Gang raped at 17. getting help at 65.
A St. Petersburg woman is just now getting the support she needs to repair the "mental, spiritual and physical void" that has defined her life for 48 years.Posted — Updated
A St. Petersburg woman is just now getting the support she needs to repair the "mental, spiritual and physical void" that has defined her life for 48 years.
The images flowed through her mind on a grainy, color reel. Long shots of the dark trees above the car juxtaposed with closeups of men from her neighborhood. She remembered the glass phone booth down the street where she called police, then collapsed with her panties still in her hand.
Now, on a cool February day almost 50 years later, Evelyn Robinson stood at the counter inside the Pinellas County Courthouse looking for answers in a long-dormant file. The clerk pulled up a record on her computer screen and asked Evelyn about her connection. "Are you an attorney, a family member .?.?.?"
"I was the victim of a gang rape by four men in 1969," Evelyn replied. "This is my case."
The clerk grew somber. "I'm not going to forget that," she said.
Evelyn stood there anxiously, her gray hair pulled tightly into a tiny bun at the nape of her neck. For years, her mother didn't know how to talk about it, and her siblings felt like she needed to get over it, and her five adult children couldn't understand why she was unable to move on.
But Evelyn could not get past this. She realized that it had filtered into every aspect of her being, affected countless decisions, changed the trajectory of her life.
Now 65 and on Medicare, she could finally afford counseling. "I need to be able to walk away from this and not have it affect the rest of my life. That's my goal."
First, she had to fill in some of the details of what happened, things she had suppressed and things she never knew.
To move forward, she had to go back.
A month earlier, on a sunny afternoon, Evelyn was at the wheel of an old, teal Buick, connecting the dots of her past as she drove by her many childhood homes in south St. Petersburg.
At one, she said, "this is where my mom's husband broke her ribs."
Eventually, Evelyn pulled down Acorn Place S, beneath sprawling live oaks, to the 1,000-square-foot home she moved to when she was 13.
She looked around the cul-de-sac. "There was a cemetery over there. I spent a lot of time in that cemetery."
The youngest of seven, Evelyn said her early years were a blur of domestic violence and confusion. She always felt distant from her older siblings, who had a different father.
The house on Acorn Place was built in 1951 on what was then a dirt road. There was an alley behind it that Evelyn and her best friends, Hattie Brown and Pat Flournoy, walked along as they headed to the Wildwood Recreation Center one night in March 1969. Evelyn was 17 at the time and months from graduation at the all-black Gibbs High.
In her best friends, Evelyn had found sisters. They hung out together every day, sewing outfits, making up silly songs, walking to Spa Beach.
On this night, all three had entered the Miss Wildwood contest. She can still picture herself in the pink, empire waist gown.
"That night, I was chosen Miss Wildwood," she recalled. "And I was never really sure the reason why, because I felt Hattie and Pat were a better choice."
Hattie wasn't happy about it, and she asked Evelyn to come over. Evelyn had never slept at a friend's house, but her mother agreed. She put on a black lace shirt and an orange corduroy skirt, with a matching bolero jacket that she had made, and walked the 10 blocks to her friend's house, meeting Hattie halfway. "I was under strict orders not to leave Hattie's, and I said, 'Yes ma'am, Mama,'?" Evelyn recalled.
At Hattie's house, the girls talked for a while before falling asleep on a sofa in the living room. In the middle of the night, Evelyn woke up when she felt a rodent crawl over her body. She debated what to do. Her mother had told her not to come home. But she was afraid, so she decided to head over to her older sister's house, about 18 blocks away.
"If I made an error that night," she said, "that was the error I made."
It was well past midnight when she headed alone to 15th Avenue S, which is where Norman Britten saw her. He was with another man and offered Evelyn a ride. Evelyn knew Norman. Everyone did. He was 21. He was dating her friend Pat. His identical twin, Sherman, was dating Hattie. Beneath his 1967 senior yearbook picture, Norman had written that he wanted to become a doctor.
But Evelyn didn't really know him. So she said, "No, thank you," and continued walking.
Norman and his friend circled around, offered again. It had started to drizzle. Her sister's place was another 15 blocks.
She got in the back seat of the car.
Norman drove and before she knew it, Sherman got in, along with another man she didn't know. Then Norman got in next to her, and someone else drove. The car drifted to a stop in an unfamiliar driveway off 14th Street S. She would later learn it was the twins' home.
"When they parked the car, I was in the back seat, and the other two came in from the other side," Evelyn said. "The other ones took my clothes off. A matter of fact they didn't take my skirt off."
At first, she fought and screamed, but they were too strong.
