As Sarah Kostovny spoke Monday morning before about 200 people at Casper College, the only thing that could be heard, aside from her voice, was the sound of people crying in the audience.
Kostovny, the survivor of the highly publicized 2009 Wyoming Craigslist rape, delivered an emotional message of perseverance and courage for survivors of sexual crimes, recalling the months and years following what she described as her worst nightmare – one from which she could not wake up.
“Why me?” she asked, a question she said continues to haunt her four years after being attacked by a stranger.
Then she posed an answer: “So I can stand in front of all of you today telling my story, speaking for those who struggle to find their own voice or those who weren’t given the opportunity to have one."
On Dec. 11, 2009, Kostovny was attacked by a Bar Nunn man, Ty Oliver McDowell, at her house in Casper. McDowell reportedly believed he was responding to a rape fantasy advertisement the woman herself had posted on Craigslist.
In reality, the Craigslist post was the work of a California man Kostovny had previously dated. The man who posted the ad, Jebidiah James Stipe, was pretending to be Kostovny as he later messaged with McDowell, who was reportedly one of 161 people to respond to the post.
McDowell then carried out a brutal attack, and both he and Stipe were arrested within a week.
Each pleaded guilty to charges relating to first-degree sexual assault and other crimes, and they are each serving 60 years-to-life sentences.
On Monday, Kostovny said she no longer sees herself as a victim but as a survivor who can spread a message of hope for others who have been assaulted.
“It does not define me, nor will I allow it to,” Kostovny said. “I keep pushing forward so that I don’t get stuck in the dark, ugly shadows of my past.”
The speech was part of a National Crime Victims' Rights Week program put on by various student groups at the college in conjunction with Natrona County Victim Service Providers. The week, a national event advocating for victim rights across the country, runs through this Saturday.
Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen and Natrona County Sheriff Gus Holbrook both addressed the crowd, which was filled with young and old spectators and supporters.
“I’d like to personally promise my continued support to our law enforcement officers that our crime victim response in the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office [will] maintain the highest level of victims’ rights and services,” Holbrook said.
Holbrook, who has been in law enforcement for 30 years, said the attention paid to victims has greatly evolved in that time and that people have a right to services like continued support and counseling.
Blonigen said there is still more work to be done locally and nationally in protecting the rights of innocent people.
“The criminal justice system does not exist for the benefit of those people who break the law,” Blonigen said. “It exists for the benefit of the law-abiding citizens who expect when the basic rules of a society are broken that punishment will be meted out and justice will be had.”
Blonigen called for a constitutional amendment imposing a national Crime Victim Bill of Rights.
Wyoming has such protection in place. The Wyoming Crime Victim Bill of Rights is a statute that passed in 1991 and includes 10 protections for victims, including the right to be present at a trial, the right to receive restitution and the right to give an impact statement at sentencing and parole hearings.
Cynthia Duncan, the chairwoman for the Natrona County Sexual Assault Resource team, expressed admiration at Kostovny’s courage to speak out about what happened to her.
Kostovny has previously spoken at the sentencing of her attackers, a move praised at the time by local law enforcement officials. She has also shared her struggle many times since, including an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010.
“To have someone who has experienced an assault who is willing to talk about it brings the emotion and the reality of the situation to the forefront,” Duncan said. “It helps the community to realize that this does occur and helps people to talk about it.”
Kostovny thanked her family and many others for the support they have shown her over the years.
“Is the road to becoming a survivor easy?” she asked the crowd. “Absolutely not. It is filled with tears, anger and sadness. And most of the time it is downright ugly.”
She said the support of others helped her come to another conclusion.
“I wasn’t another statistic. And most importantly, I wasn’t the Craigslist rape victim. I was Sarah, and I would eventually be a survivor,” she said.
Reach Patrick Simonaitis at 307-266-0574 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @patsimonaitis.