A Nameless Soul Retells the Horror


May 08, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Michele R. Marks is a slight woman who carries a heavy psychological burden.

About 18 years ago when Michele was seven years old, a neighbor allegedly sexually abused her for an extended period. This supposed friend of the family did things to her in his basement and car, she says, that still haunt her.

Michele's story is one of dozens of cases of sexual child abuse and assault that are tried every year in Carroll County. In Carroll, these cases receive a fair amount of attention because there are so few other violent crimes on which to focus. To many readers, these unnamed victims are shapeless, amorphous souls, lacking any emotional dimensions.

Michele is one of those nameless souls, although her case never went to trial. She wants the rest of the Carroll community to hear the story she was never able to tell.

Michele has told her story many times to police investigators, state's attorneys, friends and family, but it pours out of her as if she were telling it for the first time.

Michele was not the only member of her family on whom this neighbor preyed, she says. After Michele rebuffed his advances, she says, he attacked Michele's younger sister -- committing the same acts on her that he had done to Michele.

Michele and her sister told their parents, but neither her mother nor her father believed the girls. She felt abandoned, hurt and let down by people who were supposed to protect her.

"I think back what he did to me and I associate it with pain," says Michele, a petite and fragile-looking woman.

We are eating lunch at a Sykesville restaurant not far from where she grew up. Her husband, Ricky, sits across the table and her youngest child sits at the other end, playing with his plate of chicken fingers.

"I live with a lot of guilt," she continues, in her soft, timid voice. "The memories never go away. I think to myself: How many times is this man going to take advantage of vulnerable children?"

This man, she says, destroyed her childhood. Michele developed ulcers, had persistent bladder infections, suffered from depression and did poorly in school. She often ran away from home and stayed with friends for extended periods.

Michele dropped out when she was a sophomore in high school, fled Carroll County, got married at age 16 and had four children by her early 20s. Trying to heal the emotional scars and forget the trauma of her childhood, Michele visited therapists, broke up with her husband, reconciled with him and eventually came to the realization that her abuser had damaged her life beyond repair.

"You disown your body and become numb," she continues in a quivering voice. "It is like you are looking through a keyhole, and you are on the outside looking in. . . . It is almost like death -- part of me and my body has died."

Two years ago, the nightmarish memories returned. Michele heard that the neighbor had attacked her 7-year-old niece. While visiting her grandparents four years earlier, the niece was lured into the neighbor's basement in much the same manner he had brought Michele and her sister into his basement a decade before.

Michele and her family were living in North Carolina at the time, but immediately returned to Carroll to help try the man who she says had tormented her, her sister and her niece.

"I was finally doing stuff for myself. I wasn't holding back and allowing people to step all over me," she said, brushing a wisp of hair from her sad eyes. "I really felt good."

Police filed charges against the neighbor, alleging 29 counts of sexual abuse against three minors.

His attorney was able to separate the three cases against him, a common tactic to undermine the persuasive power of having three people recount similar stories.

In the first trial, Michele's niece was a very nervous, unconvincing witness.

The jury acquitted the neighbor of all charges.

In the second trial, Michele's sister couldn't recall a number of details and the jury was not sufficiently persuaded that the neighbor committed the crimes for which he had been charged.

He was acquitted on two of the charges; the jury deadlocked on two others.

Sensing that he did could not mount a strong prosecution, the state prosecutor handling the case decided to not to retry the sister's case and dropped the prosecution of Michele's.

"I feel terribly let down," Michele says. "I would have felt much better if I had been able to go through with the trial. These memories are vivid. I would have been a convincing witness. "

Michele had hoped that a trial would allow her to bury these memories of sexual abuse deep in her mind. Instead sexual abuse has become a preoccupation. Her daughter was recently attacked by older boys and molested with a stick.

More than anything, Michele would like parents and adults to realize that sexual abuse is real and does occur. She doesn't want others to make the mistakes her parents made.

"Is there another little Michele who is not telling?" she asks. "Don't sweep it into a corner if your child is acting funny. Open your eyes and take the time to look.

"Abuse is happening everywhere."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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