Norman held her down by her shoulders, while first Sherman, then the two strangers raped her. She said she'd been a virgin. Then Sherman held her down while Norman assaulted her. She could tell the twins apart by their demeanor. Sherman was meaner.
In the light of present day, she pulled into a driveway where she thought it might have happened, looking for something she'd recognize. The landscape was lush, overgrown, unfamiliar, claustrophobic. She pushed down on the gas, backed out and pulled away.
"They asked me where did I want to go?" she recalled. "I was crying."
To continue the story, Evelyn drove to a faded concrete block building at 18th Avenue S and 28th Street. Once a coin laundry and fuel oil shop, it is now boarded up and abandoned. She got out. Sun dappled the scarred asphalt, which was littered with empty cigarette packs, Krispy Kreme wrappers and smashed beer cans.
"This was where they dropped me off," she said. She remembered getting out of the car and one of the twins -- she thinks it was Norman -- dropped her panties into her hand. "If you tell anyone, we'll kill you,'?" she recalls him saying. Without looking back, she replied: "I'm already dead."
"There was a telephone booth right here, a glass one," she said, pointing to a 15-foot, metal pole in the corner of the parking lot. "Mama always told us to keep money in case we needed to call police."
At 2:30 a.m., Officer Nicholas Custode responded. He found her inside the booth, still clutching her underwear. He would later describe her as "hysterical and in shock."
Evelyn looked up at the rusted pole. "That's a remnant from that booth," she said. "It amazes me that God let that pole stay there. I'm glad they left that pole."
A doctor examined her at Mound Park Hospital, the future Bayfront, and collected samples to send off for blood typing, which was the kind of analysis performed at the time. She recalled the doctor's icy demeanor and how the collection process made her feel uncomfortable.
At the police station, she picked the four men out of photos. Then she went home to her family, where no one talked about it. At one point, Evelyn decided she no longer wanted to testify. "A lawyer told me he'd prosecute me for lying if I didn't go through with it," she recalled.
Evelyn said her mother drove her to the courthouse five months later, in August 1969, and handed her half a Valium. She can still feel the tension of entering the courtroom and identifying her attackers.
"I remember swearing in. I remember being cross-examined. I remember they insisted I was sexual, and I had been with different people. When I saw they were trying to say I was a loose person, I remember I said, 'I have a right to give to whoever I want to, but they didn't have a right to take it from me.'?"
From that day on, the incident resided essentially inside Evelyn's head.
"Once Mama drove away from the courthouse, that was it," Evelyn recalled. "We never spoke of it."
• • •
For years, she had no idea what the outcome of the trial was for the four rapists, but she remembered the backlash.
A teacher stopped by to ask her mom to keep Evelyn from testifying against the twins. Evelyn said a Britten relative called her mother, promising to make one of the twins marry Evelyn if she dropped the charges. A cousin's husband said, "They did that to everyone," and suggested Evelyn should not have called police. A group of girls tossed toilet paper all over her house.
"My life was greatly affected," Evelyn said, "but even though they did what they did, they could do no wrong. Everybody loved those Britten boys."
After the trial, Evelyn tried to go back to Gibbs, but the first day she walked through the halls, other students pointed at her, whispering, laughing. She walked out. Never went back.
Later, she swallowed handfuls of pills from her mother's medicine cabinet and returned to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. Still, no one in her family talked about it. "They acted as though it didn't happen," she said.
Her mother packed her off to her older sister in New York, where she got a job at a Gimbels. One night six months later, she was raped again, by an acquaintance of her sister's. She returned to St. Petersburg even more fragile.
Before the 1960s and '70s, most of the medical community treated rape as an injury to the body -- not the mind. Researchers were only just beginning to document the mental distress.
"In a strange twist of the human psyche, many women suffer guilt feelings after being raped," wrote Seymour Halleck, a psychiatrist and author of Emotional Effects of Victimization, in 1965. "Often she blames herself for having neglected a minor defensive effort.
"She is uncertain as to her role as a woman and such a role does appear to her at that moment as a degraded and helpless one. She wonders if she will again be attracted to men, or interested in normal sexual relations."
None of that filtered down to Evelyn or her family in St. Petersburg. Evelyn didn't understand that she needed help, and neither did the medical doctors. Her family, meanwhile, seemed ashamed.
"Our family is super, super dysfunctional," said Evelyn's sister Beverly Allen, who is a year older than Evelyn and had her first baby at age 15. "Our father never wanted to pay rent or hold a job. He used to beat our mother every weekend. Our older siblings were no longer living at home, and there was no close relationship with them. Evelyn didn't have any friends, she didn't want any friends."
