and the DOC notification system.
“Yes, the system has major issues,” Roberts said. “But one of the most important things we can do as survivors is to use our voices and to fight, because nothing is going to change unless we stand up and fight against it.”
If you ask Roberts for one takeaway from her experience, she wants other survivors to know it’s not their fault, and they’re not alone.
“It’s not your fault. The things that happened to you are not your fault,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t matter what you wore, it doesn’t matter who you were out with or who wasn’t with you, at what time. The only person responsible for your assault is the person who assaulted you.”
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