Emily H. awoke at 5 a.m. on Jan. 3 from the sort of dream that often accompanies a deep, cold medicine-induced sleep. But she quickly realized she was in an entirely new kind of nightmare, and it was all too real.
While Emily slept, a stranger had broken into her home, come up the stairs, removed his clothes and gotten on top of her.
At first, she had every reason to believe it was her husband, who had been sleeping in a guest room for a week while she fought off the brutal cold she had picked up from holiday houseguests. For a moment, she thought he had simply picked up on the signs that she was finally feeling better, but it didn't take long for her to realize she was horrifyingly wrong.
By the time Emily's husband heard her agonizing screams and reached the bedroom, the man had fled the room and was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared as quickly as he had appeared; a ghost that left behind a trail of terror but little else.
He did, however, leave something. When Emily finally felt safe enough to come out of the closet she had jumped into while her husband cleared the house, she found the man's bloodstained clothes in a heap on the ground. In his pants pocket was a cellphone.
Cut to six days later.
- William "Billy" Byrd Thompson was arrested in Charlotte on Jan. 14 on charges of breaking into Emily's home and assaulting her.
Emily was playing with her two young children on a Monday afternoon in the front yard of their Huntersville home where she had been attacked. Police had named a suspect in the case — they would later arrest a drifter with a long criminal record named William "Billy" Thompson who was familiar to many folks living in the Charlotte suburb — but they hadn't found him yet.
She watched one of her children take an icy plunge down the hill. It was the first day since the attack that Emily had stayed home with the kids while her husband returned to work, and she was enjoying their unexpected day off from school. What she saw when she looked up next, however, not only infuriated and terrified her, but would later raise an important ethical question about how close the media should get when covering cases of sexual assault.
Emily watched as a WSOC news van pulled onto her small street and parked just feet from her property line. She saw reporter Mark Becker and his cameraman exit the vehicle and begin setting up their equipment.
She knew immediately why the news van was there, and told her kids to get inside. The brother and sister both balked, asking her to explain why. She didn't have a good answer for the 5- and 7-year-old, with whom she was far from ready to discuss what had happened to her less than a week before.
"I felt a moment of empathy for the kids," she said, "but it also clicked in my own head, 'That's right, why should my children have to go inside when they are sledding and having fun?'"
Spurred on by her kids' desire to stay outside and her own fury at what she saw as a humiliating invasion of her privacy, Emily made a choice.
"[The news crew] was getting out and setting up the camera, so I felt like I could either try to get the kids inside right this second, and if I can't then I can't," Emily said. So she resorted to a Plan B: "I started running down to the fence and screaming at them."
She repeatedly yelled "Don't do this," while Becker motioned for her to be quiet.
How things unfolded from there differs depending on whom you ask.
According to Joe Pomilla, general manager and vice president of WSOC, as soon as Emily identified herself and told the crew to leave, they apologized and left. Emily said she never got an apology from Becker, and that the crew stood on the other side of her fence refusing to leave for several minutes before finally packing up. She recalled yelling "They won't leave" at a passing car, hoping the stranger would stop and help. The car kept going.
Retraumatization is a medical term describing a relapse into a state of trauma, usually triggered by a specific event. Sexual assault survivors can be especially vulnerable to retraumatization.
According to Cori Goldstein, director of the Sexual Trauma Resource Center at Safe Alliance in Charlotte, retraumatization often occurs when sexual assault survivors are faced with having to retell their story, especially in a situation they don't control.
"What we hear the most from clients in general is that, for a survivor, any time they have that sense of fear again, or anything that can elicit fear, it can cause some of those symptoms to come flooding back, just based on the way trauma is," Goldstein said.
For example, Emily remembers becoming upset and embarrassed after having to repeatedly explain to seemingly skeptical police why her husband was sleeping in a different room from her on Jan. 3. She knew the police were simply doing their job, but the flood of emotions was uncontrollable in that moment.
While it's possible for a survivor to suffer through retraumatization decades after an original assault, those who have recently gone through a traumatic experience can be more vulnerable to it. Also, if the perpetrator is still loose, as he was the day the WSOC van pulled up in front of Emily's house, the lingering sense of fear can add to the chances for retraumatization to occur.
In the case of the WSOC van showing up outside of Emily's house, the experience was different from the one she went through in the hospital talking with the police, because in this case, Emily had spent much of her career on the other side of the fence.
Emily has been a professional reporter for 15 years. She has worked for the Charlotte Observer and the Chicago Tribune. More recently, she's done freelance reporting for Charlotte Magazine, The New York Times and Reuters.
Much of Emily's career has been spent covering crime and the courts, specifically, and her disgust with the decision to report on her sexual assault case from in front of her home stems from her experiences in that position.
"It was pure terror of not wanting them there, and pure fury because, as a journalist, I know that you're not supposed to do this," she said. "I don't know if I really even considered the possibility of someone coming here. It just seems like so obviously a terrible idea. In my experience, nobody from the media contacts sexual assault victims unless it's through a representative, through a pastor, or a family advocate, or an attorney. Or it's someone who specifically says they want to talk."
- Ryan Pitkin
- Emily looks out at her front yard where a news van had parked less than a week after she was sexually assaulted.
Once the news crew left and Emily had let her kids sled a little longer, she went inside and called WSOC to demand an apology. She spoke with news director Julie Szulczewski, who she said stood by the decision to send Becker to Emily's street and reiterated that the crew had not trespassed on her property. According to Szulczewski, they had done nothing wrong.
In an email to Emily, Pomilla said he had reviewed video and audio evidence involved with the incident and stands by the stories of Becker and Szulczewski.
Becker, Pomilla and Szulczewski all refused to comment for this story, but Pomilla did tell Emily in an email that the crew had seen a Crime Watch sign and wanted to use it as a backdrop for a shoot. He maintained that they didn't know which house was Emily's and never planned to include her, her home or her family members in the shot.
The Crime Watch sign sits about 100 feet south of the fence line where Emily said the news crew was setting up the camera. It faces away from the spot where she said the crew was standing. Emily has asked Pomilla to see the same video he reviewed, as she is convinced it will prove that either he is lying to her or his crew is lying to him.
"Just to be through something really traumatic and to have intimate knowledge of how the news industry works — to see them double down on the ethics of this and then to have them lie to me, that is so insulting," Emily said. "To be lied to on top of all this, it's very insulting."
According to the Radio Television Digital News Association code of ethics, "The [news-gathering] process can create inconvenience, discomfort and even distress. Minimizing harm, particularly to vulnerable individuals, should be a consideration in every editorial and ethical decision. Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering ... and of the material's potential dissemination. Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others."
Regardless of the legal rights of a news reporter to stand a few feet away from a sexual assault survivor's home and report, Emily said, a horrible ethical mistake was made when the crew decided to head to her street in the first place.
Her home is just one of five on the small street she lives on, so the odds are that reporting from anywhere on the street would mean doing it near her house.
In his email to Emily, Pomilla wrote, "It is unfortunate that our crew was trying to set up in close proximity to what turned out to be your residence. We are reviewing what, if anything, our news teams can do differently in the future to avoid such unintended consequences."
Emily said she is still waiting for her apology from Becker, but is sharing her story in hopes that news organizations will learn the effects such actions can have on victims, as most won't fight back or report similar incidents.
"It's because I'm still so mad at them, and I want there to be enough of a public sense of this, or a public discussion that this was a fuck-up, that it will not happen again," she said. "Mistakes are always made, but this was negligence."