Evelyn got a job as a server at the dining room of the former Pennsylvania Hotel, and in 1972, met a man named James Harris Sr., a computer programmer at Honeywell. They had four children, one every two years. Though they never married, Harris was very involved with his children. She had her fifth child with another man.
Evelyn moved half a dozen times, from Bay Vista to Childs Park, with her growing brood, creating the family she always wanted.
"I ushered them and took them everywhere they needed to go," she said. "It was an undertaking, but there's nothing more precious to me than that."
She made them come home before the street lights beamed, forced them to hug after they argued, created the kind of space that other children often visited.
"We were a very close-knit family, and we didn't have much to do with her siblings," said Evelyn's son Jeremy Robinson Sr., 35. "And it's to my mom's credit that whatever we are going through, we all come together and pitch for each other at the drop of a dime."
Myia Harris, her 39-year-old daughter, said: "There wasn't chaos. It takes a special person to want to change the family structure from when she was younger."
But something seethed beneath the surface, something Evelyn didn't quite understand. "It affected every aspect of my life," she said. "My ability to not really trust. My ability to feel good."
She tried talking to someone. The first, about 15 years ago, was a woman who worked with a free rape counseling program sponsored by a local agency. She rattled off statistics about the likelihood of getting raped.
Then she asked: "Are you a prostitute?"
"No," Evelyn responded.
"Do you do drugs?"
Later, a friend's church paid so Evelyn could go to a Christian counselor for rape victims. That counselor told her she needed to say a prayer to exorcise her demons.
"So through the prayer, she had me send the demons back to the four men that gave me demons when they raped me," Evelyn said. "I said, 'I read the Scriptures and I've never heard about Jesus saying a prayer and sending a demon back to another human being.'?"
Evelyn didn't go back to her, either.
She avoided crowds, rarely dressed up to avoid attracting attention, rejected five marriage proposals. She said she didn't feel like they really loved her.
She kept to herself unless she went to the pool halls. She had her own stick in the trunk of her car. "She'd just murder these guys on the pool table and a lot of them were professional," said her sister Beverly. "She had total control of that pool table."
As her kids grew older, Evelyn told them she had been sexually assaulted by four men. "She always felt a certain sadness about it," said her daughter Samantha Wilson, 37, who is seeking to become an ordained minister. "She always wondered why it had to happen. She was looking for something. I don't know if it was acceptance?"
Evelyn took care of her aging father, then her dying mother, then her sick brother.
"She always seemed possessed by this thing that happened to her," Beverly said. "And I'd say, 'Why are we still talking about this?'?"
Beverly told her: "God put eyes in for you to look forward. God doesn't want you to keep looking back."
A few months before her mother died in 2004, Evelyn sat quietly at her bedside.
"You know, Evelyn, it's not my fault you were raped," she recalled her mother saying. "It's your fault."
Evelyn knows she meant that she should not have left Hattie's house, that she'd put herself in danger.
"I said, 'I understand what you're saying,'?" Evelyn recalled, "?'but I will not take responsibility for what four grown men did to me.'?"
• • •
Last February, Evelyn scanned through 48-year-old court records produced by a grainy microfiche machine at the Pinellas County Courthouse.
Typewritten affidavits stated that Sherman L. Britten and Norman L. Britten, 21, John T. Napper, 23, and McArthur Parrish, 23, "did ravish and carnally know a female .?.?. by force and against her will." Her name was covered up with correction fluid.
She knew from researching old newspaper articles that she'd testified for three hours during the trial. "She said she eventually became too exhausted to fight or scream," according to an article in the St. Petersburg Times.
A woman had told the jury she'd caught Evelyn in bed with her husband. Upon cross-examination though, the woman admitted she and her husband were separated at the time. Evelyn denied that it took place at all.
Her friend Pat, then 18, had told the jury that Evelyn had "a bad reputation for not telling the truth." But then Pat acknowledged that Norman Britten had been her boyfriend, and she was testifying "to help them out."
In one court document submitted by the Brittens' lawyers, she found mention that her now-deceased stepfather had considered testifying -- on behalf of the twins -- that she was "immoral." He had apparently never taken the stand, but it hurt Evelyn to see so many people attacking her character. She wanted to hear her 17-year-old self, but the transcript of the trial was not in the court file. It had been destroyed.
Evelyn came to the sentencing documents, which stated in the legalese of 1969 that rape was punishable by death -- unless the jury recommended mercy. Then the judge could give them life.
A jury had found all four guilty and recommended mercy.
