More than 50 million Americans visit the website Craigslist every month looking for everything from lawn furniture to concert tickets to companionship. But not all of the connections have a happy ending.
Sarah says she had never been on Craigslist until last December, when she saw pictures of herself featured in a classified ad. "The caption read: 'Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women. If interested, contact Sarah,'" she says. "When I saw the ad for the first time, I was terrified."
After learning of the ad, Sarah says she called the police but was told there was nothing they could do. Instead, they suggested she call Craigslist directly and ask them to take the ad down. Craigslist removed the ad immediately, but it was too late.
In December 2009, Sarah was attacked at her Wyoming home. "Somebody was behind me, and they grabbed me around the shoulders and pushed me inside the house. His words to me were: 'You wanted an aggressive man, bitch. Here I am,'" Sarah says. "I begged him to stop."
Sarah tried to fight back, but her 4'11" frame was no match for her male attacker, who blindfolded her, bound her wrists and ankles with rope and ripped off her clothes. For 30 minutes, Sarah was viciously raped. Her attacker told her that if she didn't stop trying to get away, he would kill her. At one point, he even held a knife to her throat.
The man who raped Sarah was 26-year-old Ty McDowell, a married father of two who worked as a radiology technician at the local hospital. McDowell told detectives he thought he was fulfilling Sarah's rape fantasy.
After her attack, Sarah immediately called the police. A local sergeant said her 911 call was one of the worst he'd ever heard. One of the nurses who cared for Sarah said her injuries were some of the most severe she'd ever seen on a sexual assault victim. "I feel that pain all the time," Sarah says. "I can still remember every detail that went along with it."
Sarah's attacker pled guilty to sexual assault and was sentenced to at least 60 years in prison. Sarah's ex-boyfriend, Jebediah Stipe, admitted to posting the ad using her identity and was also sentenced to at least 60 years in prison.
Sarah believes Stipe posted the ad about her on Craigslist because he was angry she had gotten engaged to her fiancé. "He just kept telling me that he didn't think I was ready to get married, and I believe that he wanted Ian and me to break up."
But Sarah says she didn't know that Stipe was behind the Craigslist ad until after her attack. "While I was still in the emergency room, my fiancé, Ian, had gone back to the house to get my glasses, and there was a second man standing in the living room with a camera set," Sarah says. "[Ian] was asked why he was there, and at that point he said that he had received an email from a J. Stipe." Only then did Sarah learn that her ex had orchestrated the whole thing.
According to police, 161 people responded to the fraudulent Craigslist ad. "I was only aware that 20 people had actually responded and [that Stipe] had set up several dates and times for people to come to my house and do this to me," Sarah says. "I never imagined that there would be people like that out there that would hurt others."
Sarah has not seen her attacker or her ex-boyfriend since her attack. "At their sentencing, I was allowed to give my victim impact statement, but I could not look at either one of the men. I don't want to see either of their faces," she says.
Though Sarah says she felt empowered after standing up in court, she's still trying to wrap her mind around why people would commit such violent acts. She says she is also dealing with members of her community who have sided with her attacker. Sarah says they believe that since McDowell thought he was talking to Sarah, he believed he was doing what she wanted. "Several of my co-workers have actually said that they feel really bad for [McDowell], that he didn't know what he was doing was wrong and that he shouldn't have gotten punished as severely as he did."
Nine months later, Sarah says she has good days and bad days. "I've learned that this is something that I can't change, and it's not a bad dream," she says. "I'm trying to move forward with the rest of my life."
She says she came forward because she wanted to reclaim the power she was stripped of. "I want people to know the truth as to what really took place that morning," she says. "I also want women to know that you can have the strength and the power to overcome something of this sort. ... I can become a better person because of what has happened, and it does not define the person that I am."
After coming under fire for sexual ads, Craigslist removed the "adult services" section from its U.S. website. But authorities say crimes like this one can happen on any social network. The FBI recommends that people don't post photos or any personal information online.