It was late July 9, 1977 and Cathleen Crowell, 16, was getting off her shift as a cashier and cook at a Long John Silver’s restaurant. She was scared. She and her boyfriend, David Bierne, had engaged in sexual intercourse the previous evening. She feared a pregnancy would lead her foster parents to expel her from the nicest home she had ever lived in.
Years later, she related that her “earliest memory is of my parents fighting.” Her mother was drunk, her father came home, quarreling began, and her father left the house. Then her mother sobbed.
Shortly after, Cathleen’s mother entered a mental hospital. A pattern began in which Cathleen’s mother entered and exited such institutions. Cathleen and her two older brothers lived with Dad and then with Mom.
When Cathleen was four, Dad brought Cathleen to an elderly relative whom Cathleen knew as an “aunt.” Cathleen recalled this woman as “gruff” and unaffectionate.
At 14, Cathleen was sent to live with foster parents in Homewood, Illinois. Cathleen remembered, “I felt like all this tension was lifted from me because in this house there wasn’t a lot of screaming.”
That evening of July 9, 1977, Cathleen faked a rape so they would not blame her if she were pregnant. She walked into a wooded area where she pinched herself, ripped buttons off her clothes, and made scratch marks on her stomach with broken glass.
She planned to tell her foster parents she had been raped but did not want to involve police. She left the woods only to walk right into the lights of a police car.
Seeing a bruised teen girl with ripped clothes, police took her to the station. She burst into tears. Earlier she had been terrified her foster parents would kick her out for getting pregnant; now she feared similar rejection for lying.
The story she told was inspired by a rape scene in a popular romance she recently read, Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers. In that story, a woman was kidnapped by three men in a carriage and raped by one of them. Cathleen updated the carriage to a car.
She was shown mugshots and pretended to examine them. She told officers she did not see her attackers among the mugshots. To a police sketch artist, she gave an invented description.
Within days a cop saw that sketch and thought it resembled high school dropout Gary Dotson. In 1975, Gary was convicted of possession of a stolen TV and placed on a year’s probation. The photograph from that arrest, along with several others, was taken to Cathleen at her foster family’s house.
She looked through the photographs and handed them back, saying her attacker was not among them. The officers asked her to take a second look.
As she did, she realized that one photograph was strikingly similar to what the sketch artist had drawn. She thought, “If I don’t identify him, they’re going to know I’m lying.”
She pointed to Gary’s picture, saying he raped her. As she did so, she thought, “I hope this guy has a good alibi for where he was.”
On July 15, 1977, Gary, 20, had finished working as a landscaper when two detectives arrived to arrest him for rape. “You gotta be kidding!” he exclaimed.
Incredulity soon turned to terror. Gary sobbed as he called his mother, Barbara, from the police station. He said, “Mom, they got me on rape but I didn’t rape anyone.”
It took almost two years for the case to come to trial. When it did, Cathleen testified convincingly, saying, “I can never forget that face.”
State police forensic scientist Timothy Dixon testified he had found type B blood antigens in a stain found on Cathleen’s underpants that were worn the night of the alleged attack. Dixon testified that Dotson was a B secretor and B secretors are only 10% of white males. This appeared to undermine the defense that asserted Dotson was a victim of mistaken identity. Northwestern Law observes, “Because Crowell was a B secretor, only A and AB secretors could be eliminated as sources of the semen. . . . the seminal content of the stain could have come from two out of three men in the white population – rather than the one in ten, as Dixon swore under oath.”
Gary testified he had partied that night. Three friends testified he had been with them. Peter Carlson reports in People, “Defense attorney Paul Foxglover also stressed the inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. Crowell said her attacker was clean-shaven; Dotson had a moustache.” Indeed, Dotson had a thick moustache five days after she described being raped by a clean-shaven assailant that he could not possibly have grown in that time period.
The jury convicted Gary. He sobbed as he told the judge, “I didn’t do it.”
The judge sentenced him to 25-50 years imprisonment.