On Aug. 19, 1969, Circuit Judge Charles M. Phillips Jr. sent the men to prison, saying: "I hope none of you has the terrifying experience of being set upon by four people stronger than you. But if you do, I feel each of you will remember that you were once on the other side of such an encounter."
The twins each received 10 years in prison; Phillips gave Parrish and Napper lighter sentences of five years because they had served in the Air Force.
Evelyn shook her head, shocked by the short sentences. She grew more outraged upon learning that Norman Britten, Parrish and Napper were released from prison by 1971, just two years later. Sherman Britten got out in 1972.
"Had I been white, would they have gotten 20 years to life?" Evelyn said. "You don't always get the justice you are looking for. Everybody loved the guys, and nobody cared about the 17-year-old who got raped."
• • •
In early October, Evelyn walked through the Presbyterian church she cleans three times a week, one of several jobs that allow her to patch together a living. In addition to bartending two nights a week, she takes care of an elderly man.
The church had hired her to clean the restrooms, but now she was dusting the sanctuary, she said proudly.
She said she'd run into Sherman Britten at a gas station on Sixth Street S -- the first time she'd seen him since the trial in 1969. She felt like it had knocked something loose in her mind.
Her daughter Myia was pumping gas, and she was in the passenger seat when an older man called to her.
"Norman?" she said, getting out of the car.
He hugged her and said, "I'm not Norman, I'm Sherman."
Evelyn froze. Now 69, he was white-haired, stooped over and looked like an old man.
Even his demeanor was different. "I can't believe I was scared of you all these years," she thought. He introduced her to his son and said he had 17 children. That detail skated around her mind.
He also asked if Myia was his daughter. Evelyn shook her head. Myia had been born in 1978, nine years after the rape.
"When I saw him, I thought, 'I've been afraid all this time?'?" Evelyn said. "Part of me was really, really glad to see him. Maybe that's what forgiveness is. I suffered too long. It's been a lot of years. And part of me was thinking, 'How dare he have 17 children!'?"
It was not the first time she'd seen one of the men who raped her. Parrish, a city bus driver, died in 1977 in a grisly motorcycle accident just blocks from where the four dropped her off that night.
In the 1980s, she saw Napper at a service station on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S and asked him why.
"He apologized," she said. "He said he just got out of the military when it happened, and he got caught up in it."
Sherman Britten and Napper could not be reached for this story.
Over the years, Evelyn had run into Norman around town quite a few times -- at street lights and gas stations, even a holiday party.
Mostly, she retreated when she saw him. But once at a service station, she also asked him why. "Oh, so you want revenge now?" she said he asked. She walked away.
About 15 years ago, he pulled up at a traffic light on 28th Street S, right next to her.
She felt momentarily courageous. She called to Norman through the car window, asked if she could meet him. She said he agreed and told her to come by the city sanitation department, where he worked, and they'd talk after his shift. She waited 45 minutes, and he never showed.
What would she have said to him?
"I really wanted to understand," she said. "And I just want them to apologize for what the f--- they did to me."
She paused, her round face now set firmly, and chose her words carefully.
"They were held accountable for what they did with me. There was no one to help lift me up and find my way, so the years passed. I began to understand about my life. It's not about holding it deep. It is about forgiving. I tried to do that with Norman."
One afternoon in December, Norman turned quickly away when a reporter asked about the rape.
"No, I don't want to talk about it," he said as he closed his front door. "I've done my time over some bulls---."
• • •
Since she couldn't get answers from the men, Evelyn turned to the Internet. Victims of rape, she learned, often suffer posttraumatic stress syndrome with short- and long-term consequences. It is not uncommon for rape victims to seem emotionless, to struggle with phobias about crowds, to move a lot or change phone numbers.
"(Sexual) victimization has a ripple effect, spreading the damage in waves out from victims to all those with whom they have intimate contact," said a 1995 article by Rory Remer and Robert A. Ferguson in the Journal of Counseling & Development.
The perpetrators, meanwhile, were often attempting to demonstrate their dominance, she read.
"The men involved in gang rape may be worried more about their reputation with each other, and their status as dominant males, than the life of the women they assault," stated a 2016 article titled "What drives young men to gang rape girls," by Diana Tourjée on the website Broadly. "They might not realize, or care, that they're hurting another person."
Evelyn learned that justice varies by time and place. In Iran, four men were hung in 2011 for gang rape. In Germany, in 2016, three of the four teenagers who gang raped a 14-year-old girl were given suspended sentences of one to two years in prison. In 1951, seven black men in Virginia were put to death in the electric chair for the gang rape of a 32-year-old white woman. In 1969, four black men began serving two to three years for the gang rape of a 17-year-old black girl in St. Petersburg.
