Netflix’s Unbelievable Is Based, Scene For Scene, On A True Story

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events, including rape, which some readers might find upsetting
You better believe Unbelievable, because the harrowing events depicted in the Netflix mini-series, out 13th September, are completely true. The show is nearly a paragraph-for-paragraph adaptation of an explosive article by ProPublica and the Marshall Project that came out in 2016. T. Christian Miler and Kem Armstrong’s story, called “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Ironically, Unbelievable is a very accurate depiction of a story that nobody believed at the time. In 2008, an 18-year-old from Lynnwood, Washington claimed that she was raped by an intruder in the middle of the night. In conversations with trusted adults and an ex-boyfriend, Marie (Kaitlyn Dever in Unbelievable) explained that a stranger had snuck into her bedroom, blindfolded her, raped at knifepoint for hours, then left. 
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But when police detectives, two sets of foster parents, and her ex-boyfriend were all vocally suspicious of her story, Marie began to doubt herself. Did she imagine the encounter, as they suggested? Was the traumatic event just something she dreamed up for attention? 
Marie ran into a problem unique to rape cases: The credibility of the victim tends to be on trial, too. Detectives Jeffrey Mason and his partner, Jerry Rittgarn, were focused more on Marie than on the felony crime. A later report filed by a sex crime specialist Sergeant Greg Rinta concluded, "The manner in which she was treated by Sergeant Mason and Detective Rittgarn can only be labelled as bullying and coercive," according to reporting done by This American Life and The Marshall Project.
After meeting with the police, Marie’s faith in herself was so shaken that she recanted her story. In a cruel twist, the police charged Marie with filing a false report. She eventually took a plea deal and paid $500, as if she had committed the crime. 
Was Marie lying? Was she telling the truth? Here’s what was definitely true: After the incident, her life was derailed. At 18, Marie had already endured countless difficulties. She barely knew her biological parents and was raised in the foster system. She was sexually abused as a child. She moved around between homes, some of them abusive, many more neglectful. While living in a foster care transition home and getting her GED, Marie had finally found some stability. She had made it through the system — and then this happened. 
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Clearly, Rittgarn and Mason wrote Marie’s allegations off, and left her to deal with the aftermath (in addition to paying a fine). Well, that’s one way to handle rape allegation. Unbelievable shows the other way — one of belief and action.
In 2011, when an attacker with a strikingly similar M.O. raped a 26-year-old woman in Golden, Colorado, Detective Stacy Galbraith (called Karen Duvall in Unbelievable and played by Merritt Wever) was set on pursuing him ruthlessly. But she quickly ran into a problem: The attacker left no traces of DNA. Then, Galbraith’s husband, a police officer in nearby Westminster, revealed there was a highly similar case in his jurisdiction. 
Working alongside Westminster Detective Edna Hendershot (called Grace Rasmussen in Unbelievable and played by Toni Collette), Galbraith put together a profile of a serial rapist. Through connecting disparate cases in Colorado, Hendershot and Galbraith assembled tiny traces of DNA. Tiny traces, but enough to track down the perpetrator. 
Unbelievable depicts the heartbreaking, yet gratifying, moment these parallel stories finally intersected. 
The Netflix mini-series doesn’t need to stray from the facts laid out in the ProPublica article to tell a riveting story. Ultimately, what’s “unbelievable” is that the rapist got away with his crimes so long due to police inaction.
Watch Unbelievable for a dramatization of Marie’s tale, and listen to the episode of This American Life to hear it in Marie’s words.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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