Warning: This op-ed contains graphic content that could trigger survivors and other readers
Today is the last day of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. It is also exactly 11 years to the month since I was assaulted. I have never discussed this publicly, and only recently was able to write about it.
I have been going back and forth on whether or not to share this, but recently some brave people like Amaziah George and Christine Blasey Ford have taught me the importance of sharing their stories. The more we speak about these things, the more awareness is spread, and the greater the possibility of change and prevention. Plus, I believe it is an important part of the healing process. And so much harder to do than I had imagined. But here goes.
In May 2008, when I was 21, I returned home to St. John for summer break from college in Portland, Oregon where I had just completed my second year studying International Affairs.
My first night back on island a man broke into my friend’s house, where I was sleeping on the couch, climbed on top of me, and when I awoke, put me in a choke-hold, and tried to rape and strangle me to death. I passed out, so he surely would have succeeded in doing both if my friend hadn’t heard the struggle and scared him away (please note this is the summarized version of this).
I did not know this man, I learned later that he was my friend’s neighbor who lived across the street with his girlfriend and baby.
I had bloodshot eyes for a week due to lack of oxygen. Bruises all around my neck that didn’t heal for weeks. I have never slept soundly again. Despite that, I even hesitated to call the police because I knew it meant having to re-live this awful experience over and over. But I did end up calling them, if only to make sure he wouldn’t do this to anyone else. He was arrested.
After his arrest, people in St. John who were his friends/family would not talk to me anymore or would walk to the other side of the street to avoid me. I felt ostracized, accused of being a false accuser. But there was no way for me to try to defend myself, except to go through the justice system. It was brutally unfair. I was the victim yet felt as if I had done something wrong. A terrible, irrational guilt weighed down on me.
Going to court was excruciating, having the defense attorney ask me embarrassing, offensive questions in front of a whole room of strangers. Seeing him sitting there, smiling the whole time, denying everything. Seeing his girlfriend and the awful way she looked at me. I wanted to tell her “I’m not crazy, he did this, and I don’t even know him! I went to the police to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else!” But I was told not to say anything to anyone except in the courtroom on the stand.
He was sentenced to 13 years. His sentencing did not bring me any joy, just more guilt. No matter how irrational, I felt bad for sending a baby’s father to prison.
People’s reactions were uncomfortable, some hurtful. A family member of mine even told me I should have been able to defend myself better. On the other hand, other’s sympathy just made me angry. It was a difficult time, and I made some life choices that I might not have otherwise made, including not returning to college that Fall.
Despite anxiety, chronic sleeping trouble, and a tendency to jump at the slightest thing, I moved on. I ended up getting a degree in Social Sciences and Secondary Education at UVI and lived in St. Thomas for 7 years before moving back to St. John after the birth of my son in 2015.
Then, in February 2017, after working late on a Monday evening, I stopped at the grocery store before going home. As I entered, a man walked past me. He was wearing the grocery store’s uniform, and since it was dark, I couldn’t see his face clearly. But I saw his eyes, and the look he gave me as he walked past was one of chilling recognition. Shivers ran down my spine, I tried to tell myself I was mistaken. It can’t be him, no, someone would have told me, right?
While shopping, I convinced myself it was someone else. After-all, in the past 9 years, I thought I had seen him on many occasions. It was one of the fears I had that kept me up many nights – running into him after he gets out.
As I walked to my truck, I noticed him sitting in the dark on the bench outside the building, facing my truck. I couldn’t see him, but as I put the groceries in the car, I could feel his eyes digging into the skin on the back of my neck.
For 3 nights I couldn’t sleep. The face of the man at the grocery store kept replaying in my head. He looked different, older, with a full beard. But he had the same wiry body type, and those frightening eyes.
Even after I searched the website for released convicted sex offenders on the island, and did not find him, I still couldn’t sleep. I decided I would call the police station and get some information. Surely, they could tell me if he was still in prison, or if he had been released.
The next day I made several calls and after no luck from the police department, I finally got through to the warden in St. Croix. When I asked if he could tell me if this prisoner was still incarcerated, or if he had been released, the warden replied, “Our records indicate he was released on parole in January”. My stomach suddenly felt like a ball of lead was lodged in it, my heart was racing way too fast, my hands started to tremble. He went on to say something about if I felt threatened or in any danger I could call his parole officer…
Did I feel in any danger? The man who tried to rape and strangle me to death for no apparent reason was just released and living on the same small island as me, and I was the sole reason he had spent the past 9 years in prison.
For the months leading up to Hurricane Irma, I had to avoid going shopping at that store. Then he also got a job working on the car barge so I would have to see him every time I took my truck to St. Thomas. I was living alone with my 2-year-old son, and I was afraid to sleep at night.
Shortly after the hurricanes I heard he stole a vehicle, almost killed a man, and was arrested again. In March 2018 I saw an article in the Daily News which stated he was 1 of 8 sex offenders who was facing arrest for failure to check in with Justice Department. The article stated he was a “Tier 3 Offender, but his crime was not listed in the registry.” I believe he is now back in prison, though I’m not sure.
I write all this to demonstrate that the effects of being a survivor of sexual assault last years, possibly forever. Filing a police report and going through the justice system can be like torture for a victim. It is no wonder that many do not report at all. If a woman, man, or child is strong enough to speak up, please support them!
Do not victimize the victims. There should also be a system in place in the Virgin Islands that notifies the survivors when the offender is released so they can be mentally prepared, and have a support group in place to ensure their safety (perhaps this exists, but if so, it didn’t work for me). #SAAM #BelieveSurvivors #MeToo
Submitted on May 12th by: Jamaica Hamilton and originally published on May 1st via Facebook. Jamaica was born in Guatemala, raised in Europe and the U.S. Virgin Islands and currently lives in Colorado.