Some of those involved in prosecuting Evelyn's rapists have since died, including Judge Phillips and Officer Custode. Two police officers, a detective, the court reporter and the appeals attorney could not recall the case.
But several remembered the Brittens.
"I'm sorry I can't remember the specifics," said Richard Mensh, 84, who prosecuted the rape case. "Those Britten boys though, I'll never forget them.
Both were arrested several times after their release from prison for Evelyn's rape, including for conspiring in the late 1970s to traffic in heroin, cocaine and marijuana. The pair were described in newspaper articles as among six "lieutenants" of "Bailey's Organization," a drug trafficking ring run by John D. Bailey, a man who owned a sandwich shop.
Sherman spent more than five years in prison for conspiring to sell drugs, but was acquitted of killing the 26-year-old girlfriend of a "rebellious" gang member. Norman appealed the merits of his drug trafficking conviction and received probation in 1982.
After all she read, Evelyn couldn't help but think that she had paid the highest price for their crime.
She hadn't graduated with her class. She would not earn a GED for another 13 years. She lost her friends Pat and Hattie after the rape. And then she'd lost herself.
• • •
On a gray day in November, Evelyn and Myia drove to Evelyn's new therapist in a squat building off Ulmerton Road.
She'd had a rough couple of weeks, a feeling like storm clouds had gathered overhead.
Doing all this research on her case, talking about it, had unleashed thoughts she didn't know she had. She had found her way to forgiveness. Mostly.
"I realized that every decision I made is from what they did to me," she said. "I did that to myself. That was a heavy weight. It was more about me forgiving me."
She entered the small waiting room. The office had one of those rocky stone walls and half a dozen mismatched chairs, a book on a glass table titled Whispers From Heaven.
The therapist called her in. She agreed to Evelyn's request to record her session, but did not wish to participate in or be interviewed for the story. Evelyn shared it with the Times.
On the recording, she explained that Evelyn had several options to treat what she believed was PTSD. One was Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a psychotherapy that helps patients process traumatic events with eye movements and other types of stimulation. Patients often told her it seemed "silly," she said, but it had been known to work.
Another method often used by the Department of Veterans Affairs is called "prolonged exposure." It involves discussing a traumatic event in a recorded session with a therapist and listening to that session over and over, in a safe place. A shorter version of that treatment explores the traumatic event through the lens of a time line.
"I'm trained in prolonged exposure," the therapist said. "There's a lot of evidence that it works, but it's hard for people to stick with it. So you're retraining your brain to process what's happened in the past. And your trauma might be such that you need to process it in many different ways .?.?. because it's a pretty significant trauma as traumas go."
"Apparently I've been .?.?. running away for 47 years," Evelyn said. "And that certainly hasn't worked. The mere thought at 65 of going back in my mind, remembering and reliving, that thought is not appealing."
But she knew that's what she would have to do. It's what she had been doing already in the last year.
"Let me explain the importance of talking about feelings when associated with trauma," the therapist said. "When people have lifelong trauma, it's very difficult to use feeling words and identify feelings."
"What are feeling words?" Evelyn asked.
"Afraid. Angry. Guilty. Happy. Sad. How did it make you feel?"
"Like something was really wrong. Confused. Sad," Evelyn responded.
"Did it make you afraid?"
"Lost, that's a good word. I like lost."
"Fearful," Evelyn said. "Unloved."
"Unloved?" the therapist said in surprise. "Oh, that's so sad."
"Unwanted in a way."
"A burden?" the counselor asked.
"Definitely," Evelyn responded.
"Do you feel love now?"
"I know I'm loved by my kids," Evelyn said. "I absolutely know that my children love me."
"One of the things I've learned in my life was I've always taken second place," Evelyn continued. "I never allowed myself or how I feel or what I think to take precedence over the things that were going on around me."
She explained that she had become celibate eight years before. "I did that for me," she said. "It's my life and it made me extremely unhappy to have sex, and I chose to stop."
"So it sounds like you're feeling satisfied with that decision," the counselor replied. "And you're feeling powerful? Is that too far to go?"
"I have a sense," Evelyn said, "of respect."
She took pride in motherhood, in not passing on to her children the pain of being hurt and overlooked.
She had come to realize that her life had been a blueprint for what can happen when you don't seek help. She wanted others to learn from her mistakes. Talking about the trauma had made her see things in a different light, given her confidence.
"So you're a survivor," the counselor said.
Evelyn paused before answering.
"I believe I am."
Times senior news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this story.
Contact Leonora LaPeter Anton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WriterLeonora.
Copyright 2023 Tampa Bay Times. All rights reserved.