Barbara Dotson used her social security checks and factory wages to hire attorneys to appeal. When a 1981 appeal was rejected, he asked friends to stop writing him. “I stopped thinking about the outside,” he recalled.
While Gary endured the squalor and deprivations of prison, Cathleen finished high school and attended a junior college for a year. Then she went to New Hampshire where one of her brothers resided. She then returned to Illinois to marry her high school boyfriend. The couple settled in New Hampshire. Cathleen became a Christian.
Cathleen informed her minister’s wife about the man who was unjustly imprisoned because of her lies. The wife told her husband. Cathleen told her own husband who said, “Cathy, you have to do the right thing.” She told attorney John J. McLario to represent her as she came forward to clear Gary.
Gary was released on bail. On April 11, 1985, Judge Richard Samuels, who had presided at the original trial, refused to overturn the conviction and ordered Gary returned to prison. As Gary was taken, Cathleen screamed, “He’s innocent!”
Judge Samuels said, “The jury and I found her  testimony to be credible. I observed her demeanor in court. It was the demeanor consistent with someone who had been raped.” Commenting on her 1985 testimony, he said, “She had an inability to recall certain items and she was impeached on certain items.”
He also commented, “Recanting testimony is regarded as very unreliable.” Michael S. Serrill wrote in Time, “The courts have always regarded recanted testimony with suspicion in part because there are too many bad reasons for witnesses to change their minds: intimidation, bribery, misplaced sympathy for an imprisoned or condemned offender.”
70,000 Illinois citizens petitioned Governor James Thompson to free Gary. He convened a special clemency hearing in which he grilled Cathleen. At the end of it, he said he believed Gary guilty but thought six years was adequate imprisonment. Gary was paroled.
Cathleen and Gary appeared on several talk shows. Hostess Phyllis George suggested the pair shake hands. They weakly did. She then said, “How about a hug?”
Gary found freedom marred by having strangers recognize him on the street — and ask him if he was really a rapist. In November 1985, the 30-year-old parolee married bartender Camille Dardanes, 21.
Cathleen gave Gary $17,500 from Cathleen’s book, Forgive Me. He spent it on a honeymoon and furniture. He could not find a job.
In People, Montgomery Bower reports, “A problem drinker since the age of 15, Dotson now began to rack up various alcohol-related traffic violations.” Gary recalled, “I was always so worried about doing something wrong and being sent back to prison that the pressure made me drink. And the more I drank, the more I screwed up.”
In August 1985, Camille swore out a complaint that Gary had assaulted her and threatened their baby. She tried to withdraw it but the parole board voted to return him to prison.
The governor released him on Christmas Eve. Again free, he learned Camille had filed for divorce.
Two days later, cops arrested Gary. Zig Zag Tavern cook Mary Slaughter, 67, said Gary assaulted her. Brower relates, “Witnesses dispute Slaughter’s claim that Dotson assaulted her, and some regulars suspect that Dotson is being blamed to keep the violence-prone bar from losing its license.”
Gary’s mother Barbara said, “He’s never been able to shake the label of rapist.” She continued, “I only hope the day will come when they can prove he was innocent of the crime.”
Attorney Thomas Breen petitioned the court to allow Cathleen’s semen-stained underwear to be DNA tested. It was.
The results eliminated Gary Dotson. DNA had previously been used to implicate suspects but Dotson was the second person ever exonerated through it, after David Vasquez, a man falsely accused of murder who was exonerated the previous year.
In August 1989, Judge Thomas R. Fitzgerald told Gary, “You, sir, are discharged.”
“It’s over,” Gary said. “It’s really over.” The cloud of suspicion was scientifically expunged.
He got a job as a construction worker and started college. “Now that I’m cleared, no one else can dictate my life,” he said. “I won’t always have to be looking over my shoulder.”
Cathleen died of cancer in 2008 when she was 46. Gary made no public comment. Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, said, “He really wants to stay under the radar now.”